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The dog wanders aimlessly about the house, lying down but never really sleeping, not sure what to do with himself. Everything he thought he knew about the world – i.e. that his owners would be back someday to claim him – is no longer true. Now he’s stuck here with me. Me who is also moving aimlessly from place to place – from television to book to laptop to guitar and back to television again. Me who always seems to be leaving, always giving him guilty looks from the car as he looks out forlornly through the window. We have much in common.
I have a lot of trouble at family parties. It’s become worse in recent years. Before, I would leave the parties thinking that it would have been better if I had talked to more people. Now I leave thinking that I would have been better off talking to less. The truth is, I’m not quite sure what to say to people. What character do I play? The shy, well-mannered young man who doesn’t have anything interesting to say? Or the nervous guy who cracks jokes that fall dead on the floor, everyone blinking and staring and finding him vaguely obnoxious?
It’s late. You’re tired. This relentless business of trying to force the round world into your square box is wearing on you. You’ve been up until four the past two nights, and your body feels cracky and creaky. Your mind feels drained and spent, like coffee grounds that have been left in the coffee maker all day. The poor nutritional practices you’ve employed over the past few days aren’t helping things, either. It’s like trying to fuel a coal furnace with some rocks, a tin can and a few bits of broken glass. So why fight it? Go to sleep.
You wouldn’t know it to look at me, with my “pleases” and “thank yous” and obsessive need to hold the door open for everyone within 50 feet, but whenever I drive I become a utterly reprehensible human being. Not that I drive aggressively – my car’s too old for that – it’s the constant stream of expletives, slurs, invectives, slander and blasphemy that gets launched from my mouth towards every other driver on the road. I guess everyone’s got a bit of a dark side to them. It could be worse, I guess. I could be bottling cats up in my garage.
This isn’t right. He should be here when I open the door, one hand on his cane, the other stretched to greet me. The repeat of last night’s Sox game should be on TV. The newspaper should be folded by his chair, worn from careful reading. But it’s still in the hallway, crisp and new in plastic. I stare at his chair as if he’ll suddenly appear, ready to tell me another sandlot baseball story. But I know he won’t. Strolling into the kitchen, the yellow smiley face my grandmother hung above the sink beams at me. I snarl. “Liar.”
This may speak to the sad state of my existence, but I'm feeling pretty optimistic about the summer now that I've signed up for Netflix and can get DVDs of just about every interesting television show out there. So far I've got the Office, Arrested Development, Freaks and Geeks and the X-Files coming my way. I'm also taking more guitar lessons, though they're not really in the budget. While it may not be cavorting on the beach with bikini-clad co-eds, sitting and strumming and watching TV in my room doesn't sound that bad. At least compared to last summer's misery.
“A coastal storm.” That’s what they’re calling today, a cool, rainswept affair that’s plucked the spring blossoms from the trees and deposited them on the sidewalks, cars and anywhere else that’s flat. When I woke up this morning, it was quiet save for the rushing sound of the wind gliding through the newborn leaves of spring. That sound – both eerie and comforting – always reminds me of the park scene in the movie Blow-up. There’s something appealing about a day like this. It calls for staying in, watching movies, reading books and listening to music. So if you will excuse me…
The painting is of a man and a woman sitting in the reeds at the water’s edge, their boat moored behind them. The man, who has a black beard, is sketching on a pad of paper with a pencil. The woman, clad in a hat, is off to his left, leaning against the boat. The image captures everything that’s good in life – art, nature, a lazy afternoon, the company of a beautiful woman. Funny, then, to find it here in the Alzheimer’s ward where my grandfather now lives. A celebration of life in the very place it starts to disappear.
If such a procedure were medically possible, I might consider having brain surgery to remove this nagging impulse to be a writer. With my “journalism” career in a never-ending standstill, and no one even bothering to respond to queries for freelance work, it doesn’t seem to be happening. I think things would be a lot better if that impulse could be plucked from the cerebral cortex with a scalpel or high-tech laser. Maybe then they could replace it with an impulse to work for an insurance company or something. Something that pays decent money and has the possibility for advancement.
The ringing began at 5:30 a.m., dragging him from a deep, sleeping pill-induced slumber. He had been dreaming all night, mostly of blasé things – a man in a silver clown suit blowing on a whistle, a lone yellow duck circling an inky pond – but recently things had taken a lurid turn. They were in a motel room somewhere. He, the room’s rightful tenant, soft and doughy from a life spent inside. She, a child of the highway, lonely, desperate and grimy. And so she turned to him. But then, of course, the ringing began. Interrupting things before their natural conclusion.
My guru of the moment is Jack Canfield, he of the Chicken Soup for the Soul fame. I like motivational speakers, always have. Anyway, Mr. Canfield suggests that I active the powers of the subconscious by speaking aloud my goals as if they are already achieved. I try this during the commute home, with mixed results. “I am a successful writer. I have a new job that I enjoy. My car doesn’t need a paint job, an engine overhaul and new brakes. I’m not going to ram the driver in front of me, even though he just cut me off.”
In an effort to shame myself into following through with things I start, I present the following list of unfinished books now occupying space on my desk: On the Road, Writing Down the Bones, Fast Food Nation, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, a collection of short pulp fiction stories, two Hardy Boy mystery novels (including Danger on the Vampire Trail), a coffee table book about Hippies, a motivational book entitled Principals of Success, The Position: a novel by Meg Worlitzer, and Cover Letters that Knock ‘Em Dead. The sad part is I was back at the library today looking for more.
She, with her black dress, soft brown curls, and sweet vanilla perfume, was a study in elegance, even at age 15. He, on the other hand, was the teenage equivalent of a three-car pileup. The tux was rented, measured by a tailor who didn’t believe in leaving any “give” in the pants. His shoes, borrowed from his father, stuck out in front like sore thumbs. His ears, neck and wrists were drenched in English Leather cologne, purchased that day for $10. Under his lip, the faint beginnings of a mustache. It was 1994, and Frank Sinatra would not be pleased.
I have a pair of Sony Digital Reference Dynamic Stereo Headphones that are 10 to 15 years old. They don’t get too loud anymore, and the headphone jack pops out with the slightest tug. And yet, every time I put them on, they have an uncommonly soothing effect – akin to putting a blanket on top of a birdcage to quiet a chattering bird. Music sounds better, but I’m not sure why. Perhaps it’s a subtle change in pitch or timber. Maybe it’s because they’re soft, and padded, and they cover the entire ear – like a giant pair of musical earmuffs.
It’s funny how songs and events become strange bedfellows in the workings of your mind. I was in a late night pizza shop a few weeks ago when the Fugees’ Killing Me Softy came on the jukebox. There was table of about 20 college girls there who started singing along with the chorus – one of those spontaneous outbursts that occur at the tail end of a night out on the town. But it sounded good. I’ve probably heard that song a thousand times before that night, but I’ll never hear it again without adding in the sound of their voices.
Well, I actually did it, ladies and gentlemen. I have written a workable cover letter and resume for what may be an ideal first job in the publishing industry. This is a far cry from my usual flailing about on rough drafts for a few moments before putting things off for another day. Of course, I may not even get a call back, but it feels good to set a goal and accomplish it for once. Now I just have to follow through and get some resume paper, some envelopes, and put that f—ker in the mail tomorrow morning.
His face is almost skeletal now, his mouth dark, his lips dry. The last time I saw him, he looked frail and weak, but now I can see the end is near. I know this look well. You can’t spend five years working in a nursing home without understanding what it means. The vigil has already begun, though right now it’s taking place in shifts. Soon the immediate family – wife and five surviving adult children– will be called in for the long stay. There will be coffee and sympathetic words from the nursing staff. And then it will be over.
My grandmother’s perfume lingers in the air as I walk. The warm sun plays on my face. I feel unusually strong, young and agile, like I’ll suddenly leap into the air and start flying. The feeling is similar to the one I’d get from bringing their Christmas decorations up from the basement each year. Look how easy it is for me to climb the stairs! There’s a momentary flash of youthful optimism, but it soon fades. There’s too much to ponder – the crack of my grandmother’s voice, the twitch of my grandfather’s arms, the lingering quiet of the shadowy room.
In a lifetime full of regrets, I am very, very very glad that I decided to come here after work. He saw me and smiled, and I smiled back, so at least he knows there are some friendly faces out there thinking of him. We sit together for a while. He sleeps, I try to read my book, but I just keep running my eyes over the same passage without comprehending. He stirs from sleep, and his face contorts in pain. I ask the nurse to give him some drops of painkiller under his tongue. “Under my tongue,” he says.
After a while, he drifts back off. I study his sleeping face, wondering if he’s twitching involuntarily, or if he’s dreaming. What happens to your dreams when your mind starts to go? Do you still dream in lucid, rational thoughts, even if your waking thoughts are stunted in a haze of dementia, medication and dehydration? I try to think of things that make him happy. Perhaps he is dreaming of golfing on a warm spring morning. Perhaps he is back on that sandlot again, gleefully throwing his two different curveballs, pitching the younger kids to victory against the older ones.
In the end, it played out like I laid it out. The call came early in the morning, announcing the end was near. They all came in and sat around the bed, and the day dragged on in extended slow motion as he lingered between life and death. What to wish for? Do you hope for the end, so the suffering stops? Do you try to squeeze out every last moment of life that you can? In the end, that decision’s out of our hands. As of approximately 5:30 p.m. on Friday, May 20, the world became a poorer place.
Today we wait. The world will take a breath for 24 hours while arrangements are made, death notices are written, and dark suits and dresses are taken out of storage and sent to the dry cleaners. The sun is shining for the first time in several days, and if you squint really hard, you can almost pretend like nothing’s happened. Work goes on as planned, even though it’s a Sunday. Softball goes on as planned. But as the afternoon winds down and the evening approaches, a steady thump begins to sound from your chest. It’s almost time to say goodbye.
She cuts a distinctive, solitary figure now, this slightly bent woman clad in black. Her features are suddenly more prominent – the graying hair, the roundness of her back, the curl of her fingers around her cane. She seems thinner than usual, but maybe that’s because I’ve been looking at old photographs where just about everyone had a few extra pounds. There’s something unbalanced about her, too. Not in the sense that she’s going to topple to the floor, but that she’s missing something, some crucial counterbalance. It’s like seeing salt without pepper, mustard without ketchup. It just don’t feel right.
He stands at the back of the room, arms folded behind his gray suit coat, a practiced look of impassivity on his face. The others are sitting by now, but it doesn’t feel right to sit. Though he shouldn’t fall prey to his usual hang-ups at a time like this, they come crawling back nonetheless. He’s polite and he smiles and shakes hands and offers profuse thanks, but inside he squirms. And darned if he doesn’t start checking out some of young ladies that come in to pay their respects. “Hey,” a voice inside him chirps, “you’re not dead yet.”
Think for a moment on what a rare and precious thing a photograph is. A moment in time captured forever on a piece of paper, protected from the clouds of memory. (Here I would briefly summarize how photography works, were I not too lazy to look it up.) I develop this new appreciation while looking upon a picture of my grandparents at the beach in 1939. They are younger then I’ve ever seen them – about my age, I’d guess. It’s a moment from some 40 years before I was born, and yet I’m here looking at it in 2005. Amazing.
I’ve done it all now. I prayed three times before his open casket. I stared at old photographs of him until they’ve gone blurry. I served as a pall bearer. I traveled in the funeral procession. I stood graveside in the driving rain for some final words, a scene reminiscent of the G&R video for November Rain. I stopped to touch the side of his coffin one last time before I left, and I felt sadder than I ever have before. I met with relatives afterwards for food and company. And now, more than anything, I want to go home.
In an effort to lighten the mood a bit, we now present 84 words of romance: “Lemonade?” Sally asked. The house was hot, and the glass was sweating in her hand. “Lemonade? Sure. Great.” Tom said. He’s not much of a talker, Sally thought, but she nevertheless felt chills when his rough hands took the glass from hers. Her heart had been aflutter ever since Tom had come that morning to hang drywall in the den. And the steady, rhythmic banging of his hammer all day had prompted more lurid thoughts. “Tom?” She breathed. “How’d you like to hammer me?”
Yesterday we had a party at our house, with food and booze and laughter and all the rest of it. It was something we’ve been planning for a few months now, something I was looking forward to during the wake and funeral and all the rest of it. But while it was fun, it didn’t produce the kind of catharsis that I was looking for. When I woke up this morning, I was still the same person, and my grandfather was still gone. These days it seems like life never takes any positive turns. I just keep getting pushed back.
I quit smoking cold turkey one day and never looked back, and could probably kick heroin, too, if I ever decided to start shooting up. But for the life of me, I’ll never be able to stop drinking coffee. There’s no better way to start the day then by stuffing my veins full of that wonderful stimulant. Nothing seems to dissuade me – the nervous energy, the relentless sweating, the frantic pounding of my heart against my ribs. All I can think about is how to get the blood flowing and my thoughts moving and my fingers pounding against the keyboard.
Those of you (if there any) who have followed this maudlin exercise for the past month may be weary of the subject, but if y’all will indulge me for two more days. His name was Henry, but most people called him Hank. We younger grandchildren called him Grampy. Though it may seem like I am viewing the deceased through rose-colored glasses, it is not an exaggeration to say he was one of the funniest, kindest and most generous people I have ever met. He loved Red Sox baseball, gardening, dancing with his wife, and playing and listening to music. (Continued)
(Cont’d) The last five months of his life were difficult in a way that makes me question the existence of God, but that brief, grim time doesn't diminish the 90 years he spent on this planet. He was my first hero, the first person I ever tried (and failed) to capture in writing. While these words may seem morose, it's hard to think about him without breaking into a smile. If there’s one lesson to be learned from all of this, it’s that you don’t have to do great things to have a profound effect on the world. The end.
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