I WILL ARISE NOW AND GO ABOUT THE CITY IN THE STREETS, AND IN THE BROAD WAYS I WILL SEEK HIM WHOM MY SOUL LOVETH.
–Song of Songs 3:2
My vote for best book of 2012: Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity.
“Immersion journalist” Katherine Boo, a staff writer for The New Yorker and a Pulitzer Prize winner, has suffered from rheumatoid arthritis since childhood. Her health is frail. Still, she felt moved to spend three years quietly walking among, standing beside, and observing the people of Annawadi, a Mumbai slum hard by an international airport and a sewage lake.
“The most astonishing feature of this Promethean work of reporting by the American journalist Katherine Boo is the sound of poor Indian voices that comes through every page. Their thoughts about their mothers and fathers, homes, neighbours, work, children and dreams are not often heard in a country where the poor are seen everywhere but are usually silent…
In the first few weeks, Boo is treated as a circus freak by the slum-dwellers who, assuming she has lost her way to a nearby hotel, shout “Hyatt!” or “Intercontinental!” When she is still around, months later, recording conversations, conduct and incidents, she finally becomes a part not of the furniture (there is no furniture in these hovels) but of the landscape: the piles of rubbish, the excrement-caked pigs and goats, the alcoholics and the sewage lake”…
Was she never scared of the rats, whose bites marked the children’s bodies and sometimes exploded in worms? “I’m not squeamish. Tuberculosis was a concern: there were many people I spent time with whose stories were that they got sicker and sicker and then they died. But if you’re really curious, you don’t dwell on it that much.”
Midnight was closing in, the one-legged woman was grievously burnded, and the Mumbai police were comgin for Abdul and his father. In a slum hut by the international airport, Abdul’s parents came to a decision with the uncharacteristic economy of words. The father, a sick man, would wait inside the trash-strewn, tin-foored shack where the family of eleven resided. He’d go quietly when arrested. Abdul, the household earner, was the one who had to flee.
Every morning, thousands of waste-pickers fanned out across the airport area in search of vendible excess—a few pounds of the eight thousand tons of garbage that Mumbai was extruding daily. These scavengers darted after crumpled cigarette packs tossed from cars with tinted windows. They dredged sewers and raided dumpsters for empty bottles of water and beer. Each evening, they returned down the slum road with gunny sacks of garbage on their backs, like a procession of broken-toothed, profit-minded Santas.
Water and ice were made from the same thing. He thought most people were made of the same thing, too. He himself was probably little different, constitutionally, from the cynical, corrupt people around him–the police officers and the special executive officer and the morgue doctor who fixed Kalu’s death. If he has to sort all humanity by tis material essence, he thought he would probably end up with a signle gigantic pile. But here was the interesting thing. Ice was distinct from–and in his view, better than–what he was made of.
He wanted to be better than he was made of. In Mumbai’s dirty water, he wanted to be ice.
Among the poor, there was no doubt that instability fostered ingenuity, but over the time the lack of a link between effort and result could become debilitating. “We try so many things,” as one Annawadi girl put it, “but the world doesn’t move in our favor.”
Boo is tender without sentimentality. She is realistic without despair. She has written a book that is fully human. May she write many more.
From the “Author’s Note”:
“When I settle into a place, listening and watching, I don’t try to fool myself that the stories of the individuals are themselves arguments. I just believe that bettter arguments, maybe even better policies, get formulated when we know more about ordinary lives.”
I’ve culled down my collection of books, but one I’d never let go of is An Island Garden by Celia Thaxter (1835-1894).
The island she refers to is Appledore, one of the Isles of Shoals that shimmer six miles off the New Hampshire coast where I was raised. As kids, of a summer weekend the old man would say, “Who wants to go for a ride?” and we’ll all shout, “I do, I do!” for a ride meant a ride “down to the beach,” and north along the coast, and to Nana’s house in Rye where we’d scoot across Ocean Boulevard, splash in the tide pools, and whip ropes of seaweed around our heads like lariats. We judged the clearness of the day by the visibility of the Isles of Shoals, a Shangri-La which always appeared to hover slightly above the water.
Celia grew up on the islands, where her father was a lighthouse keeper, and became hostess of his hotel, the Appledore House. Here she met and befriended the writers Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Whittier, Sarah Orne Jewett, and the painters William Morris Hunt, and Childe Hassam, who did the watercolors for An Island Garden. There were tragedies on the Isles: an infamous murder on Smuttynose; the death (possibly a suicide) of the painter William Morris Hunt after a long depression; an emotionally distant marriage. Celia herself would die “a sudden death” at 59, mere months after the publication of this book, on the island she loved.
One of the supreme joys of her life was the garden she cultivated over the years near her house on Appledore. In minute detail, she describes bringing the seedlings over by boat each early spring from Portsmouth, the planning, the planting, the insect depredations, the salt spray and early morning dew, the picking, snipping, and arranging of the flowers.
You don’t have to be a gardener to understand and to be moved by what drove her.
We visited the Isles of Shoals a couple of times when I was a kid, but even then I preferred to view them from afar, and now to remember them through this ageless book.
ON THE WONDER OF PLANTS
OF all the wonderful things in the wonderful universe of God, nothing seems to me more surprising than the planting of a seed in the blank earth and result thereof. Take a Poppy seed, for instance: it lies in your palm, the merest atom of matter, hardly visible, a speck, a pin’s point in bulk, but within it is imprisoned a spirit of beauty ineffable, which will break its bonds and emerge from the dark ground and blossom in a splendor so dazzling as to baffle all powers of description.
The Genie in the Arabian tale is not half so astonishing. In this tiny casket lie folded roots, stalks, leaves, buds, flowers, seed-vessels,–surpassing color and beautiful form, all that goes to make up a plant which is as gigantic in proportion to the bounds that confine it as the Oak is to the acorn. You may watch this marvel from beginning to end in a few weeks’ time, and if you realize how great a marvel it is, you can but be lost in “wonder, love, and praise.” All seeds are most interesting, whether winged like the Dandelion and Thistle, to fly on every breeze afar; or barbed to catch in the wool of cattle or the garments of men, to be borne away and spread in all directions over the land; or feathered like the little polished silvery shuttlecocks of the Cornflower, to whirl in the wind abroad and settle presently, point downward, into the hospitable ground; or oared like the Maple, to row out upon the viewless tides of the air. But if I were to pause on the threshold of the year to consider the miracles of seeds alone, I should never, I fear, reach my garden plot at all!
ON PLANTING AND TRANSPLANTING
Small shallow wooden boxes are ready, filled with mellow earth (of which I am always careful to lay in a supply before the ground freezes in the autumn), sifted and made damp; into it the precious seeds are dropped with a loving hand. The Pansy seeds lie like grains of gold on the dark soil. I think as I look at them of the splendors of imperial purples folded within them, of their gold and blue and bronze, of all the myriad combinations of superb color in their rich velvets. Each one of these small golden grains means such a wealth of beauty and delight! Then the thin flake-like brown seeds of the annual Stocks or Gillyflowers; one little square of paper holds the white Princess Alice variety, so many thick double spikes of fragrant snow lie hidden in each thin dry flake! Another paper holds the pale rose-color, another the delicate lilacs, or deep purples, or shrimp pinks, or vivid crimsons,–all are dropped on the earth, lightly covered, gently pressed down; then sprinkled and set in a warm place, they are left to germinate. Next I come to the single Dahlia seeds, rough, dry, misshapen husks, that, being planted thus early, will blossom by the last of June, unfolding their large rich stars in great abundance till frost. They blossom in every variety of color except blue; all shades of red from faint rose to black maroon, and all are gold-centred. They are every shade of yellow from
sulphur to flame,–king’s flowers, I call them, stately and splendid. All these and many more are planted. For those that do not bear transplanting I prepare other quarters, half filling shallow boxes with sand, into which I set rows of egg-shells close together, each shell cut off at one end, with a hole for drainage at the bottom. These are filled with earth, and in them the seeds of the lovely yellow, white, and orange Iceland Poppies are sowed. By and by, when comes the happy time for setting them out in the garden beds, the shell can be broken away from the oval ball of earth that holds their roots without disturbing them, and they are transplanted almost without knowing it. It is curious how differently certain plants feel about this matter of transplanting. The more you move a Pansy about the better it seems to like it, and many annuals grow all the better for one transplanting; but to a Poppy it means death, unless it is done in some such careful way as I have described.
ON GARDEN PESTS
Like the musician, the painter, the poet, and the rest, the true lover of flowers is born, not made. And he is born to happiness in this vale of tears, to a certain amount of the purest joy that earth can give her children, joy that is tranquil, innocent, uplifting, unfailing. Given a little patch of ground, with time to take care of it, with tools to work it and seeds to plant in it, he has all he needs, and Nature with her dews and suns and showers and sweet airs gives him her aid. But he soon learns that it is not only liberty of which eternal vigilance is the price; the saying applies quite as truly to the culture of flowers, for the name of their enemies is legion, and they must be fought early and late, day and night, without cessation. The cutworm, the wire-worm, the pansy-worm, the thrip, the rose-beetle, the aphis, the mildew, and many more, but worst of all the loathsome slug, a slimy, shapeless creature that devours every fair and exquisite thing in the garden,–the flower lover must seek all these with unflagging energy, and if possible exterminate the whole. So only may he and his precious flowers purchase peace. Manifold are the means of destruction to be employed, for almost every pest requires a different poison. On a closet shelf which I keep especially for them are rows of tin pepper-boxes, each containing a deadly powder, all carefully labeled. For the thrip that eats out the leaves of the Rosebush till they are nothing but fibrous skeletons of woody lace, there is hellebore, to be shaken on the under side of all the leaves,–mark you, the under side, and think of the difficulties involved in the process of so treating hundreds of leaves! For the blue or gray mildew and the orange mildew another box holds powdered sulphur,–this is more easily applied, shaken over the tops of the bushes, but all the leaves must be reached, none neglected at your peril! Still another box contains yellow snuff for the green aphis, but he is almost impossible to manage,–let once his legions get a foothold, good-by to any hope for you! Lime, salt, paris green, cayenne pepper, kerosene emulsion, whale-oil soap, the list of weapons is long indeed, with which one must fight the garden’s foes! And it must be done with such judgment, persistence, patience, accuracy, and watchful care! It seems to me the worst of all the plagues is the slug, the snail without a shell…Every night, while the season is yet young, and the precious growths just beginning to make their way upward, feeling their strength, I go at sunset and heap along the edge of the flower beds air-slaked lime, or round certain most valuable plants a [pasteboard] ring of the same,–the slug cannot cross this while it is fresh, but should it be left a day or two it loses its strength, it has no more power to burn, and the enemy may slide over it unharmed, leaving his track of slime. On many a solemn midnight have I stolen from my bed to visit my cherished treasures by the pale glimpses of the moon, that I might be quite sure the protecting rings were still strong enough to save them, for the slug eats by night, he is invisible by day unless it rains or the sky be overcast. He hides under every damp board or in any nook of shade, because the sun is death to him. I use salt for his destruction in the same way as the lime, but it is so dangerous for the plants, I am always afraid of it. Neither of these things must be left about them when they are watered lest the lime or salt sink into the earth in such quantities as to injure the tender roots. I have little cages of fine wire netting which I adjust over some plants, carefully heaping the earth about them to leave no loophole through which the enemy may crawl, and round some of the beds, which are inclosed in strips of wood, boxed, to hold the earth in place, long shallow troughs of wood are nailed and filled with salt to keep off the pests. Nothing that human ingenuity can suggest do I leave untried to save my beloved flowers! Every evening at sunset I pile lime and salt about my pets, and every morning remove it before I sprinkle them at sunrise. The salt dissolves of itself in the humid sea air and in the dew, so around those for whose safety I am most solicitous I lay rings of pasteboard on which to heap it, to be certain of doing the plants no harm. Judge, reader, whether all this requires strength, patience, perseverance, hope! It is hard work beyond a doubt, but I do not grudge it, for great is my reward. Before I knew what to do to save my garden from the slugs, I have stood at evening rejoicing over rows of fresh emerald leaves just springing in rich lines along the beds, and woke in the morning to find the whole space stripped of any sign of green, as blank as a board over which a carpenter’s plane has passed…
Often I hear people say, “How do you make your plants flourish like this?” as they admire the little flower patch I cultivate in summer, or the window gardens that bloom for me in the winter; “I can never make my plants blossom like this! What is your secret?” And I answer with one word, “Love.”
|KAROL WOJTLYA (later POPE JOHN PAUL II)
AS A YOUNG FACTORY WORKER,
WEARING HIS BROWN SCAPULAR
POPE JOHN PAUL II
To all who are passionately dedicated
to the search for new “epiphanies” of beauty
so that through their creative work as artists
they may offer these as gifts to the world.
|SALT MARSH, RYE BEACH|
Chapter 7 from Redeemed
I shall hear in heaven.
It’s a beautiful day in June, eight days before the day my father dies. I leave L.A. at six a.m., fly into Boston and, in the waning light of late afternoon, drive north through the city, the suburbs, into the dense woods and rolling hills of southern New Hampshire. In an hour, I am pulling with a complicated mixture of nostalgia and dread into the driveway of my parents’ house. The yard is usually as neat as a pin, but today the crabapple needs pruning, and it looks like the lawn hasn’t been mowed in weeks.
I take in the kitchen at a glance: the blue cat dish by the radiator, the pot of ivy over the kitchen sink, my mother–plainspoken, dry-eyed–waiting to greet me. “Nothing’s changed,” I think with relief as we hug. Then, over her shoulder, I spot the box of Depends, the walker, the IV pole huddled in the hallway, and the sight of these alien objects, invading the family abode like soldiers from an occupying army, takes my breath away. “Be prepared,” everyone kept saying over the phone, “he’s really gone downhill,” but nothing has prepared me for this.
I turn back to Mom, my eyes a silent question, and she nods toward the dining room. I take a deep breath and snake my head around the doorway. He’s sitting in there, his back to me, in a wheelchair—a wheelchair. Nine months ago, the last time I was home, we’d visited the Fuller Rose Garden, taken drives along the ocean down through Ipswich and Gloucester. Now his stick-like limbs swim inside paisley pajamas, and on his feet he wears Frankenstein shoes, outsized slippers of dark blue canvas with Velcro-fastened flaps.
I stand frozen for a minute, then steel myself not to cry, and walk in. “Hi, Dad,” I say softly. He turns his head—he turns his head so slowly now!—and when he lifts a liver-spotted hand and smoothes it back over his forehead, the hand moves too slowly, too.
For one terrible moment, I’m afraid he won’t recognize me, but then he says weakly, “Hi, Heather.” That’s it. Not, How was your flight? or, At least you made it safe, the way he’s said every other time I’ve come home in the last nine years. Just “Hi, Heather,” warmly enough, but with no affect, as if I’d blown in from next door instead of 3500 miles away. I sit down, put my arm around him and press the side of my head against his. A little plastic plate of cut-up pieces of watermelon sits on the table before him.
“Are you hungry, Dad?” I ask.
His hand moves blindly for the fork.
Ever since the scare two years ago last Christmas—we almost lost him then, but he rallied—my seven siblings and I have been on tenterhooks: calling each other, debating the best course to take, praying. Now he has kidney failure, congestive heart failure, diabetes and blood circulation so poor that the ulcers he started getting on his feet nine months ago have turned into full-bore gangrene. A recent vascular bypass operation not only almost killed him but also didn’t work. The gangrene is inching up both legs, but he doesn’t want them amputated and he probably wouldn’t survive another surgery anyway.
Now the time for debate is past; now everyone’s been notified; now we come home to sit vigil. Those of us who live farther afield drift in, one by one during the next few days, and set up camp in our old bedrooms: Allen, Ross and I from L.A.; Tim, back from Bangkok for the first time in nine years; Meddy, the baby, from western Massachusetts. The ones who live closer by, who have borne the brunt of the horror and grief of the last year, drive over every morning: Jeanne from the adjacent town of Greenland; Geordie the 17 miles from Eliot, Maine; Joe from Portsmouth, a few miles up the coast. All eight of us are together and accounted for, for the first time since anybody can remember.
In the living room, plastic basins of medical supplies occupy the space where the rocking chair used to be, the couch has been pushed back to make room for the plastic commode, my father’s world has shrunk to the distance between the hospital bed and the orange wingchair. We sit with him, not knowing at first it will be for a week—time in abeyance, normal life suspended—our existence reduced to eating, fitful sleeping, trips to the pharmacy, incessant phone calls, waiting, waiting, waiting.
In another life, we range in age from 33 to 54; in another life, we have jobs, responsibilities, families of our own. Here, we are just our father’s children again, vying for his attention, cracking jokes, telling stories to our all-time favorite audience. The air is thick with cries of Dad, Dad, Dad, a name we can’t say enough because we know in a little while we will never have anyone to say it to again. Are you cold, Dad? Are you too hot, Dad? Daddy, how about a sip of ginger ale to wash down that pill? Hey Dad, remember when we used to go out with you after work and pull lobster traps? How about that time we stayed in Bar Harbor and had a pajama party, that was a blast, wasn’t it, Dad? Hey, remember that fat girl Dawn, that nurse last time you were in the hospital. What a jerk, huh, Dad?
He nods obligingly and echoes, “Yeah, what a jerk,” and on his face is the shadow of a smile, as if he were remembering something that seemed funny a long time ago. When silence falls, he looks around at us, his eyes foolish with love, and says, “Well!” His feet are wrapped in white Kling bandages, perched like mummified egrets on his silver wheelchair rests, so tender he winces as soon as anyone gets within a yard of them. The big toe of his right foot is as black as charcoal, the nails of the others yellowed and retracting, the swollen skin seeping blood diluted with watery pus, like flesh that’s been burned. Two, three, four times a day we call the doctor and beg him to up the dosage on the pain medication.
“I’m sorry it hurts so much, Dad, I wish I could do something so it wouldn’t hurt,” we tell him.
He squeezes his eyes shut, shifts his tailbone on the seat of the wheelchair and whispers, “It’s all right. Don’t worry about that.”
For the first few days, he’s restless: feeling for his glasses, fretting at his pocket for a Kleenex, shooting his pajama cuff every two seconds to look at his watch. He has a vague notion that since so many people are around he should be playing host, planning a party. At seven in the morning he comes to and regards us blankly, as if we’re of strangers.
“It’s Ross, Dad,” Ross says, “and Joe and Heath are here, too.”
“Oh,” he says and, after a minute, “How about if I take you all out to lunch?”
“I’ve got an idea,” he says, fifteen minutes after we’ve eaten a huge dinner.
“What, Dad? What?”
“How about having everyone over for fried clams, my treat?”
At nine p.m., he gets a sudden burst of energy. “What are we doing now?” he fidgets. “Are we going out for a ride?”
“No, Dad, not now, it’s almost time for bed. Aren’t you tired, Daddy?”
“That would be nice,” he sighs.
When we were kids, Dad showed us how to fish for mackerel and to dig clams. Geordie, a commercial fisherman, inherited his love for the water from my father, and it’s always been an almost sacred bond between them. After months of licensing snafus and bureaucratic tangles, just a few weeks ago Geo closed on his own 40-foot Bruno-Stillman. Nobody’s been prouder or more excited over this turn of events than my father. Disoriented as he is, one phrase is still guaranteed to perk him up: “GEORDIE’S BOAT.”
“We’re taking him out one more time if we have to carry him,” Geo says bravely, so Saturday we bundle Dad up, prop him pygmy-style in the passenger’s seat, and drive him up to Kittery. Geordie’s made arrangements with the owner of a private pier that has a series of wheelchair-friendly ramps, and the boat’s docked at Badger’s Island, just over the Maine border. Tubs of pink petunias bank a fishing cottage of weathered gray shingles, and the air smells of creosote, but we’re all so emotionally overwrought it’s hard to see the scene as picturesque. As Joe and Geordie push the wheelchair down to the Sea Witch, Dad’s head bobs gently; the rest of us trail behind with blankets, coolers, cameras. While the “boys” figure out the logistics of getting him aboard, he gazes across the river to Portsmouth’s waterfront: black-and- gold tugboats, brick warehouses.
“What a day, huh, Dad?” I say.
“Can’t think of anyplace in the world I’d rather be,” he quavers, raising a shaky hand to readjust his Red Sox cap.
Geordie and Joe hoist him over the railing and set up his wheelchair in the choicest spot they can find, an opening on the starboard edge.
“Where do you want to go, Dad,” Joe asks, “out to sea or upriver?”
He thinks for a minute, then, with an odd glitter in his eye, points straight up, to the sky. We glance at each other. What is he saying: that he’s ready to check out; that he wants to go to heaven? Upriver, we decide he means.
Geordie maneuvers us beneath the Piscataqua River Bridge and we swarm around checking out the new boat: a snug cabin below, smelling of kerosene; a pale blue hold for the fish; coils of tarry rope. It’s a perfect New England late spring day, the maples in full leaf, the clapboard houses gleaming with new paint, the greenswards of rich people’s lawns, as green as golf courses, sloping down to the banks of the river. We take turns crouching beside Dad: hanging on to the back of his wheelchair, zipping and unzipping his jacket, offering him a sweater, a glass of juice, a bite of muffin, a pain pill. He lifts his face to the sun as the breeze riffles through what’s left of his hair and, every so often, raises a trembling finger and points. He’s down to one-word descriptions: “Pelican,” he observes, or “Barge.”
“Where’s the Seawitch?” he wonders halfway through the trip.
“Uh, Dad?” I tell him gently. “We’re on the Seawitch.”
But it doesn’t matter if he knows exactly where he is. He can smell the salt air. He can hear us as we surround him cracking our usual lame jokes. I wonder for a second whether we are doing this for him or whether he’s doing it for us, but then I realize it doesn’t really matter. Every few minutes, as if to reassure himself, his gaze strays toward the wheelhouse to drink in the sight he’s dreamed of for so long: his son, Captain Geordie, at the helm of his own boat.
For the last eighteen months, my mother’s been bringing him in for dialysis—three days a week, four hours a day. The first Friday we’re there, we drive him to the center for his usual treatment, but it’s awful. Anyone who’s been in a similar situation knows it raises all kinds of thorny questions. Could it possibly contribute to a dying man’s dignity to prop him up in a chair for four hours, slowly drain every drop of blood from his body, and then slowly pump new blood back in? Is it compassion to keep a person alive for another week or two just because, with modern medicine’s sometimes violent, invasive procedures, you can? What does it mean to die with dignity, anyway? The very question prompts me to look up “dignity” in our old Webster’s and find it’s from the Latin “dignitas,” meaning worth or merit. In that case, isn’t it impossible to die without dignity? In God’s eyes, don’t we all have merit, no matter what kind of shape we’re in? Because I wanted to remember my father when he was vibrant, coherent, pleasing to look at and listen to. But while it wasn’t working out that way, it had never been clearer that I loved him not because of what he could do, know or understand—but because he existed at all.
One of our health care system’s other delightful mores is that the excruciating pain of one’s last days—the man’s legs are rotting—is to be preferred over the hideous prospect of becoming a drug addict. He’s eligible for at-home hospice care—one of the major benefits of hospice being that they’re allowed to bring on the pain meds full-bore—but the Catch-22 is that he can’t get hospice care as long as he’s still undergoing a “life-sustaining” measure such as dialysis. So over the weekend we have a series of family pow-wows. We talk to the people at the dialysis center, who say he’s so weak he might not survive another treatment; we arrange to go to the hospital; we crowd around the conference table while his doctor confirms that there’s no hope, either way, and explains that without dialysis, he’ll probably go into a coma and die within a week. As it is, he’s becoming more incoherent by the hour. Monday morning—it’s the most wrenching thing any of us has ever done—we make the decision not to bring him in again. The good news is we’re able to call the insurance company and immediately switch over to hospice. Right away, the nurse gets him a prescription for morphine patches.
We run to the drugstore to fill it, run back, paste one, pale as a communion wafer, to his chest. Within minutes, he seems to rest a little easier.
All day long the screen door bangs open and people from our past come through, bearing gifts, like Magi. Our longtime next-door neighbor Vicki Fish, at 83, still wearing dangly earrings, diamond rings and gold lamé flats, brings two perfectly roasted chickens. Mrs. Luff, Meddy’s old friend Alex’s mother, brings peonies cut from her garden. Joe the Barber brings his little brown bag, drapes a towel around Dad’s neck and gives him a trim. My old friends the Cushings come: Marynia with a shepherd’s pie, Janet with a fruit basket. Dick and Diane Jones, our neighbors from forty years ago, drop off a pan of ravioli; Nellie Richards, whose kids Jerry and David I used to babysit, leaves a raspberry coffee cake; Freddie Pridham—he and my father, both bricklayers, worked weekends together for years—arrives with a loaf of stoneground bread. At 70, he is still built like an ox with a mouthful of big, blindingly white teeth, a chest like the prow of a ship, and mammoth arms forested with hair. He looks like an axe wouldn’t fell him, but after visiting with my father, we say goodbye and watch him stagger out to his pickup, lean against the door, and collapse, sobbing.
After a few days, we get the bright idea to start rating people’s offerings: 10 for home-made veal parmigiana, 5 for store-bought muffins, 2 for the cheapskates who come empty-handed. This is quintessential Dad humor, used to hide emotion: pretending not to be grateful when you are really so grateful you could cry. In fact we are moved to incoherence by this outpouring of support; stunned by the affection our father has engendered in his friends. We hold half-hour phone conversations with relatives of my mother’s we’ve never met, we catch up with people we haven’t seen in twenty years, we lean against the kitchen counters to drink in familiar faces grown weathered by age, everyone with their kind words, their reassuring hugs that smell of wind-blown laundry, their own stories of loss: the daughter gone to leukemia, the brother to a stroke, the grandmother who was two months in a coma.
In the end, they all say the same thing: You never stop missing them.
I begin to understand that cliché about the resemblance between old people and babies. Life reduced to bright colors, basic concepts: hungry, thirsty, do you have to go to the bathroom? Talking loudly when people come over to visit, as if that will help: It’s ARCHIE MCKINNON, Dad. You remember MRS. BASSETT, don’t you? Watching the treacherous progress of a spoonful of ice cream as it makes its way from the bowl to his small, birdlike mouth.
And also as if he were a baby, I have some primal urge to touch him: to run a comb through his thinning hair, to swab his mouth with a sponge, to feel his breath on the back of my hand as I feed him a pill. It’s the sacrament of flesh, this making contact, as intimate as sex, or the intimacy we long for and so seldom reach in sex. When he can’t stand up any more, my sister Jeanne, a nurse, teaches us how to pair up and form a human chair by gripping forearms across his back and opposite forearms under his knees: “Put your arms around our necks, Dad, that’s right, watch your shunt, one, two, three, lift–DON’T HURT HIS FEET!–pivot, easy, easy, push the commode this way Mom.” I feel a rivulet of sweat run down my back, not because he’s heavy but because he’s so light it’s scary. We set him down like a rag doll, pajama pants around his ankles, his worn face startled and set, as if he’s just learned he’s the only survivor of a plane crash.
With all that, he never succumbs to despair. Every so often, he’ll snap out of a doze, gaze around at whoever happens to be hanging around his chair, and sigh in his New England accent, “Ahn’t I fohtunate, having you all home like this.” Mom putters around in the background cooking, cleaning, letting us have our day with the old man. She corroborates how much it means to him that we’re here. “It’s all he talks about,” she says. “Every time we’re alone he looks at me and says, `We’re awfully lucky to have such nice kids.'”
Having never been exactly what you’d call a demonstrative family, we bask in this reflected warmth, emboldened to let out all the stops. We have always depended on him, but now he is gripping our hands, grabbing our shoulders, accepting our help. The effect is transformative. We, who tend to communicate by ridicule, are blurting out, “I love you, Dad”—right in front of everyone. We, who in childhood came to fisticuffs over such weighty issues as whether we were going to watch “Green Acres” or “The Beverly Hillbillies” are coming together to lock arms and carry our father to bed. We, who have always prided ourselves on our sarcasm, are reporting back to each other on his every word and move, in voices hushed with reverence. When we look at each other, tears flow so spontaneously it’s like breathing: after awhile, we don’t even bother to wipe them away anymore.
My husband Tim, also a nurse, takes a few vacation days from his job at L.A. County Hospital and flies out to help. Some people are good with children or dogs: he, we all see immediately, is good with sick people, lifting and turning and talking to Dad with just the right combination of authority and gentleness. Desperate for a reprieve, we instantly appoint him liaison to the cavalcade of doctors, pharmacists, and nurses who march across the landscape of our days.
But even Tim sometimes strikes out. “If one is no pain at all and ten is the worst pain you can imagine, where on the scale are you, Al?” he asks.
“That’s true,” my father replies.
The two of us dose him with Oxy-IR, give him a Restoril, prop him up on his wing chair—he prefers his chair to the hospital bed, we think because when his feet are hanging down they hurt less—and sleep on the pull-out couch beside him. A pilled pink blanket bunched over our sweating bodies, my father breathing raggedly beside us, I curl into Tim’s warm, familiar body and fall asleep thinking, This is the sacrament. This is what marriage is really about.
Tuesday morning I wake at five, dress and drive down Atlantic Avenue the four miles to Ocean Boulevard. Rhododendrons bloom, mist rises from open fields, and, fanned out along the ocean, are the summer “cottages” of rich people from Massachusetts, with their sweeping picture windows and colonnaded porches; their empty lawns. I walk along the boardwalk, fine needles of salt spray cooling my face. Beach plums are alive with deep pink roses; the stone walls bordering the mansions blaze with hollyhocks and foxglove. It is a scene—and time of day—my father, both of us early risers, would have loved. Brown seaweed spreads itself out like hair over the barnacled rocks; gulls send up plaintive cries. Waves lap in with a tongue of foam and recede, the smooth weathered rocks clattering like bones.
By Wednesday, he is starting to hallucinate. In the hospital bed, his hand strays again and again to the guardrail, as if groping for a phantom limb. “Can we take this down?” he pleads. “I won’t fall out of the car.”
His eyes are stricken, wild: “The lawnmower’s wet!” he bursts out. “Watch out, Jeanne, there’s something sticking out of the floor!” “I see a head!” “Whose head?” Meddy asks. “It’s Janet,” he says. Janet is our mother.
He’s had false teeth since he was thirty, but this is supposed to be a big secret: none of us have ever seen him without his teeth. That afternoon four or five of us are hanging out, as usual, and Dad is sitting in his chair, staring fixedly into the cold fireplace.
“I was thinking…” he says. We all lean forward but he trails off, his finger pointing at some invisible spot in an invisible dimension, the thought dissolved in the ether; unfurling, if at all, light years away. And then he very calmly opens his mouth, reaches in with both hands, and extracts his dentures. It’s like that scene at the end of Koestler’s Darkness at Noon where Rubashov drops his glasses, hesitates for a moment, then, realizing he won’t be needing them any more, gropes his way to the firing squad without them. After awhile Allen, my oldest brother and my father’s namesake, stands up, walks over, and takes the teeth gently away.
It’s been six days since his last dialysis treatment, but, Thursday morning, amazingly, he still recognizes us. “Hi Ross,” he says in a faraway voice. “Hi, Jeanne.” The hospice nurse tells us she thinks he’s “holding on” for some reason and suggests we go in, one by one, and tell him it’s all right to “let go.” A week ago, the thought of sitting down beside my father and telling him it was okay to die would have been unthinkable. Now, it simply seems like the next indicated thing to do in this reality-suspended time. We’ll take care of Mom, we tell him. You’re the best father in the world and you always will be. Everything’s going to be all right.
Tim has to get back to L.A. and that afternoon, Meddy and I drive him to the airport. When we return, Mom, Jeanne, Ross, Allen and my brother Tim are all gathered around his chair in the living room.
“Look at the skin over his cheekbones, how tight it is,” Mom says.
It’s true. In the space of just a few hours, he’s faded: he looks like a bouquet of flowers you’ve kept a day too long. His skull seems to be pushing out from the inside, stretching the skin taut and deepening the hollows of his eyes. His mouth is slightly open, his tongue is curled, and he is breathing deeply with long intervals in between: Cheynes-Stokes breathing, Jeanne tells us; a sign the end is near.
Allen is holding his left hand; I sit down on the piano bench and take his right. We watch him in silence, inhaling and exhaling along with him, our bodies in communion. Someone says, We should call Joe and Geordie, and someone does: they are on their way down from Portsmouth.
He takes a deep, ragged breath and winces. “Okay, Daddy,” Med whispers.
A few minutes later, he takes another breath, lets it out—and then he doesn’t breathe any more. We sit in silence for what seems like an eternity. Finally, I tear my eyes away and look down at my brothers and sisters and mother. Their faces are white.
Jeanne gets her stethoscope, snakes it down the front of his pajama top, listens for a second or two. “It’s all over,” she says, and with some elemental instinct, we form a circle, join hands with his, and begin: “Our Father, who art in Heaven”…
That night I slept in his bed, the hospital bed we’d set up in the living room, the one my brothers laid him out on to bathe before the people came from Remick Brothers. Watching the hearse back down the driveway and onto Post Road—the last time my father would leave this house he’d built, the house he’d fathered some of us in—I found my right hand going up to lay itself over my heart. I’d seen photos of firemen, their hats laid over their hearts for a fallen comrade, but I’d never known it’s instinctive: not only the making of a final salute; but this gesture buried deep within us, to let the person know our hearts are bound to theirs, forever.
I could have slept in another bed that night, or made his up fresh, but I didn’t want to: I wanted to be as close as I could to him one last time. Lying there on the pale orange sheets, spotted lightly from my father’s wounds, I knew that we are loved absolutely, that suffering is collective, that like Christ, he had somehow died for all of us. We want to hide death, we’re afraid of death, but it has so much to teach us.
We took a lot of photos that morning on Geordie’s boat. One in particular grips my heart. It is a picture of my father, his head framed by the pale green river behind him, his shoulders stiff with pain, his hand clutching a thigh. Half of his face is in shadow, the eye drooping closed; the other eye is wide open to the light, a fixed, blank look to it, as if it were staring into a world way beyond this one. His expression is a mixture of terror and the dawn of an awful peace—as if, on the far far horizon, he was just beginning to glimpse what it might mean to have borne his suffering to the last drop.
I have no way of knowing what that means myself; no proof that the last will be first, that the meek will inherit the earth, that the poor shall enter the kingdom of heaven. I only know that I have looked at the face in that photo so many times, I no longer see just my father. I see myself. I see my mother and my brothers and my sisters. And every so often—on a good day—I am even starting to see you.
|DADDY DIED ON JUNE 10, 1999.
TIM AND I WERE DIVORCED ON NOVEMBER 25, 2003.
THE SEA WITCH WENT DOWN, HIT BY A ROGUE WAVE,
IN A STORM OFF THE MAINE COAST ON NOVEMBER 4, 2006. CAP’N GEO IS STILL FISHING.
OUR SISTER JEANNE DIED, OF COMPLICATIONS FROM LUNG CANCER, ON MARCH 15, 2008.
|WORD: Editing ,Straight Up
I don’t know why; I just love this. I figure it will attract people with senses of humor.
Karl Schmidt-Rotluff, Woman with Bag, 1915
I’ve built a new “website” for my editing business: WORD: Editing, Straight Up. Check it out.
I’ve had BUSINESS cards made, I’m looking into opening a separate BUSINESS account.
Allow me to introduce a woman whose manuscript I edited last year, Martha Thompson.
artha self-published a memoir about her struggle with anorexia called The Oxygen Mask Rule that just received a 2012 New York Book Festival – Honorable Mention winner in the Biography/Autobiography category and is a Finalist in the Women’s Issues category of the 2012 International Book Awards.
She has been a wonderful example: as a writer and as a human being. So I rejoice for her.
Check out her book!
|THE OXYGEN MASK RULE:
HOW MY BATTLE WITH ANOREXIA TAUGHT ME HOW TO SURVIVE
by MARTHA L. THOMPSON
|PATRON SAINT OF MY DESK|