The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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The last time my father takes a bath, my mother has to help him lower himself into the water. The melanoma that infests his body has made him gigantic. He is so bloated he looks like a woman nine months pregnant.
My mother tells me this during the week I spend alone with her in Connecticut after my father’s death. Together, we go through his things: first, his closet and the dresser in his upstairs bedroom. I pull out my favorite ties of his and put them in my suitcase to bring back to Colorado. I see myself at fifteen standing in front of my full-length mirror, my father behind me, teaching me how to tie a Windsor knot. I was a better student than either of his sons, who preferred clip-on ties, and my father lit up at my signs of interest in his world: his job, his sports, his stories. I was interested, so he taught me: One must be humane and empathetic when collecting on a delinquent account. Attention to detail is crucial for a baseball scorekeeper. Timing is everything in telling a story.
On the day of my father’s last bath, my mother washes him the way she would a baby. She scrubs him gently with soap and a washcloth. She shampoos his curly gray-black hair and pours cups of water over his head to rinse it. In the tiny black-and-white first-floor bathroom of the house they have shared for thirty years, my mother kneels on a furry bathmat and tends to my father.
My mother and I move on to my father’s office, in the small bedroom adjacent to the bathroom. It used to be my brother’s room. Tim’s baseball trophies still line the knickknack shelf I built in ninth-grade shop, and photographs of him in his baseball uniform hang on the wall. After Tim left home, my mother moved my father’s knotty-pine desk and blue Smith-Corona typewriter out of the living room and into this room. Later, when my father could no longer make it upstairs to his bedroom, she moved him in here, too.
I try to imagine how my father’s life changed as the melanoma invaded his body, weighing him down, robbing him of his mobility. No more office softball games or Lions Club meetings or morning swims at the YMCA. He could barely manage the fifteen steps between the first-floor bedroom and the living room, where he’d lie supine on the sofa, observing life but no longer participating in it, living vicariously through TV characters like Sam Malone, the womanizing bartender in Cheers, or Cagney and Lacy, New York’s crime-fighting female cops. The last time I talked to my father on the phone, he sounded like Marlon Brando as the aging Don Corleone in The Godfather, telling me the most important thing he ever had to say: “Your mother’s been a saint.” It almost made me cry when I thought of the antagonism that had characterized their marriage while I was growing up. But since the melanoma was discovered two years before, my mother had cared for him, and in a funny way, his illness had healed the wounds in their marriage.
Now I stare at the blond wood desk a moment, and with both hands I grab the handle of the heavy bottom drawer and begin going through reams of outdated files: all that’s left of the active life my father once enjoyed. I study the papers — ancient correspondence, minutes of meetings, budgets, fundraising plans — and begin tossing out one sheet after another. Soon I am throwing away handfuls, and then complete files. “Why did Daddy keep all this stuff?” I ask my mother.
“I don’t know,” she answers softly. “He took pride in his office, and I didn’t want to take that away from him.”
When she is satisfied that my father is clean, my mother drains the bathtub. My father places his arms on the sides of the tub and tries to raise himself, but he can’t. It’s as if he has gained weight in the tub, as if his body has absorbed the bath water.
A week or two before that bath, the doctors offered to drain my father of excess fluid, so he wouldn’t be so uncomfortable. He went to the hospital, and as my mother sat by his bedside, doctors came in one at a time to examine him. “When are you going to drain me?” he asked, but they evaded his question. In the hallway, a doctor told my mother that draining would do no good: my father’s body was filled with tumors, not fluid.
When my father was alone again with my mother, he said out loud, “I feel like shit,” and his voice cracked. That was the moment, my mother thought, when his spirit left him.
They returned, nothing accomplished, to their empty house. My mother ordered a hospital bed for my father, so that he could raise and lower himself and wouldn’t have to depend so much on her. Still, she had to help him to and from the bathroom and, most of all, with his baths.
The nurse in my mother thinks she can lift my father, who is beached and helpless in the empty bathtub. Using the grip she learned working on the geriatric ward, she locks her arm inside my father’s and clasps her hand under his shoulder. Braced elbow to elbow with him, she tries to stand, but my father is too heavy and too close to the ground, the wet porcelain too slick. Everything conspires against them.
Panting, she finally stops struggling to lift him. “Oh, Edward,” she exhales, “I’m going to have to call for help.” She leaves him for a moment and walks to the kitchen to dial the Westport Police Department — his old beat.
Around the time my parents moved into this house, my father was a reporter for the Bridgeport Post. He covered the cops and the courthouse and got to know everyone there — could even have his traffic tickets fixed. He was slender and athletic then, able to get around with ease, and he liked the fast pace of newspaper work. He was in his element, meeting and talking with people, making friends, finding stories.
My mother reaches the dispatcher. It is killing her to have to call for help. She has always been able to do things herself. “I don’t know who to call,” she begins, and she explains the situation. “Don’t worry,” the voice on the other end tells her. “Someone will be there shortly.”
“I should have insisted they drain your father,” my mother tells me now, though she knows it wouldn’t have made any difference. “I should have demanded more from those doctors. Your father was so uncomfortable, anything would have been an improvement. I was really, you know . . . upset with them.” She tries to use her controlled, detached nurse’s voice, but there is a quaver in it I have not heard before.
It is odd to hear my mother speak of doctors in this manner. She has always treated them with respect, addressed them as Dr. So-and-So — never by their first names — and rarely challenged their authority.
My mother returns to the bathroom to let my father know that help is on the way — the police, his old cronies. She drapes a towel over his shoulders to keep him warm, and another across his lap to preserve his modesty. They wait quietly in the black-and-white bathroom for the doorbell to ring.
Whenever we were expecting company, my father was the one to answer the door, throwing it wide open with a hearty “Hi, how are ya?” He offered our guests a drink before they even got through the door; he took their coats and made them feel at home. Disappearing into the kitchen, he mixed gin-and-tonics and poured out a bowl of pretzels and told my mother that company was here. And, before long, my mother stopped her cleaning and removed her apron and went into the living room, offering sandwiches or coffee and pie. All the kids — at least four of us, and sometimes twice that many, when our cousins were visiting — came to the tiny blue living room and lay on the carpet watching TV while the adults filled the blue love seat and couch and the brown recliner, chatting back and forth. My father animatedly told his stories, and sudden bursts of laughter erupted from the adults, growing louder as the afternoon wore on.
The house is dead silent when the police ring the bell. My mother answers the door and escorts two large male officers to the bathroom. Together, the men lift my enormous father from the tub, help him get his balance, and walk him to his makeshift bedroom. My mother, feeling embarrassed for my father, thanks the officers and offers to pay them. They refuse the money, saying they are glad to be of service. She shows them to the front door and thanks them again, says, “God bless you.”
It was my father who used to say, “God bless you” — or, rather, “God bless ya.” I thought the expression originated with his Irish ancestors, because it figured in a number of my father’s jokes, especially those involving priests. Once a year, my father went on a weekend retreat with our pastor and the monsignor and other men of the parish, and he always came home with a new story to tell, often one that involved the clergy and a bit of the drink. I never found out where they went or what they did on those weekends. It was a time of reflection, was all my father told me: a time to be quiet, to look inward and speak with God. Today I wonder if the reason he went was so he could bring home those stories.
Now that my father is gone, this is where I sense the void the most. My mother isn’t the entertainer my father was. She doesn’t have the sense of humor, the gestures, the natural ability to add just the right amount of embellishment, to pause at precisely the right moment. She doesn’t have the ear for dialogue, the eye contact, the funny face, the raised eyebrows. She keeps most of her stories inside her, and the ones she does tell she can’t seem to give flight the way my father could. She forgets essential points, goes back over the story trying to correct what she left out, and hurries to the punch line, as if the resolution, the ending, the joke itself is more important than all that transpired to make it happen.
My mother stares blankly out the picture window at the departing police car, wondering what to do next. She is a nurse, so she returns to the bedroom to check on her patient, who is now warm in his pajamas and sitting up comfortably in his hospital bed. She wants to take his pulse or do something else medical to avoid the sorrow she feels. Alone with her dying husband in the house they have shared for thirty years, my mother fights back tears and searches her memory for a similar situation, one that will tell her how to behave now. Uncertain what else to say, she looks at my father as though she must apologize for everything that is sad in the world, and asks, “Are you OK?” not noticing that he has that characteristic half grin on his face, one side of his mouth itching to smile.
Then my father opens his mouth and says casually, “Good thing they didn’t send Cagney and Lacy.”
And for the first time in a long while, my mother smiles.
In the small bedroom on the first floor of the house where I grew up, just a few steps from where my father took his last bath, I swallow my tears and share a tender and lasting moment with my mother. I will take her story home inside me, and only later will I realize that this story isn’t about my father being able to laugh at himself at the height of his illness. This story is about the way he used humor to lighten my mother’s burden: his last gift to her.