Not long after my parents’ deaths—my mother’s from Alzheimer’s, my father’s from emphysema—I was visited by my friend Elan Sicroff, a concert pianist, who had come to town to see his friend the Venerable Bhante Dharmawara, a hundred-year-old Cambodian Buddhist monk who was, as usual, just passing through. In this instance Bhante’s passage involved the inauguration of a Buddhist temple in a rambling wooden Brooklyn pile on Rugby Road, not half a block up the street from the high school gym where I used to go Friday-night dancing. I’d never met Bhante, but Elan invited me to come along and I thought why not. I’d heard about him for years and particularly liked the story about how a bunch of his students, some years before, had put him on a plane from New York to California—his only steady pied-á-terre, I’d heard, was some vast underground bunker in, of all places, Fremont—when he kept telling them insistently that he really wanted to go to Vienna. It was a nonstop flight—so went the tale—that landed in San Francisco, where the people waiting for him were confused by his absence. Bhante deplaned happy, unawaited, and in his robes at Austria’s principal airport, and while I’m pretty sure a stopover in Chicago or someplace had a hand in the events, it was an irresistible story anyway.
Elan and I approached the temple across its impressively pillared porch, and once inside the front door we were met by two young Cambodian men who spoke no English in response to our own. They staringly, silently guided us through what had once been the living room, now massed with six-foot-tall candles in monumental sconces, a golden effigy of the Lord Buddha seated at the head of the room and much devotional art arrayed about him along the walls, then up three flights of creaking stairs to the plain, barely furnished attic bedroom in which Bhante, taking note of our arrival, rose from his daybed nap to say hello, ancient in his faded orange robe, his translucent, lined, hardly still human face breaking into a smile of greeting. He had unusually small and even teeth which might actually have been his own, a shaven head and long-lobed, pointed ears. His skin was the color of blonde Virginia tobacco and had a healthy sheen. He moved terribly slowly, as if prone to breakage, but with a definite frail grace, and at so evenly measured a pace as to seem in another region of spacetime, inching along beside us in parallel but with an entirely different relationship to the velocity of light.
Elan and Bhante had some things to catch up on; a few familiar names percolated through the conversation, although I could not follow the plot, and then Bhante, like a very slow, experienced planet, revolved in my direction from the daybed’s edge. On the wall behind him were a number of color photographs of Cambodian men and women who had evidently come to the attention of the Khmer Rouge, some with missing limbs, others with enormous burns or slashes on their torsos; some were living and others dead; it was not always possible to tell which. I had never seen a photo of a woman with her breasts hacked off before. After asking me a very few questions and receiving terse, shy, uninformative answers about my parents’ deaths and my so far unsteady attempts to find a life in the aftermath, Bhante reignited his grin and his eyes took firmer hold of me. “To take on the suffering of others,” he said in his small, quavering, accented, barely audible voice, “is the . . . noblest . . . thing a man can do,” and here the crawling pace of his speech accelerated to its conclusion: “but you have taken on too much.” He paused, perhaps not for effect, but the pause was effective all the same, then repeated: “You have taken on too much.” He began chuckling and nodding his head yes. Elan and I couldn’t help it, we both laughed.
Perhaps that’s what I had done, imperfectly and inexpertly at the very least, most often in a disorderly fugue of intertwining, inevitable failures. I had tried to get between my parents and heal, I suppose, the pain that was tearing all of us to pieces. I didn’t have much luck, and neither did they.
During the two or three worst years of their decline, I was, at least for a while, dividing my time between a house full of musicians in Woodstock and my folks’ apartment in Brooklyn, attempting to maintain the fact or fiction of a personal life, although by then my parents’ drama had begun to obliterate my own and my time down in Brooklyn to exceed my stays upstate; it would not be long before it would dawn on me that, however shell-shocked and in need of a retreat I was, my proper business lay back in town. But that was still to come.
In early March of that year, I was awakened one morning, lying on my thin bit of mattress on the living room floor, by the sound of my father choking to death in the kitchen. On second thought, it occurred to me, maybe he was only having a little more difficulty than usual coughing up his gob of phlegm, although I had never heard this particular long, drawn-out strangulation of a sound before. I lay there on my back beneath the blanket, hoping for the best or perhaps, already wearied by the daily pain deposited like a newspaper at my door, too beat to move unless I knew for sure. I heard a plastic water glass clatter and splash to the kitchen floor and then my father’s panicked footsteps coming my way, and I knew that he was having one of those spasms I had heard about but never seen, in which his windpipe shut and he began to suffocate. These spasms were caused by one of the medicines he used—each year a few dozen asthmatics are found dead on their floors, a portable inhaler clutched in their hands or lying beside them: one of the risks of the treatment—and he had saved himself, once, by falling belly-first over the back of a chair, and once, having tried the chair and failed, by rushing in his underwear out of the apartment into the hallway in what had seemed his last living moment and attempting to shout for help at the closed brown doors of the other apartments on the floor: on the third try his windpipe popped open and out came the sudden sound of his voice. The most recent such attack had come only a little earlier in my mother’s accelerating senescence: with his armchair pulled up to the bedroom TV and my mother awake in bed behind him, he had looked at her helplessly over the chairback, gargling in strangulation as she canted her head to one side like a parakeet and looked back at him, saying, “Harry? Harry?” I forget how he got out of that one, but there was always the possibility that one of these attacks would finish him off.
As his footsteps came my way I threw off the blanket, flung open the folding fiberboard partition in the archway to the foyer—a gesture toward my privacy, installed years before, when I drifted home on visits—and went to meet my father. I saw that he was not wearing the length of oxygen hose that usually trailed him around the house; either the spasm had surprised him without it or, more likely, he had torn it off when his windpipe shut. The squat brown oxygen machine wheezed and shuddered at the foyer’s other end, its red eye blinking.
We acted quickly and efficiently for once: he pointed at his open mouth, I nodded yes, he turned away from me and backed into my arms, arranging them around his deep barrel chest and over his rounded stomach so that I could administer the Heimlich maneuver and unblock his windpipe. I hadn’t had the chance to put any clothes on, so I was standing naked behind my father. He was wearing an old beige woolen bathrobe open over faded cotton pajamas. Four or five inches taller than he and feeling awkward, incompletely awake, and well aware that my father could die in my arms, with me standing there naked holding on if this didn’t work, I held my breath and gave a hard pull and squeeze across his belly. I heard a number of cracking sounds and thought, good, as he shook his head no, did not begin breathing and repositioned my arms lower, well, at least I’ve adjusted his spine for him. The second pull worked—I could feel his stomach give way and his breathing break open—but the sound that came out of him on the first breath was a groan of pain in extremis. When he tried to straighten up, he groaned again. When he raised his arms, the pain was audibly unbearable. When he tried to turn sideways to face me, it was the same. I saw the look of shock in his eyes.
On the first pull, my arms too high around him, where he and I together had placed them, I had dislocated six of his ribs, as I found out later that day when a chiropractor friend came by to examine him. She put a struck tuning fork to each of his ribs in turn to check for fracture – had one been broken, she told me afterward, the pain of the fork’s vibration on the contiguous edges of bone would have sent him screaming through the living room ceiling: a nice test. As it was, my father would be in serious pain, she told me, for at least the next couple of weeks.
I felt defined: accused, judged, and condemned. I was trying to help my parents, but in the real picture I was increasing their suffering. Now, thanks to my most recent aid, my father could now not only hardly breathe, he could barely move.
My mother, her most needling and unconsciously cruel tendencies brought further forward by the Alzheimer’s, would hover darkly about the apartment, her eyes uncertain, ready to pounce if she could make out, through the fog of her disintegrating perception, any sign of weakness in him.
“Please, Sadie,” my father would beg her, “Let me read for a little, a little peace, a little quiet. I’m a sick man,” and she would return with, “Sick? Sick? You’re making me sick. You’re making me cra-zy.
She would not attack me. You could see the look in her eyes, wanting to, but then pulling back when she saw that I was too well armed against her. But my father refused to protect himself from her torments. “She’s as innocent as a little bird,” he would tell me—correctly, as I was later able to agree—in his rumbling, heavily accented voice, that of a warmer, kinder Boris Badenov. “How can I say a word against her? A little bird.” He would not even distance himself from her emotionally, as I told him he should, if only for his own protection. Any backward step felt cruel to him.
That night my father came briefly out of bed to see if he could read for a while in the kitchen. Reading had been one of the first and was now the last of his pleasures, although he only read junk now, the autobiographies of actresses and the like. “I can’t take any more sadnesses,” he would tell me when I came at him with some new novel I liked or recommended that he have another go at his beloved Tolstoy.
There was a line in War and Peace—the book that dominated the bookshelves of my childhood, thick and red, its title gilt on a contrasting black band, and for frontispiece a multicolored map that compared Napoleon’s advance into Russia with Hitler’s; an edition that had been printed in the darkest days of the war that early on consumed my father’s family—which like so many others had struck me, in my most recent reading of the book, as a definitive pronouncement of an all-seeing, God’s-eye genius. It comes late in the book, after Pierre’s capture by the French, when he is trudging west as their prisoner through the lethal snows of their retreat. He has been imprisoned, marched up to a firing squad, seen other men executed and expected himself to be shot next, then marched starving through the white death of the Russian winter: “He had learned that there is a limit to suffering and a limit to freedom, and that these limits are not far away . . . that in the old days when he had put on his tight dancing shoes he had been just as uncomfortable as he was now, walking on bare feet that were covered with sores.” It is an audacious statement in the middle of a stretch of narrative that may be the most fully realized portrait of the activity of Enlightened Mind in the whole of Western fiction, but it is untrue.
Even without recourse to the concentration camps my father had escaped by getting to America just in time, or to the increasingly quotidian incidents around the world to which the mutilated bodies on Bhante’s bedroom wall bore prosaic witness, it was possible, even within the relative comfort of a three-room petit-bourgeois Brooklyn apartment, to set sail for another country in which pain was infinite, exquisitely well aimed by a mysterious knowledge of your most occult and tender workings, and utterly without recourse. Sitting in that kitchen, and still able to acknowledge that his suffering represented a small drop in the world’s oceanic supply of the stuff, I could see, over the shoulders of the border guards as they poked at me with their pocketknives or laughed at the inadequacy of my papers, I could see my father lost in the depths of that country, stunned and without a passport, progressively stripped of his human attributes, his memories, his ability to think and feel, his identity, his name. I could see the look of shocked recognition in his eyes, and hear the echo of the blows as they came up from the depths.
His eyes were beginning to fail him too, and he read with a lamp drawn down close to the pages of his book through a large round magnifier in a brown, imitation tortoise-shell plastic frame. Most of my father’s hair was gone and the skin on his head was blotched cancerously with brown, and in addition to the fairly new black and gray bristle on his upper lip he wore a second moustache of clear plastic with two prongs that went a small way up his nostrils: oxygen. The fat brown machine huffed behind him, visible in profile through the open doorway to the foyer.
It was painful for him to sit at the table, but more painful to lie in bed, with some of his weight invariably pressuring his dislocated ribs. I sat in my chair at the oval table’s opposite end.
“I’m so sorry about the ribs.” I must have said this a number of times that day and night.
If he tried to shrug, it would have hurt him.
“I’m so sorry.”
“It’s terrible the pain.” Not once did he admit to complicity in the placement of my hands on the first try. This omission amazed me: for all the accusations I had hurled at him over the years, with the unspeakable cruelty that only a loving, beloved, too-symbiotic son can manage— sharper than that Shakespearean serpent’s tooth by a long shot—this was the closest he had ever come to accusing me of anything.
We heard my mother’s smallish footsteps shuffling up the corridor from the bedroom. She paused at the dining room door, stooped and uncertain.
“Sadie,” said my father.
“Sadie,” she replied, not in confirmation but in the identical tones, an echo.
“Do you want it maybe a glass of hot milk with water?”
“Water with milk?” she inquired, her voice faltering upward.
“Or water with milk,” my father allowed. “Pull up a chair. Sit down with us awhile.”
I got up to heat a pot of water on the stove.
“Where are you?” my mother might have asked him.
“Sadie,” he would have answered, “I’m here, in the kitchen, with you.”
“I saw a cockaroach in the bathroom,” she said.
“Sadie, it’s not a cockaroach. It’s a crack in the tile. Do you remember? We put your finger on it? It didn’t move. It didn’t run away.”
“A cockaroach. Look,” she said, pointing, then paused as she realized she was not in the bathroom anymore.
My trained ear could hear the beginnings of a modulation toward fury as she insisted: “A cockaroach.”
And I would have gone to the stove to tend to the water. I would have selected two clean highball glasses, poured an inch or two of milk into them, then filled the remainder with the heated water: an insipid drink my parents had taken to in recent years.
I would have sat down at the table with them, and hoped for something milder than catastrophe.
And if no special horror intervened, later that night I would have put them to bed, and still later my mother would have insisted on lying atop the blankets instead of beneath them despite the cold of the night—“I always lie on top of the blankets!” she would insist, shaking with increasingly cold rage, or, shocked, ask my father how dared he, dirty man, to come into my bed, and then my father would begin to weep like a child because if she stayed like that she would be stiff with ache by morning and because he could do nothing with her, and I would come in from my momentary refuge (ice cream, television) in the living room and get inside my mother’s timing, ask her to excuse me a minute but would she get up—hah?—and, yes, okay, you can lie back down now, there, I’ll tuck you in, have a good night’s sleep, good night, Mom.
And looking at the small mound of her under the blanket my father would ask me, how did you do that?
And I would say, you just have to distance yourself a little from your emotions and see what will work in a purely practical sense.
And he would say, I can’t. And I would say, because you think it would be cruel?
And he’d say, helplessly, yes.
And I’d say, but by doing it you can actually help the situation a little, reduce the suffering all around.
Yes, he’d painfully admit.
And I: do you have to take every arrow directly in the heart?
And he wouldn’t know what to say, because taking every arrow directly in the heart was the best he could come up with (taking on the suffering of others is the . . . noblest . . . thing a man can do).
And I would say, good night, dad.
We had fetched up, the three of us, on a bare and unimplorable shore on which all human gesture failed, and we would be there for a while.
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