Death on the Mainland

The call will come. It’ll arrive in the most unassuming way � under a flawless blue sky with the tradewinds tickling the palms. You’ll pick up the phone with coffee still clinging to your breath.

Your mom took a fall. Your best friend has cancer. Or your dad has a sinus infection that (oops) is a brain tumor. Suddenly the island you live on is another planet and the ocean surrounding it, a solar system. In the movies, inclement weather foretells the doom with clouds and rain spattering a windowpane, but in my life, terrible news shows up with a bottle of sunscreen, a beach umbrella and a hammer.

The only time I thought, point blank, I can’t live here anymore, was the day my sister called to say, “Dad has a mass on his brain. Come home.”

I’d talked to my dad three or four times that week. His voice was ragged and his speech slow.

“I have a sinus infection,” he told me.

Dad was not prone to illness. But the one thing that ailed him was his sinuses. He had a big, gorgeous nose that he blamed this affliction on. I always told him he had a Play-Doh face � the kind you could mold into different expressions, most of which were goofy and smiling. The sinus infection didn’t sound any alarms.

He told me he was on his second round of antibiotics. We talked more then usual that week because he sounded so sick and I was worried. Despite his “infection” he was still peddling his recumbent bike to St. Pius X church daily for services and putting in his usual 20 miles riding around town. As Dad’s brain surgeon would say right before surgery, “Your father’s a stud.” And he was.

I remember my sister’s call came early on a Saturday. My husband was in the carport loading boats on the truck. I can still feel my bare feet skimming the front porch as I walked out, the screen door slamming behind me.

I said, “Wes, I need to go to the Mainland. My dad has a brain tumor.”

In my mind Wes is still frozen in mid-motion with his arms raised to the tail of the boat on the truck with blue straps dangling over the racks. Bad news does that; it snaps a picture of the moment.

I flew to San Diego on a Monday. When I walked into the corner room of the ER I was greeted by three of my four siblings: a sister from Chicago, my brother from Australia and a sister I live with here on Kaua�i. The only one missing was somewhere in China traveling. An ER room full of Woolways is akin to stuffing a hamster cage full of cats. We get our boisterous energy from our father. He was lashed with tubes to a bed and in fighting spirit. Despite our reason for being together, the stories were already buzzing the room.

Apparently dad’s church knew of his incarceration and had sent a priest out that day to give him communion. My Protestant mother, who to this day holds a grudge against the Catholic church for reasons having to do with birth control, was also in the room when the priest arrived.

Imagine the stereotypical grumpy, old Irish priest, dressed in his Cossack and armed with a prayer book, entering a stainless steel and bleached hospital room packed with unruly Woolways � everyone talking over each other. Then there’s dad � prostrate in bed with his tanned hands on his chest, fingers laced.

With a kerchief and hosts in hand, Father McCann wove between family members delivering communion.

“Body of Christ.”


And so on.

My mother was the only one seated. She’d positioned herself as far from the action as one can get in a hospital room full of people and equipment. Father McCann wound his way between bleeping machinery and bodies, then bent over my mother to deliver the host, not realizing she was not Catholic.

Then he raised the host and gazing down on her said, “Body of Christ.”

To which she replied, “No thank you.”

Did I mention Father McCann is hard of hearing?

So he repeats, “Body of Christ.”

But this time he doesn’t wait for her response. When mom opens her mouth to protest, he slips that white wafer between her lips.

That should have been a sign that my father’s deal with God had been sealed. If the man had had a last dying wish, it would have been to see his obstinate bride receive her first communion.

Over the next 14 days, there’d be few opportunities to laugh, but this scene was one we’d return to between surgeries and the eventual death of our father.

In the two months following that day in April 2006, I’d live with my mother in the house I grew up in on Nolan Avenue � all my siblings having returned to their families in far flung corners of the globe.

After dad’s death, my mother would say she’d raised us to be adventurous so her solitary life was of her own making. When I returned to Kaua�i � to my dogs, tempestuous cat and a husband who can always make me laugh � I realized I had finally arrived. For the first time in the five years since Wes and I had left California, I knew I’d come home.

� Pam Woolway is TGI’s Life & Style writer and her column appears every other week.


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