Amy Brenneman
Amy Brenneman

Novemer 16, 2014


For those of you – so many of you – that read and responded to the post “When Anything Can Happen,” I wanted to keep you in the loop. You have become part of my far-flung circle, as I hope I have become part of yours.


The weather finally cooled off here in Southern California. We don’t have big autumn here, but we do have some. I am used to Show-Off Autumns of the New England kind: crazy scarlet maples, plunging temperatures, early frosts, and darkness at 4. Here in California the changes are more subtle: sweater in the morning, gray moody clouds with geese flying south in military precision directly over my house in the San Fernando Valley. They seem to be showing off too.


My dad is recovering. It’s been an emotional roller coaster of a month, but he is recovering. He had a new valve put in his heart to help with his breathing, and vascular system. He is a diabetic. A wound on his big toe did not heal for a year and became necrotic: a quarter-size around, black and hard as a planter’s wart. My mother has never looked at it, but the last time I was in Connecticut, I pulled up a chair next to the Debbie, the visiting nurse and took a big gander. I used to be squeamish, but after two children (one C section), a colectomy and a temporary ileostomy, I say bring it on.


The new valve helped the heart but not the wound. About three weeks ago I was driving on the 101 when Debbie called to tell me she thought he’d end up losing the leg. The leg? The motherfucking leg? I was blindsided. “The whole foot is now compromised, which means the entire vascular system to the toe isn’t working,” she explained in her forthright visiting nurse-y way. “When that happens the lower leg has to come off.”


That Debbie does not mince words.


As luck (God) would have it, I was on my way to a session with my teacher, which is probably one of the safest places on the planet for me. I came in sputtering and sob-y. “What the fuck? My 86-year-old dad is going to lose a limb? Get a prosthetic? Learn to use that prosthetic in the hellish New England winter that’s predicted?” What the fuck indeed.Sometimes I have an image of this aging and grieving process as a series of doors leading me deeper and deeper into new understandings. Almost four years ago, when my dear father-in-law was beginning the excruciating diagnosis of two cancers (lucky guy) and the ALS that finally killed him, I sat in a Boston Whaler with my mother –in-law Joyce. We were frozen with anticipation for the bad diagnosis that did indeed come the following week. “It’s like you are just going along, living your life, making plans for trips and projects when there’s a knock at the door,” Joyce told me. “You get up and open it, and there it is: the rest of your life.” That call from Debbie opened a door. For the last two years my mother has been the designated patient, suffering from lack of mobility that led her to fall, to not be able to work, to stop driving. My dad stepped up and cared for her. Now it was his turn.


By the time I called him, I was sobbed out. Not that I ever feel self-conscious about showing emotions around him, I was grateful that I could appear “strong” and be of service. I am the baby girl of the family (I have two older brothers) and my dad’s impulse to protect me (or at least not to burden me) is still there. I could tell it was a relief that I knew, that he didn’t have to tell me.


“We’ll figure this out, Dad,” I said, “you’re not alone with this.”


I asked him if my brothers knew. He said no. I asked him if he wanted me to tell them. He said yes.


“I don’t really have much to say about this right now,” he told me. (This is rare. We can talk about everything forever, and do.)


“Why would you?” I answered. It’s called shock.”My dad is a great guy. Those of you who know him can attest to this. There are many things I could say about him. For one, he is an attorney who has spent his life protecting the environment and was tangentially part of the team that created the first federal Environmental Protection Agency in 1974. I know some of my recent election-y posts have drawn some ire, especially when I speak about my passion for Climate Change policy, but I guess in full disclosure, some of this is because of my father’s work. If your dad were a union man, you’d be passionate about unions. If he were a hunter, you’d understand hunting, that kind of thing.


But my dad has also taught me about going outside the us/them dynamics of most politics. During the Reagan/Bush era, when the Clean Air/Clean Water act was being dismantled and environmental protections were not a priority, he spent – oh, about five minutes – being angry before taking a new tact. He, a male Democrat, joined up with a female Republican and created the Connecticut Chapter of the League of Conservation Voters. People came together from different political affiliations to help protect water, air, soil. He and Julie would ask donors – Democrats, Republicans, and everything in between – “do you care about the quality of water for your grandchildren?” It was hard for anyone to say no to that one. Then they’d work together to create policy and recommendations, with that common concern their north star.


I think about that story a lot these days.


But beside his profession, my dad is simply a huge hearted, curious and compassionate guy. I watched him at age 51, for personal reasons, re-commit himself to a spiritual path of rigorous honesty, service, and crazy empathy. The day after I got the news about his leg he said to me on the phone, “I’ve been thinking a lot about war veterans and other amputees. What they go through. I realized I never really thought about it before. I guess you don’t unless you have to.” Indeed.I am burying the lead.


My dad is not going to lose his leg. Two and a half weeks ago they performed a vein graft – where they take a good vein and replace the bad with it – which went surprisingly well. He feels the blood pumping to this neglected area. He has sensation back. He is in a rehab right now – left the hospital last week – and while he definitely will lose the original necrotic toe, he will not lose the leg. Hopefully in the next month, I will airlift these two old folks to sunny California where – nothing against the New England that I love – they can ditch the icy sidewalks for more hospitable climes.


While I felt utter relief that my dad won’t lose his leg, I was aware that the door that opened with Debbie’s call never closed. It’s not like when a person is younger; then, there is a medical crisis that hopefully is beat and they can then “return” to normal life. My dad is still 86. This is the new normal, when medical crises will arise often, often with little surprise. Medical crises are part of being in one’s late 80’s. We are naïve to think otherwise.


The silver lining, of course, is the gratitude from a hideous possibility averted. The gratitude of another day to crack a joke, express some love, or exercise your god given right to be a colossal pain in the ass. Another day doesn’t mean everything is sweetness and light. Another day means, well, we get another day. Chock full of the messiness, heartbreak and ecstasy of human-ness. Conscious gratitude of that day is the gift we get for the crap we may be asked to endure.


Emily Webb in “Our Town” says it best. These are words that my salty mother cannot even think of without sobbing. As I just cut and pasted, I did too:”But first: Wait! One more look! Oh, earth you’re too wonderful for anyone to realize you! Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it – every, every minute?”


Thank you for reading, all. I can’t put into words how much I appreciate it.