Two Weeks in Vegas
"I’m going to miss shopping for him. I guess I can’t buy men’s clothes anymore." Of all the ways in which I had imagined my eighty-year-old mother missing my father, this was not one I had even remotely considered. She said it in a voice thin and weary, while shopping, reluctantly, for a black dress.
I thought about all the perfectly pressed pants hanging in my father’s closet, the seersucker shirts on the right side of the long bar, the long sleeve velour pullovers for the mild Las Vegas winters, on the left. I thought of loafers, dress shoes, walking shoes, and summertime whites, paired and evenly aligned on the shoe racks below. I thought about his armoire, stacked with vee-neck sweater vests in navy, light blue, grey, brown, maroon, cream, and the folded cardigans, old, but clean, smooth, no pills. I thought about the dozens of cuff link pairs in boxes from stores that no longer exist, in the top left hand drawer of the triple dresser and the drawer below filled with socks in colors to match each pair of trousers. I thought about the unopened packages of blue-striped boxer shorts and sleeveless ribbed undershirts my mother always had on hand whenever my father complained that all of his had holes in them. I thought about how happy she had been to retrieve one of those plastic bagged items, and how ridiculous I had always thought her for taking pride in this simple, and to me, subservient deed.
Now I see it was all something which I (with a husband who buys his own pants at the warehouse club) cannot truly appreciate. She loved being in charge of his wardrobe, knowing which colors he should wear, what styles look best, when sports jackets need elbow patches, which ties went with what suits, when to take out the summer weight suits and how to store away the mohair overcoats. "Grow old along with me, the best is yet to be." But she was going to get even older, alone. And now she could not even buy the man a damned belt.
Mom says she wants to sort some new clothing my father had never worn. From his armoire, she pulls pullovers, pajamas, shirts, all new, and we make piles on the king-sized bed, for sons-in-law, grandsons, friends, whoever we think will fit into my father’s size. This pile to Goodwill, the other to the church clothing drive; these for the Mexican day laborers who help the landscaper on Thursdays. We avoid the rest of the armoire and don’t open the door to their walk-in closet. I wonder if she will keep some of my Dad’s things, and if on damp winter days she may slide down to the floor of the closet, sobbing into the sleeve of one of Dad’s shirts. I imagine that she may do this even on warm and sun-drenched summer days when it’s just too bright and lovely outside, when even leaving her bedroom is unthinkable. She may turn her haggard face into the soft fabric, and run her wrinkled hand over the flannel and cashmere, the mohair and wool.
On the way from her house to the funeral home, we stop at the dry cleaners, where my father had been a regular for twenty-five years—he always walked in smiling, teased the counter girls, asked after everyone’s health, kidded that the prices were too high, left a tip. Nina, the shop owner, is silent, shakes her head and reaches across the counter to squeeze my mother’s arm, which, like the rest of her, is covered in black even though my sister and I told her that, in 2006, it was not necessary for a resident of the American southwest to dress like an old school, mid-century Italian widow.
From the window of the guest room—where on past visits I have slept with my husband and two sons, who are not here now but back at our New Jersey home—I see the oleanders, which form the border at the back of my parent’s rear yard, about twelve-feet high, flowering in red, white, and fuchsia. When my father was alive, he instructed the landscaper, Pedro, to prune off the tops as soon as they skipped over six-feet high, in other words, just as they were sprouting new growth and about to bloom. No words from Pedro, no outraged cries from visiting friends, citing the universal gardening edict that pruning occurs after the bloom has opened and died, would persuade my father otherwise. I wonder whether, while he was in the hospital and nursing home for eight weeks, Pedro had finally had his way or if this new growth is brand new. I know that I am casting about, hoping to attach meaning to randomness, attributing symbolism to the flora—lush, thick, green, straight, swaying in the strong desert breezes.
My friend Martha sends me an e-mail, a quote from Elizabeth Gilbert: "Something beautiful must end so that something else beautiful can begin." The quote does not say why this is so.
The funeral director enters carrying a cardboard box that could be mistaken for a parcel UPS might have just dropped off. On it is pasted a paper which reads: "This box contains the cremated remains of Anthony L. Chipolone." The box was sealed with packing tape and there was a short fruitless search for a scissor or letter opener before my brother finally tore it open to discover two interlocking styrene packing pieces, which when pried apart revealed the box my mother has chosen—of dark gleaming wood, with a carved mountain scene on the front, about the shape and size of a two-slice toaster.
Later, I remark that the presentation was handled poorly, that it was tacky to hand a widow a cardboard box. My brother reminds me that it is part of the authentication process, to assure the family that the contents were not tampered with between the time they were swept from the crematory chamber into the plastic bag that lies, unseen, inside the box. This makes no sense to me; after all, out of our sight, which is where those details were handled, anything could have occurred, anyone’s remains could be in there, or nothing at all, or just some heavy books.
The funeral director hands my mother a plastic bag containing my father’s wedding band and inexpensive wristwatch. Where are his eyeglasses, we all want to know, the ones he wrapped a Band-Aid around? They are nowhere, they are gone, burnt probably, or would they melt? My mother is shaky, her mouth twitches. I make a weak joke that Dad never could keep track of his glasses anyway.
We place "my father" on the family room bar which is rarely used to serve alcoholic drinks, though a sign proclaiming, "Tony’s Bar" hangs over the sink. We flank his wooden box with flowers and photos—my parents’ wedding photo, my father and my brother on Gary’s wedding day, and a photo of my father, at age thirty-five, lean and attractive, holding me, as a two year-old. I had gotten it restored and enlarged, and presented it to him for his seventieth birthday because I could not think of one thing he needed. Once placed on the bar, the cremains box could be any decorative object, a jewelry box, or a humidor, or anything built to hold stuff and look nice, picked up perhaps on one of my parents’ trips to Hawaii, Sedona, the Bahamas. To distinguish it, Gary will order an engraved brass plate from the trophy shop.
Later, when I pick up Chinese food, I hear one of my father’s favorite songs, "What a Wonderful World," on the car radio, his car radio. I tell my mother when I get home, and she twists her mouth and says that it was never one of his favorites and I realize that all these years I thought it was, only because it is a song heard in the trailing hour of Italian-American weddings, when daughters dance with their fathers.
"My father died last week." "My dad passed away this afternoon." "My father has been dead for two weeks now." These words come out of my mouth without any real sense of my having planned to say them, without my consent. I utter these words, then mentally disown them. I write them in e-mails explaining my absence from my regular life. They even begin to enter my journal. Words are how I make a living; I once had a writing teacher say nothing bad ever happens to a writer because it is all copy someday. I fall into the category of writers who write because they are alarmingly inarticulate off the page. Joan Didion, never inarticulate, traces her reaction to her husband’s sudden death, in a book I am assigned by a graduate school teacher to read two weeks before my father’s death. My sister is horrified to find it on my bedstand the day after the funeral, but I am not; I am comforted. Didion says that the words she writes are who she is. Then this is who I am now: A daughter without a father.
Putting It Right
He had a way, my father, a very slow and deliberate way, of moving through the house—his own, mine, anyone’s—and touching things in his path. Adjusting the stack of mail, toying with bric-a-brac, neatening coffee table magazines, repositioning kitchen canisters, he moved each item barely a fraction of an inch. He pestered me to call the airlines and "reconfirm" my flight (although I explained many times that it’s all done online now and, anyway, travelers have not been "reconfirming" flights for a decade). He asked how much I was paid for my most recent magazine article, and then cried out that it was not enough, that the editors and publishers are all "scoundrels" who could not recognize real talent. I thought he was controlling, putting everything where he wanted it; obtuse, refusing to change with the times; stubbornly exaggerating, refusing to face the reality of my mediocre talents. But like his habits and quirks, his opinions and beliefs, like his Listerine breath and Vitalis hair, the bad jokes and overcautious bromides, these were only the packaging. I loved, and cringed at, most everything about him, and knew on some level he was just being my protector, putting things right. What would he say if he knew I was writing about him? He might be proud, might walk slowly away, say, "Humph" and on his way out of the room, move the flower vase a centimeter to the right.
I am counting Box Tops, the thousand or so small cardboard rectangles cut out from cereal boxes and other grocery items that the parents at my younger son’s school send in each week, the ones for which General Mills pays the school ten cents apiece. It is my Friday after-school ritual; my sons are in the basement adding on to their Lego city. My cell phone rings and I see on the display that it is my brother Gary calling and I know it is bad news, that my father maybe has another new medical problem. Still, Gary usually calls the house phone first and it is only 1:30 in Las Vegas; he works until two. Surely, he would wait another half-hour, unless he could not. In Gary’s job—undercover casino surveillance—he is not permitted to use his own cell phone. In an even voice, he asks, "Where are you at?" and I know immediately that my father is dead. Gary would otherwise not care where I was if he wanted only to discuss the merits of one drug or another, the reasoning behind some new medical test. He wants to be sure I am not driving the boys home from school, or running a Cub Scout meeting or in the checkout line at ShopRite, pulling bags of frozen vegetables from the cart while the boys ask for gum. I know what he is going to say but that does not make it easier. "Daddy’s gone. Dad’s dead, Sis."
When the news came on television that JFK was shot, I was playing with Tinker Toys on my living room floor. I heard about the shuttle exploding (the first one) while I sat in a taxi outside the World Trade Center, where I was to meet my cousin Dennis for lunch. I know I was wearing green pants and a white flowered shirt when I found out I was pregnant for my first child. And when I think about how I got the news that my father died, I will always see those stupid Box Tops, heaped and spread across my kitchen table, the envelopes marked up with kids’ handwriting, the leaves falling in the backyard beyond my open window; there was a fall breeze, the sound of my boys’ voices from the basement. I was counting Box Tops by twos, the way my mother once taught me to count the pennies my father kept in a copper barrel on his closet floor.
When my father was not getting better and I imagined what it might be like to get that phone call, I thought I might collapse onto the couch or clutch the arm of whoever was nearby, or maybe grab my stomach and keen. None of those things happened. My son Paul, who is eight, comes up from the basement, picking at a hangnail, watching me warily. "It’s PopPop," I mouth, and now it is a fact, a family event, and in another few seconds, I am telling my twelve-year-old son Sean. "Well, I guess it was his time," he says, and I want to hug and also, possibly, to smack him. I pull him to me and am startled to notice that he is nearly tall enough to look me straight in the eye.
It turns out Gary is the one driving, on his way to the nursing home where my mother found her husband warm, but dead. I switch gears, tell Gary he did all he could, that Daddy was suffering; I tell him to be careful, to drive safely; I say, don’t call anyone else, I will track down our sister in Massachusetts, call me back later. There is no time to collapse. My house phone is ringing, my husband wants to know if he should bring something for dinner. "My father died," I say without preamble, and immediately regret it, angry with myself for saying it out loud, for saying it at all.
I spend fifteen minutes locating the emergency phone numbers I had insisted my sister Cathy leave the last time she visited (in case I did not hear from her for days and feared she was passed out in her apartment where she lives alone). She will take the flight she already had scheduled, in two days time; she had arranged a week off work to visit my father for what would have been his eightieth birthday, four days from now.
I will arrive in Las Vegas by 10:30 the next morning; and I am glad for the need not to sleep, to stay up all night and be busy packing, sending e-mails to cancel readings, postpone meetings, request deadline extensions. Photographs must be gathered, in anticipation of the collages now expected at all wakes. I make lists and a color-coded calendar for my husband, Frank, to navigate two weeks of school, scouts, sports, religious instruction, and doctor appointments. I charge my cell phone, pack the laptop, spare battery, power cord, printer cable, and stacks of manuscripts, envisioning myself late at night, or early mornings, getting work done, functioning, "going on."
In fact, I do this, I work, I write, I keep up. When I return home two weeks later, I will read everything I have written and it is terrible. When I return home, I will be so sleep-deprived and unfocused that I need naps for two weeks, and I will feel stupid for spending that time in Las Vegas, when the house was quiet and I was alone and unable to sleep, at the keyboard instead of resting, grieving. When I return home, I will remember: Writing about life and living, they are separate, exclusive.
One night at my mother’s house, perhaps the day of or the day after my father is cremated, I thrash under the comforter, rewinding in my brain the tape that begins with my father complaining of pain in his right leg. This was in June, two months before he goes to the emergency room in mid-August for an apparent stroke; he dies in mid-October. He was extremely arthritic, and so we—my mother, brother, sister, and even his rheumatologist—attributed the new leg pain to the disease staking new territory. It made sense; it happened before, when his spine became involved, when his left hand was suddenly always cold, when he could no longer lie on his right shoulder in bed. It made sense. But it may have meant something else; the orthopedic surgeon reported, after my father’s "successful" hip replacement surgery two weeks before he died, that of the four fractures he found, two may have been "old." Should the rheumatologist have recommended an orthopedic consult back in June? Should we have intuited that this new pain was different?
I get up, open my notebook, make a backwards-chronological list, vaguely noting dates or at least times of each month when what I now consider may have been significant events occurred: Mid-July, pain in right leg intensifies, but is relieved with the IV infusion of arthritis drugs he receives every eight weeks. In parenthesis I write, "red herring?" Early August—Alzheimer’s intensifies (Did this portend the stroke? Was it a mini-stroke?") I fill two pages with single spaced notes, littered with question marks, capital letters, underlines, and arrows. When the arrows at the bottom of page two point back to the top of page one, I throw the pen on the floor and smack the book closed. People say you cannot go back. You can, but it only leads back to the present, where the dead are still silent. I recognize that this is circular, downward-spiraling thinking at its highest form, its lowest use. I get back in bed, no longer thrashing, but I do not sleep either, although I seem to "wake up" some time later. There is a particularly deceptive form of rest, I discover that week, which appears like sleep: One’s eyes are closed, sounds recede, breathing slows; but all the time, you are aware of not sleeping, or of sleeping but not resting, and of moving and repositioning, and being slightly awake yet also dreaming, of seeing events and feeling emotions and hoping these are dreams but being just alert enough to know they are not. Instead of awaking from this type of sleep, I simply get up and continue to move through the day, only upright and with my eyes open.
I notice it is morning in the same instant that I begin to acknowledge what I believe, for me, is true about my father’s slide to death: It was preventable. I believe that we—my mother, brother, sister, and I—should have sued the nursing home where the attendants left my father alone and he fell, breaking his hip. I believe they, or someone, should be held accountable. I believe his care was mismanaged from the first day he was admitted to the emergency room. I believe the MRI should have been repeated, that the CT scan should have been done with contrast, that the morphine and sedatives should have been stopped long enough to allow some lucid answers. I believe his body should have been autopsied. I believe the cause of death written on the death certificate "dementia" is not accurate or at least not complete. I believe it is listed that way, instead of listing pneumonia or complications from surgery or stroke or congestive heart failure (all of which we were told he had), because any of those "causes" would suggest a missing "effect," might imply a treatment that did not work or was not attempted, that a prognosis should have been downgraded, that this or that complication was major not minor.
On the other hand, I reason, perhaps his body just gave out.
I reason only for a second, then I am back to backwards thinking. I believe that my father’s complaints, at first at home and then later in the hospital and the nursing home, were dismissed because he made so many of them and so often. He was a real pain in the butt as a patient. And so someone—family, doctors, nurses, therapists, hospital discharge coordinators—someone had to have made the one serious error, ignored one important complaint, that, had it been handled differently, could have changed the outcome. I can never say any of these things to my mother when I find her at the dining room table that morning, slicing open envelopes containing sympathy cards. I only lean over her from behind, cross my arms over her chest and say, "Oh Mommy, Mommy."
She tells me about her manicurist, Lhody, whose father emigrated to Las Vegas from the Philippines in the 1980s and had never been back until last winter when he was ill and asked Lhody to take him back. The man died in the armchair of a relative’s house the second day of his trip.
"He must have known he was dying," my mother says.
I take this to be her way of asking if I think my father also knew that he was dying. In the weeks before his dementia worsened, my father said, "Get me out of here." "Take me home." "When can I go home?" Each time she answered: "When you get better you can come home."
The truth was she did not feel emotionally prepared to have him return home with what would have been the necessary round-the-clock nursing care. She had her reasons: Strangers in the house; him calling out for her all day and night; nurses who might not show up on time. "I see what you mean," I said, "I understand." But I didn’t. So what? He wants to come home! The healthy and young know everything when the life that is ending is not the one we have been joined with for fifty-nine years, not the one from whom we learned our limits.
Now, she walks to where his wooden box sits, two pink carnations crossed on top. She places a hand on each side of the box and says, "He always wanted to come home. I guess he knew this was the only way he could come home."
Step to the Front of the Line
On a girlfriends’ night out many weeks before my father died, we joke that we are at an age when our butts droop, our chins double, the time between hair coloring appointments shortens up, and we cannot find our reading glasses or recall whether or not we fed the kids’ fish. Not joking, we also note that we are at an age when our parents become our children; when, one friend observed, we move closer to the front of the funeral car line.
When you need to get out of the house in Las Vegas, you do not go to the mall, you go to The Strip. My mother wants to show me the new Wynn Las Vegas Hotel, a sixty-story resort slicing the Las Vegas landscape, interrupting the view of the mountains in shimmering gold and concrete. Inside, bright carpets and hundreds of flowering plants open onto colors, music, strolling vacationers. Here are people who are not grieving, in a place not suddenly empty because one person is no longer there. Here is a place wide with the thrum of activity that does not involve opening sympathy cards or making photocopies of a death certificate.
We have lunch in an overly decorated "café" the size of a bowling alley. "Six bucks for a tomato juice," I say, but we eat and wave our arms and say "C’est la vie."
Mom wants to stay in the casino awhile, to play. In the twenty-five years my parents have lived in Las Vegas, I have gambled exactly once, when my new husband wanted to prove he understood craps. My mother, who I always picture pulling the arm of a nickel slot machine, slides a twenty dollar bill into an automated poker machine, which then allows her to punch buttons marked deal, draw, stand, and bet. She bets the minimum, fifty cents, and tells me that my brother always reprimands her because if she ever hits the Royal Flush, she will be sorry she did not bet a dollar fifty.
A half-hour goes by, forty-five minutes. I am reminded of a teenage boy at the controls of a video game and understand immediately the self-medicating attraction.
She says it is my turn, so I stab at the buttons, mistakenly tossing away a hand containing a pair of jacks. My mother tells me about the last time she and Dad played here, him betting three hands at a time, five quarters each, running through twenties like handfuls of Tic-Tacs. I want to bet the maximum five credits, to appropriate my father’s risk-taking role, but I also want to honor my mother’s conservative system, and she is, after all, sitting right here.
I am dealt a hand with four spades: King, Queen, Jack, nine, and a two of diamonds. I discard the two and the ten of spades appears. My mother claps her hand over my forearm. "You hit the Royal Flush!" she blurts. We have won $135. When we turn our credit slip in to the cashier, I am silly happy. We split it down the middle, as I stifle a clumsy urge to insist she keep it all. I do not want to make her play the frugal widow, putting aside found money.
We decide not to tell my brother, who would sneer and admonish us: We could have won $1,000, after all. Now we have a secret, different from the sad shared one of what it was like, those first few days after my father died, when it was just the two of us in the house, before the relatives and the food and the wooden box without a brass plaque.
The Order of Things
At home in my house in New Jersey, when I got The Call, it seemed rather logical that my father had died; it was the next step. At my parents’ house, nothing makes sense. It does not even seem possible that my father is not here and there, not in every corner; humming in the bathroom, whistling on the patio, pouring a tall glass of lemonade, unfolding The Wall Street Journal. Here, there is no logic, no sense, no steps taken in order. Here, there is only interrupted old age, empty rooms, loud silences, and my mother walking slowly about in her thin bathrobe, eyes round and wet and like someone who forgot their bifocal sunglasses on an August day.
My mother finds me crying into the phone one afternoon. I miss my kids, I say, I want to go home. I’m sorry, but I do. She says that’s normal, that of course I miss my kids, I am supposed to miss them, and that I should go home.
My father was slender, medium build, but with big hands, expressive and kind of flat, chalky and wide and not particularly solid; even when he was a younger man, the skin on his hands felt loose, fleshy. I remember holding his hand at the Munich Zoo and on trips to the Empire State Building, where he had an office, and I remember him dislodging an apple chunk stuck in my throat when I was five and watching cartoons on a Saturday morning in our living room while everyone else was in the front yard raking. How did he know to come in the house at that moment and haul me upside down by the ankles and dig his big, strong, fleshy finger in my little mouth?
When I get home, people will say they are sorry and it will seem like nothing next to the heavy wooden box in which my father lies, nothing next to the empty old gardening shoes by the patio door; nothing next to the newspaper still folded on the hall table.
The film on the plane trip back is "Click," in which Adam Sandler, hungry for career advancement, money, and prestige, fast-forwards his life with the help of a devilish remote control. He finds himself twenty years older, divorced, alienated from his kids, and having missed his father’s death.
Sandler asks his own son, now grown, whose childhood he missed, "What happened to Grandpa?" The son replies, "Nothing happened, Dad. He just died."
I sense the airplane descending, so slowly it is only fractionally detectable. I try to recall how I learned this feeling, this minute internal shift in body pressure. Then I remember: My father taught me, on an airplane to Florida, when he held up his hand and moved it like an airplane, just a fraction of an inch. It happened when I was young, and he was so much younger then than I am now.