Brookline, Massachusetts, United States (Spring 2011)
I took them with me when I left the hospital that day, but five years later, I still have not put them on. Holding the glasses starts a movie in my memory, a biography of my father, but if I imagine wearing them a stranger appears on the screen.
That morning, my sister and I each boarded Los Angeles-bound flights, she from Philadelphia and I from Boston. Our plan was to meet at the airport, rent a car, and drive to the UCLA Medical Center.
We both landed ahead of schedule, as if time itself sensed an urgency we did not. Freeway traffic was light, and I could have gone faster; but having left New England’s winter gloom behind me, I enjoyed the drive under California sunshine and briefly forgot the mental chill of why we had come—my father had pneumonia again.
My wife, a physician, calls pneumonia “the old man’s friend,” an expression that comes from Sir William Osler, often considered the father of modern medicine. He famously called pneumonia “the friend of the aged,” a bit of trivia noir I did not bother to share with my sister. We spoke little during the drive, mutually silenced by a possibility we preferred to deny.
We reached UCLA quickly, and although I had never driven on campus before and was worried about finding parking or getting lost, everything went right. Everything went right until we entered my father’s hospital room, and I saw he was not wearing his glasses.
My father was a professor, and looked the part enough for me to suspect that, even nude, he would appear scholarly. I mentioned this to my mother once, who laughed and told me a story; they were on a Spanish beach, and my father was wearing only swim trunks and his glasses when a man approached him and said, “You must be in academia.”
Perhaps my father’s preference of high-waisted pants, beachwear included, advertised a certain occupational nerdiness, but surely the glasses were the tipoff. When I picture my father, his glasses float like the giant eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg in The Great Gatsby. I would need to go back to Fitzgerald’s era, when my father was a teenager, to find photos of him without any on. By the time he reached college, he was wearing thick, black frames that made him look like a Jewish Buddy Holly.
My father removed his glasses only to sleep and bathe, and the sight of him without them always rattled me. Unfamiliarity was not the issue, as anyone’s father has a unique voice, customary habits, and of course a signature scent: perhaps Old Spice, Lifebuoy, or Brut. The problem with my father’s unlensed face was that it shook my boyish assumptions of what a father should be.
My father’s eyes were bold, his nose was long, and his chin jutted out when he had a point to make. He was small man with a big man’s bravado. He might have looked fierce, but his supple lips and gappy teeth warmed his smile. The fullness of his face, however, was completed by his glasses. They gave his face corners, and without them his temples seemed rounded, his eyes less bright. Sons seek their fathers’ approval, of course, but perhaps more so their strength; a father’s wrath can either inspire ambition or help therapists make a living later, but a father’s weakness is destabilizing at any age.
It would have been so easy. I could have gently placed them on his face. His final pair, with their oversized lenses and transparent frames, was sitting on the wheeled hospital table by his untouched breakfast. My father looked diminished without his glasses, weak and unprotected, and that was how I last saw him.
In life, our most vehement positions so often seem to conjure ironic revenge. My father loathed cigarettes, pasted annoying red “No Smoking” decals inside his cars, and in mid-2004 was diagnosed first with pneumonia and, later, inoperable lung cancer.
How does one respond to such news? To my father, the idea of mass sympathy was intolerable. He dreaded the thought of good wishes sent by people who would expect his gratitude, or the encouragements whose cheer masks pity. Oppressed by the idea of spending his remaining days answering condolence cards, he kept his prognosis a secret, even from close friends.
I visited my parents in the fall when my father was deep in chemotherapy. I was fascinated by the newly-visible patterns of his head. The weekend was cold, and when we went to dinner he wore an old tweed newsboy cap I had never seen before. Perhaps it was a family heirloom, but nostalgia aside, I hated the cap. It was too big for his sallow face, and I envisioned him selling papers on a corner in his boyhood Vienna. The pathos of the image depressed me, and I was glad when he removed the cap for dinner.
During the meal, a nearby man and woman kept staring at my father’s strange, luminescent pate and whispering to each other. My father had his back to them. They had a bottle of wine on their table, and I wanted to smash it over their heads, as if violence on my father’s behalf would prove me not just a son, but a man. Instead I glared until they looked away, while my father complained that everything he ate tasted like metal.
Because the vocabulary of cancer infects daily life, for the next year I absurdly disliked seeing “infusion” on a box of herbal tea. My father, who loved to travel, spent that year relentlessly, and probably recklessly, in transit. To risk a cold was courting death, but from his perspective, the proximity of death justified the risk. In January of 2006, he and my mother joined the sniffling airborne masses and flew to Los Angeles for a vacation.
I came home one day to a message that my father was in the hospital. I called him, but he was hard to understand through the oxygen mask he was wearing. I pictured the plastic mask and his glasses above it. He said the hospitalization was precautionary, due to what he called a slight case of pneumonia.
Then he said, oddly, “I’m glad you called, Geoffrey.” For him, sentiments which went without saying, such as appreciating my calls, usually did just that. My full name at the end was customary formality though. Since high school I had preferred to be called Geoff, but he claimed he could not adjust to this. That the last word I would ever hear from my father was my name, expressed in a way I disliked, is only one of death’s inevitable ironies.
We use defensive euphemisms when someone else dies, but when our own time comes, no one says “I’m afraid to pass away.” We become blunt under the threat of mortality: we do not want to die, period. Meanwhile, loss is only permanent when identified as such, but after the fact, no one told me, “I’m sorry for the permanent loss of your father.” Death’s foreverness is the intolerable part, hence language that resists it and religions that reject it. But if an agnostic says we live on in memory, this sounds no less wishful to me than claiming someone is in “a better place.” Without messages from our senses, there is nothing left that we can accurately call life.
My father smelled like Jergens lotion and old-fashioned Mennen squeeze deodorant. His voice was reedy and carried faint echoes of Europe. In the hospital, his forehead was sticky to the touch, and his cheek tasted sour when I kissed it. Life has structure and volume, but memory is inherently flat. We recall sounds, smells and tastes, but cannot truly reproduce them. Even vision falls short; if I unfold my father’s glasses, a holographic image of his face appears, but you can walk right through a hologram.
It was a Friday when my mother suggested my sister and I come, as a boon to my father’s spirits. His discharge was projected for the next week, so I bought a one-way ticket for Sunday and planned to stay until he got out.
Makeup and lighting may soften ugly realities, but the accuracy of TV shows in depicting the moribund is impressive. I had never seen a dying person, but one look at my father left no doubt. My mother said he had fallen overnight, and this had somehow undone him. We approached him, and I heard my sister say “I love you” in his ear. His skin felt damp, as if he were dying by evaporation. His feet thrashed occasionally, and I held them, thinking how this intimacy, his toes wriggling in my grip, was a first and a last.
A moaning began behind us, and my mother said it had been going on for hours, ever since the room’s other bed had been taken by a man wasted with age and affliction. He cried ceaselessly, a ghastly counterpoint to my father’s labored breathing. Then my father, with a sudden flailing motion, threw off his sheets and hospital gown.
My father’s nakedness did not bother me, but I felt a pang of sympathy towards my sister. Our family’s standards of propriety meant she had never seen him unclothed, but now she had to watch as his hairless chest and sunken nipples, his abdomen mapped with radiation marks, and finally the rest of him came into view. When we covered him, he fought as if determined to finally shed the lifelong burden of clothing. A doctor explained this was common and increased the morphine drip. My father relaxed, and thereafter seemed to take up the raw business of dying.
I quickly stepped out to call my wife and came back. In the meantime, my mother had started talking. My mother by nature does not seek out silence or solitude, but now, after a half-century’s steady companionship, she faced the prospect of both. First she spoke of my father and their life together, and then speculated about the future. My father let out a terrible, fork-in-the-disposal sound, and my mother said, “I’ve heard about the death rattle. Do you think that’s the death rattle?” My sister and I could only look at her with faces that said, “yes, it probably was.”
An immense space seemed to open up, as if all sound had died along with my father. Touching him now was like holding paper, as though his third dimension had instantly vanished. I understood then that it is life that gives us shape, not appearance; I have not looked at living the same way since. Because the recently deceased are traces of something that until the last possible moment had a future, they give us a chance to confront pure history before nostalgia or revisionism sets in.
That evening in my hotel room, I packed my father’s glasses into my suitcase and filled the bathtub. A hot bath had an appeal that might have been regressive, or perhaps it was simply the easiest available comfort. I wondered if my father wore glasses in the tub. Did he ever take baths? Had I maybe seen him in a resort whirlpool? Already, I could not remember.
While the water ran, I phoned an old friend who, when I told him the news, said “God damn it” and began to quietly cry. Of all the responses to my father’s death, this remains the least articulate and the most eloquent. We hung up, and I wondered how life would proceed now. I felt less of a son by half and more like a man, and I had not needed to break any bottles. I slid down in the tub, tasting soap, and felt the warm water close over the crown of my head.
Four years later I flew to Los Angeles again, for business, and from my hotel window I could see UCLA in the distance. I had planned to go running by the beach in Santa Monica the next morning, but now a different route lured me.
It was just after dawn when I panted uphill from Wilshire Boulevard and entered the UCLA campus. There was the old brick hospital where my father died, which was in the process of being replaced by a sleek updated facility named for Ronald Reagan. My father, a committed Democrat and wit, would have said he was glad he did not live long enough to die in a building with Reagan’s name on it.
I ran across the campus to the stadium where, the day after my father died, my sister and I had jogged around the track, companionship and rhythm converging in an approximation of continuity. Running the track again got me no closer to authentication; my father’s life was just as over, and mine was just as interrupted.
My sister had told me, as we circled students playing soccer on the infield, that when she said “I love you” to our father, he said it back. This seemed impossible: he had been incoherent when we reached him, and though in life he dispensed hugs and kisses freely, to say “I love you” would have been out of character. I doubt he ever said it to anyone, but in the fragile aftermath of death, I withheld my skepticism and its underlying envy. If he did say it, then my sister, who was bold enough to be the instigator, deserved to be the beneficiary.
As time has passed, I have been told that I am starting to resemble my father—a narrowing of the face, certain wrinkles that must be genetic signatures. Vanity makes me thankful that I do not have his retreating hairline yet although, owing to middle age, I do wear glasses of my own.
But not his. I have peered through them at arm’s length, but I worry that if I put them on, I would look too much like him, or perhaps not enough. Or maybe I would inhabit him, merge with him somehow, and discover that the stranger on the screen is, and always was, both of us.
GEOFF KRONIK is a writer from Brookline, Massachusetts, currently in the MFA program at Warren Wilson College. His stories and essays have appeared in Salamander, Opium and The Lancet.