Jay Scott Morgan

Empty Chair



Tuesday, 5/29/01

Tomorrow, my father is having an operation to remove a blockage from the tail of his pancreas, and for the first time since they retired to Ft. Lauderdale from Brooklyn, ten years ago, my parents are not at the airport to meet me. I have not visited in over a year, but as I walk through the crowded terminal, their ghost images seem still visible, still waiting for me, just beyond the x-ray machines: my mother waving frantically; my father beaming his overwhelming smile, wearing his “World’s Best Lover” T-shirt and sky-blue shorts, still girlishly proud, at seventy-six, of his bare legs.
     The last time I came, with my wife and son, to share the turning of the new millennium, my parents spent the week jabbing and sparring with each other:
     “Teddy, you left the milk out again! I keep telling you, put the milk back when you’re finished!”
     “You bought regular milk, Paul! You know the kids like the 2 percent. I tell you and tell you, but who am I, that you should ever listen to me?”
     I knew this was not about milk, but the source of their constant irritation with each other mystified me. More and more, over the past few years, they seem to be living by subtext, written in almost indecipherable script, collected from a lifetime of annoyances, of hopes denied, of disappointments that can barely be spoken about, only vaguely hinted at. Parents at a distance can stimulate tremendous emotions; parents in the reality of time and space can be impossible.
     I step outside, and immediately feel stunned. There is an “allness” to the Florida heat, even in May: you don’t escape it, retreating into an air-conditioned building or car—you are defined by it. To me, Florida is breathless, drenching, fleshy, sweaty, consuming. The terminus of thinking; the warping of sensibility. I arrive as myself, and immediately feel diminished, undermined, nearly unmanned.
     There is an “allness” to parents: they radiate a field of distortion, so that the closer you come, the more you twist and bend to fit the shape of their expectations.
     I take a taxi to the Whitehall Condominiums, Phase II, Building One, a twenty-minute highway drive.
     My mother stands with a broom on the second-floor walkway, sweeping dust in small circles.
     “He just sits on the couch all the time,” she complains, while I’m still climbing the stairs. “It’s like we’re not even a person anymore, like together we make up one big nothing.”
     “Hi, Mom. I’m glad to see you.” I bend down to kiss her. I’m five-six, but she’s only four-nine, and seems more shrunken, gnomelike, since I last visited.
     She stares at my face quizzically for a moment, as if trying to place me, then recovers.
     “When did you get so gray?” she asks, touching my hair, my beard.
     “I’m forty-nine, Mom. I’ve had some gray a long time.”
     She nods, unconvinced.
     “Go inside, maybe you can do something. You don’t know what I’m going through, everything is such a mess, I can’t find a thing and Paul . . . that man . . . your father . . . whatever I say, it’s no good.”
Their condo has a short hallway, with a kitchen to the right, and the guest bedroom and bathroom in an alcove to the left. The main room is twenty feet by forty, divided between dining area and living room. An enormous window fills the far end, overlooking a lake through a pair of palm trees—“The best view in the complex!” as my father always tells me. The furniture was paid for from the sale of their collection of 10,000 salt-and-pepper shakers: a sectional couch in plush gray fabric; a white Italianate dining table, with six matching, sinuously high-backed chairs; a jade green Chinese chest; a glass-doored modern cabinet, displaying the hundred salt-and-pepper shakers they couldn’t part with.
     I notice dirty glasses and a stack of torn envelopes on the usually immaculate dining table, shirts and blouses draped over the back of the couch, where my father sits, watching TV.
     “How are you feeling?” I ask, kissing him on the cheek.
     “I can’t wait already for this operation, so I can be rid of this pain.”
     “Only one more day,” I say cheerfully.
     His right leg is propped on the low coffee table, a plastic shoe box next to his foot, filled with prescription medications and dozens of wrapped syringes for his diabetes. His T-shirt hangs a little loosely over his shoulders and chest; a plain white T-shirt, not “The World’s Best Lover.”
     “Hey, I’m sorry I couldn’t pick you up. So tell me, what did it cost to take a cab?”
     “Twenty bucks.”
     “Twenty bucks? That’s not so bad.”
     His handsome face appears tense, narrowed, though his thick silver hair is carefully brushed back, his Clark Gable mustache neatly trimmed. He is the least Jewish-looking Jew I’ve ever met: sea-blue eyes; a small, flattish, upturning nose; wavy once-blond hair; slightly hectic coloring. He’s five-nine, but appears taller, his long trunk proportioned to someone six foot, with heavy rounded shoulders and a broad chest. My parents are both seventy-six, and while my mother looks her age, he seems a decade younger. A woman from the condo complex once confided to me, “Your father is a stunning man. All the women here think so.”
     I look nothing like him. I’m my mother’s son, a certain typical Ashkenazic appearance: thin, short, brown hair, dark eyes, very Semitic nose, pale complexion.
     My father is his mother’s son. She was a beautiful, blue-eyed blond from Poland, and I’ve imagined my father conjured up from some genealogical mating of Slav and Jew. An illicit affair? A wartime rape? Did a Polish man once marry for love, and convert to Judaism, or was it the opposite—a Slavic woman accepting Judaism? Or are all possibilities of identity now concealed in the genetic soup, alive in the blood for untold generations, waiting to pop up and define us at any coupling?
     In the evening, I bring in a pizza, since my mother can’t think of what to cook, and my father is indifferent to food.
     “Teddy! Set the table!”
     “I can’t right now,” she calls from the bedroom. “I’m busy.”
     “Busy with what?”
     “I’m busy, that’s all! You don’t have to know every minute what I do.”
     “Scott’s here. I want us to have dinner together.”
     “I have to get my bags ready.”
     “Do it in the morning.”
     “How can I wait till the morning? It will take me all night, nothing’s where it used to be anymore.”
     “What do you need bags for? You’re not the one having the operation.”
     “I’ll set the dishes,” I tell my father, though he continues to stare, frowning, toward the bedroom.
     There is a universal foolishness in our lives, a particular foolishness—the expectation that others will share our notions of happiness, adjust their desires and dreams to conform to our own. In my version of heaven, everyone revolves around me, fitting neatly into my pattern, always available yet never importuning—a child’s vision, just as unattainable in this life as it     probably is in heaven.
     My mother takes her place at the middle of the table, my father at the lower end. I try to sit opposite him.
     “That’s the broken chair, remember?”
     “It’s still broken? Why not switch it with one by the wall? It would make your life easier.”
     “No! Leave it there! I’m planning to fix it. Hey, they make a good pizza down at the Plaza, don’t they? Lots of cheese, and a nice, thin crust.”
     He cuts his slice into smaller and smaller segments, eating none of them; my mother nibbles; I devour slice after slice, voraciously, as if trying to fill an empty pit.
     “Am I done?” she asks plaintively, like a little girl. “Can I get back to my things?”
     “Go ahead, Teddy,” he says quietly. “Do whatever you have to.” He moves the pieces around the plate with his fork, first in rows, then a square, as if trying to find the solution to a puzzle. “I’ve had enough. I think I’ll go back to the couch now.”
     I finish my meal alone, gazing at the head of the table, at the broken chair, which somehow doesn’t seem empty, only vacated for the moment.


Wednesday, 5/30/01

     Before dawn, we leave for Jackson Memorial Teaching Hospital, in Miami, with me driving—my father hesitated a moment, before handing me the keys to his new Buick Regal—and arrive as the sun streaks the sky a hallucinogenic neon orange.
     After my father is prepped for the operation, my mother and I are called into the pre-surgery room. He lies on a gurney, wearing a blue hospital gown and a plastic hairnet, joking and flirting with the middle-aged Spanish nurse taking his pulse, telling her she’s too young to have grandchildren. She laughs, and gives him a coquettish look. He has always been more lively with an audience than in private.
     The youthful assistant surgeon joins us, friendly and confident.
“It is a fairly routine operation. We will remove the blockage, and we will have to take out the spleen as well. This is common in these cases. You should not have problems, and anything that comes up, we can control with medications.”
     As he leaves, the nurse says, “All right, Paul, I’m going to give you an injection, to make you nice and relaxed.”
     “I’m already relaxed. What’s the worst that can happen? Either I’ll wake up, or I won’t.”
     My mother and I sit on a bench outside the hospital, in the brilliant sunlight, students, nurses, surgeons walking past us in pastel uniforms: mauves and pale greens and periwinkle blues. She begins to tell me of a friend from Brooklyn, a woman her own age, whom she had worked with twenty-five years ago: about her troubles as a girl with her mother, who never wanted her; the sudden death of her husband (her second) while he was walking down a staircase; how badly her boys treated her (her stepchildren, I finally realize); how her daughter (her birth-child) was shot while in bed, by mistake, by someone who had entered the wrong room.
     Her monologue seems almost sibylline, and I listen intently, struggling to piece the story together, occasionally asking questions, believing it must hold a special significance, since it’s being told to me just now, while my father is undergoing his operation.
     “She was in a hospital, she was sick for a long time, and then she didn’t make it, she had problems, and those sons, they never said a word, they wouldn’t tell her, and one day, she learns she’s dead . . .”
     “Don’t you think it’s strange,” I break in, “that your friend didn’t know her daughter died in the hospital?”
     “Yeah, they never told her, those boys never liked her, and it was far away, and she didn’t . . . I guess you’re right, but it’s not like you, it’s a different kind of thing. All the time, they hated her, and she was so good to them all. She never had it easy, like I say, nothing was ever good, God wasn’t going to give her anything good, that’s just how it is, and was she so bad, was she such a bad person, that now she should have nothing, only trouble and whatnot, so that you can’t even live, not a moment’s pleasure? The minute she tried to have a little fun, after all that trouble, she can’t enjoy herself, so what can you do?”
     It is like a fairy tale, from the stepmother’s point of view: how she was sinned against by everyone, even by God, surrounded by vicious stepchildren determined to destroy her, when all she ever wanted was to provide a happy home.
     I wonder if this is how my mother sees herself?
     “Come on, Mom, let’s go inside. We want to be there if they call our names.”
     Twenty minutes later—the operation is even shorter than I expected—the secretary from the Surgery Recovery Waiting Room escorts us into a private office.
     Dr. Staley is a short, solidly built, balding man in his fifties. He wears a blue surgical bandana with colorful cartoon fish swimming around and oversized water bubbles rising.
     After the briefest of introductions, he tells us, “The mass was fused to his arteries. I didn’t want to try and cut it out, because I didn’t want to lose him on the table. It was so dense, I could only shave off a little, which might relieve the pressure on his nerve a bit. The mass hasn’t metastasized, but if it’s malignant, he won’t outlive it.”
     I’m in the same room, in the same chair; one moment has just ticked into the next, but suddenly, everything is changed, monumentally out of sync, in the time it takes to blink my eyes.
     I stare at him, at those bug-eyed, smiling fish trying to swim across his forehead. My mind seizes on the words, it and he. How can it exist outside of him? I want to shout, “This is my father you’re talking about, not some abstract idea of a person, some medical concept. My father!”
     Instead, I ask, with self-infuriating calmness, “What is the prognosis?”
     “The frozen biopsy didn’t show any malignancy, which surprised me. The in-depth biopsy will take a week or so, but I’ve never seen a mass so thick and dense that wasn’t malignant.”
     “And if it is? How long does he have?”
     “We’re looking at nine months. Double that, with chemo or radiation.”
     Double that. Like a blackjack bet in Las Vegas, on a ten or eleven.     Doubling down.
     But it’s not a bet—it’s my father’s life, reduced to the gestation time of a fetus.
     “He’s been in a great deal of pain.”
     “There are drugs, and we can block very specific nerves, so that he doesn’t feel the pain.”
     The longer we sit, the more the scene resembles the bad play in all our imaginations, the dreaded “terminal sickness” scene:
     “You have nine months to live.”
     You. Your spouse. Your mother. Your father. Always that same generic “nine months.”
     My mother, who has said nothing until now, announces, “So, well, then that’s what we have to do,” with a strange staccato smile, like a twitching of her lips. “At least that’s a little good news. Thank you, doctor.”
     He gazes at her for only the second time during this consultation: the first, when we sat down, and now, questioningly, as if he wonders if she heard him correctly.
     “I really haven’t been able to do anything.”
     “It’s still better than nothing, it can’t happen all at once the way you think.”
     There is now a touch of apprehensiveness in his eyes.
     “When can we see him?” I ask.
     “Give it an hour. He’s in Intensive Care. Ask the secretary,” he tells us, and then stands up; we shake hands, and my mother and I are out in the brilliant, broiling sun again.
     “Well, he’s not going to be able to do everything just like he wants. I told you, you can’t eat all those foods, and you don’t listen . . .”
     “Not me. Dad,” I correct her. “And what foods? What are you talking about?”
     “The foods, some of them, they get stuck, they’re the wrong kind. He shouldn’t be eating them, but he never listens.”
     “It’s not about food. The food isn’t getting stuck. It’s happening in the cells, the tissues of his pancreas.”
     “I know, but the foods aren’t that great, the way they go down.”
     “Mom, did you hear what the doctor said? He thinks Dad has cancer. He might only have nine months to live.”
     “Right, so now, you just can’t have them. That’s all, that’s how it is.”

     Two hours later, we’re allowed into the Intensive Care Unit. My father’s asleep, numerous tubes and wires attached to his nose, neck, chest, and arms. I watch him, and feel a throbbing tenderness for his vulnerability that I’ve only experienced before with my son. The assistant surgeon comes in, and draws me and my mother aside, holding up a large manila envelope.
“The fusing of the mass to the arteries was so hidden by the mass itself, no one could see the problem in the x-rays,” he says, with bright surprise, encouraging us to appreciate the nature of the dilemma, and the reasons for their failure to resolve it.
     I wonder if they’re afraid of getting sued, but I’m more concerned about my father, and return to his bedside.
     His eyes suddenly open. I’m so used to seeing him in his aviator-style glasses, the indigo blueness of his eyes startles me.
     “In the refrigerator, I put some baked apples . . .”
     “I know. I already ate one last night.”
     “Did you speak to the doctor?” he asks, in a solemn, knowing way.
     “Yes,” I say, and think, He’s already heard the bad news—the failure of the operation, the possibility of a malignancy—and wants to prepare me for it. Already, I realize I’m starting to write eulogies in my head.
     He nods, tries to blink me into focus, then closes his eyes again. Like window shades, they snap back open. He grasps my hand, tries to smile.
     “You know I love you?”
     “I love you, too,” I tell him, caressing his hand between mine. On the monitor behind the bed, his various life signs repeat their shuddering movements, left to right, in green, red, yellow.
     The young, heavyset Jamaican student nurse, with her cheerful smile and nervous habit of tucking her head between her shoulders as she answers my questions—as if afraid of harsh judgment—politely asks us to sit in the waiting room while she examines my father. As we walk away, I see her with a syringe in one hand and her nursing manual in the other, a puzzled expression on her good-natured face.


Thursday, 5/31/01

     I awake from a troubled sleep, and see in the darkness a cityscape, the buildings stacked and lined up like children’s blocks; then, superimposed on the city, a country landscape of tree-capped mountains, valleys, meadows. As these images present themselves, they suggest an unexpected meaning to me—that my apprehension of reality is only a construct, a faulty, simplified version of life, accepted by me without argument, but also without justification. I think of a young boy entering a room, seeing wooden blocks already set up:
     “That is a city,” someone tells him, and he now believes he knows what a city is—that it is just such an accumulation of children’s blocks, arranged in just such a pattern.
     I hear my mother marching through the house, opening and closing drawers with fierce determination. It is 6:00 am. I get up and find her leaning over the couch, filling her canvas carryalls—WNET, Estée Lauder, Aramis, Save A Tree—filling them with pocketbooks, change purses, lipsticks, numerous pairs of glasses, wads of cash, pamphlets about assorted illnesses, three sweaters (though it was ninety-five yesterday), supermarket receipts, pages from newspapers, compacts for rouge and eye shadow, menus, costume jewelry.
     “Mom, why are you up so early?”
     “I have to get ready for the hospital.”
     “Visiting hours aren’t till noon. You should get some rest.”
     She huddles over the carryalls, replacing items from one to the other, in a near panic.
     “My glasses. I can’t find my glasses!”
     I lift them from a pocketbook.
     “Here they are, in the red case. Try to remember where you put them.”
     “When are we going? Are we going now?”
     “We won’t leave till eleven. You have five hours.”
     “I need a comb for my hair.”
     “Your hair looks fine.”
     “I need to find a comb. I can’t find my comb!”
     “You have a comb and brush in the blue bag. I saw them there. You have three more combs on your dressing table.”
     “I can’t find anything. It gets all lost, and then I need it and it’s nowhere, so what can I do? I can’t go like this.”
     “We’re not going now, anyway. You have plenty of time.”
     “I need my money.”
     In another eyeglass case, I pull out a roll of twenties and fifties, bound by a fraying blue rubber band, and count it for her.
     “You have five hundred dollars here, and more in your pocketbooks. Why do you need so much money?”
     “What does it matter? I need my money. It’s mine and I can carry a little, even if your father doesn’t like me to carry it. He never wants me to have what I need, and now everything is wrong and it’ll never be right. I knew it back then, when the doctors were all excited to get the big surgeon. I could kill them. If I had a knife, I would have killed them right there. I’m not like I used to be, I’m not the same kind of person, everything makes me mad, I hate everyone. As soon as they called, they all ran away, you couldn’t get in touch with them. They all ran, God knows where, because they knew what they did.”
     “The doctors didn’t make Dad sick. They didn’t cause his cancer.”
     “Well, if they didn’t start poking in him, nothing would be like it is, but they couldn’t wait, they had to call the big surgeon, and then they ran away. I could just kill them all!”
     She pulls out with surprising savagery her lipsticks and compacts, her glasses and money and assortments of keys.
     “I can’t find anything! Those brilliant books that tell you how to live, where are they? Who took them? I told you not to throw them away. Why did you throw them away?”
     “I didn’t touch them, Mom. They’re in the house somewhere.”
     “Who could find anything in this house? It’s all a mess. We used to have everything so nice, and now he’s sick and I can’t put it all away, I don’t know where to begin. All night, I looked for my shoes, they’re all in boxes, I had them all together in a big box, but now there’s only one of each. It’s terrible, how everything became such a mess. How did it happen? One day, everything was different and it will never be the same again.”
     I go back to sleep, and when I wake up, and wash and dress, she’s still at the couch, wearing the same red pants suit from the day before, pulling out the contents of her bags, as if the objects form a private puzzle, the mystery of her identity, which she must arrange and rearrange until she discovers the exact right order, the one perfect combination, and then the chaos of life will make sense.
     “It’s eleven. We can go to the hospital now.”
     “Wait. I need a little more time. I need to find my glasses. I put them down, and now they’re gone.”
     I find the glasses in the Aramis bag.
     “Here they are. We should go. We don’t want to be late.”
     “How can I go like this? I want a sweater. I’m always so cold. You think, all your life, that’s it’s going to be good someday, you’ll have a little pleasure and enjoy yourself, but I was never meant to have pleasure. From the very beginning, someone was always sick and I had to take care of them. All my life I took care of someone, and now there’s no one, and what good is anything anyway?”
     “You have two healthy sons, and a healthy grandson. You’ve been married fifty-six years, and until not long ago, Dad was fine. You shouldn’t say you never had any pleasure.”
     “You’re right, but it doesn’t feel like that. I wake up in the middle of the night, and I think I’m dying. I know I’m dying. I tell myself, ‘That’s it, it’s over, and there’s nobody here with you.’”
     “I’m here. You’ve never been alone, not even for one night. Someone has always been with you.”
     “Then why do I feel like that? There must be a reason. If they opened me up tomorrow, they’d see what’s wrong. I have plenty wrong with me. It’s not just your father who’s sick. I’m sick, and nobody sees it.”
     She walks over to the Chinese chest and rubs the head of a wooden black cat, a foot-and-half tall, standing on its back legs, wearing a white-painted chef’s hat and apron, holding a slim wooden tray in its upturned paws. Its eyes are blue and narrowed, its bright red tongue licks its upper lip, as if presenting a delicious mouse to eat. Printed in block letters on the base are the words dinner is served.
     “Isn’t this cute?”
     “Yes, it’s very nice. Come on, let’s go to the hospital. We want to be there when visiting hours start. Dad will be expecting us.”
     “Where are my bags?”
     “I’m carrying them. I have everything right here.”
     “Let me hold them. I want to carry my bags. I can’t go without what I need.”
     We leave the house, my mother clutching her carryalls tenaciously, as though afraid someone might strip them from her any instant.
     My father is sitting up in bed, in a semiprivate room, two clear IV’s taped to the arteries in his neck, a tube in his nose, a Foley catheter snaking out between his legs.
     “They’re going to come at 3:30,” he tells us. “I can’t wait till 3:30. I want them to take it out right away.”
     “Take what out?”
     “What I’m here for. To operate.”
     “Dad, they already operated.”
     “No they didn’t.”
     “They did. Yesterday morning.”
     “No. Look.” He pulls open his hospital gown to his waist, revealing a foot of stitches down his stomach that remind me of my wife’s scar, after her Caesarean.
     “I’m all confused. What happened?”
     “They couldn’t remove the blockage. It was fused to your arteries. If they tried to cut it out, you could have bled to death.”
     “So what did they do?”
     “They took sections, to do a biopsy. The doctor can’t tell anything until the pathology report. They have to see whether the cells are malignant or not.”
     “And so then?”
     We gaze at each other. I try not to reveal my fear, I hold back my tears, but he understands anyway, his pale, child-blue eyes registering his awareness.
     “Could you call the nurse? I have some pain.”
     I place the self-medicating switch in his hand.
     “You can use this anytime you want. It’s connected to your morphine.”
     He clicks it hurriedly, three or four times, and as he relaxes, he bends his knees, his gown riding up his thighs. I turn aside, thinking of the biblical injunction, “Thou shalt not look upon thy father’s nakedness.” But it’s too late.
     His penis is inverted, pressed back into his groin, umbilically binding him to the urine bag. He appears emasculated, made into a woman, with that long Caesarean-like scar up his belly, and I imagine myself coming not from my mother, but from him, gestated in his body, birthed from his flesh.
     “I’m my father’s son,” I think, differently aware of what this means, and also aware of the possible cancer within him, gestating toward the casually stated “nine months,” when it might birth his death.


Friday, 6/1/01

     “Mom, it’s time to go,” I call out for the fourth time this morning.
She finally emerges from the bedroom, in the same pants suit she’s used for the past two days.
     “You can’t wear that outfit again. You need to put on something clean.”
     “I promised myself I’ll wear red until your father comes home. Maybe it’ll help, it can’t hurt, and I promised, so that’s what I’ll wear.”
     She believes red is a kein ayin ha-rah, protection against the evil eye, or as she says it, a kunnahurra. When my son was a baby, I’d find red ribbons fastened beneath his mattress, tied to the cradle, hidden under his tiny T-shirts in the dresser.
     I help her choose a fresh red blouse and pants. She has at least two hundred articles of clothing in her walk-in closet. Whenever she tried to decide between two items in a store, my father would say, “Take them both! I can afford it.”
     “You know the cat?” my mother asks, through the closed door. “You think she’d like it?”
     “Who would like it?”
     “Her . . . she lives with you . . . the girl . . . she’s always nice and I never give her anything . . .”
     “You mean Pamela. She’s my wife. Her name is Pamela.”
     “That’s right, her, who you just said. Wouldn’t she think it was cute?”
     “I’m sure she’d love it. The next time we’re down, I’ll show it to her.”
     “Maybe next week, we can all have dinner together. That’s what I’d like, a nice big dinner in a fancy place where there’s dancing and lots of people.”
     “I can’t, Mom. I’ll be home by then.”
     “Where do you live?”
     “In New York. I live in New York, and you’re in Florida.”
     She steps out of the bedroom, dressed in the same rumpled pants suit.
     “I thought I still lived in New York. I don’t remember anything anymore, I don’t know who I am. It’s really getting ridiculous. You’re mother’s a little crazy, you know that?”
     “It’s good you’re here,” my father tells me, without preliminaries. “I can’t make siss. There’s something wrong with the Foley. Maybe you can get a nurse. I keep ringing, but no one comes.”
     I find a nurse and wait in the hallway while she works behind the curtained bed. A woman, pacing along the corridor—intelligent-looking, well-dressed, about my age—approaches me.
     “I heard there was someone else who couldn’t be operated on, a man on this floor. Is it your father?”
     “Yes,” I say, and she nods, with the intimate expression of shared troubles.
     “My mother wants to begin chemo right away. She’s eighty-two. I’ve tried to explain it will make her sick—really, it’s too late for chemo—but she insists on it anyway. Is it the same with your father?”
     I feel somehow angered, and insulted, that she’s lumped my father with her obviously dying mother.
     “He has a mass in the tail of his pancreas, but they don’t know if it’s cancerous yet.”
     She gives me with a swift, sharp look—the one that says, “Oh, you’re still in denial”—and I reenter my father’s room.
     “Oh, God, is that a relief! There must be a quart. Look!”
     He leans over, and with genuine pride, pokes the full plastic bag attached to his bed.
     The last thing I want to do is compliment my father on the amount of his urine, but I tell him, “Boy, you really had to go,” and quickly change the subject. “Did you eat anything today?”
     “I can only have whatever’s clear. Apple juice, broth, water. Tomorrow I can have solids. Teddy! Why do you have to carry so many bags? You’re starting to look like a bag lady. Next time, do me a favor, leave everything home, and just bring a pocketbook.”
     “It’s all right for you to say, but what about me? The things I need, they take it, they steal it from my bags and who stops them? What am I with nothing, not even a sweater and it’s so cold I’m freezing, they make it an ice house, I can’t stop shivering.”
     “Scott, put another sweater on your mother.”
     Dutifully, I drape a second sweater over my mother’s trembling shoulders, while above us, gunshots ring out, as a young John Wayne shoots down Indians on the high, bracketed TV.
     “I think I’ll take a little walk.”
     I find an empty bench outside, and light a cigarette. My shirt quickly plasters itself to my back; the heat seems to pulse in time with the blood in my head. The lunchtime crowd hurries to and fro along the wide walkway. Spanish music plays from someone’s boom box. A one-legged patient in a wheelchair draws near to my bench. He smiles at me. I smile back. He positions his chair, locks the wheels in place, then lifts his gaunt face rapturously to the glowing sun.
     At four, Dr. Staley comes to see my father, as he’s done each afternoon, followed by his entourage of a dozen nervous-looking students.
     “Well, how are you feeling today, Paul?”
     “Not too bad.”
     “That’s good. We’re going to wean you away from the morphine drip, and see if you can’t manage with some pills instead.”
     “When can I go home?”
     “Maybe Monday. We’ll see how you are after the weekend.”
     He pulls the curtain around the bed, ushers me and my mother out of the room, and begins the examination, correcting his students sharply as they offer their diagnoses.
     On his way out, he tells me, “The scar is healing nicely. He seems to be in less pain, so maybe we did some good when we shaved a little of the mass from the nerve.”
     He turns to leave.
     “Do you expect to get the pathology report soon?”
     His friendly eyes turn opaque.
     “As soon as I know, you’ll know,” and then he heads into another room, zealously flanked by his students, some of whom glare back at me, as if personally insulted that I dared to ask the Great Surgeon a question.
     My mother is emptying her bags onto my father’s bed.
     “I can’t find it! The little book with all the answers, someone came in and took it, they don’t want me to know what to do!”
     “Scott, give your mother one of her pills. She’s a nervous wreck!”
     I find her bottle of Valium inside a change purse, inside of a pocketbook, which is inside of a larger pocketbook, like Chinese boxes.
     “Here, take this,” I say, and pour her a glass of water.
     “Oh, those are my loves! Those are the best, the little yellow ones, my favorites. They gave me the other kind, brown ones, but the doctor, he’s not so big on pills, he doesn’t want to give them to me anymore.”
     She crunches it gleefully, like candy, not bothering with the water. In their house, she has a dozen bottles of 100 Valium, dating back to 1988, some full, some nearly empty, collected from various doctors, like a squirrel hiding nuts for the winter.
     Visiting hours end at eight, and we remain till the last moment, my mother finally crawling onto the bed.
     “Why can’t I stay? I won’t bother him, I’ll just fall asleep with my sweet little boy.”
     My father looks at her tenderly, but also with weariness.
     “Teddy, go home with Scott. I need to rest. You can come back in the morning.”
     “Can I kiss you?” she asks timidly.
     “You can kiss me.”
     “Oh, good! Oboy! You don’t mind? You’ll let me? I’ll give you all the kisses in the world,” and she pecks at his lips, three, four, ten times.
     “That’s enough.”
     “My best one, my only one, I love you so much. You know I love you, Paulie, you know how much?”
     “I know.”
     She continues blowing him kisses as I draw her out the door.
     I buy two servings of Arthur Treacher’s Fish and Chips from a drive-thru, and we eat them on the couch, watching Touched By An Angel, with her favorite entertainer as the devil.
     “Look, there he is, Mindy, Mindele, the one you play in the car, all the tapes I love—in the old car, with the tapes we can’t play when you had to buy that new car.”
     “Not me. Dad. You mean Dad,” I remind her, yet again. “And his name is Mandy. Mandy Patinkin.”
     There is a signed concert poster on the living room wall—“To Teddy, Love Mandy.” She’s a fan—has been a fan of someone all her life. When she was a teenager, she was president of the Nelson Eddy Fan Club, Brooklyn Chapter. My father tells everyone that she agreed to a first date because she heard from a high school classmate that he resembled Nelson Eddy, only with glasses. Three years later, they married.
     “I never liked that new car, from the moment you bought it, but it doesn’t matter what I want, you always do what you like anyway. Why should I have anything, why should I have any happiness? I never had a moment’s happiness all my life. Why should now be different?”
     I don’t try to argue with her. I think I’m beginning to understand her disoriented reasoning: Since this moment is bad, all of life to this moment must have been bad; since love ends in death, nothing good exists in life.
     She curls up on the couch and begins to fall asleep.
     “Mom, why not go to bed? You’ll be more comfortable.”
     “I’m fine right here,” she murmurs, without opening her eyes. I bring out a blanket and pillow, and shut off the TV. Three identical plaster clocks shaped like dogs, with cheap timepieces in their bellies—“They were a great buy, only a buck each!” my father had announced proudly—tick fractionally out of time with each other on an end table, next to a large gilt-framed photo of my parents’ wedding.
     Since childhood, I have gazed at this photo; it decorates my history: my mother in a full-length wedding gown, looking pretty, her long black hair in a flip just above her shoulders, her head nestled against my father’s shoulder, staring at the camera, her expression vaguely insouciant; my father dapper in his tux, with tiny rimless glasses and no mustache, smiling dreamily, more in love with her, it seems, than she is with him. They are only nineteen, a year older than my son—just children, really.
     I look at my mother, blanket to her chin, her head peeking out, eyelids twitching, dreaming her mysterious dreams.
     The plastic shoebox with my father’s medications rests on the coffee table. I rummage inside, find a bottle of Percodan, swallow a couple with a gulp of beer.
     Soon, a delicious numbness flows like thick syrup from the top of my skull through my face, chest, groin, limbs, thickening the walls between myself and life beyond myself, releasing me, if momentarily, from a sadness that encompasses all the sadnesses in life.


Saturday, 6/2/01

     My father is more cheerful today, sitting up in bed, shaved, scrubbed, his hair neatly combed, plates of food in front of him.
     “They took the Foley out. Boy, am I ever happy!”
     “You haven’t touched anything, Paul! You have to eat something, you can’t just go on like this forever.”
     “I had breakfast this morning. Oatmeal, juice, and sliced peaches. I’m not so hungry now. I tell you what—I’ll have the soup.”
     “What about the chicken? Look at how nice they made it.”
     “Teddy, you eat the chicken. It’s a shame to let it go to waste.”
     “I don’t think I could take a thing, my stomach’s all twisted in knots,” but she begins picking off pieces of chicken with her fingers, spoons up mashed potatoes and acid-green peas. Very quickly, the plates are empty.
     A good-looking black nurse comes in, and smiles at my father.
     “Hey, Superfly!”
     He waves off the compliment, but she clicks her tongue, says, with her New York accent, “You know you’re a Superfly. Uh huh! Why don’t you go for a little walk with your son? The doctor wants you to start getting some exercise.”
     I lead him by the arm down the hall. His steps are slow, but surprisingly steady, and he looks pleased with himself.
     Maybe things won’t be so bad, after all.
     My mother waits at the door for us when we return, smiling her crooked-lipped smile.
     “I think they’re having a party today. I see people going around with carts. They’re probably bringing the cakes and the foods and the presents. I bet it’s upstairs, I think they have one every day, when they’re finished here.”
     “They’re not having a party. We’re in a hospital. The carts have medical supplies, Mom. They’re not for parties, they’re for the patients.”
     “No, I think it’s a party, I heard them talking, maybe it’s someone’s birthday. If I knew, I’d bring a cake, or a box of chocolates for the girls, they like that, and they’re helping him, that guy, your father.” She turns to him. “I’ve been trying to think, what’s that place we go where they have the things, the long ones that people like, but Jewish people don’t eat them?”
     “Reuben’s, for pancakes and sausages?”
     “That’s it! All week, I couldn’t think of the name.”
     It amazes me, how quickly he understands her with so little information. I probably do the same with my wife, and take it for granted—a single word, instantly recalling people, places, events. A life of shared contexts.
     “It’s right near there, that store where I bought it . . . every day, I pat its head for luck. I want to buy one for her. There’s a holiday. Isn’t there a holiday?”
     “Mother’s Day,” I tell her. “That was two weeks ago.”
     “See? Your crazy old mother remembered something! That must be the party they’re having. I’ll buy her one. She should have something nice.”
She mentions that cat at least ten times a day, until it has started looking satanic to me, with its pointy ears, crafty eyes, insinuating red tongue.
     “Mom, forget the cat. You keep talking and talking about it, but it’s not important right now.”
     “So to you it’s not important, but why can’t I buy a gift if that’s what I want? She’s a mother, too, she gave us that beautiful baby, I wish he was here, I know he’s big, but he lets me hug him whenever I want.”
     “Reuben’s Restaurant is on the corner of University Drive and Oakland Park Boulevard, on the south side of the street,” my father tells me. “In the same complex, there’s a little gift shop. Take your mother there, make her happy. You have a pen? Here, I’ll draw you a map.”
     His maps are always precise, leaving out unnecessary details—a quality of hand and mind developed during forty years of designing neon signs.
When I was a boy, we’d be driving in downtown Brooklyn, and he’d point to a huge neon sign above one of the department stores on Flatbush Avenue, like Mays, or E. J. Korvettes—places that no longer exist—and say, with casual pride, “I designed that.” I’d stare at those brilliant lights, and imagine my father’s name up there instead: paul morgan, in letters ten feet high. That was how I saw him then: bigger than life, a giant, invincible, invulnerable.
We leave the hospital early, and I race along i-95 North, then 595 West, dripping with sweat, my mother complaining the air-conditioning is too high, I’m driving too fast, why am I always in such a hurry?
     I reach the gift shop ten minutes before it closes. My mother stalks the numerous shelves, stocked with Hummel figurines, Hallmark collectibles, woven baskets, stuffed animals, heart-shaped picture frames, painted bowls, plastic miniature palm trees.
     “Can I help you?” a middle-aged Asian man asks politely. I look at him, and realize that is how people see me when they enter my store—a polite, middle-aged shop owner, hoping to sell them something.
     “You had it, it’s big and I can’t find it, I’m looking and looking.”
     He appears perplexed, but tries to be helpful.
     “If you might tell me a little more, perhaps I can locate what you wish.”
     “My mother once bought a wooden cat carrying a serving tray, and she’d like another,” I explain.
     “I am sorry, I am all out of them. They came from Indonesia. Hand carved. Very popular. I have not had one since Christmas.”
     “Will you be getting more in?”
     He smiles—the familiar smile I use myself, the universal shop owner’s expression of wanting to please, and knowing you can’t.
     “It is possible. I have tried, but so far, without success.”
     She searches the shelves anxiously, pushing items aside, as if the cat is hiding from her.
     “But I saw them, he had more . . . wait, in the window, I remember . . .”
     She rushes behind the counter, pokes her head into the window display, starts to climb inside.
     “Mom, don’t . . .”
     “You are right, I did have one,” he says, drawing her gently back around the counter, “but it is not there anymore. Perhaps something else . . . ?”
     “No, no, I wanted it, that special thing, it’s the only one and now I can’t have it, whatever I want, it’s always gone. I told you we should have come right away.”
     “He sold the last one at Christmas. That was months ago.”
     “But we didn’t try, I bet it was there but you wouldn’t, and now it’s too late.”
     I lead her out of the store, the owner politely opening the door for us, asking us to come back another time, new stock arrives every day, but I’m embarrassed about her, in a way I never was before—not the momentary embarrassment for something a parent might say or do, but for who she is: her confusion, her disturbed-looking face, the smell of ammonia rising from her body.
     “This is my mother,” I tell myself, “and I’m ashamed to be with her.”
     The feeling depresses me. We drive home in silence.


Sunday, 6/3/01

     We seem to be living in suspended time, awaiting the pathology report. The temperature hasn’t slipped below ninety in the day, and only a degree or two less at night—a suffocating, mind-slaughtering heat. I feel like my personality is melting; that this will always be my life, perpetually repeating itself. My father lies in bed, barely saying anything. We watch TV; food arrives from tired-looking orderlies; nurses come in every few hours to record his blood pressure and temperature, or to give him pain medication, or insulin for his diabetes. On the street, the shops are all closed, the walkway nearly deserted. Sunday is the limbo of hospital life.
     My father has had few visitors, and those who’ve come have stayed only briefly. I don’t know if he’s told people on the phone he’s too tired to see them, or if they don’t want to drive to Miami.
     When he was undergoing quadruple bypass surgery, in November of ’99, eight or nine family members, who had also retired to Ft. Lauderdale, had gathered with me and my mother in a local hospital. While we waited, they drew me aside—one after another—and began urgently talking about their lives.
     As Dante moved through the levels of the Inferno, figures grabbed onto his cloak, desperate to be remembered:
     “Please, listen to my story!”
     That is something of how I felt among my relatives, while blue-bloused attendants wheeled around white-sheeted, anesthetized figures on gurneys. Silence is threatening in that atmosphere of mortality. Maybe we all believe that as long as we keep talking, polite Death won’t interrupt us; maybe we believe our tales keep us alive.
     I am no different; I am telling my story right now, grabbing at the arm of any passing reader, crying, “Listen! I have so much to tell you!”


Monday, 6/4/01


     We arrive at the hospital later than usual.
     “I’ve been getting phone calls all morning,” my father announces. “I need you to answer them, I’m too tired to talk to everybody. Hey, what’s wrong with your mother? Why is she moping like that?”
     “I told her she could only take one bag today.”
     He stares straight ahead, his lips tightened in a pout, but whether it’s because I made my mother unhappy, or he’s annoyed at her obsessiveness, or because we’re late, I can’t tell.
     In the afternoon, I bring my mother to a restaurant, a block from the hospital. I order a coffee for her, an iced double espresso for myself.
     “Look! I think I see his doctor over there!”
     “Mom, that’s not Dr. Staley. He doesn’t look anything like him.”
     “He’s wearing white.”
     “A lot of doctors wear white.”
     We sit at a table near the window. I can see her thinking hard, as if the thoughts were crawling out through the deep crevasses across her brow.
     “They take something, the doctors, and he left, so then it was just her, or was it him? And they have the girls, you know, there’s always more, they work, and you’re always seeing them over there. People are sick, people die, and they put the girls in one place one day, and they . . . just like that, they force you out, they just decide, and the doctors, what do they . . . so they just do it, and the girls . . . like them, at the hospital, I’d like to work, I’d work for nothing, I could scrub floors or take care of the babies, just so they take care of him, because I heard them say, someone said about the money, and they need help, the girls, they’re busy all the time.”
     She fidgets in her seat, bites her lip, doesn’t touch her coffee. Her eyes never focus on me for more than a few seconds, and even then, only the right eye, the left seeming to search into the distance, catching glimpses of memory’s phantoms.
     “We used to go out together, we went to the store, he took me, and my hair, look, it’s such a mess, I need an appointment, but what’s the use? He can’t take me anymore, he lays in bed, and I can’t bring him anything, I can’t even make him a soup, and that’s how he wants it, he makes all the decisions, and so all of a sudden, how did it all change and we never go out like we did?”
     “It’s because Dad’s been sick. He’s not staying in bed because he wants to. When he recovers from the operation, he’ll take you to the hairdresser and the stores again.”
     She jumps up.
     “We should go back, it’s not good, you never know, something might happen to him.”

     My father is surrounded by the doctor and his students.
     “Where were you? There are a lot of important things going on, and you’re missing them all.”
     “I was just telling your father, the pathology report came back early,” Dr. Staley explains. “Out of all the frozen sections, they found a single low-level cancer, in the center of the mass. We’re having a conference in the morning with Dr. Croce, the head of Oncology, to discuss treatment. Once the operation is over, it’s out of my hands, but they might try radiation, to keep it from growing. If nothing changes, we hope to release Paul tomorrow.”
I follow him into the hallway.
     “This is better news than I expected,” I admit. “I spoke to a woman here the other day, whose mother also has cancer of the pancreas, and it had already spread.”
     “Don’t compare cancers!” he warns me sternly. “They’re all different. Your father’s condition is nothing like that woman’s mother.”
I thank him. I thank his students, who all seem like good-natured, caring young people to me.
     “Well,” my father says, “at least now we know what’s what.”
     “Look at how my hands are shaking. I didn’t want to tell you how afraid I was of what they might find,” and my eyes fill with tears of relief.
     “So, what he said, I didn’t understand anything,” my mother tells us.
     “Dad has a low-level cancer, Mom, but it hasn’t spread.”
     She frowns, a crease sharpened like a hatchet mark between her eyes.
     “It doesn’t sound good.”
     “Teddy! You have to stop being so negative about everything!” My father turns to me. “You know, your mother always sees the glass half-empty. Me, I always see it half-full. That’s the difference between us. They’re having a big conference tomorrow with all the doctors to discuss my case. They’re not going to want to let anything bad happen to me.”
     “All right, Paul! You always know everything. You’re always right. Mr. Right!”
     I break in, to avoid further arguing.
     “This summer, when Dad’s feeling better, we’ll all fly down, and maybe we can drive to Key West, and have a vacation together.”
     “Sure,” he says enthusiastically. “As soon as I recover, I can start having fun again.”
     I start making plans in my head: I’ll come for Rosh Hashanah, I’ll come for Thanksgiving, I’ll come for Passover. Another future now exists than the grim one I projected—a future more open-ended, with time for visits and shared pleasures. A year ago, I let a year pass, expecting my parents to remain the same, while I recovered from the intensity of my last visit. Now, a year seems a fragile cup, easily shattered, ready to spill out its measure of days.
     “Don’t be so quick to go running off, like nothing’s happened,” she reproaches him. “You’re still a sick man.”
     “There you go again, Teddy. Always thinking the worst!”


Tuesday, 6/5/01

     My father looks pained and weary when we arrive.
     “They had to put the Foley back in last night. I couldn’t make siss by myself. Now I’m running a little fever, and my back is hurting again.”
     “Did they have their conference about your treatment yet?”
     “Yeah, they had their big conference. Dr. Staley came in early, and he said they decided to do nothing. All those doctors, and they can’t think of anything to do. I’m supposed to have an appointment with Dr. Croce, two weeks from now, but as soon as I get out, I’m going back to my own doctor.”
     “When will you be released?”
     “Maybe Wednesday. My fever has to go down first.”
     “I’m sorry I won’t be here. I have to go home tomorrow.”
     “Listen, don’t be sorry. I know you have to get back to work. You own a house and a business. That’s a big nut to cover every month. You do what you have to do. I’ll be all right.”
     “What about radiation? Did Dr. Staley say why they won’t use it?”
He shrugs. “They don’t think it would be effective. He said a lot of older people have slow growing cancers, and they outlive them. And it’s in the tail, so that’s in my favor.”
     I try to take some solace in this, but there’s a pounding in my head, like small explosions going off.
     “See? I knew it!” my mother cries out, weirdly triumphant. “The minute they found it in the picture, they showed it to us, you could see it, a little black spot, and I knew, that’s it, we’re finished.”
     “Teddy, he doesn’t think I’m dying right away.”
     “Sure, he doesn’t think, but what good did he do you, what did any of them do, those darling doctors, I’d like to stick a knife in them all, psh, psh, psh!”
     Yesterday, I would have argued, “You don’t kill the messenger,” but, just now, I think I’d hand her the knife. My father’s body is on trial, and the defense has suddenly and feebly rested its case. The jury is still out, but I have the sickening feeling the verdict was decided in advance: “Nine months!”
     When it’s time to leave, I kiss my father goodbye.
     “I wish I could do more to help. I wanted to be with you from the beginning to the end of this.”
     “I know it, doll. I can’t think what I would have done without you.”
     He’s often called me “doll,” ever since I can remember, but this time, it cuts me to the heart, as if it were affection rising up from a bottomless source—the beginning and end of all life.
     I pick up a small pizza for dinner, but my mother falls asleep on the couch immediately. I eat at the dining table, the specter of death joining me, standing quietly by the broken chair at the head.
     “Oh, we’ve been expecting you. No, no, it’s all right, sit right there, your place is all set.”
     Every writer desires a good story: one that engages his heart, pumps the adrenaline, sharpens the imagination.
     Every son and daughter dreams of happy endings.
     But endings, in themselves, contain an immutable sadness—the finality of the last page, the closed book, when all possibilities cease to exist.
     We live our stories as we can, become characters for ourselves, molding identities to the contours of crisis.
     At the moment, I am “the good son”—not just playing a role; inhabiting it, through need, love, fear.
     As children, we gaze upwards, and the sky and the stars seem immense, wondrous. We imagine a heaven above it, just beyond our sight, on the ceiling of the universe itself.
     Now, the ceiling is getting lower, pressing downwards, as in a comic book, or a movie, where the villain tosses the hero into a room, laughs maniacally, throws a switch, and all the walls begin moving together, ready to crush the hero to his certain death. And yet, the hero always escapes, and defeats the villain.
     I know differently. The inescapable room, with its squeezing walls and ceiling—the ineluctably shrinking room—is really just that: inescapable. The final room.


Wednesday, 6/6/01

     I sit with my mother in the kitchen, drinking coffee, waiting for the taxi to take me to the airport. She’s wearing a peacock-blue pants suit, and over her shoulders, a shimmery silver sweater. Her eyes look wistful.
     “I should have had more babies. Why didn’t I? Why didn’t I have lots of babies? But your father, he was happy, and did it matter about me, what I wanted? If only I had more babies. I could have one now, but he won’t help me, and how can I do it by myself?”
     “At least you had two.”
     “And you’re going, and the other one, where is he? You should have brought men with you. I need some good men. Lots and lots of men. I can’t do anything by myself, I never learned things, I need someone to tell me. I’d pay them, I don’t care how much, there must be . . . look! There’s one! What about him? I’ll give ten thousand dollars, just get him to come and help me.”
     She rushes to the walkway, and waves frantically down to the taxi driver.
     He waves back, smiling.
     I follow her outside, suitcase in hand. She gazes at the taxi with urgent hopefulness, as if a squad of Marines might suddenly come charging out to rescue her.
     The last time I visited, when she and my father argued incessantly, seemingly about nothing, maybe she already knew something irrevocable was happening to her—that she was under siege, her memories, dreams, reason breaking apart, piece by piece. Maybe they both knew.
     “Mom, I have to go now,” I say, and kiss her rouged cheek.
     She looks desolate for a moment, then her eyes brighten.
     “Wait!” she cries, and runs inside. The driver lights a cigarette, and leans against the front fender.
     What is wrong now? I wonder, imagining her in her closet, suddenly deciding she needs to change her clothes, or rearrange all her shoes.
     She hurries back, carrying a large Burdines shopping bag.
     “Here, for her, I want her to have it.”
     “That’s very generous. I know how much it means to you.”
     “I can always buy something different, and anyway, our house is filled with stuff, I’d give it all away, just so long as he gets well.”
     I kiss her again, then go downstairs to the taxi.The olive-skinned driver flicks away his cigarette.
     “What is that?” he asks amiably, as I slide into the back seat.
     “It’s a cat. A wooden cat, in a chef’s hat and apron, carrying a serving tray.”
     “Very nice! I am Egyptian. In my culture, cats were once gods.”
     We drive off, with my mother leaning against the railing, calling out something, her arms raised to the sky, and me holding the cat in the bag.