Altitude Sickness

Never far from my father: Physically, socially, geographically larger than life


Most of Lewis Crain is in Lake Dunmore. The reason for this is that my mother and two of our friends and I put him there. It is where he wanted to be, and so we puttered around the shore of Lake Dunmore putting his ashes in the water. Slowly at first, but then as the wine took hold of us, we did it with more zest, less reverence, and more than a little giggling.

My father, Lewis Crain, was a giant man. He was six foot four, and despite having skinny legs because of a childhood case of polio, he weighed 285 pounds. For most of his life he was strong as an ox. When I was a child, he could move the back end of our VW Beetle — the end with the engine — around by lifting on the bumper.  As strong as I ever was (and I was truly a beast in my day), I was only ever able to move the back end of my Ford Escort around (the end without the engine).  I mean, I could move a car by myself, but I couldn’t do it like my dad.

When he was angry, the ground shook. He was never violent (I was raised a Quaker), but when he lost his temper and came to get you, you knew for sure that you were gotten. There was no question.

When he laughed and joked, everyone around him laughed. Loved by more people than will ever even know my name, he died on a Tuesday when the local paper had gone to press. There was no notice of his memorial in the paper, and it was the week of the Fourth, so many in our town were away on vacation. The memorial was held off until four days later when family and friends from Texas and Kansas could arrive. Despite being unpublicized, the memorial was so heavily attended that they had to set up chairs in the basement with speakers so that late comers could hear the service.  Some folks waited outside.

He had been sick for years with myesthenia gravis, the treatment for which gave him several bouts of cancer (malignant aggressive self-contained thoracic tumor involving a lung, the heart, and his left phrenic nerve; stage 2 lymphoma; and finally the kicker, stage 3 pancreatic cancer).  He went to work every day without complaint while taking massive doses of immunosuppressants. He had pancreatitis three times before being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. In the hospital for pancreatitis he would wake up, hit the Demerol button, crack a joke, fall asleep for four minutes, wake up, rinse and repeat. The first bout of Pancreatitis kept him in the hospital hitting that button for 12 days.

In hospice dying, my father tried to get out of bed to go to the bathroom and failed. I made him get back in bed so that they could put a catheter in him. Inadvertently and with hubris, I was the one who made the decision that my father would never get out of bed again. And if a family member who is hard of sight is dying, don’t forget to put their glasses on them. It makes it easier for them to know who they are talking to. This is a lesson we learned too late.

Despite my being a massive disappointment and source of stress to him, my father did me the honor of waiting for me to arrive before dying. He also waited an extra day to die because he didn’t want to die on his 36th anniversary with my mother. He didn’t want to ruin their anniversary for her.

When he died, he looked like a fish on a dock. Gasping and walleyed, he looked nothing like his strong vital self that he had been even four weeks before. Even a day before he had still looked like my father. In his last hours, he looked like death itself.

When I got there I touched his arm and told him I was there. He took two quick breaths in, and let one long breath out and was still. You have to give the man credit, he really knew how to die.  He died just like he lived, with impeccable timing. He set the bar high. His doctor and I (one of his best friends) stood over his cooling body crying and telling jokes.

When I got home from work today, after listening to “Prairie Home Companion” in the car, I grabbed some stuff from my apartment and went for a sunset hike up Killington Peak.  By the time I got to the top it was full dark, with some of the most fantastic sunset pictures I have ever taken.

At the top, I could see probably 100 different fireworks displays all happening at once.

As I write this, Garrison Keillor is drinking a champagne toast for his retirement. His radio show was our regular Saturday night entertainment at our Dunmore camp, as there was no television.  We and our neighbors would listen to “Prairie Home Companion” and try to stay awake until 8 p.m. My father often failed.

As I write this, my father died almost exactly 14 years and 10 hours ago, on July 2, 2002.

July 2 is the middle day of the year, which in Taoist tradition is considered to be the safest day of the year — when you can see equal distances in front of and behind you.  It is a good day to retire, and it is a good day to die.

There are pinches and sprinkles of my father all over Vermont. He is atop my favorite mountains, and near my favorite swimming holes.  He is in the yards of homes where I have lived, and he is in parks in faraway cities.

Now a small part of my father is on Killington Peak, the second highest mountain in Vermont; the mountain upon which I live, the mountain upon which I play, and occasionally the mountain upon which I beat myself half to death.

I spread a pinch of my father’s ashes on Killington Peak as I watched all of Vermont celebrate the anniversary of his passing with fireworks.

It was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen, and now wherever I go, I will never be far from my father.

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