The prospect of intimacy has been frightening us for weeks. The curve of his hip, his thigh, his arm out flung in sleep. The nakedness of his closed eyelids. The way his bare skin will feel. I’ve been thinking paper, Rudyard powder. Its whisper against our hands, his old man’s skin, dry and desiccated from disuse. We know we’ll have to touch him. We’ll have no choice. That’s why we’ve come to Florida. To help him. Rudyard’s father, my father-in-law. Frank Jones.
He’s home now, months after breaking his hip, after the surgery which almost killed him, after his stint in the rehab center that smelled of sour milk, antiseptic, loneliness. Rudyard told me about it after his October visit: the smells, the sparse staff, the pained conversations. How his father would veer wildly from clarity to confusion, dreaming himself onto a ship, a roller coaster, his own couch, any place other than where he was. How small and sad his eyes seemed, stripped of their defenses.
The center was meant to cure him—to rehabilitate—but it only sheared the strength from his legs and the last spark of reason from his mind. My mother-in-law Marge made the decision herself, a week ago, having found him abandoned face down in the dining hall.
“That’s it,” she said, her voice quivering with indignation over the phone. “I’m bringing him home.”
In my mind I tacked on to die , but there was no need to say it. We all know how it’s going to end. The only choice now is how to guide him there.
Rudyard and I are here for the week between Christmas and New Year’s. We’ve even brought gifts: a snowflake mug, flannel pajamas, a Buffalo Bills sweatshirt to remind my father-in-law of Springville, where they used to live. Buying them it seemed we still had hope. As though he could still be jolted into remembrance, hooked by tangible objects back into the tangible world. When we arrived though, earlier this evening, saw him swaddled in his chair, deep in sweaty slumber, I almost laughed at our presumptions. There are few things more foolish, I guess, than buying Christmas presents for a dying man.
He’s just a wisp now, a shadow, a ghost. When it came time, Rudyard and I helped Marge lift him from his armchair into bed, still clothed, no touch of skin. Only the frail bundle of him under his clothes. It was intimate enough, just to lock my hands under his arms, to heft his weight from room to room, to witness his lips twitch against his teeth. This man whom I’d barely touched before, only a brief embrace for hello, another for good-bye. After we deposited him in the hospital bed Marge had had wheeled into their room, he lay collapsed, motionless except for the wreckage of his breathing.
“Should we turn him over in a few hours?” I asked.
“No,” Marge replied. “Let’s just let him sleep.”
Now it is past midnight and I am in the guest room with Rudyard, the house dark and quiescent around us. Down the hall, with her fading husband silhouetted nearby, Marge lies dreaming. Rudyard is sleeping too, but I cannot. I keep thinking about Frank, and then of course I think about my own father, who died when I was a child. He, too, had an illness. He, too, withered away. Here I am, living it through again, with Rudyard only on the cusp of what all this will mean. How far he has yet to go.
I try to sleep, turning onto each side, onto my belly, my back. I close my eyes. I count a few animals. But I can’t. I keep picturing Frank, trapped in one position, unable to move. His body sour under its clothes, his mouth agape, his eyes popping open now and then.
What does he see when he wakes? His own home, this bungalow he’s spent his lifetime to acquire? His childhood house, where he lay once as a young boy, alone in the dark? A muddy field in Vietnam, while he trembles in wait for the enemy? If he could speak, maybe he could tell us. About his rambling visions. His nightmares. The great loops and swirls of his memories, as they flit and crisscross like swallows in an empty sky. But he can’t.
“He can only whisper now,” Marge told us earlier, sitting around mugs of tea at the kitchen table, circle of lamplight above an untouched game of mah-jongg. “Half the time, I have no idea what he’s saying.”
“What does he say?” Rudyard asked. I could feel his anxiety rising off him in waves. Briefly, I touched his knee under the table.
“Sometimes he talks about the war,” she said. “Sometimes he just asks for water.It’s hard to tell. Yesterday he called me Ma. I’m so glad you’re here.” She reached out her hand, placed it on Rudyard’s. “I wish you could stay.”
We’re leaving December 30th, though we have no New Year’s plans. January 2nd we go back to work, Rudyard at the architect’s firm, me at the publishers. Thinking of it, I feel small and mean. I don’t want to stay longer. Already I am longing for our Brooklyn apartment, for the streets and shops and pedestrians in their medley of clothes, faces, words. What is here for us? Only Florida’s dull midlands, its gated communities, its roll of hills to the horizon. Only Marge with her deep groove of grief, this small house densely gathered. Only Frank in the next room, his eyes perhaps as open as mine, yet unable to do something as simple as turn over in bed.
I must have slept, because I wake in the morning, the sun speckling through the blinds. The clock says only six, but I rise and shower and dress. I can hear Marge shuffling from bedroom to kitchen and back again in her ceaseless morning rounds. Rudyard is still breathing peacefully. He hasn’t had much of that recently. I shut the door carefully behind me.
I find Marge in their bedroom, hovering over her husband. She is humming “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music and cleaning Frank’s feet with baby wipes. She’s undressed him on her own, though not completely. He’s still wearing a t-shirt and adult diapers, which Marge told us last night the rehab nurses insisted on calling briefs. All these euphemisms we attach to old age, to cover up its shame.
“Good morning,” she says without turning around. “Want some coffee?”
“No thanks,” I say. “I’ll wait.”
I’ve never seen my father-in-law’s feet before. They are swollen, grotesque, out of all proportion with his legs, which are merely bones wrapped in skin. Here is the intimacy I’ve been fearing. The most I’ve ever seen of my father-in-law before were his legs when he was wearing shorts, his arms in t-shirts, the bald pate of his head.
“You want to help me?” Marge asks. “I have to undress him.”
I hesitate for the smallest of seconds. Then I reach down, slide a hand under his back, feeling my first sensation of paper, of powder where his t-shirt has hiked up.
“Lift him up,” Marge says.
I have only just accustomed myself to the fever of his skin, the jut of his bones, his odd heaviness in my arms, when Marge pulls down his briefs. Suddenly I am gazing down at my husband’s father’s penis. I expected this, but still I catch my breath. It’s as innocuous as any old man’s, lying in its bed of hair, of no use to anyone, not anymore. The cruelty is the catheter strung from it, the tube thicker than imagined, and at the tip, where it enters, a tiny spot of blood, his body’s protest against such intrusion.
Marge is watching me, waiting for my reaction, the way she does sometimes when she feels something might shock me. I do my best to show no reaction, to be as nonchalant as she. But then she reaches down and picks up his balls, casually, as though lifting a handful of pebbles.
“Look at his testicles,” she says. “Look at the sores.”
She lets them spread in her hands, flatten out, and I can see the bedsores that have bloomed on them as he’s lain in his bed, as he’s sat in his chair, unable to move.
“He has one on his back too. The doctor says they’ll only get worse.”
“Oh,” I manage. “That’s terrible.”
The only intimacy I’ve had with Frank before was when we returned from Asia, where we’d been teaching English in Laos. On one of our school breaks, we’d visited Vietnam, where Frank had gone to war. Like the other backpackers, we’d visited the war museums, tasted the roots the Viet Cong used to eat, attempted, but failed, to crawl through the tunnels at Chu Chi.
It was 2004, not 1970, and Vietnam’s former war zones almost resembled amusement parks. After the tours you could shoot off old weapons, eat ice cream, drink a beer. At Cu Chi, while the reports of ancient American rifles pocked the air, we saw two people—a British couple in matching khaki shorts, video cameras strung from their necks—cheers-ing their ice cream cones as though in celebration. Celebration of what, I couldn’t tell you. Their vacation, I suppose, their plucky tour through the battlefields of days past.
There was a lot of that there, like at all places made famous by devastation. The former World Trade Center site in New York is no different. The Killing Fields in Cambodia. People snapping jubilant thumbs-up photos beside the tree against which the Khmer Rouge brained babies.
Still, something of the real war was left, mostly in the faces of the elderly, sometimes in the museum artifacts. A pistol behind glass, its purpose exhausted. A soldier’s letter home, never sent. A photograph of tousled men, helmets shadowing their eyes, hands awkwardly on their packs, their guns. Somehow we felt Frank’s presence there, the shadow of his young self. We tried to picture him in Saigon, in Hué, drinking at the sidewalk bars, flirting with the prostitutes, shielding his face from the sun. And sometimes he was there, faintly. His echo. His untried self, soft as dough, appallingly young.
When we returned to the U.S., we brought back a few crumpled bills of Vietnamese currency. After dinner our second night in Florida, we pulled these out, assuming Frank would dismiss them as he dismissed everything that wasn’t food or Caribbean vacations or the Weather Channel. He didn’t, though. Instead his eyes lit up, like a kid’s at Christmas.
“Look what I have,” he said.
He went into his room and returned with a small wooden box. Inside nestled all his mementoes from the war: his dog tags, a handful of photos, a scatter of bullet casings, and deep under the pile, a few notes of Vietnamese money.
“Look,” he said. Again that glee, that little kid excitement. “They’re almost the same.”
He was right. They were. Our currency featured smiling factory workers piecing together farm equipment, while on his they were assembling missiles, but the faces were the same, as was the message of community, thrift, hard work.
“Guess not much has changed,” he said.
We didn’t tell him about the tours or the ice-cream cones or the target practice with weapons once used to obliterate villagers. We just nodded and smiled, feeling for the first time a glimmer of intimacy with this man who had always been a stranger to us. This man who used to spend his time out in the garage cleaning or fixing something, or inside, stretched on the couch in front of the TV. Yelling at us when we got too loud playing cards. Laughing at Rudyard when he spoke of promotions.
For the first time, it seemed he was actually looking at us, rather than through.
Now here I am, gazing down at him, his abused penis, his testicles speckled with sores. His body’s wasteland, bare in the morning light. Rudyard’s father, whom neither of us have ever really known, this man who has given so little love, nor taken much more, this man whom we are expected to handle as one would a child, a pet, a lover, anything you know so well that touching it is second nature.
Then I glance up, and I see his eyes, staring down into mine. They are the same eyes he’s always had, pale blue fringed with gingery lashes. But I’ve never truly looked into them before. I’ve never had the need. He’s just been my husband’s father, distant, surly, only acknowledging me that one time, when we returned with money from the country in which he had killed so as not to be killed, the country he had survived, though so few had. He would spend most of our visits planted by the TV, growing loquacious only over dinner, when the subject of his vacations arose. I don’t remember ever looking him fully in the eye before.
But now, with his wife splaying his privates for my inspection, I am staring straight into them. He’s in there, deep down, like a tiny man at the bottom of a well, screaming for help. And I suddenly remember another Christmas, five years previous, when I found him in the garage, gulping down a beer in three long swallows, the drawer where he’d apparently kept it hidden pulled wide.
I was taking out the trash, hefting it through the garage to the curb. I opened the door from the kitchen and there he was. Legs apart, feet firmly on the ground, beer can lifted to his mouth. In his belted shorts and polo shirt and white socks pulled up above his ankles, his upper lip twitching against the metal as he drank.
It wasn’t even ten in the morning. We had only just finished opening our gifts. I still had a half-drunk cup of coffee sitting on the kitchen counter. Yet here was Frank’s father guzzling beer secretly in the garage.
It wasn’t even good beer. It was Milwaukee’s Best. He polished it off, even while I was standing there, in three gulps. Like an expert. Like he had been doing it all his life. In retrospect, I suppose he had.
Rudyard had told me about when his father used to be a drinker. How he used to stash a 12-pack of Genesee Cream Ale on his truck’s floor while driving to and from his construction jobs, and then again, another 12-pack perched on the roof or deck of the house on which he was working. How he would take ten-year-old Rudyard to the local bars, plunk him on a stool and feed him bar food and offer him, every so often, his screwdriver to sip. How he was never violent when drunk, except maybe once, when Rudyard was sixteen and came home late, reeking of weed.
Then, in Rudyard’s twenties, after a DUI involving a cop car, his father stopped drinking. “Cold turkey,” Marge always said, chin lifting with pride. “Never started again.”
The morning I caught her husband sneaking beer in the garage, I thought of Marge’s reaction, what she would do if I told her. Her hands gripping her chair, her eyes filling first with horror and then, as she shrank into the denial which had always shielded her, the blank screen that would descend as she decided I was lying, not he.
It took an instant, but that was all I had, because he had finished the beer and was just standing there, waiting to see what I would do.
“I didn’t know you were out here,” I said. “I’m just taking out the garbage.”
Then I pressed the button for the door, waited while it clanked upward. Frank had his empty beer can in hand, and I the bag of his family’s trash. As the door rose, light flooded in, a white blindness, and I walked past him and out that door, down to the bins by the road. The flat Florida sun washed over me, a light that blanketed rather than illuminated, so that all secrets were covered, all things hidden kept buried.
This was the light my in-laws had chosen, this light they preferred to the flickering northern sun. They loved Florida, they said, loved the weather and the golf carts and the shopping plazas, even the scratchy grass with its threat of fire ants, because it gave Marge an excuse not to go outside. They loved the whole state, everything it represented. Who was I to argue? Walking back to where Frank still stood with his empty Milwaukee’s Best can on Christmas morning, I knew I would never tell anybody what I had seen, not even Rudyard.
I’ve held true to that promise, though it didn’t take much effort. I forgot about it soon after it happened, burying it under other experiences, other memories. Our subsequent visits to Florida. Trips to Walmart, Publix, the Villages, every godforsaken hole in this wretched state. Frank’s thinning hair, drooping shoulders, the way his body seemed to shrink into itself over the years, as though it knew it was dying before we had any clue. Marge with her perms, her flowered blouses, the narrowing of her frame after she began with Weight Watchers. Each time we visited they had a new car, a new set of living room furniture, a new tale of a new beach vacation on a new Caribbean island. They seemed happy in a way that Rudyard and I, city snobs that we are, could not understand.
Then Frank started to forget things. He started to fall down. He broke his hip, was undone by a botched surgery, ended up here. Denuded and dying in the house he spent a lifetime to acquire.
My own father was a quiet man. He liked to sew quilts and pencil pictures and cook pancakes in fantastical shapes on Saturday mornings. He loved to fish, but would’ve never hunted deer. As a young man, he’d grown his hair long, protested the war, smoked weed, maybe even dropped acid. He burned his draft card when it arrived. In Frank’s view he shirked his duty as an American. I wonder if Frank would have called him a coward if they’d met.
He was everything my father-in-law was not, but the year the doctors discovered a tumor in his brain, he never complained. Perhaps an occasional wince when the headaches set in, a brief grimace when changing position in his chair, but otherwise nothing.
A year and a half he lasted, thinning down just like Frank, his eyes sinking further back into his skull. Then one September morning, when I was concocting an acorn feast for my dolls outside and my mother was plunging the clogged kitchen sink, something burst in his brain, sending him tumbling to the bathroom floor. My mother found him first. She was still standing there when I banged open the screen door in search of doll cups.
“It’s happened,” she said to me. “Do you want to see him?” She had always believed in presenting me with choices.
I was only eight, so I looked, because I didn’t know any better. Blood had filled his skull, leaked from his ears, his mouth, his nose. His eyes had turned a bright and shocking red. Maybe he hadn’t done what Frank had done in Vietnam, but he’d died brave nonetheless. It’s made me wonder sometimes what good courage is, and why men strive so hard to attain it.
The day I caught Frank drinking in the garage, he treated me different, all afternoon into evening. He let me flip through the TV channels, allowing nature shows instead of the weather forecast. At dinner, he cut out the heart of my artichoke, carefully slicing around the thistles at the center to reveal the core. How ceremoniously he handed it to me on my plate.
“There,” he said. “You can eat it now.”
The way he handled me like glass, like I would break at any moment. It was the most attentive he had ever been to me. It felt almost, but not quite, like love.
Now I am expected to handle him the same. Like something fragile. Something precious.
“Hold his knees,” Marge says. “I need to wash him.”
He’s on his back, but his legs can no longer straighten out. As he curls back into his beginnings so do his legs, drawing up into a fetal position he can’t fight. His knees are jutting upward, but need to be held or else they’ll collapse sideways, causing a twist of his mouth, a deep and prolonged groan.
So I hold them, his bulbous knees hot with fever, while his wife wipes him down with disposable cloths. Somewhere one door opens, another shuts. Rudyard moving from bedroom to bath. He’s awake.
Soon he too will come to gaze upon his father, upon this remnant of a man whom he’s never understood, who perhaps has never understood him.
Frank Jones. His spindly arms, his torso’s shrunken muscles—of which he used to be so proud—the divots in his hips, even his privates, splotched with sores and punctured by that vicious catheter tube. His feet, swollen out of proportion to the rest of his body. This former soldier, this drinker, this man.
As I balance his feverish knees in place, I realize it is no longer intimacy that frightens me. It is only death, of which we are all frightened, all the time, but which we push down inside ourselves, like secrets, hidden vices, all the things too terrible to look at. But I can see it now, crawling over Frank like some hideous insect, learning all the nooks and crannies of his body, the parts that are supposed to be private, but no longer are, and now never will be again. Death is learning him, getting to know him so well, and with a cold and awful sinking, I realize someday it will come to learn me too, as it learned my own father, and so many others before him.
And so I cradle the burning knees of this man with whom I have become so intimate, and though I know I should be as brave as my own father when that tumor bloomed in his brain, I cannot help shivering.
I cannot help feeling afraid.