S.M. Park

Risen Apes: End Game

S.M. Park’s column Risen Apes about being a 70-year-old boomer. In “End Game,” Park contemplates those he has has known who have died, and life in the twilight years.

 

I make it a point at least once a day (though it often occurs unbidden) to appreciate my home here. This is new for me, as I’ve generally been indifferent to where I lived (over twenty-five cities at last count), treating them as distractions on the road to something better (as my Grass Is Greener memoir would attest).

But Port Townsend? Specifically North Beach, where I rent a tower known locally as the “Hobbit House”? Maybe I knew what I was doing after all because I genuinely like it here.

Unfortunately the cost of living is high and, given that I never saved money or earned a pension or had an estate plan (well, one that didn’t include drugs, anyway), I’ll leave it behind someday, too.

And that’ll hurt. The climate, the forests, the beach, the people (mostly old boomers like myself) … it’s a way better twilight than I deserve, so I’m loathe to take it for granted or, even worse, imagine myself in a seedy little room years from now, lamenting its loss.

I’ve strived to live a life free of guilt or regret. It’s an ongoing struggle, of course, but not half as bad as succumbing to those dread emotions, because (like jealousy) they only serve to eviscerate.

I fail occasionally, of course, as Fate has a way of intervening. The best example of that was the death of my girlfriend Lois in 2009. She was only forty-seven and such an angelic soul that, even at that age, even when it obviously wasn’t working, she’d still pray beside the bed at night.

Try sex after that. (Well, okay, maybe it made it a little better.) I’m mystified by friends who bemoan not being there when a loved one passes. I cry easier than George W. and am a notorious soft touch so can’t imagine a worse place to be. (My father’s last words, according to a cousin in attendance, were: “Coffee. Cigarette.”)

It’s been twenty-five years and that still makes me laugh. In the meanwhile my own dread of the “standing vigil” routine is pure selfishness, a vestige of the WASPY, Puritanical stain that runs through my family, the fear—not of emotion, but failing to suppress it.

 

I make it a point at least once a day (though it often occurs unbidden) to appreciate my home here.

 

Stiff upper lip and all that. (It takes me back to a family get together when I was five years old. I’d hugged my Aunt Jean when I saw her, the wife of Uncle Bob, my father’s brother, and afterwards my mother drew me aside. “My God, son,” she said, “you can’t hug just anyone!”)

You couldn’t? I know I hugged Lois a lot and would have done anything for her. We remained close even after she moved out in 2005 and I was stunned, shortly after my brother Ben’s sudden death three years later, when she told me she’d been diagnosed with Stage Four breast cancer. She underwent torturous radiation and chemo treatments for months, but they’d no sooner kill one outbreak than another popped up.

She’d had nine brain tumors radiated when the van from the hospice took her and three other patients to the hospital for her final procedure, only to have the attendant leave her outside in a wheelchair.

She must have woke suddenly, heavily sedated and alone in strange surroundings, and tried to stand. Instead she fell to the concrete and knocked herself unconscious. (It was a grave miscarriage of duty, but when I called an attorney friend at her brother’s request he had three questions for me: “Did she have a job at the time?” No. “Did she have any money?” No. “Will her death harm anyone in her family financially?” No. “Then sorry, old friend,” he said, “but in this country she’s just another poor stiff.”)

I knew none of this when it happened, however. I’d been visiting her regularly at the hospice, and though she’d lost her hair and been subjected to untold rigors she remained resolute and hopeful.

Then I walked into her room the afternoon of that fall and the whole side of her head was swollen and purple. Mammals know the score, so I only had to look at her to realize the jig was up. There was a nurse by her bed and I listened in horror as she recounted the details of the accident.

After she left I walked to Lois’s bedside and took her hand. She gazed up from the pillow and, tears pooling in her eyes, proceeded (over the next twenty minutes) to detail how grateful she was for everything I’d ever done for her.

It’s been eleven years and I still sob at the memory. I met Lois at a diner in Southeast Portland in 1995. She was the waitress and I was sitting in a booth, reading an emu magazine, when she appeared.

 

 

The instant I saw her (she had a beautiful, ageless face: even in her forties she was still being carded) a voice in my head that wasn’t my own admonished me to, Help her.

You know: “Your mission if you choose to accept it” crap. I was no stranger to imaginary voices, not with my d.t.’s and drug background (I would’ve killed for one-at-a-time back in the day), but I’d never heard anything like that.

There was a conviction to it, the way a parent might speak to you. I can’t pretend to explain it and am uncomfortable even writing about it but hey! what did it matter? I was curious and it piqued my interest.

Though picking up a waitress was new to me (particularly one fifteen years my junior). We proved to be a surprisingly good team in the decade ahead, with a far more amiable relationship than either of us had experienced before. Lois was a kind, vulnerable, sensitive soul (and therein troubled) who loved to travel, and along with numerous Left Coast junkets we visited Europe and Hawaii twice and drove around the United States several times.

When I needed to hide my ill-gotten gains I had her open a safety deposit box in her name, gave her cash to stash in it and told her to help herself when necessary. (She must have but I hardly noticed: pot profits were like Monopoly money to me.)

It did make me a bit of a Sugar Daddy, though. At first I was irked when a clerk would ask what her “father” wanted, or some guy her age would hit on her in front of me at parties, but by then she’d become more like a daughter, anyway. There was no question we loved each other, and she’d always made it abundantly clear that she appreciated what I’d done for her (and vice versa).

So her need for that death bed affirmation was perfectly understandable (they proved to be her last words, as she slipped into a coma afterwards and never woke up), but it crushed me: the devastation was so withering, in fact, that I haven’t recovered yet.

Because I understood the larger ramifications, that whenever I thought of Lois in the future, the person I’d been the tenderest to in this world and with whom I’d shared untold adventures and laughs, that bedside denouement would serve as The Gateway, cast a shadow over every memory behind it.

And it’s done just that. Which means I was determined not to make the same mistake with my dog Hobo. I was prepared for that finale, reminded myself daily to be so good to him there’d be no room for regrets later.

It’s been two years since I had him euthanized and, though I still think of him every day and often walk to the beach where I spread his ashes, the memories are all positive ones.

At the end he laid his head on my boots, looked up at me one last time. Instead of crumpling in tears I rubbed his ear, assured him he was the greatest dog who’d ever lived.

You’d better get good with death in your seventies. When I moved here seven years ago the only person I knew in a fifty-mile radius was my buddy Ted Logan. I met him at Evergreen State in the Fall of 1972. He was hitchhiking one morning when I pulled over in my gold ’63 Cadillac (I’d had to decide between buying it or saving the money for student housing, and split the difference by living in it) to pick him up.

He was a stocky, curly-haired guy with sideburns as ugly as mine. He slipped into the passenger seat, noticed the pint of Jim Beam between my legs as I turned back to the road.

I lifted it, took a hit, offered it to him.

“Whiskey?” I asked.

“Holy shit, man,” he said, “it’s eight in the morning. You usually drink this early?”

“Pretty much,” I said, “but it was actually necessary this time. I took some Windowpane Acid earlier and had to get right to drive.”

Ever make a friend in an instant? That’s how it was with me and Ted that morning, as instead of jumping out he reached over and grabbed the bottle.

“Don’t tell me,” he said, taking a swig. “You go to Evergreen, too.”

We’ve been close friends since, nearly a half century now. He went on to become a dentist and he and his wife have a beautiful home overlooking Dabob Bay. It was during my visits there in the Nineties that I first encountered Port Townsend, and since I moved here we’ve had lunch once a month and watched numerous Seahawk games together.

 

Ever make a friend in an instant? That’s how it was with me and Ted that morning, as instead of jumping out he reached over and grabbed the bottle.

 

He rooted for them and me—as a Niners fan—against, culminating in the 2015 Super Bowl broadcast, when in a room crowded with Logan and other Seahawk fans the Patriots’ Malcolm Butler intercepted that last second goal line pass, sending Seattle to a sudden, crushing, heartbreaking defeat.

It’s hard to be a sports fan and a good person, too: I forced myself to suppress my ecstasy, as doing a jig in that company would have been cruel (not to mention dangerous).

But I digress. Ted’s exceptionally bright and reads more books about more diverse subjects than anyone I’ve ever met. We’ve been sparring intellectually for decades and, like my dialogues with my friend Bruce, who died suddenly last year, I’ve relished it.

When Logan spoke I listened: I couldn’t imagine a life without him.

Then he gets a backache a few months ago and ignores it because he was a dentist for forty years and that’s his lot. When he finally saw a doctor they ran some tests, told him he had Stage Four metastatic cancer that had spread from his liver to his lungs.

He was given four months to live and put in hospice care. I miss him already but at least we’ll avoid the in-person good-byes, as we both agreed our facades wouldn’t survive that.

Instead he promised to call when he had the energy. I was heartened to see his number on the screen this morning, but the first time I answered the line went dead.

It happened again before I finally heard his weak, barely discernible voice on the other end.

“I apologize for the hang-ups, High,” he said, “but when you said hello I’d break down in tears. I’ve been doing that a lot lately.”

“I’m sorry, old friend,” I said.

“Don’t be: the only way I stopped was remembering how much I hate the Niners.”

It was the same irreverence that kept him from jumping from my car all those years ago … I’ll never replace a guy like that.

Instead I tried a Lois, struggling to tell him what he’d meant to me. I failed miserably at it (dissolving in sobs several times myself), a poignant reminder that, at heart, cynics really are failed romantics.

At least he’ll have his wife with him at the end. Me? If I can stretch my funds far enough to perish here?

I’m partial to a dawn stroll on the beach (in my early eighties maybe), with a light fog and nothing around but seagulls and crows. I walk a couple miles and then bam! the big one hits and I’m dead before I hit the sand. In rushes the tide, I’m swept out to sea and no one’s the wiser.

Failing that I’ll have to time it like a dog, crawl outside to die in the driveway.

I’ll be spotted soon enough: this is Old Town, after all, and we’ve an eye for corpses.

 

S.M. Park is the author and illustrator of his memoirs High & Dry and The Grass Is Greener, both published by University of Hell Press.

 

S.M. Park

S.M. Park lives two blocks from the Salish Sea in Port Townsend, Washington. His passions include walking, wondering and weed. Park, in his guise as Wilson High, has written and illustrated two memoirs, High & Dry and The Grass Is Greener, both published by University of Hell Press.

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