Jay Scott Morgan
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
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
“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? 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
“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
“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.
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
“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
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
“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”
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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,
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.
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
“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
“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
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
“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
“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
“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
“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
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.
“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
“Where do you live?”
“In New York. I live in New York, and you’re
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
“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
“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
“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
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
“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
“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
“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.
“My best one, my only one, I love you so
much. You know I love you, Paulie, you know how much?”
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
“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
“Mom, why not go to bed? You’ll be
“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.
My father is more cheerful today, sitting up
in bed, shaved, scrubbed, his hair neatly combed, plates of food in front
“They took the Foley out. Boy, am I ever
“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.
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
“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,
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.
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!”
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
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
“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
“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
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
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
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
“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
“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
“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
“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.
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
“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
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
“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
“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.