April 24 will mark 30 years since my father died at 48 of a cancer that is highly treatable, when caught early – even preventable. Get your colonoscopies, people. Please.
This is part one of a series about his illness and dying, which was in every way a family affair. If I’m a bit off on some details, forgive me. I wrote nothing down at the time, so everything is recreated from memory.
The weekend Daddy slipped into a coma was a year into his devastating diagnosis, and the doctors and nurses of Baptist’s oncology unit told us that was it, the last hurrah.
My sister’s son, Robert, was 6 days old. Ben had turned 3 that week and Liz was 20 months. I was 26, Mother was 46. Cathy was 23. We were all too young and we weren’t ready.
Neither was Daddy.
In case you don’t know, let me explain that comas aren’t necessarily restful, sleep-like states. My father’s coma was of the restless or active variety. His eyes were closed, but he kept trying to get out of bed and muttering over and over that he wanted to go home.
The whole thing was more than Mother could bear. She’d been a rock through everything, but her heart was breaking, and the nurses led her to another room to sleep in an empty bed.
Aunt Barbara, my dad’s beautiful older sister, who happened to be here from Sullivan, Mo., the Cartwright’s home town, and I stayed the night with him and tried to keep him calm. When holding him down got to be too much for us, the nurses gently tied his arms to the sides of his bed.
That night was tough, to put it mildly. Daddy talked aloud to his mother, who died of cancer at 69 and his baby sister, who died of a heart attack at 36. We couldn’t make out what he said, but he called their names.
Aunt Barbara and I talked, quietly, all night. Daddy gradually calmed down, for the most part. Some time after the sun rose I went home to my babies.
Sunday afternoon, Mother called me, hesitantly hopeful and somewhat incredulous. “Your father’s eyes are open,” she said.
No one was sure if he was “there,” but open eyes could have been an improvement.
I grabbed a new photo of my kids, put it in a frame, and flew to the hospital. “Look, Daddy,” I said walking into his room, “I brought you a new picture of Ben and Lizzy.”
A large tear formed in his left eye and rolled down his cheek. “Sweet,” he struggled to say.
Mother and I looked at each other with cautious joy – he WAS there! He was! We didn’t know to what degree, but that was a definite coherent reaction, heart-wrenching though it was.
He didn’t say another word until he woke up again Monday afternoon, turned to Mother and said, “Willette, you’d better turn on the television. We’re going to miss the Razorback game.”
Mother had to explain that Daddy, a U of A grad and diehard Hog fan, that he had missed the game and much more. The coma had caused some mild brain damage, but, by sheer will, he pulled himself back.
Later he asked who the beautiful dark-haired woman was who stood at the foot of his bed. And talked about the light in the upper corner of his room. Aunt Barbara and I saw neither.
The dyslexia he was left with was fairly crippling for the civil engineer who crunched numbers to make a success of Cartwright Construction Company, but he developed his own methods of rehabbing his brain. He got a new address book and painstakingly copied addresses and phone numbers into it. He organized business cards.
He worked so hard.
He could never work at his office again, but by the time he died five months later, he could dial a phone number and do basic calculating.
He was so brave. And so young.