The summer of 2011 was the worst on record: a rough season of drought and fires. In Austin we had more than three months of temperatures over 100, with days reaching 113. There was no rain. Grass turned to limp straw. I watched smoke rise from a blaze that threatened nearby houses, including the childhood home of my friend Ellen. In nearby Bastrop, a firestorm destroyed over 16,000 homes. It seemed like in everything was going wrong. In 2011 so many people I knew suffered unemployment, divorce, disease, or other calamity. If you think it’s impossible for the season to influence arrangements like marriage and employment, I have no argument. I just know it was a bad year.
It was the year my dad became ill.
I try to remember dad from my childhood. I think of him taking his young family to Cape Canaveral so his boys – fascinated by the Apollo mission – can see the rockets. Especially in those early days he was easily frustrated driving on a long trip. Likely at some point he yelled at the other drivers. He brought his Super-8 camera on the trip. Mostly he used it to document family events. But, dad was a bit of a showman without no outlet, and used the camera sometimes to express himself. He did not take the shot I remember from that trip. It was probably mom who took the shot of dad going down the slide at the hotel pool. Later when we watched the film on his Bell and Howell projector. When we got the the shot of him going down the slide, dad stopped the film and reverse it. When film-dad gets back to top of the slide, projector-dad made the film go forward. He did it several times, making the film go back and forth, so that the dad-on-film became stuck going up and down the slide. Greg and I roared with laughter. I wonder if I would even remember the trip if it wasn’t for dad playing with the film later.
This is not a tribute. I’m overwhelmed by he idea of eulogizing dad. I’m unqualified to determine which accomplishments or failures meant the most to dad. Does anyone really know their parents? Egocentric filter of childhood exaggerates their virtues and failings. Even now, I realize that there were things I’ve always assumed were truth or wisdom, that were just his experience.
Bill Wittenbrook was in his late 60s when he was diagnosed with leukemia. He had been married for nearly 50 years. He had 3 children, 6 grandchildren. He lived comfortably in a big house. He had opportunities to pursue many interests. He had made a good living and retired with enough money to travel and enjoy themselves. Dad’s end was difficult, but it was not a tragedy. It’s sad, but, eventually, parents die. It is better than the other way around.
* * *
Much of life is timing. If dad had been a few years younger there would have been more treatment options open to him. If Celiac disease had come to the public consciousness a little sooner, perhaps the chain from Celiac to lymphoma to chemotherapy to leukemia might have been broken. If he had gotten sick a few year later, perhaps they would have had a cure.
I have a theory that my own old age will come at a bad time. My generation will have make something out of the scrap left behind by the baby boomers. As they retire en masse, locust-like, boomer will ravage the healthcare system, the economy, and anything else consumable. In the ensuing global crisis, the abled-bodied will have to rise up. By the time I retire, they will have found an efficient way to discard the elderly – perhaps an island. Alternately, perhaps we will develop new technologies and economies for the boomers comfort and enjoyment. By the time I am old, the world will become a senior’s paradise. If this seems implausible, consider that it would not be the first time that they forced the will of the nation to serve their whim. Either way, I won’t have to worry about retirement.
* * *
Someone told me recently that the children born this year and later could expect a normal life span of 120 years. I think this is incorrect.
* * *
Erratic cold punctuated the beginning of 2011, belying the heat to come. At the beginning of Dad’s hasty chemotherapy, I was in California for business. By this time, Pam and I had been married almost 10 years; our son, Seth, was 8 year old; my career had mostly recovered from the layoffs at Dell and 2008 financial collapse; and – according to the numbers – I was middle aged (whatever that means).
A long time resident of central Texas, I found familiar when the weathermen of the Bay Area when nuts at the most minuscule chance of snow. There was no snow, but the San Jose airport – unfamiliar with cold – had no way to de-ice the wings of my airplane. They put my on a different plane and routed me through Minneapolis–Saint Paul.Leaving Silicon Valley, When I got to Minneapolis and called my mom, that I learned they were moving dad to ICU. She was upset, she asked me to get there as soon as possible. The airport was a mess. My flight was delayed because of snow. I would not get home until later. While I felt responsible for get home for my mom, I wasn’t nervous. In recent years, mom had been treated for breast cancer and dad had been treated for lymphoma. While neither treatment had been easy, the risks had been low and the result positive. I didn’t yet understand enough to be really frightened.
* * *
Airplanes are not magic. The way you know that, is that you do not have to believe in them for them to fly. Similarly, even if you fully believe in airplanes, sometimes they fail.
* * *
They told us that dad’s had chance of survival was well under 50%. We kept asking the doctors the same questions over and over, hoping a slightly different wording would yield most positive results. We quickly learned the vocabulary, words such as septic shock, neutropenia, and sepsis. From Wikipedia, Sepsis (/ˈsɛpsɨs/; from the Greek σῆψις: the state of putrefaction and decay) is a potentially deadly medical condition characterized by a whole-body inflammatory state caused by severe infection. The chemotherapy had done it’s job. It has killed the blood. He had no immunity. He could get transfusions of red blood cells and plasma, but it would take a week, maybe two, for his white blood cells to come back. His lungs could no longer deliver enough oxygen to critical tissues. His kidneys could no longer clean all the toxins from his blood. He had multiple infections. He was bleeding internally. His system was toxic. His organs were dying.
After, a couple of days without new bad news, mom decided that dad would survive the immediate crisis. It was a theory was based on hope and exhaustion. The experts held firm at 60-90% against. But even when the odds are 90% against, you win one out of ten times. Somehow, mom had been correct. Dad’s white blood cells counts started to rise dramatically. Though he was far from out of danger, dad would not die that week.
The weeks dragged on in ICU. Mom arrived a ICU first thing in the morning. She spent the day watching his vitals and waiting for the next lab reports. I went to the hospital most days after work. One time while we waited, mom told me that dad had felt bad about something I had said months earlier. I had been reminiscing about how poor I had been when I’d lived in Oregon. One year only earned about $6000. Actually, I was poor for several years, even after I moved back to Austin. I barely remembered the conversation, but to dad had thought of it as failure to help one of his children in a time of need. Mom said that he was like that. He always thought he could do more to take care of the family.
Usually, mom was exhausted by the time I arrived and left soon after. I often waited with dad until he slept or until the nurses ushered me out. When he slept I could imagine that he was free of fear and suffering. Often he went in and out of awareness. His eyes alternated between blank and searching. When he could speak at all, his voice was low and rasping. I struggled to understand what he wanted. I’d guess wrong several times. He would become frustrated. I’d try to offer him ice chips, information, anything I could think of. Sometimes, he didn’t want anything. Sometimes he wasn’t even talking to me, but speaking to people who where not there about places long gone.
Only semi-conscious, dad managed to pull the ventilation tube out of his throat three times. Even after they restrained his hands, he worked the tube with his teeth and tongue. In my head, I had the idea that the ventilator and dialysis machines were good things for him. They would do must of the work for his body so that he could recover. The nurses denied my theory. For someone of dad’s age, life support rarely lead to health. In most cases it only delayed death.
Watching him slide between delirium and pain day after day, I wanted everyone to know how bad it was. The world reminded me how little consequence a single man’s life. Thought the ICU television I watched as half the world away, a tsunami had brought an apocalypse to whole Japanese cities.
* * *
Seth was in third grade when dad went into ICU and had ambitions to become an astrophysicist. Seth was close to dad. When Seth was a toddler dad carried him to the bathroom mirror we they would make fun of the funny people that looked just like them that stared back at them. As Seth got bigger dad stopped carrying them, but they still made jokes at the expense of the guys in the mirror. Seth was too young to see grandpa in ICU, but visited the hospital on weekends where he and his cousins cheered my mom in the waiting room. One evening, as we ate across the street from the hospital, Seth asked if grandpa would die. What could I say? Probably I should have been prepared. I couldn’t-wouldn’t share my fear. Doctors and nurses were taking really good care of grandpa, I told Seth. ICU was the best place for grandpa. They had a hundred ways the take care of grandpa so he could heal. But, yes, it was a possibility that maybe grandpa could die.
At times, Seth didn’t seen to understand. A minute after talking about grandpa, Seth might tell us something about Doctor Who or his Pokemon video game. Pam and I could image that the news didn’t affect him much. Childhood didn’t stop for grandpa’s illness. Seth still had school and friends and video games. He had victories, such as being chosen to help unveil a Tejano monument at the Texas State Capitol, and disappointments, such as being sick on his birthday. For a while it would seemed that Seth forgot about grandpa, but then suddenly he would ask a question that showed he had been processing the all of the data the whole time. One minute Seth would be having fun, that next he would be sad and afraid.
* * *
I am glad that Seth has had close relationships with his grandparents. I didn’t know my mine. I know that that my grandmother died of cancer when my father was 6 years old. I know that grandfather was distant as was the norm for fathers of the day. I know that he did not protect dad from the emotional or physical abuse of his stepmother. I have seen photographs. John Wittenbrook looks portly and formal. Gilda Falcone Wittenbrook looks like an old matron in her thirties. These are probably only my caricatures of their times. It is imagine who they were a people. The only thing that humanizes them for me is dad’s birthdate and a some simple math. William Karl Wittenbrook was born September 14, 1942. I can image John and Gilda nine month earlier, barely in their 30’s, having lived through The Great War and a decade of depression, clinging to the radio, listening for any news from the Pacific or Europe, turning to each other for comfort as the world caught fire.
* * *
The rainless hot days started to count up. Lake levels dropped. Plants wilted. The landscape became hues of pale yellow and pale brown. Climate change deniers scrambled to seem relevant with their radical coincidence theories.
Traditionally, winter is the season of death, but summers can be just as treacherous. Many summers ago – in my lean years – I met a guy on the Shoal Creek bike trail just below 24th street. He had an Irish accent and asked me for some water. He had been running in the 104 degree heat. Now he wasn’t feeling well. I gave him a spare water bottle and rode off. When I came back that way 30 to 45 minutes later, the guy was laying on a bench only a few feet away from where he had been. He had gulped down the water too fast and had thrown it all back up. It was mistake, but the guy was from Ireland and wasn’t used to our seasons. I soaked my shirt in creek water and put it across his forehead. Mobile phone were not common yet so, I had to go up to the nearby bookstore to call the guy’s girlfriend. Together, the girlfriend and I could not move the him to safety. I waited with them until the ambulance came. I’d alway been told, but when I learned how dangerous dehydration is.
As summer 2011 began, dad was still in ICU fighting infection. He went on and off machines and took regular blood transfusion. I left work early one Friday, to join my mom in a meeting with a palliative nurse. I had had to look up “palliative nurse,” to find out what they do. Though the Internet claimed that palliative nurses coordinated care for critical and terminal patients, this one only wanted to know when we would allow dad to die. How long would we allow dad to linger on life support? Would we resuscitate? We should not allow him to suffer indefinitely. Hope could not last forever.
The nurse had probably seen hundred of cases like this. She had been trained to recognize when doors were closing and options were running out. For all of the nurse’s expertise, I knew she was wrong, wrong, We were expecting the result back of the bone marrow test any day. If dad got just a little stronger, they would operate to stop the internal bleeding. And that had to work because if dad didn’t get stronger in the next several weeks, the window for the follow up chemotherapy treatments would close and all of this would be for nothing. When you are racing against time, you don’t give up, you run out the clock.
Despite my conviction, mom and dad were starting to wonder. When he was lucidity, dad questioned how long he could go on. He understand he was confused. He told us that he had been hallucinating. He’d visited his childhood home. He see us, when we away. He was losing himself. Dad said he was ready to die. Mom wanted desperately for him to live, day after day of watching him suffer, started to wonder what if we were only extending his misery. I did not know what to do. We were racing time. It wasn’t time to quit yet. I called Greg, and told him what mom and dad were considering. Greg said that we tell them “no.”
Almost immediately, things changed.
* * *
In 1998, Mexico experienced the worse fire season on record. The smoke made it all of the way up to Austin, dyeing the sky a dull sepia tone. At that time, I was working in the Seton Hospital billing office and I still wasn’t making any money. My parent thought I could do better. A few months earlier, my friend, Michael, and I had made a large – 4’ in diameter – papier-mâché sculpture based a doodle of mine: the Mad Moon. The Mad Moon was blue and purple with large swirling storm eyes and horrible gnashing teeth. I had a bit of mythology about the Mad Moon. It came from a distant and unfamiliar world where it shared the sky with 6 other moons. It was both hostile and insane and would sometime throw unlucky stars at even unluckier bad rabbits that spent the eternal night drinking and partying in the snowy forest.
It turned out our 4 foot Mad Moon papier-mâché sculpture wasn’t very practical. It was too big to be pulled inside either of our houses. It was vulnerable to the elements so most of the time we kept it wrapped in a tarp at Michael’s place. The only real purpose we found for the Mad Moon was to act as the mascot for a series of parties. The greatest of these parties occurred in the season of fire in Mexico. We estimated that 400 revelers descended on Michael’s house. Lighting was provided by a friend who worked for a company that lit dance clubs. The highlight of this party was the enormous maze build from sheets of plastic, rope, and rebar on Michael’s property. At the center of the maze was a bar and, of course, the Mad Moon.
The maze was magnificent. I wish I could take some credit for it, but at that time my head was in other things. I was working on a novel (that I never finished). I was heavily involved with operations and politics of a small community radio KOOP 91.7. And I’d recently made a 4-minute film for local Super-8 Film Cooperative show. It was the last time I ever did anything with that media. Super-8 Film had been archaic for a decade or two. I was especially proud with the way the film came out, nevertheless, (I confided with my friend Brent – who recorded music for the film), it was spite that had motivated me to make the film. The previous Super-8 film I made had been a collaboration with J-. I’d been in love with J-, but she had broken my heart. I harbored some wish that J- would go to the Super-8 show, and see that I was still making films without her.
I never found out if J- went to one of the Super 8 screenings, but she did show up at the party. She and some friends went down to the river to go skinny dipping, while I wandered alone in the black plastic maze under the poisoned sky.
* * *
Mom insisted that they remove the straps from dad’s arms. If these were his last days on Earth, he would not live like a prisoner. They brought a watcher into the room to prevent dad from accidentally hurting himself while sleeping or in semi-conscience confusion. They took dad back to surgery. Afterward the surgeon brought us something we hadn’t had in a while… good news. The procedure had been successful. They managed to finally stop the bleeding in his intestines. Later that day, the oncologist on duty visited. She called the lab for us to get the results of the bone marrow test. A few minutes later, she told us that dad was in remission. Remission! We told dad as soon as he was conscious. Remission? He asked. Remission! He repeated it and smiled as much as his tired face would allow. The hospital’s watcher congratulated us.
Dad improved rapidly. A few weeks later he moved from ICU to intermediate care, then to the cancer ward, and then to physical therapy. He was disoriented at first – confused about where he was and his situation. We tried to keep him informed, but we didn’t always know the gaps in his understanding. As the first round of chemotherapy had nearly killed him, he had doubt that he would be able to complete the treatment and have a chance to stay in remission. He explained to him that that many of the problems he had had were due to unrecognized damage from the leukemia from before the treatment and perhaps weak hospital protocols for keeping glutton out of his food. Both of these wouldn’t be factors for the consolidation treatment. Dad started to regain hope.
As she had been during the long vigil, Mom was still nearly constantly by his side. One of the many things she told him soon after his head cleared was that I had been OK. Even though I had been poor for a few years in Oregon and when I got back to Austin, I had been fine. He had not failed his children. He could rest his mind.
* * *
Shortly after his death, I found dad’s senior picture in his 1960 High School yearbook. He was an 18 boy noted for his sense of humor and participation in the Booster Club. The yearbook said that he wanted to be a chemical engineer. I hadn’t heard that before. Was it a serious ambition or just a passing notion? I knew that when he started college he had wanted to be a doctor, but he discovered that he had more aptitude for computers than organic chemistry. I know that at want time he had wanted to try acting. I don’t think it was an important goal, but I know that he tried out for a play. He wasn’t cast and didn’t try again.
What would 18-year-old Bill Wittenbrook have thought if he knew that he would never be a chemical engineer, an actor, or a doctor? I’d have to guess he would not be happy knowing that for that for each door he crossed, there would be a thousand more doors passed. What would the 18-year-old Bill Wittenbrook have thought if he knew of all his future accomplishments? Would it be adequate compensation for not having gotten to do everything?
Dad worked for IBM for more than 35 years and for the state for several more. Through IBM he patented two of his inventions. He never acted, but he used to make Super-8 films and he did the lights for a few plays. He owned a very small sail boat which he used to race. He tinkered with a number of small businesses, though none of them ever took off. In the early days of personal computers he saw a need for a mobile computer station that could fit through doors. He built a few prototypes but never figured out how to market it. He wrote pamphlet about making a ‘great cup of coffee’ and even sold a few copies. He held extravagant chocolate parties for friends and neighbors. He collected movies for the children’s ward at the hospital. What else, dad, did I forget or never know about?
I don’t know which things feed into 69 year old Bill Wittenbrook tally of regret and pride. I know that toward the end, dad fretted that he could have helped his children more. How can I explain? He never failed to support me. I had been poor for much of my mid-twenties, but I had been too busy in those year to worry about money much. I had more failures than successes those year, but I got to try almost so many things: I helped start a radio station, did performance art at 2am, met movies stars, invented a board game, sold brownies at a Dead show, attended salons in the homes of respected psychologists, protested war, practice Tai Chi in the park, skinny dipped in Barton Springs after hours. I made small films, started writing novels, sold artwork, and hung out with amazing people. I made a papier-mâché Mad Moon too big to fit inside and feel in love and got my heart broken. I can claim that those days were always happy. Sometimes I was lonely, or depressed, or worried about my future, but I opened as many doors I could, sometime just to peek around. I made many misstep, but often I was amazed to find where I’d wound up.
You never failed me, Dad. It was all worthwhile.
* * *
Isn’t it funny how often when you learn a word, suddenly you start hearing it again and again? In college it was the word “juxtapose,” that seemed to be coming up everywhere. Now, we use the term “mashup.”
* * *
Mid-April 2011: We were already in drought though the heat wasn’t so bad yet. Seth got sick on his 9th birthday. It seemed like he was always getting these little stomach bugs. We gave Seth Gatorade and waited it out. It was a bummer that it happened on his birthday, but we reschedule the party for a couple weeks. Two weeks later with Seth’s friends playing and screaming at the party, no one cares anymore about delayed fun.
Beginning of July 2011: The cite of Austin canceled the Independence Day fireworks due to the dry conditions. Seth’s cousin Jack was visiting. After dark, we crept out of the house. It still would have been at least 90 degree outside. We were not foolish enough to try fireworks, but sparklers had always been safe. We’d always had a sparkler in our hands at the 4th of July even as young children. That summer a few stray sparks ignited the ground. The conflagration took only a small patch by the street before we killed it with a half gallon of water. We skulked back into the air conditioning.
Late July 2011: Seth was sick again – another stomach bug. At least this time it was summer and Seth and Pam were off school. We knew the drill. We plied him with Gatorade and prepare to wait it out two or three days.
* * *
When I took Seth to the emergency room, I expect the staff to treat me like an over-worried parent. They would tell me to take Seth to the pediatrician on Monday or Tuesday if he was still sick. I wasn’t really worried about the virus or whatever caused the sickness. I worried about dehydration. Seth had thrown up all the liquids we’d given him. His eyes were sunken and he was listless. I was a little relieved that the doctors took my concern seriously and put Seth on an IV and gave him a bag of saline.
Then they gave him another.
What I thought might take an hour started to drag into the afternoon. Seth had a high fever and wasn’t hydrating the way he should. The doctor recommended that Seth be admitted to Children’s.
I first saw the saw the tower of Dell Children’s Hospital from the passenger seat of the ambulance. Behind me the EMT administered oxygen to Seth, whose lips had turned blue during the ride. After an infinity of traveling the hospital corridors they put us into a room. They tried to put a line in his arm, but after a day of needles the veins were sunken. Again and again they poked the plastic tube into his arm. Seth, who had been stoic in the face of needles, now squirmed and asked us when it would stop.
“I’m sorry kiddo. Soon, they’d be done soon. I’m sorry.”
Pam spent the night with Seth at the Hospital room, allowing me to sleep at home. I got to the hospital in the morning. Pam went home for a while to rest. They put Seth on all sort of antibiotics and pumped him full of liquid, but the fever persisted. We asked a lot of questions of the doctors and nurses, but there were no real answers. When nurses came in to give Seth medicine, take blood pressure, we tried to be helpful, or stay out of their way and let them do their job. Usually, the staff did not need much of me.
The usual pace of the hospital was slow. So I was caught off guard when the nurse spoke to me with urgency.
“How long has he been like this?”
What? How long has Seth been like what?
“The rash. You should let us know immediately when he gets a rash.”
What rash? What was she talking about. Oh, crap. His skin is red and splotchy. It wasn’t like that a moment ago, was it?
Doctors and nurses materialized around his bed.
What’s going on?
The rash could be a bad sign.
They wanted to move him to PICU.
People rushed in and out of the room and around the bed. Specialists conferred with each other. Arrangements were being made. The nurses couldn’t give me answers. The doctors were busy.
I followed Seth as they wheeled him in his bed down the elevator. PICU, the pediatric intensive care unit, was on the bottom floor and, for some reason, high security. The room with similar to the one upstairs but there was a lot more equipment. It was finally outside this room that I got to speak to the doctor in charge. I demanded some positive information. The doctor refused.
“He’s a very sick little boy.”
What the hell?
The rash is bad, she tell me. They think Seth may be in sepsis. He is going into toxic shock.
Fuck! I know exactly what those mean.
I go back to Seth. He is visibly shaken. The past few months had also taught him a few things about medicine and hospitals.
“Am I going to be OK?”
I was completely unprepared to answer. I tried to think through the possibilities. If Seth’s was in sepsis, what would be next? Organ failure? Life support? Days or months of pain and twilight consciousness.
Surely, it wasn’t that bad. Dad survived and he was old and had cancer. Seth was young, healthy and strong.
I had to be positive, or maybe I had to be honest. Shit, I didn’t know. I didn’t know what was happening. I just had to help Seth get through this.
“They are taking really good care of you. This isn’t the same as grandpa. He’s much sicker. You are much healthier. This isn’t the same as grandpa.”
And then… nothing happened.
The doctors had been wrong. The rash went away almost as quickly as it had come. Seth was not going in to sepsis. He was sick, but he was not going into toxic shock. Sometimes, they told us, the rash is just a reaction to the antibiotics.
* * *
Fall came, the weather broke. We finally got a little rain. The fires stopped. Mercury dipped below 100. Seth went back to the hospital in October for a minor procedure. Though they never identified the specific viral, bacterial or fugal cause of the infection when he was in the hospital during the summer, they discovered that Seth had a small defect that caused reflux from his bladder to the kidney and made him prone to infection. The procedure would fix the reflux problem. It lasted less than an hour and seems to have been successful.
Dad’s consolidation therapy lasted through the the fall. He was in and out of the hospital, but was never in immediate danger. When the treatments was finally over the family gathered. He thanked us for all of the support we’d given. He gave us all silver necklaces with tree of life pendants.
* * *
Sometimes I come across article about science that I pay attention to because of Seth’s interest in astrophysics. You can’t go faster than the speed of light. This is a downer for folks that want to explore other planets. Even if we could travel at the speed of light, most suitable planets are many lifetimes away. The article I read was about warp drives (like in Star Trek). While you cannot go faster than light, it might be possible to make space shorter. A warp drive, or Alcubierre drive, would contract the space ahead of you and expand the space behind you. Scientist had thought you would need a ship with the mass and energy of Jupiter to make the warp drive work. According to the article, by increasing the surface of the ship and by changing the shape of the warp bubble from a sphere to a donut, you would only need the approximate mass-energy of a Buick.
There are still many challenges (such as figuring out how to create negative matter), but everything falling into place.
* * *
Dad bought a new car. It was part optimism for continued life and preparing so that mom would have a reliable car for several years. Still trying to take care of me, dad offered the one of their old cars.
I have yet to purchase a car new. I typically keep cars until they fall apart, but the 15 year old Toyota I was driving was starting to fall apart. Dad’s car was in better shape than mine, so I took it. I planned to donate my old car to the NPR station, but for a while I had an extra car and this helped me resolve other unfinished business.
The Mad Moon had spend the last 8-10 years rotting at side of my house. The papier-mâché was flaking off and mildew stained. It had come out from under the tarp for Halloween 5 or 6 years either, but since then it had done nothing but take up space.
Michael and I took the Mad Moon on it’s last journey. We had spent a little time the preceding weeks scouting for location to take the moon. We decided we would go to our friend Ellen’s parents house, where the brush had been cleared months earlier by fire. The flames had exposed bones of small animals. Seth and his friend Hobbs found a pile of skulls and spines. Nothing left of the greenhouse that had once stood on the property, but the frame which arched over the burnt earth like leviathan ribs.
We placed the Mad Moon as the center of the clearing. At the end of 2011, Michael and I got into the old Toyota, speed toward the Mad Moon, it’s swirling storm eyes burning with discord, and we broke on through to the other side.
* * *
Even though the chemotherapy was successful, we knew that the survival rate for someone of dad’s age with this specific type of cancer was only 10% over four years. Dad stayed in remission for 8 months. He lived almost a year after that. Most of that time he was in Houston with mom, seeking treatment at MD Anderson. It wasn’t a year of crisis, but as months passed, fewer door opened for dad than shut behind him. We visited dad and mom a few times in their the temporary apartment in Houston, but not often enough. Dad ended his final drug trial around Christmas. They got the results the first week of January. It hadn’t worked. Really, nothing had worked. Only antibiotics and frequent blood transfusions had kept him going.
Dad and mom came home. They said he might have days or months. Dad had hoped to live long enough to get mom situated in a new smaller home that would be easier to care for. He only lived long enough to make a to do list. Dad gather us together and went over all the things that needed to be done before and after. The list was long. He was tired and struggled to get through it. He didn’t have to. We would have managed to figure it all out on our own. We assured him that we would we be all right. But we didn’t stop him, even as he fought against his broken body to continue. We would see to it that Bill Wittenbrook could die the way that he had lived, taking care of things, organizing what needed to be done, watching out for his family.
A few days before the last door closed, Pam, Seth and I went to the old house for dinner. We hadn’t seen much of dad over the last week. We’d been to the house, but he’d been asleep, or resting. On that night, dad joined us at the dinner table and it felt almost normal. Seth was half way through 5th grade. We was applying to advanced math and science program at Kealing Middle school. We’d just gotten Seth’s mid-year report card. The grades were good, but Seth focused on the something the teacher wrote in the comment section. She said that she thought that he had leadership qualities.
“I just don’t get it.” He said. Seth didn’t see himself as a leader. “What does that mean?”
We tried to explain to him that a leader could be many things. A leader wasn’t just about giving commands. Seth could be a leader of ideas. Maybe one day he could guide and inspire people.
Before he went back to bed, Dad spoke told Seth that he would had many options. Early in his own career, dad though he wanted to be a leader to advance in his career. For a while he’d managed a team, and found out that it wasn’t for him. Maybe Seth wouldn’t be a leader, but he should find out for himself. It was OK if Seth didn’t want to be a leader, but he should be open to the possibilities. It wasn’t necessarily wisdom or truth, just experience.
* * *
Back in the early summer 2012, Seth and I visited mom and dad in Houston. It was hot outside, but nothing like the fire season the year before. By this time, Seth had completed 4th grade; Pam and I had celebrated out 10th anniversary; I worried about my career stagnating; and I was middle aged.
While Seth went to the museum with his grandmother, I went with my dad at MD Anderson. Dad and I talked off and on, played Words with Friends, and watched the 30th Olympic Summer Games. Much of the time he slept, and sat I waited.
I knew he was going to die.
The odd were that he would die in the next few weeks or months. There was still some chance that he would live to see his grandchildren grow up, but sooner or later summers would come with out him. It made me sad, but it not a tragedy. Parents die. It’s better than the other way around.
My mind wandered far into the future. I had a vision, of sorts, of Seth many many years from now. On Seth’s last days on Earth, I want him to surround by his loved ones: friends, family, and many children not even dream of yet. When he thinks of me and Pam, he thinks of us fondly, but his life has been so full with amazing people and experiences that it is OK if he doesn’t think of us often. At this point, Seth is one hundred and twenty year old. Seth is middled-aged.
Seth is melancholy as he says goodbye to those friend and family who are not going on the rocket with him and blasting off on a new adventure. On the months’ journey to the Distant Launch Platform beyond Pluto’s obit, perhaps he think of what his is leaving behind, his first home, the world of so many of his successes and failures, loves and heart breaks. But when the final countdown starts, he looks to what lies ahead. The Alcubierre drive shifts on. The universe expands behind him. Ahead, space constricts, new worlds open up before him.
Probably, Seth pursued astrophysics. Perhaps he is on the mission to make the calculations for the negative matter converter. Maybe he choose to do something else. Maybe he works with the life support systems on the ship, or irrigation on the new world. Perhaps he is an artist, there to interpret the wonders of new worlds, or the archivist, keeper of Earth culture and traditions. Whatever Seth’s vocation, I hope he is a leader. I don’t want him to be a leader because I think it is important for his success or happiness. I want him to be a leader, so when stands on the new planet with it strange moons and unfamiliar seasons and looks at how far he’s come he is amazed.
* * *
I know there will be those that dismiss this as a whimsical or sentimental fantasy. I understand is a big shift from what came before and it may take you a moment to catch up. Doubter should consider two things. First, it is the future. The baby-boomers are long gone. There are unimaginable technologies Anything is possible. Finally, if anyone says otherwise, I’ll pound them to a bloody pulp.
Copyright 2014 – Brian Wittenbrook.
The photos are mine except for these:
- “Apollo 11 Launch2″ by NASA; restored by Michel Vuijlsteke – Great Images in NASA Description. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Apollo_11_Launch2.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Apollo_11_Launch2.jpg
- “Earth from Apollo 11 after translunar injection” by NASA – http://spaceflight.nasa.gov/gallery/images/apollo/apollo11/html/as11-36-5299.html (direct link) (JSC link). Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Earth_from_Apollo_11_after_translunar_injection.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Earth_from_Apollo_11_after_translunar_injection.jpg
- “USS California sinking-Pearl Harbor” by U.S. Navy – Official U.S. Navy photograph 80-G-32456, now in the collections of the National Archives and Records Administration Still Pictures Unit, Archives II, College Park, MD. Photo citation number remains 80-G-32456. U.S. Navy National Museum of Naval Aviation photo No. 1996.488.029.029. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:USS_California_sinking-Pearl_Harbor.jpg#mediaviewer/File:USS_California_sinking-Pearl_Harbor.jpg