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How A Loon Grieves

Shazelle Goulet

        There is no shade in the Rockland Home Depot parking lot and the sun hurts my eyes. I can’t see. It was cloudy when we left the cabin, but two hours later we emerge from this tool Mecca to a bright, new world. I think my sunglasses are in the bottom of my purse but my strap is caught around my elbow and it’s no use. My left hand is holding onto the back of Dad’s wheelchair, trying to glide it around potholes in the asphalt. It only wants to go in a straight line, so we keep stopping and course correcting as we pick our way back to the car. His feet slip off the footrests whenever we hit a bump, camo Crocs dragging. My right hand is trying to guide our shopping cart filled with tools. More tools for Dad. Always tools. Tools that will one day get stored away in the garage and then the wood shop and then the tent garage. My dad is a mechanical engineer and an amateur woodworker. We started making trips to the Home Depot once a week after Mom died. Sometimes we just go up and down the aisles, looking, admiring.

Dad explaining to me the difference between Black and Decker and STIHL, or why a circular saw would have been better for this project than a band saw. It all makes no difference to me. I try to pay attention because this is what my dad has to offer, this language of hard metal and motors and hands. My language is words wrapped around ideas, sometimes I type them out on a computer screen. I don’t build, and my dad doesn’t read. Nevertheless, we keep teaching each other.

        I help Dad into the passenger seat before I load the trunk. We have a system, Dad and me and his wheelchair. First, I open the door and push his wheelchair up, parallel with the passenger seat. I face him, wedging myself between the wheelchair and the inside of the car door. We look each other in our matching blue eyes and nod. Okay, let’s go. I lift his left foot, folding up the rusted footrest and gently place his foot back on the ground. The neuropathy in his feet has gotten worse, they are completely numb now, and the cancer lives deep in his bones. Everything hurts him. We repeat the process with his right foot and I move around to the side of the wheelchair. I loop one arm around his right arm and then I slip my other arm around his back.

He pushes himself up slowly, the doughnut pillow in the green frog pillowcase waiting to catch him if his legs give out. With my arms steadying him, he takes two small steps forward. I kick the wheelchair backwards with my foot so that it’s out of the way and I keep one hand on his back, one hand on his arm, as he slowly turns to face me. He grips the gray leather of the passenger seat and leans slightly back. I take his left leg at the knee and slowly slide it into the car, while he scoots his bottom across the seat. I repeat the process with his right leg and then I buckle him in.





        This is our psalm. We move in unison to a phantom rhythm.

        “You’re a good girl, Shazelle Goulet,” he says to me. “A good girl.”

        I don’t remember when we started calling each other by our full names.

        “Hello, David Goulet,” I said to him on the phone one day.

        “Hello, Shazelle Goulet,” he said back. And that was that. It stuck.

        I still call him Dad at times, but Dad is harder. The word dad is familial and soft. David Goulet is business, just a name, like anybody else. The word dad can soothe a grieving daughter’s throat, but these days I am not a daughter. I’m a caretaker. The daughter and the caretaker want different things.

        We leave Rockland and the Home Depot parking lot and drive along Route 1 back towards Belfast and the cabin. I play music that Dad likes. Billy Joel. Johnny Cash. Cher. Notorious B.I.G. This music has been woven into the fabric of family car rides since I was a child. Billy Joel’s Uptown Girl playing on our way to pick up Grandma for her birthday lunch at Red Lobster. Cher’s murder ballad, Dark Lady, playing on the way to my eighth-grade graduation. My parents holding hands atop the center console, swaying their shoulders and bobbing their heads to Big Poppa, way before I even knew who Biggie Smalls was. There is a tinge of sadness to these songs now. We tear up to these songs that make us remember how it used to be when we were a family of three.

        “Don’t forget to stop at Dunkin’,” Dad says to me. 

        “I can make coffee at home.”

        “Oh,” he says. “Let’s stop anyways.”

        It’s not the coffee he really wants, it’s the doughnuts. I know this. When we pull into the drive-through line, he will look at me and shrug. I might as well get a doughnut since we’re already here, he’ll say. This is our ritual.

        When we get home, I back the car up the driveway and park parallel with our front porch. I get Dad’s wheelchair from the trunk and push it across the gravel to his passenger door. Legs and arms and bottoms will slide and bend and maneuver and then, voila! Dad is back in his wheelchair. I walk backwards along the plywood ramp, pulling Dad up and onto the front porch, over the front door threshold, and into the open living room. I wheel him over to his brown La-Z- Boy recliner and legs and arms and bottoms will slide and bend and maneuver once again. After he’s settled into his chair, I bring him his doughnut (maple frosted) and his coffee. I fluff his pillow, fill his water, and empty his pee jug. American Pickers is on the TV. We never turn the TV off anymore, even when we leave the house. Dad is afraid of the silence.

        In 30 minutes or so, Dad will nod off. He always does, always naps in his recliner while the summer afternoon sun streams in through the wall of windows. This west-facing wall of windows looks out on our backyard and the pond. Sometimes you can see the loons swim by, see their silhouettes off in the distance, but mostly we just hear them. Ghost loons calling, sharing our grief, telling our story.

        I go upstairs to my bedroom. I respond to text messages from family members. Everyone wants to be updated. Everyone needs to know right now, immediately, with urgency, how things are going. I send Facebook messages thanking people for reaching out and asking for their patience if I take a little while to get back to them. I’m kind of busy.

        I read Dad’s dialysis report from yesterday. Dad goes to dialysis three times a week, Monday, Wednesday, Friday. We wake up at five o’clock in the morning and have coffee. Dad comes slowly out of his bathroom in his uniform, Levi’s jeans and a long-sleeve cotton shirt from L.L. Bean. He likes the colors that should have names like apple cinnamon and Tuscan olive. He leans heavily on his cane. He doesn’t like to use the wheelchair in the house unless he has to. I help him coat his fistula in lidocaine cream and then we wrap his arm in Saran Wrap. His fistula fascinates me. An arteriovenous fistula is made by joining an artery and a vein together. According to the dialysis website, this “creates a robust blood vessel that can be needled on a regular basis.” Dad’s fistula is visible, big and bulging. It purrs and pulses. The first time I saw him after he had the surgery, he called me to his bed.

        “Put your ear here,” he said to me, motioning to this new lump on his arm.

        I sank to my knees on the bedroom floor and put my ear down. His skin was warm and moist. The blood moving through his fistula whirled and echoed. It was like listening to the sound of the ocean in a conch shell. Not metaphorically, not poetically, but exactly. It is hard to grasp the magnitude of the ocean inside of each of us. Fluids and salinity and plasma and grit and bone and feeling. His fistula was the sound of life.

        Reading Dad’s dialysis report, I’m learning so much about the kidneys. About creatinine levels and hematocrit. It’s weirdly personal and intimate looking at these numbers that measure how well his body is functioning. That right now, downstairs, while he is asleep in his recliner, a thousand different functions are happening silently, spontaneously, miraculously to give him one more day. One more day to be my dad. Mom used to do this for him. Read his report and monitor. Read and monitor. The nurses write him notes on the back of the report like school. Too much salt last week, David. Easy on the potassium. Let’s try for more vegetables! No more doughnuts. There is always a smiley face drawn next to this last one. I try to heed these warnings, to apply them to our daily life, but it’s hard. I don’t know how to be a caretaker. I don’t know how to be a caretaker to my 61-year-old father, a year and a half after my mother died. I don’t understand how my body works: the stress and sleep and nourishment. How his body works: the chemo and radiation and dialysis. The constant pumping and pulling, the moving of his fluids around inside.

        We could do this, me and him, we could still be a family without Mom. We could hold each other a little closer. We could speak her name out loud and remember her daily. We could laugh again and find new songs to listen to. But my dad is dying. We don’t say this to each other, we never ever say this to each other. But I wish we did. I wish my dad would sit me down at the kitchen table like he did whenever I got in trouble and say to me, I’m dying, Shazelle Goulet. And I would press my fingertips hard underneath the glass tabletop and say I know, David Goulet. And then we could say all the things, all of the I love yous and all of the how dare yous, that stood like a gulf between us. Then I would be able to say goodbye. Then I would be able to say goodbye as his daughter.

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