Monday, May 27, 2013
When I was little my father took me to the graves on Memorial Day.
He was a younger man than I am now. He'd drag any of us he could catch all over the Boston landscape to one boneyard after another. Memorial Day wasn't just for the military dead for him. It was some sort of druidical day. Touch the stone. Pull the weeds. Say the words. Explain to your son who that person was and what they meant to him. Then off to look for the next stone marker by the next oak in the next town. I never understood it. To me it seemed like the stone was all there was to them.
He was a veteran. Everyone was, once. Army Air Force in World War II. He hung below a B24 in a little glass ball and watched the Pacific and the Zeros pass by. He never spoke of it, really, until he was dying in front of me.
I don't know if he knew he was dying. I don't know if you look that visitor in the face, ever. Humans don't seem capable of dealing with the idea. If you're 114, I imagine you figure you'll die tomorrow. But not today. Never today. You know you're dying when you're 10, too. You file that knowledge away with the things that live in the back of the closet and out by the woodpile on a moonless night.
Towards the end, I took him to the doctors a lot. His body wasn't sick. It was a villain, an enemy at that point. It didn't let him down; it turned on him. But I'd take him to the doctor just the same -- who seemed more in tune with the wraith of endless malady that shared my father's body than my father himself. They took turns working on him like a heavy bag. I'm not sure which showed more mercy. Doctors have precious little mercy in them, in my experience. It's not in their job description, anyway. I don't understand why people look for it from them.
I had almost nothing to do with my father for about 15 years or so. He was lost to me, or I was lost to him, or something. I got the feeling towards the end there that I was of some small use to him, and I liked it. I took him and sat with him while we waited on chairs that would make you feeble if you weren't already, then afterwards we ate a donut and drank coffee at the Dunkin' Donuts while gaping like shut-ins at the traffic passing by. He lost all his teeth when he was a child, and had a soft spot, always, for a jelly donut.
It's hard to describe what came out of his mouth while we lingered there on those afternoons. I'm not sure he was talking to me. He was unraveling a long string, and allowed me to sit with him as he did it. The string wasn't coherent. It was all one skein, but it was bits and pieces of things, knotted together roughly, all out of order, but all of immense interest to me. I think the Rosetta Stone has mundane things written on it, doesn't it? What's mundane... depends.
All these people appeared among the clatter of the cash registers and the muffled sound of the traffic outside, suspended in fleeting words in the air in front of his eyes, eyes gone the color of dishwater from their blue beginnings. He produced laundry lists of my flesh and blood; himself when he was younger, described like any other stranger; far-flung relatives; friends gone but not forgotten. They assembled as he called them up in an imaginary mob behind him until there were too many to count. He was their priest, or maybe their ouija board, their lawyer, their mourner, raiding their tombs like Carnarvon.
And nothing passed their lips but a terrible murmur that my father could not hear: Why the world would give them a stone when all they asked for was bread.