By Andrea A. Firth
Realtors describe my town as semi-rural, a suburb, ten miles from the San Francisco Bay, sort of country but not quite. The highway exit leads four miles down a winding, two-lane road to the center of the town and an aging shopping center. Once a vast ranch owned by a man named Joaquin and his cousin Juan, the town’s land has long been parceled off and populated with clusters of one and two-story houses. The original pear orchards grow untended, a couple of small ranches carry on, and the cows that are left march back and forth carving rings, like the ones in a tree trunk, into the hillsides. Cars routinely stop to let the wild turkeys and their unruly offspring aimlessly cross the road, while tiny quail scurry by without warning. Turkey vultures, hawks, and heron can be spotted in the daytime skies, and at night the hoots of owls can wake you from a sound sleep. Semi-rural. The people and the wildlife coexist.
July 2005. Within months of moving to California, even though I herded our cats inside each evening, I lost a cat, an agile black and white tabby, a hunter who routinely brought us gifts of mice, moles, voles, and lizards. I posted signs with his photo and walked the neighborhood calling his name. I waited days before giving up on his return. He had disappeared, most certainly a victim of the coyotes that roam our hills. I knew these predators lived nearby. At night I often heard their eerie howls and the frenzied collective yipping like maniacal laughter that came when they celebrated their kills. Eviscerated wild turkey and the bony remnants of deer found on the side of the road were other reminders of the coyotes’ presence in our midst, but still I had not seen one.
I remember, years before coming west, being unsettled by a scene in a novel where a family’s little white dog is snatched from a fenced backyard enclosure by a coyote that jumps the gate and retreats with the hound in its mouth. The father in the story chases the coyote into the hills, but even burdened with his catch, the coyote easily eludes him. I never forgot that scene. It may have been fiction, but I knew there was a basis of truth to it.
What I know about the coyote is this: The coyote is savvy and clever. He forms a strong family group and hunts in a pack. An omnivore, he’ll eat almost anything from rabbits to rodents, fish to frogs, insects, fruit, grass, and dead leftovers. He’s fast, able to run up to forty miles an hour, and stealthy. With keen vision, a strong sense of smell, and excellent hearing, he’s a virile specimen, a master of adaptation.
I grew up in a small town in the corner of Pennsylvania that’s wedged between New Jersey and Delaware, ten miles west of Philadelphia, bordered by a large creek that overflowed in the winter and a steep, four-lane thoroughfare, PA Route 3, called the Pike. An English Quaker, Thomas Massey, settled the town in the late 1600s, and each year in grade school my class took a field trip to the stone house he built, which was located up the street from my own. In the 1950s, large neighborhoods of identical homes on quarter-acre plots were built there to house the burgeoning baby boomers, white and middle class. My family lived near the bottom of a hill in a three-bedroom split-level with two short sets of stairs, where the main level floated like a mezzanine between the upper and lower floors. My parents spent much of their marriage six steps apart. One upstairs, one downstairs. The environment in the house often vacillated between hostile silence and raging conflict. I moved to Chicago for a job not along after graduating from college and hadn’t spent much time at home in the intervening years. I hadn’t been pushed out. I ran.
July 1997. The first time my father had a stroke, he didn’t. He was taking a shower one morning when my mother heard a loud thump and the crash of the curtain rod falling on the gray tile. When she opened the door to the small bathroom, she found my father slumped in the tub, water pelting his belly and splashing on the floor. The sight of his naked body was as jarring to her as the fact that he was passed out in the bath. My mother and father hadn’t shared a bedroom in years. She turned off the tap, pulled a sheet from the linen closet, and covered his wet body. She called my brother and asked him what to do. “Christ, Mom. Call 911!” He hung up and did the same.
My father was seventy years old. I was married with three-year-old twins and living in a suburb of Chicago at the time. I hopped a plane and got to the hospital that evening. My father was propped up in bed eating Jell-O. He looked like a wounded soldier in a MASH unit. His entire head was wrapped in white bandages and a thick, wide-gauge, plastic tube filled with dark red and brown coagulated blood poked out the side and twisted down to the bed rail.
He smiled at me. “What are you doing here? You didn’t need to fly across the country for me.” But we both knew I did. I loved him, and he loved the attention.
A subdural hematoma, explained the neurologist who had operated. A pocket of blood had accumulated under his skull outside his brain, pushing it to the side and creating immense pressure. It’s likely my father had bumped his head earlier; the blood thinners he took for a heart condition left him at risk to bleed. The fix was crudely elegant. The neurosurgeon had drilled a hole through the bone of his skull, inserted a tube, and drained the blood. He did not expect any complications. My father was discharged within a couple days, like a cat that had spent one of his nine lives.
Not long after we lost our cat, I spotted three coyotes by a paved trail, their heads and the black tips of their tails peaking above the long, pale yellow grass. The coyotes were attentive, their large ears pricked like antennae, and attractive with silky, tan and black speckled fur. I was walking with a friend and my four-month-old puppy. I gathered the puppy in my arms, convinced the coyotes were poised to attack. “We just need to make some noise. The coyotes are more afraid of us than we need to be of them,” advised my friend, a California native. We picked up our pace and when I looked back a minute later, all three had disappeared.
September 2003. The second time my father had a stroke, he didn’t. On a Saturday morning the sun streaked through the blinds on the window at the end of the narrow room cluttered with IV poles and a commode. We sat paired at right angles like the points on a compass, my father and mother opposite one another, holding the posts at north and south, my brother and I on either side, at east and west. This was the geography of my family—my parents in opposition, my brother and I as buffers. My father was outfitted in two light blue hospital gowns, one front to back and the other back to front like a robe. I know this relieved my mother who would not have wanted to see his naked bottom peeking out. A plastic pouch filled with muddy-colored urine was attached to the leg of his chair, and the connecting catheter snaked under his gown.
Our chairs had tables that wrapped around like bent elbows and reminded me of the desks in high school. My father’s chair had a larger table that connected on both sides, locking him in. Sounds in the hallway floated into the room—conversations of nurses walking by, the pinging of monitors, the rumble from the wheels of a gurney being pushed past. My father pressed his palms against the edge of the tabletop. He pushed and grunted, trying to keep his feet planted on the floor for support, but the rubber soles of the flimsy, disposable slippers were noncompliant, and his feet slid forward. He was trying to escape.
My father had arrived at the hospital the previous afternoon after collapsing in his bedroom. He had lost consciousness and his body blocked the closed door. It took the paramedics several minutes to get to him. I arrived late that night after flying in from Chicago again. He was confused and appeared to have had a stroke, but the house doctor was gone for the weekend, and we would have to wait until Monday for a conclusive diagnosis.
When a petite nurse with short dark hair came in to take his vital signs, he extended his arm without being asked. As she strapped on the blood pressure cuff, he started chatting. He called her honey and sweetheart. He flirted. Then he got demanding. “Why is this restaurant so slow to take our order for lunch,” he grumbled. He was lost. His voice sounded strange, like he was speaking a new dialect. It was as if a character from a 1940s movie had taken over his body—the popular but loathsome guy who called women treacly names and threw his money and influence around. My brother and I looked over nervously at our mother and then toward the back of the nurse walking out of the room.
My father went back to pressing at the table edge, holding his breath, grunting. When my mother asked him what he was doing, he looked at her blankly. He turned his gaze to me and put his left hand up against his cheek shading his mouth and nose as if he was going to tell me a secret. His movements were lethargic and dramatic. With the index finger of his right hand, he pointed sharply into his palm in my mother’s direction.
“Who’s she?” he whispered audibly.
“That’s Mom,” I said too loudly.
Everything about my mother was tense at this moment—her legs and arms crossed, her fists clenched, her lips pinched together. The wrinkles that radiated from her mouth toward her chin and nose deepened. She glared at my father, who looked back vacantly. None of us had contemplated that my father might lose his mind. That he didn’t recognize my mother seemed frighteningly calculated. My mother looked down at the floor and shook her head.
When the drought hit a few years ago, one coyote became a frequent and visible visitor to our neighborhood as he trekked down from the hills to the valley in search of water. One afternoon I found the coyote trotting down the center white line on the winding road that leads into our subdivision. I swerved to the right to give him sufficient berth; he didn’t break a stride. We shared this space, but it left me uneasy.
I couldn’t sleep. When I walked into my father’s hospital room early the next morning the sun was just coming up, deep violet clouds filled the sky and the first hints of light cast a narrow, soft white strip on the horizon. Propped up on two pillows, my father stared ahead at the painted cinderblock wall. The fluorescent lighting created a haze around him and made his tousled white hair shine. He was mumbling. The nurse told me that he had been agitated by the catheter and awake all night. Before I got the word hello out, I saw his hands were tied to the bedrails with cloth restraints. I felt offended on his behalf. I looked down at the plastic bag filled with liquid tied to the bottom of the railing, his urine a cloudy yellow. I pulled up a chair, slipped my hand through the railing, and grabbed a hold of the tips of his four fingers. He squeezed back with his thumb. We sat quietly for a few minutes and together stared at the same spot on the wall. The day before had been rough—my father unaware of his surroundings, unable to recognize his wife, his behavior mercurial. His head moved back and forth subtly, rhythmically, his eyes following right to left, right to left, as if he was reading an electronic ticker display.
“What are you looking at, Dad?”
“Well it’s Abbott and Costello now.”
“Is it funny?”
“Oh yeah. They’re always funny.”
He turned his eyes on me and we talked for a while. His voice, the breathy, raspy voice I grew up hearing, was back. He knew he was in a hospital and asked why. I explained the fall, the paramedics, that mom got him here. “That’s nice,” he said. He remembered he had a wife and who she was. He smiled. Then his eyes were drawn back to that spot on the wall.
“What are you watching now?” I asked.
“It’s me growing up, like I’m watching my childhood as a movie. There’s Bud, and Marion, and Alicemarie.”
He was talking about his siblings, who were already dead.
I pushed my chair forward and climbed up on the seat. I waved my hand across the wall where his movie was playing.
“There’s nothing there, Dad.”
“You can’t see that?”
I shook my head.
By now the sun was up and filling the room with bright light. He said the movie was fading. A nurse came in. She commented on how nice it was to see my father getting back to his old self. She said something about urinary tract infections and powerful antibiotics, how it was often difficult for older people to handle, how it could create confusion.
He hadn’t lost his mind. It was the drugs.
Monday arrived and the doctor reported that my father had a mild heart attack and pneumonia, along with his list of chronic conditions: an irregular heartbeat, hypertension, and diabetes. His brain scan was normal, no stroke. We were given a copy of his discharge summary and orders. In the doctor’s note there was no mention of his confusion, the movie on the wall, his lost weekend. It was like a bad dream, the kind that wakes you in a cold sweat, but you can’t remember what happened.
Not long ago, an emaciated coyote wandered in a field by a busy road near my home. I could see his starvation. Covered in mange, scant tufts of fur hung on his bare, ash-gray torso. The lack of flesh left his translucent skin sagging and the outline of his spine and ribs revealed. But it was the way he moved that hit me hardest. He was bent over like an old man whose back had given in to years of gravity, and he wobbled as he put his paws down tentatively on the hot, dry grass in the height of the afternoon sun.
Two months earlier, as my friend and I walked our dogs through the grounds of the small liberal arts college in our town, the security guard warned us, “There’s a sick coyote roaming through campus. You should put your dogs on leash. Be careful.” A couple weeks later my husband saw the weakened coyote sitting on a hill watching him from a distance. He said the animal didn’t have the energy to move.
Now, seeing this same coyote barely alive sickened me. I went to the guardhouse at the college and asked the attendant to contact Animal Control. “They have to catch and euthanize that coyote,” I heard myself pleading, and I didn’t quite know why. The guard said that they had called several times, but the coyote kept slipping away. The image of the dying coyote kept resurfacing in my mind. I mentioned it to my husband repeatedly over the next few days. I asked him: “Do you think he’s dead?”
After the heart attack my father deteriorated quickly. The heft he carried across his midline disappeared. His pants hung loose, the belt on the last notch. His sweaters had holes. His shirts had ink stains at the corner of the pocket from his pens and spots on the chest from food that had slipped from his fork. He could no longer drive. His gait was unsteady; sometimes he fell. He spent the days in his home office where he fell asleep sitting up in his chair.
I came home for a visit to talk to him about the future. To put together a plan, an advance healthcare directive for if, when, things got worse. My mother couldn’t do it, but we both knew the end was approaching. I drove him to a local park, so he could feel the air and sunshine on his skin. He’d been stuck in the house for months, my mother unable and unwilling to get him out. I walked slowly at his side as he hobbled with his walker on the gravel path. I presented scenarios–a massive heart attack or stroke—and options—being kept alive by a ventilator or a tube with liquid food. I used words like incurable, irreversible, comfort, dignity, and quality of life. “Oh, that won’t happen to me. Don’t you worry,” he said. He couldn’t see his way into the conversation. I got nowhere. Maybe he wanted every extraordinary measure employed, no matter the impact on himself or the family, the money or the time, or what his life would be like sustained but without meaning—but that wasn’t it. He just couldn’t grasp the concept of it all ending. For him, it would just happen; it wasn’t his to orchestrate.
I’ve been thinking about that sickly coyote lately, because I’ve been thinking more about death—the downsides of old age, getting ill, losing control. I’m not ready to tackle the idea of dying head on. I’m just dancing around it. I downloaded a book by the surgeon and New Yorker writer Atul Gawande, a primer on how medicine fails us in the end, but I haven’t opened it yet. A book of short stories by a geriatrician I know, whose work inspires her fiction, sits on my bedside table waiting to be read. At this point I’m just collecting stories.
“Is he dead?” was the first thing I asked. I blurted it out. It was six o’clock in the morning. My mother was on the other end of the phone. I had known this call was coming.
January 2005. Two weeks earlier, my father had slumped forward over the kitchen table at breakfast. He made gurgling noises like something was stuck in his throat. The CAT scan in the ER showed an acute, evolving cerebrovascular accident—a massive stroke. And a chest x-ray found aspiration pneumonia—he had inhaled toast and coffee into his lungs. The stroke left him unable to swallow; even his own saliva led him to choke. His mind was confused and disconnected. His speech garbled, incomprehensible. He couldn’t walk, talk, eat, drink, or care for himself in any way.
Once again I flew in from Chicago. We—my brother, my mother, and I—didn’t function well as family under this stress. All the negatives of my parents’ relationship were magnified. Instead of coming together, we each retreated to our own spaces in the hospital waiting room. We struggled to talk about the next step. None of us wanted him to suffer, for his death to drag on. My mother had been managing his slow deterioration for years at this point. She was tired. She wanted it all to be over for him and for her.
Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto, my father’s favorite, plays on the turntable that we’ve moved into his bedroom. Despite the old speakers, the lyrical music fills the room. Fearless and adventurous, it oscillates from soft to loud, from piano to oboe to strings, and back to the full orchestra. It’s a dry winter day. The windows have icy condensation on the edges and the faint light that shines through looks like tiny stars dancing. My father, tucked under a cotton blanket, sits up supported by extra pillows and looks around. His paintings of landscapes and the train stations up and down the Main Line of Philadelphia, the ones he hadn’t sold or given away, hang on all four walls; some are propped up on the desk and dresser and tallboy, for him to see. The bedside table is cluttered. A dog-eared Bible, a glass of ice water with a straw, the Mentho-Lyptus drops he likes to suck on, a collection of framed photos of his kids and grandkids. The two of us at the beach on a windy day, me in running tights, him in white shorts and a windbreaker, his arm wrapped tightly around my shoulder, squinting in the sun, laughing. The room is warm and peaceful. The family, his nieces, nephews, grandchildren, and a few friends stop by for brief visits throughout the day. He’s quiet but comfortable.
This is how I like to envision my father’s last days. If I could go back in time, if I could do it over again, if I could make this happen, this is how it would be.
But this isn’t where he spent his last days. With the doctor’s guidance, we all agreed. There would be no more intervention. What happened was this. After the stroke, he was transferred from the hospital to a nursing home nearby. Safe, adequate, covered by Medicare, but one of those places that’s filled with the smells of the dying—musty, fruity, with the bitterness of ammonia. None of us could care for him in this condition; he would be near my mother; he would be kept comfortable. She sent us home, me back to Chicago to my young family, my brother back to running his small business and his family. I don’t recall the doctor or anyone telling us what would happen next, what to expect, how long. Within a day my father was unresponsive; he couldn’t answer my calls. On the third day my phone rang early in the morning.
Driving home one day I pass the field where I saw the sickly coyote; a few deer are grazing. A couple of weeks go by, and the coyote has begun to slip from my mind. Then a message comes through on our neighborhood email network. A woman posts a photo and writes, “This animal is in our backyard. Animal Control is coming to take care of the situation.” In a pristinely mulched bed between two rows of sandstone pavers the coyote lies curled up, limbs tucked in, ears pricked. His skin, scaly and diseased, has turned from ash-gray to a gray-blue hue similar to the color my father was when I visited him in the funeral home after he died. Asleep in the bright sun, the coyote looks both serene and surreal. Within minutes, neighbors tap into the social media network and chime in. “Oh no. This guy is so sick … Heartbreaking … All skin and bones … So sad, I have tears in my eyes.” The neighbor who found the coyote breaks in. “It’s a sad situation. The coyote walked off our property before Animal Control got here.”
Over a cup of tea in the stifling afternoon heat of August, I sit on the deck and look out at the dried grass on the hills. I can’t shake the image of the dying coyote. I think about him traipsing about town, on the campus, throughout the summer like an apparition, walking death. Over time my perception of the animal has changed. I’m not afraid of him but afraid for him. I want him to find his way back into the woods, to a soft, peaceful spot in the shade, hidden under brush, where he can lie down and go to sleep.
Andrea A. Firth is a freelance journalist and writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She has an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Saint Mary’s College of California and is the cofounder of Diablo Writers’ Workshop where she teaches creative writing. She loves hiking on the beaches and in the hills with her husband and dog and open water swimming with anyone willing to jump in with her.