Our hands had not touched–other than to acknowledge each other’s presence or successes–in over thirty-five years. Now his open right hand lay by the side of his softly draped figure, a whisper’s distance from where I was sitting. A curtain, walling off a roommate, shadowed us from the bright day.
“Remember how we agreed I’d tell you when something major happens?” I said.
“Yes,” he said, beginning to smooth invisible wrinkles in his sanitized sheet, and there were no more sounds from the hallway, the intercom, the roommate or his wife, the street.
My mother, down the hallway, suffering Aunt Eva’s keening, “You’re going to tell Irwin?” no longer existed.
I spoke as if into a tin can connected by a taut string to his tin can: “That fluid Dr. Vogel just removed from your stomach is blood. He can’t do anything more.”
Parting his fingers, my father invited the son he had so generously provided for, but never shared feelings with, to join in acknowledging an end to his three-year war for life. Automatically putting my hand into his, tears obscured his eyes as he squeezed tightly, introducing me to the man I had never been permitted to meet.
The father who helped me get ready for Assembly Days at P.S. 194 when Mom was unavailable. Fingers slamming together, boulders under my chin, he’d enthusiastically struggle to knot my “special” red tie. Standing there, a soldier at attention, I’d watch his eyes. They’d move this way and that, swaying with the rhythm of his shifting weight as he’d contort his body to check his handy work. In the tiny bathroom, scented from Burmashave, his smooth, smiling face would reflect the harsh, bright light. Missing Mom’s deft, thin fingers, I’d yearn to get the process over with.
I now saw his grey eyes watching mine. He relaxed his hand, and asked, “What happens now?”
Only omitting the doctor’s summation, “He will waste away like an Auschwitz victim,” I said, “You’ll become less and less strong until you will go to sleep. There won’t be any pain. We’re going to take you home.”
As a boy, I often fell asleep to the rhythmic tapping of type hitting paper. It was the sound of my father working, always working, transcribing his stenograph strikings into English. His flying fingers danced over the IBM keyboard. One evening, I had to summon the courage to get out of bed and walk along the darkened hallway into his lighted place to disturb him. “Can I go to the bathroom?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said, his fingers poised in mid-air, his body unmoving behind his monstrously large desk. “Of course.”
That desk, retired since the advent of his disease, was now collecting keepsakes and dust in his former office, which my father now requested for his “center of operations.”
Entering the once-upon-a-time workspace to position his bed, I asked, “Do you want to face the window?”
A three twinbed-width space with a view of a doorway was to be my father’s last vision of home.
Ten days into my dad’s stay, trips to the bathroom, six paces away, demanded too much of him. Squatting over a bedpan while balancing himself between Mom and his bed became a Laurel and Hardy act, but the humor escaped from the frustration of their trying to get it “right.” Stiffening with condemnation, I’d wish my mother could, for once, understand Dad’s directions. The logic of which always seemed so clear to me.
“Hit the second dart, aim between the first and second pins,” said my father to his eleven-year-old son as we lined up my shot on the bowling alley. Standing directly behind me, we’d survey the scene, he calculating the angles, me preparing to execute the plan. To the amazement of our competitors, I’d knock down the splits, the single pin, get the strike, the spare. No sweat, no muss, he’d plan, I’d do–one aim, one soul. It was exciting, it was thrilling, it was natural. We were skinny, we were short, we were “tough” guys!
Greeting Elly, our hospice nurse, my father asked, “How… do I… die?” I girded myself for his last lesson.
“Well, let’s see,” she offered. “Completely relax, breathe deeply, close your eyes….”
“This s…ounds like a dea…th scene… from a grade-B…movie!” he interrupted jokingly.
“It is–it’s your death scene,” I responded, and we all chuckled until I bent over emitting high-pitched screeching.
After 15 seconds of quiet, my father opened his eyes. “I’m…still here!” he said, with the perfect timing and inflection of a polished comedian, tainted with disappointment.
Alone with my father, he breathed, “Thi…s is y…ours,” and rocked his wrist to indicate the timepiece I had given him for a birthday five years earlier. It was now my inheritance. His communication of “Money…wall,” was not as easily understood.
“We’ve checked a couple of times. We emptied that hiding place awhile ago,” I said. It was weeks later when my mother found little sums of money rolled into his socks, under his handkerchiefs, behind his shirts.
“Write my name! Write my name! Write my name!” clamored the kids as they clung to my father, monkeys to a tree. Perched and laughing on one of the benches in front of our building on Avenue W, he joyfully, but obediently, struck the keys of his stenotype machine. Off to the side, by the bushes, I watched each friend gape at the fulfilled wish of his name being transcribed into the unusual combinations of markings representing “Stan the Man,” “Richard,” “Scott.” Feeling proud, but left out, “How about writing my name?” only remained my thought, defending the hurt with, “we can do that anytime.”
Sitting at the dining room table with Elly and Mom, I said, “I just read people need ‘permission to die.’ Maybe Dad needs to hear this.”
“Absolutely,” purred Elly, and the three of us went to visit my father.
Holding his hand, my mother haltingly said, “I love you, and I will miss you very much, but you have my permission to leave us.”
“Thank you, thank you, thank you,” said my father over and over and over again, the lines on his face disappearing.
The next week, as we struggled to change his sheets, “I’m…so… sick,” were the last words I heard from my dad. They were meant either to surmise his condition, or explain his not helping–I don’t know. An oxygen tank was now part of the room decor.
On the 43rd day, I called from work to check on Dad. Mom said, “This looks like it.”
An hour later: “He took off the watch!” blurted from my mother’s lips as I passed by to find Dad alone with his oxygen mask on.
His open right hand lay by his side. Sitting next to his bed, I put my hand into his. He closed his fingers around mine. We listened to La Bohème, his favorite opera, on the living room cassette deck.
We were together for maybe five minutes, when sounding a disgusted “Ah!” he turned his face away, and flung my hand free.
Dad’s eyes rolled up into his head. His breathing became guttural, possessing his entire body. My mom, now standing next to me, called Elly, who suggested turning up the oxygen, which I did while wondering, “Why did you shake my hand free?”
Hesitantly, I rested my left palm on his warm forehead. I lowered his eyelids. “Why’d you throw my hand away?!” I inquired silently.
The three of us returned to the dining room table.
“He’s now in a coma,” Elly calmly explained. “This can go on for quite awhile…days sometimes.”
Mom and I immediately returned to Dad. So did Elly. He seemed to be waiting for us…as we lined up beside his bed, the deep breaths stopped.
Thinking it would make him more comfortable, I asked Elly, “Shall I remove the mask?” and only while taking it away did I realize her assent meant he was dead. Where was my head?
“Irwin!” wailed my mother.
When I was seven, I didn’t scream or carry on as Dad applied mercurochrome to my fresh knee wound. I had been yelling “Franklin, Franklin, you be the cowboy, I can be the Indian,” as I wielded my new tomahawk, having spotted my cousin at the bottom of the steep alleyway alongside Nana’s house. My great enthusiasm sent my head just far enough forward to lift my churning feet up behind me, creating an airborne, and then concrete entangled, little boy. Whisked by Dad into the side entrance, I found myself ignoring the blood, the sting, my fright as I sat on the lowered toilet seat watching him dress the wound. I knew with Mom I’d be crying, but with Dad saying, “There’s nothing to cry about,” I shouldn’t.
I did not cry when my father died–He threw my hand away.
Death is the break of a branch, the smash of a glass, the meaning of farewell. It sobers with the fear of being alone, the loss of familiarity, the creation of a new position in life.
It is only now, nine years later, as I grieve profusely, that I again ponder my father’s last lesson to me.
Unexpressed appreciation of each other, born of the shtetl roots of fathers teaching sons with “silence,” often elicited a discomfort with which we had grown familiar once I had become a young man.
His last communication showed that our relationship had changed–he was finished teaching. His job was done, the one begun so many years ago and he now needed to face something by himself.
“Keep pedaling, keep pedaling,” my father encouraged as I traveled parallel to the bushes on the two-wheeler. Running alongside me, holding the bicycle seat, then letting go. Holding, releasing, holding, releasing, he launched me on my first solo ride without training wheels. And I was free, free, just two wheels and me, gripping the handlebars, cruising, rolling, independent, and veering left into the bushes. The harder I tried to avoid the prickly green, the nearer the leaves approached until I was suspended in the bushes, my bicycle a wounded comrade beneath me. A wave of tears beginning its ascent from my belly was quelled by my father’s cheers of “Great! You did great!” And looking up, I saw him smiling over me, hands thrown over his head, fingers reaching to the sky.
Allan B. Goldstein’s “Death and Ice Cream,” about his brother who has intellectual disabilities, appears in Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood’s LOST AND FOUND, STORIES FROM NEW YORK.