When I get to my parents' house, I will begin choosing photographs for the collage we will surely hang, when the time comes, at my father's wake. He is still alive. That is, someone who resembles my father, who sounds like him and has some of his memories, is moving and breathing in a body that bears my father's name on its hospital bracelet. I think about the sifting of the photographs, this sad yet somehow life-affirming task that lies ahead of me, and I push my fingers hard against the skin of my eyelids. Inside, instead of black, I see glinty colorful zigs of neon, and so I press harder. This is happening as I wait for the call to board the airplane, as I wait, as I suppose I am doing every day, for another call, a phone call which will summon me on this same trip, for another reason.
When I hear the call for first class passengers, I remember myself, a twitchy eight-year-old girl in an expensive matching knit dress and coat, holding my father's hand, excited to be on our way to California, Mexico, everywhere. Maybe it's because I am traveling without my own children that my thoughts reach back to trips when I was a child, when an airplane meant Disneyland and fun and room service, instead of dutiful visits and fatigue.
Eventually the gate attendant calls the rest of us and I enter the plane, a weary 46-year-old woman in six year old shoes, glancing momentarily to the left, and half expecting see my father lounging in a first class seat, instead of lying in a hospital bed at the other end of my flight. He is 79, has had a stroke and hip surgery; he has Alzheimer's, but my brother Gary tells me our father remembers all the long ago vacations, the first class seats, penthouse rooms, chauffeured limousines. Once, he asked an ICU nurse, “Is there going to be a movie on this flight?”
I find my seat in the economy section and for the first time in a lifetime of flights, I put on the soft sleeper's blindfold a friend insisted I take along. I clamp on headphones and select classical music, as another friend has suggested, and for the next couple of hours, I do nothing. Nothing but sort through the pictures in my memory.
I remember how my father used to walk around the block, admiring the neighbors' gardens, waving to the kickball teams, nearly every night after dinner, in tall nylon socks and shiny Italian shoes, and how I had thought, with the smugness of being 15, what an old-fashioned man he was. I even withered when someone at school said, “I saw your father out walking last night.”
I see my father, who people said resembled the actors Errol Flynn and Clark Gable, on a 1970s Saturday night in our living room. He stands against the white grand piano, his suit uncreased, smoking and whistling Sinatra, and then he whistles at me, a gawky 13-year-old in Danskin stretch pants. He and my mother are heading out to the New Jersey Textile Industry Dinner or the Polyester Manufacturers Ball. Polyester made him a success, but he hardly wore the stuff. His style was sharper, his suits made by a Hungarian tailor in a gritty Paterson storefront. He was never without a pocket square. If the word dandy had not gone out of fashion, that is what you might have said about my father's look - pencil mustache, hair styled, not just cut, a pinky ring, but tasteful. He ruined me, my father, for every boy in blue jeans and a torn tee shirt who would look my way.
When I was at my parents' house last, my mother asked me to look through his den closet for the legal documents she knew they had, somewhere. She had already searched the desk, file cabinets, and the freezer. Wills, medical directives, power-of-attorney — where would my once smart and formerly organized but now befuddled father have put them? What I found instead were his high school notebooks, stacked and neatly marked; the one which said, “Science 1942”³ filled with meticulous colored-pencil renderings of the human heart, the muscles in the leg, the frontal lobe of the brain. My father, who quit school in the tenth grade to help his father operate a scrap metal business and support his seven siblings, had wanted to be a doctor; we all always knew this. As a very small child, I once thought he was, at least an almost-doctor. He dispensed medical advice to everyone, almost all unwanted. We teased him about it: “Oh, here comes another one of Doctor Tony's diagnoses.” He laughed, then. Seeing those notebooks, the hopeful sweep of his careful script where he labeled the aorta, the Dr. Tony jokes did not seem so funny.
I briefly consider reading the mindless novel I tossed in my carry-on, but I am drawn to an image in my mind - me, just the night before, sitting on my king-sized bed with my 12-year-old son, who picks at the pilled lint on the spread, his chewed stubby fingers with spits of fingernails tracing the pattern. My boy is limp with exhaustion and worry for me and for his dying PopPop, whom he resembles. He grabs my hand, and says, “Don't worry, Mom. I'll help you.” The feel of my hand in his takes me to another remembered scene: my father (how young he looks, so young at 53) taking into his hand that of his 92-year-old mother, when her husband of 77 years had died, and saying, “Don't worry, Mom. I'm here.”
Someday, I imagine I will want to remember all of these images, my kind young son looking at me through hopeful brown eyes (my eyes, everyone says) and too soon playing parent. My father, dying fathers, dutiful sons, and aging mothers - they all combine and churn through my mind, opening and filling spaces much like when a thread is loosed from a woven throw, rending a visible vertical space where the fabric is weakened until other threads nearby spread to fill and strengthen the void. Like a thread unspooling, the airplane speeds me closer to scenes I cannot yet imagine.
After his broken hip, I toured a nursing home, where I asked the chirpy administrator what the old folks do all day, after they eat and get their bed-bath, and take their meds. “They talk among themselves. They have their memories you know.” Yes, I know. Memories of once-rich lives, of kids, jobs, vacations, images of the strong people they used to be, the way they once could read the fine print, toss a baseball, write an engineering report, cook for a crowd, coax tulips from a rocky garden, drive cross country, and make their own beds. What must it be I wonder, to remember a former self, now irretrievable? To revisit one's competent, capable past? Yes, they have their memories. Poof.
Before I left on this trip, I told my oldest girlfriend, whom my parents brought along for me on all those vacations, that my father wants to be cremated, and that I agree. I never want to visit him at a cemetery I say; he would not really be there. She tells me that stepping into the quiet carpeted hallway of the mausoleum where her father's body rests is the one place she finds his memory most alive, and that in a strange way she cannot articulate, this makes her happy; that when she is there, every memory she recalls of her stern father, is a happy one. I find myself wondering, as the plane descends, if all memories of the once-loved are automatically transmuted to happy recollections upon their death. Or is it that all happiness is just memory, then?
From the Las Vegas airport, I step into a taxi and say, “Summerlin Medical Center please,” and the driver's bushy eyebrows twitch upwards. “My father,” I say. A few minutes later, the desert heat makes me woozy, and when I steady myself with my hand on the back of the front seat, he reaches his left hand across his body, and rests it on mine, so briefly I almost don't remember it. Then his eyes locate mine in the rear view mirror, and he blinks, slow and long and says, “I know.”
In his hospital room I don't see the shriveled man in the bed, only my father — Tony, Big T, Tony Chip — the man who was lean and limber, whose strong hand I held on trips to his Empire State Building office, who spun me around in circles with iron forearms under my armpits, whose sturdy legs walked the Munich Zoo with me on his shoulders. The man in the bed is too weak to stand now, because of the arthritis, the stroke, the osteoporosis, the curved back, the artificial hip that never gets any use. This all exists however only in his short-term memory, which he has mercifully misplaced. Each morning when he wakes, I worry that he is confounded by his condition, again, and again. But he seems pre-occupied with other, more pressing matters.
“I want to get up, damn it,” he says, when he sees me. Not hello. Not Oh, it's Lisa, all the way from New Jersey. Not When did you get here, kiddo? the way he greeted me just a few weeks before.
“I know my rights, damn it. They can't make me stay here,” he growls.
“You have to stay for a while, Dad,” I say. “It's a good place.”
“It's a dump,” he says. Then, more genially, “Give me the phone, I want to call the front desk. I want to switch hotels.”
Like so many Alzheimer's sufferers, I am to learn, my father is living in his long-term memory, skipping through the decades, alighting when it suits him, I guess, wherever it is most appealing or perhaps most potent. I decide this is a pretty good use of what memory he has left at his command, and I promise myself I will not attempt to drag him through the time tunnel of reality. Anyway, I am too tired to try.
When I call my mother across town to see if she is coming to the hospital, she asks, “Is he himself today?” How to answer? “Yes,” I say finally. “Exactly himself, if you subtract 30 years.” I imagine my mother might be comforted or pleased to hear this, to know that her spouse of 59 years, whose physical suffering is so great his pain meds are dispensed on demand, is mentally reliving some shared past pleasures. Later, when she comes, I see how it is.
He asks about long-dead relatives, talks about houses they have not lived in for 30 years, refers to companies he closed down decades before, wonders what to order from room service. She cannot walk down the hallway to get him the ice water he wants because her damaged knee is inflamed and this puzzles him and he wants to know, when did that happen?
“Years ago, Tony. We're getting old,” she says and he looks confused. The towel rod in the guest bathroom back at the house is broken and she does not know whom to call to fix it, she says, but he does not answer. The anniversary of the day they met has passed without the original poem and card he has written her annually since 1943, and she tries to explain this to him, to see if he remembers the dance at St. Michael's Church. She still remembers what she ate for breakfast this morning, alone.
The next day, my father and I have what I will come to call the cash conversation.
“I need to have some cash. For tips. When they bring the room service again. Or for the bellman, you know. I don't have any money,” he says, looking both flabbergasted at his own carelessness and annoyed at - the world.
I remember the polite Mexican man who brought up a flower arrangement the day before and how flustered my father looked, how many times he thanked him and this funny motion he seemed to be making with his right hand sliding at an angle along his protruding hipbone.
“You don't need any money at this place, Dad. Everything is paid for. It's all covered in advance,” I say.
“No, tips are never included,” he says, exasperated, I suppose, that all our travels have not taught me this valuable lesson.
“Yes, Dad,” I try again. “Remember when we went on cruises, how it was all included? It's like that here.”
He clucks his tongue and a little spit runs down the side of his drooping mouth. “A man's got to have some money in his pocket,” he says, his voice so mournful, so stripped, as stripped as he under his thin, wrinkled blue robe.
Lunch arrives and my father waves at the dietary aide, and says, “Thank you ma'am.” To me, he says, “See what I mean, I have nothing to give her.”
I tell this to my mother and my brother later that night over steaks at a neighborhood restaurant which my father never liked and where we are now free to eat. Why did I imagine they would find this sad little story to be sweet? They both frown, shake their heads and Gary says, “Oh, he says that ten times a day. He thinks he's in a hotel. Last week he picked up the phone and wanted to call the front desk and get a car and driver.”
“Where do you suppose he wanted to go?” I ask, delighted at the possibilities. I am the writer in the family, the one who likes to ask these kinds of questions and I have forgotten that the response from my family is often a bewildered exasperation, a slow shake of the head. Here, clearly I am the only one charmed by my father's serendipitous speech. I nearly don't censor my next thought: that he is, in his own mind at least, already in some kind of a better, or at least a more congenial place, a place he knows and knows how to leave.
I see that I am the only one who can afford this perspective; I am the only one who has not grown weary. I am the only one who has not reluctantly forfeited yet another scrap of hope each day. I am the lucky one who lives 2,700 miles away and who can and will leave behind the nonsense conversations, the soiled bed sheets, his wild screams just before awakening, which I have heard about but have not yet heard.
While I feed my father breakfast the next morning, he stops chewing and pieces of egg drop from his lips as he looks at me, his eyes scary wide.
“Oh, Lisa, my Lisa,” he says, grabs my hand tight and quick, pulls it to his lips and kisses my knuckles. When he opens his mouth again, what I hear will be the last lucid things he will ever say to me. “When did you come? Did Frank and the kids come too? Does Sean still play basketball? And when is Paul going to send me another one of his drawings?”
“Dad! Dad!” I say through a swollen throat. “Oh, Daddy, hi, how are you?” I kiss his cheek and begin to splay out answers, but his face goes flaccid.
“We have to go to the funeral,” he says. His eyes are searching, sunken. He grabs my hand again; the grip now weak though insistent. This is the start of the conversation we will repeat every day for the rest of the week.
“Whose funeral?” I ask, wary of the answer.
“Daddy died,” he says. “Did you tell all my brothers and sisters?”
“Grandpa died a long time ago,” I say. I pat his hand, I swipe my wet cheek, I look away, and when I look back at him, I have arranged a new smile on my face.
“There are things we have to do,” he says, “arrangements to make. We have to do it properly.” He is using the urgent, boss tone I have heard him use a hundred times with recalcitrant employees, with mediocre contractors, and with a younger, wise-ass me.
I trying to intuit what it is about this event, this rite, which occurred 26 years before, that is niggling at him, what it is about this memory that will not be quieted. Except for the obvious parallels between dying fathers, I come up empty. “Yes, Dad, you did all that. It was a proper funeral. You took care of everything,” I say.
Then my father is quiet for a while. Later, he wants to know, “Did Daddy die?”
My brother's interpretation of this exchange is impatient, dismissive. “That figures,” he says. “Right up to the end, it's still all about his old man.”
I want to say, no. No, don't you see - it's all about you, it's all about sons and fathers. But I don't say this because really, what do I know? Maybe it is all just babbling. Or maybe it's about things I may never understand; over-controlling fathers and dutiful tethered sons and decades-old guilt and the shackled inheritance of paternal duty.
I spend two hours that night in my parents' garage, combing through black and white photographs my mother keeps stored in a heavy mahogany bureau that once belonged to her father-in-law. The photos are not in any kind of order, but each wide, deep drawer is full. Eight-by-tens in cardboard frames from the Copacabana, the Coconut Grove, and the Sands Hotel overlap with dozens of three-inch square snapshots with curly edges.
When I look at the people in the squares, those glossy smiling ghosts, it occurs to me that my father needs more of his past, not less. I decide to bring a photograph to the hospital the next day and I make an effort to secret one in my purse, even though my mother does not notice anyway, because she cannot come into the garage and watch me communing with her disappearing husband.
“Dad, I brought you something,” I say the next morning, after he is wheeled back from the MRI room, where his severely curved back prevented the technicians from running the scan, unable to lay him down anywhere near flat.
When he first grabs the photograph, he seems confused and is about to hand it back, then slowly his eyes widen and a smile slices his grey folded skin. In the frame he is the young handsome guy he must remember, the dapper gent, in pinstriped trousers, with suspenders flat, a white shirt with cuffs carefully folded back. Here is the confident, cock-sure, bootstrap businessman, who could dance a mean tango, win at craps, front the Moose fundraiser, and walk two miles after dinner.
My father's eyes begin to move across the scene, pausing on all the men, his brothers and brothers-in-law, the fraternita they called themselves. They are assembled on a Sunday afternoon in his parents' New Jersey backyard, bocce balls at hand, a small table in the background holding bottles of homemade wine, beer cans, an ashtray.
These seven sons of Italian immigrants are all either dead now or feeble or so removed from my father's and from my own world, I think of them all as gone. But for the moment, or maybe all the time in his mind, the fraternita is young again, fierce perhaps. I remark that the old Buick Electra my Grandfather drove for 20 years is visible in the left corner; but my father shushes me, his finger to my lips. For the next half-hour, he keeps looking at the photo and I see his eyes pause, move, pause, as the yellowed nail of his right forefinger taps each of the men's faces.
Standing next to my father is Uncle Mario, the tallest, the barber with luxuriant prematurely white hair, who always looked a little too well dressed and clean to have spent six hours clipping hair and slathering shave cream. He never cut my father's thick brown hair. He was a bookie, the barbershop a front. Someone must have told me because one day I simply knew this family secret, but it was not my father who told me. No, my father had said, only once, “It's not our business.”
Uncle Bruno is there, mild, deferential, happy to go along. When did I learn he had a mistress for years, and was a serious gambler? When a cousin criticized him once openly, at a barbecue, my father said, “Don't throw stones.”
Kneeling is Uncle Patsy, the conciliator, the guy who often talked down the fractious frat boys. He beat his wife, the story goes, not often, but often enough that the fraternita finally showed him: he could not beat up their sister again. My father and I visited him once, an 80-year-old in a wheelchair, and he was kissing his wife's hand. In the car later, I wisecracked that he was a good actor, and my father had said, quietly, “That's not for us to judge.”
There is Uncle Carlo, the liberal, the thinker, the teacher always in teacher mode, who quoted Plato in an over-educated Italian accent. His son, my cousin, told me once that at home his father screamed verbal abuse, used his belt in response to a B on a report card. My mother often criticized him, but my father said only, “He expects a lot.”
Uncle Fredo was the black sheep con artist, the thrice-divorced laggard, who showed up broke with outstretched hands and a new wife every few years. When he died, his widow sent my father the poems he had written. Softening us up because she wants money, the family said. But my father simply put them in his scrapbook and pulled out his checkbook.
My father's finger never once pauses on his own face, this Uncle Tony, whose textile factory and trucking company and recycling plant always had jobs for everyone, whose checks and counsel and well-placed phone calls held up drifting nephews and widowed sisters-in-law. The same Tony Chip who lost half of his sizable live savings at a craps table one night soon after retiring to Las Vegas in 1981 - an event Gary only recently revealed to me and only when the subject of finances came up in the context of nursing home cost versus private at-home round-the-clock care. Not knowing what to say, I said what I imagined my father might have said: “That's all in the past.”
My father's eyes linger longest on Uncle Nick, who looked like a shylock version of my father, just a little too clever. I can't find the memory, but I know there must have been a time when I first learned that he had taken the rap for the tax fraud committed by the family business. That the fraternity decided Nick had the least to lose, and after that, there were houses where Uncle Nick was never again welcome; but my father always said, “He's my brother. Be quiet.”
My father's finger traces Nick's face. “My brother, is he okay?” he asks. He is - okay; but he will not visit his brother because he says he dislikes airplanes, or at least he cannot come now, bum knee and all.
“Yes, Uncle Nick's fine,” I say.
“Because when Daddy died, I promised to take care of my brother,” my father says. “He's not here anymore you know. Papa died.”
Then we have the Grandpa's dead conversation again, and then my father and I have the cash conversation again, and this time I show him that I am slipping a pile of single dollar bills into the bedside stand. “See, Dad? Now you have money for tips.” I tell myself, so what if it is gone by morning, given to or palmed by who knows who. What is the going rate these days anyway for pain relief?
“That's it, kid,” he says. He winks. He circles his thumb and forefinger in the universal OK sign, then brings his circled fingers to his cheek and twists - the little Italian oomph gesture that means either you're sweet, or that's the way.
When my mother and brother get there, I tell them about the tip money while my father is on the fifth floor getting an X-ray. “You should have seen his face,” I say, “he was so relieved.” My brother runs his hand through his thick grey hair and my mother frowns and gazes out the window; their reaction makes me want to put my fist through that clean, wide window all the way to the Black Mountains in the distance. Instead I excuse myself and collapse into the blue couch in the visitors' lounge that has become my favorite, and I dial home, where my older son wants to know if PopPop is resting, and my younger son wants to know if his PopPop is getting better, and my husband wants me to know that I can stay as long as I need, as long as I want.
In the elevator a few hours later, my brother hands me twelve folded single dollar bills. “Someone will steal it,” he says. “Anyway, he'll never know the difference.” That's true, I think. Or, maybe not. Either way, I want to scream, that was not the point, something that could have been evident even to my 8-year-old, maybe even to a 79-year-old with Alzheimer's.
We ride down in stilted silence, frustration burning in my ear, but my plan now clear: It is almost time for me to go home. I see now, with no surprise, my bitterness steadily receding, that my brother and my mother, often on opposite sides of my father's frequent tirades have, wordlessly and with the self-preservation necessary to survive what is coming, lashed their drifting lifeboats together, closed ranks. I am the outsider who can and will escape the next day; I want to.
On the plane back to New Jersey, I pray for endings - an end to my father's suffering of course, and also an end to my mother's and brother's tenuous vigil and their seeming obliviousness, and the end to my own diffident self-righteousness. Endings do not scare me, because they define memory, and give shape to remembering, to everything. One day, knowing how all of this ends, it may be possible, I suppose, to make something of it. Something that will bring together for me the atrophied hospital patient worried about events 30 years past, and the dandy gentleman pillar from my childhood. Both are already outlining their shapes in my memory, separate and together, past and present. The faded photographs at his funeral will stake out their shapes, too. Shape-shifters.
I make a mental note: tip the pall bearers.