A World Away
“Our entire family has been sick all week, dad. I don’t think you should come.”
He stalled through his disappointment, with extended silence, on the other side of the line.
I had been looking forward to hosting him at our house for the weekend. Mostly because I was about to move half-way across the world, and because, I wasn’t sure if I would ever see him again.
My dad has always had his own special way of bouncing back from really bleak situations. Heart attacks, strokes, throat cancer, car accidents, and severe alcoholism to name a few. If his life is a river full of class V rapids, he just seems to backstroke his way through in Hawaiian swim trunks, leaving his loved ones on the sidelines, both concerned and perplexed.
I don’t know how many times we have thought he may die, but enough for my sister-in-law to start correlating his life to that of a cat’s.
But we all agreed, his newest diagnosis of stage four lung cancer has got to be the ninth life. Doesn’t it?
He got the diagnosis well into our plans of moving to Uganda as missionaries. He told my sister he was given 1-5 years to live. He told my brother 1-2. He told me around 2.
It was a classic Dennis Mutscheller moment, shapeshifting the truth to make it more palatable for the one he was delivering it to. Some would consider that lying. I saw it as love.
Life as the daughter of Dennis Mutscheller has required a steady resilience, ongoing hope, forgiveness, learned boundaries, and a distancing only a heart broken too many times can know. That man has always kept me, my older brother, and my younger sister on our toes.
And in this instance, being on my toes meant asking God again, is this what you want? Are we really supposed to leave my father during this time?
I thought back to all the other times we wondered if we may lose him. I was familiar with the heavy anchor of dread in my stomach, the tight chest, the fuzzy mind.
What do I do?
Mike and I decided to move forward with our plans. We weren’t sure how many years he had left, or how long it would take us to raise support to move. But over the next half a year, the picture started to clear up a little.
He started and prematurely finished chemotherapy, unable to cope with the severe side effects. We went to a Postal Annex one day, and he was leaning on me as he slowly took steps to the counter. “I can't do this anymore. I'd rather just take the time I’ve got left without the drugs, even if it shortens it. This is hell.”
Around Christmastime Mike and I were close to being fully funded and able to buy our plane tickets. And I could see that my time with my dad was now even more limited. So we made our first date, for him to come from his house 45 minutes away and spend the weekend at our house. Something we’d never done. As the date approached I started to plan loosely.
We’d go to the beach.
Sit in my backyard and watch the kids play.
Maybe watch a family movie or sit and look at stars.
My dad is a simple guy.
But then, the norovirus swept through our household. Which, is just so terrible. Everyone scattered around with their barf bowls, or when they weren’t vomiting running to the bathroom to try and make it in time. Towards the end of this debacle is when I made the phone call to him. Waiting almost until the last minute to cancel, because I knew how precious this time would have been and I really wanted to see him.
The next weeks were filled with packing, moving out, house hopping, and a month or so later- boarding a plane. The ache of leaving family was real and physical. And to leave someone you may never see again is painful.
After the prolonged silence on the phone, he said, “So how sick was everyone?”.
“It was a bad week Dad.” I said, giving him some more detail. I ended with regret, stressing that our house was not a safe place for a severely immunocompromised person.
“Okay.” He said. “I understand.”
When we hung up I ran to my bedroom and sobbed like a baby, into my crumpled up comforter.
Did our best last opportunity just slip through our hands?
I missed my dad.
But, I’m not sure if I have ever not missed my dad.
For ten years of my life he went missing, living as a homeless person on the streets of Barrio Logan in San Diego. I saw him a few times if my brother was able to track down where he was sleeping.
One time was on Christmas Day. I was in High School. Me, my brother and sister drove to a bayside park where my brother said he had found him. There he was in the distance, sitting under a tree.
We walked through the salty breezy sea air and hoards of pigeons and muddy grass.
“Hey guys!” He said, cheerily, like he was welcoming us into his outdoor living room. My radar immediately assessed him as sober, his morning 40 oz beer in a bag was just breakfast. He also had another bag, with three gifts inside. He pulled one out and handed it to me.
“Merry Christmas Kace.”
“Thanks Dad.” I said, unsure of whether to sit or stand. I opened the box and found a yellow sweater inside. It was the right size. It wasn’t ugly. It had the smell of dust.
A derelict looking woman, stick thin and greasy, pushing a shopping cart came over to join our Christmas morning. “Dennnnnisss, who ya talkin to?”
“Ah these are my kids. Jake, Kacie, and Tessa!”
"I didn't know you had kids..."
I don’t remember much else from that morning. We certainly went back home, to our house, in the beautiful neighborhood, on the beautiful street, inside the beautifully decorated place my mom and we had always lived.
I didn’t want alcohol to rule my father’s life. I hated seeing the slow progression of who he used to be to that man in the park. But he seemed fine with his rock bottom. So I had to learn to miss him, and accept that reality.
But then one day, a few days after I had a dream of my father, healthy and strong flying around in a superman cape, I got a phone call. Not the one I had expected.
Instead, I was told my dad was off the streets.
He was in rehab.
When he graduated out of rehab, he got a job at a local nursery and moved into a motorhome with a sweet Australian Shepard named Sam. He spent his days caring for plants and helping customers as he continued to also nurture himself back to health.
We all spent time in the nursery together, or out to eat, or hiking. I was an adult, in my mid-twenties, but I still loved hearing stories about his wild adventures from his life, of the time he sailed from California to Hawaii, or the canyons he had explored as a youth. Added to his arsenal were now stories from street, the majority of which he turned humorous.
My dad has been sober for 14 years now.
Crying into my covers on the bed, after I cancelled our weekend, I wept for it all. For all the years in the past we wouldn’t get back. For all the years in the future we would never have. I wanted this weekend with him so badly.
My phone rang. It was him. I picked it up and tried to sound strong, the way I always have for him.
“Kace. I’m coming this weekend. I don’t care how sick I get.”
I spent half a day bleaching every surface, door knob, and railing in my home. I gave him the freshest sheets, far away upstairs where no one had been sick. I washed my dishes with the hottest water and soap, and hoped he stayed healthy. (He did!)
We had the sort of weekend I imagined, with the highlight being a pink and orange sunset spent at Coronado Beach. It was cold, but we bundled up and relaxed while we watched my kids chase seagulls across the glossy reflective shore.
I drove him back to his home the next morning, a small upstairs loft above a barn. A place he’d been living in, out in the country, with his wife of five years.
I asked to use his bathroom, and as I passed through their bedroom was reminded how he has always been tidy, and his beds are always made. I wondered if he learned this as a kid, or in St. Vincent De Paul Homeless Shelter, or in any of the rehabs or group homes he had been.
“Can I make you a sandwich?” He asked, once I’d come back.
We both weren’t ready to say good-bye, a sandwich in the morning seemed a perfect reason to stay. “I’ve got roast beef, or peanut butter and jelly.”
He slathered on the peanut butter with generosity while I asked him about his future. I figured the least I could do to help my siblings out was to arrange some of the details now.
So we started talking about his end of life wishes.
“I just don’t want to leave Jake having to pay a bunch of money for stuff, ya know.” He said.
“Well if you’re worried about money, you could donate your body. That’s free.” I said.
“But who would want this?” He handed me a perfectly made sandwich, and pointed at himself.
“You’ve got great eyes.” I said.
“That’s true. My vision is perfect actually.”
I took a bite and immediately felt like a child. I hadn’t eaten Skippy in years.
“And maybe they’d be able to use the cancer in my lungs to help with research or something.”
After we talked I called the agency and asked for them to send my dad a packet.
When there wasn’t any sandwich left, and we’d talked about almost everything, and it was nearing time for me to go, I asked him,
“Do you think you will be here when we get back from Africa?”
He picked up my plate and walked over to the sink, his back to me. “I don’t think so Kace.”
We let that sink in. No words while he stood there.
I appreciated the truth.
"You go when you need to Dad."
We’ve been living in Uganda for six months now. The pandemic took the entire world by surprise, and it certainly has made entering a new culture a complicated experience. We landed here only a few weeks before the entire country locked down.
I had assumed if and when my dad’s situation worsened, it would be a long way to get back home, but that I could do it. Obviously I didn’t have closed airports, quarantining on both sides of the world, or possibly contracting COVID in transit and delivering that to others in the mix.
Last week my sister said “The doctors just told dad he has less than 6 months to live”.
Even though I knew he was on a timeline.
Even though I left the country knowing I may not see him again.
Even though I chose this…
I have walked through this week feeling as if his prognosis is partially new information.
Grief is a strange thing.
I spent some time figuring out how I could possibly come home, to be with him just one more time and to spend time with my siblings.
But the details of traveling in 2020, out of Uganda with closed airports and into the United States, as a mother to 3 young kids, during a worldwide pandemic, would be an incredible feat.
This week I’ve been asking God, is this a feat I should be taking on?
And he has answered me in four unexpected ways.
Each time, it was no.
The last time was when I talked to my father on the phone, and the first thing he said to me was “I don’t want you coming home for me. You stay there. You’re doing good work, and I’m proud of you. Stay.”
After a lifetime of not crying in front of my dad, of sidestepping my intense emotions to deal with at a different time, I broke down on the phone with him listening instead. I heard him gently weeping too.
I spent the last part of the conversation, just talking about everything I loved about him, and the life we did get to have together.
“When we’d walk down to Marine Street from your house, and spend all day at the beach.”
He spent time at the water like he lived there. Just one with the elements. No sunscreen. Maybe some food and water. Maybe a towel. No agenda. Just the water and a nap. And fins. We tagged along and did the same.
Playing hide-n-go-seek at night.
All the exciting and quirky places he lived.
His stories. His humor.
The freedom he gave us to roam.
Watching him read stories to my kids.
“Well I’m glad it wasn’t all bad.” He said.
“I may be delusional, but there was more good than bad for me.”
“It’s true.” I said. “I’m gonna really miss you Dad. I know I’ll see you again, in a perfect place. But I’m gonna miss you here.”
“Aw sweetie. I know. We will. Please don’t worry about me. I’m doing just fine. Really. I am.” He added some more life to his voice. “Everything is alright over here, k?”
That was two days ago and I Facetimed my brother tonight. “He’s not fine- at all.”
I talked to my sister who confirmed, “He’s in a lot of pain. He won’t take his prescription pain pills so he’s just trying to get through on Tylenol. You can just see he has no energy. And it took him an hour and a half to want to come out of the room the other day to be with us. He’s acting different.”
And there it is again. My dad, doing his best to love from afar, while I do my best as well. Our attempts are flawed and lacking. It has always been this way.
But this time, he will not be coming back to life here, or (most likely) will not be making a miraculous recovery. He has a job to do. He will be moving on from a body riddled and held captive by so many diseases into a body perfected.
Is there wine in heaven? I sure hope so, for him.
Until then my siblings are making all his wildest dreams come true down here, which for a simple man like him, is a visit to the beach, and lemon cake with ice cream.
And I will lean into this place trusting God has put me here during this time knowing full well how this was all going to pan out.