“Don’t cry for me when I’m gone,” my father recently told my mother. “I’m ready.”
My mother relays me this at my upstairs apartment. She and my father have lived downstairs from us since 1999, but my father no longer comes to visit because he can’t manage the stairs. If we want to see him we go down there, which doesn’t sound complicated, though it sometimes is. My life moves at the speed of light, and I often go days without seeing my dad. When we do visit, he’s usually listening to the television turned so loud that nobody can hear anyone else speak. His TV is so blaring, in fact, that although my husband and I sleep on the third floor, when we go to bed we can hear the thumping voices of my father’s crime dramas vibrating through our floorboards, mattress, pillows. Sometimes my mother makes him put the TV on pause when we come over, but since my father is essentially deaf, he doesn’t hear us when we speak anyway.
This is hilarious to my daughters, who are eleven and not yet afraid of their own decay. “Hi, Papa!” one of them shouts at the top of her lungs to the other, and then the other hollers back in an old man voice, “Why don’t they ever say hi to me?”
At one point, my dad would have been the first one laughing at this joke. When my mother’s mother was getting old, and someone would ask her if she wanted a glass of wine, she would jump up in alarm and shout, “Lion? What lion?” My father did imitations of her for years. He used to chide her, too, for never eating anything but sweets. Her pantry was jammed full of Little Debbie’s snack cakes, her freezer full of popsicles. He thought it particularly batshit that she wasn’t just addicted to sugar, she was addicted to cheap, crappy forms of sugar. At one time, my father would travel to New York for authentic cheesecake—even in my teens he was known to hunt for the best apple pie all over the state of Michigan, just because. He knew which bakery in Chicago made the freshest doughnuts, and drove across the city for a particularly fine custard cake. “If I ever get like that,” he would say of my old nana chowing on her pre-wrapped brownies and freezer-burned, neon-colored popsicles, “just shoot me.”
Now, a big day out for my father is a trip a mile away to the Entenmann’s warehouse, where he can stock up on enough processed coffee cakes and doughnuts covered in waxy chocolate that an avalanche falls out of his freezer when you open it. He buys whichever ice cream is on sale. If my husband and I go shopping for him and buy an ice cream he deems too expensive, he has a fit.
“Just shoot me,” he would tell us.
But it’s never that simple, is it? You can’t snap your fingers that way. Sometimes, you live to turn into your mother-in-law. You remain trapped inside your body, unable to walk, unable to hear, taste buds faded, increasingly incontinent, napping during the day and awake all night, in chronic pain. Waiting.
Lion? What lion? Indeed.
* * *
I’ve come to think of this past summer as a season of death. An old friend of mine from grad school, blithely handsome and the youngest member of my first writing group, died swiftly and painfully of cancer that had been misdiagnosed for years as a blood clotting disorder. Less than a week after his passing, one of my best friends, Kathy, was diagnosed completely out of the blue with Stage III-c ovarian cancer, spread to her stomach and colon linings as well as her entire lymphatic system. Even my husband’s longtime family dog, who’d never left his mother’s side as she wasted away from cancer and liver failure last year, was—as though part of a sick plot twist—essentially roasted to death in an Indiana heat wave when accidentally left inside a car. Amid all this, I was reading the manuscript of my friend Emily Rapp’s luminous memoir (just sold to Penguin), about her son’s diagnosis with Tay-Sach’s Disease. It was hard reading—not just because of the raw grief Emily so passionately captures and interrogates, but in part, too, because I found myself so floored by the potential horror of watching one’s child die that I began to undermine other things happening around me. How could I call it “tragic” for fortysomething adults—people who had traveled, worked, fallen in love—to be diagnosed with cancer when there were babies trapped inside their own bodies waiting for death? How could I dry heave on my bedroom floor over an elderly dog, or even fear losing my own dad—someone lucky enough to have already lived for nearly a century?
What is the continuum of grief?
One of my close confidantes, the writer Rob Roberge, would quote Baldwin to me at a time like this. He would say that suffering “may be the only equality we have,” and that all pain is real and not easily quantified or measured. Emily herself, when we have emailed about all this, wrote me a beautiful treatise on the importance of friendships, and how the culture often undermines them as trivial, making an impassioned case for my right to love, value and grieve my friends. And on the one hand, these things are true—of course they are. Who would want to live in a world where they weren’t?
On the other hand, emotions, even strong ones, are not equal at all. I don’t mean this in a “privileged liberal guilt” kind of way, i.e. I could be starving in Kenya or a victim of genocide, so how dare I complain?, even if those things may be partially true. I mean it, rather, in a literal, I would push my father under the bus for my children sort of way. I mean it in the, If something were to happen to my kids, the first and most appealing thing I can think of would be to take several handfuls of pills and disappear forever, so that I would not have to live in that kind of pain. I’m not saying I would do it. There would still be my husband, my parents, my friends to consider. I hope I wouldn’t do it. But it would definitely be on the menu. When I think of my father’s impending death, I feel sad—I feel, even, afraid—but I do not think of killing myself.
What does it mean to love by degree? What does this say, too, about my place in my own children’s love-chain? Is this the cycle of life, then? To be prepared to be thrown under the bus, if necessary, by those you value most in the world?
My oldest friend, Alicia, sometimes tells me that if she had to live inside my spinning brain for half an hour, she would have an aneurism. At moments like this, I suspect she may be right.
* * *
Lately, my father sees mice. In addition to being on a dozen strong medications, he’s also got macular degeneration that can cause him to hallucinate spots. For several months, he claimed to see mice scampering across the floor, or to have glimpsed their droppings in corners. My husband would investigate these claims, but could never find a trace of the phantoms my father had seen. My mother began leaving little pieces of Entenmann’s cake in the areas where my father claimed the mice had been, so as to see if any crumbs were missing, but all this resulted in was scraps of cake littered around my parents’ (already-not-winning-any-awards-for-cleanliness) apartment. We even went so far as to call in my cousin Biff, who used to be a rat exterminator for the city of Chicago and now runs his own pest control business, and Biff confirmed that there were no traces of mice in my parents’ apartment, or even in our basement.
Still, my father reported on the mice’s activities almost daily. They came out mostly, it seemed, when he slept. In addition to sometimes seeing them, he also—at night—heard them making their little mice sounds, and sometimes felt them scampering over his body in the dark.
He began to sleep with the lights on.
Soon, he moved out of his bed entirely. My parents have had separate bedrooms since I was five, but he proceeded to move into my mother’s bed, driving her out to the living room couch. One day, when sitting on the toilet, my father called to my mother. He was sticking his foot out in the air and pointing at it.
“Look at that!” he hollered. “My big toenail was definitely longer yesterday. That damn mouse must have been nibbling on it in my sleep!”
My mother then calmly informed him that if he did not recant the completely deranged thing he had just said, she was going to take him to the psychiatric ward immediately.
Upon which, my father sheepishly admitted that perhaps the mice had not given him a pedicure, after all.
After that, my mother called their longtime physician and got a prescription for an anti-psychotic medication, and my father moved back into his bedroom.
* * *
I suppose I should clarify here that my father was never exactly a normal guy. He’s been institutionalized before. Twice. He’s been on antidepressants since I was about twenty, after sobbing at our kitchen table for a couple of days straight to the point that—although I may be misremembering some details because I later fictionalized this in a novel—he wet his pants, unable to get to the bathroom, and my cousin Biff, who then lived next door to us, had to come and forcibly put him in the car. Before I was born, my father went through a period in which he was convinced burglars would break into our apartment, so he stopped sleeping with my mother and took up a vigil on the couch. He became addicted to Valium, and ended up hearing voices that told him to kill my mother and himself—that time, he checked himself into the hospital, no assistance required. While institutionalized, he begged my mother to leave him, but she wouldn’t, even though her hair was falling out in chunks from worry and her doctor had to give her B-12 shots.
Despite his Paxil, my dad has grown increasingly high strung these past twenty years. He keeps a stockpile of food under his bed (mainly baked beans—I guess our family will be having a very gassy quarantine should it become necessary to live on my father’s rations in some futuristic emergency). He keeps decorative cookie jars on every flat surface of his bedroom, though none of the jars contain actual cookies. He spends his mornings reading Star and People magazines, even though he used to be a fan of Royko and Bob Greene in my youth. He would be able to tell you every detail of Paris Hilton’s latest sex scandal or Lindsay Lohan’s rehabs and weight losses . . . except that he can’t actually remember the details because he’s on so much Norco. He usually reads these magazines aloud to himself, repeating most of the words multiple times (Lindsay Lohan and and Lohan and Paris Paris Paris Hilton are no longer longer Linday Lohan and Paris Hilton are no longer speaking to speaking to one speaking to Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton are no longer speaking to one another) at the kitchen table, giving my parents’ apartment a distinctly One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest type of vibe. If he watches old home movies of my children, and one of them happens to be jumping or running in the film, he yells out warnings to the television set, afraid they will bust their heads open on the corner of the coffee table, or poke out an eye, even though in fact they are sitting right next to him—the movie having been filmed six years ago—eyes intact.
Shortly after being prescribed his antipsychotic, my mother woke one night to a loud noise. My father, who had dutifully resumed his place in his own bedroom, was writhing around on the bed sobbing. When she asked what was wrong, he told her, “We’re all going to die.” At further prodding he said, “The kids are going to get old and die too, and we’ll all be dead already—the kids are going to die, what’s the point of anything?”
My mother got his walker and brought him to the kitchen table and made him some warm milk and talked him down. In the morning, she called the doctor again. It seemed that my mother had made a mistake: when the doctor prescribed the new medication, my mother thought my father was to take it in lieu of his Paxil. “No,” the doctor explained. He has known my parents since I was in high school. “John is never, ever going off the Paxil. He’s on Paxil for life. This is to be given in addition.”
My father had been off his Paxil for exactly two days.
* * *
How do you measure a life’s worth? In laughter? In orgasms? In money? In how well-loved someone is? In how often they have been photographed? In children borne or raised? In the number of continents on which they have made love? In number of books published? In latest versions of iPads and iPhones? In jazz albums filling a giant trunk in the basement? In years?
We are all specks of dust against the specter of Time. Is ninety years so different from forty in the scheme of things? We are all the walking dead of history.
When I was in sixth grade, our teacher, a failed actor named Paul Tomasello, showed us the movie On Borrowed Time, in which an old man chases Death up a tree. Mr. Tomasello had gone to school with my father—the same school I attended as a girl. He chain-smoked in the classroom. School lore had it that Mr. Tomasello had been diagnosed with lung cancer years prior and given a few weeks to live, but in fact he lived to attend my wedding. He outlived all but one of my father’s seven brothers, two of whom died as children in the flu epidemic and the rest of whom died of various heart and alcohol related ailments such as rupturing an esophagus open while binge drinking. My father dreams almost every night of his brothers. My mother and I rarely figure in his dreams. In his dreams, his brothers are still young, his brother Ted playing the sax; his brother Joe a mildly powerful bookie; his brother Frank on the front porch smiling and waving. In one dream, my father is forcibly taken away on a wagon across a barren white landscape.
“I never took my father out to dinner,” my dad tells my mother, his voice thick with regret. “He worked himself to the bone for us and I never bought him a meal.”
My paternal grandfather died before I was even born. “You were a young man,” my mother assuages. “You had your own life. You didn’t know he would die young. You thought you had time.”
Mr. Tomasello is dead by now, too, of course.
We are on borrowed time with my father, I think daily. But of course, whose time isn’t borrowed? My life moves on at the speed of light: adopting and having kids, teaching, editing, writing, cooking dinner, playing chauffeur to play dates and lessons, helping with homework, packing lunches, attending readings, planning continents on which to make love. How many trips down the stairs will I regret not having made?
* * *
Last month, my five-year-old son, Giovanni, asked to see the house I lived in when I was little.
“Be careful,” my father told us on the way out the door. “You don’t want him to get shot.”
It seemed a strange thing to say in reference to the neighborhood where he chose to raise me, despite my mother’s perpetual urgings that they leave.
I put Giovanni in the car, and we proceeded to drive four miles almost exactly due south on Western Avenue. We passed the church where I used to be an altar girl. We passed the funeral home where everyone I had ever met prior to the age of fourteen held their family wakes—where someday people will gather to pay last respects to my father. We passed my first elementary school, Holy Rosary, which is now a vacant lot overrun with weeds. We passed the Head Start program I attended when I was younger than my son, and the now-shuttered corner candy store where you could go to play Pac-Man or buy drugs. We pulled onto my old street, which is narrow and one-way, flanked on the other side by the elementary school my father dropped out of in eighth grade to work at a factory, and from which I graduated: the first in many steps of running as fast and far as I could to flee my roots. Four scant miles, and yet this is nowhere my son would likely ever be. There at the west end of the street is where my cousin was murdered—shot in gang violence—seven years ago. I pulled into the school playground, where all the teachers park, and Giovanni and I got out of the car. We walked to the playground fence, surveying my old building: a brick two-flat with an awning that used to be green but now just appears a canopy of dirt and rust.
“Papa was born in that house,” I tell Giovanni. “He lived here until he was almost eighty, and then he moved in with us. I lived here until I was eighteen, when I went away to college.”
Giovanni stood silently at the fence. When I was ten and my father was in the hospital with a bleeding ulcer, on the verge of death as was often the case in my girlhood, my mother would come to this fence every day during recess to give me an update on his condition. She and I would hold hands through the fence, even though this was the last possible thing a new transfer student should be doing at a rough, urban public school, and my mother must have realized that as well as I did. She and I were apparently complicit in my social ruin. One day, however, she did not materialize at the fence. I deduced that my father must have died, and she was still at the hospital. I ran screaming from the playground across the street to the concrete steps that did not seem nearly as short or ramshackle to me then as they do now. I pounded on the door yelling, “Daddy! Daddy!” even though there was no possibility that my father was home. Mr. Tomasello, who was not yet my teacher, saw me and came across the street to fetch me. Although he was a frail man with a long white beard—the sort about whom rumors of terminal cancer circulated—and I was a pudgy child, he carried me back across the street, where I was taken to the school office so someone could reach my mother.
Now, Giovanni touched the fence, staring at the little brick house. The air was cold and the sky a dingy gray: the color palette I remember most vividly from my youth, since my father had convinced all the neighbors that their tree roots were getting into our sewerage system, so they all ripped up their trees and cemented over their tiny lawns. That my father could have convinced an entire block full of people to do this seems preposterous to me, but indicative of his status in the neighborhood as a patriarch and a man of wisdom. One of my most vivid memories from my youth is of my father outside with his hose, spraying down the sidewalk in front of our house until it glistened like a bone.
Memories collided in my head like a movie montage gone wrong. A boy I grew up with was shot and killed on a bench in 1989, maybe twenty feet from where Gio and I stood. But there, just across the playground, was where my cousin Laura and I would take her boom box and listen to Melissa Manchester’s “Don’t Cry Out Loud” while lying on our backs looking at the few visible stars, playing the song over and over again until it became the template for both of our lives. I held Giovanni’s hand. He looked up at me. The moment seemed ripe for poignancy.
“This place looks really old,” he said finally. “It looks like zombies attacked it.”
* * *
How do you measure a life’s worth? On December 14, 2011, my father will be ninety years old. He never thought he would live to see his fortieth birthday. When I was born, he said he hoped to live to see me graduate from elementary school. Now it is possible that he will live to see my daughters graduate. When he was a boy, Italian girls still didn’t go out without chaperones. I would say that this was before people were shot and killed in our old neighborhood, but that wouldn’t be true exactly. People were just shot and killed under different circumstances. The neighborhood has a long history of crime, just as it has a long history of family. What is true is that my father raised me there oblivious—or volitionally blind—to the neighborhood’s shortcomings, and conscious only of its strengths. When I went away to college, he cried. I had betrayed the family, in a way. I wouldn’t stay put. I would not learn what he was trying to teach me. He believed I didn’t understand about loyalty. I believed that too. I believed loyalty was cheap. I wanted to be Sabina, from The Unbearable Lightness of Being. I wanted a life based on betrayals and escapes, and for a time, I created some sexy facsimile of that, although I felt it unraveling in my fingers even as I clutched at it ferociously. In the end, despite years in Madison, London, New Hampshire, New Mexico or Amsterdam, I ended up back in Chicago with my parents living downstairs from me, just as my grandmothers—first my father’s, then my mother’s—resided in our house when I was a girl. In the end, the only thing I was truly capable of betraying was my own fantasy of myself as someone else, someone other than my father’s loyal daughter, who would throw him under the bus for my babies just as he would have thrown his parents under the bus for me. The night his mother died was Christmas Eve, 1980, and within hours of her death my father resumed our holiday festivities—though he was my grandmother’s baby, the one with whom she had lived after all her other sons left home, he did not take the time to mourn alone because he didn’t want to spoil my Christmas. I have taken my father out to dinner plenty of times, but someday when he is gone I will nurse my regrets as he nurses his about his own father: the things I could have done, the more I could have given.
“Sometimes I see things that aren’t there,” I tell my father when I am in my late twenties. “Figures walking into rooms and things like that.”
“Oh, sure,” my father says. “That happens to everyone.”
“Sometimes when I’m lying in bed, I hear someone calling my name.”
“That’s normal,” my father confirms. “That happens to me all the time.”
We are the lion in the house, my father and I, waiting to pounce. On anyone who threatens the family—but first and foremost, on ourselves.
* * *
Once upon a time, my father was a hero. He was trained to drive a tank in World War II, but his ulcer and bad back got him sent home before he could be deployed overseas. Instead, his heroism took place on quieter grounds. Years ago, while hanging out at his men’s club shooting craps with his friends, a young girl, maybe nineteen or twenty, entered the club. She claimed to want a few dollars for the bus, but it is clear to me now, from an adult lens, that this probably wasn’t what she really thought to achieve, walking into a crowded men’s club full of ex-cons and soliciting money, then failing to leave when all the men began suggesting to her the things she might do to earn it. They were laughing, saying the things men say, and the girl was maybe laughing with them, the way some young girls have to in order to survive. Amid this my father stood up, took out twenty dollars and handed it to the girl. “You need to leave now, honey,” he told her, and walked her to the door.
Another time, many years later, my father was having some coffee in the little eating area of Target, when some scruffy teenagers came in. He saw them go to the counter, where one scraped together just enough change to buy a tiny personal pizza, and they all sat around a table while the one who had purchased the pizza ate. The way the others stared intently at the pizza was something my father recognized. Although he always managed to keep his own head above water, he had seen hunger in his life, and it was something he understood. He went to the counter and said quietly, “Give those kids whatever they want to eat, and I’ll pay for it.” The counter girl went up to the teens and told them they could have what they wanted, and they all ran up and ordered food excitedly. My father sat, drinking his coffee, while they devoured their food. He did not speak to them or tell them that he was the one who had paid for their meal. He waited until after they had been gone for a while before he himself left. “I didn’t want them to think I was a masher,” he told my mother, laughing himself off.
He would never relay these stories to me himself. It would seem to him like bragging.
My cousin Biff and his brother; my cousin Laura and her sister; my friend Alicia. The litany of young people who have looked to my father as a stable force in their lives, a father figure, is considerable. Even now, when we take him to a family wedding, men from the old neighborhood—middle aged themselves now—jump up to help him to his seat, to get him a drink, to hover around him talking about old times, to hold open doors.
My mother and I have tried to suggest having a party for his 90th, where all the many people who love him could gather, but he won’t hear of it. “Oh, Jesus Christ,” he says. The trappings of a party—having to maneuver around with his walker, possibly falling down as he often does, or not making it to the bathroom in time—have been added to the long list of things that make him anxious. His world shrinks, month by month, day by day. Recently he realized that although he can still read, he can no longer recite the alphabet or remember the order of the letters. Only Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton, on the pages of his morning Star, remain as some reminder of wider terrain. Recently, I was on the nominating committee for the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame, and nominated my father’s longtime hero, Mike Royko, for inclusion. Although Royko was selected, there was no possibility of my father attending the awards ceremony with me. Those days have passed. When I told him about Royko’s induction, I had to shout and repeat myself several times to get my point across, upon which he simply said, “That’s nice, honey.”
He is on a journey across the white barren land, inside himself, from us. We stand on the periphery and watch him ride away.
* * *
What is love? Is it possible to love by degree? If a love is not the greatest of all loves, is it love at all? Is a life lived to ninety more “full” than one lived to fifty? What if the life lived to ninety was consumed by anxieties, by illnesses, by complexes and regrets? Where does quality intersect with quantity? But what defines quality anyway? Is existence itself “quality” enough?
Sometimes I wonder if I am grieving because I know I will soon lose my father, or if I am grieving for the facets of life my father has already lost.
* * *
“Kill me if I get that way,” I tell my husband and my surrogate brother Tom, after watching my mother-in-law die slowly, unable to speak, vomiting on herself if she tried to sit up, her flesh an empty sack loose around her bones. After listening to my father scream at a god in whom he does not even believe, begging for death, that Christmas he broke his hip and my husband, mother and I had to change his diapers while the antibiotics ravaged him with explosive diarrhea. “I’ll make sure I have enough pills in the house,” I promise. “Do it quickly.”
They look at me patiently. They know I seek to escape the indignity of Death just as I once escaped my old neighborhood. They know I grew up with the mistaken impression that cleverness could exempt me from anything. But I read Emily’s memoir; I go to chemo with my friend Kathy; our phone rings in the middle of the night because my father has fallen again on his way to the bathroom, and the truth is that nobody is exempt. We are all the walking dead of history. This goddamn place looks like zombies attacked it.
* * *
It is a day in late 2011. My father’s oldest friend in the world, Mario, whom he has known since they were three years old, has had his leg amputated and has been convalescing at home. My father has avoided going to see him because he can’t stand the thought of Mario without a leg, and it is easy to avoid things when you are almost ninety, disabled and incontinent and seeing nonexistent mice on the floor. But now Mario’s sister has died and my father has to attend the wake. My mother, who did not know how to drive until she was seventy and learned only when my father’s feet failed him on the brakes and he ran his car into a pole to avoid hitting pedestrians, drives to the funeral parlor. At the door, my father sees Mario in his wheelchair. Other men rush to get a chair for my father, and place it beside Mario. They sit: two old men who used to play in front of the house we were all raised in, when they were younger than my son. They talk: the two of them with legs that are missing like dead brothers, or that no longer work. In the contradictory movie montage of my mind, I have no access to the specifics of their dialogue, but somehow I know there is laughter. I know they call each other “Baby” like Frank Sinatra, as they always have. They are historical relics from a day of covered bridges downtown and chaperones for young Italian girls. Through some accident of mistaken identity or grace, they are still alive.
That same day, in another area of Chicago, Giovanni has his first kiss. In the coat room of his classroom, like generations of boys before him, he asks a pretty blond girl he has known since preschool, “So, do you want a kiss?” and she says, “Sure,” so he leans in for the kill. When I ask him if he kissed her on her cheek or her lips, he shrugs at me and drawls evasively, “Oh, I don’t know . . .” Since beginning kindergarten in September, he has already had four fiancées. As my father and his friend Mario sit in the dim fluorescent light of the funeral parlor foyer, my son gets ready for bed, excitedly reading aloud from the Magic Treehouse series. We “snug” together in the darkness, and he twirls a strand of my hair around his finger absently as he makes the jerky breaths the precipitate sleep.
His life is contained in this moment. In the moment of his first kiss. In the moment of sleepy breath and Mommy hair. In the moment of his brain’s voracious recognition of symbols on a page: letters that form words that form language that form story. My father’s life exists within the single frame of laughter with his childhood friend, as they commemorate yet another death—“doomed,” as Faulkner wrote, to be the ones “who live.” Now. Buddhists tell us to live in the moment, but the moment already contains us, whether we want it to or not. “When I find myself laughing at something now,” my friend Kathy tells me in the tenth week of her chemo, “I feel conscious of it more, and I’m grateful.” She did not choose this gratitude. In an instant, she would trade it back for her old, blithe ways. But it is coming for us all: the recognition of the miraculous ordinary. We ignore it as long as we can, until we can’t anymore. We flash brief and bright against the sky just once, just a hundred, just a million tiny times. Beautiful, singular, vibrant; full of love and pain. Then we are out.