I stood at the foot of the hospital bed, playing solitaire on the tray table. With each turn of a card, I looked up to see my father’s large blue-gray eyes staring at me. Memorizing my face? Asking for something?
He was beyond speech; four years into his illness. Chronic lymphocytic leukemia was supposed to be relatively benign. “You can live with this for twenty years and likely die of something else,” said the doctor at the time. Four years later, aged 72, he was diapered and speechless in a hospice bed. I didn’t understand how he had gotten to this point. Even though I saw the disease rob my father of himself, bit by bit, it was still a shock.
When I was growing up, he was often mistaken for a wrestler or football player. Such was my father’s presence. A deep, resonant voice, broad shoulders, with a bald head and prominent nose – he was the perfect dean of a New York City high school.
He was also the perfect social studies teacher. A voracious reader; he consumed biographies of Jefferson, Lincoln, Russian histories, westerns by Louis L’Amour, and any and all novels about the mob. All with equal gusto.
I continued playing solitaire. The slap of the cards on the laminate was a familiar sound to him. I would hear that sound as I came down the stairs in my own house, when my parents visited, and see him at my kitchen table, playing solitaire while waiting for the rest of us to be ready to go – wherever it was we were going, Dad was always ready early.
I kept looking up at his eyes.
My flight was 5:45 a.m. the next day, Sunday, March 13, 2005. That flight would get me home in time to see Leah’s final dance recital (she was a senior in high school and would be going on to college in the fall) and to celebrate Daniel’s 16th birthday. I took my leave, giving him a kiss on the cheek and a squeeze of his diminished arm. My mom and my brother Mark were with him and that comforted me.
He died that next day, on my son’s birthday, during my daughter’s dance recital.
Her skin smelled different as I gave her a hug. Nana was just back from a vacation to Florida. Her freckles had blended from the sun, her face and arms a burnished copper. I felt a little sad, a bit distant. I wanted her familiar scent, her familiar skin. But I was grateful that she was home at last.
That trip to Florida must have been longer than others because I remember writing a letter to her. I remember thinking I was quite clever because I wrote, “Everyone misses you, but I miss you most of all.” A variation of the line from The Wizard of Oz, the one where Dorothy tells the Scarecrow she’ll miss him most of all. Though I don’t think I had that in mind when I wrote it.
More commonly, we were the ones leaving – at least for the summers. My Dad, a teacher, used his summers to attend graduate school. We spent, as a family, one summer in Worcester, MA at Clark University, and three summers at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana (I have written about our road trips and time in Illinois here and there).
One summer I was especially uneasy about leaving home because I was taking care of a cat. We didn’t have pets in my family, my mother was deathly afraid of all animals. I always wanted a cat so I befriended a neighborhood stray that I named, creatively, Cutie. Mom allowed me to feed her in the garage and I could bring her in the basement to play with now and again. I considered Cutie to be my cat. I didn’t want to leave her when it was time to go to Illinois. Nana agreed to look after Cutie.
While we were away, unbeknownst to me, Cutie was injured. I later learned that the neighborhood kids were mean to her (not all that surprising given how they treated me), throwing rocks and taunting her. Nana tried to protect her, but she wasn’t outside much. Cutie recovered, but she was left with a scar. When I came home and saw it, I was devastated. She had a patch of fur missing on her neck and there was an ugly scab there. Every time I looked at it, I felt sick to my stomach. I was so upset, I didn’t want to handle her anymore. Rather than holding and comforting her, I rejected her. My nine-year-old self couldn’t cope with the disfigurement, which made me feel worse. My Dad stepped in and explained that since I couldn’t care for Cutie anymore, it would be best if we took her to an ASPCA shelter. I reluctantly agreed.
Dad got in the front seat of the car and I held Cutie on my lap in the back. We didn’t have a carrier. Cutie got agitated once the car started moving. I managed to hold her for a while, but eventually she wriggled out of my arms and climbed on the back of my Dad’s seat. At that moment, Dad opened his window. Cutie leapt out. I screamed. I think we were on Utica Avenue, or a similarly busy thoroughfare. I didn’t see where Cutie went, though at least I didn’t think she had been hit by another vehicle.
“Stop the car!” I pleaded.
“I can’t, not right here,” Dad said firmly.
“You did that on purpose!”
“You opened the window on purpose! Now what will happen to her?” I was crying.
“Linda, I didn’t open the window on purpose, but it may be for the best.”
“Shouldn’t we look for her?” I asked desperately.
At this point, Dad pulled the car over. We were looking out the windows in every direction, but we didn’t get out. There were so many people crowding the street, so many cars blocking the view of the sidewalks, shops with racks of goods outside, buses coming and going; general chaos. It was hopeless. There was no way we would spot her.
“We were bringing her to a shelter, anyway, Linda,” Dad offered. “Maybe this is better. I’m sorry. Let’s go home.” He circled around the block. I was still looking frantically, through my tears. I didn’t see her. I didn’t really believe that it was better, but I didn’t know what to do.
It was a painful episode for everyone. I think we all felt guilty. I was mostly disappointed in myself and how I reacted to Cutie’s injury. One thing I don’t recall doing: I didn’t blame Nana. I knew that even if I had been home the same thing could have happened.
I always wondered if my father opened the window to let her out. That will remain one of life’s mysteries. Maybe it was for the best. At the time, I didn’t understand how shelters worked. Thinking about it now, it is unlikely that she would have been adopted. She had always been a street cat. I tried to convince myself that she figured out how to survive in a new neighborhood.
I still loved cats, but it would be quite a while before I took care of another one.
Another one of life’s mysteries began with another trip. This one Nana took – to Portugal. That seemed like quite an exotic destination to me. People I knew didn’t travel to Europe. She went with her older sister, Sadie. I had a sense that this was a big thing – maybe a once in a lifetime opportunity that Nana felt she couldn’t pass up.
Naturally Nana came back bearing gifts. She brought back a gold filigree bracelet. I marveled at its intricate pattern and delicacy. She also brought back an embroidered bag. It was black with bright flowers and the word ‘Portugal’ sown on. I kept my doll collection in that bag for years.
Unfortunately, she also brought back an infection in her big toe. People with diabetes often have difficulty healing, especially in their extremities. I didn’t understand that at the time, I only knew that this toe infection became a serious medical problem that required hospitalization. Once again Nana went to Unity Hospital in Brooklyn.
For a time, it looked like they might have to amputate her toe, or maybe even her foot. Nana, who was looking forward to dancing at Uncle Terry’s wedding in a few months’ time, flat out rejected that possibility. She was determined to keep all her toes, perhaps even at the risk of her overall health. She was released from the hospital with all her toes. She danced at Terry and Barbara’s wedding in January of 1971. Three months later, in April, she died. I don’t know if there was a relationship to the infection. I didn’t think so at the time.
To an 11-year-old, three months is a long time. It is strange how the perception of time changes the older you get. The infection and her death seemed too far apart to be connected. Now I’m not so sure.
Jewish tradition doesn’t generally permit an autopsy because of the belief that the body is sacred, shouldn’t be desecrated and should be buried intact. There are exceptions if the law of the land requires it or if a physician determines that new knowledge could be gained to help others. Neither exception applied, so we never fully understood Nana’s death. An embolism or an aneurysm were suspected. Perhaps the adults knew more but, if so, nothing was shared.
These events left me with many questions. Why would anyone harm an animal? Why didn’t I have the stomach to care for Cutie after her injury? Did Dad deliberately open his window to let her escape? Did the infection hasten Nana’s death? Could things have been different for Nana if she had taken better care? Of those questions, there was only one I could do anything about. I could do better with my next pet.
I suppose we all carry questions that we can’t answer. I look for meaning in the losses and I think I find it, even if I don’t have answers. As a child, I learned to love and cope with loss – the two are inextricably connected.