Hold you close and take away your fear

It was twenty years ago that my dad finally came to the end of his life.  It wasn't pretty.  

With the help of several surgeries and some fantastically expensive experimental treatments with interferon, he'd been living with 4th-stage renal cancer for over 7 years.  The process bankrupted him, of course.  As soon as he was out of money his much younger wife was out the door.  We never heard from her again.  

When he went into convulsions while visiting my brother in Emeryville we thought for sure the end had come.  But it turned out it was just (just!) an operable brain tumor.  Helping my indigent dad navigate the LA county medical system when he was too heavily medicated to do it himself was an awful, radicalizing experience.  (The surgery itself was fine.  He was released without even spending a night in the hospital, and we went to see The Big Lebowski in the movie theater the next day.)

But six months later, as I was days away from moving from Berkeley to Colorado, he called me to tell me that he was suffering from pneumonia.  He said that he had decided to not go to the hospital.  Either he would get better or he would die, he said.  In either case, he was done fighting.  

The pneumonia, we came to learn, was actually the by-product of a tumor in his trachea that had closed off part of his lung.  That lung was now a breeding ground for infection, and the pneumonia was lethally dangerous.  I got off the phone thinking that was the last time I would talk to him.  In a way, it was.

Because about eighteen hours later, the infection triggered a reaction in his body that resulted in what's called Guillain-Barré syndrome.  This, we learned, is triggered when the body's immune system, activated by some serious insult (like pneumonia), goes hog-wild and attacks the myelin sheathing that surrounds the nerve cells.  The nerves lose the ability to transmit electricity effectively.  Over the course of only a few hours, the patient goes from being very sick to being very sick and completely paralyzed.

People recover from Guillain-Barré syndrome.  (Joseph Heller did, for instance.)  Healthy people.

I will never know what made my dad go from "I'm going to die in my bed" to "holy shit, this is serious, I need to call 911," but that's what he did.  So he didn't die from pneumonia after all.  

The next time I saw him a day or two later, he was in the ICU at the UCLA medical center in Westwood.  He was ventilated, intubated, and completely immobilized except for the orbit of his right eye.  We were able to converse, slowly and elaborately, by my reading off the alphabet and him flinching when I got to the right letter.  (I did not not think of Claude Shannon.)  I asked him if we should take extraordinary measures to keep him alive, and he said YES.

Nobody could tell me what was going to happen next.  When the attending physician in the ICU found that I was flying home on Southwest, he got out his wallet, pulled out a free drink coupon from Southwest, and said, "You need this more than I do."

Every day I checked in to find that there had been no change in his condition.  I made that phone call every day for four months.

When we got to Boulder, a few days later, we were a week ahead of the movers.  We bought a car, and then decided that instead of staying in a motel for a week we could buy an air mattress and a blanket and stay in our new apartment.  The movers kept pushing back the date.  My wife went to a conference in St. Louis.  I was alone, in a new place, knowing no one.  The job I'd moved to Colorado for wasn't up and running yet because all of us were still waiting for the same movers.  (That's a whole other story.)  For days, all I had was an empty apartment, a car with a cassette deck, and Boulder County.

So I bought an album on cassette.  I'd heard a song on the rental car's radio when I'd been driving to Westwood to see my dad, a song called "Car Wheels On A Gravel Road," and it had sounded catchy and encouraging, just the sort of thing I wanted to hear.

That record is where my relationship with Lucinda Williams starts and stops.  I've heard her other songs, and they're great, but she only made one album that I listened to for hours and hours while driving across the plains and through the mountains, listening to it until every song on it was so familiar to me that hearing the record feels like putting on a pair of old shoes.

The songs, they are not all catchy and encouraging.  Even title track, despite its bright melody and easy swing, has a dark undercurrent.  But the dominant mood is longing.  Longing for someone who's at the end of the long journey ahead ("Jackson"), for someone who isn't coming back soon enough ("Right In Time"), for someone who won't be back for years ("Concrete & Barbed Wire"), for someone who's gone for good ("Drunken Angel").  There's a barn-burner of a blues song ("Joy") and a heartbreaking get-the-fuck-out-of-my-life song ("Go On Back To Greenville").

And then there's "Lake Charles."  I really don't like to listen to this song, no matter how good it is.  (I can't possibly be objective about it, but I think it's very, very good.)  It takes me right back.  I hear it and I'm on a road that's going to Nederland or Gunbarrel, lost and alone, staying in motion even though I'm really just sitting there waiting.  

I didn't know how or why to pray when I was thirty-nine years old.  The chorus of this song became the closest thing to a prayer I knew.


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