My father-in-law is dying. At least that is what the nurse from the Mission Hospice seems to think. She calls it “declining,” but the way that she lowers her voice and pats my shoulder I know what she means. I imagine she knows best, for she’s been in the game for decades and seen countless people “decline”. And yet I can’t help thinking that for a man who is dying, my father-in-law is very much alive, full of anecdotes, and the desire to check his bank account online.
Today he ate three square meals from the tray table that sits above his hospital bed. For breakfast I scrambled him some eggs. “Plenty of salt,” he shouted after me on my way into the kitchen, his voice so loud it stopped me mid-stride. “Got any potato chips?” he asked, when I delivered his grilled cheese sandwich to him for lunch. Salt, eggs, cheese, and chips, not the kind of foods one would imagine serving to a patient post-stroke.
“Let him have anything he wants,” the hospice nurse, said upon her most recent visit. “Of course,” I said, humoring her, because my father-in-law was going to have whatever he wanted with or without the nurse’s blessing. After sharing twelve years of my life with his youngest daughter, I finally call him my father-in-law, but for the longest time he was just Hank, a thin lipped man who didn’t open his mouth very wide when he spoke, making him difficult to understand.
Hank is a stereotype of a man born and raised in the South. He has always told stories, like the one about the slave girls who belonged to his forebears. “They were at work in the orchard when it happened, ate so many cherries, pits and all that it killed the both of them. They are buried in unmarked graves in the Huddleston family cemetery.”
Then there is the tale about the fire that burned his childhood home to the ground. “It happened on a Sunday morning,” Hank tells me. “I was out squirrel hunting with Uncle Ben when we heard the dinner bell ring. We knew right away that something bad had happened. By the time we got back, the spot on Highway 231 that had once been our house was nothing but a pile of ashes and five charred chimneys. A crowd had gathered at the scene. I got that old house down by Vine Church, one man said. Ain’t nobody using it. Why don’t you go on and move in there? I got a lot of old furniture down in the barn, said another. Ain’t much but at least you will have a stove and something to sleep on. If you want it I’ll bring it on down there.” Hank coughs and splutters when he recounts such generosity, and when he thinks we aren’t looking he wipes at his eyes with the back of his hand, for heaven forbid he should show any emotion. This reminiscing of family lore is intriguing—the stuff of StoryCorps on N.P.R. But it is the other talk, uncensored in its use of the word nigger, that causes the Mission Hospice social worker to shift awkwardly in her seat, to smile albeit insincerely, while I blush and feel guilty by association.
It would be an understatement to say Hank has been quite an education for me. In the early days of us getting acquainted, he introduced me to the food of his southern roots, Lebanon, Tennessee. Pinto beans, corn bread and sausage, I forewent the sausage being a vegan, but I liked everything else. “Mama used to make the beans with hog fat,” he told me, and I shuddered at the thought.” Mama was widowed when Hank, or ‘Little Henry’ as she called him was just a boy. She was the tiniest thing,” he recalls. “But she had a strong character. She managed to raise us six kids, work on the farm, and still find time to help out at the Huddleston Bros. General Store and Mercantile.
I’d heard a fair bit about Huddleston Bros. General Store and Mercantile. Years after it had closed, my partner explored the site, bringing back empty green and brown bottles from the place. I could just about see the print engraved into the glass. Some were remedies for cholera and typhoid while others had been nerve tonics, and aids for nausea.
Despite the farm and the general store, when the depression came it hit hard. “It was the depression and not the Parkinson’s that killed father,” Hank told me. “It broke his spirit and sent him to an early grave.” It’s hard to imagine all that loss, all that sorrow that Little Henry lived through, how those same hands that went from sheet metal working to engineering had once milked cows on the farm, pulled the trigger on hogs in the forest, and held my partner, his third and last child, Nancy Ann Huddleston.
The things that don’t change, that stay the same, the pinto beans and corn bread are now prepared exactly to Hank’s liking by Barbara Jo, his wife of fifty-nine years. It’s no easy feat, for Barb is legally blind. Despite her disability, Hank doesn’t clear the table after dinner, or do the washing-up. The closest he gets to domesticity is slapping together a peanut butter and jam sandwich or microwaving a hotdog. Hebrew National.
Hank got stout in his dotage. He was all-belly, a Buddha in a soft plaid shirt. It was hard to get around his girth when I hugged him goodbye, which wasn’t often because he was not a sentimental man, not one to gush or croon affection.
“My father never told me that he loved me,” Nancy told me once, “so I naturally believed that he didn’t for the longest time.” I study her face, looking for clues, for telltale signs of any pain. I think I see a flicker of what might constitute melancholy, but it is fleeting and I let it pass between us without comment.
Hank shouted at me once when I was visiting, his voice enormous through the thin wall that divided the living room from the kitchen. I had failed to turn the hot tap on fully enough, and an air lock made the water churn and sputter. Granted, he didn’t know who was responsible for the petty crime. He had a house full of guests, so it could have been anyone. Even so, his booming voice with all its authority would have made me cry as a child. Another time in no uncertain terms, Hank yelled at our dogs to stop barking. I think I took that a bit too personally too.
I didn’t really know what fathers did, who they were. I never had a father to chastise me or refuse to tell me that he loved me. He left when I was still too young to remember his face. Perhaps that’s why I was intrigued by Hank, wanted to get beyond the fact that he elected Bush, and unashamedly voted yes on proposition 8, the very thing that would keep his youngest daughter and I from being able to wed. Maybe it was his short spiky hair, round moon face, and his mouth that rarely opened wide enough to show his teeth that made him appealing to me, or the way his tummy rose and fell as he chuckled at his own jokes and stories, and his eyes crinkled into slits to make him look like a baby.
Hank wasn’t always a big man. There is a picture of him in his bedroom as a gangly fresh-faced seventeen-year old, dandy in a Marine Corps uniform that he shouldn’t have been wearing. He was too young to join the forces, but he managed to lie about his age and convince his mother to sign his enlistment papers. That scrappy boy-man, Little Henry had shortly before seen a Marine in full regalia and was determined that nothing would stop him from earning a living and seeing the world.
Reminiscent of his youth, Hank is thin once again. This time it is not of his choosing. Apart from the eggs, grilled cheese and potato chips, most days he hasn’t been able to eat properly. The stroke was over a month ago now, and has left him with nausea, hiccups and vertigo, his limbs weak and scrawny under his blue silk pajamas. There are small bumps I can feel on his arms where his biceps once lived. I’m not sure that he likes how tactile I am, but I don’t know how else to convince him that I am there.
When he is sleeping, a deep tired sleep that leaves him hard to rouse, Barb sits by his bed, reaches for his heavy hand with both of her own, and pats it, like I imagine she has patted her children, soothing yet firm, in anticipation of making everything better. From time to time she moves her fingers to Hank’s flushed cheeks, his furrowed brow and she feels for his ear, then she leans low and whispers, “I love you, I love you.”
I know that Hank is a proud man, a private man, a man who is often happier engrossed in his suspense novels than with those around him. He is a man of habit. Raisin Bran, orange juice and black coffee in the morning, online chess, Fox News, cheese and crackers in the afternoon, and a nightcap before Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune. And in between such events there has been the building and flying of airplanes, the writing and self-publishing of books, and the repairs and improvement of every square inch of his home.
Not long after my introduction to pinto beans and corn bread, Hank showed me around his workshop. A small aircraft hung from the rafters and the smell of invention and gasoline filled the air. “Here, take a hold of this,” he said to me. “I’ll show you how to rivet.” I drove the riveting tool into the wings in the places that he pointed to with his rough grease stained hands. “I’m like Rosie,” I said, recalling the second-world-war poster I had studied during my women’s studies degree.
Getting close to Hank may have happened because of how much I loved my partner. Perhaps I wanted to please her, feel affection and affinity for the things that she did. It might have originated due to my immigrant status, being an alien without parents of my own.
In 2009 Hank wrote a novel and asked me to help him to edit it. He came to Los Angeles and we spent hour upon hour sat on kitchen chairs at the dining room table, typing and spacing his text. His genre of choice was as unfamiliar to me as his politics, but his passion for the written word was right up my alley.
I think all in all, the most pivotal event that led me to embrace my father-in-law was during his “decline” when I held a cup of water with a straw up to his mouth and told him to go easy for fear that he might aspirate, when I kissed him goodnight on his warm forehead and he muttered, “goodnight hon,” and then on the penultimate afternoon of my visit, when I had to change his nappy. “I need a nurse,” he said. “Do you think you could get me one?” In his weakened bed bound state, pumped with a cocktail of medication, he had been unable to use the commode. At home instead of the hospital with just me in his midst, I was his “nurse,” and so I did something that might have been unthinkable for us both at one time.
It was with caution, for although I had seen the hospice health aid worker doing the deed the morning before, I was a novice, and it had been almost twenty two years since I had changed a nappy, a baby’s nappy, the baby being my son. To add yet another qualm to the matter, being a lesbian meant that I hadn’t seen man-parts for as long as I could remember. Where does one look? I pondered. Too much time spent on Hank’s nether regions might have rendered him invisible, more object than person. Too much eye contact and I would be embarrassed, and my clean up operation compromised. It was Hank that helped us through. Never one to mince words, he said, “I bet you didn’t think you’d be doing this when you met Nancy, did you?” “No, I didn’t,” I said, “but I guess life is full of surprises.”
In the bathroom I peeled off my gloves and washed my hands. I looked at myself in the mirror. “Thanks Hank,” I said. I meant it. He had given me something and I could feel it. It was starting to course through me and settle in my gut—maturity, tolerance—the realization that despite our differences there is commonality. Humans die, every last one of us. I’ll die like Hank, well maybe not exactly like him, but I will die, and I might just have to lose control, to surrender to someone or something in the end. I was that thing, that person that Hank allowed into his life, and for that I call him my father–in–law, and even though he was unable to tell me, unable to tell anyone for that matter, I know that he loved me like family.