My Father's Footprints

by Colin McEnroe

Published by Warner Books

224 pages, 2003


Buy it online


 

 

Starting with the death of his father and chronicling backwards, Colin McEnroe examines their relationship in order to understand his dad, not just as a father, but as a man. Now a father himself, McEnroe articulates the experiences of "the sandwich generation," Baby Boomers facing the dual task of caring for their own children and their aging parents. Moving without being maudlin, My Father's Footprints reveals the profound lessons behind one of today's most challenging issues: losing a parent while being a parent.

 

One

Seal Barks and Whale Songs

 

The last time my father died was in 1998. It differed from his other deaths in that, this time, we buried him. The McEnroes were, until recently, the sort of Irish-American family that favored florid Irish wakes. I remember my parents returning from one of the last good ones, around 1970. They were pretty well lit, and my mother explained that one of the McEnroes, a man in the liquor business as it happened, parked a station wagon loaded with potables in the funeral home parking lot. The mourners would filter out there, have a nip, and return to the parlor, their enthusiasm for the wake and their nostalgia for the dead vastly refreshed.

Their bodies heavy with weeping and their minds sodden with drink, they eventually managed to lock the keys inside the station wagon. Very quickly, it came to pass that getting the station wagon unlocked was the thing of paramount importance, so that virtually everyone who had been inside the funeral home was now out in the parking lot giving advice and jiggling coat hangers. The poor corpse was left alone with one or two sniffling women.

My father was faintly amused, but it was, he said, a puny affair compared to the wakes of distant summers. "Then," he said, "the women would keen, making such an awful high-pitched racket you thought you were going to lose your mind. And when the men were drunk enough, they'd haul the body out of the casket and prop it up in a chair, put a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other."

He paused and smiled, letting his hazel eyes wander up in the air to where the memories floated like dust motes. "The whole idea," he said, a little dreamily, "was to make sure the son of a bitch was really dead." The last time my father died, the son of a bitch really was.

It starts in 1996. I'm with my father, on a spring afternoon in West Hartford, Connecticut, where we all live, watching my son, who has just learned to ride his bike.

Where we live, the forested reservoir lands are also parks. Paved roads, dedicated to hikers, joggers, and bikers, curl and course through the gorgeous woods.

I see Joey launching himself onto those roads, sailing away in looping arcs, out to where my father cannot follow. Joey is adopted. He is Mexican, and his skin is the beautiful color of coffee ice cream. In the summer, it deepens into a coppery chocolate. His eyes are wide and brown and startling. My father's hair is white as summer clouds, and his skin is ruddy from rosacea and Irishness. His body is thickset. In appearance, he has been compared, variously, to Chet Huntley and Spencer Tracy, although neither was ever as handsome, or as fey, as my father in his prime. His face is craggy, rugged. Merriment and sadness play across it in constant shifting patterns, the way those summer clouds, moving in the wind, might push light and shadow across the land.

I help my father from a car to a chair. He is stiff with spinal stenosis, shaky from late-onset diabetes, clutched by congestive heart failure.

There is something else I cannot see and do not know. Cirrhosis from secret late-night drinking sessions is scourging his liver.

In two years, he will be gone, and I will join the Dead Fathers Society.

At the moment, I feel only the twitching of life's giant clockworks. I feel as though the very mechanism of life requires my father to slow down as my son accelerates. It feels satisfactory and right. Maybe it is, too, but not in the nice, neat way I'm imagining.

Now it is 1997. Mockernut. Pignut. Shagbark. Tulip Poplar. Red Oak. There are little signs on some of the trees as you roll through the roads of the reservoir. A year has passed. Today Joey is on foot, and Bob is in a wheelchair. He has grown sicker, and I take him on outings.

Today I am trying to wheel him along the 3.6-mile course of the reservoir, which takes in some pretty steep hills. Descending them, I lean backward at sharp angles, like a man walking wild boars on a leash. Occasionally I pop a hand loose from one of the grips to either throw or catch a squishy little football Joey and I are playing with as we walk.

I have come to think of these excursions as the Sandwich Generation Triathlon. Walk, Push, Throw.

My father has now been diagnosed. He is terminal. We don't talk about that. We don't talk about anything unpleasant, but my father can see that I have, for months, devoted my free time to him. I have driven him to medical appointments and taken him on these walks and slogged through shopping trips. One day I take him to an art museum and dilate upon the meanings of the paintings. In front of a Winslow Homer, a pretty woman smiles at us, and I think she likes me for taking such good care of my dad.

A minute later I realize she was gently amused, because my pedantic lecture has sent the patient into a deep sleep. Still, when he gets home he tells my mother, "It was like a different world."

My dad is mainly housebound. One day I wheel him around the neighborhood in the sleepy afternoon sun, and I sing Johnny Mercer songs to him. "Skylark," "On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe," "That Old Black Magic," "Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive." He likes that a lot. I'll never forget that day, singing to my father. Occasionally, as we wangle the wheelchair through a tricky doorway, he will mumble, "Who would have thought. . . that you would turn out to be so useful."

If you have a spouse, a child, a dog or two, a sick father, a worried and very tired mother, one way to get through a long, hard Sunday is to make a list of tasks. You start it at 6:30 A.M. and keep crossing items off, glancing down to the bottom of the list where there awaits, you presume, a paradise. You will park your tired self on a sofa and maybe watch The X-Files, because at least the guy who is part-fluke and who lives in the sewers will have a life slightly worse than your own.

Even under the iron rule of a list, Joey and I sneak in a bit of fun, tossing a football in a deserted parking lot and walking at dusk, with the dogs, into spooky, empty, snow-dusted woods. Just as the air around us fades from gray to black we stand in the pie-powdery snow on the banks of a chilling stream. And it's so heartbreakingly weird and beautiful you wonder why people don't come here by the hundreds. And then back to work.

Last thing on the list: Bake cookies. I forget why. For school?

I'm halfway into the baking when my mother calls. It's 8:45 P.M.

My butt is feeling a sort of magnetic pull toward the promised land of the sofa.

"Can you come over? Something is wrong with Dad." Ohhhhhhhhh. For a brief moment, I am unsure which is the greater tragedy-my father's ill health or the fact that I'm not going to sit down and watch television. I drive over, and, indeed, he is failing in some ineffable way, dead on his feet, muddled in his head. I bring him into the bedroom and try to get him settled into bed, but his body flops and sprawls, starting to slide toward the floor. I haul him up again.

"Let me try to get your head in the right place," I grunt. "I've always wanted my head in the right place," he murmurs slurrily.

He's about ten synapse-firings this side of a coma, and he's still funny.

The next day I discover the interrupted cookies. They have congealed into a rubbery texture. Eating one would be like a hyena eating Gumby.

Things are worse, much worse. I sit down with my mother and my father's doctor. "We should get hospice involved," I say. There's an awkward silence. The doctor has to authorize this. He has to say that the patient is terminally ill. He has to say that the patient will not live more than six months. You can get extensions. They don't send a guy in a hood with a scythe if you miss the deadlines. All the same. . .

"I'm reluctant to take that step," he says. "When you say the word 'Hospice' to a patient, it's almost like a death sentence." I look at him.

"Well," I say, "he is dying, isn't he?" The doctor kind of shrugs.

He is an old-school guy, operates out of a big white house on a main avenue. He was taught that you fix people until you can't fix them anymore. Then you let Nature take over and hope it's quick. This idea of giving Death an extended booking, two shows a night with a pit orchestra, is hard for him to grasp. My father, by all rights, should be dead by now, but my mother refuses to let this happen. When Dad begins to sag into a coma, she ignores the doctor's advice and summons an ambulance to take my father to a hospital, where he is transfused and revived, just as Death was set to swoop in and claim him.

My mother is a small, unassuming woman with downcast eyes. In a room full of people you might miss her. I think it's possible that Death underestimated her. She wears her hair permed up and back in a kind of sixties bouffant, dyeing it this shade and that, making all the stops on a subway line from blonde to auburn. My wife's hair, by contrast, turned a silvery white in her forties, and she let it stay that way. Her face is utterly unlined, making her white hair seem as anomalous as my mother's ash blonde hair hovering over an older face. My mother's voice has stayed musical and girlish, in defiance of all the cigarettes she smoked, a pleasant echo of the beauty she once was.

The doctor now believes he is caught in an unpredictable crossfire between Death and this very tiny woman. He has absolutely no idea what to do, and his plan is to meet with us as rarely as possible, return few phone calls, and check the obit page to see if this mess has, by any chance, resolved itself.

It takes a few weeks of my jiggling the handle, and then my father is a hospice patient.

This means we are all resigned to keeping him comfortable, easing his pain, soothing his soul, letting him die. Except my mother.

"I made a commitment," she says, repeatedly. No one can remember hearing her make this commitment, but apparently it has the force of something you might say while pulling Excalibur out of a rock. The commitment includes keeping my father at home and administering medicines and meals with a precision and doggedness no hospital could achieve. My mother is Star Trek's Borg Collective, a flying cube of quasi-mechanical imperialism. My father will take his medicine at the exact time prescribed. He will eat balanced meals, three times a day. Assimilate or be destroyed. Resistance is futile. My father lives an extra nine months or so because he is almost too busy to die. Paid caregivers from the outside are held to rigorous standards of conduct.

"Where's the hospice aide?" I ask one day, darting into the apartment in between work and home. "I fired hospice," my mother says. "Very funny." "I did."

"Nobody fires hospice. That's like ...I mean ...um ... they're the last word in ...last words." I concede that this is not exactly Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech. I'm kind of babbling while my mind bids farewell to all those brisk, competent hospice workers who were-I had thought-going to get me through those moments when I'm weak and exhausted and afraid, like right now, for instance.

"Hospice are the people who take care of you when you have nobody else," I try again. "Everybody likes hospice." (Possible title for final Raymond episode?) It's no use. My mother is scared. Her response to fearfulness and isolation has always been to set up an even more fearful and isolating situation. The hospice people are not helping enough. So they must go.

We find a different hospice agency and reenlist. "You have to promise not to fire them, even if the aides show up late," I beg.,br> "I'm not promising anything."

My mother does most of the work and grows so tired that we arrange a five-day respite for her. My father will go to a beautiful nursing home in the woods.

Early one morning, I drive my father out to the McLean Home for this short stay. I step through the sliding doors and behold the sunlit atrium, the California fireplace, the greenhouse, the smiling and friendly staff, the soft jazz playing in the lobby. It is impossibly peaceful and cheerful. "You don't happen to have a second bed available, do you?" I inquire weakly.

The soft jazz turns out to be a man playing, perhaps a little dementedly, the Natalie Cole version of "Avalon" over and over, but in all other respects, McLean appears to be paradise on earth for the middle-aged, the weary, the sandwiched. I don't want to leave.

Conversation between me and my son, who is eight. "Does anybody live to be one hundred twenty?" "Not very often." "How old will I be when I die?" "Old, I hope." "Will you live to be one hundred? How old will I be when you're one hundred?"

"Sixty-five. We can be old men together." I get a lot of this these days. It's evening, and Joey and I are driving back from McLean. He's a trouper about visiting my father, but spending a lot of time around the very old, around the near-to-death, has stirred up questions in him. "Do really old people want to die?"

"Sometimes. Sometimes people who are ninety or one hundred say they feel they've lived enough; they're tired in some way we can't even begin to understand."

We come up over a rise in Simsbury, and Hartford surprises us, twinkling in the distance. Life is long, life is short. We're just guests here, checking off tasks, getting through our lists. The car surges through the night. There's a lot to talk about. When the five days are over, I drive out to bring my dad home to my mother. I have slipped into some horrific high-functioning mode, where my voice booms out cheery good advice to him and my manner is that of a bustling and businesslike male nurse.

This is precisely what my father does not need. He needs some humanity from me. He needs to visit with me in the kind, intensely personal way that a father may visit with a son. I do not give him that. I give him an officious, hearty, no-nonsense parody of myself.

"I thought we might eat lunch together," he mumbles weakly.

"No time for me to eat!" I boom, with a big false smile. "I've got to get you all packed up, load up the car, get everything squared away with the people here while you eat."

I have become a Sim. "The Sims" is a computer game in which you build digital people and orchestrate their lives. They marry, have babies, get sick, lose jobs. They seem to set themselves on fire by accident a lot. You assign personal traits to each one, but the palette of emotional colors is pretty limited. I read that in 2001, the people who play "The Sims" noticed an odd phenomenon. Their fake people would begin to cough and then die, in uncommonly large numbers. The players began discussing this on Internet message boards and discovered a common denominator. The game company's Web site allowed players to add new furnishings, accessories, and other items not originally included on the disc. The people whose Sims contracted this unexplained Simtheria had all downloaded an extra pet, a guinea pig, and had been delinquent about making the Sims clean its cage.

The company admitted that, yes, the guinea pigs were programmed to give the people, in some circumstances, a fatal disease. Behind that lay a deeper, more troubling truth. The "things" in the Sims world were all impregnated with programming that elicited certain responses. The Sims appeared to have rich identities, but that was an illusion. They were pretty empty, but their environments were just loaded with invisible personality fragments that could be activated if touched.

This is how I feel, during these trying times. Not like a person with real emotional depth but like the framework for a person. Some kid's hand on a mouse is moving me through my days, and when I brush up against a wheelchair or a wristwatch, I may smile or cry, but it's just the thing I touched doing a data dump into my hollow self.

Even so, there is no excuse for my fake joviality here in the elysian nursing home. But have you ever had that feeling? That if you gave one inch to your true emotions, you'd be in a free fall? Easier to be a Sim.

The next day, I bring my faithful and true twelve-year-old mongrel dog, Roy, to the vet for more tests. He appears to have liver problems, as does my father, which makes one wonder if I have somehow offended the Liver God.

By bedtime, I am so tired that I have my father and Roy's problems hopelessly conflated in my head. I know one of them is under strict orders not to eat any more dead animals in the woods.

Conversation between me and my son, about our aging but preternaturally young-looking dog.

"How old is Roy?" "Twelve." "How old would that be for a person?" "I'm not sure. Do you multiply by seven? If so, he's. . . eighty-four." "How can he be?"

"Good care, good food, lots of love. And I think he has good genes."
"What are genes?" "The parts of your body that say a lot about your health and how you're going to be, in general." "Do I have good genes?" "I think you do."
"Do you have good genes?" "Um. Probably only so-so." "Who has the best genes?" "I don't know." (I refuse to say Michael Jordan.)

(Said with amusement.) "Maybe God. He's been alive so long."
Later. Son, Mexican-American, regarding his brown-haired, brown-eyed guinea pig: "If I were a guinea pig, I would look just like Edward."

And now I recollect a conversation from a day in 1996, before the terrible sickness set down its giant scaly foot on us. My wife is telling my father that Roy is slowing down. "That's what big dogs do. They slow down. They sleep more. They get quieter. It almost helps prepare you for the fact that they're going to die."

My father smiles fiendishly and inclines his head toward my mother.

"Could you please tell this to Barbara? It's exactly what I've been trying to do for years, and she won't let me."

My father is slipping away, so that he can only answer the most basic questions. Are you hungry? Do you want to go to bed?

It's 2:00 A.M. when the phone rings. I rush to my parents' apartment because my father is having a bad spell.

I get him settled in bed, get him calmed down, all very Marvin's Room. He looks at my mother and says, from his delirium, "How did Colin know how to make the spooks go away?" "The spooks? What spooks? There are no spooks." Have you ever noticed that dementia makes a person rather attractive to talk to? You can't stop yourself. It's kind of obsessively fun to argue them out of their delusions because, for once, you know you're right. There are no mauve bats flying barrel rolls in the room.

Sometimes, on lovely days, I offer the park or the woods, and he makes me take him to depressing discount stores. He wants to buy a watch. He has dozens. He wants some writing equipment, but the work he is determined to write-some last gasp having to do with Dante-never comes to anything more than a few words scribbled here and there as his mind melts into a puddle. "I'll pick those up for you," I say. "While you have me, why don't I take you someplace pretty, so you can get some sun and fresh air?"

He looks dejected. "That's not fair," he says. Exasperated, I load him and the wheelchair into my car and head off for Service Merchandise. He looks and looks at watches. He buys a certain one and takes it home. But it is the same as all the others. It shows time running out.

Two years after his death, I tear a quadriceps tendon playing soccer and Life finally teaches me what I refused to learn back then. My friends are willing to fetch me anything, take me anywhere; but one day, a couple of weeks after surgery, I sneak out, stagger to the corner in my full-leg brace before the neighbors see me and offer to help, and I catch the bus, go to a coffee shop, and buy myself lunch, just for the existential thrill of asserting myself in the consumer economy. I take out my wallet, pay the bill, get the change. This is very fulfilling, in a way I had not expected, as if it restored substance to the phantasm I was becoming.

In a capitalist age, I spend, therefore I am. That's what my father craves. The ritual of the transaction. By the time I understand this, he is long gone, and I remember, with rue, how edgy I was on those sunny days when I thought I knew what he needed better than he did. "Is he in pain?" the aide wants to know.

"No," I tell her distractedly. "It's something else." We are standing in my father's bedroom. He sleeps more and more, and from his sleep he issues peculiar sounds. Short wordless vocal bursts in a single tone, easily mistaken for a groan, but closer-in their sporadic pattern and duration-to the gentle undersea songs of whales. What do whales say? "I'm here." "You're there." "You're there." "I'm here." Perhaps that's what my father does, from the half-sleep of life's end: announces himself to the world, trumpets out a hopeful sound, and listens for what bounces back. He gives a hoot.

When he gathers his wits, he often wants to talk-heretically- about God. In a public park, as I push him in his wheelchair, he suddenly stirs, rears up, and pretty much bellows, "What I don't understand is, if God wanted a son, why didn't he just make one? Why did that poor girl have to get knocked up?" Today is the Super Bowl. I have rooted for the Green Bay Packers since I was about fourteen, which means I have endured twenty-five years of really awful teams until quite recently. I never had the chance to see them get near a Super Bowl until last year, when I was assigned a Sunday night radio show, so I missed the whole thing.

Care for the dying is as amenable to crass bargaining as any other human activity.

"I want to watch the Super Bowl tonight," I tell my mother. "I want to put in my hours this morning and this afternoon. By nightfall, I want to be replaced by paid health aides, hospice volunteers, or those guards in The Wizard of Oz who march wearing busbies and appear to be singing 'Oreo.' I am determined to watch the Super Bowl in an undisturbed setting where I can concentrate, yell, whoop, weep. Where I can be in the presence of similarly dedicated NFL fans and not people who are checking their watches and demanding to know why anybody cares about all this organized savagery."

Even as I speak these words, I am dimly aware that I am tempting the gods to gainsay me. I work with hospice to line up extra coverage and try to batten down every hatch that might fly open during the game.

And what happens? My father suddenly takes a turn for the worse, so much so that he cannot be left alone with my mother anymore. All of the coverage vanishes into the Mists of Healthcare.

Joey and I find ourselves waiting for kick-off in my parents' apartment, very possibly the worst place I can be, because (a) I may have to attend to my dad or take him to the bathroom at any moment; and (b) My mother disapproves of football and, during my childhood, would not allow us to watch it in the house because it led to excited yelling, which she also did not allow. So Joey and I are watching, hunching down, and trying to be very quiet and dignified, although I am wearing a foam rubber Cheesehead.

From a spot somewhere behind us I hear my mother say, flatly, emphatically, to no one, "I hate Super Bowl." Jeez.

He always claimed to be an atheist, but he was way too engaged for that. He secretly wanted to be a heretic. But it's time-consuming. And you have to go to meetings and listen to doctrine. I think my father wanted to be a heretic, not in some church, but right in God's face. I think he wanted to hang around God's office and argue with God about important stuff and get on God's nerves.

Sean Kennelly, a former Catholic priest, late of Ireland, one parish over from Donnybrook, shows up at my parents' apartment. He has been phoning. He's a hospice pastoral counselor. He had to give up the priest thing so he could get married. He is a holy man but also full of the devil, in a nice way. My mother won't let him anywhere near Dad, but I can't make out whom she's protecting: Kennelly from my father's blasphemies or my father from any sense that this is last rites. Now Sean has decided to beard the lion in its den.

"Mrs. McEnroe, will you not let me up?" he says on the intercom.

"No, I'm afraid now is not a good time." "That's what you always say. I'll only stay just a minute and say hello."

Such is Sean's charm that it works even on a squawk box. He gets in somehow. He and my father have a few talks, which they both seem to enjoy.

"I've seen the type before. 'I'm an atheist, praise be to God,'" Sean confides to me in his brogue.

My father's moments of clarity come less often. I bring over a videotape to watch with him. Primal Fear with Richard Gere. We watch three minutes; he nods off. I stop the tape. He wakes up. We watch ten minutes. He dozes. I stop the tape. He perks. We watch. Snooze. Stop. Wake. Watch. Now he is deeply, deeply asleep. I stop the tape and grab something to read. It seems wrong to watch without him. Suddenly he stirs, shakes his head.

"What happened to Bang Bang Fuck You?" he demands. "What?" I must be hearing things. "Bang Bang Fuck You." I stare at him.

"The movie!" he says, exasperated. I start it up again, but now I can't stop giggling. Now I'm laughing so hard my eyes are watering. I'm picturing the Oscars. "Accepting the Best Picture award for Bang Bang Fuck You is its producer, Leonard T. Salink."

Or the video store. "Do you have Bang Bang Fuck You?" "All our copies of Bang Bang Fuck You are out right now. Try again tomorrow."

The Good News: You are a better person than you probably think, particularly if you think you could never deal with, say, your parents' senescence if said senescence led you into the world of Depends Undergarments and other unpleasant facts of late life. You can.

Look, I'm a chicken. I speak as one who, going into every squeamish turn, said, "I can't do this," and then did it. I gave showers. I changed adult diapers. If I did it, anybody can. A tip: Buy some medicated VapoRub-type stuff and smear some under your nose when you run into really icky situations. It's the Sandwich Generation's magic mushroom, a Castanedan mind-altering substance.

The Bad News: Even as the physically gross stuff turns out to be less paralyzing than you had feared, the emotional stuff is far trickier, and there is no VapoRub for the soul, unless you count alcohol.

Today, for instance, a hospice nurse and I have to "break" my mother on the subject of nursing homes. First we convene everybody in the living room: Mom, Dad, me, and a few hospice people. We discuss the way the apartment is becoming more and more dangerous. My father wakes in the night and wants to leave the hospital bed we've had trucked in. The only person there is my mother, who cannot support his tottering weight.

We go around the room, soliciting comments about other options, gently steering my parents toward the nursing home. Each time my father has the floor, he discusses his distaste for the confinement of the hospital bed with its high sides. "When I want to go to the john, I have to get Barbara to help me, and the whole thing is a nuisance," he complains. "We don't want you to get out of bed on your own," says a nurse.

Around the room we go, discussing future care options, the likely course of the disease, the advisability of lining up a nursing home placement right now. Back to Dad. Anything else to say?

"Perhaps a ladder could be attached, so that I could climb in and out more easily," he suggests. "No," I say, "the purpose of the bed is to keep you from getting out and hurting yourself." He shrugs.

The next time we come back to him, five minutes later, he brings up the bed again, as if it were a fresh topic. "Bob?" asks the hospice nurse. "I'd like to say a few words against that bed in there. It's medieval!"

Later, the nurse and I talk quietly with my mother, while Dad sleeps.

"It's the only way. He's not even safe here anymore." "I can't. I made a Commitment to keep him at home." "What good will that do if he falls on top of you, and you both get hurt?"

We have to apply just enough pressure so that she can resist, resist, and then cry and give in. She has to be able to blame us for the smashing of the Tablets of Commitment without really having been so mercilessly bullied that there is lasting damage.

When the deed is done, the nurse leaves, and my mother and I are alone with our decision and our patient, who has become endearingly childlike in recent days. No, not childlike, infantile. The realization gives me a little jolt, and I can identify the sense of regret and nostalgia draped over me. It's the ultimate Oedipal joke. My mother and I have a baby. For the last few days we've been feeding and diapering him and trying to discern from his sometimes incoherent pleas what it is he wants or needs. We've been up at all hours. And we're going to miss him when I take him to Hughes Convalescent Home tomorrow.

Hughes is within walking distance from my parents' apartment, so I bundle up my dad, blanket, parka, hood, and wheel him over. The whole thing feels like an afterthought following the Breaking of the Covenant. The people at Hughes greet him as though his arrival were ordained at the hour of his birth. "Oh, there you are!" Big smiles.

They take off the hooded parka and lay him down on a bed. "I'm Anna," says a beaming nurse. "I'm Santa," says my father. "But they took away my suit." "Is he joking or disoriented?" she asks me. "That's sort of the basic question I've been asking myself for thirty-five years," I tell her.

Every few months, people call up with ideas about what to do with his best play, The Silver Whistle. A movie. A TV series. A musical version. It was a Broadway hit for Jose Ferrer about fifty years ago. Then it was a Mr. Belvedere movie. Then it was a Playhouse 90 episode. But producers and agents call all the time to fiddle with new proposals.

I am lost. All of the people strongly connected to the play are now dead or non compos mentis.

I am hunting through my father's files, looking for clues. Here's a folder marked "Theater Correspondences." I am unsurprised to find that only 60 percent of what's in there has anything to do with theater. There are letters of all kinds. All of them are from him. He has saved carbons. I am unsurprised to find that in many, many cases he has not saved the other person's letter back. These would not have interested him as much as his own letter. The letters are funny, troubling, problematic. A person seeking his advice about buying a house or staging a musical was just as likely to get a snootful about William of Orange or the flaws in Trinitarian theology or whatever was on his mind. "There will be a test on Friday," one of these letters concludes.

I am drawn to two. One he sent me in an attempt to patch up a very painful stretch of bitterness between us. It is carefully worded. Admits no real fault. But it eagerly seeks peace. Another is to his agent, who, perplexingly, became a rabbi late in life. The letter brags about me. I am going to give a commencement speech at the private school from which I graduated, it says. Who, it wonders, would have dreamed of such a thing?

With apologies to Thurber, I awaken at 4:00 A.M. to hear, distinctly, a seal barking.

A hunt turns up no seals, just a sick little boy whose virus has turned into something else.

"Sounds like it might be croup," says the doctor on the phone to my wife. "Does he make a sound like a seal barking?" My dog and father are already sick. My mother is a survivor of recent cancer surgery. My wife has frequent, incapacitating headaches. This, I think in a moment of abject self-pity, is what my life has become. Seal barks and whale songs. Joey, who is a trouper and notoriously brave about illness, burns in my arms and weakly wheezes out the question intrinsic to every disease.

"Is this going to go away?" The doctor tells my wife we should take him outside. Something about the cold doing something to the inflamed and swollen something.

I wrap him in blankets and stagger outdoors with him. It is January 1998. As an anxious nation holds its breath, Marvin Runyon announces he is quitting as postmaster general to return to the private sector. There is also something going on that has to do with the president and a woman named Lewinsky. I stand outside with a hot child in my arms and tilt my body back so that I can look at the stars sparkling in the cold, black sky. How are we going to get along without Marvin Runyon? Gazing at the sky, I have a vision of myself, the last healthy person in the world, running from station to station with a bedpan, while the music they used to play for the guy with the plates and the sticks booms out of the clouds. I am in the night sky, a constellation, Sandwichomeda.

When I visit the nursing home, my father is padding around in the halls, moving his wheelchair with waggling shuffles of his feet. In this context he is peculiarly downscaled. He was The Big Show when we cared for him at home. Now he seems like one of several kinds of persons one sees in the halls of nursing homes. The final trick of age and disease has been to make him pretty much like everybody else. "Can you get me out of here?" he asks.

"No. It doesn't make sense for you to be anywhere else." He tells me he has been assured I can get him out of there. He also tells me I am, to the best of his knowledge, his father. My wife succumbs to the Venusian croup-flu. I am now officially the plate-and-stick guy. Everybody is sick. On a Saturday night I'm leaving alone, to go see Washington Square, mainly because I love Jennifer Jason Leigh and never miss her movies.

I'm heading out the door to watch two hours of Henry James making sure nobody gets anything they really want. Joey asks if I'm coming straight home. "Where else would I go?" I ask. "Go out. Get drunk," he suggests. "And then what?"

"Buy a gun," he adds helpfully. "Sounds like a great Saturday night. I'm on my way."

"Who wrote the plays Macbeth and Hamlet?" My father thinks a bit. He is sitting in his wheelchair at the nursing home, a place I am starting to like, with its goofy faux-everything, cheery retro-fifties decor. We are in the Bamboo Room, my favorite of the several public spaces, with its poseur Asian motif but no actual bamboo that I can see. "I don't know," he finally admits. I don't think the whole Francis Bacon controversy is what's slowing him down here. Maybe multiple choice would be better.

"Who wrote The Glass Menagerie? Was it

a. William Shakespeare
b. Tennessee Williams
c. Arthur Miller?"

"The Glass Menagerie would be Tennessee Williams," he says very slowly. I am pleased, and begin again.

"A closed system will nonetheless gradually lose energy. I am describing entropy, which is the second law of

a. Thermodynamics
b. Quantum mechanics
c. Motion."

"That would be motion." I am sad. He was the one who taught me about the second law of thermodynamics.
"Do you want to keep doing this? I mean, are you enjoying it?"
"Yes," he says.

"Which of the following Revolutionary War generals tried to betray West Point to the British?

a. Israel Putnam
b. Benedict Arnold
c. Horatio Gates?"

A pause. And then, from somewhere behind me: "Benedict Arnold!"

Another guy in a wheelchair. He wants to play, too. So we let him. He's pretty clueless about the math stuff. We move into one of the other public rooms. My mother shows up.

"Who danced with Ginger Rogers?" I ask. "That guy," my dad says.

"I know 'that guy.' What is his name?" I sing a few bars of "Let's Face the Music and Dance." Now a whole bunch of people in wheelchairs are beaming at me. They like this game. "That guy!" I could get used to this. Magister Ludi of the demented.

I sing some more. Everybody beams. Everybody is happy. How can we not be? There may be trouble ahead, but how can we not be happy while there's music and moonlight and love and romance? Life, in this frozen moment, is paralyzed with goodness. "Who wrote David Copperfield?" "David Copperfield." "What do you mean?"

"I mean that David Copperfield wrote David Copperfield." "That is incorrect. I'll give you three choices.

a. Victor Hugo.
b. Charles Dickens
c. James Polk."

"Why don't we make it Charles Polk?" "Why don't we?"

My father has a fever.

I start getting calls in the afternoon during my daily radio show. He's bad, he's worse. Should I come now? Not yet, but maybe soon.

Suddenly, the producer gets on the studio monitor and says, "They think you should come now." I rip the headphones off my head, run to the garage, kick the tires, and light the fires. I'm there in minutes. And he's slipping. If you've read this, you know I'm involved. You know I've been a good son, pushing the wheelchair, taking care. But I suddenly realize I never said the basic, rock-bottom stuff. My mom leaves the room for a few minutes and I hunch forward and chatter. He is rolling in the sleep of near-death.

"You were a great dad. I was always proud to be your son." Can I really be saying these things for the first time? "You taught me so much, about how to be kind and funny and how to write. I love you. You're a great dad."
He rolls and turns. I think he's hearing. Oh, God, let him be hearing.

My mom comes back in. I sing a few songs, just to have my voice in his ears. We tell him that rest and peace are coming. I tell him he can let go. And when it comes, it comes as a mere slowing down into nothing. No rattle. No spirit flying out. If he were here, he would know what to say. He would say something funny.

"Death is overrated." Maybe that. We walk outside. It's night, and the sky is full of stars and a slivered moon. Is this where I'm supposed to look for him now? The Silver Whistle is about a con man who restores youth to people in a nursing home.

"When you were a child you responded to the wind. To the flight of a scarlet bird at sundown. To the first rays of light across a sea at dawn," the con man tells a woman. "Look up at the stars. Look up at the night. Let the feel of the earth go through you." At night, I suddenly want somebody in the God business to come to my house and say something wise to me. I almost don't care what. But no one does. If you don't go to the practices, you can't suit up for the games, apparently.

Alone in my car, I sing the Johnny Mercer song I wanted to sing to him as he died. But I couldn't. My voice would never have held, just as it doesn't hold now. It's the one about the two drifters, off to see the world. Suddenly I'm a little kid in the car with my dad, two drifters, off to the zoo or the railroad tracks to watch trains, or to find out what's waiting 'round the bend. Suddenly I'm a middle-aged man crying very hard in a '95 Honda, stopped at a red light on a Friday night in the winter.

He starts to talk to me. So much is unsaid. So many questions linger. I dig through his old scripts, as if they were instruction manuals for a suddenly comatose machine.

WILLIE BURKE
[Smiling as he pours beer]
It was a grand funeral.

SNOWBIRD TOOMEY
It had dignity, and that's what a funeral needs
more than anything else.

WILLIE
I thought the casket would be heavier.

SNOWBIRD
We were on the end that was up when we carried it down the church stairs. Then there was the grade down to the grave. We were on the up end there too. One of the secrets of living an easy life is to always be on the up end.

I see that, like any good Irishman, Dad had been preparing the world for his death for about fifty-three years. He was the funniest person I ever knew. I miss him, shopping for his casket. He would have been hilarious. The guy at Taylor & Modeen is incredibly nice, never pressures us, leaves us alone in the showroom so I can help my mom spend the right amount. Tight with a dollar when it comes to the comforts of life, she displays an unexpected high-roller streak when it comes to the casket. I'm trying to picture my father in this discussion of wood vs. metal and of various "interiors." There's nobody home in a dead body, and you might as well be piling books and bingo games and bicycle pumps on those expensive satin sheets in there. But casket-shopping touches our inner Egyptian.

When my time comes, burn me up and scatter me in the woods. I've always known that. But I get a little sucked into the comfort angle. We find a box that, even I admit, looks pretty cozy. Something about the sky blue interior is deeply inviting and beckons to me, just a little.

"Now, you had brought a dark suit for him to wear, right?" the guy asks.
"Yup."
"See, that's all going to pull together once he's in there."

Oh, Dad. We should have gone casket-shopping ages ago. You would have been a riot.

Burial will be private, but my mother wants to see him one more time, all made up and in the box. So does Joey.

"I couldn't go see him in the nursing home because I was so sick. Now I want to say goodbye," he tells me. He wants to give him a toy or something else to keep in the casket, too.

In my mother's kitchen, he spots a type of chocolate cookie my father loved. Dad and my mother fought about them, because his diabetes made them a hazard, the way he went at them. "You could put some of those cookies in the casket," he tells her. "Bob loved them."

"Oh, no," says my mother, who risked her health and maybe her life to keep him at home until the final ten days, who ministered to him with a tenderness that touched and surprised me. "He's not getting any cookies."

Passing through the kitchen during the day, I come upon a doodle by Joey. He has drawn two Saint-Exupéry stars with arrows reaching up to them. The arrows stretch out from the words

Bob
Oh Bob
Shall we gather at the casket?

Apparently so. I thought nobody would want a "viewing," but apparently everybody does. My mother, wife, and son are at the funeral home looking at the body. So is my dad's cousin Peggy, the closest thing he ever had to a sibling. The mortician, trying to be helpful, has put so much terra-cotta makeup on my dad that he looks like a clay model of himself. All of the hawklike comical ferocity is gone from his features. Joey has chosen two toys-a stuffed sheep and a plastic fairy-to put in the casket with his grandfather. He has also written a note.

Dear Bob
I love you
If you read this.
Love, Joey.

We're a family of notes, apparently. When my grandmother died, she left instructions requesting a pair of warm socks and a certain robe she had been saving for the journey to the next life. When somebody went looking in her closet, they found a likely robe. In the pocket was a note. It read, "This is it."

She was my mother's mother, Alma Cotton, daughter of a widowed farm laborer. Standing at my father's casket, I'm dimly aware that I don't even know the name of his mother, whom he could not bring himself to discuss. I know nothing, save one or two tiny details, about her life. I couldn't even guess where she's buried.

On my way to the graveside ceremony, in the brief stretch of road from my mother's apartment to the cemetery, I am seized by an impulse. I want balloons.

I stop at a store, race in, get five blue helium balloons yoked together with metallic ribbons. Why five, why blue, I couldn't say.

And thence to the cemetery, where a tiny knot of "immediate family" has gathered for a ceremony presided over by Sean Kennelly.

"Joey, do you know Grampa's not in there?" Sean asks, nodding at the box before he begins. ("No," I think giggily, "but hum a few bars and we'll fake it.")

Joey nods yes, and Sean says a bit more about that in his Dublin brogue. He reads a few things, including a bit from a Jewish service, and leads us in the Lord's Prayer. (Who can it hurt?)

And then Joey and I go up on a rise of earth, and he turns loose the balloons. Still tethered together, the blue globes circle one another, weaving, passing through, bobbing, changing places like dancers in some very complex gavotte. Whirl, loop, circle back in the chaotic breezes of noon.

Bob.
Oh Bob.

All of the elements of the man, I think, are drifting into heaven's vault. His love, his humor, his sorrow, his anger, and his fifth element-that remarkable knack for leaving the world and entering magical realms. We can see, too, the silver lightning flashes of ribbon snaking among the balloons. "Bye, Dad," I hear myself say.

The others keep watching, but I turn away, because my eyes aren't good. And because I'm done. I saw him go up. Joey, however, is glancing over at the grave, where the casket is still seated in its frame, above ground.

"When do they put it in?" he whispers. "Not until we leave, I guess." "Ask them!"

I ask the funeral-home guy. "Most people like us to wait until they've gone," he says. "I don't believe this," Joey says.

"Mom?" I ask. "I don't want to see that," she says. "Maybe you better get in the car," I tell her. Joey and my wife, Thona, and I go back to the grave, and the guy lets Joey turn the handle that lowers the whole rig. We watch it go all the way down. Then Joey pulls two flowers, white and red, from the floral piece and tosses them in on top of the box.

"Bye, Bob," he says quickly and runs to the car.

I have to go back to the nursing home to gather my father's personal effects.

The people there are, I've decided, strangely beautiful. They drift slowly through the halls like ships, broken-masted or hull-pierced, never to sail again, but bobbing and eddying in the last harbor, sad and lovely fragments of their old selves. I pick up a little thread of my father, too. To find a missing thing, you go to the last place you had it.

The New York Times runs a generous obituary, written by Rick Lyman:
Robert E. McEnroe, who wrote The Silver Whistle, a frequently revived 1948 Broadway comedy about a garrulous tramp who spreads good cheer through a home for the aged, died on Feb. 6 at the Hughes Convalescent Home in West Hartford, Conn. He was 82.

Mr. McEnroe had written a dozen plays in his spare time while working in the research department at United Aircraft in Hartford before he drew attention in 1947 by selling two in one day to different Broadway producers, an unusual feat for an unproduced playwright.

The obit tracks the history of The Silver Whistle as play, television play, and movie. It notes the actors who have played the lead role (Jose Ferrer, John Carradine, Lloyd Nolan, Eddie Albert, and, in the movie adaptation, Clifton Webb), and touches upon the fact that the other play, Mulligan's Snug, was never produced "though it passed through a succession of producers who more than once announced plans to open it on Broadway." The obituary mentions Donnybrook!, Dad's short-lived Broadway musical of 1961 that starred Eddie Foy Jr., Susan Johnson, and Art Lund.

It concludes, "Of the years he tried to teach himself playwriting in his spare time, Mr. McEnroe once said: 'I wrote twelve plays in ten years without earning a penny more than my factory wages. The only thing this proves is that it's nice to have a job, no matter what.'"

Edward, Joey's guinea pig, is sick. Joey and I race with Edward to a small animal hospital in Kensington. In the car Joey says, "Well, if Edward dies, he'll get to see Bob."

Jeez.

The woman at the desk doesn't want us to be there at all. She has a stern manner, and I get the feeling that somewhere not far from where I stand there is a pipeline backed up with wheezing ferrets, rheumy parakeets, tortoises with hacking coughs. A staggering parade of zoological bit players for whom God's Great Plan did not, originally, include healthcare. Shamelessly, I play my big card.

"Look, my father died a week ago. This is my son's guinea pig. And he was close to his grandfather. My son, I mean, not the guinea pig. And, you know? I just can't do another funeral." She takes Edward and promises the doctor will see him "after hours."

There's an Italian saying, "Green winter, full graveyard." Edward, a fellow of infinite jest, of excellent fancy, has died. Death plays encores.

Even though Edward was, in Darwinian terms, capicola, I find his death saddens me-monumentally.

I remember another February day, when Joey was six, when he and I went together for the first time to the Bronx Zoo. It was a Wednesday, silver-bright sky and spring-warm air. Somewhere among the Ten Great Days of My Life lives that afternoon, walking my little boy around the zoo in that merciful warmth, doing something my father liked to do with me. What I remember also was that he would not leave until we had found some cousin of Edward. We did eventually locate the cavy-actually what a guinea pig is-in the rodent house, and it struck me as odd that Joey insisted on seeing, in such an exotic place, something he could see every day. But it was important, I finally grasped, for Joey to establish that there, in the firmament of lions and apes and zebras and cobras, Edward had a place.

So Edward's death is not the kind of news I can deliver on the phone. Feeling like a Shakespeare walk-on [Enter MESSENGER], I drive to my mother's house, where my son is spend-ing the day.

[MESSENGER delivers sad tidings. Business.] "Well, we knew he was sick. And they don't live that long anyway. If he were in the wild, he'd be dead." This is Joey talking, not me. He's stealing all my lines. He is often analytical when he doesn't trust himself to be sad. He never cries over Edward or Bob. I wonder whether it is because he is strong and secure or because he has a secret, darkened architecture, a labyrinth of baffles through which he bounces his sorrows. I honestly can't tell, and it seems to me that both could somehow be true.

We are Sims again. Empty and yet so vulnerable that a sick guinea pig could polish us off.

HAMLET
Has this fellow no feeling for his business, that he sings at grave-making?

HORATIO
Custom hath made it in him a property of easiness.

HAMLET,br> 'Tis e'en so: the hand of little employment hath the daintier sense.

Thonk. Thonk. "Gwine see Miss Liza!" I try a bit of singing at grave-making, but the dirt will not budge. "Gwine go to Mississippi!" It has been a green winter, but beneath the green, the earth is hard and resentful.

Edward will lie in state (in the garage) until I can figure out how to dig a hole.

I look up from all my troubles and see that Joey has been, in a funny way, neglected. He has the pasty, sunken-eyed look of a boy who has spent too much time alone with Nintendo. So we take a hike up Rattlesnake Mountain in Farmington, Connecticut, on a cold day. It's a good place for us to go and drop our burdens and get more connected to rock and sky. We have used the mountain in this way all our lives together. Joey likes to dramatize a hike by falling deliberately from time to time. He is on the ground from one of these falls when Roy, our old, old dog either fails to see him in time or simply cannot, because of arthritis, manage to miss him. Roy steps on Joey's face, leaving a muddy pawprint on his cheek. Joey finds this interesting.

"Now," he says, "I know how the ground feels." Maybe that's my next job. Get myself oriented. Know how the ground feels.

After Bob dies, I discover that I have joined, willy-nilly, the Dead Fathers Society, the multitudes of other men who have been clobbered in their forties when their fathers died. What you see, in guy after guy, is a sense of wounded surprise. They didn't know. They didn't anticipate the lists of unspoken truths and unanswered questions that would sprout, fast as June radishes, in the space where their fathers once stood. I get letters from men who say they are still, after twelve years, in some kind of dialogue with the shades of the departed dad. The acceptable obsolescence of fathers is deceptive advertising. "He's big. He's tough. He's stoic. You won't mind when he croaks." Humbug.

The guys in the DFS soften their voices when they tell you their stories. It's our secret handshake, this bruised little voice. It hurts and goes numb, hurts and goes numb. There are days when I want him around, for a dose of his odd politics, let's say. And there are harder days when I want to confess the secrets of my life to him and ask him how I should live from now on. But it's never really bad, because Dad and I had all that time. I don't regret a walk or a song or a diaper or a quiz question. I could have done a lot more, but I did enough. Enough to show him love and give me peace. That's all you can ask for. If you're lucky, now and then, you get more. You get something that feels like grace. Maybe you get a spot on the up end.

He is dead, and there are one million unspoken words. We were estranged for a lot of those years-not exactly enemies but wary men, brushing past each other, as empty as Sims, as guarded as ghosts. I sit down again with his old scripts, turn the pages. Absurdly, he starts talking to me again-this time about the afterlife.

[Two knocks]
SNOWBIRD TOOMEY
It's him.

WILLIE BURKE
Is that you, Dennis?
[Two knocks]
Does two knocks mean yes?
[Two knocks]

SNOWBIRD
Wait a minute. Two knocks could mean no. In that case, when you asked him if two knocks meant yes, he could have knocked twice for no.

WILLIE
[Annoyed]
Dennis, what's no?
[One knock]
What's yes?
[Two knocks]
[To Toomey]
I hope you're satisfied.

SNOWBIRD
Are you in hell, Dennis?
[Two knocks]
Do you feel miserable?
[One knock]
Do you feel bereft and forlorn?
[One knock]
Do you feel repentant?
[One knock]
Is your spirit in deep despair?
[One knock]
Do you yearn for alcohol and women?
[Two knocks]
Do you yearn for poker and racehorses?
[Two knocks]
Is there any point in our praying for you?
[One knock]

WILLIE
[Beams]
He's fine. He's fine. | September 2003

 

Copyright © 2003 by Colin McEnroe

 

Colin McEnroe lives in West Hartford, Connecticut.