Going to California

In-between Days — 6.5

This was written in May of 1999, after returning from my grandfather’s home in Weatherford Texas. Additional text in italics, below.

The doctor took forever arriving. I took advantage of the opportunity to go outside and call my dad, talk to him for awhile. Dad was prepared to back his dad’s decision, even if it meant a closer death. I think we consoled each other, but sometimes I’m not sure about emotional issues.

It was surreal, walking the halls of the hospital. I got lost at one point and had to be directed back to granddad’s room. I’m sure I was freaking out, though I don’t think I gave any outward signs of it. Still, it gave me a greater respect for the people I see stumbling around hospitals by themselves. There’re very few happy people in hospitals.

The surgeon finally arrived. After a few basic questions, he was very matter of fact.

“So. Do you want the operation?”

“No, I don’t,” granddad said.

“Wait: Why did you come in if you didn’t want the operation?”

“Well,” he said with a wince, “I’m an old man. And even at my age, I have to listen to people. Doctors . . . and other people.” I wondered if he meant my dad. He looked over at me for a second and then away quickly. “But no, I don’t want an operation.”

“Okay, then. You know — you know what this will mean. You’re a strong man. There are few surgeons who would operate on a man of your age. This is your chance.”

“Yeah, yeah, I know.”

“Okay, then.” They looked at each other quietly for a moment.

“My dad wanted you to call him when you got here,” I told the doctor.

“Unless this man will consent to an operation, I don’t want to talk to his son.” The doctor smiled at me. “And he doesn’t want the operation.”

“I know,” I said.

“Don’t let anyone convince you of doing something you don’t want to do,” he told granddad on the way out.

The next three hours consisted of granddad alternately napping and trying to check himself out of the hospital with varying degrees of aggression. Sometimes he’d plead with the nurse, more than once he’d jumped ahead to ripping out the various intravenous tubes that’d been plugged into him. Every time, the nurse would talk him down.

“You can’t take the tubes out, Charlie, because we have to make sure the dye they put in your system has been flushed on out. You gotta stay here until four.”

“You sure are a pal,” he gushed, and then spelled out the last word, “P-I-L-L,” smiling sarcastically. He might have been saving that one since the 1920s. She smiled back with sweetness.

Granddad napped and watched daytime television. I tried engaging him in conversation but nothing worked. He’d just decided that he was going to die sooner than later; I guess he figured he didn’t have much left to say, at least not to me.

I read a lot more Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson, more than half of the 900-page monster. I couldn’t stop reading because it reminded me a lot of what was going on in my own life, with parallel storylines in World War II, where the situation is life and death on a grand scale, and in the pettily grand games of the Internet start-up frenzy.

In the modern day of the late 1990s, little seems worth risking life and limb for. My grandfather grew up in a different world.

Every once in a while, granddad would look out the window and say, “Storm’s comin’.” On the ceiling-mounted TV, small rectangle on Oprah Winfrey’s shoulder had been replaced with a radar image of huge clouds approaching the Dallas/Fort Worth area. The view out the window was beautiful – blue sky as far as I could see. That’s the problem with Dallas and Fort Worth, I thought. The place is so big that weather conditions can vary widely across a broadcast area. It sure didn’t look like a storm was coming, at least not any place near us, not from any angle we could see.

I thought about Doug, and the storm that had brought him, and the book he’d brought, which I was now reading.

Eventually, four o’clock came and they pulled the tubes out of granddad. On the way out of the hospital, he stopped to put his hand on my shoulder.

“You know Carl, I really appreciate you coming down here.”

“You know it’s no problem, granddad,” not bothering to correct him about my name. I knew he knew who I was.

“Don’t drive so fast on the way back,” he added. Which was good advice really, since we got on the road just in time for the storm. When I pulled out of the hospital parking lot, all I could see to the north and the west were enormous roiling black clouds. I’d been looking out of the wrong side of the hospital. By the time we got on the highway, it was pouring so hard I couldn’t see more than a car and a half in front of me. It was me and granddad against the stormy blackness. Just on the outskirts of Fort Worth, he freaked out.

“Carl!” he shouted, maybe forgetting I didn’t need a hearing aid. “Why didn’t you tell me I didn’t have my seatbelt on!” He wrestled with the strap of maroon weave until he got it situated across his chest and secured across his lap.

“I didn’t notice,” I told him. And then, in the spirit of total honesty, I added, “And what with the decision you made at the hospital, I didn’t think seat belts were really that high up your priority list.”

“Huh?” he said, cupping his hand to his ear.

“Nothing.” We drove on in a comfortable, resigned silence to Weatherford. We could hardly talk most of the way anyway, the storm was that bad. By the time we got back within the confines of small town Texas, the storm had passed and it was back to hot and oppressive again. I know it’s just my programming, but I like things hot and oppressive, punctuated unpredictably by the occasional death-dealing thunderstorm. Perhaps it’s a problem of mine that I seem to see that sort of thing as romantic. Few of my girlfriends have.

“We’re going to get some dinner,” I told him. I stopped at a Texaco and got some cash so I could buy food. “Where do you want to go?”

“Wherever you want to go, I’ll get something.”

Goddammit, I thought, don’t be obstinate now.

“Let’s go some place where you can get some food you want.”

“You just go where ever,” he insisted.

“Where do you usually go?” I asked. He got quiet.

“Not sure you’ll find yourself some food there,” he groused. “But it’s up over yonder, there.”

Chicken Express was the name of the place. It was a low-rent fast food chain with a flying chicken for a logo. Not a flying chicken like it was flying under its own power, but flying like it was getting sucked into a jet engine or something. Great, I thought, fried chicken for the man who needs a triple bypass. Well, it certainly could make anything worse at this point, I thought. I don’t lecture my alcohol-using friends. And it’s not like I haven’t brought him fried chicken before. Give the man what he wants.

He got four chicken strips, three of which would end up being fed to his 27-pound cat, whose arteries could use some examining, I was sure. I got a couple pieces of regular fried chicken. Granddad insisted on paying, and I thanked him.

“Thank ya, Carl,” he said again after we ate. “I really appreciate what you did for me at the hospital today.” He gripped my forearm like he never had before, locking eyes with me. I didn’t feel like a boy anymore.

“No problem,” I said.

After a while people began to call, inquiring about how granddad was doing.

“It’s my lungs,” he explained to them. “I got three spots on my lungs.”

“Charlie,” they’d say, “you didn’t go in to have your lungs looked at. How’s your heart?”

“M’heart’s fine. But there’s nothing they can do about my liver.”

“Your liver, Charlie?”

I couldn’t tell if he was losing it, or if he just wanted people to shut up long enough for him to die in relative peace. Being of the same blood, I’m leaning toward the latter. One of the callers — my Aunt Doll, 103 years old — got treated to my version of the story. It disturbed her a little, but she didn’t necessarily think it was dementia, more likely denial.

Tuesday morning, I got up reasonably early and hung out with granddad. There was never a lot to say between us – not like there was some huge emotional wall, but there just actually wasn’t much to say. He’d lived 91 years and a little bit more, and having decided not to take the operation that might have extended his life by five or ten years he’d hit a plateau of calm unlike anything I’d ever seen before. He was relaxed, happy. Jolly, even.

“I slept last night,” he said, beaming.

“That’s great,” I said.

“Can I make you some coffee?”

“Sure thing, granddad.” I wasn’t drinking coffee that month, but I figured that if granddad wanted to make me some coffee then I’d be drinking some coffee. I had a couple cups and we talked for awhile about nothing in particular. We hugged tightly. He extracted a promise from me to be back soon. He saw me out to the car and waved me goodbye from the curb. Little did I know I’d be back in a few days, for a funeral.

The next two hours were spent driving east through the metropolis that is Dallas/Fort Worth. It was early enough that traffic was still thick. There was no sign that a terrible storm had torn across the cityscape not sixteen hours earlier, dropping golf-ball-sized hail on defenseless vehicles. It was morning, and as near as I could tell the world was at peace.

Around eight, I arrived at downtown Dallas and hooked up with Matt at his work.

Matt was one of Karynne’s sons, the youngest, who’d moved back to Dallas a little while after her death. You might remember that I’d made her a promise, that last time I saw her in Seattle. It was to watch Matt, to help him out. He’d always had a little more of the crazy than was really good for someone, and Karynne was the only person who’d ever been able to calm him down. None of my other friends liked Matt — he was too abrasive. Naturally, he only ever thought he was speaking his mind. I tried to do for him what his mother could no longer do, to help him out, to smooth things over. In the long run, it would not go well.

He asked, “Is someone finally buying your piece-of-shit company, or what?”

Matt worked at a Dallas design studio, one that made real Web sites for real companies for real money. They were good, I’ll give them that. They’d designed the logo for Quake III, for example, which I’d thought was genius. Matt had his finger on the pulse of the newest processes and techniques and procedures for designing and building huge commercial sites. I was treading water at an office that had too little to distinguish it from an elaborate con.

“They’re calling it a merger, but yeah.”

“And so?”

“So with this whole merger thing, the new company would want to move me to Dallas.”

“Dude, fuck that. Dallas fucking sucks.”

I agreed. “I spent too much of my life living in Fort Worth to like Dallas,” I confessed. Not that I like Fort Worth, even though it’s “Where the West Begins.” That’s how they advertise Fort Worth among the other cities of the United States. “Fort Worth is Cowtown, Where the West Begins.” It’s cheesy, but it’s what I grew up with. But as lame as Fort Worth can be, it always had a sense of integrity to me, like Weatherford, a sense that people are at least honest about what they are. I’d long gotten the impression that people in Dallas spend too much time hiding from who they are, dwelling on who they want to be, or who they want people to think they are. Dallas somehow managed to combine all the stereotypically awful things about Texans and all the truly contemptible things about Yankees in one grand, sprawling package.

The person I would be fifteen years later will only hear that Dallas and the people who live there are all quite nice, today.

“If Fort Worth is ‘where the West begins,’” Matt said, “then Dallas is where the East peters out.”

That wasn’t really an option for me. I’d have to do something else.

The drive back to Austin wasn’t terrible at all. The drive back was a surreal blur, a catatonic landscape of open fields and passing cars. I drove quickly, swimming upstream against a slow iron tide.

By the time Austin arrived in my windshield, I started thinking I needed to grab a late lunch, but that only reminded me that the last thing I’d eaten had been that chicken from the night before, with granddad, and that just reminded me of granddad. I feared he would die soon. I feared he would die before I saw him again.

Two days later, I would get the phone call. I was wanted back in Weatherford, for a funeral. But that evening, I had another event of world-shaking importance to attend.

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