|Against My Father's Funeral
The aisle of the sleeper car was narrow. As I walked, I had one hand on the wall. I was crying. The conductor patted me on the shoulder and pointed to my compartment; it contained a seat, which pulled out into a bed; right by the seat was the toilet; across from the seat was a 4 x 4 inch television playing Agent Cody, a kid's movie. Above me was a second bed. I had packed a black dress for the funeral, although my father was still alive, a pair of jeans, a t-shirt, underwear, toiletries and a vial holding eight 2mg valiums, and had fit it all into a small bag. I had my laptop and its case held an assortment of my father's writings, which his wife had sent me, four issues of the New Yorker, and Wallace Stegner's novel, The Big Rock Candy Mountain. I took that out and opened to the first page: The train was rocking through the wide open country before Elsa was able to put off the misery of leaving and reach out for the freedom and release that were hers now.
My husband was on the platform outside the window of my compartment. He waved and blew a kiss. It was cold out, September 11, 2003, and he was wearing a t-shirt. I was now crying hard. He mouthed: What's the matter? As if he had said, Hurry up, I picked up all my belongings and rushed out to the platform.
"I can't do it," I said, holding him at the waist.
"You'll be fine. Come on; get back on."
"I feel claustrophobic. I can't go."
"Just calm down; read your book." He sounded like my father, and why not? I was acting like a child.
The conductor approached me, a stocky man, with surrendering eyes, magnified by thick glasses. "What's wrong, Miss?"
"I can't go," I said.
"She's scared something's going to happen," my husband explained, shrugging. "It's 9-11; it's everything."
"Dear, nothing's going to happen. I'm on this train every day. I'll take good care of you. We're leaving in two minutes, so, if you're coming, we better get on board. Here, let me get that," he said, taking my bag. "My name's Paul."
I followed Paul. When I was back in my compartment, I couldn't look out the window. Within a few seconds, the loudspeaker crackled, and the conductor announced that the Silver Meteor, headed for Orlando, Florida, was about to leave Penn Station. It was September 11th, 2003.
I'd been trying to leave since September 5th. I'd checked the internet for Jet Blue flights at least twenty times, typed in all the information and deleted everything. I had packed my bag and left it in my bedroom, ready to go. My husband said he'd fly down with me, and we could leave our sons with friends, as many had volunteered to help. Two close girlfriends, whom I'd known for over thirty years, said they'd fly down with me. My mother-in-law, who was in Boca Raton, offered to come up to New York and take me down to Sarasota. A woman in town, whom I didn't even know well, told me she was flying down to Fort Myers with friends and she'd love for me to join her; we'd get drunk on the plane; it'd be fun. All I had to do was choose my aide.
My mother had offered nothing: "Don't go. It's better this way. He was never a very good father."
Well, then, what did I do? As she advised; I turned down all offers. What a position to be in: you're grieving, everyone around you is thinking how fantastically fucked up you are, but they must continue to be gentle, as you're the one who's about to lose your father. Fear had attached itself like a tick to every opportunity available to me, and I yearned to be famous like Kingsley Amis, and, this time, not because I wanted to be a successful writer, but, instead, because I wanted to be forgiven for my eccentricities, as he must have been, when he refused to turn out the lights during sleep or even be alone at home during the day. Sure -- she can't stand the dark; can't stand to fly; avoids the idea of death, but, have you read her most recent book? What a testimony to genius.
The train was rocking on the tracks. Where was my release as Elsa was feeling in the book? The view was dark, and, true, at some point in the past ten years, I'd become fearful of darkness. Often I woke up in the middle of the night, and my imagination would assault me: there's a thief in the kitchen; there's a fire in the basement; my sons are sick and can't get to me; my husband's not breathing. I'd lie awake until the sun began buttering the sky, and then I'd fall asleep: the thief was gone, the fire was smothered, the boys were dreaming, and my husband was breathing gently.
I tried to watch Agent Cody, but it only made me think of my sons. I wanted to call my husband. We had one cell phone, and he had it. He had decided to keep it on him; our free calling area was limited, and on the train, if I used the cell, I'd run up the kind of bill that would throw my husband into a frenzy. We'd already paid over six hundred dollars for the compartment in the sleeper car. Jet Blue roundtrip would have been one hundred. To say he had been patient with me would have been a gross understatement.
Just once, after my husband had hung up with his mother, who'd said to him, "You know what we would do; we'd have been on the first flight down," only then did he say to me, "If you can't go down for this, could you get on a plane if one of the kids needed you?"
I looked away and said, "One thing has nothing to do with the other, and I resent your thinking that."
The city was dissolving into streaks of light outside the train window. The wheels on the rails sounded like prisoners running in chains. The train sped over black bridges and through black tunnels. It was going too fast, I thought. Why did I have to feel it going so fast?
When I was a child, my father would explain speed to me; he had studied to be an aeronautical engineer. He was only five-foot-seven, with a round face and brown hair sitting on his head like a mini-skirt, the top of his head as gleaming and bald as a light bulb. His eyes were the color of a lake. He'd look at me, sling his arm around me and pull me close, while we traveled on a plane. Then he'd often sketch a diagram illustrating the basic forces that lifted an aircraft safely into the sky. I trusted him, believed him, although the nature of the physics eluded me.
I was thinking of him all the time, of course, and images of his favorite pastimes appeared in my head. I could see his wine cellar, the one he had designed for our apartment in Manhattan. The cellar was his prize, a cedar-constructed system of racks, coddling the first growths of Château Lafite Rothschild, the rarest Italian reds, a variety of French and California Chardonnays, and a dazzling array of Pouilly Fuisse, Chassagne Montrachet and Chenin Blanc. Wine was his favorite kind of investment, one which was dignified by a history of barons and estates, and, with age, he explained, the wine often deepened in beauty. After he drank a bottle, the investment was washed away, only to be remembered by the evening. If he could share a bottle with someone for whom he cared -- well, then -- the satisfaction was complete. He had imparted his refined taste and immaculate care upon a friend, and what more could there be to life? As far as other investments, although he helped run a profitable supermarket chain, he never did exceptionally well in the stock market, it seemed to me. He was too easily duped by slick, loquacious financial advisers who knew how to bait him over a light Wienerschnitzel, side order of roasted potatoes and a bottle of Pouilly Fumé, but a smooth, redolent wine… that he understood.
Even as the train swayed and blurred the image of his cellar, I could smell the pungent cedar and I remembered closing myself in the closet, locking it, and feeling I was in a holy cave.
The conductor knocked on my door. He nodded. "You okay now?"
"Not really," I said.
Behind him, I saw a woman in the compartment across from mine; she was poking through her bag, humming.
"Dinner's in a half hour. The dining car's two cars down… that way. They'll announce when dinner's served."
My father had been a gourmet, so to speak. But eating was out of the question for him now, a man who had once prided himself on trying venison and partridge at Chaine des Rotisseurs dinners. He was in a coma; he'd been suffering from Alzheimer's for the past six years, and his body was finally shutting down. ("Don't parade me around when I get really sick.") He could no longer swallow. ("Christ, who would want to live like that?") He could no longer move.
I told myself: you don't want to see him like that. He can't hear you; can't know you. The last time you saw him, his last words to you were: I love you. I had my thoughts down so that I could hum to them. No doubt I was headed for a breakdown. I felt estranged from the person I believed I was; I felt wooden and rotten. My father and I had shared a lot in common: healthy appetites, appreciation of art and privacy….. I could talk to him about friends, boyfriends, my sister, my mother, my husband, my sons, my writing, my desires, my fears, and he listened and tried to understand. I told myself: He never was one to mourn someone's death; he was one to celebrate life. But I doubted all my thoughts, and, at home, my twin boys looked at me, with worry flooding their nine-year-old eyes. Where had their mother gone?
I spoke to my father's wife every day. Joyce is five-foot-five, blond, green-eyed, with a smile that shows her gums; she's an ardent Democrat, a Zionist, and twenty years younger than my father. She used to teach at a public school in Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico, and her extended knowledge of history and grammar can irritate you, particularly when she corrects you. She has a daughter who's more political than she; her daughter's bisexual and is getting her Ph.D in prison reform for women. I've always admired her daughter's discipline and drive.
Since Dana, Joyce's daughter, had disclosed her proclivity for women, I found that my sister and I were no longer invited to dinners with her. My father and Joyce would invite Dana to dinner one night and then my sister and me on another. He said it was Joyce's idea. My father didn't judge anyone on his or her sexual preferences; he just he found Dana to be somewhat close-minded and opinionated. "Distasteful." Both mother and daughter, I thought, were obstinate, and when it came to caring for my father, Joyce never asked my sister or me for help or a second opinion.
Joyce had decided two years earlier that my father would prefer to be in an assisted living community for Alzheimer patients, as he had always loved to be around people.
And so our conversations: direct and burdened with resentment and grief…
Early June: "I sold the apartment," Joyce told me. "I needed a change. I bought a smaller place in Sarasota right near your father. It's much more convenient."
"When did you decide to sell the apartment?"
"Oh, months ago. I needed a change."
The apartment was the last possession of my father's to be sold; he loved it, a two-bedroom which overlooked the Gulf in Long Boat Key, a resplendent spot with a view that would make Ishmael lose his soul without having to go to sea.
Late August: "I have to move your father. He can't walk well anymore. I found a very good nursing home; and they'll move him there tomorrow."
"Is he in a wheelchair?"
"That's why I'm moving him."
When I had last seen him, several months earlier, he'd been walking; his gait had been stiff, and he had leaned on me.
The assisted living community had recommended a nursing home across the street. A week into my father's stay at the nursing home, Joyce was on vacation and I got a call from a social worker at the home, asking if I were a relative whom she should contact, etc. The way the woman spoke of my father, I feared he was about to die. A few days later, he ended up in the hospital.
Early September: "He's fine. They only put him in the hospital, because he's dehydrated, that's all. It's not like he's going to die." She laughed. "I don't know why that woman called you from the nursing home; she had no right to scare you."
"She called me because you were in Italy and she was worried about his health. She told me that he's not in a wheelchair; he's in one of those reclining chairs; why didn't you tell me he can't even sit up?"
"He's certainly not going to get any better. But it's a very good nursing home, you know, the best."
Two days later: "He's still in the hospital, but he looks good. He talks to me a little. He was dehydrated, that's all. And his color's good. I washed his face and combed his hair, and his color's really very good."
"Will he leave the hospital?"
"I imagine so. I'm talking to the doctor tomorrow; he's a very good doctor; very young."
A day later: "He can't eat anymore. He can't swallow. He's still on an IV."
"What happens when he goes off the IV?"
"I don't know how long he'll have. How do I know? He's a strong man -- that I know. He's a very strong man; he always was."
"He'll starve to death," I said. "What a thought."
"Oh, no, he's not uncomfortable. They've made him very comfortable." And I could hear her think: Get down here and see for yourself.
Two days later: "He wouldn't have wanted to live like this. They're taking him off the IV in a few days. His body can't process all this fluid."
"Is he in pain?"
"No, no, he can't feel a thing."
A few days later: "I went to see the rabbi today. I've started making all the arrangements. We're going to do an autopsy, even though it's against the Jewish religion, but we want to make sure it's Alzheimer's and not Lewy Bodies or Pick's disease -- they're all so similar. I thought we should do it for you and the kids, so you'd know. He would have wanted it: you know how he loved to know everything. The rabbi thought it was a good idea; the rabbi's very smart."
At this point, my sister, Lisette, decided to fly down to Sarasota. Lisette lived in California and hadn't seen our father in almost two years; she and I hadn't spoken in over a year. A series of events, tragic ones, for the most part, had led her to distrust whether or not I cared for her. Of course, it wasn't all that simple. We'd argue; she'd shut me out, and I'd ask for forgiveness; then I'd shut her out; she'd ask for forgiveness. When our father was first taken to the hospital, however, she called me. He'd have wanted us to be in touch again, she told me.
She also said, "I'm only going once. I won't go to the funeral. I want to see him alive."
She went to Sarasota alone. Her behavior on the plane mirrored mine at home. Here she was with the steward: I'm very nervous to fly, and my dad's dying, and I'm worried the plane will go down. Would you like to see the cockpit? Why, why do you want to take me to the cockpit? So you can talk to the pilot. He'll reassure you.
The steward led her to the cockpit, where the young pilot told her he knew very well how to fly, and the ship was in tip-top shape, and she sat back down in her seat and almost vomited when the plane took off and hit serious turbulence.
I called Lisette at the hospital, and she told me, "It's very sad. He still looks like Daddy, but he can't move. He did open his eyes, and I've been talking to him. My rabbi said he can feel that I'm here."
In Santa Monica, she'd turned to Judaism, our religion, with a new eye and thirst; she told me our father's spirit knew she was holding his hand. Although I couldn't believe in that, I felt envious; I wanted to feel guided by someone, something, or, perhaps, I could feel a sign or hear one: a howl, a hum, or, perhaps just the wind whistling, inspiring me to make my way to his side. (There was a hand-blown glass rabbi in my breakfront at home. Every week, this fragile, spectacularly-wrought figure, holding a torah, appeared to rotate on the glass shelf. Why couldn't I attribute its dance to a divine element? Why did I have to reason that it was my sons stomping upstairs, causing the shelves in the breakfront to vibrate so the glass rabbi would twirl?)
"If I fax you something, will you read it to him?" I asked my sister. I had been writing my father a letter.
I faxed the letter, and she called me later. "I read the letter to him. It was very moving. The nurse pinned it up on his headboard."
I noted the irony in the word "moving".
"You know, she's Joyce, acting a little weird."
I'd always liked Joyce well enough, yet I found her to be guarded and rigid. She was also watchful and intelligent but distrusting, I thought. When my father began to get very sick, her power-of-attorney kicked in, and I have no idea how much of his money she actually took and put in places my sister and I would never find.
Joyce whispered over the phone to me after my sister's visit, "Lisette was here; she looks terrible, terrible. She's so skinny, I've never seen her so thin. (Here, Joyce sighed.) All she did was complain about her new house. She was only here for a day; she was only at the hospital a few hours."
I said, "She did what she had to."
Then the next morning, Joyce phoned again: "Everything's taken care of. Hospice has been called in."
"If you need my help, Joyce, you have to tell me. I'm having a hard time getting down there. It might be easier for me to get there, if you tell me you need me."
"No, I've taken care of everything already, and my brother's still here."
The next day, Joyce called again, and she sounded peculiar to me, or, perhaps, just concerned.
"Lori, how are you? Maybe you should talk to this woman from hospice; the hospice people are very good."
"How are you?" I asked.
"I can't seem to get myself moving, especially on a plane."
"Then get on a train." The implication was clear: while he's still breathing.
I now walked to the dining car, arms crossed over my chest, and the maître d' greeted me. He was tall, (everyone seems big to me, as I'm a shade over five feet, so I'm accustomed to looking up and wiggling my way through people) and he wore a black suit, white shirt and a black bowtie, which was slightly crooked.
"Are you alone?"
There were twelve tables; six on each side of the car. Each was covered with a starched white table cloth, and more than half were taken. There was a family with two small children; there was an older couple, who appeared disheveled. There were two teenagers sitting across from a woman who had frizzy white hair. The maître d' showed me to the last table on the right, where the woman I'd seen in the compartment across from mine was already sitting, with another woman. They were both in their late fifties, and they seemed to know one another. They were both black and, yes, tall. The woman whose compartment was near mine had short hair, curled from rollers (a style I could recognize because of my mother), and she was talkative. There were traces of beauty in her face; round cheeks, shining eyes. Her voice was gentle, softened by experience.
"Where are you headed? You look so sad, honey."
"To Sarasota. My father's dying."
"Look at that; I'm going to a funeral, too, near Jacksonville. My cousin just passed, and I hate to fly. My son's leaving in the morning, and he'll still get there before me." She picked up the menu. "The food's good. Hungry?"
"A little. It's the first time I've taken the train to Florida. We drive a lot. I don't like to fly either."
"Neither does she. This is Nelly, and I'm Grace. We've both taken this train before, and it's a long ride -- that's for sure."
Nelly was heavier than Grace, and she wore a small navy hat with miniscule felt flowers sewn on its rim. Her hair was straight and cut below her ears. She was omniscient in her stillness and only nodded every now and then when Grace told her she was going to have the filet mignon. Nelly was ordering the salmon. I chose the chicken. Both women struck me as immeasurably self-assured.
"Is it cancer?" Grace asked me.
"No, he has Alzheimer's."
She drank some wine and said to Nelly and me, "Do you want wine? You'll have to pay extra."
Nelly didn't want wine; she had a soda. I ordered a soda, too.
"I just had heart surgery and couldn't do a thing for months. My husband died last year in a car accident. You think you have it tough," Grace said, without sounding cruel. She drank more wine. "No, listen, I understand, of course, you have it tough, too. I'm just saying nothing is easy. Nelly here's on her way to a funeral, too. Her sister-in-law just died of cancer."
Nelly spoke, "Wait 'til you get into bed. The rocking of the train will put you to sleep and you'll sleep like a baby. Then you'll feel better."
The chicken came. I couldn't eat. The two women ate, their hands moving to and from the plate in majestic painterly strokes; one asked for more salad dressing; one asked for steak sauce. Grace said the carrots were overcooked.
Then she said, "What's wrong with the chicken?"
"I'm just not hungry."
"You can take it back to your compartment for later; they'll wrap it up for you," she said. "How's that salmon?" she asked Nelly.
The waiter came over. "You don't like the chicken?" he asked me.
"No, it's fine, thank you."
"You want dessert?" he asked me.
I glanced at the menu on the table. "Vanilla ice cream," I said. "Please."
Grace said, wagging her head, "I see where you're headed."
He brought me the ice cream. I took a spoonful and couldn't eat any more.
"Oh, oh, she can't eat the sweets. Poor thing."
Nelly said, "Give me your hand." And she reached for my hand under the table.
I took her hand; it was soft, heavy, and I held it. I began to cry.
"It's okay," she said in a whisper. I held on to her hand. Within a few seconds, she let go.
I rose. "I'm sorry for being such poor company. Enjoy the rest of your dinner, and thank you for listening."
I left, drifting back to my compartment. I took a valium and shut my eyes.
The train would take eighteen hours to get to Orlando, and then I'd have to get on a bus for four hours to reach Sarasota.
The announcement said, "Philadephia Station in five minutes. Philadelphia."
The conductor passed by my compartment, and through my open door, I called out, "Excuse me. I'm going to get off here, okay? I just have to get off."
"Are you sure you want to do that?"
I nodded; I hurried. The doors opened and I ran out.
He followed me, nervous, and spoke fast as he thumbed through his stack of tickets, "Miss, here, let me give you your ticket back."
I thanked him and was then left alone on the platform, holding my ticket and bag. Walking up the stairs, I kept thinking of Sara, a friend from Owings Mills, Maryland, the town where we used to live before we moved back to New York. She had asked me, Do you want to just touch him again while his skin is still warm? Sara seemed puzzled by my behavior all along; she told me I was thinking too much. When her father had died; she'd wanted to be near him. Sara and I had walked together when the weather was warm, climbing up and down the curving roads of Owings Mills, admiring old houses. She was the talker; I was the listener. Her body was toned and her mind held a catalog of amusing events. She had four children.
She had called me the morning I left for Sarasota. "I thought you were flying down a few days ago. I was going to leave a message."
"I'm just not doing well."
"Listen," Sara said, "you just have to ask yourself: Do you want to touch him one more time, while he's alive? Do you want to just touch him again while his skin is still warm?"
"I don't know." I sounded beaten.
"After I had Justin, I gave birth to a little girl. She was stillborn, and I was in shock. Hank (her husband) was there, trying to make me feel better. And all the nurses at the hospital were around me, comforting me… but there was this one nurse, who was Catholic, and she asked me if I wanted to hold my baby to say good-bye. She really thought I should, but I couldn't, you know, I just couldn't bring myself to touch this dead little girl," and here Sara begins to cry, "I just was too scared. And Hank said it was alright; he could see how upset I was. When I got home, I was unpacking my bag and there was a Polaroid of this nurse holding my baby. She must have told someone to take the picture and then slipped it into my bag so I could have it. And I have this photograph, which I look at sometimes, and it makes me wonder if I should have held my child. Sometimes I think of her, this little baby, and I really regret that I couldn't hold her." She's crying, and I feel ashamed I've made her recall this, that I somehow drew this pain out of her, and I tell her that. The trees outside, the walls of my house -- they all seem to fall away, leaving me in a vortex, and I drift around the house, adopting my friend's despair.
"I've never told anyone that," she said. "It's not your fault; it's just an awful day. I'm watching television and all these people are crying over the ones they lost at the World Trade Center, and I just feel really sad."
(After I had hung up with her, I called Amtrak to book my reservations for the train that same day. So it was 9-11, but, for me, the date, the historical tragedy of the hours in that day, seemed to only underline the necessity of my journey.)
I'd never been in the Philadelphia station before. The platform was empty, yet I felt determined and light on my feet, due to the small dose of valium. I ran up the stairs. The ticket area was empty, too, and all the wooden benches were cast in a phantasmal light. The gloominess, the deserted waiting area, both soothed me instead of alarming me. I was ready to run out into the city to find a hotel if I had to. My will was kicking in. The obligatory classic station clock with its bold roman numerals stared at me from a far wall. It was almost ten; I glanced around, searching for the train schedule. I couldn't find it. I went up to the ticket counter. There was one man still on duty.
"What can I do for you?" he asked. His eyes were glazed, and he spoke as if each word were a pebble to swallow.
"I'd like to get on the next train back to New York, and I'd like to get a refund for this ticket." I handed him my roundtrip ticket to Florida.
He took his time studying it. "You can't get a refund for this. Well, you can get your money back for the fare to Florida but not for the sleeper car compartment and that's four hundred dollars. Nope, that's not refundable. They should have told you that when you bought the ticket."
"Let me get you a ticket to New York; let's take care of that first. There's a train leaving in ten minutes -- track twelve -- and you go talk to my supervisor about the refund for the sleeper car. He's over there." He pointed. I could tell he just wanted to get rid of me.
I gave him my credit card. I got my new ticket and, clutching my old ticket, I hurried over to the supervisor and told him that my father was dying and I needed a refund for my ticket.
"You'll have to talk to the customer service desk at Penn Station when you get there." He didn't look at me; he checked his watch and walked away.
I sat down on a bench to put my Florida ticket in my bag. A man, who looked homeless, walked by me, and I felt nothing. I was neither afraid nor sad. The station looked very much like Penn Station, only more compact, and I watched the stranger drift away toward the closed magazine stand, talking to himself. Then I headed to track twelve. There were a dozen people, all dressed in business clothes, wrinkled from the day, waiting for the train. The train was on time, and the car was crowded; the passengers' voices reminded me of a hundred insects clicking about at night. This train was awake; the seats were covered with a new blue fabric, and everyone looked as if they'd come from Manhattan. I sat next to a woman with a briefcase on her lap, and I looked out the window, feeling apart from everyone around me.
From Penn Station I took a taxi to Grand Central. From Grand Central, I took the eleven o'clock train to Mount Kisco, and from Mount Kisco, I took a taxi home to Pound Ridge. I opened the door to my house, trying to be quiet, so I wouldn't wake my sons.
The dog howled at me, ecstatic, and I buried my face in her fur. Then I tiptoed upstairs to my sons' room; their beds were empty. I walked across the hall into my bedroom. The few times I'd ever stayed out late with a friend, my husband tended to fall asleep in our bed with one boy on either side of him. But the bed was empty; the bed was made.
I picked up the phone and dialed our cell phone number. It was just past midnight. No one answered. I knew my sons had gone to a friend's house after school. I knew my husband was supposed to have picked them up. My husband and his twin, Ken, who lived in North Carolina, always spoke late at night; the minutes were free, but Doug had to drive to a spot in town where he could get a signal; there was none from our house. I called Ken.
"Ken, are you on the cell with Doug?"
"Where are you?"
"He said he just left you at the station. Are you alright?"
I imagined Ken, who looked so much like my husband, in a chair in front of the television, the sound off, his wife and sons asleep, talking to me on the house phone, while he held his cell phone in the other hand, with my husband on hold. Ken hadn't ever criticized my inaction, and I was grateful to him.
"Tell Doug to call me at home."
Doug called within the minute.
"You're home? My cell phone rang, and I saw our number come up on the display, and I'm thinking it's the police… that our alarm went off. Why else would someone be calling me from home? The kids stayed at Lisa's for the night."
"Are you close to home?"
"Honey, what happened?"
Within fifteen minutes, Doug walked in, dressed in sweatpants, flushed from the cold air, looking beautiful, and he said, "I feel like I'm dreaming, seeing you here."
"I had to come back."
He held me.
From September 12 through the 18th, I waited for my father to die, while my husband and sons moved around me. I waited and lit a candle every night. I waited and called his wife every day. I waited and spoke to my sister. I waited and drank a glass of wine every night. I waited and read his journal from when he had been stationed in the Philippines during World War II. I waited and spoke to hospice, while they stood by him in his hospital room. I waited and spoke to my aunt, who was in Boca Raton. I waited and spoke to my friends, who cuddled me with their calming tones, except for one friend who had known me since I was twelve.
"Maybe he's waiting for you, before he lets go," she said and then apologized. She believed in the spirit lingering like a firefly after the body failed. She had lost so many loved ones in the past few years, both young and old, that I think she felt she had to believe that.
I waited and spoke to Joyce's daughter, who said she'd fly down with me for the funeral.
"I'd just feel very uncomfortable not being there," she said, and I thought of one morning, a point in time when my father's disease had commanded him to shed a few of his social graces and he'd told me, "Boy, is she a pain in the ass."
I waited and contacted old friends, to whom I hadn't spoken in months.
I waited and told my sister, "I'll go to the funeral. You went to say good-bye, and I'll be there to bury him."
On September 19th, at 7:30 am, Joyce called me. "Your father passed in the middle of the night."
"You were with him."
"All along, I was right there."
"Thank you for being with him," I said and then without a second thought: "I'll book my flight."
Later, my husband's mother, Ellen, called. She's a generous, effusive woman, who lives in the same development in Boca Raton as my aunt and uncle, Pat and Harold. "I'm going to go to the funeral with Pat and Harold. I want to be there for you."
"Thank you," I said, wondering if there was anyone else I needed to thank.
Doug booked two seats on the 6:30 am flight to Tampa on Jet Blue. It was September 22nd, Doug's birthday. He booked a return flight for that same evening, and the boys went to Lisa's house again after school; they were going to sleep over, so we could drive to the airport in the early morning.
I couldn't fall asleep. The phone rang, and I checked the time: eleven.
"Ben wants to talk to you," my sons' friend said, his voice reduced by the late hour.
"Are you okay?" I asked one of my twins, Ben, when he got on.
"Mom, when are you coming back?"
"Tomorrow night, late. I'll see you the next day. You'll stay at Ross' tomorrow night."
"I don't want you to go."
"Would you feel better if Daddy stayed home?"
I hung up, called for my husband, who was downstairs, and I said, "Cancel your seat. Stay with the kids. I'll go alone."
I'd just done what every child-rearing book had to warn against: give too much power to a child. My one son was absorbing my anxiety and now sounded panicked.
By the morning, the pattern was set. The words were different; the silences longer, the crying more frantic. I didn't leave my bed. The plane took off without me. I called my aunt at her house in Boca Raton; her family had chartered a plane to Sarasota and they were leaving in an hour. I trusted her to understand; I told her about the train, the flight, and then asked if I could send a fax, my letter, the same one my sister had read to my father, so she could read it at the service. She was sweet; her words were soothing yet balanced.
After the funeral, my uncle called me from Joyce's apartment. He's a bright man, who hadn't always seen eye to eye with my father. My uncle and I, however, had always gotten along, and I was relieved to hear from him. I was in my office at home. I hadn't written in days; I was reading, no doubt, Mary Oliver's The Leaf and the Cloud, as certain lines touched me in a way no other voices had.
Think of me
"How are you?" my uncle asked. He sounded like my father, only his voice was deeper.
when you see the evening star.
Think of me when you see the wren
the flowing root of the creek beneath him,
dark silver and cold
Remember me I am the one who told you
he sings for happiness.
"Okay," I said.
"The service was wonderful, and I wanted you to know your letter was the high point. You reminded me of things your father used to do that I'd forgotten, and I was in tears. You take care of yourself, now, okay? Here's your aunt."
"Lori, how are you, sweetie? Are you feeling better now?"
"I'm okay. How's Joyce? And how's Ellen? Is she angry at me?"
"No, she's not angry; she was a little shocked. But, let me tell you, guess who read your letter in front of everyone?"
"And she did an amazing job. She read it like an actress, she broke up a little along the way, but Uncle Harold couldn't do it. It was too hard for him."
"Is Ellen near you?"
Ellen got on.
"Honey, I'm sorry you couldn't make it."
"Thanks for being my messenger."
"It was a beautiful letter and very hard to read, but I managed."
"I'm sorry for disappointing everyone."
"You didn't disappoint anyone."
She then listed all the people who had gone to the service and the cemetery. My sister and I were the only ones in the family absent.
Later that day, Doug and I drove to the soccer field, where our friend was supposed to have picked our sons up after their practice. It was five o'clock. The boys climbed into our car, sweaty, flushed, stunning, and they saw me.
Alex said, "Mom, you're so weird."
"Yes, at the moment, I am," I said and held them both.
Something had closed up in me, that cavity where my madness was stewing perhaps, and I smelled the perspiration on my son's skin and said nothing as we rode home.
One night, I was in my office, reading my father's journal, when my husband popped his head in. "Where's the calculator?"
"Do you think less of me?" I asked him. I had wanted to ask him for a while.
"What do you mean?"
"Because of what I've done or haven't done."
"Not at all."
He didn't hesitate.
He then looked at me for a few seconds, and I saw that whatever irrationality of mine had held him captive into subservience was only a beginning for him, a glimpse into what transmutations my identity would endure in the future, which was both a comforting and comfortless truth, I imagined, for both of us.
The next morning, I called a Jewish scholar, Jeff Weinstein, who had promised to tutor my sons in Hebrew. We had withdrawn from our temple for the year, partly due to financial reasons, partly to time constraints and our own internal conflicts on religion. We'd met Jeff once to interview him, a hefty man with a round stomach, unkempt wavy red hair and a short beard. He was soft-spoken, somewhat disorganized, and we liked him.
"My father's died. And I was wondering if you could come to my house and perform a service for him. I couldn't get down to the funeral."
"Can I ask why?"
I was articulate, even eloquent.
"I'd be honored to perform a service. Let me ask you a few questions."
I told him as much about my father as I could.
"How much will it cost?" I asked, thinking of the train ticket. "Not that it matters."
"I'm in the spiritual mode and you're bringing up money. I'm not going to charge you."
I invited fourteen friends, all women, of which only two knew my father. Earlier that week, I had spent an hour in a wine store, selecting special bottles to toast my father's life. Lisa arrived with shopping bags full of fruit and cheeses. Daphne arrived with platters of breads, dips and bowls of nuts. Kathleen arrived with chicken sandwiches and white wine. Lucy arrived with cookies. Ellen came with cake. Carolyn brought flowers. My girlfriends insulated me with their laughter and tasks, and each one flitted around me like a guardian, one blond, one dark, one quiet, one commanding.
I checked my clock for Jeff's arrival. He arrived fifteen minutes late, wearing a suit without a tie.
"Do you have a copy machine?" he whispered. "I forgot to make copies of the prayers for everyone."
With everyone in the kitchen, we made six copies of the Kaddish and then the printer ran out of ink.
"Six is enough," I said. "We'll share."
"I'm sorry -- I've just been so busy I forgot."
My friends flowed into our living room, which only had one big couch and chair. I had brought in chairs from the dining room. A few women sat on the rug, a few shared chairs, several squeezed together on the couch. Jeff began to speak; I sat next to him, and my sons perched themselves on both arms of my chair. My husband was near me. The women were still.
Jeff cleared his throat. Then he began to speak about my father, twisting a fact or two, and I was sorry I wasn't the one speaking. He made my family's business sound like a big shop which had changed hands a few times instead of the successful supermarket chain that it had been. Mississippi State became Tennessee State. My father's time in the Philippines was talked up as if he were a war hero, but he'd been an officer, who had never stepped foot on the battlefield.
Jeff hesitated, smoothed out his papers, and then said, "It's always so important that we be there for our relatives when they become so sick, even mentally disabled, as people with Alzheimer's are, and as Lori was there for Milton."
With that, I felt ashamed and misrepresented; the truth was thinning.
"Doug, would you like to say something?"
"I just want to thank everyone for helping Lori through these past few weeks; you've been remarkable friends. Although she didn't make it to Florida, at least she got to see Philadelphia, which is a lovely city."
Jeff raised an eyebrow. "It's important that you've kept your sense of humor. That's nice. Lori, you have something you'd like to read?"
I picked up the letter to my father and began to read. My sons leaned into me, touching me, and I realized, that all this time, I'd just wanted to express my thoughts to my father. I had so much to say to him. I hadn't been avoiding my mourning him; this had nothing to do with mourning. All this time I'd been asking everyone's advice, everyone's help, even everyone's permission, and all I ever wanted was to talk to him again, this man I'd already lost three years earlier.
When I was done, Jeff began reading the Mourner's Kaddish in Hebrew. After the first few lines, he stopped. "I can't read this print. It's so tiny. I'm sorry, let me just," and he lifted the paper closer to his eyes and finished the prayer.
Amen. The service was over.
Several weeks later, I was alone, making coffee. My sons had just left for school, and Doug had gone to teach. The chill of a snowfall was seeping into the sky. I opened the deck door to let in fresh air and then poured the beans into the grinder, enjoying the fragrance of the coffee, thinking about Halloween costumes, when I felt something stir within me. The day was windy, yet the sky looked like a crystal shield. I shut the deck door. I sat down at the kitchen island, quite relaxed, and waited for the coffee to brew. The house was quiet. I looked around at our belongings, the pads, pens, toaster-oven, looked out the window at the few leaves remaining on the trees, the brown leaves stuck to the deck floor, and I was certain I knew what I was feeling: I'd become someone new, and my old self was commingling with that of my father, like a stream joining up with the rushing waters of a river. I touched my arm; my skin was warm; his skin was warm, and I could feel him close to me, where exactly in the room, I wasn't sure, but he was angling his head, as he used to do when he was pleased, and he was watching me sip my coffee. Was this that sign from God, that much–yearned-for divine intervention? Or, was it simply a temporary lapse into madness or hopefulness? And did it matter, in the end, which it was?
I hadn't made it to my father's side after all. He had come to mine.