By Jean-Pierre Trevor
I am high above the desert, and the thermals created by the 115-degree heat pitches our 737 around the sky as the preparation for landing tones go off, so I sit down and start breathing exercises to calm myself. Flying makes me nervous and the severe turbulence doesn't help. From my window at 17,000 feet, I can see the area where my mother's ashes were sprinkled. A few months ago, I went up the mountain in a Jeep with the man who scattered them from horseback. The man who'd carried my mother to her resting place, so I felt close to him. We hiked the rest of the way, not far from the Superstition mountains. I told him he was a good man. He said, "So are you," and left me alone looking for any trace of dust. I'd found a spent cartridge and filled it with small pieces of what I wanted to believe were her ashes and had my own private sprinkling ceremony among the saguaro cacti, where mountain lions live.
The turbulence increases as the pilot puts up the airfoils to slow the plane down. This is the summer, and except for the Middle East, the Arizona desert is the hottest place on Earth. In a few minutes we will be landing at Phoenix International. I write down some more thoughts, notice how clammy my hands are. Where will he go if and when he does, up here in the clouds? I am also nervous because of what I'm about to face. I'm going to spend time with a man who is known to people all over the world as Quiller. He is also my father.
He is dying.
The thermals continue bouncing off the huge jetliner from Detroit, and we land. I get a cab to the Arabian horse ranch where my father and his second wife, Chaille, live. About two hundred miles south of here, under tons of sand, somewhere amongst the dunes of Buttercup Valley, are the remains of the plane used for the film The Flight of the Phoenix, based on the book my father wrote, which was produced in the deserts of southern Arizona twenty five years ago.
We drive north under burnt skies. Chaille is in the stables and tells me how to find his room. How different is he going to look from twenty days ago is my only thought and how will I cope. I go through the main room, walls lined with framed book-jackets, mostly of the Quiller series, and into a darkened quiet room. The only sound is from a machine that keeps a special air mattress inflated and the air conditioning that cuts in occasionally. With a mound of pillows behind him is my father.
Quietly I say, "Hello."
His eyes open slowly. "Hello, JP." I stroke his forehead.
Outside, the summer storm clouds are gathering for the evening's spectacle. A desert storm is always new and stunning to watch. I leave the ranch and shop for fresh fruit juices for Elleston. This the forest-fire season and the lightening bolts I'm seeing all around me often spark them off. From the car I look at the display of power and think: Please why couldn't it heal my father.
This is my first night of how many I don't yet know. I bring in my bags with Katrina the husky smiling at me. My room will be a place to go when I fall to pieces.
I go back into the quiet room. Each time I do this my heart hopes he will be looking a little stronger. I wish to believe that he will get better. My father has tried every possible alternative treatment that I know of. When he and I battled to save my mother, we used the same arsenal of therapies which included trips to Mexico, a Kahuna healer from Hawaii, phone calls to Linus Pauling, the pioneer of vitamin C, overnight packages of rare herbs from Tokyo. At the end of the four months, I was exhausted in every possible way and we lost the battle. This time, my father has done his own campaign and there's nothing more I know of that I can add to it
I have to know: What does he want deep inside?
Next morning. The worst fires in sixteen years of Arizona history are making the skies gun-metal purple. Slurry bombers and choppers are circling, and tonight a line of cars from Pinnacle Peak evacuate. Elite hot-shot fire fighting crews have been flown in from California and Colorado and the disaster is on national news. It's very hot up there. I know this from experience having fought Apache Tribe Indian Reservation fires for a while, just for the hell of it. Outside there is a fine coating of ash falling everywhere.
Trust Quiller to be in the middle of all this.
"Can I get you anything?"
"Yes, please.. some Kefir." His voice is low and his movements are slow, and I lift his legs that are so weak.
For now, time and my life outside this house is in suspension. I don't understand death, I don't even like the word. I choose to call it flight, one of my father's loves. He once looked after Spitfires for the Royal Air Force. And for years we designed and flew model planes together.
JULY 8, 1995
Today a psychic healer visits. Says she's picking up that he doesn't want help, to leave him alone. She tells us he's cracked a joke and that my mother's there beside him. Later he tells us it's his mother.
"Boy, your father's got a great sense of humor!"
My father lies on the pillows, his face pink and gray with sleepy eyes. I think the psychic blew it from the start with her loud voice. My father has never liked loud voices. The atmosphere in here is very sad. I go into my room to try it out for sound hoping my tears are kept private. Still can't grasp that he might go, until then he is alive and I'm with him. I need to learn that now is what counts. And once he's gone, will I die for a while?
Then what to do, turn my life around, see everything from a different place. I'm very confused and angry that he's been struck.
I swipe at a few mosquitoes on the ceiling, venting my rage, and go to sleep with sore eyes.
I go into the quiet room: his head back, still and silent as a Tibetan monk. A nurse shows me Bernie Segal's book Love Medicine & Miracles. I'm so tired of reading these books, have read so many. What could this book do now? I pray for a miracle each night.
A small voice in me: Let it go, let him go if this is his wish.
He wants to live so much. And his latest Quiller book is twenty pages short and this weighs heavily on him. I offer to set up a laptop so he can tap out the remainder of his novel. He says yes. I sit on the bed next to him and we try a few minutes, but he's too weak today. It depresses me to think of my father in this state, finishing twenty pages knowing that each word of a Quiller book is vital. I hope tomorrow we can try again. Chaille brings him a piece of licorice he asks for. "What's the use of one?" he says, knowing he can get a laugh.
Looking for ways to cope with this. Feel faint at moments. I wish I knew how other people grieve. Right now I need to find another person inside. A wiser one who can be more objective. Not seen through the veil of a son. I fight Quiller because it reminds me of the shield my father's kept in place all his life. Maybe if Quiller was vulnerable he wouldn't exist. And right now my father's very vulnerable, the most I've ever seen him, so I'm real confused. But a part of him has become the character he's written about for so long, which seems to be giving him strength right now.
The mountain fires continue, the skies are dark, and I go to bed exhausted.
We try again on the computer and I focus hard, looking for clues in the words he's giving me that could tell me what his subconscious is thinking, a sign of where he wants to go and if this book is to be his last.
How calm I feel sometimes - like the eye of the storm, but it only lasts moments. The child in me is awkward, nervous, frightened , confused, and tip-toes into his room holding my breath. Too painful at moments to watch him communicate with sadness in his eyes and I try hard not to show him mine. I feel tears just on the surface building up in waves.
I panic if I can't see his chest rise and fall. Have to remember the booklet on what to expect, that sometimes breathing can be varied in rhythm. The next breath comes and my head goes into small hysterical thoughts of hope.
I pat Katrina, saying yes, you're losing your master aren't you but he loves you.
Will his breathing fill this house like my mother's did? A big chamber in my ears where that was all I heard, counting to the next breath, and terror if it took longer than usual.
I'm a dramatist, so I have to mention the drama of the desert outside that my father loves: the rattlesnakes, the Arabians, the lightening rods drilling the Earth. Dust storms and the Golden Eagles.
The last time my father called the Cave Creek Fire Department, they found him sitting with his legs up on the patio table quietly observing how Katrina was reacting to the three foot Diamondback that was coiling a yard from his feet. The firemen had to ask Elleston to please move his feet as they swung the snake over and into the basket. This is how my father is. He must observe at all times, and the more danger involved the better. Quiller has always needed to be on the edge.
I go into the quiet room, my father lying there war-torn and so thin. "The 'tush cush' is good," he says.
I laugh at his description of the inflatable cushion he has to soften the pressure on his bones. I wonder if I'd have his humor in this situation.
It's midnight, and I go to my room thinking often: Where is he going?
I wake up thinking how lonely he must be. Is he afraid, what does he feel and what does he see? He looks so calm at times. Is he dreaming about the model planes we used to make in the south of France. A few weeks ago we flew one in the hospital corridor. My father would shift himself to see the flight leave the room and turn into the hallway after I'd checked that there was no traffic. At night, alone in his room, he would shine his flashlight on it admiring the shadow of the wings against the wall.
Today we manage half a page of Quiller, which drains him. I shave him and comb his hair.
Some well-wishers call, and some say "it's a beautiful journey" that "all will be well," which irritates me. I don't see it as "beautiful." Tragic, yes, a loss. I'm losing my father. He looks so tired. I look at his large hands that have typed out so much pleasure for so many people. I stroke them listening to the voices in my head.
Tonight, more lightening. He watches the show from his bed, the storm clouds sparking for him. We sit with him drinking wine and eating asparagus, which isn't easy as my father can only take liquids.
I try to look beyond all this from the physical to the unknown. What gave him the illness, is it a silent language not listened to? What force is at work?
I must change my perception - whatever that is - of all this or I won't be able to cope.
I'm eating porridge in the living room. New age music coming from the quiet room where my father sits up, eyes closed in silent meditation with one candle and a still flame.
I tell the nurses how many books my father has written - over one hundred. I take them into his office, show them a twenty-foot bookshelf containing his life's work. One of them has moist eyes. I go back into the quiet room.
"I just showed the nurses your career." His expression of "oh, that."
"I'm so proud of you," holding back tears.
"I'm so proud of you, too, you're a genius."
"And so are you," I say. This time into my room and let it flow.
Sadness, tears, no words just nothing. Nothing connects, suspended in space, my father floating. This is like drawing out a splinter very slowly. Will he float above me or beside me when he goes? How can I think this when he's here?
Preparing food tonight for Chaille and me as he sleeps in the next room, just the hum of the machine that keeps the air mattress full, the fly that buzzes, my breathing. A moth flutters, the horses outside, the air conditioner, Katrina and the "silence of what's to come," as my mother wrote in her last letter in 1986.
Sometime soon, it will be time to change my life because this will do that. But for now, I want to carry my father on his chariot to the unknown castle in the sky.
What a bloody mess in my head today, lots of fear, it's time to be vulnerable, let go. But how do you do it? We talk about model planes and our plans to fly one across the Pacific to Tokyo with one radio-control operator on a boat.. He wants to call it the Wild Goose, I say yes to all this and his plans to open a chocolate shop called Candied Royal.
We discuss moving him to a better position. We ask him what he thinks.
"That's you problem," Quiller says. "Very exciting...about the planes," he says.
Tonight in the quiet room, candles, Spanish music, Katrina sleeping on the floor, my father's eyes closed so near the edge of somewhere else while we dine around him.
I'm at war in my head, he's at war in his body, this ranch a battlefield and the air so heavy, so slow. What would Quiller do with this situation? "Incoming data - ignore." That's no good because I can't ignore what's happening.
"Can I have some Crunch?"
This is one of his favorite treats we've invented: Liquid yogurt drink frozen in small paper cups. Recently we've added Mango Papaya Crunch. His face lights up.
I go into the quiet room and my father greets me. "JP, my dear fellow." He looks like someone who's just had a huge burden lifted off him and doesn't know what to do with the result.
"Hello, Papa." I take his hand.
"I'd like to work on the book if I may."
"Yes of course, just give me a minute, I'll get the laptop"
Chaille tells me that for three teary hours this morning she decided to try to help him with his distress at being stuck between two worlds. I don't think I'm an old enough soul to have the wisdom to do that. It's given him the courage to write more.
We start. There are long moments of silence as he creates Quiller and I look at his etched face backlit from the low desert light. Sometimes whole minutes drift by when I feel I'm holding a flame that has been burning for years and the slightest breath will extinguish it forever. Then a word or a sentence and more silence. The nurses know he's writing and stay in the living room with Chaille.
At 1:52 p.m. on Tuesday, July 18, 1995, my father wrote the last words of his last book, Quiller Balalaika.
"That's it," my father says in a slow voice.
He turns as I turn and we look at each other, a few inches between us. He in his throne of pillows with a designer stubble, me with a shaking laptop on my knees.
I hold his hand and burst into tears, for the meaning of the words "that's it" are too great. There's only one person who could show unimaginable restraint and wrap up a whole life with those two words, that I will never forget - or this sacred moment. Quiller.
"It means so much to me that I've helped you finish it." Tears pouring off my face.
"I couldn't have done it without you," he says
"You know how to break someone's heart," I say. I press some buttons, get to "shut down", tap a key and the screen goes dark, a darkness so final. I remove the laptop from my knees, mumble something to the nurse that my father needs Tefu rubbed into his legs, go to my room and it pours out.
Later I go into his office alone, look around, the floor covered in research material, plot notes, city maps from Russia, visitor's guide to the Pentagon, and sit at his desk for the first time. In front of me on the shelves spanning the entire room is his life's work. In the room on the other side of the shelve, the nurses bathe him.
On his desk, his typewriter that will never tap again. A little bit of dust already there.
This is too much and I sit here in a veil of water.
Something so terribly, horribly final about his typewriter that will never form words again and when I look at the awesome work in front of me, the dozens of foreign editions, including Japanese, Chinese, the awards, ten motion and TV pictures, a labor of over fifty years of creating worlds for other people to share. I realize that I'm looking at my father and I feel buried in grief.
These, too, are enormous moments to be felt and absorbed as much as is possible.
In this chair, he dreamed of visions and battles, some that will never be known. How horrendous and cruel that he will not be able to sit here again. I curse the force that stops him.
I look around his office. His worn black belt on a hook. Incense sticks. A police and fire scanner. Paintings by Chaille. "KGB Death And Rebirth" on the floor. Two boken (wooden martial arts practice swords) and a street map of Moscow on the wall. On his desk, quartz crystals and fool's gold from the Arizona mountains, a manual on Interrogation. Small bowl of protein wafers. An acupuncture needle. Tibetan chimes. A spinning disc with prismatic colors. My father likes anything that sparkles. And our hospital model plane - all Quiller's tools.
We sit together on the bed, my father between us. Now I'm on the very edge and looking down at my open fear. Where is my mother now, is she helping us? We talk about his leaving us. All I want to do is take his weary head in my hands and hold it for a long time, but I don't. I lean forward, putting my face next to his.
"I've always loved you." I burst into tears.
"I've always loved you, too... but I haven't been a very good father." It floods out of me.
"Go ahead, let it rip," my father says softly while I hold him in my arms.
"You've been more than a father."
"Yes, the Dojo brothers." Years ago we came up with this title because we both trained in Shotokan in Phoenix.
I stand now next to him holding his hand. I tell him, "You'll always have a home in my heart."
I realize now that I'm openly showing him that I know he's going to die. Now the barriers are down. I'm shaking and my legs are weak.
Chaille tells him that it's his choice when he wants to go. But to linger with us as long as he wants.
Yes, please, linger on so I can share your journey and strengthen the strings between us.
Later this afternoon, we lie on each side of him, he asks me to hold his hand. Is this it? Will he decide to go soon? I'm afraid.
"Thank you for all the love you've given me in life," I whisper to him.
"Oh... I never knew how to love."
"I don't agree with that; you do it better than a lot of people." I lean forward.
"We've had good times together," I tell him in a cracked voice. I kiss his designer's stubble.
"Yes," he whispers, "the brothers..."
"You'll always be my father."
In the Rembrandt light of the desert evening reflecting off the outside walls, I sit next to my father looking at every part of his face. I want to know it as intimately as a beautiful ancient map. Hold these moments forever.
Stay with me a little longer, keep breathing so I don't fill with fear of your leaving. I sit next to you, your son who loves you, and I'll miss you so much, but will fly planes with you up there always.
We all lie here together, in the light of dusk, holding my father's hand helping him prepare his flight.
This morning, I see through sore eyes.
"Give my love to mother."
"Yes," he nods. "Have I died."
"No, no, of course not." God, what a stupid thing I said. "You're with us, and you're not dying you're just going on a journey."
"Well... I thought I had died."
"No," I whisper.
I try to say the right things. The brain can be so awkward. There is so much I have to learn.
Going through a tunnel in pieces looking for balance and I don't find any, just bits of nothing.
My father slept well last night and he wears his red kimono this morning. His eyes are open and gaze somewhere far away beyond our walls here. He might hear the Oriental sound of the wind chimes outside.
A friend arrives with some Flamenco music for my father. He asks if he can see him, comes into the quiet room.
"You're a real trooper, Elleston."
"Bill?," barely audible.
"We love him dearly." Bill Nelson gently squeezes his toes, starts to leave the room, voice cracking.
I go to the bathroom, switch on the ventilator and cry as if there's no end.
We drift in and out of the room taking turns. It's the vigil now, my senses tell me.
"Would you like some Papaya Mango?"
He's not able to draw the juice up the straw.
Oh God, if there is one, why is this happening?
A sudden movement as if he's disturbed by something, but I think he wants to make sure we are both here close to him. He turns his head towards Chaille, a pause, then to me, and I smile quickly because I think he might see and I would want him to remember me this way, not with a face full of grief. But I realize he's sensing, not seeing. I think: Will we be lucky to have more last words or have they been and gone and what were they, some so faint I may never know? And are words now important?
Slowly, over the following hour, my father turns his head slightly around and upwards and his eyes seem to focus on something that is not in this world. He might not respond anymore, and I don't want to bring him out of this state and confuse his path. I run my fingers across his forehead barely touching him.
"I love you." And in my mind I say it over and over.
We touch his arms, his hands, his face. A chrysalis under our fingers, waiting to complete the cycle.
Now time doesn't matter anymore to me. It might as well not exist because time will never be the same again.
Now, possibly very soon, I am going to lose my father. My father is going to die.
We don't say much. Just the three of us in the quiet room. Quiller's room. The Bureau's nerve center. Waiting for a signal.
He stays looking up into his universe, the expression of a Wednesday's Child? shallow breathing, almost not visible, but there. I look into his eyes. I am in such pain. I see only shadows of his past. None of the present. He does not see us now.
I put cushions on the table next to his bed, sit down and lean onto the mound of pillows, my face a few inches away from his. Chaille is on the other side, holding him, with tears.
There are almost no sounds, the nurse in the living room is quiet. A tinkle from the collar on Katrina, the soft hum of the air machine and my father's breathing. I am counting inside myself, anything that paces out these moments. I pray. He lies under a lake of pink blanket and Charlie, the soft-toy bear I bought him in the hospital, is on his knee looking up at him.
His breathing changes rhythm, his face is so close, looking up, and he is either in command now or someone is just outside with gentle hands stretched out.
I decide to breathe with him, and I say to him privately, "It's safe, you're safe," watching his chest, his neck, his mouth.
I briefly look at Chaille because I didn't think I saw his next breath. She looks back, not certain.
I hold mine.
He swallows twice, gently, with no sound. Chaille and I say something to each other, but I don't hear it.
Now it comes. The storm in my body breaks loose and I bury my streaming face in his pillows.
Now, finally, I understand the meaning of the last words of his last novel, Quiller Balalaika:
"And left a faint note floating on the air."
At 4:10 p.m. on this Friday, my father spread his great wings and took his final flight.
On July 31, I will take my father's ashes in an Indian casket and climb a mountain in northern Arizona. Chaille and I will bury his casket and afterwards, from my father's favorite 7,000-foot peak, we will sip Fernet Branca. Quiller's preferred drink.