As the next round of home repairs reaches its end...
When the house was painted just a couple of weeks ago, we agreed with the painters that the old (copper) gutters were in very bad shape -- twisted, sagging, and in need of more repair than we could afford. So we opted to have the old gutters taken down (I quickly laid claim to the metal, though God only knows what I'll do with still more crap, strewn across the back of the driveway...), to be replaced with new ones, made with... dental floss? Tin foil? I don't know. But they're almost all up, and look much better, so far. And best of all, the guy doing the work has offered to give us an estimate on what it would take, to channel the gutter downspouts, and the sump pump output, toward the front yard and into the street. What a miracle. All I have to do. while all this is happening, is to sit here and listen to various clankings and whirrings, and then write a check.
While I wait, I thought I would write a bit more about my father -- that last entry was more about what I didn't know, in terms of his personal history. The tidbits that he had let drop, during the course of my living in his house. But there are three more brief interchanges with him, that I'd like to describe, if only to keep their memory a little clearer in my own mind.
First though, let me seem to diverge.
Years ago, when I was an undergraduate at Penn State, there was a photography show in the Zoeller Gallery, then the main art venue for the State College campus. I remember one photo in particular, and wish I had bought it, it was so powerful and ambiguous, in its apparent clarity. This black and white photo was of modest size -- certainly no bigger than 8 1/2" x 11" -- and would be classified as a portrait, I guess. Very close to the picture plain, we see a young boy's face -- he's maybe 10 at the oldest, with straight blond hair he might just have brushed out of his big, dark eyes. There's a sunburnt quality to his face, and the sense that he's just eaten something -- a sandwich, or an apple -- his mouth looks active, as though he's about to speak. Held up close, beside his face, is a photograph. The boy is holding it, not at one corner, with thumb and forefinger, as he would a flimsy piece of paper, but as though the image were printed on a piece of board, or a plate of glass -- we see the ends of his fingers along the top of the picture, and his thumb down at the bottom. The image of this photograph-within-a-photograph is of an old, old man, shrunken and weak-looking, wrapped in a standard hospital gown, and lying in a hospital bed. A feeding sack off to one side, I seem to recall. Some various tubes draped down onto the bed behind him.
To most viewers, I suppose, it would seem an ordinary enough image. But I found it riveting. There was a frank directness in that young boy's gaze -- a directness in those great dark eyes that seemed to include a foreboding, some difficulty he sensed was on its way, but some distance off yet, maybe back there, behind the photographer's head. The way the boy held that photograph, and the implied solidity, or inflexibility of the image, made me wonder if perhaps the boy was holding a mirror, and the camera was in that hospital room, with the old man sitting there, waiting. Or -- and this possibility was the most exciting of all, because it was both impossible and somehow true -- I thought that maybe this boy was holding up his own photograph, from deep in his own future, or that this mirror he held showed what he himself was looking back at with such a poignant gaze: he himself, sitting on rumpled sheets, and peering near-sightedly at his younger self.
One further extension of the possibilities -- the whole image, the whole photograph was a reflective surface, showing me, the viewer, how I might have looked, twenty-some years before, and staring the dissolution of my own body straight in the face (having grabbed a cookie, in case there wouldn't be any more); grimly holding up the smaller mirror, which of course gives the dreaded preview of some decades into the future, into a different sort of dissolution. The involuntary one, involving the cave-in of the vehicle itself, with the occupant is still trapped inside, bewildered, unable to release the seat belt or open the window far enough, so he can climb out, before submersion is complete...
And now, without the benefit of photographs, or magic shards of mirror...
Once, my father took my brothers and me on a drive into Pittsburgh. We rarely went so far from home, except to visit his sister, my Aunt Marie, who lived up near the orphanage, in Butler County. Today's trip would be closer to home.
My brothers and I didn't like being together in the car much -- there were four of us, and even with someone in the front seat beside our father (me, because I was the oldest), there would be some teasing or torment, or bickering, or joking -- we were always being yelled at, which only drove the mischief deeper, where, under pressure, it was sure to come exploding out again in a few minutes, because one of us had looked at the other, and a geyser of giggles and squirming would burst out. Pittsburgh is a twenty-mile drive from where we lived at the time -- there was much yelling, sulking, and sputtering of suppressed laughter by the time we'd reached the first of the tunnels we had to drive through, to get into Pittsburgh itself.
I hated the tunnels. Like most, our car didn't have air conditioning, and the tunnels themselves weren't ventilated to the extent that's standard today. I hated the exhaust smell, and the brownish fog hanging at the tunnel's entry and exit. I made it a standard practice to hold my breath for as long as possible, while we were underground. On a recent drive through Pittsburgh, my full-grown lungs easily held me, all the way through. As a kid, I usually gasped out my failure about 3/4 of the way through, and then tasted the harsh, rust-colored, incoming vapors. These could do no one any good.
We seemed to be just wandering around, not going to any of the few usual places we went. Then my father slowed down and came to a stop in front of a row of two-story, yellow brick homes, in the Mt. Lebanon section of the city. These houses were barely detached, with narrow sidewalks between them, where it's doubtful any sun ever shone. There were little bricked-in front porches facing the street, and three or four steps down to the common city sidewalk. To me, these little houses looked identical. Dark roofs. Windows with drawn curtains. Nobody talking a stroll, or walking a dog. No sign of kids -- a bicycle or something.
Then my father said, "Here's where I used to live." And that was all. Nothing else. We just sat there in the back seat, looking. We didn't even know which of these buildings was The One. We didn't know when he'd lived there, or who'd lived next door. Were there any adventures he remembered? How deep did the snow get in the winter? How hot was it in the summer? Was there a yard in the back, or a playground nearby? How far away was the school? Did he change, between grade school and high school? Which window was his?
We sat silent, and I remember watching my father watch his old house, trying to catch, somehow, some microscopic change in his posture, or some turn of his head, to indicate that he was having a particular kind of thought right then. I couldn't imagine my brothers and me, sitting in front of our old house in Belleville, without breaking into hoots of laughter. We'd spied on the neighbor across the street as he mowed his lawn, and made up stories about all sorts of violent things he must have done, judging him solely by the vicious way he pushed his stubborn little mower. Mr. Man, we called him. Did my father had a similar bogey man in his past?
He never said. We sat, for something between five and ten minutes, I'd say. Then my dad started the car again, and we drove away. We never went back there again.
Years later, my father's house was in McKeesport -- a two-and-a-half story detached brick building, with a small brick-walled front porch. Painted yellow. At the time, my father was dying of cancer. My brothers and sisters and I had all come to town, for a kind of pre-funereal reunion I guess you could say, if you were heartless like me. And the whole family (the 'whole shooting match', as my father would say) was supposed to go to the famous local amusement park, for a day of rides and bad food. But Dad came down with a slight case of pneumonia, so he had to spend a couple of days in the hospital, just when we were all there for this special event. Our stepmother decided that, if he wasn't going, she'd stay home too.
So there were at least the six of us -- one of my brothers couldn't make it. Barbara was pregnant with her second child. Michelle's husband Gregg was along for the day. I remember was George being insulted that I would rather go on any number of roller-coasters, than take in a flying lesson with him. The day held no particular revelations. I don't think I even got sunburnt.
But before I went back home, I visited my Dad in his hospital room. He was sitting in a chair near the bed. As usual, he didn't have much to say. We just looked at each other.
I was trying to work up the courage to tell him that I was gay -- which couldn't have been much of a shock at that point, as I'd already been living with John for a few years, and I'd told my father, during one of our tri-monthly phone calls, that John and I were looking to buy a house in Minneapolis, or Columbus, or Eau Claire, or any of the various places we'd gone to visit John's friends. One doesn't buy houses with a casual buddy.
And my father had long seemed preoccupied with my sexual orientation, I guess you'd say. At the time, at six or so, I didn't know why he and my mother seemed so worried, so focused and attentive, but only about specific parts of my life. Which side I parted my hair on. How the 's' sound came out of my mouth. Which of the toys they'd brought into the house were my favorite playthings. Whatever it was I did, I knew something was wrong. Something very wrong. There was, and always would be, just... some... something... wrong.
So all these years later, long after the Stonewall Riots (about which I'm sure my father knew absolutely nothing), sitting in a hospital room in McKeesport PA, I still found it impossible to open my mouth and say 'Dad, I'm gay.' I couldn't do it. I was uncomfortable, sitting in yet another hospital chair and silently facing him. I'm sure the expression on my face approximated that of a careless motorist who'd just run over someone's prize-winning cat,, much more closely than it did a grown-up son, trying to voice to his own father a commonly-known fact about the son's own life. I was still frightened of him. Where would he send me this time?
And him? He just looked at me -- was it the illness? The medication? Or the vulgar, careless health I brought with me into the room? The sheer plenitude of life-expectancy I carried so carelessly? I was certainly unaware, personally, of having in my possession anything that could benefit anyone, least of all to myself. Something with me being... wrong, after all. Still, he looked at me, and I recall most clearly the coldness of his eyes -- watery, hazel green eyes, always seen behind his glasses -- I felt, right then, that I was up to the bridge of my nose in a deep pool of warm murky water, and across from me, lying on a half-submerged log, was a great, ancient and dispassionate crocodile. Waiting to decide what to destroy next.
I kept my open secret to myself.
And finally, less than a year later, there was the one last visit I would have with my father. John and I had planned and paid for our second-ever trip to Europe -- we were going to see American friends in Germany, French friends in France, and, unexpectedly, a famous painting in Colmar. While packing, I was particularly aware that on this trip, I would finally be in Paris. Then I got a phone call from my father's house -- my youngest sister, telling me that our father was in the hospital again, and that this time, the doctors gave him between three days and three weeks to live.
I put aside Paris, threw some things in a smaller bag, and flew to Pittsburgh, then drove out to McKeesport, to my father's house. My two sisters and one of my brothers were there. My step-mother's mother was still alive, holding sway over the kitchen as usual. All the televisions in the house were on, tuned to different channels. My brothers and sisters and step-grandmother were all shouting at each other. I agreed maybe too eagerly when my stepmother asked me to spend the afternoon in the hospital with my father, so she could do some errands. I could come back again the next day, she said, if I decided to stay over.
Propped up in his bed in the cancer ward, he instantly knew who I was, which I'd been warned might not be the case, as he was getting intravenous morphine for the pain. He told me, so clearly and certainly, that my sister Barbara had won $3 million in the Florida lottery, that I forgot I'd been warned about his delusions, and especially, this particular one.
Other than that, there wasn't much to do or say. I found a chair and sat down. He lay back against his pillows. He would gasp with pain now and wrench to one side, exclaiming 'O Sweet Jesus'. I couldn't imagine what it might feel like, with or without the drugs.
The doctor stopped in for just a moment. I introduced myself ('Is there no end of this family?', he may well have thought), and repeated what I'd been told. "My sister says he looks much better today. He just needed more salt."
"The man is dying," the doctor said flatly, and his look was stern, pitiless, almost contemptuous, as though I'd brought him a sparrow that was run over by a truck, and was standing there with it lying in my extended hand, waiting for him to fix it. Clearly, I and all my kind were just wasting his time. He was out the door again.
My father dozed. I was ill at ease, and a little light-headed. As usual, I hadn't eaten breakfast, and I needed something in my system or I was sure I'd pass out. But I was afraid that if I left the room, to take care of my vulgar personal needs, he would pick that particular moment to die, and how would I explain that to everybody? Finally, I steeled myself for a dash to the cafeteria, which was closed between breakfast and lunch, so I had to make my selection from the hodge-podge of junk in the vending machines. My hands full, I ran back to the elevator and to his room, where he was still sleeping comfortable. I ate peanut-butter-and-cheese crackers, self-conscious about the crinkling of wrappers and splaying of crumbs. Then I settled into a kind of rhythm -- turn my head to the right, and watch my dying father sleep, then turn my head to the left, to take in what little I could see of the old, unoccupied steel mills, lying sprawled along the river, a few blocks away.
My father's face seemed unaffected by his illness -- though his hair looked as though he'd been given a buzz cut, it was still growing back in after the last round of chemotherapy (would it be blond again this time, or grey, or nut-brown? Chemo can be so whimsical) Otherwise, his coloring was fairly good, and there were no surface traces of the deep pain that made him gasp. I thought it quietly ironic, that printed on the flimsy hospital gown, as a decorative pattern, were little shields, arranged in pairs. Pathetic, I thought -- but also dimly resonant, given the way people used to revere such symbols -- here they were, thinned-down, shrunken remnants of a once-robust faith, powerful shields now demoted to guard duty on these flimsy bits of mock clothing.
And then I was considered the mills, lining all available riverbanks in the area. They had raged, day and night, when I first saw them, decades earlier. The industry I knew of, in Illinois, lay in great green fields of corn. But in McKeesport, the night sky was a sullen, cloudy, orange-black, always. My father's house -- his next-to-last one, that is, blue clapboard, with the open front porch no one ever used -- sat in a neighborhood deep in the first valley behind the steep hills running along the rivers. Looking out the attic window, where I slept at night, I had a hellish view -- the silhouette of the height opposite, looking like a long, diseased gum line, punctuated with crooked teeth. Impenetrable, powdery black. Backed by brick-colored clouds that blossomed into orange and scarlet, and then gave out even brighter bursts, great searing belches of light, up and down the valley, all through every night.
Now, that day, as I saw if from my father's hospital room, it all lay cold and inert. The fires had long since been put out. You might even be able to see stars overhead at night now, instead of some full-scale preview of the underworld. All there was left now were vast expanses of corroding metal, the mill roofs, tilted at that one particular shallow angle, designed that way for a purpose, to shelter great working, but now with all their life gone out of them. I wondered how long would it take for the miles and miles of these rusting relics to break down? I guessed it would look, by then, as though years of night clouds had been summoned back into gassy existence, then compressed, and scraped out of the sky, to fall, useless, to the ground.
A nurse brought in a lunch tray, and at the noise, my father woke up. It was just a simple meal -- a hamburger, some french fries, and strawberry jello. He wanted the jello first, but couldn't manage the spoon, so I fed him -- thereby completing the circle so many come to know, thenow-adult child caring for the parent. He seemed unaffected by this switch in our roles. He managed the finger food much better, and I was actually startled by the sharpness of his appetite -- the attention with which he focused on the sliced tomatoes, the vigor of his biting and chewing that bit of ground meat. There was not trace of some romanticized Victorian delicacy here -- just a man unapologetically eating a meal. As he might, if he were alone, at a camp site, down by the river perhaps, with the next day's journey in mind.
By the time he'd finished, and I wiped his chin with a napkin, my stepmother was back, and it was time for me to go back to the house. When I told my dad I was leaving, he scurried to get out of bed, because he thought he was coming too. I was surprised at my own pain, seeing him clambering there, with the morphine tubing still in place, a living thing wanting out of its box.
Back at the house, I asked my brothers and sisters if should I stay for the last days of my father's life, or go ahead with the planned trip, staying in touch for what we all knew was inevitable? They all asked that there be a phone number available, wherever John and I would stay. They thought that, having seen my father alive, I had bestowed whatever little gift was left in my power to give.
So, I flew back to Jersey City. We flew to Europe. I lay in our hotel bed in Paris, watching reruns of 'The Avengers' on TV -- in English, with French subtitles. And my father died while I was away, on the very last day of the trip, when we were already on our way home.
Now, years later, I think about that photgraph from long ago, and wonder what a photo of my father and me might have looked like -- a magic picture like the one I didn't have the wisdom to grab when I saw it. Would it show my face, as a tense, dirty nine-year-old with stolen chocolate on his cheek, holding up the mirror to show the dark delusional man, lying in a hospital bed in a town where the skies used to be red at night? Or would it be his face, as the bewildered boy with the yellow brick house, his mother gone off to be insane, his father gone off to make another fortune, leaving him -- the only son -- to hold up the mirror to show a sad, bewildered man, hair awry, moustache shocked white, sitting at a kitchen table, in tears because he can't ever seem to understand anything anymore, and because the world won't hold still long enough for him to get a better look.
© 2012 Walter Zimmerman