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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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