The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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A few days after our mother entered the hospital, my brother and I left for summer camp. Our mother, who could still sit up in bed, wanted us to go, and our father did too. We’d been looking forward all summer to sleeping in tents under the stars, rappelling down the sides of cliffs, and hiking along streams. Our mother had already written our names in indelible black marker on our underwear, socks, and T-shirts. We had to go.
After we arrived at camp, I didn’t think about my mother very often. In fact, I tried not to think about her at all. I wanted to forget how she’d looked when we’d last seen her in the hospital. I stayed busy trying to catch bullfrogs, canoeing in the lake, and learning to make sassafras tea by boiling roots, bark, and leaves.
One night near the end of our first week, my brother and I were sitting on logs around a fire with the other boys, watching a large iron pot and waiting for the peach cobbler inside to slowly rise. My brother was whittling the tip of a long stick that he was planning to use to spear marshmallows, and maybe bullfrogs. He had promised to take me out in a canoe to hunt them in the marshy area of the lake, where we’d heard them croaking at night. He said I had to eat frogs’ legs roasted over the fire before the end of summer. “You need to know how to do these things,” he said, “in case you ever have to survive in the woods.”
As we were talking, a camp employee I had never seen before ran up, out of breath, and announced that he was looking for Donald and David Hassler. I looked to my brother, who stopped whittling and raised his hand. The man said that our grandfather was waiting at the main lodge for us; we needed to pack our things as quickly as possible. We were going home.
My brother and I ran to where our sleeping bags were airing on a rock and rolled them up. We grabbed our socks off a nylon line tied between two trees and fumbled in our tent for our flashlights and Swiss army knives. We stacked our mess kits together, screwed them tight, and stuffed them into our packs. Then we strapped our packs onto our shoulders and ran.
It was nearly dark, but we knew our way along the hard-packed dirt path to the main lodge. We jumped over tree roots, crossed a wooden bridge, and splashed through a stony creek. We ran through a stretch we called the “pine forest,” stomping over soft needles, ducking hanging branches. My mother had been transferred to intensive care and was about to have the first of seven surgeries, but I didn’t know this. I believed my mother was dead, and that she had died because we had left her. I could not run fast enough.
My brother and I stepped through the swinging doors of the intensive-care unit as though illegally crossing a border into a foreign country. Children under the age of fourteen weren’t allowed in the ICU. I was eleven, and my brother was thirteen, but no nurse or doctor was going to stop us from seeing our mother.
The ICU at Akron City Hospital was a single room with thirty or more beds lined up along the walls. The patients had wires and tubes attached to them, and large machines billowed, blinked, and beeped alongside their beds. They lay under white sheets, and it frightened me to imagine what all that whiteness covered. There were no curtains to divide one bed from another. It was not a room meant for visiting, and we were never allowed to stay for long. Standing beside my mother’s bed, I felt sure we were in someone’s way. Sometimes my brother and I waited in the lounge while our father went in. I knew intensive care was the last room where patients could go.
The doctors stepped in and out of the swinging doors and stood briefly in the hallway to talk to us. They made slow, considered movements and spoke in quiet, tender voices, as if we were sleepwalkers who shouldn’t be awakened. But their tenderness felt as if it were covered by the latex surgical gloves they peeled off and discarded after each patient. A thin barrier covered my father, my brother, and me too, allowing us to function, helping us to make it through our days.
My mother’s arms lay on top of the bedsheet, her skin swollen and bruised with bright purple patches like crepe paper. My father said that her IV had caused the bruises. I watched a single drop of liquid fall from the bag into the tube, like water dripping from a gutter after a violent thunderstorm. I was suspicious of this small, peaceful thing.
My mother’s eyes were calm but darker and more opaque than usual. Even the bright hospital lights, which reached into every corner where death might hide, could not light up my mother’s eyes. I looked into them, but they didn’t look back.
My mother had a thin white tube in her nose. I couldn’t imagine why she wasn’t bothered by it. Years later a friend who was a nurse explained to me how this tube pumps fluids from the stomach; she said her patients likened it to having a garden hose shoved down their throats. But, standing by my mother’s bed, I didn’t know this. I didn’t know either that a nurse had to turn my mother every two hours to prevent bedsores and bathe her with a sponge every other day. I didn’t know about ICU psychosis, a condition patients suffer from after three or four days under the twenty-four-hour lights of intensive care, the around-the-clock beeping and whirring of machines and monitors, the doctors and nurses coming and going and patients being wheeled in and out. There is no night or day in the ICU. No one ever really sleeps.
The man in the bed next to my mother’s had dived into a coral reef and now had brain damage. I wondered what “brain damage” meant. I thought about how I’d once dived into the shallow end of my neighbor Steve Mitchell’s pool, even though my mother had warned me many times not to, and I had a scar on my chin to show for it. Had I broken too many of my mother’s rules? Was that why she was here? She rarely moved or even blinked her eyes. Sometimes she seemed to want to say something, but she couldn’t part her dry, chapped lips. I don’t remember her ever speaking in that room.
Each visit, before we left, I held my mother’s hand and whispered, “I love you, Mom.” I leaned down close to her ear and said these words as if to claim her as my mother. I was afraid that when we left the room no one would know who she was.
For seven weeks we returned almost daily to the hospital. And over seven operations the doctors tried and failed to stop an infection in my mother’s stomach. Nearly every day after school we drove through the dusky gray streets of Akron, past the red-brick Goodyear and Firestone factories, the dark gray office buildings, the storefronts with their chipped, peeling paint. We walked the shiny white hallways to the bright, blinking lights of the ICU. Each time we entered that room, it seemed her bed was in a different place.
My mother died one September morning a couple of hours after midnight. I remember my father came into my room to wake me. He sat on my bed and touched my shoulder. When I picture this moment now, I always view it from the side, as if I am not in my body. Calmly, I watch my father and me hugging on my bed and crying.
We always called it “the circle,” my old childhood street. One day my cousin Bill took my father, my brother, and me up in a little four-seater plane, and we flew over our neighborhood. I could see our street from the air, how it made a nearly perfect circle. The driveways looked like the spokes on a wheel. I could see our little red ranch house next to Steve Mitchell’s house with its backyard pool. I could see the river just beyond our backyard, twisting and curving closer to the circle, then flowing on.
My mother was still alive then, but she didn’t go up in the plane with us. There wasn’t room for her. It was just us boys up in the sky, looking down at our neighborhood. My father took slides and later projected them onto our basement wall for our mother to see.
When my mother died at two in the morning, my father, my brother, and I came together in the living room with our arms around each other’s shoulders, our heads bent, like parachutists falling in a circle. We could not let go of each other.
Later that morning, my brother and I decided to go for a walk before the sun came up. We couldn’t stay in the house any longer. The sky was beginning to turn gray, and everything was still. We began walking around the circle. None of our neighbors had turned on their lights yet. We felt happy to be moving about, swinging our arms as if to convince ourselves that we were still alive.
We passed our house every ten minutes or so, but we didn’t stop. We agreed we needed to help our father now, to be good to him. We spoke as if we were making a pact. Neither of us could talk about our mother or ourselves, only about our father.
Our hearts pumped hard as we walked. We were glad to be doing something with our energy, to have someplace to go, though our route always brought us back again to our familiar red ranch, its driveway spilling down to the road. After a while we began to repeat this phrase like a chant: We need to help Dad. We need to help Dad. And slowly the circle began to turn. From up above, it must have looked like a giant prayer wheel spinning — two boys walking along their street, the only thing moving at this hour of the morning.
At the age of fifteen, I got a summer job mowing grass in Riverside Cemetery, where my mother is buried. Early each morning I rode my bike to the garage at the back of the cemetery, where our boss, Al, checked our mowers and sharpened the blades. For $3.35 an hour I pushed my mower over section after section of a numbered grid. The dew-covered grass clogged my mower and stained my running shoes green. Its sweet, tangy scent mixed with the fumes of oil and gas.
It took three of us to mow all the grass. Ricky was seventeen or eighteen years old, but his face was already lined and creased like an old man’s. He said he had a son he hardly ever saw. Before Ricky had dropped out of school, I used to see him smoking outside the shop class with a crowd of other boys. Ricky liked to brag about how he’d gotten “fucked up” the night before. He cursed about everything, especially his father, who he said was a “fucking drunk.” I never heard Ricky speak of his mother. I could hardly imagine his having one.
Jimmy was in his late thirties or early forties. We were told he was “slow.” His mother dropped him off and picked him up every day. At lunch Jimmy would open his brown paper bag and take out a neatly wrapped sandwich, a little bag of chips, sliced carrots, and a brownie covered in tinfoil. I felt sure his mother packed his lunch for him. Al had warned us not to anger or upset Jimmy. Sometimes Jimmy would stop mowing and gaze straight ahead. I often wondered what he was thinking. I believed he was smarter than we thought and perhaps knew something the rest of us didn’t.
My mother’s gravestone was near Al’s garage. I didn’t like to look at it. I was angry at her stone, which was oval-shaped with a reddish pink tint. I hated how shiny it was. We had purchased it in town at Portage Marble and Granite, which displayed its wares on the front lawn like a car dealership. I hated the businesses that had made money from my mother’s death: the funeral home, the monument company, the cemetery. In the funeral home I’d glanced into her open casket and then looked away. It seemed wrong to look at her. She wore a white dress with red and blue stitching that she had sewn for the bicentennial celebration. She looked as if her last two months in the hospital had been erased, as if her illness hadn’t really happened. I remembered picking out her headstone, the wake at the funeral home, the memorial service at our church, but I could not remember her burial. After her funeral, we never brought flowers or a wreath to place on her grave.
My father, my brother, and I were better at mourning the deaths of the pet rabbits, turtles, and birds we had buried in the corner of my mother’s garden or set adrift in the river that flowed behind our house. Once, we floated a dead turtle down the river in a cardboard box while my father, a poet, recited a sonnet he had composed for the occasion. My father wrote many “dead animal” poems. If there were such a genre, he would have been its leading author. In one of my father’s poems, he quoted something I had said: “ ‘Here lie two bunnies dead; do you hear me, God?’ ” In a way, that was my first poem, an elegy embedded in one of my father’s poems. My mother never attended these mock funerals. She let her boys and her poet husband play at grief. But when she died, none of us knew how to grieve for her.
Perhaps mowing lawns in Riverside Cemetery was an ignorant and faltering attempt to honor my mother’s memory. Yet all summer I went out of my way to snub her stone and show my disdain for it, the way you might seek out someone you’re mad at so that person can see you pretending not to notice her.
On breaks Ricky, Jimmy, and I would shut off our mowers and sit on the gravestones, though we weren’t supposed to. Occasionally we’d read the name engraved on the stone, but we never wondered aloud about the deceased’s life. Instead we listened to Ricky brag about dropping acid in the school locker room, or having sex with Kelly Jones in the photography class’s darkroom, or driving his dad’s truck off Ravenna Road while drunk at three in the morning and walking away without a bruise.
We always kept an eye out for Al, who drove around in an old Ford pickup. We knew Al could hear our mowers from anywhere in the cemetery and would listen for them to start back up after our morning and afternoon breaks. Al’s main job was to dig the graves. His son and nephew did most of the work. Al would sit up in his backhoe while they stood in the hole with their picks and shovels, cutting roots, trimming back the sides. Then they’d place boards over the opening and lay down green plastic turf before the family arrived. We often heard the three of them complain about a stubborn root or how the rain got in and threatened to collapse the hole. Once or twice I heard Al complain, like a waiter kvetching in the kitchen, about a family that had been too demanding. For Ricky, Jimmy, and me a burial meant another break from mowing. We’d watch from a distance, our mowers turned off so as not to disturb the service. It never occurred to me to feel sad for the people at these funerals, except once, when Ricky and I watched a child being buried in a tiny coffin.
Al, with his pinched eyes, thin lips, unshaven chin, and high cheekbones, had the face of a gravedigger. The business face of the cemetery was the rosy-cheeked visage of Mr. Harrison, who met with the families and sold the plots. I remembered him from when I’d come with my father to choose my mother’s plot, but if he remembered me, he never let on. He stayed in his office in the red brick building with the white wood trim. He had no grass stains on his shoes, no dirt or grease under his nails. He handled papers and shook customers’ hands. His cheeks were as smooth and shiny as my mother’s gravestone.
I preferred Al’s office, where we gathered at lunch. I’d sit on his dirty orange sofa and eat whatever I’d packed for lunch — a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich, an apple, a bag of Fritos — and I’d stare at Al’s wall calendar, with its pictures of big-breasted women in bikinis or models in high heels and lacy skirts lifted by the wind, and I’d listen to Ricky go on about his sexual exploits and how he’d gotten fucked up. Ricky would tease Jimmy and ask him when he planned to get some “snatch,” and Jimmy would just stare straight ahead, chewing his ham sandwich, and Ricky would wonder aloud if Jimmy even knew what to do with a woman. I didn’t know yet myself, though I had learned to neck with girls at school dances, holding their bodies tight against mine. But Ricky never teased me, and I laughed right along with him.
I wondered if the guys knew my mother was buried in the cemetery, near Al’s garage. Al and his son and his nephew must have dug my mother’s grave and placed the boards over the hole and laid down the green plastic turf. But that summer I did not want to think about my mother or remember her burial service. I cannot even remember if I mowed the grass around her grave. I was happy just to pedal my bike to Al’s garage and push the mower through the thick green grass.
Every Friday night the year my mother died, my father, my brother, and I ate dinner at Missimi’s Restaurant. We would step in off Main Street and be seated in the cool, dark dining room. On the walls hung wicker-wrapped bottles of wine and paintings of mountains and vineyards, gondolas and canals. My father would sip his Chianti while my brother and I slurped sweet Coke through a straw. We always had the same waitress. She was close to my mother’s age and always wore a white dress and a red apron. It must have been a uniform, though I never thought of it as such. I ordered “the usual”: a plate of spaghetti with a small sirloin steak on the side. Later she would return through the swinging kitchen doors and circle our table, holding warm plates of spaghetti above our heads.
I was always thankful for the break from the sauerkraut and wieners my father heated up in a pan, or the thawed tuna casserole wrapped in tinfoil from a neighbor. In Missimi’s dining room we could forget how we had fought during the week. We could forget for a moment that it was just the three of us at the table.
Twenty-two years after those Friday-night dinners, my girlfriend Lynn and I drive by Missimi’s. From the outside, the restaurant hasn’t changed, a red brick building attached to a wooden house: Missimi’s Lounge & Restaurant — Established 1948. The old RC Cola sign is still there. I tell Lynn the story of the place, the memories it holds for me. She says she’d like to go there some night for dinner. We’ve been dating for several years and have begun to talk about marriage. I don’t know how it happens, but we come to an understanding: if I ask her to have dinner with me at Missimi’s, I will propose to her. Missimi’s becomes our code for marriage.
It is a cold Friday night in February, and I am driving home from a weeklong poetry residency at Saint Albert School, where I lived in a guest room in the principal’s house. Though I have enjoyed the gracious company of the principal and her husband, I’m tired of feeling obliged to make engaging conversation at the dinner table. I happen to be the same age as their son, and the principal made me feel as if I were her son. I don’t want to be so easily adopted. I have a father. That’s enough.
I have been thinking about Lynn all week, and my mind is made up. I pull off the interstate, find a pay phone, call Lynn, and ask her if she will go to Missimi’s with me for dinner that night. After a brief pause, she agrees. We don’t say anything more. We both know what I’ve just asked her. When I arrive home, she’s waiting for me at my apartment.
We drive across town, past the car dealerships and their waving orange flags, and pull into Missimi’s gravel parking lot. Stoddard’s custard stand next door is boarded up for the winter. We step into the darkened dining room, and I see that nothing inside has changed, either. Only one other couple is here, finishing their meal in the far corner. There is no young waitress, only an old woman, who I assume is Mrs. Missimi. She walks slowly over to our table. I want to order “the usual,” but I know she won’t understand. And besides, I don’t want to taste that grief. Instead we order the spaghetti dinner for two and a carafe of Chianti.
Our waitress returns with our salad, served family style in a large bowl. I pour Lynn a glass of wine and make a toast: “To our future life together.” We stare into each other’s eyes and smile. Unable to wait any longer, I ask Lynn if she will marry me. She says yes, and I begin to cry. I am here, in this place, with a beautiful woman who loves me.
By now the couple at the other table has left. Lynn and I are the only customers. An old man — Mr. Missimi, I assume — comes out of the kitchen and sits down behind a beaded curtain with our waitress. Occasionally one of them glances at our table, careful not to let us see them staring. The old couple, the darkened dining room, the warm plates of spaghetti — it all feels like some kind of blessing. We linger over our meal, holding hands across the table. It is just the two of us, and no one is missing.
These essays are from an unpublished memoir.