April 24, 2008 Issue
Chestnut Hill Local
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Local Fiction & Poetry Edition
He frowned, winced and grunted but he didn’t complain. Well, he never was a complainer; he left that all to Mother, who died of complaining, having been exhausted over the years dealing with the insufficiencies of life with Father and then with the inconsiderations of my siblings who moved across the country to inaccessible places where grandchildren were color snapshots that only visited the refrigerator door. I hadn’t been much consolation. When she died five — or was it six? — years ago of congestive heart failure, Father seemed unaffected, able to live alone without her complaining as stoically as he had lived with it. He still played golf as often, brushed his teeth with baking soda, and smoked only “America’s finest pipe tobacco.” [He liked to joke that “it says so right on the can” and that “Joe Stalin smoked Edgeworth” — two incontrovertible reasons for Father’s brand loyalty.] He gardened, he listened to jazz, he tinkered with his “rig” — the ham radio equipment he kept improving when he wasn’t on the air. He had been an electrical engineer with RCA, making a salary just below the sufficiency level.
His life changed when he fell at the Club and broke a hip. The bone reknit but never healed. He never regained his strength, his appetites.
Several days after I had brought Father home from the hospital, my brother sent me an e-mail: “How’s he doing? And how much is he costing a day?” They never got along very well. My brother had never shown a lick of interest in amateur radio or working with his hands. At least I had studied how to be a ham, assembled my own one-tube transmitter, solid state receiver and 80-meter antenna, and I’d gotten a license; although it was so long ago I forget my call letters. They certainly weren’t as pioneering as Father’s W3AJF. One reason I gave up on being a ham was current. 300 to 400 volts. Father could joke about “nips” of electricity. I got knocked across the room once. Never again.
I e-mailed my brother that Father had survived the disruption of returning home, was not showing any signs of any great pain, but seemed to be swearing off everything that had given him pleasure. He didn’t want anything from the liquor cabinet; he didn’t smoke, watch TV or read. He seemed content to close his eyes most of the day. But not in resignation. On the contrary, he seemed to be trying to conserve something. And it wasn’t his estate. He was oblivious to the medical cost of $250 or more a day.
“He looks like a cadaver when he sleeps,” I e-mailed.
“Why doesn’t he just give up?” was my brother’s response.
My sister phoned to say that she was ready to fly back to Henrytown at a moment’s notice. If she didn’t have three children and a workaholic husband, she’d be helping me and the nursing staff every day; in fact, those duties would be a comparative vacation for her. She wanted to know what the doctor said. She thought more could be done; she had heard about stem cell treatment for cancer. Stem cells were the active agents in bone marrow that generated new blood and enabled patients to withstand megablasts of chemotherapy and then be safely replenished with brand new blood. I told her that stem cells came from aborted fetuses, and then she got off on the Abortion Issue, saying that one reason she felt alienated from Father and Mother was their total lack of curiosity about spiritual matters.
After a month back at home, Father was “about the same.” That was my stock answer to all who called or wrote or e-mailed. I had become his personal secretary and house keeper and go-for. Thank goodness for the practical nurses, or I would have been helping him in the bathroom. All I did with his body was lift it occasionally so he could stand at his walker. My companion at the apartment downtown was extremely understanding, but my business was suffering. I had had to refer some clients elsewhere and I simply couldn’t help St. Asaph’s Church rethink its impossibly Victorian bridal room.
I had discouraged my brother and sister from phoning Father directly. At the hospital — after the exploratory surgery that had confirmed his fears — he had forced himself to fake delight at hearing their voices, then he’d hasten the conversation to closure with cheerful protests like “it’s your dime” and “just a bump in the road.” He literally didn’t have the stomach for reminiscences. After the call, he’d be wrenched with pain or nausea from the stress. I reasoned that communication with him had to be wireless; otherwise his brain would suffer some electrocolloidal change resulting in dementia, disorientation or some disturbing glandular secretion.
One day after being home nearly two months Father accused the nurses of stealing his Woolworth reading glasses. He was angry. I told him that the prescription was easily duplicated with a 3.75 intensity pair from CVS; Father was vain about his eyesight, claiming even recently that he could see beyond the reach of his hand as well as I could. He was probably right. I think he dropped the glasses into the trashcan — or flushed them away — in a fit of retaliation when the ironic truth was that his hands had lost their tinkering skill. On his bedside table his heirloom pocket watch lay permanently disassembled.
His anger might have been due also to the onset of the intolerable pain that his doctor had said was overdue. One evening while the nurse was feeding him some nutritious paste, and I was about to inquire about morphine, Father glowered, pushed away the spoon and spoke with his old authority: “I don’t want this any more. Please leave me with my son.”
As soon as the bedroom door clicked shut, I was aware of a small intrusive sound. He had developed this habit of scraping his thumbnail with his forefinger nail, as if trying to signal some distant ham by radio telegraph code. Dahdidahdit dahdahdidah. Sending a CQ. Trying to connect. Wanting to work anybody out there. Respecting his efforts, I kept still. I had never learned code. The telegraph key was as useful to me as the slide rule. What was he trying to communicate by his fingers? Nothing comprehensible, I figured. Then he turned to me and said: “I’d like a few favors.”
“If I can,” I said.
“Been thinking about what I really want...” He paused, as if his sentence needed to include a phrase like after all these years or at this end time. He was straining to decide whether to reveal or hold back.
“What?” I said.
“Five favors,” he said.
We had eye contact. The favors were not about our relationship. They were about his own precious life, a life that might not be able now to sustain even one favor. And I wondered what favors his estate could afford.
“What are they?”
“Well, I’d like the first one tomorrow. And then the next one the next day. And so on.”
“What are they?” I wanted to know all five.
“First, I want you to bring me a gardenia.”
He wasn’t sure why he wanted to have one in the room. Then he said he knew. “Not just the odor” which he thought was the best that nature had to offer, but because “my mother insisted I give my first girlfriend a gardenia for the prom.
“Second, I want to have Herman cut my hair.”
“Okay,” I said, already planning to buy a blooming gardenia plant at the Henrytown Garden Fair. Getting Herman to make a house call would not be a hardship. Although the barber who had cut Father’s hair for decades was retired, I knew where he could be found. I’d offer the guy $100.
“Then I’ll tell you the rest later.” Father was smiling, perhaps about his first girlfriend. “I always wanted to have my own greenhouse,” he said. “Grow my own, these cold winter months.”
I had to pick up and deliver both the gardenia plant and the barber. Herman had checked into an assisted living community, but was hardy enough to give Father the “usual” which was not only a haircut tapering at the nape, but a nearly five-minute scalp massage. I knew how good that could feel. Perhaps what came down to me in the genes was my father’s capacity for ecstasy by massage.
Fumes from three full blossoms in a pot by his bed saturated the air.
“Third, I want to listen to the George Shearing Quintet.”
I knew who the piano player was, but I couldn’t recall the Quintet. Father filled me in. He was laboring for breath, but was able to explain. “There must be a re-release on CD today. Get the one with ‘Roses of Picardy.’”
I found the CD on the Internet and brought over my Panasonic player to accommodate Father. I must admit that the Quintet played suavely, danceably. “Unison octave voicing,” said Father as if the secret to the Quintet’s sound was now mine as well. “Your mother and I heard them at a fraternity party. We danced.” I told him not to try any more talking. Mother had filled me in about Father’s college days on the GI Bill: how he’d been more serious than his much younger classmates, having volunteered for the Army right after high school. He had seen combat near Picardy. Then he had “kicked around” before settling down. He had never said much about those days.
“Fourth, I want a thermos of Bloody Marys.”
I figured that one reason he sent me to his club to have Duke at the bar make up a batch of Father’s favorite drink — as only Duke could do it: heavy on the horseradish — was so the fifth favor would be easier to request. He got the thermos on a Thursday evening, and I dressed his glass with wedges of lime, a stalk of celery, a pennant with the Club logo — and on the obverse: “19th Hole Bar,” where he’d broken his hip — and I also passed along Duke’s “best wishes to a great gentleman, good golfer and so-so card player.” Three of Father’s old golfing buddies signed a club napkin and one of them tried to joke that Father’s favorite drink had nothing to do with his trouble. I got out of the club bar as soon as I had tipped Duke $50.
Father smacked his lips theatrically, but the taste of the Bloody Mary brought him an unrehearsed grin. From ear to liver, I thought. His cancer had started in the bone marrow, but picked up speed in the liver. I think that’s how his doctor put it. When Father’s grin disappeared, and several swallows of Duke’s concoction didn’t seem to settle too well, I took away his glass with its bent straw. He didn’t care. I said:
“I’m ready for favor number five.” I had almost called it “your final favor” but caught myself. He seemed to be fighting small discharges of pain, as if the alcohol — despite the congenial condiments — had shorted him out. He began to breathe like a contraption, an early iron lung or whatever was once used to keep polio victims alive. I had an urge to grab his hand, as it clutched at the bed spread. Or better, to find some tool to engage his fingers. “This is a soldering gun, Father.” I laughed to myself. Then he was better: as if my thought had provided the heat sufficient to dry his circuit. His face was gaining composure. He was ready to tell me favor number five. He said:
“I’d like to see Mrs. LoBalbo take off her clothes.” He lowered his head onto the pillow and gazed at the ceiling fan. He had installed it years ago after Mother — so she said — had threatened to sleep all summer in the guest room. Father would not hear of window air conditioners — they were not healthy — and the old house’s hotwater system made a central system unfeasible.
I acted as if he had asked me to find him a rare book at the library. I said as naturally and unhesitatingly as I could:
“Father, I don’t think I’ll have much luck.”
“It’s my last request,” he said, underplaying the line. His gaze dropped down to me. It was almost annihilatingly blank, as if there was nothing left connecting us unless I could honor and enable his last request; and to hell with my understanding. I had to think before answering, so I sat down.
Mrs. LoBalbo was a widow in her mid-50s, a mother of four, whose youngest child, still at home, had inherited her lean father’s body rather than her mother’s robust Ukrainian build. Mrs. LoBalbo had the appearance of a peasant woman who had “not let herself go.” Even I could appreciate her earthy, comfortable womanliness. The LoBalbos had been neighbors for at least 15 years; Father used to talk to her as she hung out wash and he tended his garden, their backyards cattycorner at the intersection of four fences. Father had once remarked how strong a woman she was: insisting that Mr. LoBalbo turn Protestant if he expected to marry her. Father was first to end the conversations, however, because Mrs. LoBalbo always got around to talking about the Lord. “Witnessing” was my mother’s word for it, and she had smugly teased Father about Mrs. LoBalbo: “Watch out.”
He wanted to sleep. He wanted me to go. He didn’t care if he ever saw me again. Just do what he asked. I could always read his body language. Especially now. His hands were “ten frozen parsnips hanging in the weather” a line from a poem by John Crowe Ransom that I had memorized in high school; his hole of a mouth was open only for air; his ears had gotten fleshier as his face had wasted away; his eyes seemed bulgier but sunk lower in his head. He lay consumed by cancer and a desire to watch Mrs. LoBalbo take off her clothes.
At last a matter of life or death, I thought. I acted. I telephoned her and said: “If you would be so kind: could you visit my father? I know this sounds melodramatic, but he’s so weak he could leave us at any moment, and he has asked to see you. His last request is to see you.” “Of course. I am very touched.”
Mrs. LoBalbo arrived at the house in the afternoon. She seemed larger than I remembered, not heavier but taller, and more zaftig. I offered to take her coat, and she complied after removing from its pocket a small black book, perhaps the New Testament. Her hair was pulled back in a bun and I imagined one pin being yanked out and the tresses flowing to the small of her back. The ceiling fan would spin. “Blown hair is sweet. Brown hair over the mouth blown. Lilac and brown hair.” I recalled the lines of T. S. Eliot from my college days. But her smell was more hand soap than shampoo.
“He’s waiting upstairs. You can go right in.” I pointed toward his door. “Ms. Sloan and I will be down here should you need us.” The practical nurse and I would be watching television together. “Please take as much or as little time as you want.”
She had no trouble climbing the staircase, but the treads squeaked under her step. My heart was racing. Had she any idea what Father was hoping? Would her arrival be tantamount in his mind to her consent to disrobe? If she did not disrobe, would he coax or beg? I was fearful of the consequences of my censoring his message to her. My reasonable deceit. I expected to hear someone cry out, and Father to die. Either from joy or anger.
And then I considered the possibility that Mrs. LoBalbo might be extending his life. What if Father’s last request were realized and the hope of seeing her again and again revived him? A miracle brought on by Eros. Didn’t he once tell me — or was it to taunt me? — that Nazi medical researchers had experimented with captured soldiers — Ukrainians for all I know — by forcing them into sub- freezing salt water, then resuscitating them by letting them see naked women? I thought that Father’s story was brutal, but I could imagine its basis in truth.
Soon I might be telephoning my brother and sister: Father has taken a dramatic turn. He’s eating again. He’s walking. He sees Mrs. LoBalbo every day.
My brother would ask: “At 250 dollars per?”
My sister would say: “He can’t keep it up.” Talk about stem cell treatment! My sister wouldn’t have a clue to the irony.
And then the latch to Father’s door clicked; I hadn’t been listening to the Five O’clock News anyway. Mrs. LoBalbo appeared. She turned and closed the door delicately after her. She came down the staircase more gently than she had gone up. I met her at the bottom step. She carried the black book and rested her other hand on the newel post.
“Your father died peacefully.”
I had no immediate response, but my head began to oscillate a little like a person with Parkinson’s Disease. She was nodding and biting her lips. The nurse had turned off the television and was on her way upstairs.
“How?” was all I could say. I sensed a stoppage of my emotions.
“I held his hand and prayed.”
She moved her left hand from the newel post to my arm. “And he passed away peacefully.”
“I really must go now,” she said. She walked toward the hall closet anticipating my retrieval of her coat.
“What did he say?” I beat her to the closet.
“He was speechless.” She stood waiting for her coat. She put the black book down on the hall table.
“Not a word?”
“He said a lot with his eyes, his hands.”
“Oh.” I heard myself, a sound. “Thank you, Mrs. LoBalbo,” I said automatically, not knowing exactly why I thanked her.
As I was helping her on with the coat, I noticed that her blouse collar was turned up in the back. Her hair seemed undisturbed. As she faced me to say goodbye, her fingers checked the blouse button at her throat. Her eyes searched mine, perhaps for signs of insecurity. I had to look away when I saw her own.
“Oh, my Bible,” she said, as if she had almost forgotten where she had laid it. She held it against her breast. We embraced briefly at the door.
I said: “I can’t tell you how much the family appreciates what you’ve done.”
Mrs. LoBalbo replied: “I pray that your Father is with the Lord.”