Author's note: My 86 year-old father is in late stage COPD. With the help of Hospice, we are taking care of him at his home where he feels most secure, so he can die with family around him. While this is not inherently funny, I can't help but see humor in any life situation where I find myself totally unprepared. I don't know if I can adequately convey the humor, but bear with me while I am compelled to try.
My father has always been a funny man. Anyone who knows him well will attest to that.
My dad liked to bark in our mail chute, when I was a teenager. Wild, raucous barking.
We had one of those mail slots built into the wall, where the letters would fall onto the kitchen counter inside the house. It drove our Cocker Spaniel crazy and the dog would bark wildly and try to jump on the counter to bite the mail.
But the postman couldn't rival Dad in the dog frenzy department. Dad's barking would bring the Spaniel running, barking & snorting like mad, making all kinds of wild dog noises the prissy animal would never normally make, startling my mother and causing everyone in the house to jump.
And my father would stand on our porch, in his 3-piece banker's suit and fancy tie, and laugh his ass off; leaning over, again and again, to bark into the mail slot and send the dog, and my mom, into fits. He would do this until my mother would yell at him to stop.
30 years and late-stage COPD hasn't changed his fundamental humor.
Much like Eskimos and snow, we have many ways to describe anxiety, thanks to the COPD. Most are bad, describing a symptom that needs meds, like Breathing Anxiety, Dying Anxiety, and Frantic Anxiety. But one type, Mischievous Fiddling Anxiety, refers to Dad's inner Dennis the Menace. He doesn't need meds for it, but I might.
Last night was a classic case.
We were watching a documentary about a golf course. Dad starts yanking on his oxygen tubing. I eye him warily, trying to assess which anxiety I might be witnessing. He catches me looking at him and stops, eyebrows raised like, "What?! I'm not doing anything." Okay, we're in mischievous mode.
"Dad. Leave the oxygen alone. Nothing ever good comes from you yanking on that," I say, for the 4,000th time. He gives me an indulgent smile and dramatically lays his hands on his lap. I turn back to the TV. I feel his eyes on me as he gives the tubing another tug. I turn back to him, "Dad, would you rather turn this off and play Blackjack?" Maybe I'm wrong about his mood and he's going into Frantic Anxiety, which can sometimes be prevented by distraction.
"No," he says primly, leaning back. "I like this. It's a beautiful golf course." I eye him again, pretty sure I'm seeing Mischievous, and go back to the program. But sure enough, the second my head is turned I catch a flash of movement out of the corner of my eye. He has gathered up all the slack on the tubing and YANKED it so that the water container comes flying off the oxygen tank into the air. I leap off the chair and rush towards the machine.
"What is wrong with this thing?" he exclaims in a classic "It wasn't me!" that my daughters clearly inherited from him.
Naturally, the container doohickey lands upside down and the water gets sucked into the tube, winding it's way toward him. He flips at the tubing to move the water around, enjoying himself, while I flap around on the floor - totally panicked at what water in his lungs would do - and trying to remember something about fluid dynamics (I was a marketing major) and how the hell I keep the water from surging through the tube into his nose.
"Dad, I've got to disconnect your oxygen for a sec and get another tube," and I paw through endless tubing looking for a connection ahead of the water and then puzzle frantically on how to take it apart. He sits back, perfectly content, his mission accomplished. I sigh.
Then I go through 3 bags of new tubing, looking for a long one with the right coupling. I finally replace it and notice that Dad is engrossed in the TV program again. He has that hazy look he gets when the meds muddle him. But he appears calm.
I settle back down, and nearly jump out of my chair when he yells, "How many feet?!"
"What? What feet?" I am bewildered.
"Here," he says, "I'll do it again," and he stands up. I look at him blankly, knowing he's somehow integrated something on the show with his reality, but he's not upset so I'm not really alarmed. But then he drops like stone into his chair, suddenly and with force. As if we're on a teeter-totter I shoot up out of my chair as he falls into his. I'm dimly aware I'm making "Ack! Ack!" sounds and waving my hands. His butt lands with a solid thump into the upholstered chair and he looks at me intensely, "Did you get it? What was the time? Are you writing this down?"
"Holy cow, Dad, what was THAT? Crap, you scared me. I don't think -," he interrupts my thought by standing up again, wicked-spry for his condition. "Here. Pay attention this time."
"NO!" I jump forward. "No more falling into the chair. For Pete's sake, Dad, let's not add back injury to everything else. Stop doing that."
He looks at me like I'm a colossal kill-joy and eases back into his chair. "Get me a pencil and paper, then. I'll figure it out myself. Humph." Again, he looks strangely pleased. I guess we're playing "fun with caregivers" and the game is going well, for him.
I get him the pencil and paper and that seems to occupy him for awhile. Then he abruptly sets it aside and stands up. Again, with the teeter-totter, I jump up, suspicious, "Dad?"
He looks at me like he's calming a paranoid and says, "I'm going to the bathroom, if that's okay?"And off he goes while I sit there shaking my head and rubbing my face.
And then I hear a "Hey!" and a creaking sound. I look up to see the oxygen tube stretched taunt from the machine through the doorway, "I'm caught! Give me some slack," he calls. I smile; the apple doesn't fall far from the tree, after all. I saunter out to just outside the bathroom where he's stuck and glaring.
"Well, lookie there. You've run out of slack," I grin, and them give him the "over the glasses" look he's given me my whole life. "Apparently the old tube was longer. Shame it's got water in it, isn't it?" He lifts his chin, and looks at me sideways, "Damn machine is a pain in my ass," he replies with a twinkle in his eye. But then he reaches out and slowly closes his fist around the tubing. I lurch forward and gurgle out a protest, expecting a disastrous yank. He laughs, lets go and waits patiently while I move the tank for slack.
I have to laugh.
It has been a challenge, trying to explain to people what this whole end-of-life thing is like with my dad and how it's effecting me. I think people expect teary eyes and melancholy. Instead I'm kind of wild-eyed and nutty.
So now you know. In between the sadness, worry and exhaustion, we're jumping around, snorting and barking at the mail chute. That's just how my people roll.