Facing Death

Facing Death

You just want me dead!” My father screamed into the phone.

If I’d want­ed you dead, you’d be dead.”  I respond­ed.

I felt out­raged by his com­ment.  I didn’t want to have this con­ver­sa­tion with my dad– not now — not this way.  I could feel my anger build­ing.

Remem­ber when you called with pain down your left arm and I told you to get off the phone and call 911 because you were hav­ing a heart attack?”

How about the time I drove you to Cedars Sinai, and six hours lat­er you had emer­gency surgery on your carotid artery?”  You wouldn’t be in the hos­pi­tal right now if I hadn’t called your doc­tor!”  Now I was yelling back.

I hate this god­damn hos­pi­tal.” I could hear sur­ren­der beneath the rage in his voice.

I’d want­ed to have this talk with my father face-to-face, the way I’d rehearsed it in my head.  I want­ed to be calm, lov­ing and ten­der.  I want­ed to offer him com­fort and sup­port so he could die with dig­ni­ty.  But I had to say it now, even though I was angry and reac­tive.

Look Dad, I’ve been help­ing you dodge bul­lets for the last nine years.  I know you think I can do it again, but I can’t, not this time.  I’m sor­ry.”

I don’t want to die,” he said.

I don’t want you to die either.  But, you’re not spe­cial, we all die.”

I know.”

My father had been diag­nosed with lung and pan­cre­at­ic can­cer.  The doc­tors gave him a year with chemo, six months with­out.  At sev­en­ty-six, he’d already lived almost twice as long as my moth­er.   She was only 35, when a rou­tine spinal x-ray diag­nosed her con­di­tion, after she walked into the doctor’s office com­plain­ing of back pain.  The can­cer was rid­dled through­out her spine.  It was Feb­ru­ary, and her doc­tor didn’t expect her to make it through Decem­ber.  My mother’s strong will, and the needs of her three small chil­dren, kept her alive for five more years.

Death, I’d learned ear­ly on, could sneak up on you.  My father nev­er had the courage to tell his chil­dren that our moth­er was dying of can­cer.  He was dev­as­tat­ed, so bro­ken he could bare­ly even tell me after the fact.  My mem­o­ry of that day is still so vivid, it could’ve hap­pened yes­ter­day.

I remem­ber the phone woke me, even though it seemed too ear­ly for it to ring.  Was my prob­lem­at­ic root canal flar­ing up, from a tem­po­rary fill­ing, or had I just decid­ed not to go to school?  The echo of the phone ring­ing vibrat­ed through the wood­en floors of the hall­way to my room, alarm­ing me.  The house shook as I lay in bed won­der­ing whether to run and answer the near­est exten­sion even though it was down­stairs.  My father’s door was closed shut. Why hadn’t he answered it?  I walked to the end of the hall ready to knock, when I heard him answer the phone. “Okay,” he said.  I knocked gen­tly, opened the door, and watched as he hung up the phone.

Turn on the lights, “ he said.

Who was that?” I asked

Dr. Argy­ros.  What kind of clothes do you have?

What?”  I didn’t under­stand why he was ask­ing me such a stu­pid ques­tion.

Do you have any­thing dark?” he asked.

No, why?”

Look, I don’t want a lot of cry­ing now.  Your mother’s dead.”

I swal­lowed my breath and ran from his room down the wood­en hall­way to the bed­room in the front of the house that I’d shared with my moth­er for six months, until she couldn’t make it up the stairs any­more.  I explod­ed.  My insides came up my throat.  I was gone, dis­ap­peared into my tears, drown­ing with my head in my pil­low.  I didn’t want him to hear me.  Noth­ing would be worse at this moment.  I heard him walk down the hall with his flat foot­steps, a heavy-set man, full of him­self.  “Get dressed.  We have to pick up Joel and Myles, and go to the hos­pi­tal to pick up her per­son­al belong­ings.  Then we have to get some clothes for the funer­al.”

With my moth­er gone, my life had become a night­mare and the fear of los­ing my father so con­sumed me that I couldn’t sleep through the night with­out wak­ing to see if he was still breath­ing.  Even with his smoker’s cough, he con­tin­ued to inhale mar­i­jua­na and cig­a­rettes.  I was ter­ri­fied.

I start­ed my first semes­ter of Chi­ro­prac­tic Col­lege sev­en years lat­er and walked into a dis­sec­tion room filled with cadav­ers.  By becom­ing a chi­ro­prac­tor, I thought I could save my remain­ing par­ent, from what was sure to be his pre­ma­ture end.  In ret­ro­spect, I was sim­ply try­ing to face death; to make sense of it.  Unfor­tu­nate­ly, dis­sect­ing human flesh only trau­ma­tized me more, and I learned just enough to help my dad cir­cum­vent the grim reaper for the next twen­ty-two years.

It was now two days since my father had accused me of want­i­ng him dead.  I called him back.  This time, in a calm voice, he said, “Bring the head­phones, I want you to play me music while I’m dying.”

When I arrived sev­er­al days lat­er, I found my father lying in a jaun­diced fog with bare­ly enough ener­gy to say hel­lo.  I pulled out the head­phones and played him Stuck Inside a Cloud from Brain­washed; the last album George Har­ri­son com­posed and pro­duced while dying from brain can­cer.  Over the years, George Har­ri­son had sent prayers, in the form of flow­ers, each and every time my father was in the hos­pi­tal.  This time there would be no flow­ers, only music.

I’d been lis­ten­ing to Brain­washed a lot since my dad’s diag­no­sis.  I thought play­ing these songs for him might imbue strength and wis­dom while remind­ing him of George’s pre­cious sense of humor.  George’s insight would more pro­found­ly affect my father than any­thing I could ever say.  When the song fin­ished, my dad took off the head­phones and said, “That was very nice.  Was that coun­try music?” I knew he was in bad shape. He didn’t rec­og­nize George’s sig­na­ture, the sound of his gui­tar.

George had been a great friend and bene­fac­tor to my father, repeat­ed­ly res­cu­ing our fam­i­ly with kind­ness over many years.  He even extend­ed his gen­eros­i­ty to me, on a tough birth­day, when I least expect­ed it.

My moth­er had been in and out of Lennox Hill Hos­pi­tal so many times dur­ing her ill­ness, that her stay on my four­teenth birth­day felt like a pun­ish­ment.  When we arrived, I was sur­prised to see an unopened present perched on her night table.

Who’s that for?”  I asked

Who do you think it’s for?” she respond­ed.  I could always count on the humil­i­at­ing sting of her sharp-wit.  I didn’t know if it was a get-well-gift for my moth­er, or a birth­day present for me.  But if I’d just grabbed it, she would have giv­en me a much hard­er time.  That was the way it was with my mom, you couldn’t win.

The gift was from Liz, a co-work­er from the law firm where my moth­er worked before her ill­ness forced her to quit.  I shook the box.  I could tell it was clothes.

My moth­er had been sick for so long, I’d for­got­ten how to make a wish for myself on my own birth­day can­dles.  I’d used up the last four years wish­ing she would get bet­ter. Though I felt super­fi­cial and guilty about this gift before me,  it didn’t stop me from tear­ing off the wrap­ping paper in a con­trolled fren­zy.  Inside the box was a short-sleeved nylon shirt, with a col­lar, and six-inch zip­per that opened in front.  The navy blue shirt had white pip­ing as well as a bor­der of red around the edges of the sleeves.  The vivid details of this shirt are locked in my mem­o­ry for three rea­sons.  I didn’t like dress­ing like the flag, it was a thin sum­mer shirt in the dead of win­ter, and it was ugly.

Yet, I felt so grate­ful that I changed in the hos­pi­tal bath­room, and felt win­ter run up my arms, rais­ing goose bumps all the way to my ado­les­cent nip­ples.  It was clear­ly not the sea­son to wear such a shirt, though I’d nev­er let my dis­ap­point­ment show.  After all, it was my only birth­day present.

Time to go,” my dad said, as he hand­ed me my over­sized par­ka.  The huge jack­et was filled with pock­ets of win­ter air, requir­ing extra ener­gy for me to warm.  For a few moments, I felt even more chilled wear­ing it.

I have to make a stop before we can go home,” he said.  His com­ment wor­ried me. My dad would often dou­ble park and leave us in the car, so it wouldn’t get towed away.  Some­times we wait­ed for hours.  I was instant­ly relieved when he added, “We have to stop in and see George.”  We meant he wasn’t going to leave us in the car.

George Harrison’s Hotel on Cen­tral Park South was far less osten­ta­tious than I ‘d expect­ed for a Bea­t­le.  A door­man guard­ed the entrance from the icy winds.  Dark, wood mold­ing which accen­tu­at­ed the toasty, warm lob­by ran around the floor, ceil­ing, and doors as well as around the two ele­va­tors.

The details of his hotel suite, how­ev­er ele­gant, were insignif­i­cant com­pared to George’s pres­ence.  He was so kind that his warmth radi­at­ed out­ward like the sun.  No oth­er celebri­ty ever took the time to make me feel so spe­cial, as if he felt the same hon­or being with me, as I felt shar­ing his com­pa­ny.  It was my four­teenth birth­day, and I was spend­ing part of my day with the one and only,George Har­ri­son, and it changed every­thing.  Just by sit­ting on the lit­tle sofa in his suite, I had for­got­ten how painful it was to see my moth­er in the hos­pi­tal, or how cold I was from the ugly blue birth­day shirt I’d insist­ed on wear­ing.  In that moment, I didn’t need any­thing else.

That’s when George lift­ed a brown par­cel tied with hemp twine, onto the glass cof­fee table in front of me.  He’d lift­ed it by a han­dle, made from a wood­en cylin­der with thick cop­per wire thread­ed through the core.  The wire looped at each end of the cylin­der, to form hooks, which attached to the twine.

I heard it’s your birth­day,” he said.

The words, “To Brett, Hap­py Birth­day.  Love, George,” had been writ­ten on the han­dle with a black, felt tip pen.

I was shocked.  The detail of that note, writ­ten by his own hand, was enough.  The con­tents of this mys­te­ri­ous box didn’t mat­ter as much as the sim­ple fact, that George Har­ri­son cared enough to per­form the pre­med­i­tat­ed act of pur­chas­ing a birth­day gift for me, a four­teen-year-old.  His gift meant I mat­tered.

Care­ful­ly, I opened the pack­age in a state of dis­be­lief, and was aston­ished to find a brand new Bolex 280 Super 8 mm movie cam­era with a macro zoom.  To this day, the over­whelm­ing love I felt from him lingers in my cells.  George Har­ri­son had become an angel, my angel, and think­ing of him would always make me feel bet­ter.

 

Years lat­er, on the heels of George’s diag­no­sis of can­cer, my dev­as­tat­ed father declared, “Smok­ing is anti-life!” and began adding mar­i­jua­na to his Pills­bury peanut cook­ie bat­ter.  He had been smok­ing pot behind closed doors, since his intro­duc­tion to the Beat Gen­er­a­tion in 1959, when he wrote a twelve part series for the New York Post.  I remem­ber sit­ting on my parent’s bed, no more than four years old at the time, with my moth­er, father, and their friends, as they passed a pipe burn­ing what would become a famil­iar sweet smell, around the cir­cle.  I’d grown up wit­ness­ing the per­va­sive con­sump­tion of mar­i­jua­na and even­tu­al­ly became com­plete­ly intol­er­ant to its use.  Now the doc­tors were pre­scrib­ing mari­nol, and encour­ag­ing my father’s mar­i­jua­na con­sump­tion.  It was a chal­lenge for me to put my per­son­al views aside, but I could see his cook­ies were help­ing since he nev­er seemed to com­plain about any side effects from the chemo.

Until my last Christ­mas vis­it with him.  That’s when he began com­plain­ing of vague GI symp­toms and con­sti­pa­tion.  We sat in his dumpy lit­tle apart­ment in Eliz­a­beth, New Jer­sey, with the heat cranked up, read­ing each other’s writ­ing.  I gave him a draft of my nov­el, still in des­per­ate need of revi­sion, and he gave me a copy of the open­ing to Mick and Miles, the next book he want­ed to pub­lish, about the meet­ing he’d arranged between Mick Jag­ger and Miles Davis.  I’d want­ed him to read my book.  I knew that by read­ing a person’s words you could get into their head, and I want­ed my father to know me before he died.  He in turn, want­ed to know if Mick’s cock­ney dia­logue was real­is­tic and under­stand­able.  I could see he was run­ning out of steam.

I noticed a per­cep­ti­ble dif­fer­ence in the way I ingest­ed his writ­ing — pay­ing atten­tion to the jux­ta­po­si­tion of words, the place­ment of com­mas, and the rhythm of each sen­tence.  Read­ing my dad’s work now, remind­ed me of how awed I was as a kid, when I would sneak into his room while he sat typ­ing at his portable Her­mes type­writer.  I’d grab the stack of com­plet­ed pages, placed face down in a neat pile amid the con­fu­sion of papers strewn every which way, along­side an ash­tray over-filled with cig­a­rette butts.  I’d prop my tush on the edge of his bed, and read his work, cap­ti­vat­ed.  When I was done with his man­u­script pages, I’d qui­et­ly return them to their place on his desk, and stand behind his left shoul­der watch­ing, as he con­tin­ued to sum­mon words to the page.  My father wrote about rock super­heroes like they were his next-door neigh­bors.  He made them real.

As I read, I saw that by recy­cling a sto­ry writ­ten years ago, my dad was able to bring Miles Davis’ sen­si­tiv­i­ty as an artist back to life. My dad had called his piece, Bird’s Christ­mas, and Miles had called it the weird­est set he’d ever played.  It was Christ­mas Eve, 1948, in Chica­go, with Max Roach on drums, Tom­my Pot­ter on bass, and the famous Char­lie Park­er, so stoned on sec­onal he’d passed out, stand­ing with his sax­o­phone in his mouth.

My father wrote, “At one point, Miles let Max go on for thir­ty-two bars as loud as he could in an effort to rouse Bird. At anoth­er point, Miles blew eight bars of trum­pet right into Bird’s ear. But it wasn’t the loud­ness that suc­ceed­ed in rous­ing Char­lie.  It was the silences.”

Good writ­ing does the same thing, I thought.  Con­tem­plat­ing how my dad had always taught me that writ­ing was all rhythm.  I looked up at him, and wished things had been dif­fer­ent between us, but knew our silent, shared moments, were bet­ter than his rage.

I like your ren­di­tion of Mick’s dia­logue,” I told him, break­ing the silence.

He looked up from my nov­el, “Yeah?” he asked.  He looked very com­fort­able sit­ting in his beat-up reclin­er.

It was the same as if I was lis­ten­ing to him.  I felt like I was there.”

Good.  A few peo­ple told me it was too hard to under­stand.”  Then he point­ed to my book in his lap and said, “I’m going to read more.  I want to see what hap­pens.”

I smiled.  I had found great courage when I gave him my nov­el, and it turned out to be a gift for both of us.

It was now July, and my father had sur­vived ten months since his ini­tial diag­no­sis.  He was so weak, he could no longer walk to the bath­room unaid­ed.  I could see he didn’t have the will to con­tin­ue much longer.  His three small chil­dren were grown with lives and fam­i­lies of our own.  His oth­er chil­dren were his books: Bob Dylan and the Bea­t­les & Bob­by Darin Was A Friend Of Mine, and they had found their place in homes and on book­shelves.

Every­one kept bring­ing him food, even though his doc­tor said it was futile to get an advanced can­cer patient to eat.  My aunt brought a sponge cake and chick­en soup; my broth­er went to my dad’s favorite Ital­ian restau­rant and returned with a salmon din­ner and tiramisu for dessert; my sis­ter-in-law brought rugalah.

My dad had no appetite, and after smelling the hos­pi­tal food, nei­ther did I.  I sat watch­ing him sleep for six hours, and felt my emp­ty stom­ach growl­ing like a lion for food.  I wasn’t going to vis­it the hos­pi­tal cafe­te­ria.  I knew my dad loved lentil soup, it had been the one thing he was will­ing to eat with­out an argu­ment, and though he was turn­ing increas­ing­ly yel­low, I left only after ask­ing if I could make him a batch.  Like every­one else who brought him food, I had to do some­thing, to over­come this hor­ri­ble feel­ing of help­less­ness. Plus, I had to eat too.  Three hours lat­er, I returned with home­made lentil soup with car­rots and pota­toes and he barked. “Leave me alone; I don’t want any.”

I knew he didn’t have much moti­va­tion to talk because he was so sick, but we were run­ning out of time. When I next walked into my father’s hos­pi­tal room, I said,  “Dad, you’ve been telling me for three months that you’d talk to me when I got here.”

Yeah?”

Yeah and I’ve been here for a week already and you haven’t told me shit… what did you want to tell me?”

I wrote 32 columns about the Alta­mont Inci­dent for the N.Y. Post, Go to either the NY Post library or the pub­lic library, and put them togeth­er.  With a lit­tle edit­ing, it will make a nice lit­tle book, by me and you.  I nev­er got around to it,” he said.

He start­ed to cry.  His tears made me cry, too.

You would trust me?” I asked.

Of course I would trust you!”  He became sud­den­ly enraged, “Why do you think I’m telling you this?”

Dad, you know when you sit at the key­board and the words seem to come from nowhere?  Will you help me when I’m sit­ting there?”

I’m help­ing you NOW!”

That was as close to sen­ti­ment as we got.  He nev­er believed there was any­thing after death.

The doc­tors dis­cov­ered the tumor on his pan­creas had grown, pre­vent­ing his liv­er from drain­ing.  A shunt would cor­rect his prob­lem.  We’d dodged yet anoth­er ”bul­let,“ but the wound would still kill him.  I was glad I’d made it back in time to say good­bye.

I’d moved away from home in 1979, but by then there was no “home.”  We’d changed our address so often I felt like a pro­fes­sion­al mover.  Final­ly, I’d giv­en up and moved in with my boyfriend and his fam­i­ly.  My dad drove a Mer­cedes Benz paid for with his drug deal­ing mon­ey.  He com­mut­ed from Wash­ing­ton, D.C., where he lived with a girl­friend work­ing in the Carter White House, to Allen­dale, New Jer­sey, where he’d rent­ed a tiny crack­er­jack house but nev­er both­ered to unpack his box­es.  They end­ed up in stor­age after the sheriff’s depart­ment seized his prop­er­ty, and evict­ed him for non-pay­ment of rent.

My dad had once been charis­mat­ic, suc­cess­ful and con­nect­ed.  He knew every­body.  I grew up tag­ging along with him, and meet­ing some of the most cre­ative peo­ple of the six­ties and sev­en­ties.  I’d nev­er bought a tick­et for a con­cert, nev­er pur­chased a sin­gle record album.  But, things had changed after my moth­er died and I knew my father was lead­ing a dan­ger­ous life.  I was Al’s only daugh­ter, and very tempt­ed to stick around and help him, until a car pulled up in front of my boyfriend’s house around mid­night and a few guys got out with flash­lights, and start­ed bang­ing on the door.

Is Al Aronowitz there?”  I heard them yell from the street.  I hoped who­ev­er answered the door had the com­mon sense not to men­tion that I lived there.

No,” I heard some­one say.

The men got back in their car and dis­ap­peared.

Short­ly after this inci­dent, I was accept­ed to West­ern States Chi­ro­prac­tic Col­lege in Port­land, Ore­gon.  It wasn’t far enough away.

I’d come back to Eliz­a­beth to say good­bye to my dad.  I’d been there a lit­tle over a week, the shunt pro­ce­dure had been suc­cess­ful, and my dad’s col­or had returned to nor­mal.  I brought him his sec­ond favorite soup, mine­strone, and tried to feed it to him.

Too hot!” he yelled.

I’ll blow on it.” I said, apolo­get­i­cal­ly.

Too fast!  He screamed.  I was feed­ing him the spoon­fuls of most­ly broth too quick­ly.

I want it pureed!”

I put the soup down, left his hos­pi­tal room and broke down in tears.  He was back to his old self.

In the end, I didn’t real­ly know what was in his head.  I tried to ask him what he felt and what he was think­ing about, but I think he was too tired to answer.   I want­ed to believe he’d been so busy liv­ing and writ­ing all his life, that now he was final­ly reflect­ing on all of it.

I sat on his bed first look­ing at him, and then glanc­ing at the wall where we’d hung a pho­to­copy of a fea­ture arti­cle, which had appeared in the Newark Star Ledger about a year before.  There were pic­tures of him with Bob Dylan, Sly Stone, George Har­ri­son and John and Yoko.

What are you think­ing about?“ he asked me.  It was maybe the first time in years that I’d felt like he real­ly want­ed to know.  I paused a long silence, sur­prised by his inter­est, not exact­ly sure what I want­ed to say.

Writ­ing.”  I answered.

He sat pen­sive before he answered.

Good.”

I felt very sat­is­fied in that moment.   I felt the silence between the words roused more mean­ing than the words them­selves.  I knew we real­ly under­stood each oth­er.  When I said good­bye to my father, I knew it was the last time I would see him alive.

My dad reject­ed hos­pice, refus­ing to embrace his own death as a part of life.  “They’re wait­ing with shov­els at the door.”  He’d said.  He couldn’t stand emo­tion­al farewells.  He suf­fered a mas­sive stroke leav­ing him in a veg­e­ta­tive state.  Upon learn­ing the specifics of his med­ical con­di­tion I chose to stay away.  I’d already cried too many tears over him dur­ing his life.  My inge­nious broth­er, Joel, called me, and our old­er broth­er, Myles, at 1:30 am on August 1st.  Our father was slip­ping away.  Joel spoke to us on a speak­er­phone, just in case my dad could hear our voic­es. We all joked, told sto­ries, and told him we loved him, while Joel nar­rat­ed the end of our father’s life.  Two hours lat­er, he died in my brother’s arms while Blue in Green by Miles Davis played in the back­ground.

This is the hard part,” I said, sit­ting with my two broth­ers in the car after fol­low­ing the hearse to the ceme­tery.   I’d nev­er for­got­ten the pain of wit­ness­ing my mother’s cas­ket being low­ered into the ground.  She’d been ripped away from me with­out warn­ing.  Peo­ple shov­eled dirt on her cas­ket, while I sobbed uncon­trol­lably, filled with rage that I would nev­er be able to see her again.  A stranger stepped in front of me to shield me from my night­mare.  Now, I was pre­pared to face that pain again.

On per­haps the hottest day of the year, peo­ple who loved and respect­ed my father, gath­ered to pay their last respects and form a makeshift com­mu­ni­ty to bury him.  My dad had lived a long, col­or­ful life on his own terms, and it had come to a pre­dictable end.  There had been no sur­pris­es.  We said Kad­dish and while the Rab­bi shov­eled dirt on my father’s plain pine cas­ket, I was struck with a feel­ing of love, not pain.  As I took the shov­el from the Rab­bi and filled it with dark, moist earth and emp­tied it into my father’s grave, the words, “As it should be,” ran through my mind.  We grow up, our par­ents grow old, and die, and we bury them.  I did not feel the same agony as the day we buried my moth­er.  I final­ly under­stood that my father, by liv­ing a full life, and allow­ing me to grow up and have my own child, had helped me heal the deep­est wound of my life, the loss of my moth­er.  I left the ceme­tery at peace, with both my moth­er and father buried in the same row.