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In the “tangible landscape of memory,” as Rebecca Solnit calls it, on one end is the primal scene of my father’s first instance with disease that keeps repeating itself in my life, and the life of my family; on the other end resides the “unseen bodies” that are at work, like strong winds that can be felt but not seen.
To acknowledge the unknown is part of knowledge, and the unknown is visible as terra incognita but invisible as selection – the map showing agricultural lands and principal cities does not show earthquake faults and aquifers, and vice versa (Solnit 163).
What, then, lies beneath?
My trip from Vermont to New York was common enough. I was on route to see my literary agent and, once more, go over a piece we were wrangling over (we parted ways because of it – so it goes, an unseen fault line). The first stop, as it always is when I visit New York, is my parent’s house in Garden City, L.I.
My father, then 82, was not well; that is to say, after 50 years in a wheelchair, taken there by polio, an acute, viral, infectious disease, now a new form reared its ugly head, post-polio syndrome, which, like the original virus, creates yet more muscular weakness, pain in the muscles – what’s left of them – and fatigue. Post-polio syndrome’s wickedness is that it crashes life’s party some 30 years after the original polio attack. My father’s case. To add to the picture, it had been recently discovered that my father also had leukemia, a type of cancer of the blood or bone marrow – and not unusual given his age and condition.
His immovable frame in bed brought me back to my childhood when he was returned home after spending time in an iron lung when polio first attacked and left him totally paralyzed. I stood at the edge of what then, for a 6 year old kid, seemed like a giant, cold, green cage with levers and pulleys. I held the metal bars at the foot of the hospital bed and peered through at the face I knew – the new man I didn’t. This was 1960, Córdoba, Argentina – the primal scene that changed everything. Fifty years later, in Garden City – GC, as we call it – he looked tiny, child-like, as if dissolving, though he was once 6 feet tall.
In another life, he and I rode his motorcycle to Villa Carlos Paz, sometimes running out of steam and having to push it up mountainsides. I wouldn’t again mount a motorcycle until I was 19. I didn’t return to Argentina until I was 50.
It’s amazing how age and disease reduce us to almost nothing, churn us into something else – the ill and the healthy together. How we whither, becoming smaller as if somehow Nature understands that’s what we need to pass on. Until eventually we’re nothing – so it appears.
Lucretius, in On the Nature of Things (De rerum natura), says that, “…things cannot/Be born from nothing, nor the same, when born,/To nothing be recalled.” Nature, he says, “ever by unseen bodies works.”
“You have to come with me to the doctor’s office,” said my mother. “I can’t do this alone,” she said.
My father had been through a series of tests that would determine his prognosis. He was hopeful that somehow science – his one touchstone in life (he was a man of science and mathematics) – would know how to bring him back, at least get rid of the leukemia and, though bedridden, enable him to live a bit longer. My father’s appetite for life was voracious.
“There’s nothing more to be done,” said the doctor, someone my father, a very loyal man, knew for 40 years.
“I can’t face your father with these news,” said my mother. “I’m going to ask you to tell him. I’ll be there but I can’t do it. You have to. I can’t. Not after all the life that’s between us.”
Emerging from Penn Station, in New York, I wasn’t sure how I would approach my father with his death sentence. I was lost, literally, in a search for courage. I was totally in the dark. Completely. I wasn’t sure, either, how this was to fit my story – or into a story – since we live by stories; but I was sure that I had to create a story in which the title character is told that he has an expiration date – and it’s near.
Deep in my thoughts – perhaps deep in my soul questioning father and son roles – just up ahead of me, on 31st and heading towards 7th Avenue, an old man in a gray overcoat dropped a black glove. I caught up to the glove, picked it up, and caught up to the man, tapped him on the shoulder and said, “Here, you dropped this.”
“Thank god my wife’s not here. You saved me,” he said, chuckled, thanked me again and we were off . I turned right on 7th Avenue, making my way toward the Flatiron District. My agent was on 22nd.
Not five minutes later, nearing 22nd, a woman trying to speak to her friend while balancing a shopping bag and a handbag, drops a beige pair of gloves. I thought it strange that I’d see the same thing so quickly. What are the odds? I picked up the gloves and faced her and said, “I think these are yours.”
She gave me a beaming smile and said, “Oh. Yes. Oh. Thank you so much.”
And we went our ways.
“Even when deprived of all but all the soul,/Yet will it linger on and cleave to life, –” writes Lucretius.
That afternoon I abandoned one story, the one my agent wanted me to tell. I wanted to tell it my way, which I did. But what I didn’t know is that I was already in another story – aren’t we always in someone else’s story, after all?
On the return walk to Penn Station, a wind kicked up. It was overcast and chilly. I was thinking that it would be a good idea to slide into a bar and have a stiff one before heading back to GC. When a middle-aged couple comes out of a building and an elegantly dressed woman drops a pair of red leather gloves. The man with her, also quite elegantly dressed, didn’t see them.
The red gloves looked huge to me, bigger than they actually were. On this the third set of gloves dropped before me, I was certain that something unseen, some force was talking to me.
Here’s Lucretius again – he explains it best for me:
And as within our members and whole frame
The energy of mind and power of soul
Is mixed and latent, since create it is
Of bodies small and few, so lurks this fourth,
This essence void of name, composed of small,
And seems the very soul of all the soul,
And holds dominion o’er the body all.
I could find no reason or logic; I could not locate the language by which to describe the first dropped glove, then the second, and now the third that came with a thunderous roar from a place “void of name.”
When I got home I stood by my father’s bed. My mother at his feet.
He looked up at me with his incredible blue eyes, as if pleading yet knowing.
“This is it, viejo,” I said. “This is it. It’s hard to say so I’ll be straight,” I said. And he grinned. “There’s nothing more we can do. Nothing more.”
On the final day of his life, the woman that took care of him came into his room; it was a resplendent day. And she said to him, “It’s such a wonderful day.”
And he said, “For you. For me it’s not going to be a good day.”
When he left us around 10PM, my mother instructed one of her grandchildren to open a window.