A Shit Day
The day started out bad. Like bad days always do, it got worse.
Ontario airport was where it started. Ontario airport is the kind of airport no one wants to go to, in the middle of nowhere in Ontario, California about sixty miles from Los Angeles.
Ontario is known as the apex of the Inland Empire (the IE) which is like being called king turd on turd island. The IE was where my parents had lived for years and where I grew up. Growing up, our house was the notorious one where all the screaming and yelling came from, the bright red and blue lights of the police cars signaling our family’s dysfunction for our neighbors.
I had taken the week off from my attorney gig at a large law firm in San Francisco to see my dad who was sick. My twin sister Jackie picked me up. We fight sometimes, knock down drag out fights, but Jackie and I are close. We are so close that we call each other wonder twins. My mom said we had our own language as kids and that we read each other’s minds.
I decided that the only way to help my dad feel better was to get him some fish.
Some people think of fish and picture broiled sole or freshly grilled Halibut. In my family, we like Long John’s Silvers. Their fish is the ultimate in fast food processed crispy deliciousness and their fish basket comes with their deep fried hush puppy potatoes.
Food equals comfort in my family and the more fried the comfort the better.
We hit the Long John Silvers on Mountain in Ontario and picked up the fish. Jackie and I walked up to my parent’s apartment in Mira Loma greasy bag of fish in hand. Before I could ring the bell, my mom opened the door with a sullen sounding grunt. My mom is not mysterious. She wears her anger on her sleeve like most people wear their hearts.
“What took you so god damn long?” she said as she walked past me. “Watch your dad. I need a new cell phone.” She left with a squeal of her car’s tires without looking back.
And there we were, my twin sister Jackie and I and my dad. I gave my dad the fish. He didn’t want to eat it. He had lost so much weight that he looked like a little bird. My dad used to be a big guy and now he was bone thin in his white t shirt. I felt a rock in my chest and couldn’t breathe for a moment when I saw him.
And I made Dad eat the fish. I admit it, I made him. I am the oldest twin and Jackie and our younger sister Annie call me the bossy one and I call Jackie the fucked up middle child and Jackie and I call Annie the spoiled baby.
I admit I bossed him into it. I said, “Dad eat the fish, you’ll feel better”. He nodded. My dad took one bite of the fish and started choking.
Jackie and I we looked at each other. What the fuck are we going to do? We communicated with looks, not saying anything. We can read each other minds like I said.
Time stood still for a moment. And my dad was choking. It seemed as if he was choking to death and I thought to myself, he’s gonna die from that god damn piece of fish that I made him eat.
With just instinct guiding me, I ran outside and screamed into the air, “Help!, Help me someone!” and then out of nowhere help arrived.
A man came running from the golf course next door and mind you it’s a crappy unkempt 9 hole golf course. The man had a UCR hat on. The guy must have been in his sixties but was spry as hell for a senior. He ran into the house like Superman. Usually I would have been embarrassed for someone to see my parent’s messy house, but this time I was grateful.
Superman didn’t hesitate and grabbed my father out of the hospice bed and gave him the Heimlech maneuver and the piece of fried fish flew out and hit the wall.
And we all stood still for a moment. Jackie, myself, my dad and old man Superman. Superman disappeared before I could say thank you and my dad looked at me with his blue eyes and said with a grunt, “You almost killed me Jenny.”
Jackie and I laughed but I thought I almost killed him. I did. And I think that was the moment I realized that my dad was going to die. I didn’t kill him with the fish but the cancer was going to take him. It had to. You don’t get that sick, you’re not on hospice unless you are going to die. And even Superman can’t fix that.
A couple of hours later, my mom came home and my younger sister Annie came by with her kids Selena and Sophie. I remember Selena, who was six, hugging my dad goodbye. “Love you grandpa,” she said. And Annie held Baby Sophie up to my dad for him to kiss and he nuzzled her fingers and smiled. My dad was back to himself for a moment.
Annie left and it was me, my mom and Jackie sitting with my dad. Really it was just me because my mom and Jackie were useless. Jackie was texting and my mom was in bed reading one of her Harlequin romance novels. Mom had always loved those stupid dime store romance novels. Mom had a whole library of them and would let Jackie and I read them when we were in elementary school. Dad built her bookshelves in the garage to house all of the white paperbacks. Maybe right now the fantasies were comforting.
The bathing nurse arrived and my dad said he had to use the bathroom and the nurse took him to the bathroom.
Then I heard the bathing nurse scream. “Help me, Help me!”
My dad died right there on the toilet, his pants around his ankles like fucking Elvis. I didn’t know it at the time, but I found out later that a lot of people die on the toilet. It’s because when you take a shit your blood pressure drops. And his incompetent Medicare-provided bathing nurse didn’t know CPR.
There would be no angels singing. There would be no beautiful Hallmark last breath kind of moment. It would just be him on the toilet. What a shitty way to die.
The rest was a rush like a Twilight Zone movie on fast forward. Surreal and real at the same time.
I called 911 screaming, “Please help me, my father. He’s not breathing.”
My voice didn’t sound like my own. The paramedics got there in 3 minutes. I timed it while crying, looking down at my watch hyperventilating outside in the cool Riverside air.
When the paramedics got there, they started CPR. They didn’t seem hopeful. After about five minutes, one of the male paramedics asked me, “Should we go on?”
That is when I knew I had to be the one to decide whether to let him go. Was I going to let him go? Could I do this? I didn’t know. Could I let my dad go? I kept asking myself. What should I do?
As one paramedic’s fingers thumped into Dad’s chest and the other breathed into his mouth they asked me again, for the second time, “Should we go on?”
Dad looked like a bloated fish lying there. And my mind flashed back to that fried fish from earlier. That damn fish basket was haunting me. I looked back down at my dad. He wasn’t breathing- they were making him breathe but he wasn’t breathing.
And the paramedic looked at me for a third time and said, “Should we go on?”. I looked at my mom. And my mom hugged me for the first time in my whole life, except maybe when I was a baby. She must have hugged me when I was a baby, right?
My mom and I moaned into each other’s arms while my twin sister Jackie sat outside against a tree texting.
Jackie was standing against a tree with that vacant house look she gets on her face like she’s not there. Our dad was dying and she couldn’t help me. My mom couldn’t help me. What was I going to do?
“Should we go on?” the paramedics asked me again, for the fourth time.
Thoughts raced through my head. I don’t fucking know. I don’t want to do this. Why do I have to do this? Is it because I am the oldest? If you want to be technical, I am not the oldest. Jackie and I are twins. I am a thirty-four year old lawyer. I am also the high school drop-out in my family as my mom reminds me periodically. My route to USC Law was a detour rather than a straight path after I royally fucked up high school. This straight A student ditched and dozed her way through her senior year. You see all that childhood chaos had to go somewhere. I am like an ABC After School Special, one titled: “How to make it through a crazy childhood intact.”
And where the hell is Annie? She always gets out of everything. When Mom would go bat shit crazy when we were little Annie never got hit. Annie always hid under the bed. And now she’s not here. Annie was the baby who always got everything she wanted. Annie got the cherry apple bike, us twins got the yellow banana bikes and they called Jackie and I the banana bike twins, she got the white fur coat we got the dark brown fur coats. Why did Annie get out of it? Why was I stuck with this burden? She was the lucky one.
And then one of the paramedics asked me again, for what must have been the fifth time, “Should we go on?” They were going on. One female paramedic was breathing into his mouth and the male paramedic was pumping his heart with his hands. And my dad was just lying there.
And, I just remembered when I was little, Dad driving in his sixteen-wheeler listening to Johnny Cash on the 8 track smoking a Kent cigarette one hand on the wheel, his beer in a green foam sleeve.
I remembered everything. I remembered going to Vegas with him when I was 22 in a Winnebago that broke down twenty miles from Vegas with him and my mom and Annie.
And we sat in the Winnebago all night until they towed us the next morning. And I remembered Dad catching on fire from a Tiki torch when he got drunk at a family reunion. I was in my late twenties.
And I thought about the good times and the bad. All the fighting and the cussing. All that childhood chaos. When he got drunk, Mom and him would fight like maniacs. I grew up in a war zone of sorts, but there were good times. I blamed him for everything, for all of the chaos and it wasn’t even all his fault. Dad was a drunk, but Mom was crazy when she got angry. Dad always said he couldn’t leave because he was afraid Mom would hurt us. Maybe she would have, maybe she wouldn’t have, but we never found out because he stayed. Dad was always there, even if he was drunk. And a drunk dad was better than no dad at all. Playing cards with us little girls on a Friday night when Mom had to work late at the restaurant. Taking us to the Pomona Drive In on Saturday nights. Making us breakfast every Sunday morning. Pancakes with jelly inside or fried bologna and eggs. Dad was always there.
The paramedic said the question again, “Should we go on?”
I took a deep breath and let go one word.
Juanita E. Mantz (“JEM”) grew up in Ontario, California with her two sisters, manic mother, and alcoholic father. After dropping out of high school at seventeen, Juanita took her GED and waitressed her way through UC Riverside and USC Law. After law school, Juanita worked at large law firms in Houston and San Francisco, but she moved back to the Inland Empire after her father died suddenly and found her bliss as a Deputy Public Defender in Riverside. Her stories have been published in The Acentos Review, East Jasmine Review and XO Jane. She is a four-time participant in VONA’s Summer Writing Workshop and is hard at work on her YA memoir, “My Inland Empire: Hometown Stories”. You can read her Life of JEM blog at http://wwwlifeofjemcom-jemmantz.blogspot.com.