Three-quarters of a century is a feat and a burden. Look at him: hardly able to walk or see, his limbs are almost-fleshless bones. Life takes a man back to what he was before he became—but grotesquely, with savagery.
Smoking is my father’s best friend. It keeps him company when he’s alone, and lately, that’s most of the time. The prospect of having to give up smoking while he’s in the hospital for back surgery next month is possibly the worst worry he allows himself to contemplate, the worry that is capable of ruining his already mostly ruined days.
But there are others, of course.
I imagine that my father suffers a great deal in the night and probably less so during the day, when his apartment is well-lit (though he can’t see well) and cars move in the streets below, people walk by, talking, and the world appears to be moving (though, often, I’d imagine, he feels as if it’s doing so without him—he spends so much time alone, in a smoke-enshrouded cave).
He is the one who, more than forty years ago, set up the cardboard house that, left out in the rain overnight, was gone the next morning. I remember my disappointment and anger, but I remember too a limit on these feelings because he, too, was angry, disappointed, and sad. I wanted to protect him from his own sadness and feelings of responsibility. The rain did it, after all.
No Flesh or Muscle
My aunt writes that she took him to the hospital, taking a great deal of time to put him in the car (twenty minutes), drive, and then take him out of the car (another twenty minutes), maneuver him into a wheelchair, etc.
She writes to me that she’s not good at these things. Still, she did it, commenting that his leg and arms are just bones, no flesh or muscle on them, and that the people at the hospital were kind.
My father, a cup-rattler at a crossroads?
He lives mostly inside, where the only weather is the smoky wind of his own exhalations. The tinny sound of the television set cancels out voices from the street, where people are moving toward places other than but also including home.
How often, in company, does he remind himself that while he can’t see them, others may be looking at him? How often does he remind himself to sit up straighter and compose his face?
Is he sleeping now? If not, what is he thinking about? Or is he beyond the realm of thinking, having entered the quicksand of fear? If so, I hope he’ll sleep soon, and dream of the life before this one.
Is he smoking, examining the shape the smoke makes as it moves away from his mouth? Can he even see it? In his story, “Cathedral,” one of Raymond Carver’s characters comments that he thought blind people didn’t smoke because supposedly people do so in order to watch the smoke dribble away from their mouths, taking on shapes.
No one could not say
Last summer, I ran into an old friend of the family on the street. He said: How’s your Dad? Certain people see me and think of my father first. With most of the people I see on the street, it’s the other way around, they see me, think of my mother, ask about her, and then maybe remember him, too. Some people, though, remember him as a fine tennis player, something of a joker, charming, kind. A good guy. No one could not say that about him.
(For some, including our mother, that wasn’t enough.)
Our most important conversations concerned being Jewish. I have no precise recollection of what was said, but I do know that the conversations were deep and meaningful. That feeling is with me. On one such occasion, these thoughts on our religion, or on our culture, the thing that we happened to be born to, came together with my awareness of the way his kitchen ceiling (he was married to his second wife then—there is no third) was black, and the walls that came out from it a dingy grey.
Now that my grandmother is finished in life and there are no more visits, no more looks or words or guilt over not visiting her often enough, there remains simply the terrible ease of being able to call her up, from within, and know who she was—to me, anyway.
This thought came to me as her son, my father, was lying on the floor hungry, certainly, having possibly peed on himself (how could he go so many hours?). Did he pass out? Did he sleep?
He lay on the floor as time passed the world on from Halloween night to the next dawn, also his second child’s birth day.
James Holman (1786-1857)
I’m sure it’s by no coincidence that I find myself reading about a naval man of the 18th century who went blind, as an adult, and then went on to travel the earth, alone. It’s not as if I can offer this character, once a real, living man to my father as a model. This man was in his twenties when he went blind. His limbs worked well, though even he had gone through several periods of intense pain when the only way to heal had been to stay in bed for months on end.
His hands are clenched and his thinking is disoriented. He doesn’t know what year it is. On the phone, he thanked my sister for going to see him, and yet she hadn’t been.
The nurse told my sister that he has sores with pus in them. She said: He was living alone?
He was a little boy in a cowboy outfit and now he’s a nearly-blind old man with sores and unusable arms and legs.
I remember playing with him in a swimming pool—he teased me for too long and I took water through my nose and choked on it. My laughter turned to tears, but in a split second and before he could understand the change. I knew a moment of fury.
My sister and I have written out our lists for each other. This is a hell of a way to spend one’s days, just short of placing bets on the death order of one’s relatives.
My aunt just wrote saying the weather there is crisp and brisk and that she almost hates the beginning of the winter (which she loves so much) because in its beginning is also its end.
Our father has been living, sheltered (with a roof over his head, four walls, and a floor to fall on), but as a homeless man. My sister guesses that he weighs ninety pounds. My aunt reports that there were five wheels of brie in his refrigerator.
So this is an unusual case of homelessness.
He needs steak, chopped liver, eggs, spinach. Every day, every meal.
Old people are like skinned animals: everything shows.
Now that his situation is dire, we’re forced to confront it. I can’t say we haven’t tried before, but our attempts were met with proud resistance. It appeared to us that pride was the only quality remaining—we pretended to let him keep it, a lie all of us chose to live with. Biology exerted its truth. The wound will heal or the doctor will be forced to amputate.
This is how we thought of him: alone, in that dark, dirty apartment, with his cigarettes. In evil moments, we thought that he’d chosen his cigarettes over us. He could’ve had us, and everyone else, but he chose to smoke, and so he was left alone with his cigarettes.
They tell us he hallucinated a cigarette on his hand (not in his hand?). He knew he was hallucinating, so he narrated it for them.
For instance, he said, “I see a cigarette right now on my hand. In fact, I know it’s not real, but I’m going to try to taste it, anyway.” And brought the hallucinated cigarette to his lips.
No one said what happened next.
It’s all in the eyes
You look, and see what you see. Either there’s light in them or not. The light of love, or desire, or desperation. As they age, the eyes remain beacons, as they’ve always been, but what they communicate is softened by the imminence of death. The healthy ones are fierce. In the sick ones, the light has all but gone. Still, it’s a form of life. You see your own eyes in your father’s.
Dad’s arms are “like the Holocaust.” It’s shorthand, but there’s no need to explain.
Would a Holocaust survivor be offended? Perhaps. But seeing my father, I don’t think anyone would quibble.
The quiet, almost dour plastic surgeon drew a line around the redness with a black Sharpie.
She keeps examining the line: here life, there, death. He changes daily—almost a father, not a father, hardly a man. Hardly alive, alive.
Dad lost one tablespoon of blood on the operating table. Meanwhile, 60% of his heel was cut away. Taken down to the (soft) bone. The doctor said she had to scoop it out in four different places: heel, both sides of the ankle, Achilles heel. The polaroid pictures showed meat.
My father’s funeral contained no music, unless you consider the rise and fall of conversation—that, too, is a kind of music if you stand away from it and listen.
We all wore clothes we’d thought about before donning them—costumes.
There was that woman I hadn’t seen in years! I’d been a child, and she’d been like an aunt or an older sister. Our heads had swivelled right and left as, seated center court, we’d watched women play tennis to huge crowds. I looked at her aged-since-then but untired face and drank it in.
My life? It swells in jest or insouciant disregard for the verities then sags with the lie of its earlier swelling.
We were grateful for the times, at the end of his life, when he knew the cigarette he held wasn’t real.