|Jan/Feb 2007 Salon|
George is a crotchety old man. George is my father-in-law. George is the father of Ms. Mary and her sister. And George is terminal. They can't deal with the cancer because of the heart, and they can't deal with the heart because of the cancer. So he's going to die. Or better, because George is a good Catholic, he's going to go home. He's 80. "I'm doomed," he says, "Aw, what the hell..."
The family sent me on a mission here to Chicagoland—I'm back on the prairie of my origins—to take care of George because Ms. Mary's sister is dealing with the chemo for her third recurrence of breast cancer (it's in the spine now) and can't travel, and because Ms. Mary was here for a month and today they started demolitioning our kitchen for the eight week remodel (apparently they found an old fireplace where the stove used to be), and besides she was going a little crazy out here in the land of ranch houses, parking lots, blond brick, and flatlands—and because I'm a Minister and today the Oncologist was going to try and make it clear again to George that he is terminal. Stage four cancer. Four to six months to live.
So today, the long and short of it is that George got it that he was going to die. You could see it happen. He's a proud man. WWII vet. So it wasn't like you were going to see an opera. George just got it. We went home. I made hamburgers. He drank a big glass of wine. Had a beer. (Why not?) Fell asleep on the couch.
George owns a ranch house in the south suburbs of Chicago. Just outside of Kankakee. Not too far from Joliet. When he bought the place 25 or 30 years ago, there were 3500 people in town. Now there's over nine thousand. A bunch of them drive BMWs, and they live in the lonesomest mansions—each on a hill that exists only metaphorically. Traffic is a nightmare. He doesn't go to any of the new restaurants. He likes Klaus's, where you can get a pint and a schnitzel.
Anyway, when George bought the place, there was just a crawl space beneath the house. Well, damned if he didn't dig out a basement beneath the foundation, bucketful by bucketful—had a neighbor kid to help him—and built a finished basement. I'm sitting in it now. And in his basement he installed a workshop where he built his own violins. I shit you not. Glued them together, varnished them, did it all—and he built a model railroad on a huge platform with switches and bridges and big ole cigar ashes on the floor.
George grew up in Cleveland, and he still thinks of it as home although he told me today that he thought that was odd considering how he only lived there 18 years. After that he got drafted. He was on his way to Japan when they dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. On Nagasaki. Didn't see a day of fighting. He seems pleased as punch about that. Tickles him pink. Like he got one over on the sonsabitches. His younger brother signed up for Korea, and was worried that their Dad, who worked in the coal mines of Pennsylvania and still received Socialist and Commie literature in the mail, might be a problem for him... Goddamn bohunk!
Anyway, George is kind of grateful that I'm here, he says, because I don't tell him what to do, like the women. The women are Ms. Mary and her sister, who can both be kind of bossy. Reminds him of their mother, Ms. Alice. (Who I love also with a gratitude that I don't quite understand, though I can attest to her bossiness.) And George still loves her, too. And that's kind of sad—because she divorced him over twenty years ago and has since found a couple of sugar daddies to take her beyond her—Boy howdy! She was a bit younger and innocent as a babe—origins. I gather they fought a bit. She wanted strange things. Bright Lights, Big City. And never did like to drink beer with the cousins in basements all night until morning came too soon and the boss was gonna be an asshole about it—although she did seem to love his violin playing. Wasn't George the concertmaster for the Kankakee Symphony for years? And didn't he own his own goddamn tux? I mean, he owned it, dammit.
George thinks it's OK that I'm a Protestant, although he seems to be a little nervous that my dad is Republican. Still—on the whole—he figures I'm a good guy. He lets me tell him when it's time to take his medicine, and he wanted me to be there when the doctor told him the bad news. He already knew the news, by the way. He's known it for a while. He just lets news be true—bad or good—on his own terms. He wanted me to be there, though, and I gotta say, I am grateful beyond words to be able to be a son in a way that my father would never let me be.
Not that my own father doesn't love me—he does, like water going downhill—it's just that my Dad understands his fatherhood differently. He and my mother moved to Idaho and quickly set up the deal for their latter days. They pay some kind of insurance money up front, and their care is secured at every stage until they just die. My sister and I will never ever have to wonder what to do about mom and dad. My sister and I will never be able to be daughters and sons in that way.
And so I gotta say, I'm grateful to George. Because I need to be a son in that way.
So he had his beer and his wine—and I cracked a Pabst Blue Ribbon or two—and we watched the History Channel (All Nazis! All the time!), and we bitched about the women, and we left crumbs on the counter, and we burped without excusing ourselves, and scratched ourselves, and it was a good night.
George is one of the heroes of this country.
I love my wife. And as some of you know, I have been having a bit of trouble with ghosts over the last year or so. But I don't think I would be frightened if George came to me after the fact and wanted to just pass the time. I love my blood family. Like water going downhill. But I am learning how to be a son and a brother with my in-laws—although I am terrified that I am going to be the one to have to permanently and finally take away George's car keys. No, I think I would be a little less lonely if George came and passed the time with me, after the fact. We could bitch about the women. And nurse a love for them that just won't never die.
Well, I was supposed to be home last Thursday, but George went and started leaking blood from his rectum again. "Shit, I crapped my pants..." So back into the hospital he went. The nurses tell me that after I left the hospital, they found him on his hands and knees in the bathroom cleaning up the blood and shit from the bathroom floor when he just didn't make it in time. He still had the fucking tube up his nose going down into his stomach. I don't even know how he got to the toilet.
We got him home, though. But he wasn't the same. George is checking out. Disengaging. He mixes things up. Thought the Bears were in the Rose Bowl. He wanted watermelon but thought it was too expensive. "What the hell do you care? You got a license to live large," I said, and he smiled. Really got a kick out of that. Living large. Heh, heh. But he didn't eat more than a slice of the melon. Didn't even seem to care that the Bears lost. "What the hell, it's only a game."
I'm leaving tomorrow. We got the hospice all set up. And I've gotta get back. One of my parishioners lost her husband, and another just got diagnosed as terminal. They aren't going to do anything except fix up the arm she busted leaning too hard on the bannister. Damned thing snapped like a twig. She's a trooper though. Old Scots stock. I called her at the hospital, and she asked about my father-in-law and Ms. Mary. Didn't want to waste words on herself.
Tonight, knowing I'm leaving, George says to me, he says, "You know, Stanley,"—he calls me Stanley—"I had a dream about a month ago. I saw the star of Jesus in my left eye."
"Star of Jesus?" I said.
"Yeah, the star of his birth. It was in my left eye, and it woke me up, and when I tried to go back asleep and find it again, it was gone. I tried to find it... It was like an omen..."
"Maybe God is showing you the way home, George." I said. (Although each word felt like a lash of a whip on my own back.)
"Yeah, I'm gonna die."
"Or maybe you're just going to be born again into your new life—eternal life." He was quiet then. He liked that. (I wanted to smash things.) He'd asked me earlier if he would see his mother. I said, "Yeah." He was quiet then, too. (I wanted someone to pay.)
So we watched some more Court TV. And then when he was ready to go to bed, he said, "You know, the dishwasher won't stop. It just keeps running its cycle. It's all bust."
"And when Mary and my brother were here, the garage door broke and the windshield on the car got cracked..."
"It's like your house is breaking down with you, George. Sympathy pains."
"Yeah." He liked that, too. Made him chuckle.
"Good night, George."
"Good night, Stanley."
I gotta go. Plane is going to leave tomorrow, and they need me back home. Family is coming Saturday, and then after they leave, Ms. Mary and her sister are coming in for a couple of days. He's got neighbors that love him, that are gonna check up on him.
He's fading fast though. I don't know that I'm going to see him alive again. He doesn't need me anymore. Others are coming.
But here's the thing. I've been real good. Charon ferrying him across. You do your duty. You get out of the way and let the fellow feeling flow through. Yeah. And then you want to break things. And smash things and just fucking keen. Like the coyotes out here. You know, there really are coyotes out here. I heard them. On the Prairie at night. Didn't believe it at first. But yeah. Coyotes.
And you know what? Jesus really is just calling him home. And he really will see all the home-folks again. And there won't be any pain or sorrow, and every tear shall be dried. Amen.
And he is turning away from us and turning toward something else, and I don't want him to go. And I miss my Dad. I miss my Mom.
And I'm just all tied up in knots about it. Like water that's gotta go downhill and don't have a say in it. Not a mumbling word.
It is what it is. You just got to get out of the way. Why do you have to learn the same lessons over and over again? When does it stick?
Well, I'm back on the Prairie, just a few miles south of where I used to live, where way back in 1934 they gunned down Dillinger in that alley beside the Biograph theater in Chicago—on that night when he was looking good in his "gray slacks, black socks, red Paris garters, and white buckskin Nunn Bush shoes"—but this time, today, George, my father-in-law, is in a hospital bed in his den with diapers and an old tee shirt, stuck between two worlds, all hopped up on morphine—Man they aren't ever going to take me alive! Take that, copper!—and he's all gaped mouth because he lost his partial somewhere in the bedclothes—Got one foot on the platform, one foot on the train—and he's making wild, defiant gestures. He's having conversations with dead people. He's neither here nor there. I mean, he's nowheresville, man.
"George, are you in pain?"
"George, do you need your morphine?"
He's clutching at the bedclothes. He's grimacing.
He's reaching for things I can't see.
Last night with his broken femur he tried to crawl out of bed, clawing at the bed railings, because there was a train accident, he said, and he had to get to the trolley so he could help—Cleveland in the 40's—but they never gave him a chance, all those laws and g-men and cycles of life. We had to hold him down, me and the hospice nurse. He reached for his pistol—he was struggling to get out—but the fix was in. Blown away in a filthy alley. And all the pretty ladies—Mary Aubaschon called today to say she loved him—dipped handkerchiefs in his blood that just pooled there in the alley beside the Biograph and dreamed of good time johnnies. But Dillinger is always already gone, boys. Out of range. You ain't getting out of this world alive, George. No sir.
Yeah, you can watch little Georgie making his mad dash. Little Georgie who played the violin in Cleveland when they beat up kids for hearing something they didn't. You can watch it happen in real time. And tonight, I swear I'd carry a cross, harbor a fugitive, and smuggle one more wooden gun into the Crown Point Jail if only George could just make it this time. One more escape. One more last breath. Just gone.
There is evidence of a terrible struggle. Jacob and the angel. You can watch peace being born. George is going out in style. He's going out on his own time. Like a man. Like a musician. Or a killer. It's enough to bring you to your knees. It's enough to make you believe. Hallelujah.
What is there to do but to bow at the passing of a living man? And to fear God? Mountains must tremble at such a moment. And surely there is great rejoicing in heaven. Little Georgie is coming home, boys.
Yeah. And all we get is this body. This body that lies twitching and drooling. This body that shits on itself and babbles stupidly. This thing that will be consumed and turned to ashes. This boat. This raft. This thing that we will find burnt and abandoned on the shore—like a salt and pepper shaker you find on the lawn after a tornado and the house is just gone. Just like the obscene corpse of John Dillinger lying in an alley beside the Biograph theater in 1934.
Yeah. Even so. They can shoot us in the back, George. They can pretend like we weren't ever here. And erase our names and write other names over ours, pretty as you please, as if the writing weren't indelible. All those laws and g-men and cycles of life. They can make out like a man never lived. Well they can just kiss my ass, George. Because I was here. And I'm going to remember. It just can't end this way. There ought to be fireworks.
At 6:10 this morning, as the sun came up over the prairie, George passed. It was very quick. Three short breaths and he was gone. The birds were making a commotion.
An earlier version of this piece appeared in the Spring 2006 issue of the online journal Salt River Review.