The best bad choice

by Dave Roberts

It’s funny how six months can change things. The first time I wrote a staff column I was a nervous wreck. I labored intensely over choosing the precise wording, switching phrases around incessantly to find the right rhythm. This week I’ve been in Texas trying to do the preliminary legwork for a cover story and deal with my father who’s recently made the decision to let himself die. Writing this is a welcome catharsis. I hope you’ll forgive my self-indulgence.

My father has a progressive disease that’s causing the veins in his legs to cease providing enough oxygen, recently developing gangrene in his foot. His options are to allow it to progress until it becomes systemic and lethal or pay upwards of $200,000 to amputate both legs. As he is a candidate for neither prosthesis nor bypass, he will then be bound to a wheelchair and in constant pain for at least another 20 years or so (my family on both sides is excessively, almost sadistically, long-lived). Not having insurance, the surgery and subsequent recovery and pain management will drain his finances to the point of bankruptcy, leaving no money for day-to-day expenses or my 12-year-old sister’s education. It is a choice between great pain and hardship in his last decades, or agonizing pain in his last months.

My father, born in rural Kansas in 1944, once a professor of economics, by and by a player on Wall Street in the ’80s, presently a private investor who for the better part of 10 years sat glued to the plush leather chair in his study, watching the movements of the markets and purchasing accordingly, is choosing, if not the exact date, the year of his death. It is a knowledge few of us are afforded and perhaps even fewer of us would wish to possess.

When I first arrived at my father’s house in Texas, which would seem opulent if not for the even more gargantuan adjoining estates in their massive gated community, two miles of twisting hills from the guarded entrance, I was struck by how much he resembled my grandfather. As he hobbled on a black metal cane, legs swollen, the skin stretched tight, a bypass surgery scar like the laces of an overinflated football threatening to burst at so much as a touch, his face, not just his hair, was grey, lined and drooping, much like Pappy’s before he died 15 years ago. My stepmother (20 years his junior, incidentally, a detail that over a decade since their marriage, despite loving her to death, still causes me to vacillate between “way to go Dad!” and “Eww”) would comment to one of his friends in the coming days how much I resembled a young version of him. It would stand to reason therefore that the ashen figure that greeted me in the doorway Tuesday night will greet me again in the mirror in 30 years.

My aunts arrived the night after I did and immediately commenced attempting to talk him out of it, not fully understanding the decision he faced. The younger one told him about the veterans with mechanical legs she saw working out at her gym, and argued that he still had his mind, and that money wasn’t as important as his life, and that he was being selfish. He sat there and responded cogently, despite being under the influence of various painkillers, that there were no good choices here; if there were a good choice, he’d make it; and that he was making the best choice there was. I sat and listened while they went around and around, coming back to the same arguments as if they hadn’t been raised and refuted already. Eventually my aunt turned to me and asked, “I mean, c’mon Dave, which you would rather have: money or your dad?”

It was a bizarre question as for many years I’d not expected to have either. My father and I have been distant for a long time. While we tried to maintain some semblance of Andy and Opie after the divorce, my teenage resentment, his alcoholism and our mutual Swedish stubbornness only widened the gulf. Despite that, his praise for my printed work in this publication had lit something inside me that had gone dark a long time ago, and while I’d hoped to reconnect further it hadn’t happened yet. As for money, his portfolio took a massive hit when the tech bubble burst and never fully recovered. Any money in his estate would go to funeral expenses and my youngest sister’s education.

My mother called before I left, advising me that she had never had the chance to say goodbye to her father and that despite our fractured relationship I should choose my words carefully and not let my last conversation with him be one that I would regret.

After five days of his friends and relatives arriving and attempting to dissuade him, and my stepmother having to take over explaining it for him as stronger and stronger drugs became necessary, crying in brief spurts for the first time since I’ve known her in between superhuman stretches of cheery stoicism, I sat down across from him on the patio where he’d been parked in his wheelchair for the majority of the week, his cigars and coffee mug and little plastic urinal by his side, wanting to confront him for leaving my mother to watch after three kids in New York City before it was cleaned up, for demanding perfection from us to the point that my sister would run crying to her room if she got a B+ and I simply stopped trying, for not taking better care of himself so he could see his youngest daughter graduate high school and beyond.

Yet there was also that little voice inside, demanding that I thank him for paying for private schools and my undergrad tuition and knowing he loved me even if it only came out in wine-soaked words, for letting me grow up in the greatest city in the world and teaching me to play chess and backgammon and cribbage, the last of which I taught my baby sister this week.

In the days leading up to that moment I’d known that I’d regret it if I kept all that anger buried, but I’d also regret making our last conversation a string of accusations. Seeing the object of my greatest love and hate and respect and contempt for the last time, I held his hand and told him that I knew he’d always meant well, even if it didn’t seem like it at the time.

He wanted to be profound, to say something about God and fate and the meaning behind it all but he trailed off, losing the thread. He gave it another try but it was just too slippery a thing to grasp, so he simply said that he was proud of me.

Then he asked me to put on the Chiefs game.

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