Missing the fourth quarter

Me & Dad, circa 1990

“Most people miss the fourth quarter,” she lamented after returning from an emergency trip to help her father get out of the hospital. Mette and I both have fathers in the fourth quarter, maybe even nearing the two-minute drill. The sport reference is really from the game of football so if you have not watched a football game ever, it is not convoluted at all. There are four, fifteen-minute quarters, and there are two-minute warnings at the end of the second and fourth quarters to signify half-time and the end of the game. Play changes in the dramatic and desperate two-minute drills as teams push to accomplish in two minutes what they have failed to do in the previous thirteen. Quite the metaphor. The pace quickens, player pulses follow suit, immediately transferring to the crowd, and depending on the closeness and stakes of the game, sweat becomes a factor. Desperation changes performance. For some, they rise to the occasion and out-perform under the added pressure. For others, they fold, choke, make mistakes, miss opportunities, and decision-making becomes derailed. Pressure, oh pressure. Pressure changes the brain and therefore changes performance. How they have dealt with the pressure of thirteen minutes should be some indication as to how the two-minute drill will go, but rarely does one predict the other. I say this not from some statistic, because I have not seen anyone bother to analyze the performance in these cases, but from almost five decades of watching football. The excitement of the fourth quarter is the unpredictability of it, you never know what will happen and if you leave the stadium too soon, you might miss the best part.

Mette is a physician and did family practice and geriatrics for a long time. She saw more fourth quarters and two-minute drills than anyone should. She would come home from days of loss and talk about the gain…how the body was now out of pain, how the patient waited for the adult child to arrive and say goodbye before letting go, how peaceful it was for them. She called her patients “my babies,” which always made me think of the saying, “Once grown, twice the child.” She knows. And Mette is rarely flippant with her words, especially the serious ones. A jokester at heart, her seriousness is borne from a deep understanding of not just the human body as studied by a doctor, but as a healer interested in the inseparable trinity of body, mind, and spirit. Mette’s fourth quarter experiences are from an aging and prepared playbook, well, in theory. Last year, on the day after Christmas, I had a second session with a new patient who is an emergency room physician. I was not prepared for her answer when I casually and politely asked how her holiday was. “Busy,” she said, “unfortunately and devastatingly busy.” In that moment, it hit me, she works in the ER. It was so far out of my world it didn’t even occur to me what her day was like. She described an emergency room full of children, some newly paralyzed from new toys given without the skills for use. And then, there were those that catapulted from first, second, or third quarter right into a two-minute drill and the end of the game, on a holiday. “No matter how many times you see it, it still wrecks you,” she said with the somber and well-adjusted tone of an experienced witness.

I have had the distinct and sometimes brutal pleasure of having my father here for the last part of his fourth quarter. See, I haven’t spent a ton of time with my dad, “Buz,” and so while I thought I knew him, turns out I only knew an image of him, which also turns out to be very far from him. What I have learned, both about him and about myself, has been remarkable and a godsend. I cannot imagine not knowing this now and feel blessed by this opportunity. It has made me reflect upon how I think I know everyone and everything, not good for my brain! So, the goal here is to help you to think about some of these difficult to think about things so that any fourth quarter you might be unknowingly part of, doesn’t either rely upon or miss entirely the two-minute drill.

A year and a half ago, my mom died suddenly. Her colon perforated and she died of sepsis in less than sixty hours. Talk about a two-minute drill. We were on vacation in Cape Cod and she was in Pittsburgh, where we all grew up. It happened Friday just after lunch and I spent twelve hours on Saturday traveling there, praying I would make it before she died. It was the longest day, ever. The traffic to the Boston airport was, well, Bostonian. I saw a funny meme online that said, “Boston is exactly one hour from Boston,” poking fun at the traffic. It took forever. I sat in a fog in the middle of a million cars and prayed to catch my flight. I focused on my breath and tried not to think about all the other things racing through my mind. Upgraded to first class for whatever reason, I sat against the window and cried. What do you say when you know it is the last thing you will say? There is too much, you cannot capture it like that. Please don’t die before I get there. And she didn’t. She lost consciousness but was still alive. Because she was in hospice, the only tube was for pain medicine. A perforated colon is crazy painful, so the drugs were fast and loose by design. I remember rushing in the room, my sisters waiting there calmly. “Take a breath, Jen, you made it,” Julie said. I was trying. There was a chair on her left side and Julie and Justine were standing on her right. I barely noticed when everyone else left the room, but I remember it perfectly. They were standing, almost hovering over me, looking down on me with love and peace, giving me the space to talk to her. “Go ahead, she can hear you,” Justine smiled. I took her hand and tried to remember everything I had rehearsed. Nothing came. I looked at her and just started thanking her. Thanking her for my name, which had tremendous meaning. I thanked her for both of my swimming careers, for supporting me in chasing my Olympic dream, for encouraging me to get my Ph.D., and for always loving me, no matter what. I think she squeezed my hand; I know I cried. We all cried. Her face was beautiful and peaceful. She looked at ease, something she lacked in life, the irony.

My mom was a difficult relationship and her fourth quarter had been a challenge for us all, including her. I wonder what it is like to look back as the train speeds towards you and not see enough. To not have the kind of movie to rewind through you dreamed you might. She was an opera singer and was accepted at Julliard. She didn’t go. She stayed in Pittsburgh, went to college, performed in plays and musicals, sang at temple, and got married. She had four children by the time she was thirty. When I was in high school, she got her master’s degree in counseling but never practiced. She was married and divorced three times, ultimately remaining single for the last quarter. I think she was lonely, I’m sure she was. That thought made me endlessly sad. After her death, as my sisters and I cleaned out her apartment, we found volumes of writings. Pages and pages everywhere. A file cabinet in the hall closet full of both typed and handwritten poems, short stories, and book chapters. She wrote and wrote and wrote…and I had no idea. There were little scratches of paper all over the place, too, only they were the real sadness. They were reminders to love herself, to ask us to love her, to tell herself everything would be okay. They were torture to find and as I uncovered each new one, next to the bed, in the medicine cabinet, on the fridge, a pile of them under her computer mouse pad, my heart ached for hers. I learned more about my mom in those days than I ever thought I could. She was consumed with ache, unrequited love, anxiety, and loneliness. But she never told me that, she never told me how sad she was or how much her life failed to meet her expectations. These were things I suspected but she never talked about. We talked all the time, but we never talked. I shared details, stuff, surface shit, but not the real stuff. She loved to hear about the horses but never came to see them. She always wrote down my flights and travel schedule so she could keep track in her mind and know where I was. She loved me so and I loved her so. Funny how we didn’t know each other though. The things her death revealed to me were so surprising and unexpected, it changed me. It changed my relationship to her, softened it, soothed it, and even healed it.

Two weeks after my mom died, my dad was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive cancer and given six months to live. You gotta be kidding me was all I could think. He had moved to Florida six months earlier to be near us so we could help him and his wife in their fourth quarter. But now, having just finished the two-minute drill with my mom, I was in a panic. Without realizing it, my mission became about him and how he now needed to clean up all of his mistakes, so he didn’t die like mom did. And so, I became a nag; do this, do that, call this person, live this way. For two years I pestered and pushed, pushed my agenda for all of his relationships, including his relationship with himself, as if I knew. Looking back, it was obviously reflexive, I didn’t want to experience the post-mortem I had with mom. Hidden beneath was all the normal grief stuff, not wanting to lose him, what it would be like as his body died, and what it would be like after he died. See, I was fully unprepared for my reaction to my mom’s death. I had no idea how it would rock me, devastate me, and render me useless on too many days to count. Secretly, my mind was working overtime to avoid all these “unavoidables.”

All bad actions, well intended or not, come to a head and explode as some point. For me and my dad, this happened last week. The details are not important, but the result was I found myself exasperated, exhausted, and fed up. He was so non-compliant and resistant to my demands for how he should be doing it, I finally gave up. Looking back, all I can say is “duh.” Pacing back and forth in my living room, kvetching to my sister, I declared how “done” I was. But then, I had to take him shopping so he could buy his wife a gift that she didn’t pick out or order. I was irritated but mostly to hide to my hurt. His body is no longer strong, agile, or reliable, and so as he wiggles into the front seat of my car that is too high up off the ground, I don’t know whether to help or not. “Let’s went, Cisco,” he says with a smile, as he has all of my life. We chatted about stuff as we headed to the stores. A brief silence appeared and as I searched for something to fill it with, he asked, “Is there anything I need to do before I die, like with insurance or apologies?” Wait, what? I was stunned. Apologies? Did he really just ask me that? I was scrambling to collect my thoughts fast enough to answer calmly. “Well, your insurances are handled,” I paused, “who do you think you need to apologize to?” He sighed, “Pretty much everyone.” He both chuckled and winced at the same time, revealing to me a desire and a discomfort I had never seen before.

We strolled around the bookstore, looking for gifts with greater meaning than a sweater. His eyes lit up at the massive collection of Sherlock Holmes, something I didn’t know about him. We examined the autobiographies section and he said, “There sure are a lot of people talking about themselves.” I laughed out loud. He enjoys making people laugh so he laughed, too. It was profound and funny at the same time. We picked a book for her and then one for each other and headed off to dinner. After ordering, I asked him, “What would you do differently?” Without hesitation, he began to list the things he lamented or missed, revealing the obvious time spent in contemplation. They weren’t the usual suspects, either. Typically, when I ask him this kind of question, his answer is about how he wished he had taken more vacations (he and his wife loved to go on cruises). This time it was about us, his children, and how he wished he had spent more time with us. Maybe it was the badgering of the last two years or maybe it was the simple act of stopping the badgering. It didn’t matter because it was. It was magical to listen to him and have this kind of conversation, the kind I never had with mom.

I have spent countless hours thinking about the fourth quarters of my parents, wondering what would make them special and the best way to end the game. There is no answer, I know, but asking the question has value and importance. Mette and I took a walk the next day as I shared with her the full experience of this incredible conversation with my dad. We talked about her parents, who are both still alive, and their fourth quarters. We asked each other what we saw for our own fourth quarters and how to not miss it. “You never know when you are in the fourth quarter,” she smirked with all seriousness. We both have a picture of it and so began the conversation for how to create it. There are actions and conversations to have now, people and animals to love and honor, those to let go of, and growth to continue. I feel a closeness with my dad I never have before, as if I got to know him. I was talking with a friend the other day about loss and while describing someone she lost, she said, “…you know, the things you find out about someone after they die.” There will always be that, but my new mission is to have more of this and less of that. I hope you will join me.

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