Toasting my Father, Six Months After Ike
We live in Clear Lake, south of Houston, along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. And there’s a reason we live in an area prone to hurricanes.
In 1999 my mother had open-heart surgery. Soon after her quadruple by-pass, I met Joe. He visited Houston for Thanksgiving, and I went to Ohio for Christmas. I went to see Joe, meet his sons, his extended family, experience some snow, and to shoot the Motor City Bowl for an on-line sports publication. We had driven through Toledo at midnight hoping that all the Y2K fears would be avoided. They were.
I had just gotten off the plane from Detroit to Houston. I was driving from the airport to pick up my dogs at the kennel and was checking my voice mail. There was one from my brother: “Amy, Mom’s in the hospital. It’s pretty bad, but she’s still alive.” That’s usually how I find out about horrible stuff going on with my family. The phone. Or voice mail. Or e-mail.
Turns out mom had received an overdose (4x the amount prescribed) of antibiotics, from the home health care workers. She was taking them for the lung infection she’d gotten during her heart surgery. Now she had pneumonia. Her kidneys had failed. She was in a coma. At the time, Scott worked in the Medical Center in patient relations. He knew some attorneys. I probably don’t have to tell you the resulting story that goes along with that incident. Another story, another time.
I’d already applied and been accepted to law school. One day my brother, my father and I were visiting mom in the hospital. There was a weirdness in the air. Scott asks me to come out in the hall. So we go down to the stairwell — because that part of the hospital was under construction and there was no where to have any sort of privacy. And I am thinking, “Oh, sh!t.” But I’m kind of prepared, because I’d been through this a couple times with Mom and her heart. Scott says to me, “You can’t go to law school.” And I’m thinking, and probably said out loud, “What do you mean, I can’t go to law school?”
And my brother says to me, “Dad has cancer.”
“But we can’t tell Mom. You can’t act like you know.”
My Dad was the “rock” of the family. He was the one I would go to when I had really messed up, or was scared. Or hated Houston. He’s the one who decided, when I was in a horribly crappy situation, that he and Mom needed to pick up everything, load up a moving van, get new jobs, and move to Houston. My Dad. Who was a Big Fish in a Small Pond in my hometown in West Virginia, and hated big cities. The man who took care of the rest of us — had cancer.
By February 2000, Mom had rallied and gotten stronger. Joe came to Houston for a visit. He was with me when Dad had an operation to remove the tumor. And we thought it was beat. His cancer was in remission. So I went off to law school.
In December 2002, Joe and I got engaged, and we came to Houston to spend Christmas with my parents. My mom made us sleep in twin beds — which was funny considering we’d been living together for a couple years. But she’s like that. Just not going to condone “that kind of relationship” by letting us sleep in the same bed. Joe and I went off to Austin for a couple days, and came back. We were packed, the car was loaded, and Dad was getting ready to take us back to the airport. It’s 20 minutes before we leave for our flight.
And my Dad says, “Sissy, my cancer is back.”
In May 2003 my parents came to my law school graduation. My formerly portly father was, as they say, a “shadow of his former self.” He was rail thin. He walked slowly. It was kind of a shock. When no one was around, I asked him how he was doing. “Well, Sissy,” he said “I’m not dead, yet.”
Like I said, there’s a reason we live where we do. Nobody had told me the whole story. That Dad’s cancer was lymphatic. That it was in what’s called Stage 4. That he’d been given 6 to 18 months to live. They said they didn’t want to worry me. Didn’t want to mess up my law school grades. I know that probably sounds stupid. But Dad was an educator — he thought he was doing me a favor. And it was important to him that I pass the Bar. Which was funny given the fact that he had always had a pretty low opinion of the profession. But by the Spring of 2004, there was little question as to what the outcome would be.
So I applied to take the Bar Exam in Texas. I got a job in Houston. And I moved in with my parents to study for the Bar. Took it in July. Dad said he was proud, when we found out I passed. Joe agreed to leave his hometown of Toledo, and move to a city he didn’t care for much when he had first visited. By the time Joe and the kids were ready to move down, my dad couldn’t really eat much. Cancer had moved to his stomach.
That really was too bad, because my Dad loved Kemah, and all the restaurants near the water. Tookie’s Burgers was his favorite. And Pappadeaux, under the Kemah bridge. Mom loved that place, but Dad liked the view more. And the rocking chairs. And the Dixieland Band. The first year that I and my sister-in-law were officially “Mothers,” Dad took us all there for Mother’s Day. There was a huge wait. But it was worth it, because Mom loved the place, and we got these cool mugs that said, “Mother’s Day 2004” on one side and “Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen” on the other.” They took pictures of me and my Dad.
Dad died on December 23, 2004.
We went down to Kemah today to buy some seafood to go with a white wine we planned to drink for Open That Bottle Night and Twitter Taste Live. I’d heard it was bad. Hurricane Ike. Direct hit. I hadn’t gone anywhere near there in the daylight since the storm because I just didn’t want to see all the devastation. But since it’d been nearly six months, we thought perhaps our favorite place “Rose’s Seafood” would be open.
We passed Tookie’s. It was closed. Abandoned. Boarded up. Joe said, “And it’s not coming back.” But as we drove under the bridge we saw lots of cars. So we had hope. It was crawfish season — and people were lined up in front of trailers with signs advertising “Fresh Crawfish.”
We looked to the right — and there amid a pile of rubble was where Rose’s used to stand. We looked to the left — pilings, rubble, the seafood shops were gone. But we kept driving along the road.
The car in front of us stopped. It could go no farther. It turned around. There was a chain-link fence blocking the road. A sign said “Keep Out.” And I looked ahead. There was Pappadeaux. Or what was left of it. The porch that held the Dixieland Band was still there. But the roof covering the side with the rocking chairs had fallen over from the second floor to the sand. There would be no more Mother’s Day brunches there. And it was more than I could take.
Open That Bottle Night is billed as the time to open the bottle you’ve been saving for a special occasion. We had gone to Kemah looking for some seafood to go with our special white wine. My father never drank white wine. In fact, he never drank any wine at all. But tonight when we participated in “Open That Bottle” I raised my glass to my Dad, and to Kemah, and to the memory of the restaurants and places my Dad used to love.