Christmas Eve, Australia, 1994
“Hey, Trace. How’s it goin?”
As if I didn’t know.
“Papa’s been committed to the mental hospital.”
Okay. So I didn’t know.
Carrie and I are spending the holidays with her dad, Milt, and his wife, Glenda, in a “rustic” shack in the middle of the wildly beautiful island state of Tasmania. Rustic here means a wooden fence, broke in a few places and in bad need of a paint job; a kitchen—no windows or fan, dark as a dungeon, paint peeling off the walls like a snake sheds its skin; and a back “verandah” consisting of a rusty corrugated-iron shed with a dirt floor, the junk stuffed in the corners covered with a thick layer of fine dust. The old nail holes in the bent tin let in pinholes of light that illuminate motes of dust floating in the stagnant air. This seems to be the local substitute for air conditioning. It’s probably nearly 40 outside (that’s Celsius, over a hundred in the shade).
It’s the middle of summer. I just can’t get used to sweating and suffering through a stinking hot Christmas. Countless little flies land on your face, fly up your nose and into your eyes, relentless little females seeking protein for their brood, tickling, covering your food like crawling black peppercorns. The broiling sun is up for eighteen hours.
Yesterday, as we were driving down the dirt track to our “retreat,” we followed an old, beat-up “ute” (Australian for pickup), crawling down the track, herding sheep from one paddock to the other. The ute had once been red, I think. Every few seconds, the driver’s brown and weathered arm would lift from its resting position, elbow out the open window, and he’d jab his pointed index finger hard left or hard right, over the top of the cab—jab-jab-jab left, jab-jab-jab right—then return it to rest on the door sill. Whilst jabbing, he’d whistle.
I sure wish I could whistle like that. Loud as hell, without putting two fingers in the mouth—real cowboy style. Two for left, three for right, in unison with the pointing finger. With one hand on the wheel and the other jabbing, I suppose he didn’t have a finger to spare for whistling. All we could see of him from behind through his dirty cracked cab window was the top of his Akubra—the “dinky-die” (truest of the true) Aussie version of a Stetson—bent, stained and holed. Pure style, jammed on the back of his crown, bouncing along with the vehicle over the ruts.
His cattle dog, the requisite blue-tick hound, small, eager, and tightly wound, was running the sheep in front of his boss, the “farmer” (Australian for rancher). Thus vexed, the sheep filled the roadway from fence to fence in the brief respites between being worried by the frantic dog. With his head down and bum up, he herded the sheep towards the right or left side of the road, jamming them up against the broken-down fencing, nipping at their heels, yapping all the while. The farmer saw us in what was left of his cracked rearview, jabbed right and whistled three times, and the dog perfectly corralled the sheep against the fence on the right side so we could pass. It watched us out of the corners of its gray eyes, impatiently indulging the imposing idiots, until we safely passed. We smiled and waved—to the farmer, that is. He kept both his hands on the wheel, unsmiling, and barely uncurled one index finger upwards for a brief moment. Carrie informed me that this was actually a traditional and enthusiastic greeting for rural Aussie drivers. I secretly resolved to practice it when alone.
He also shook his head “no” at us. That one went right by me, so I asked me true-blue Aussie “sheila,” Carrie, my wife, what he might be upset about. She shook her own head and rolled her eyes like I was an idiot (page 4, illustration C, in our imaginary “book of looks”) and indulgently explained, “He wasn’t shakin’ his head no, dickhead” (Australian for “dickhead”), “that was a ‘howdy’.”
As time went on, I’d learn to differentiate between a real no—a sideways shaking of the head back and forth, kinda like Carrie’s—and the quick, one-shot, sideways and a little skewed upwards jerk of the head, usually led with the chin, that meant “howdydoo.” After a few years, like my fake Aussie accent, I’d perfect that one too. Just enough to elicit a mocking laugh from the locals. Aussies begin to consider liking “Yanks” (Americans, whether from north or south of the Mason-Dixon line) when we can “take the piss” out of ourselves (Australian for self-deprecating).
When we got back from our little excursion, Milt told me that my niece Tracy had called. Pop was visiting my sister Suzie, Tracy’s mother, in LA for the holidays. I knew this meant trouble when Suzy mentioned the idea before we left the States. He’d been living with us in Flagstaff, Arizona since his stroke. Suzie didn’t want to “take care” of him any more. More on that later.
We had a home caregiver helping him out while we did our little Australian excursion so Carrie could see her elderly dad for the holidays. Carrie missed her homeland like an imprisoned Aboriginal misses the earth and sky. Deadly to the soul.
My dad and my sister, together again. Two battered ships steered by the currents of life, neither one of them strong enough to take the wheel, neither liking it one little bit.
A knot formed in the pit of my stomach. A phone call was required. This seemingly simple act isn’t so bloody easy when you’re seventeen hours different from the U.S. and staying way out in the “whoop-whoops” of deepest, darkest Australia.
Aussies seem far away to Yanks. Other side of the planet. Way farther than, say, Japan or China. Tasmania seems far away to mainland Aussies. They have jokes about “Tassie” Natives. Something about having two heads. That’s how far out we are.
“Well, Unka. He had a little problem.”
“Whadya mean, ‘little problem’?”
I’m leaning against the age-stained plaster inside the dark, flyblown kitchen, trying to have some privacy from the others without the modern convenience of a cordless phone. They’re in the living room, sweating around a fireplace and a pitiful eucalypt Christmas tree, pretending not to hear. As hot as it is, Christmas of course wouldn’t be Christmas without a fire and a tree. English roots. I think to myself how a scrawny little eucalyptus tree seems such a failure compared to a nice, jolly, green spruce. How Christmas just isn’t Christmas without snow on the windowsill. My Aussie hosts, on the other hand, seem to be having a ball, wrapping presents, drinking Carrie’s signature champagne with frozen mango sorbet, having a “good ol’ chin wag.” After several frustrating tries, and pissing off more than one operator, I’ve finally gotten through. This little exercise doesn’t do my mood any good. Dragging information out of Tracy is making it worse.
“I’m not real sure. I think he did something to Jen.”
Jennifer is her youngest sister, currently in her early teens. She’s spent a lot of her brief life growing up in alternative schooling for emotionally troubled youngsters, and getting whatever counseling my sister decided she could afford, which was neither much nor enough. Jen was apparently abused by her father as a young child, which seemingly nobody, including my sister, admitted knowing anything about until later. Nobody that is except for Jennie’s sister Tracy and brother Todd, who were too young and too scared to speak of such goings on. Their sheriff’s deputy daddy would get home in the middle of the night and force Jen to wake up, make him food and serve him and wash the dishes before being allowed to go back to bed. This was all Suzie’s family would discuss, but you got the feeling there was something else, something dirty, hidden from the world. Suzie said later that she slept right through it and never knew. After years of this bizarreness , there was a long-overdue, frantic call from Suzie to Pop. He flew right out to Chicago to pack them up and drive them back to live with him in LA— sans deputy dawg—no questions asked. This is what a father does. My father.
Jennie has a “weight problem”. She’s got a lovely face, which sadly she hides whenever a camera appears. She has a great personality, caring and loving and sweet, then explodes in frequent temper tantrums that make me cringe. I can’t help feeling a little guilty that I didn’t do anything to help her when she was younger, but I guess I can’t really think of anything I could have done anyway. I can take her in doses, like, I suppose, the rest of my family.
No doubt they feel the same about me.
“Comon Trace. Gimme a break. What do you mean ‘did something’?”
Nervous giggle. “Well, I don’t think it was anything real bad. He said something to her or something. Maybe touched her. She was pretty upset. So mom called the police and they took him away.”
“WHAT THE F……” Stay calm, Jeff, stay calm. “….Called the police!? Took him away? What for? He’s had a stroke for chrissakes! He’s got dementia. He’s not a stranger or a child molester—he doesn’t even know what he’s doing! She’s his daughter, for crying out loud! HE BOUGHT HER THAT FUCKING HOUSE THEY DRAGGED HIM OUT OF!”
Right. Good job. Now that was calm.
And so I get only bits and pieces of the story. Tracy—having grown up in a family of typical Jewish fruitcakes, with my neurotic sister Susan for a mother—has a strong tendency to, let’s say, stay out of all politics at all times. Since life is all about politics, this translates into keeping her mouth shut. That said, as the oldest of the three, she’s probably the most stable. Survival trait, along with the fact that she spent her early youth with Suzie’s first husband, who, while imperfect, at least could lay claim to being relatively normal.
The minute I hang up, I immediately call my other sister, Linda—the middle sister—in Chicago, to get a little more of the story and start putting the puzzle together. Linny’s most like my mom of all of us, which means she is short and stubborn and in control of her world and of the worlds of those she loves. In other words, she’ll handle this. At least she’ll put her head down and bum up, which makes us all step up to the plate.
“Linny. What the fuck’s going on?”
“Stop swearing. Where ARE you?” Annoyed, nasal, heavy Chicago accent, which thankfully I never had too much of.
“Fucking Tasmania. The other side of the planet. You couldn’t get any further away if you tried, except maybe if you went to the Antarctic, which come to think of it is next door. What the hell’s going on?”
And so she explains the parts she knows, being a thousand miles from LA. Thankfully, she’s on better terms than Suzie is with what’s left of our once gregarious and now fractured family. Thus she has been able in short order to get the gist from Pop’s favorite brother, Uncle Al. Tall, dignified, quiet and in control. I love that guy. Our family used to have annual summer picnics in the Forest Preserves outside Chicago with over a hundred shouting, laughing, hot dog and potato salad eating, softball- and mah-jhong-playing people. Then mom died. No more picnics. The glue just melted away.
Pop had been living with me and Carrie damn near since his stroke in the fall of ’92, on the same weekend Carrie moved out to live with me in Flagstaff. Up till that point, he had been resigned to living the rest of his life with Suzie and her kids. Between mom dying in ’79 and his stroke, he managed, more or less . He and his brothers and cousins had been having raucous card games for fifty years. Pinochle. Beer. Coke. Corned beef. Football or baseball on the TV for background noise. A perfectionist at cards, and pretty goddam good at it, if he did say so himself. After mom died, he lost it, yelling and swearing and flinging cards across the room.
“Why the fuck did you throw that ace!? That’s the stupidest throw I’ve ever seen. Didn’t you see the King they didn’t cover?” Red faced, furious, then boom!, there go the cards. Brothers and cousins glance at each other, mouths pursed.
So they compelled him to take a time-out, which lasted till his stroke made it moot. He’d always been quiet, calm, steady, handsome, hard working, honest. Had fun with his family, even though much later it struck me that he didn’t much like kids. Not that he didn’t love his children and work his life away feeding and housing us. Not that we didn’t get hugs and money to go to a ballgame or get a new doll and such. He just didn’t know how to relate to our little-person’s world. Or maybe he was just too exhausted. Or maybe he did better with my older sisters, and by the time I was born, seven years later—unplanned, they teased—he’d simply lost his energy.
Or maybe I was that bad after all. Probably both.
He had gloriously wonderful weekends, surrounded by family and friends so close they were as good as family. Playing cards, watching “The Game” (whatever sport that was on the TV), eating copious amounts of corned beef on rye and coleslaw and potato chips and kosher Vienna hot dogs and sizzling burgers on white-bread buns with plenty of relish and mustard and onions, countless paper plates and plastic forks and bottles of Coke and root beer and crowds and crowds of loud, expansive, emotional Jewish folk.
Good times, for sure. But after mom died? He just really had to work at it.
Carrie and I were in Tassie as part of a long recon of Australia, with an eye to someday moving there. After I fell in love with her, I promised we’d sell up everything and move to “Oz” so she could be closer to home and her aging folks. But first I had a debt to pay.
The day mom died, I fixed on her eyes like they were my only light in a long, dark cave, watching as she assembled the last of herself. Pushing past the gauzy morphine, she followed her beloved Joseph as he turned, supported by my brave and crumbling sisters, and staggered away.
She struggled her eyes open, blinking, could not speak. Fretful on the surface, I felt a steadiness down deep, like a river. Like always. Being so close, finally, and feeling her currents settled me like when I finally grab my oars above scouting a scary rapid, at peace with my craft and its destination, committed.
“Don’t you worry, Mommy, I said, stroking her hair. I’ll take care of him. I promise. You do what you need to do. It’s okay.”
I kissed her forehead, like she’d done so long ago, back when I was little and scared.
Then she closed her eyes. It was time.
The following dawn, her faint smile lingered. All that remained.
Recently Carrie and I both quit our jobs in Flagstaff, me having achieved my goal of restoring and renovating historic downtown Flagstaff as the director of the Main Street Foundation. Jeff, whom we call “Fedge” so as not to confuse him with me, lives in one of our bedrooms and is getting free rent and some money in exchange for taking care of Pop while we are gone to “The Lucky Country”. He arranges Pop’s caregivers, gets groceries, takes him on walks, whatever. We’d been taking care of him in our home for a year and a half, and we needed a break. So it made perfect sense to drive around the continent of Australia in a ’79 Valiant without air conditioning. This was in place of the “four-bee-four” I requested that her dad get. It took thirty thousand miles and five months in the “divorce-mobile” to replace every single smoking element of it. But that’s another story.
Just before we left for the trip, Suzie had called wondering if Pop could visit them in LA for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Mom lifted and directed Pop’s life. He was lucky. But Suzie—who like Pop always just wanted things to be fair, go smoothly, and just give her a break once in a while for crying out loud—never found that partner to keep her afloat. Before his stroke, Pop wouldn’t share too much about how he felt having her and her three kids in his house for all those years, except maybe to screw up his mouth or give me a sideways glance. Which was what I did, come to think of it, in a flash of premonition when she called.
What could I say? She was his daughter. She hadn’t done anything bad, she was just taking care of herself and her kids the best she could manage. Their relationship seemed sort of a mutual agreement: He bought the house and paid half the expenses (for five people), she cooked for him and cleaned the house and paid the other half. When I took over his books for him, I discovered he was actually covering the lion’s share, whittling away at his pension. In any case, Pops got his meals and cleaning done, and couldn’t wallow in loneliness. They butted heads like I suppose most adult family members forced against their will to live under the same roof might. Mostly they got along and loved each other best they could. At least he had company.
So we set it up for Fedge to get Pop on a plane to LA, and Suzie would meet him at the gate. At that point he was still able to keep from calling out “help” every five seconds or peeing his pants, still able to manage being in the world and staying put in his seat. Still able to ask the stewardess for help, and to somehow know deep down that whatever it was that needed taking care of would be.
He’d been making just the slightest remarks to Carrie before we left, mere gestures. Holding onto her a little too long for a hug. Maybe a perplexing comment about her skirt or hair. Nothing you could really grab onto, but…. she hadn’t had the guts to tell me about it. This would come back to haunt us.
If he’d known what he was doing, he’d have cut his arm off.
Linny says, “They’re threatening to put him on a two-week hold. For ‘observation.’”
“What the hell does that mean?”
“I think that means they’re going to commit him. They say they can lock him up for two weeks.”
I’m shaking my head, lips in a snarl. Like Pop, come to think of it. “For crying out loud. And we can’t get him out?”
Not if they commit him.
“But he’s sick! They can’t do that! He’s got dementia, not schizophrenia or something. All they gotta do is ask Suzie…” Then, softer, “They did ask Suzie, didn’t they?”
She doesn’t respond to that one.
“I told them all of that, little brother. Suzie made them put him on a forty-eight hour hold ’cause she didn’t want him scaring Jennie, and they said that gives them the legal authority to put him on a two-week hold if the doctor decides that’s what he needs.”
Breathe. Stay calm. “So?”
“They told me that if someone in his family would take responsibility for him before the forty-eight is over, they’d release him into their custody.”
“Suzie won’t take him back.”
“WHAT?!” I’m shaking. “That’s HIS GODDAM HOUSE! She only lives there ’cause of HIM!”
“Okay. I’ll be on the next flight home. I’ll take care of it.”
My promise to mom?
I love him—he needs me. End of story.
“Obviously I can’t make it before the forty-eight hours is up. Someone there has to do something.”
Linny says, “I’ve already booked a flight to LA. I’ll see what I can do. Uncle Al and Uncle Bud are going over to the hospital this afternoon.”
My head tilts a bit, that puzzled puppy sort of look.
“Hmmm. Now what do they think they’re gonna do?”
“I don’t know, but Uncle Bud sounded really mad.”
“So what else is new?”
“Yeah. I know. But Uncle Al sounded madder.”
“Whoa. Uncle Al, mad?”.
Uncle Bud’s got a real mean streak. Actually, there are those that hate his guts, including family. Maybe especially family. My momma’s brother apparently got a lot of his own daddy in him. At ninety-seven Mom’s and Uncle Bud’s father shot his caretaker after she refused his proposal, then put the gun in his own mouth. The poor gal’s daughter found them both when she got home from school. Uncle Bud lived right across the street, heard the sirens, and saw the vans for the reality TV show Twenty-Four Hours pull up.
Uncle Al, on the other hand, is mister mellow. He has that inner strength and composure, deep and pure as a mountain lake. Seventy-four years old and still over six foot tall. Ex–star baseball player for the amateur league, versus Pop’s quarterbacking during the war. Not merely brothers—best buddies. Pards. Al was with Pop when he dropped on the golf course. Wrong kind of golf stroke.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the planet, I’ve just been offered a dream trip as a paid guide on the world famous, or rather infamous, Franklin River in Tassie. A ten-day, class 4-to-6, super remote river run that’s renowned for its ruggedness and crazy portages; pure magic, “out there.” One of the few adventures left that those bastards who want to control everything can’t “manage.” Now I have to cancel, and spend a fortune for a last-minute plane ticket leaving tomorrow, missing Christmas with Carrie and her dad.
May, 1992, Grand Canyon.
Carrie had hiked into a raft trip I was guiding. She sold dive trips all over the world for a company in San Francisco. They’d headhunted her from Ansett Airlines, the second biggest airline in Australia. (Come to think of it, there are only two airlines in Australia.) Five feet tall, all spunk and flashes of light, Carrie had fifteen-plus years of diving the Great Barrier Reef, mostly as a dive master. When she was younger, she’d been terrified of the ocean, which pissed her off. This of course meant she had to go diving. Not long afterwards, the clients would have already run their tanks dry, showered, and had drinks in hand, but pint-size Carrie would still be on the bottom with her half-size tank, perhaps watching a snail-like, kaleidoscopic nudibranch inch its way along the coral as her air inched its way down the gauge.
Her bosses in San Francisco had been offered a cheap, lower-half Grand Canyon trip by my company, OARS. They couldn’t go, so offered Carrie and a friend their spots the day before they were to be in Arizona. Fate has a funny way of going about things.
She was so excited she forgot her purse in the taxi to the airport. Arriving in Phoenix with no money and less time, she ended up hitching a ride the three hours to the Grand Canyon and hiking down before dawn to meet the trip.
Our other boats had stopped at Clear Creek, a nice side-stream with a sideways waterfall and vertical black schist cliffs a few miles upstream of Phantom Ranch. Phantom is where river trips drop off folks who are only doing the upper half and pick up folks meeting the trip for the lower. The dreaded “interchange,” where we lose folks we have already gotten to know and potty trained, who are just starting to “get it,” and start all over with the newbies. One set hikes out the eleven miles of winding trail, one mile vertical up to the rim, civilization, and a stiff drink to drown their sorrows at making such an error in planning (some think two weeks camping in Grand Canyon is going to be too much; they later discover what meatheads they were). The other set eagerly meets us at the “boat beach,” all soaring spirits and crushed cartilage. We boatmen, meanwhile, work our butts off in the searing sun helping limping, stunned, excited civilians figure out how to pack a dry bag, while pushing Gatorade and ibuprofen. I was prepared for three hikers, two of them Australians. When I arrived, there was only one.
“Hi, my name’s Jeff, or ‘heffay,’ Spanish for chief, if ya like. What’s your name?”
“Cindy.” Smarter than most, she’s sitting on a rock in the shade of a tamarisk tree, rubbing her calves.
Recognizing her familiar American accent, I ask, “Have you seen the Aussies?”
“Oh, yes. They’re here.”
I smile, considering what little I know about Australians. “Okay. Lemme guess. They’re at Phantom, having a beer, right?”
“How did you know that!?”
Two nights later, at dusk along my river, at a camp in the enchanting Grand Canyon appropriately named Garnet, everyone else had gone to bed. I’d already noticed Carrie the night before while I was reciting Robert Service’s epic poem The Cremation of Sam McGee. I was in my normal work uniform—barefoot, torn shorts, tropical print shirt, bright orange and yellow flowered apron—taking a break from the heat of barbequing “burgs and dogs” whilst waving a greasy set of tongs at the crowd on the beach for emphasis. Oh, yes: and a bit squinty eyed from a dram of scotch. (One must keep hydrated.)
This functions as a subtle pass, in my world. (I like to say, “Down here we’re ‘River Gods.’ Anywhere else, we’re just another shmuck.”) She’d also picked my boat to ride in both days—I kinda noticed that, too.
That night I had just finished playing my guitar and singing, talents I rely on to entertain the folks but which occasionally offer other rewards. The stars were out, everyone had wandered off to their bags, and there I was, innocent and touched by the fairy-dust of Canyon magic. Seems I wasn’t the only one. Carrie strode up to my rock perch, kissed me smack on the lips without a word, and strode off, disappearing around the glowing white Sacred Datura flowers. Brown-eyed girl.
By the next night we were sleeping together, but, in her outback-Aussie farmgirl shyness, Carrie would get up from my sleeping bag before first light and sneak back across the beach, tripping over boulders to her friend Trish so nobody would know.
When she was about to chopper out at Whitmore with some of the other clients, everyone hugging goodbye, one of the middle-aged women on the trip whispered to Carrie, “Darlin’, you don’t think this guy’s serious, do you? After all, he’s a boatman!”
(The next year we invited her to our wedding. No response.)
We flew back and forth several times that summer, Flagstaff to San Francisco and back, enjoying Carrie’s travel agent rates. In July I flew to San Francisco to see her, and to attend ETC’s twenty-fifth anniversary. It had been nearly twenty years since I’d run their disabled trips down the Stanislaus River with Denny, starting my career in “the best job in the world.” The Stanny had since been drowned under a reservoir by rapacious, lying, greedy bastards. Not that I bear grudges.
I went to the party with Carrie. I saw a lot of very old, dear friends I hadn’t seen in decades. A few had been more than friends. Well, okay—maybe more than a few.
Dancing with my old, dear friend Kath, she whispers in my ear, “Wow. Cute! You guys look like you’ve been together a long time. Perfect for each other.”
“Oh, well, yah.” Playing coy.
“So? How long?”
“How long what?”
“Don’t you bullshit me. How long have you been together? A year? More?
“Oh, well…a while.”
She stops dancing mid stride. Pushes me away to arm’s length. Squints.
“Okay…Okay… three weeks. Well, maybe two,” I reply plaintively. Then, “Oh. Com’on. I wasn’t with that many girls…was I?”
Her mouth twists into a smirk.
“Okay. Okay. Jeeez.”
That same year, Carrie flew into Phoenix once again. I was about to leave Flagstaff to pick her up when the phone rang.
“Hey, babe. They overbooked the flight I was on, but I got on another one. They’re calling last boarding right now. I’m due in at midnight. Gotta go.” Click.
Okay. Just an hour difference in arrival time. It’s a two-and-a-half hour drive from Flag. No worries.
I arrive at the nearly empty airport—lower floor, Arriving Baggage—at a quarter to twelve. Perfect.
I wake with a jolt at one-thirty, parked at the curb in front of Southwest’s darkened carousels. Slightly anxious, I jump out and enter the completely deserted airport baggage area. I check one, then two different flight TVs. Apparently no Southwest flights came in at midnight. An airport employee strolls past.
“Nosir. No flights since about ten,” he says, walking away. I can’t call her housemates in San Fran this late. I try the “white courtesy phone.”
“Sorry. No flights until six a.m.”
Confused, I go back to my old pickup to regroup, think, ponder. I wake again at two-thirty. Okay. Time to panic. I walk back into the still-dark and silent airport and grab a pilot who happens by.
“Nope. Sorry. No Southwest flights till six.”
In the back of my consciousness, I hear my name, shake my head, trying to stop the voices.
Yep, my name all right, more clearly now.
“Mr. Jeffrey Aronson. Please pick up the white courtesy phone. Mr. Jeffrey Alan Aronson.”
Oh shit. My middle name. Trouble.
I pick it up and the operator responds “Yes. May I help you?”
“Um. Hi. This is Mr. Aronson.”
“WHERE ARE YOU!?!”
“Um. Who is this?”
“This is the airport operator. Where have you been?! Your wife has been looking all over for you since midnight!”
I’ve never been yelled at by an airport operator before. My “wife”!?
“Um. Well. I’m in the baggage area for Southwest, where I’ve been, more or less, since midnight.”
“Don’t you dare go anywhere! I’m sending her down this instant. Boy, are you in trouble!”
I hear the rhythmic echo of approaching jackboots in the dark. I feel a tingle go up my spine and glance around, deciding it wouldn’t look good to be found hiding behind a carousel.
Carrie’s original flight had been overbooked. Southwest had an extra plane and set up an unscheduled flight for the extra people—which of course wasn’t on the flight lists. She had been waiting for me since midnight, just above my head, on the SECOND floor of Southwest’s Terminal Two. I figured that mentioning that was the floor for departures was not a real good idea. Instead I hugged her and kissed her and apologized—a survival drill most men learn real good—and we checked into a cheap motel.
Most “old-timers” understand that succumbing to the “River God” act with a woman on the hunt for a little adventure in her life is about as unwise as grabbing a rattler tail with one hand, a cocktail with the other. Sure, usually, it’s uncomplicated, owing to the fact that it’s often just part of their holiday plans. They have a goal—and there is a take-out. But sometimes a married woman has an elemental hunger that we don’t really want to know about. Sometimes her husband is on the trip.
Most companies have evolved over the years into having a “no fraternizing” rule. On the one hand, most married guides I know are married to someone that has been a client. On the other hand, two weeks can be a real long time with a pissed off woman. Even worse if a heroic and slightly scary river guide scratches their immediate itch. Put them all together…things can get pretty wacko. Screaming matches in the middle of the beach, knife threats, a sobbing, grown-up woman crawling in the sand, begging. Not to the husband—to the boatman. In front of a beachful of spectators. No shit, as we boatmen like to say.
We have a saying: “No tail Above Blacktail.” That’s a side-canyon at mile one hundred twenty—far downstream and only a couple days left on the trip.
But I’m the faithful type. One past experience was all I needed to swear off that bottomless defile. I only go for the Real Stuff any more—deep, fluid, electric.
Real rivers, Damn Real women.
Like this one. Real. Serious as a class five rapid. And just as freaking terrifying.
Over the summer, in between river trips, we communicate over the phone, grab the occasional weekend flight. Mostly just fun, but it is punctuated with discussions about the difference between American and Australian culture, between city folk and country folk, about how the foot of the bed, not the head, should face the window.
That October, after several excursions back and forth, Carrie makes the ultimatum over the phone.
“We have to talk.”
I cringe, a typical male fight-or-flight response to a typical female attack sign. Careful. Be very careful.
“I’m not into long-distance relationships.”
“Um. Okay. So?”
“So, one or both of our living situations has to change.”
“Yeah. Okay. So?”
“Stop it!” I imagine her stamping her itty-bitty left foot, jabbing her tiny closed fist into her hip, more menacing than The Terminator.
Pause. “Okay. Okay.” Think fast.
And I offer “So. You have a job you like, except for your psycho boss. You live in a city, which you hate. You’ve been planning on quitting and going back home to Australia, until I screwed up your plans. You rent a tiny apartment, which you share with two lesbians.
On the other hand, I’ve lived in beautiful Flagstaff for over ten years. I own a house and a commercial building here. I have the best job in the world. Let me think a minute.”
“Stop being sarcastic, or I’ll hang up.”
“Okay. Okay. Sorry.”
“You still there?”
Deep breath. “Okay. Whadya think about quitting your job and moving in with me here in Flag?”
And so it goes, though with the added benefit that her bosses love her work so much that she’s setting up a satellite office in my—oops, OUR—house in Flag.
November 1992. I’ve driven to San Francisco to pick up Carrie and her stuff. Simple.
But nothing in my life is simple. Thus, I get a call from Suzie. I rarely hear from Suzie unless there’s a problem.
“Jeffrey.” (Not Jeff—Jeffrey—bad start.) “Daddy’s had a stroke.”
No intro. No subtlety. Out with it.
Long silence. I close my eyes.
“Hello?” she asks.
“Yeah. I’m here.” Deep breath. “How bad?”
“They’re not sure yet. He’s still out of it. Are you coming?” Her voice is rising.
“Encino. On Ventura.”
“We’ll be there tomorrow.”
Pop is in and out of consciousness. When he’s in, he recognizes us, which apparently is an improvement. I introduce Carrie to my family. I note the confusion in Pop’s eyes, wondering if he’ll ever get better. So she can get to know him. Like he was.
But that is not to be.
After two days it seems like he’s going to be able to go home and take care of himself, more or less. His intermittent “mini strokes”—TIAs, or Transient Ischemic Attacks as they call them in the typically sterile medical lingo—inevitably gave in to the real thing, like ripples leading into a rapid. On his bedside table a pharmacopoeia of medicines to take for high blood pressure, high cholesterol, indigestion, heart problems, lay cluttered and confused, all haywire like his life. Carrie and I continue on to Flagstaff to unpack her own bedlam of belongings, it all now seeming so pointless.
Over his weeks of convalescence, which we share over a phone line, which is always inadequate for such things, it appears that Pop can’t seem to concentrate on his bookkeeping anymore. He’s frustrated and obsessing on this one element of his life, having always been really proud of doing his own books, taking care of household expenses for his family, having structure. Not really having any answers, I seek my own structure for the both of us, offering to help by setting up a Quicken account. He signs a power of attorney.
Thus, innocently enough, I begin to watch his finances. Just part of the deal. But, as it becomes clear that Pop pays for all Suzie’s basic house utilities—phone, gas, electric, I’m getting agitated. He pays the whole mortgage on a five-bedroom house he bought to help out Suzie and her three kids. Fair enough. She’s his daughter, they’re his grandkids. But he also pays for cable TV, newspaper delivery, and gas for his car as well as theirs. He’s given his car to Todd, Suzie’s oldest, and bought himself another. He also contributes towards food for five. The best I can make out, he’s paying about three-quarters of the expenses for the whole household. His Sears payout for twenty years of service was a measly one hundred grand. There’s eighty grand left, after the house down payment. They’re all living off his dwindling interest, eating into his principal every month.
He doesn’t want to talk about it. Suzie and Tracy both work. Todd’s working, too, making an absurdly high wage for collecting shopping carts at Costco. The kids do not contribute. It is a line I sense must not be stepped over. I will try anyway, disastrously.
I foresee Pop running out of funds, and reckon that after that it’ll be up to Linny and me.
But kids do not contribute.
Next year, 1993.
One evening after work, Jennifer calls. She’s agitated. Her voice is angry, scared. My sister’s family is typically over-dramatic. In our Jewish world, that’s really saying something.
“Papa’s screaming at the washing machine!”
“Papa’s in the garage, screaming at the washing machine!” She’s yelling and crying at the same time. “He’s scaring me!”
“Where’s your mom?”
“She’s gone with her boyfriend for a week. They’re on vacation in Santa Barbara.”
“And she left Pop with you?”
“I told her I didn’t want to take care of him, but she left anyway.”
I take a deep breath. It’s a habit I’ve developed when talking with my family.
“Okay. Now let me get this straight. Your mom’s gone on vacation for a week, and she left Pop in your care. Right?”
“And you told her you didn’t want to take care of him, but she left him with you anyway?”
“Why wouldn’t you want to take care of Papa?”
“He just yells at me all the time. He makes me feel worthless. He does weird things and scares me.”
“Okay, okay. Take it easy. That’s okay. I understand. Is he still in the garage?”
“Yeah,” she says, in a tone of voice like she wonders what I’m up to now.
“Is he still yelling at the washing machine?”
“Have you tried to talk to him, get him to stop?”
“No. I’m scared.”
“Okay. Listen. You know he’s had a stroke, right?”
“Do you know what that means?”
“That means part of his brain has been injured. He can’t think straight, like he used to. He sometimes doesn’t know what he’s doing, like maybe he’s always half asleep. You understand that?”
“Yeah…” More question than definitive answer.
“Do you have Suzie’s number?”
“Yeah, but she doesn’t want me to call her unless it’s an emergency.”
“Well, what would you call this?”
“Okay. Can you put him on the phone please?”
She does. A brief, muffled sound of clunks and fumbling and her voice in the background. Then his voice. He sounds really agitated, frustrated.
“Hello? Who is this? Jeffrey?”
“Hi Pop. How ya doin’?”
“Somebody’s using our washing machine. It’s full of some stranger’s clothes. I can’t get them to stop it.”
“Pop. Nobody’s using your washing machine. It’s okay. Calm down. You’re scaring Jen.”
“What!? What do you mean I’m scaring her?”
“You’ve been yelling at the washing machine. I could hear you over the phone.”
“What!?” Then, more calmly, now scared himself, he continues, “Really?”
“It’s okay Pop. You remember having a stroke?”
Softly, he responds, “Yeah.” Then he starts to cry.
The only time I ever saw him cry, besides when mom died, was in another lifetime. I had just finished telling him that I hated mom.
I was just another geek playing trumpet in the high school band when I was recruited by The Sound, the only good rock and roll band in school. Spending a whole lot of time learning what real music was from the misplaced jocks and well-placed stoners in the band, at first wondering what that funny smelling home-rolled cigarette was, then indulging full speed ahead. Thus I metamorphosed from a fat, turtleneck wearing nerd into a fur coated (fur coats were banned by the high school. I did not comply), long haired, bell bottomed, war protesting, dope smoking hippie. Still, I was not in their league of cool. In their eyes I remained a quirky adolescent hanging out with a very groovy group.
Everything in my life was about to happen. I’d just had my first drink, Boone’s Farm, the cheapest crap red wine there was. Puked my guts up, clutching the toilet bowl for an hour—typical stupid adolescent herd-behavior ritual. Now that’s fun. Just tried my first cigarette in the locked bathroom. Threw up over that one, too. Flushed the rest of the pack down the toilet—not that that would stop me losing part of a lung to a different sort of cancer in some bizarre future.
I’d just been turned on to The Catcher In The Rye by my English teacher, and the world was now full of “phonies.” Mom, as it happened, was one of them. She smoked cigarettes, wore makeup, cared about her clothing and hairstyle. She used perfume, for chrissake! These things simply reek of phoniness. Nobody told us how screwed up our hero Holden was. For adults, this was angst. For us, it was Us.
As a fifteen year old boy, of course I knew everything. I hated life, hated the city. I couldn’t cope with the horrible certainty that this narrow world surrounded by man-made-ness was how I would spend the rest of my life. I wanted to be “out there” with Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett, but as that world obviously no longer existed, getting high would have to suffice.
This and everything else that was wrong with the world was unmistakably Mom’s fault.
The more depressed I got, the more I blamed. The more I blamed, the more I blamed her. I grunted in response to her smiles. I hated her cooking, her dyed hair, her love, everything.
Dad’s birthday. I gave him a cheap metal toolbox from Sears, his employer. Inside I left a note about how I loved him but hated mom ’cause she was so phony. I figured we were in this together, he’d understand. Left it on his bed and went out for the night to hang with friends. I got home really late.
Sister Linny, looking puffy eyed, met me at the front door of our third floor apartment, angrily grabbing my arm and glaring.
“Where have you been! We thought you’d run away! Get in here right now!”
A little shocked, having forgotten my birthday mutilation, I was dragged into the darkened home. Linny glanced sideways at me, scowling, hurting my arm. Without resisting, I followed that arm into the dimly lit living room and was thrown into Dad’s stuffed rocker, which placed me in the center of the room.
I then became aware of my surroundings. Mom on the couch, face in her hands, sobbing. Suzie, arms around her shoulders, also crying but looking straight at me, furious like Linny. Dad standing in the shadows at the dark window in the far corner, back to us staring out at the blackness. Linny plopped down on the couch on the other side of mom, taking control.
“What the hell is wrong with you!” she spat.
“Linda Lee!” Mom hated swearing.
Linny ignored mom, righteous, awaiting my answer.
I lowered my gaze to my tie-dyed lap. “Whadya mean?”
Linny proceeded to grill me. I told them how I thought mom was such a phony. “What on earth are you talking about!?” responded Linny. I regurgitated the same crap, having taken utterly the wrong lessons from that stupid book. As I spoke, all of a sudden my own words sounded, well, phony. Very much against my will, I joined them in their tears.
So, there we all were, crying. Except for Pop. I couldn’t tell what he was doing. In my furtive glances, I only saw his back.
Mom finally regained some control. She looked up at me, and said, “Oh, son. I’m so sorry. I love you.” Like she’s begging me to understand just that much. Like it’s her fault I’m such an idiot.
“I’m just who I am. I don’t know any other way to be. I’m so sorry.”
Shame does not make your heart hurt in your chest, like lost love. It does not feel gripped with a fist, like fear. It makes your skin crawl at the thought of being stuck, well, to you. It sucks your breath away like the air can’t stand entering your lungs, shrinks your spirit into a dirty little hole that you never want to crawl out of, closes your eyes for fear of having to look at yourself.
Mom got up and hugged me. Then she turned away in her nightgown (which all of a sudden seemed so pathetic), and, winged by Suzie and Linny, struggled back to her room. After a while, I managed to halt my self-pitying blubbering, and realized Pop was still there, standing silent as an obelisk.
He turned and walked past me, and as he passed he pinched my arm so hard I winced, but dared not cry out. He didn’t let go; he hauled me up out of my seat and pulled me into my empty bedroom. His back still to me, the only sound his breathing. I stared at his hunched, heaving form for a moment or two, and it struck me that I’d never seen such a thing before. Then he turned. I did not recognize that contorted face. Before I could react, he slammed me against the closet doors, hard, clutching the front of my shirt in his two fists, red visage not two inches from mine, mouth flecked with foam. His eyes betrayed him with their tears, which only made him madder. The roller doors at my back came off their hinges.
Soft words perfectly formed and clipped as if they were each a separate solar system, eyes glaring into mine like he’d never met me before. His son; a stranger. Foreign, dirty—The Enemy. No connection whatsoever remained between this man of honor and myself.
“Don’t…you….EVER…say…anything…like that…about my darling wife…again…. Do…you…understand?”
I’d never seen him cry before. I wouldn’t again until her death ten years hence. And then again often, after his stroke, after that betrayal in his head changed him one final time.
In their bond of love, for Pop, who had no womb, I was the interloper, the outsider, alien. Here is my punishment and my redemption: I will no longer, never again, have the comfort of knowing I am the center of anyone’s universe but my own. My childhood is scattered to the desiccated winds of space and blown like tiny stars into blackness and oblivion.
He let me go, ever so slowly, and with great effort turned and left without another word or gesture. Left me like one would leave after defecating. There I remained frozen, leaning against the broken doors, arm still up as if protecting my forehead from blows, staring into a very personal and bleak loneliness.
Not another word was said about that night, by any of my family, ever again. I spent the next ten years trying to make up for that meanness. I bought Mom’s favorite perfume for her, not in mockery as I had that first time—a gesture of sarcasm—but in apology, out of a need to make things right. To show her, and myself, that I finally understood that different does not mean phony.
I think I succeeded, for when she died of cancer in my arms, she passed in the embrace of the raging torrent of my love.
“It’s okay, Pop. It’s just the stroke. You’re fine, mostly. You just have to get it together a bit right now, okay? You’re scaring Jennie.”
“Okay son. What should I do?”
“Why don’t you go in the house and tell her you’re sorry you scared her. Nice, like. Then maybe have a cuppa decaf and watch some TV, or maybe go to bed? Can you do that for me?”
“Okay, son.” Weeping again.
“Can you stop crying?”
“Yes, son,” he blubbers.
“Okay. First try to control yourself. Then talk to Jennie. Put her on the phone, okay?”
And he does as I tell him to do, eager for some guidance and solid ground. It’s a brand new role for me, and I have to catch my breath. This is our future.
I ask Jen, “Has this been happening a lot?”
“Does your mom know?”
“I think so.”
“And she still left him with you, even after you told her you didn’t want to take care of him, that you were scared of him?”
How long till she gets back?
“Five days, I think.”
“Can you hang in there for a day or two till I can fly out there?”
There’s a pause. Then, very very softly—scared, almost; hopeful, almost—Jen says, “Whadya gonna do, Unka Jeff?”
“I’m gonna come out there and bring him out with me to our place in Flagstaff. Would you like that?”
“Yeah.” Maybe a little guilt, maybe a little relief in her voice. I wonder if she thinks she might have let a little too much of that innocent truth into her tone, since I’m his son and all. It’s okay with me, though. I understand.
Carrie has this habit of always listening to my half of phone conversations. She can’t help it. Still, it drives me crazy, and we argue. But this time, she nails it. With absolutely no hesitation whatsoever, and after meeting him only once, him so diminished and scared, she says, “He’s just going to have to live here with us.”
And so it goes. To think I might never have known what joy he would bring to my life. Our lives. Aching, wounding joy. How uncomplicated and natural caring for him could be. How many times I would sit next to his bed, musing over the mechanics of putting him out of his misery, him oblivious and snoring away. Or how—ending these wild thoughts by honoring his own decision to live as long as he could no matter what—I would bend over his craggy face and kiss him on his forehead, being careful not to wake him with my tears, to watch him open his blind eyes for a moment, blinking away sleep and death, to say, “Goodnight son. I love you.”
“Experts” tell us that, after a stroke, you can become helpless, like a baby. So we purchase a baby monitor. He farts, coughs, groans, rolls over, thrashes back again, and gets up to pee endlessly. On the other side if the darkened house, Carrie and I lie awake in bed, staring at the ceiling.
“Is he breathing?”
“I was wondering the same thing. I can’t tell.”
So one of us gets up and strolls over to his room, only to find him perfectly content. We decide it might not be such a bad thing if he croaks in his sleep, and remove the monitor after three nights.
We label Pop’s new dresser drawers so he can figure things out until he gets used to the new digs. Carrie labels one drawer “Pynjamas.”
“Um, babe? Is that an Australianism, a Queenslandism, or a Carrieism?”
She’s damned sure that’s the right word. We look it up, like her own dad Milt would have. “But that’s what we used to call it!” she says, offended that even the bloody Australian dictionary has betrayed her.
Pop has a clock with illuminated, big red numbers. A small assembly of shirts, slacks and a robe hang hopefully in his closet. On his bedroom walls, some photos and paintings, of Mom and the rest of our family at various get-togethers over the years, gathered in various LA parks, dressed for softball and barbequing in the sun.
“Left” as a concept no longer exists for Pop. His world is either directly in front of him, or to his right. He walks into walls, streetlights, doors, you name it, whatever’s on his left. Soon we begin the mantra, “Look left!” Weirdly, his eyes are fine; it’s the conceptual part of his brain that no longer has a left.
Carrie loves to cook, making scrumptious meals despite working full time. Pop eats everything from twelve-o-clock to six-o-clock on his plate, then complains, “Where’s my potatoes?” My cue to rise from my seat, step behind him, reach around his shoulders, and twist his plate 180 degrees. He gasps with pleasure at the bounty of potatoes newly visible on the right side of his plate, and hungrily attacks them.
“Where’s the ketchup?” he asks to a round of applause.
We own the second-oldest building in Flagstaff, on old Route 66. It had been Black’s Bar in the 1880s, then Club 66 during the early 1900s. There had been a bar on that corner since Flagstaff was founded. Then it became Winnie’s Natural Foods, a business I bought in ’84, not without some rather interesting encounters with former, very confused patrons, trying to find the beer behind the kefir and tofu. A few years afterwards I bought the building. Owner financed. Nice to have someone dumb and trusting enough to bankroll a busted boatman. Soon after that, downtown’s renovation began. I suppose you could say a hippie boatman troubadour instigated the first economic development project for downtown Flagstaff: a new parking lot at the train station, though, like getting through Lava Falls upright without your oars, it wasn’t exactly planned.
Historic downtown was the heart of Flagstaff for three-quarters of a century. Now, in 1984, it’s a dirty slum, full of drunken Indians and knife fights. The buildings, once proud and beautiful stone and brick, are now covered in plywood and graffiti, care of sober white men. After five p.m. you take your life in your hands. Like most cities in the era of suburb building, the city center is as neglected as the seam leaks in my old raft. The downtown merchants blame The City. The City blames the billboards running like dominoes between the railroad tracks and Route 66. The Railroad blames the lumber mill. The lumber mill blames the hippie boatmen. I’m the new dog in this fight. Never been a “merchant” before. But I can’t stand whiners, either way. So I have a beer at Charlie’s and then lean on into a city council meeting just down the block to have a look-see.
Across Route 66 from my building and store is the Amtrak station, a once-handsome Tudor-style structure that had served as Flagstaff’s train station since the 1800s. Directly in front of my building is the train station’s rutted dirt parking lot, proudly displaying an old rusty wreck, two dead trees, patches of dead grass, and a plethora of broken Tokay bottles, the cheapest wine a local lost-soul Navajo can score.
The city manager, city council and their new leader, Mayor Bavasi, sit around an ostentatious, oval wood table, looking grave, noble, and smug, speaking in tongues, terminally tedious.
What the hell.
I raise my hand, am called upon. Introduce myself as a downtown merchant, surprising myself. They smile. I imagine a school of puffer fish.
I note the sad state of downtown.
“We’re all aware of the state of downtown, Mr. Aronson. What would you suggest?”
“Well, sir. Perhaps a good start might be to pave the Amtrak lot.” They know exactly what I’m talking about.
“Great idea!” the mayor exclaims. “Go right ahead!” Giggles from the rest.
“Well, your honor, I thought perhaps that might be your job.”
Pause. Indignant smirks and glances from the fish-eyes. Agh! Doesn’t he see we’re puffer fish!?
And in an expansive flourish he will regret, the mayor offers, “Okay, fine. Tell you what. If you merchants come up with some cash to help pay for a parking lot, we’ll do the rest.” He starts to rise, gavel raised to declare the meeting adjourned. Chairs rub on the floor.
He does not know me. Yet.
“Hmm? Excuse me?” says Mr. Mayor.
“How much do you want us to come up with?”
Not thinking too much about it, ready to hop into his Corvette (no shit), Mayor Bavasi offhandedly offers, “Oh, I don’t know. How ’bout, say…five grand?”
Chuckles all around. Game over.
“Okay. Lemme get this straight. We come up with five thousand bucks, you commit the city to pave a parking lot at the Amtrak station. Right?”
Nodding of heads all around as the gavel slams and journalist pencils wag and they stand and pack their briefcases. Clearly, hard cold cash is a preposterous thing to expect from such an incompetent, childish crowd of—yuck—merchants.
I fade from their minds; wine and dinner and TV fill the newly vacant space.
The next six days find me slamming my own fist on merchants’ counters, having coffees with ancient and genteel property owners at the Elks club, and generally stirring shit.
Put up or shut up.
I remain unnoticed at the next council meeting, until, as before, I raise my hand at the end.
“Well. Hello there Mr. Aronson. Welcome back! How may we help you tonight?” Professional, smiling, diplomatic jerk.
“You can call me Jeff.” They freeze as I rise from my seat, and stride nonchalantly to the huge council table around which they are all suitably arranged, Bavasi at the head. I reach into a paper bag, pull out five thousand one-dollar bills—which denomination I managed to arrange in advance from my broadly smiling home-town downtown banker—and slam them down on the table in front of the mayor. He flinches, ever so slightly.
“Here ya go, Mr. Mayor. Five grand, just like you said. Your turn.”
Reporters furiously scribbling, ensuring the stamp of public scrutiny, sniggers from the unwashed in the grandstands. I turn on my heel and saunter away.
Rivers take a back seat for most of the decade, while I row a desk and maneuver political rapids. I initiate Downtown’s first merchant’s association, and clearly recognized as a fool, I am thus nominated its first president. No good deed goes unpunished. We then bring the Main Street program, through the National Historic Trust, to Flagstaff. We hire a director and I briefly escape back to running rivers. Portentously, the director turns out to be a used-car salesman, running fun, lucrative events, while completely blowing off the hoped for improvement district. So, just after Carrie and I meet, I interview for the Main Street job. When will I ever learn?
Our property investments downtown—the original Club 66 and, a few blocks away, our house—are our retirement fund. Main Street should be pushing for a new streetscape and the restoration of the downtown properties via a self-taxing district, sharing development costs with the City. I not only propose the idea, I intend to make it happen.
I’ve guided for fifteen years, and beaten cancer and Guilliane-Barré syndrome (a.k.a. French Polio). I owned and ran the only natural food store in Flagstaff, and created a non-profit that initiated access to river trips in the Grand Canyon for people with special needs. This was my way of giving something back to the Canyon after recovering from the terror and pain of Guilliane-Barré.
And I look the part: deliberately unmanaged scruff, adorned with beard, earring and a slightly insane cant to the eyes. I should have known from the disabled trips that politics, and the inherent hypocrisy of people in power, plus the imbecility of the herd needing to conform and obey at any cost, always make my eyes go crosswise, put my head down like a goat challenging a bull, bore in with dust flying, then decamp to the wildest place I can imagine. I don’t learn too quick.
It’s not easy to have a relationship with a modern-day sailor masquerading as a Grand Canyon river guide. So Carrie, my supportive and completely uncomprehending Australian cowgirl partner, agrees I should apply for the opening at Main Street. I know the board of directors, who are mostly fellow downtown merchants and property owners. Every convict on the cellblock. Amazingly, they respect and like me. River guide, local merchant, and the scoundrel who got things rolling with the Infamous Parking Lot Coup.
Carrie takes me shopping for my first tie, suit jacket and pants. First pair of black shoes. Like, as in first ever. Well, I guess my folks had rented me a suit and tie for my Bar-Mitzvah, double-wide for a fat little kid. And now, a haircut and a shave, and a new briefcase to hold my newly minted résumé. Soft leather, of course. Semi-respectable but covertly flower child.
The earring and moustache, however, stay. Some things are sacred.
I appear at the interview in front of twenty-five board members, pillars of the community. I enter the boardroom escorted by Maury Herman, who owns more downtown property than God. Twenty-four faces gape. Maury smiles.
“You look like a dressed-up hippie,” he whispers, arm around my shoulder.
“I am a dressed up hippie,” says I in reply.
I get the job.
Home is only a few blocks from historic downtown Flagstaff, and the hustle and bustle keep Pop stimulated on our frequent walks there. The whole world seems to know his son: the King of Downtown, the guy who owns the natural food store, Mister Moustache (as my Navajo friends call me). But more and more, people just say “Hey, you’re Pop’s son.” We’re greeted every few paces by damn near everyone on the street, and Pop is always patient, listening, smiling proudly. After all those years of “when are you going to get a real job,” it feels good. Real good. Like finally I’m somebody. Who’s taking care of whom, here?
Every so often I get a call in my office from a Downtowner, usually McGaugh’s Newsstand, which is about eight blocks from home.
“Your father is here again, on his own. You’re going to get him killed if you keep letting him walk here alone.” The scolding voice is that of the owner, who is also the current president of Main Street’s board, and consequently, my boss.
“I’m sorry, Lil. Is he okay?”
“Yes, he’s okay. But I will not let him go back on his own. You get out here right this instant and pick him up!”
“I’ll be right over.” I’m shaking my head and smiling. “We can’t stop him. He loves to walk, and he used to love reading the paper, even though he can barely get through it now. He just sneaks out on his own.”
“Well, someone just came in and said he was banging into streetlights.”
This tells me he was walking on the right-hand sidewalk, the lights to his left.
“Can you put him on?”
“Pop, do you know where you are?”
“Yep. Newspaper stand. Right?”
“Yeah. I’ll come over and pick you up and take you home. Will you wait there for me, please?”
“See ya soon, son.” Click.
Sister Suzie isn’t arguing with me to have Pop back. I notice her silence in this matter. She returned home after her trip to find Pop gone, along with whatever belongings I figured he would need, which wasn’t much. She does, however, have an agenda.
“I can’t take care of him anymore,” Suzie complains. She’s got that Chicago Jewish Whine going. Drives me nuts. Way too much history there.
“What do you mean, take care of him? He’s the one who flew to Chicago to save you and your kids from your husband, and packed you up and drove you out to LA to live in his house, No?”
Silence. She knows I’m not asking a question. And I’m not being nice about it.
“Didn’t he give up his apartment, his and mom’s, the one he said he was perfectly happy to die in, to buy a five bedroom house for you all to live in? And you’re tired of taking care of him?” I’m mad. Sometimes, when I get mad, I get mean.
“Well I’ve had to cook his meals, buy his food, do his laundry for years. He never says thank you. He just expects it. And now—”
“Seems to me a small price to pay for having a free roof over your heads.”
“It’s not free!” Good. Battle lines. Get it on the table. I could use a good old knock-down drag-out.
“I pay half the expenses,” she argues. I know she doesn’t, because I’ve been doing Pop’s books. In fact, she barely pays a third of five peoples’ expenses. Pop covers the rest, to the tune of hundreds of dollars a month. I don’t mention it. It’s his money, it’s his life. If that’s what he wants, fine, that’s what I’ll do. Just don’t force me to like it.
Suzie continues, “I couldn’t take care of him any more. He walked around yelling to himself. He scared Jennie. I have to work. I can’t be watching over him twenty-four hours a day.”
The complaint in her voice is driving me crazy. I can only shake my head. She can’t see it over the phone, obviously, but I know it’s steaming her.
“Seems to me you’d want to do whatever it took for Daddy. For crying out loud, he had a stroke. He needed you.” Then, after a pause, “It doesn’t matter, anyway. He’s with us now.”
The dig produces silence. Then, coyly, she asks, “You’re going to keep paying our rent and utilities, aren’t you?” Her voice has changed. A little scared and a little threatening. I imagine a small, sharp-toothed, red-eyed bitch protecting her pups.
“Of course I will. That’s what Pop wants.”
Most times when I come home from work I catch him “watching” the Playboy channel on cable. We don’t subscribe. He’s got the remote in his hands, the picture is all fuzz and snow, the occasional ghost of a naked couple. He couldn’t care less—he can’t see enough to make out anything on the screen anyway. He can however hear the moans and grunts and sexy language. Apparently that’s plenty good enough for him.
No bowling, no golf, no newspaper, no partner. Why the hell not? But he’s got the volume way up so he can hear. The rhythmic banging of bedposts and screams of “Oh! OOOOH!” and “AAAAAH” blare through the open front screen door and down the street. I get a visual of discovering him with his pants down in the living room. Maybe I better do something.
Duct tape and foam around the channel numbers on the remote do the trick. He asks me what I’m doing, then looks down at his feet and complains, “I’m a twenty-one year old trapped in a seventy-five year old body.”
One afternoon, I return home, fed up once again with politics. I’m bone-tired with trying to please hundreds of property and small business owners, kissing up to the mayor, city council, manager and staff. I’m sick of all those stupid, mind-numbing meetings. Pop hasn’t heard the front door open, and is leaning forward in his stuffed rocker, head cocked to one side, intent on the TV. I sneak in. Let’s see what he’s watching that has him so rapt.
It’s a talk show. The guest is Doctor Ruth Westheimer, a little old Jewish psychologist and author of books on sexuality. The Doc and the interviewer are having a ball, yukking it up.
I flinch backwards as Pop abruptly stands. Well, maybe “abruptly” isn’t the right word, as this takes a bit of effort on his part, pushing down on both arms of the wobbly chair, unsteadily and stiffly rising to a curled caricature of an old man, one hand still clutching the remote. Once up, more or less, since he now has a noticeable hunch and is rocking unsteadily on his feet, he hurls the remote in the general direction of the TV. It breaks against the wall. He grabs his white and red blind-person’s cane from its perch leaning against the chair, and works into his newly acquired and ridiculously Chaplin-esque shuffle. He’s scowling, but still doesn’t know I’m there. He gripes out loud to himself and the world, arm waving in the air, “How the hell would SHE know?! She probably hasn’t had a piece of ass in twenty years!”
My guffaw briefly startles him, but not enough to slow his steady and indignant progress to somewhere else. In an instant, he’s forgotten I was there.
Suzie’s fighting. She’s accusing me of taking Pop’s money for myself, forcing her family out onto the street. Todd has that twelve-bucks-an-hour job with Costco. Tracy works with her fiancé Will for his family’s RV supply business. Suzie has a salaried job teaching at a pre-school. Still they can’t seem to muster $1,400 bucks a month to pay the mortgage. Pop pays for their newspaper, their cable TV, their utilities, and their insurance. I’m cool with helping with the mortgage, but not all the other stuff, knowing that if Pop lasts at all, Linny and I will be on the hook, and they’ll lose the place, anyway.
I ask her if Tracy and Todd could contribute to the expenses. She goes bananas again.
“They’re kids! That’s their money! Nobody’s ever said anything like that to me before!”
She says this a lot.
She’s pretty over-protective of her kids, always has been. Okay, maybe it’s a result of having two loser husbands—one leaving them financially ruined (not that they ever had much anyway), and the other doing crazy shit to the kids. Maybe tearing around like a banshee when you think your kids are threatened is totally normal.
Waiting for some private time, I call when I know she won’t be home. I want a man-to-man with Todd. Todd, like Jennie, had a troubled childhood. He was supposedly suicidal when he was eight or nine, but, typically, Suzie never actually spelled it out. If you don’t speak it, it doesn’t exist. She didn’t have the money to get him help, so I had her send him out to live with me that summer in my tipi in the Redwoods outside of Santa Cruz. Something weird and wild might help. Did the trick for me.
We took care of the pigeon cages next door, did maintenance work in the landlady’s yard, hitchhiked up the coast to San Francisco, camped out on the beach. Everyday elixir for me, dad-gum real adventure for a kid. It didn’t feel like enough, but it was all I had. I took him down as my guest on a Grand Canyon trip, and asked him to contribute a hundred bucks towards his guest fee. I figured it’d make him appreciate the trip a little more, help him man up. Responsibilities and all. Being a typically broke boatman, I really didn’t have the hundred bucks to spare anyway. He eagerly agreed to pay it, and absolutely loved the river trip. Afterwards, I contacted him about his contribution.
“I told mom about it, but she hit the roof. She said that was my money.”
I didn’t push it.
They say the definition of insanity is doing something over and over and expecting a different result. So, I ask him if he’d mind contributing maybe a hundred bucks a month to the mortgage payment, since he’s working full time and making good money. “Sure, no problem.”
Thus begins the next focus for my sister’s rage. Todd never lets me know he’s changed his mind. Suzie however calls to shriek at me for even making such an outrageous suggestion. Nobody’s ever said anything like that to her before.
Except for my wedding and a forced and rather bizarre meeting in a restaurant three years later, Todd and I will never speak again.
When Pop gave me the financial power of attorney, he had about eighty grand in the bank. I figured no problem. I was an idiot. Now I get how long-term eldercare can suck away a lifetime of hard-won earnings in nothing flat.
After quite a bit of discussion, Carrie and I decided that since we couldn’t have two roomers covering most of our mortgage now that Pop was living with us, we’d have him pay us a couple hundred a month for his room. We’d take care of the rest of the mortgage, plus utilities, food, and all other expenses. Since we were both working full time, we spent weeks putting ads in the papers, then interviewing potential daytime caretakers. Some were real losers; some loving and efficient. Some lasted a week, others months. Some sat on their asses and watched TV and ate junk food with Pop; others took him out for walks, went shopping, fed him, showered him, had conversations with him—treated him like a human being. Some even argued with us about the best way to care for him. At least it showed they cared. None, however, lasted all that long.
That parade cost ten bucks an hour, eighty bucks a day, nearly six hundred a week, twenty-five hundred a month. Month after month after month. Plus Suzie’s expenses. Plus his two hundred dollars a month rent to us. Five grand a month, more or less. Flat broke in two years.
Carrie and I and sister Linda agonize, having drinks together over the phone. Combined we have enough to take care of him when he goes broke. We don’t bother to ask Suzie. We figure we’ll use Pop’s money to care for him and to pay Suzie’s expenses as long as it lasts, and then when the inevitable happens, we’ll cover Pop. Suzie and her kids will be on their own.
I resolve to wean Suzie off of some of her less critical expenses. Maybe his savings will last a little longer. My plan is to pull back in stages. First to go, the least essential: cable TV and the newspaper. Suzie should be able to handle living without those. Maybe she’ll pay for them if she wants them bad enough. Perhaps inconsequential in the big picture, but seminal in terms of waking my sister up to having to live within her own means, sooner or later. Then, after a few months, the utilities. Now I’m on a roll. Perhaps after getting adjusted to paying for her own stuff—maybe even gathering her forces and getting the kids to contribute—she’ll even start paying part of the mortgage! Woohoo! They might never be willing to pay for all of it, but, hey, some of it? For Pop. Absolutely, for sure, no doubt about it.
Totally fair, right? Perfectly reasonable, right?
Thirty seconds into describing my brilliant plan, she loses it.
“Oh my God! How dare you! You’re throwing my family out onto the street!”
My response is less than helpful.
“Suzie, all I’m talking about is the fucking TV and newspaper. We can talk about utilities in a few months. Pop’s going to be broke at some point anyway. Then you’ll have to pay for everything all at once. At least this way you start being able to budget, and he’ll actually have enough to maybe keep contributing to the mortgage for a few more years.”
“Oh! Oh! I can’t believe you’re doing this to your sister!”
“Well, what do you think is gonna happen once he’s broke?”
“Oh my God. What are you talking about?!”
“Never mind. Whatever.”
We hang up. I hear her in my mind screaming and yelling and crying in front of her kids, my nephew and nieces, about how her brother is throwing them out onto the street. Even-keeled Tracy acts normal when I call, but Jennifer unites with Todd and simply stops talking to me. If they answer the phone and hear my voice, there is simply silence, and I wait, knowing my sister will be the next and only voice I’ll hear.
I ponder our ancestors, back in the “Old Country.” I imagine passionate, emotional Jews, a people from the Middle East, spread out over the cold Slavic shtetls and pre-industrial cities clad in the dead looking trees of winter, sticking together for protection against the cold and the Cossacks, fighting amongst each other in tight, dingy quarters, loving, struggling, eating potatoes and cabbage. I imagine my sister in a babushka, throwing iron pots at me as I duck and weave down the dirt street in my bare feet.
As the months and years continue, our new life with each other, and with Pop, flows. I’m stressed with politicking and bureaucracy; Carrie’s working out of the spare bedroom, selling dive trips to the South Pacific. At one point, before her office is quite set up, the fax machine is stored under our bed. Midday in Australia and South Pacific dive locations is about two a.m. in Flagstaff, Arizona. Two fax calls ends that layout, but we’re still woken regularly by Pop’s nightly ritual of wandering in search of something to eat.
We leave a bowl, spoon, box of cereal, and milk on the kitchen table each night. Occasionally he manages to figure that one out. But just as often, we’re likely to awake to a toxic burnt-plastic smell and find the electric tea kettle sitting on the gas stove, long since dry of water, legs melted—and Pop back in bed, snoring.
The kitchen table is to the left of the door from Pop’s back-bedroom hallway. Thus, each night, Pop—typical old fella awake in the middle of the night to pee and now looking for a midnight snack—shuffles out of his bedroom, right hand feeling along the right wall—for him, the only wall, and perhaps the only solid thing in his world.
He emerges from his bedroom, inches ever so slowly down the hall—feet splayed, each half-sliding shuffle adding maybe three inches to his progress—then into Carrie’s office which is the other back bedroom on his right, bumps into chairs and desks as he follows his right hand and those right walls all the way around until he exits the same door he just came in, to finally enter the kitchen.
Unfortunately, the table and fridge are to his left. So, blindly, in the dark and on a mission, he shuffles past the table—which is inches away—and exits the kitchen into the laundry, following the hand on the wall. Yep, on the right. Circumnavigating the laundry’s right walls, he eventually emerges, still shuffling along, back into the kitchen, turns right, still following that hand, and goes directly into the dining room. Dining room to living room, living room back to dining room—this time, finally, passing our closed bedroom door.
Oh. I forgot to mention. All the while, he’s softly saying, “Help me. Help me. Help me.” Over and over and over again. Not plaintively. Not scared. Not demanding. Calmly, sort of like a mantra.
We’re usually awake by around this point, either from him knocking gently but insistently with his fist—after all, it’s a door, isn’t it? —or from his never-ending “Help me” hymn.
“Mmmm. Ugh.” I lick my lips without opening my eyes, trying to clear the mucus from my mouth and enter the world as briefly and superficially as humanly possible. “Pop? It’s two in the morning, Pop.”
“Oh? Really?” He sounds genuinely amazed. “Sorry, son.”
“Pop? Mmm. Unh. Daddy. If you keep going just a little bit further, you’ll find the cereal and milk.”
“Oh! Really! Wow. That’s great. Thanks son.”
“No problem, Pop. Goodnight. I love you.”
“Goodnight, son. Sorry. Goodnight. I love you, too.”
Quiet but now tense, Carrie and I silently lie in bed, waiting. Then, the audible, joyous, surprised sucking in of breath—“Ah!”—as he finds the cereal bowl, milk, etcetera, back where he’d started a half hour ago. Carrie and I groan and giggle each other back to sleep, shaking our heads, smiles on our faces, cuddling like puppies.
Pop has always been a picky eater. He grew up in the age when meat and potatoes was what every adoring wife made for her hard-working husband. But since his short-term memory is going, slowly but surely, Pop’s getting a second chance to discover the joys of food, and he doesn’t even know it.
Carrie makes him tamales. I start to tell her he won’t touch them, but remembering his current state of mind, I change my own. I hand him his plate, and he sniffs the delicious smells. He asks, “What’s this?” He never used to ask Mom that, because it was always something he knew. Things have changed.
Carrie glances at me, and I put a finger up to my mouth.
“It’s breaded pork chops, Pop.”
He can relate to chops. Anyway, it’s not really a lie: it is pork, just shredded and spiced, and it is “breaded” with cornmeal. He digs in.
“Mmmm. I love pork chops!” I know for a fact if I’d said they were tamales, or if he realized what he was eating, comprehended it, he’d have pushed his plate away with a scowl—despite the tantalizing smells—and demanded “Some bread and hot soup. I like my soup really, really hot!”
I’m making a large bowl of guacamole for a dinner party this evening. He’s sitting at the table watching me mix it up, and we’re chatting. Pals. Mates. Amigos. We’re alone. The bowl is huge, maybe six avocados in it. He’s trying to focus on the bowl.
“Oh. I could eat.” This answer suffices at any hour of the day or night, any day of the week.
So, without explanation, I shove the bowl over towards him, along with a bag of tortilla chips, which I dump unceremoniously onto the table in front of him. He begins dipping the chips in the guac, eating with great relish. Conversation ends. I continue preparing other dishes, stifling giggles.
He’s nearly finished the entire bowl. I say “Hey, Pop! I thought you didn’t like avocados!?”
“I hate avocados.”
“Well, whadya think you’ve been eating for the last half hour?”
He scowls, pushes the bowl with the last dregs of guac away from him.
“I hate avocados.”
I glance up at the clock. There is a brief silence as I watch the second hand go around the face once, then, “Hey, Pop. You hungry?”
“Oh. I could eat.”
“Want some dip?”
“Oh, yeah! I love dip!”
He finishes it up with great delight, along with the last of the chips. I call Carrie, retreating to the living room so Pop can’t hear, and we laugh. It is these moments in life that lift us, like everybody’s just hit shore after a great run through the rapids, slapping each other on the helmet and grabbing life jacket straps and jumping up and down, pards, faces hurting from smiling so much. She picks more avos up on her way home.
“Pop, you want some fish for dinner?”
“I don’t eat fish.”
“Huh? You’re Jewish. What about lox?”
“What about pickled relish? Or smoked whitefish. How about tuna?!”
Silence, still. Clasped hands on the kitchen table. Stubborn old bastard.
“For cryin’ out loud, Pop, what about gefilte fish!?”
Scowling, “That ain’t fish. I don’t eat fish.”
Pop’s doctor said we should watch his cholesterol intake. But he just loves eggs, red meat, bacon. Especially bacon. (God was not kind to pigs.) Still, we’ve asked Dan, the latest caretaker, to please not serve Pop bacon every single morning. Maybe just a couple of times a week? Dan’s really into being Pop’s pal. Into making him happy. Bacon makes Pop really happy.
And it’s the weirdest thing. Pop has started getting grumpy about having to take a shower every night. He used to love showers. Now it’s a monumental chore. Until he finally gets in, that is. Then he melts into some peaceful Nirvana, closing his eyes, an angelic smile crossing his lips. Somehow Pop has got it into his brain that he’s being forced to take not one, but two showers a day. (Imagine! Two showers!) Where could he have gotten this idea? Then Dan informs us in his helpfully scolding way that it’s unhealthy for old folks to take too many showers.
Carrie’s office is still in the back bedroom. One day she overhears Dan asking Pop if he wants a shower. He, of course, says no. Like a child, needing a lot of direction and help, and testing. They spend several minutes debating, after which they go out for a walk. Later, Carrie takes Dan aside and shares with him our newest gimmick. She’s very diplomatic.
“Pop’s getting a bit ornery. Seems like he’s likely to just say no, no matter what. So, instead of asking him things, we think maybe it’s better to just suggest that this is simply the next logical move. Like, for example, instead of saying, “Pop, would you like a shower,” maybe you should try something like, “Shower time, Pop. Hop in!”
Next morning she overhears Dan saying, “Pop, would you like a shower?” “I don’t wanna shower.” “But she’s making me make you…”
Wrong move. Carrie storms out of her office like a terrier, lips tight and finger pointing towards the bathroom, other arm crooked, fist on hip.
“Oh, for crying out loud. You. Pop. Get your ass into that shower this instant. Dan…!” She doesn’t say anything to Dan, exactly. Survival instinct kicking in, they do as they are told. Later, the boys can’t decide whether it felt more like a hurricane or a locomotive. Maybe a locomotive in a hurricane.
Seeking a bit more company and stimulation for Pop, and a bit more income for us, we take in a boarder in the empty attic rooms. Fedge (Jeff backwards) is a local student and artist, skinny, long hair and beard, and as we’re all under the same roof, he becomes part of the family, getting clued in pretty quick. He helps with Pop from time to time for extra cash. One day he tells us that Dan’s been feeding Pop bacon every morning. He shares the most recent conversation, on the order of:
“I don’t see why you can’t have bacon every morning if you want it,” says Dan to Pop. “After all, what other joys in life do you get to have any more?”
I can see a real battle brewing, based on who knows what’s best for whom, and suggest to Dan that he move on to find his happiness. Maybe also to avoid being murdered by Carrie. This results in Pop’s bacon ration diminishing considerably. He fumes for a day, then asks about his bacon off and on for a week, then forgets all about it.
The battle over showering, however, escalates. Stinky old guys not allowed. We argue and debate, father and son. Usually it’s a stalemate, which means he wins. Then one day, after some particularly hair-tearing city council meetings, I calmly decide to change my approach. First I tackle him onto the couch. He’s yelling bloody murder as I rip off his shoes and socks. His face is redder than a beet, spit flecks the corners of his mouth, as he lashes out blindly with his fists—short bursts of old-man-stiff-armed swings as I rip his tee shirt and shorts and underwear off. Then my daddy, pale-bodied and red-faced and naked and doughy and bald as a billiard ball, and I, laughing hysterically and whooping Indian war cries, stumble and struggle and fall to the floor and we tug and pull and wrestle all the way to the bathroom, where I shove him, gently (sort of), into the tub and he falls yelling in a heap.
I turn on the shower, which is freezing cold, making him yell even louder as he cringes in fetal position at the end of the tub, eyes tightly shut, palms out to try and shield himself. Meanwhile I’m still shouting war whoops as I work the hot water up to a nice temperature, and he slowly calms down, his face turns a more normal color, his arms relax on his fat belly. Soon I start to wonder if he’s fallen asleep in the tub under the warm gentle spray, eyes still closed tight, when he softly asks me to help him stand up so he can take his shower. We’re both panting. I’m smiling, he’s not. But he’s no longer mad. He looks confused, expectant, sort of content but not exactly sure why. He starts soaping himself up, asking me for some privacy. Showering is never again a problem.
Near Thanksgiving, Linny wonders if Pop could fly out. He’s still just barely able to manage flying if I bring him directly into the hands of one of the attendants at the airplane’s door, and if the flight attendants are cool with watching over him and helping him to the latrine for a pee. He’s a pretty cool old guy, and they take to him right off. He makes endearing, self-deprecating little jokes. Linny meets him at the other end. All’s well.
Until I get The Call. He got a cold. Seemed bad. Having trouble breathing. They put him in the hospital. A week went by. He seemed more confused. The staff started to think that maybe he’d had another “mini-stroke” and moved him into long-term care. No more flying by himself.
Linny’s got a friend who runs a nursing home near where we grew up in Chicago. Her friend tells Linny that people shouldn’t take care of their parents at home. It’s selfish. Doesn’t do them any good at all. It’s only so the kids can feel better about themselves. We get a phone call from Linny.
“That’s bullshit, Linny. It’s just one of the excuses people tell themselves so they feel better about sending their parents off to a home.”
“Oh, that’s crap. Everyone does it.”
“Well that doesn’t make it right. He’s always been terrified about going to a home. You know that. It’s his worst nightmare.”
“I know it. But what’s the option? Mark and I work full time. We don’t have a caretaker set up. I’m certainly not strong enough to pick him up if he falls down. His bedroom is upstairs. You can’t get out here yet. What the hell do you suggest?”
“Shit. I don’t know.”
“He’s fine, I’m telling you.”
“Yeah. Maybe. Fine. Maybe you’re right. Whatever.”
We all have the best of intentions.
There is no manual on how to care for a sick parent. Ok, maybe there is, but I hate it without even seeing it. Every decision is consequential, and no decision is good. You’ve pulled out into the moving current and choices have to be made in real time.
Illness, indecision, waiting—the weeks draw out to a couple of months. Due to our own work, it’s going to be still more time before Carrie and I can get out there. I’ve got some very critical Improvement District votes coming up; consequently, I’m withdrawn as a barn owl, and I bury my head in my pitiful local newspaper the moment I get home. Why do I find it so much easier to have people’s lives in my hands on the river than handle their politics here in town? Why am I paying more attention to my job than my daddy? My time no longer looks like a bus bearing down on me, tires squealing and smoke belching, as it did during my cancer days. Maybe if it did, I’d be paying more attention. Funny how you forget those things. Survival instinct, I guess. Pop’s time, however, is a little mouse, stealing bits here and there, hiding in the wall. You can hear it at night, scurrying around. You never see it do its work, only to find things gone the next day.
I call him every day, and every time, he’s crying. His favorite cap, the one I gave him for Christmas that matches mine, was stolen “by one of those schvartzes who clean the rooms.” There are no black guys who clean the rooms. His cap is gone, nonetheless.
“Why have you abandoned me? This place is terrible. Oh, I’m such a burden. I understand, son.” More blubbering. Martyrdom is part of our culture, I guess.
I gotta move, do something. Linny feels it, too, but in her more normal world, she doesn’t have to deal with my personal inner demons and the sureness that there’s another way. Must Be Another Way has been the name of the game my whole life.
And that promise.
Finally, Carrie and I make it to Chicago. Back in the ’hood. Yeah, we Jews have a ’hood, too. It’s not about the matzoh and bagels and yarmulkes; it’s about knowing deep in your bones you’re surrounded by your own kind. Having a feel for who they are, how they move in this world, good or bad. It’s about solid ground and the sense of place that comes from being born into something and the arms-around-your-shoulders feel it gives you. That’s the thing I’ve been searching for, after all. Hard as I try to find it anywhere and everywhere else, the only places I’ll ever find it is here amongst my tribe, and on the river amongst my fellow lost souls.
I show Carrie our old apartment building, where we lived from when I was seven until we left when I was seventeen. We visit my old elementary schoolyards, where I smoked my first joint; Wolfy’s hot dog stand, my first job, where I got fired for peeing in the pickle barrel. I didn’t actually do it, I claimed I did since the other guys were doing it. They didn’t get fired.
In between reminiscing, we visit Pop and have long talks with Linny over Bailey’s Irish Cream.
Pop doesn’t seem all that much worse to us, though he cries every time we see him. A bit more confused for sure, but still perhaps reasonable enough to care for. Maybe we’re just kidding ourselves. Maybe we’re just a couple of defiant dingbats. Carrie’s defiance stems from something else, something Outback Australian and strange to me. But, like mine, pretty useful on occasion.
We mention to Pop the possibility of taking him home with us after clearing it with a very skeptical Linny. He falls apart.
“Oh my God! Would you?!” He falls back onto the chair, sobbing. “Oh. I’m such a burden. It wouldn’t be fair. I’ll be okay.”
Carrie and I look at each other in the dim nursing home room. At least it’s clean and doesn’t smell of urine and old people.
Quiet now, he looks up at us, squinting, trying to see beyond things, figure it all out, be a Man again. A Father. In control. For a second or so, I think maybe he’s going to pull it off, in spite of that pitiful open-backed gown and those stupid slippers. His pale, skinny, exposed legs, the wispy strands of white hair at his temples, the half-closed, not-seeing eyes, the blue veins and “barnacles” all along his once powerful forearms. Somehow, my father will reappear again and everything will be okay. This was all just a bad joke.
Silently, he reaches out with both hands, up and out, towards—what? Who?
He tries to grasp something out of the air from above and in front of him, something we can’t see or sense. We’re silent, in awe. His face is full of hope, expectation, mystery, maybe joy even. Reminds me of being a kid trying to catch fireflies. Carrie and I look at each other. She tenderly grasps my arm, looks up into my eyes with hers; so gentle, almond-shaped, that loving smile.
We return home with him the next week.
Final Exit is published by the Hemlock Society. No big deal, just a manual on how to kill yourself. Not long, but it’s a wild ride. I was reading it on a Grand Canyon river science trip a few years back, working for the company doing the Environmental Impact Statement on Glen Canyon Dam and how its operations affect the Grand Canyon. The book calmly discussed suicide, like how to cook a meatloaf. Some history, different ways people did it, some stories by people who decided to do it because of a painful or terminal illness. They justified it, and then they offed themselves. Just like that. It took pains to suggest several of the least painful, fastest, most surefire ways. The preferred method was an OD of phenobarbital, backed up by a plastic bag over the head, tied at the neck. If you took the drugs, then taped the bag around your neck promptly (you had to do it yourself so nobody else could be accused of murder), you’d pass out from the drugs before you started getting scared or having trouble breathing. You’d then painlessly suffocate, even if you didn’t die of the drugs. Double redundancy, like NASA. Piece of cake. Five…four…three…
There was another guide on the trip named Whale. Big guy, kinda homely, heart of gold. His entire life was running boats down the Colorado in the Grand Canyon. I can relate. Hard to contemplate doing anything else for a living once you’ve done that. He was a Vietnam vet. Didn’t talk about it much. Didn’t talk much, anyway. Saw me reading the book around the campfire one night, asked about it. Then asked to borrow it. Had it read and gave it back to me in three days. I was reading it out of curiosity. I figured he was, too.
He shot himself in the forest not long afterwards. Guess the bag and drug thing was too complicated.
How many nights have I spent by my daddy’s bedside, pondering how to painlessly put him out of his misery? Him, there, peacefully snoring away after a long day of blood pressure cuffs, diabetes testing, showering, eating, pooping, changing clothes, taking medications, watching TV, shuffling around our house with his white cane tapping the right hand walls. I thought of that book. I thought about how to get away with it without getting caught.
There is an immense chasm between pondering an action at once terrible and absolutely final, and doing it. Few know that space in between. Fewer still would dare let themselves go there, or admit it to anyone, including themselves. I could’ve ended my own life far more easily. I sat by that bed, night after night, after the few good days, mostly after the surfeit of particularly bad ones, where I had to watch my daddy cry over his pathetic life, his lost love. Watch him watching himself slide into oblivion, no escape.
It was weird. Here was a person sliding backwards into childhood, infancy. At least when you change a baby’s diapers, you know someday they’ll grow out of it. When a child needs help putting on their shoes or going potty, eventually, they figure it out. When they don’t understand something, you explain it to them, and sooner or later they get it. With dementia, the same sort of things happen, but in reverse. The body is bigger and smellier. They just get worse and worse, instead of the other way around. And all that with a person you’ve talked about important stuff with, who had put their own arm around you for comfort and support, who had been your rock when you were swept away. They were Somebody. They had a Life. You Knew them. Cherished them. Depended on them being there. Now you grasp at tiny straws, then: gone.
In the end, after much grave contemplation, I just couldn’t do it. I had to admit to myself that he himself had told me he wanted to live as long as he could. All this thinking and planning was my own way of creating an escape. Not his—mine. I needed a way out. An ending. A light at the end of. Spending that time, for me, in the darkness of night, next to my peacefully slumbering daddy, was weirdly like having him teach me, embrace me, advise and protect me. Thinking of these life-and-death things provided my shelter from the storms, brought me closer to him in our fragile little tent, broken zipper, flapping in the breeze, coyotes outside, sniffing. His essence. The part of a parent a child rarely sees, glowing in the moonlight like those elk.
Then, one night, I just got up, kissed him on his forehead, wished him sweet dreams, and never gave it another thought. It wasn’t like Pop was in excruciating pain, or facing great and never-ending suffering. (At least not any more than the rest of us.) He had made his choice and made it clear, and I would honor it. If we went broke or crazy in the meantime, so be it. He was worth that much, anyway. He’d die when he was damned good and ready. He didn’t need me. And if there was a God, he was pretty fucking good at this sort of thing—too good, if you ask me.
We find out, the long way around from Linny, of Todd’s imminent marriage. We send him a gift—a Pendleton blanket, the traditional Navajo gift that since pioneer times has meant great honor and respect—along with a note, apologizing for whatever it might have been that I’d done to make him annihilate me from his life, swallowing my pride and begging him to talk to me.
Nothing left to lose, I remove the TV and newspaper from Pop’s monthly payments to Suzie, giving her a couple month’s notice. A hundred bucks a month, give or take. I give her fair warning that in another few months, she and her kids are going to have to pay their own utilities, as well. She’s not talking to me any more, unless you count ranting and raving as talking. Occasionally, she changes tactics and sweetly cajoles.
Pop’s money is rolling out the door. He’s down to forty thousand. Only a year and a half into this tragi-comedy, and half his savings gone. Soon Linny and Carrie and I will be covering his not-so-insignificant living expenses. We do not expect Suzie to help out, but she will have to pay for her own family, anyway. I can only keep to my plan and try and make it all last as long as possible for everybody, including Suzie. If she can’t cope and hates me for it, there isn’t a damned thing I can do about it.
My Main Street job is completed in the middle of all of this. The self-improvement district is approved by my fellow property owners. It’s the first Special Improvement District in Arizona ever approved on the first vote. After six years, a twelve million dollar facelift, plus many more millions in historic restorations and grants, thousands of hours of soporific meetings and oppressive presentations, and shitloads of spirited wheeling and dealing over coffee and veggie burgers, it’s done. Downtown goes from a dead slum with half the stores boarded up and most of its history hidden behind plaster and plywood to a boomtown of university students, trendy Indian Traders, pubs and restaurants, and a brick-paved events square.
Time for a well-deserved break. Five months of diving, traveling, and seeing the Australian sights. Maybe we’ll end up finding the perfect property while we’re at it.
Carrie is ready, though she’s nervous about not having a full-time job for the first time since she was fifteen. But what about Pop?
He won’t be able to handle any huge changes of lifestyle. He’s still aware enough to know what’s going on. He needs stability.
There’s a bright, young, responsible couple sharing our home’s upstairs bedrooms. John works, Kayla goes to the university. They love Pop, and he loves them. All set. They commit to sticking around with Pop while we have a break, in exchange for free rent plus some pay. We purchase tickets to “Oz,” Carrie finishes up her job, and I hand off to the next poor sap—I mean director, at Main Street.
At the last minute, John is offered a job he can’t refuse in another town. Deal off. This nearly results in the cancellation of our plans. But Fedge is still around, living in the other spare bedroom. He steps up to the plate, and we’re off.
Clearly, we need a four-wheel drive to go out into the famed backcountry of Australia. Three or four thousand bucks should do the trick. We’ll just sell it when we’re done with it.
Milt, Carrie’s dad, an ex Stock and Station (cattle and ranch) agent in the outback, has other ideas.
“Mate. The only vehicle worth havin’ in the outback is a Valiant. Full-stop.”
“Um, you mean a Chrysler Valiant??”
“Dodge, mate, Dodge. No better vehicle, including a four-bee-four. Will get ya places a four-bee-four wouldn’t touch.”
I’d rather have a “four-bee-four.” I also have this sneaky feeling.
Hoping Carrie’s stubbornness comes from her mother, I beg her to change Milt’s mind. I do not yet fully appreciate their special bond.
On approach to the Cairns airport, Queensland Australia, I look out the window and far below I see a one-story terminal building, surrounded by palms. Milt and Glen, his wife, smile and wave as we taxi in. Everyone is waiting in the sweltering heat, swatting flies and wiping sweat from their brows. To their left is a tan Valiant sitting on the tarmac, glinting in the subtropical sun.
It’s a ’79. No air conditioning.
Soon it is dubbed the “divorce-mobile.” We put fifty thousand kilometers on that beast, plus numerous tires, exhaust manifold and pipes, a clutch, motor, steering box, and a flood of other bits and pieces.
The blowflies in Australia—“blowies”—not to mention the sand flies, tiny tickling swarming bush flies, biting March flies, horse flies and mosquitoes, could drive a Buddhist monk to distraction. What is the sound of one hand swatting? A cheap wall-tent mosquito shelter just barely saves our marriage.
Then, to Tasmania for Christmas with Dad and Glen.
Which is where we started.
Linny and Pop meet me at the Phoenix airport. I’m exhausted from my whirlwind expedition from Tassie. Pop, newly sprung from the looney bin, seems yet more confused and distracted. He sleeps most of the way back to Flag. I thought I was prepared, but my chest aches. I grill Linny for the details of the caper.
“Uncle Al and Uncle Bud waltzed right up to that nurses station and of course Uncle Bud did his thing.”
“Don’t tell me. Going ballistic.”
“Oh, God. Totally. Threatening and yelling and pounding on the desk. Uncle Al said they threatened to call security.”
“Uh-huh. So what stopped ’em?”
“Uncle Al figures they looked at these two crotchety old geezers and could see the headlines.”
I smile. For once I’m grateful for mom’s brother Bud’s temper.
“They still weren’t going to let Daddy go. All this bullshit about how they needed all this paperwork signed but it was impossible and of course the doctor wasn’t available.” She shakes her head. “So Uncle Al moves Bud aside and says to them, ‘I'm Al, this is Buddy. That’s our brother Joseph you have in there. We're going in right now, and we're going to pack his stuff up and take him home with us. The only way you're gonna stop us is to beat us to the floor and tie us up on our way out.’”
I can just hear his cool, I’ve-had-seven-children-and-beaten-cancer voice cooing.
She continues over my cackling. “So they packed him up, dressed him, and when they walked arm in arm past the nurses desk, there was a cop, a bunch of scowling nurses with their arms crossed, and I guess a doctor. They looked pretty pissed. Al said he just glanced at them as they passed, and one of the nurses shoved a sheaf of papers and a pen at him and said something about not being liable. They strolled outta there like the three wise men.”
And the laughter releases all the tension of the last week. Linny stays a couple of days, goes back to Chicago and work after New Year’s Day.
Carrie arrives home soon after, thankful for the extra time with her dad. Pop has definitely deteriorated. No way he’s going to walk to the Newsstand ever again.
We embark on a mission to remodel the house, building a new kitchen on Pop’s right when he comes out from his bedroom, not to mention bigger for Carrie’s luscious concoctions. Our contractor concludes that the subfloor is rotted out, and tears out the whole shebang from dirt to roofing, leaving a gaping hole in the middle of the house for three months. We have to board up Pop’s entryway to the kitchen so he doesn’t kill himself. Every morning before work, we bundle him in his slippers and robe, from his bedroom into the backyard, then, via the dirt alley—slowly, slowly in his newly exaggerated old-guy shuffling gait—around to the front door. He spends his days there, watching TV and eating and being walked. Once around the block is all he can make anymore. And that takes a while. At night, after dinner, we walk him back around to his room.
Stupidly, I take on another Main Street project, this time in Sedona, forty-five minutes away. I spend the year commuting via beautiful Oak Creek Canyon Road, listening to a book on tape about Winston Churchill. It helps me get through my own inner wars. The issues and challenges in Sedona are identical to those we had in Flagstaff, but it’s not “my baby.” Not me or my community, just for bucks. Pretty normal overall, but its never worked for me. I’ll spend the year trying to set up their systems and get things rolling in the right direction, then I’ll hand things off. For now, however, I’m committed.
Carrie goes back to selling dive trips, this time for her former boss from when she was diving in the Great Barrier Reef, Mike Ball Dive Expeditions. Good pay, nice downtown office, paid help. We’re making good dough, but between caring for Pop and work, we start biting and snarling at each other over nothing.
LIke when she hands me a gift sent from Milt in Australia. I open it to find what seems to be a rather nice little penknife.
Out of curiosity, I ask her, “Hey, what’s this?”
“It’s a castrating knife,” my farm girl wife says.
Naturally, I look a tad confused. She bursts out crying.
In another world, we’d have been laughing hysterically. I think.
I suggest counseling, which, coming from a conservative farm background, spells the end to Carrie. We blame it on ourselves and work, but I’m missing something. Something is getting to her. It’s too loaded for her to talk about.
My lovely wife and I have a few things in common, including that we wear our feelings on our sleeves. If we’re holding something in, sooner or later—expect it—we explode. When I come home, she wants me to greet her and kiss her and talk to her about my day. Which also means having a chat with Pop, his caregiver, and the dog. But by the time I come home from work, after twelve hours of coffee and deliberations with merchants, property owners, city councilors, bureaucrats—both friend and foe—and half the local transient bums, all I want to do is crawl into a hole and beat my head against a wall. Sanctuary. Release. Okay, fine. I’ll read the two-bit local newspaper.
Carrie remains quiet, waiting for me to catch my breath, patient, loving, and silently fuming. We fight frequently.
For her, it’s just good manners. She’s been waiting for me all day and works in a tiny office with only one other person to talk to. For me I just want to sit and listen to some burbling creek in my soul. For her all I have to do is acknowledge her and the others’ existence and be nice for “a few minutes.” For me it’s having to crawl out of my own perfectly good tent to set up someone else’s, after cooking dinner, entertaining, and rowing them through the shoals all day long.
On this day, her attack is fierce. We do battle, trying as usual to cover it up just enough. Still she’s upset, fist on hip, eyes flaring. Finally she can’t hold it in any longer, and spills the beans.
“I can’t have Pop here anymore.”
Sobbing. Boys simply cannot deal with a ball of sobbing woman.
“Huh? Whadya mean? What happened?”
More sobbing. I hug her, in all my confused and tormented manhood.
Finally she says, “He’s been…he’s been…”
“Com’on, com’on. Jesus Christ, SAY something already. You’re driving me NUTS!”
Trust me. I do get better at this. I think.
“He holds onto me too long when I hug him in the morning. He says things.”
“Things? What things? What are you talking about?”
“He makes my skin crawl sometimes. I don’t want to touch him anymore.”
One more of those damned pauses. The ones where life changes forever in the blink of an eye. That brief intervening silence. Punctuation marks of life.
“Oh. I see.” Pause. “ Like with Jennie.” A statement, not a question. My eyes are moist.
“Baby, how long has this been going on?”
“More and more since we got back from Oz.”
on earth didn’t you tell me?”
Uncontrollable sobs now. I cradle her in my arms.
“I couldn’t. I just couldn’t.”
“It’s okay baby. He doesn’t know where he is any longer anyway. I’ll fly the words ‘nursing home’ by him. I bet they won’t register any more. I’ll take care of it. I promise. Don’t worry. It’s gonna be okay. I promise.”
Tears of shame, tears of sadness. Some, in the end, of relief, no doubt.
And he doesn’t understand anymore. His world has contracted and he will never return. Bodily functions: eating, shitting, sleeping. What is delivered by others into his world: playing cards, a short walk around the block with panting breaths, someone turning on the TV for him and putting it onto any station whatsoever as he sits there, passively watching nothing. He no longer cries over the loss of Mom. He doesn’t even remember her. No, I take it back. He does remember—not the rock who gave his world meaning and grace, but a twisted construction of her. He thinks they were briefly married a long, long time ago, and it was annulled. Which makes me suck my breath in. Thirty-seven years and three kids disappearing behind the darkening, swirling curtain. He’d kill himself if he were aware of some of the things he said and did. He no longer cries in dread over the ever-growing loss of his memory, his life. Poof. Gone. Abracadabra.
The local nursing home smacks me in the face with the smell of urine. Never, ever put your loved one into a place that smells like urine, especially right there in the damn entryway. After some investigating, I find a great place right where I work in Sedona. Impossible to get into, of course, like all the decent ones. But I’m real good at this. I work the room, having meetings with the administrators, checking in on the place, meeting the nurses. Somehow, I slip in having them all meet my charming Pop, who of course they fall in love with. A space opens up (meaning someone croaked). They give the bed to my daddy. I only half allow the thought to intrude that this will be his last.
We do all the paperwork, part of which informs me that the government needs everything he owns except his wedding ring and a couple thousand bucks. I can’t imagine what Bill Clinton is going to do with dad’s boxer shorts. I call my sisters. By now he’s only got a few thousand left anyway, and it’s nearly the end of the year. He’s allowed to “gift” a few thousand to each of us legally each year. In December, his financial advisor (me) pays in advance for Pop’s funeral, going upscale but not overly lavish, and gives my sisters and me the last remnants of his “fortune,” which works out to a couple grand each. In January the same thing happens, and he’s left a pauper. I find myself thinking for not the first nor the last time, thank God he doesn’t know what’s happening. A life of hard work, commitment, and unceasing effort for his family. Now, this.
In January we place him in The Home, and it’s me, not him, who’s terrified. He’s mellow as a housecat, perfectly happy to see me walk away so he can get back to munching chips and watching Days of Our Lives in the dayroom. I don’t sleep for weeks, worrying, calling daily—he couldn’t care less. I go to my local doctor for a checkup, and my mellow, stately physician offers some really raunchy nursing home jokes.
I guess it’s going to be okay.
I visit him daily for the first six months. Take him out to lunch, always one of his favorite things. He’s clean, seems content. Always has a report.
“The black orderlies took my wife away and took her onto the front lawn last night.”
What is it with black orderlies?
“Pop. There are no black orderlies.”
“Oh yes there are. Three of them. They stole Shirley from me. I’m gonna get them next time, though.”
“Who’s Shirley, Pop?”
“What would Florence think of that?” Mom’s name.
“Oh, I loved Flo. But we were only married briefly. They annulled it right after the marriage. That was a long time ago.”
“So, what do the orderlies do with Shirley?
“Oh. I can’t talk about that. But it’s not right.”
“Want a Coke, Pop?”
“Mmm, yeah! Please.”
Or, “They took my wallet. I need my wallet.”
“I have your wallet Pop. Don’t worry.”
“You have my wallet? Why?”
“Well, so nobody takes it from you.”
“But I need my wallet.”
“What for, Pop?”
“Well, I have bills to pay. I have to go out to eat. They took my wallet.”
“Pop. I have your wallet. You don’t have any bills to pay. Social Security pays for everything, and I take you out to lunch every day.
“You have my wallet? Why?”
“So nobody else gets it. You don’t need it anyway. All expenses paid.”
“Really? This place is all expenses paid?”
“Yep. No worries.”
“Shirley wants to kiss me. But I’m holding out.”
“Sure you are, Pop. Playing hard to get, like always.”
“I want to take her out to a movie and dinner, but they took my wallet. I need my wallet.”
I get a call one afternoon from the head nurse at the home. I recognize her voice right off the bat.
“Hi Mr. Aronson, this is Davia from Sedona Nursing Home. Your father is fine.”
“Uh-huh. So what’s wrong?”
“Well, he’s fine. Nothing’s wrong, I just have to make this call. Regulations.”
“Uh-huh. No problem. So. What’s wrong?”
“Well. Um. I’m not sure how to say, really.”
“Okay. Try just telling it like you’re telling a story. It’s okay. Start at the beginning.”
“Well. Joseph was in the day room. They were all watching TV and having a snack.” Pause.
“Okay. That’s nice. So?”
“Well. Shirley was there too.”
Shirley’s in her nineties, has dementia from Alzheimer’s. The nurses copped onto them having a “relationship” right off. I told them, “What the hell? What else does he have left to enjoy in life?” I was informed she had vaginal herpes. When I asked the nurses if that meant Pop and Shirley were screwing, they just looked at each other. I didn’t push it.
“Out with it, girl!”
She takes a deep breath, then quickly blurts “Well. They were standing in the middle of the day room, kissing. Shirley had her hand in your father’s open zipper and was, well, fondling him.”
This is getting good.
“Well, Mrs. Glickman apparently took offense. So she came up to them and hit your father over the head with her walker.”
“Mr. Aronson? Mr. Aronson? Are you there?”
“Sorry. I dropped the phone.” Choke, cackle. “Is he okay?”
“Just a little goose-egg. We’ve got a Band-Aid on it, and it’s been reported in the nurse’s notes.” All business.
“Fine. No worries. And how’s Mrs. Glickman?”
“Oh, she’s fine too. We took her back to her room and medicated her. She’s sleeping now.”
“Whew, thanks. Oh, God, you made my day. Wait’ll I tell Carrie. Hah!”
The months roll on, the year ends. Sadness and laughter and work and love and life. I leave my job in Sedona. Now I visit Pop only three times a week. Somehow I am not ashamed.
I call him daily. My sisters call him frequently as well. Suzie loses Pop’s house and moves into a rental. I’m told it costs more than the mortgage did. I will never figure her out. The kids are somehow able to contribute, now that it’s all too late; still they are forced to move again after a few months. It seems the landlord didn’t pay his own mortgage. Suzie finds this infuriating.
Life settles into a routine, strange as it seems. The living get on with it. Not having Pop in the house allows his filibustering ghost to fade. I miss him less. I do think of him, but less. I bury the guilt.
One of my visits, cribbage as usual. Pop’s winning, as usual. We use large faced cards so he can see them. I move the pegs for both of us, deal for both of us. I help him count sometimes; when he’s having a good moment, he counts himself. Something, somewhere, still kicks in when he’s playing cards.
I look up at him, pointing an accusatory finger.
“Pop. You’re winning. You cheat.”
Simply, innocently, he raises blank eyes from his hand and stares in my general direction, blinking.
“How can I be cheating? I don’t even know what I’m doing!”
“Joe has pneumonia. He’s very sick. They’ve taken him by ambulance to Sedona Hospital.”
A coincidence, my cousin-in-law the paramedic took him in. He recognized him and called my cousin Caryn, who called me. I already knew, somehow.
“God, Cuz. He looks so old and sick! I didn’t know!”
“Not much left of him, I guess. I’ll see ya in a half hour.” I call my sisters, knowing that this is what kills the oldies. They fly in.
He’s grumpy as hell, almost abusive. Not much of his usual sense of humor showing. He manages to insult all of us sooner or later, though he’s nice as pie to the pretty nursing staff. After a few days, he stabilizes. This could end up okay. In any case, it could take a while. I send my sisters home. They have lives, work. Déjà vu.
In a week he’s back in the nursing home, now in a corner room, alone. Special staff. Yup. Definitely Déjà vu all over again.
Carrie and I visit daily, after work. One Friday evening, she and I are playing cribbage just off the side of his bed. Pop’s on his side, staring through the railing at the board three inches from his face.
“Help me” are the only words left him. Whatever he wants, whatever he might be thinking, all that comes out is, “Help me.” If he’s agitated, he repeats it, with exclamation points. “Help me! Help me! Help me!” over and over and over. Clipped, hoarse, and loud. A separate breath for each couplet.
Carrie’s beating me. The cards aren’t going my way. We’re tired, it’s late, we have a forty-five minute drive to get home. I guess I’m a little grumpy, myself. The room is dark except for a little light right over the card table. The other bed in the room is unmade, plastic lies draped over a nearby chair. Every so often, one of us wipes the beads of sweat off Pop’s forehead, gives his temples a little massage, offers a sip of water.
“HELP ME! HELP ME! HELP ME!”
I just know he’s thinking of how I should play my cards, the bastard.
I can’t stand it any longer. I put down my cards and look at Pop, who remains staring at the cribbage board.
“Pop. I love you, but I can’t stand you shouting ‘help me’ any longer. If you don’t stop shouting, we’re going to have to go home.”
Long pause. Eyes never leave the board. His skin is pale, hairless. He’s like a specter, clutching that sheet.
“Help me,” he whispers. The corners of his lips turn up, like how he used to do when he was teasing someone.
A joke? Defeat? Helpless resignation? We smile at each other, kiss him on his forehead, cover him up.
“I love you, Papa. Goodnight. We’ll see you tomorrow.”
I lie in my bed far later than usual that Saturday, and when I finally get up, I putter. Deliberately. Maybe I’ll take a break and not visit Pop today. We’ll see. Carrie’s the same. All washed up.
The phone rings. I already know as clearly as if I were naked in a blizzard.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Aronson. Your father passed away about a half an hour ago.”
“It’s okay. I figured.”
“Nothing. We’ll be right there.”
No talking on the ride down. When we reach the closed door to the room, Carrie touches my arm.
“Would you like me to come in with you, or do you want some alone time?”
I just put my hand up. As she turns to lean her back against the barren wall next to the too-heavy door, I push it open. Somehow I end up inside.
It looks like my father, there. But no. A husk. Where is he? It’s cold in here, empty. I want to ask him how he’s doing. Tease him. I want him outside, in the clean, fresh air, a gentle breeze animating his wispy white hair, the leaves rustling above our heads, caressed by sunlight. I want his gentle, age-clouded eyes looking into mine, one last wink. We die nowadays in such sterility, curtains and machinery, insulated from the world.
I yank back the sheet covering my daddy’s body and watch it drift to the cold floor. He just lays there, passive, arms crossed over his chest, like he’s waiting for me to cover him back up, so naked and vulnerable. My hand reaches to his eyes, opens them. You okay?
Close them, gently now. I run my hands down his body, tenderly, from his head, over his face, down his chest and arms, to his hand. I grasp this, holding it in my own, grateful. Thank you, Daddy. I don’t want to forget. I will, anyway. Neither one of us breathes.
I do not feel the need to sustain others this time, to be a man. A pulse thrums up from my feet.
“Ohhhhh. Ohhhhh. Daddy. Daddy. Ohhh… Daddy…”
The floodgates burst, like once long ago for Mom, on a tiny spit of sand way up Nankoweap creek in the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Surrounded by burnt rocks polished by water and cottonwood trees whispering secrets and the immense solitude of the desert and unfathomable dark cobalt sky and stained red cliffs, rolling, rolling naked, the sand in my ears, my nose, my eyes, howling like an animal. I awoke in twilight, exhausted and cleansed, miles from camp or food, sipping the cold clear creek, washing the sacred dust off my body and face and out of my hair and heading back in my nakedness and sandals towards the river and friendship. Redemption.
I hear Carrie catch her breath outside that portal, stifling her sobs so as not to take me away from this moment. She allows me to cry and shout and moan carelessly.
This was my daddy. May my life honor his gift of life to me. I am an orphan. I lie across his body and weep until there is nothing left. And, finally, I smile for him. Only then does she softly enter.
I am grateful to my wife for that.
I make the phone calls. Funeral arrangements. All the professionals need is a date. Check. The plot is right next to Mom’s, and poor old crazy Grandma. Check. I’m going to do the eulogy this time. Some well-meaning rabbi, total stranger to us all, will not botch this one, like Mom’s. That time, standing room only. This time, what with people dying and moving away and losing touch, just a pathetic clutch of a few dozen in the midst of seas of vacant pews. The remains of a family. My sisters put Dad’s Cubs baseball cap on him. A pennant and other memorabilia crowd into the coffin. I’ve already said my own goodbyes.
We allow the relatives and old friends to file by the casket, open this time—another heartbreaking lesson from mom. Farewells begin the healing, require a face. Some use canes; some are young, lithe. All cherished him. I haven’t seen most of them for years. Will never see most of them again.
Joseph Arthur Aronson. There. I’ve said it. I did my best, Mom.
The casket, lowering into the grave, gets stuck halfway down. The Mexicans scramble to fix the problem, glancing nervously at the mourners. Dad’s brother Shel, youngest of seven, whispers to himself, “Stubborn son-of-a-bitch!” Then, shouting, “Goddamn it Joe! Get the hell in there! Stubborn as always!”
Laughter. Thank God for Jews. The Catholics would’ve been crossing themselves and glancing around nervously, expecting a lightening bolt.
I recall my father on the one river trip I ever got him to go on—needing something after Mom’s death. Drinking beers with me, crawling into his little tent after I set it up for him on one of those spectacular Grand Canyon beaches, gawking at Redwall Cavern, twisting his ankle trying to find the well-hidden ammo-can crapper in the middle of the night, riding my boat through the rapids, at first cringing, then whooping and laughing.
I left that river trip halfway: one of the few times I’ve ever done that, at Phantom Ranch. I wanted to be with him on the hike, partly to protect him and carry his pack, partly just to be with him to share my Canyon with him for one more day. He struggled, forgot his glasses at a creek on the trail after wiping his brow with his bandana. The mule skinners found them and a wrangler on a mule handed them back to him at the rim.
I will never forget what he said, sitting in the shade under a Cottonwood tree halfway up.
“Son. This was the best thing I’ve ever done in my life.”