Saturday, January 27, 2007
When I was growing up, every Christmas Eve my old Italian grandmother would put out food on the dining room table as a gift for the souls of the dearly departed.
She had enough of them, poor woman, including her husband and my Aunt Mary, who died at 18 from lung disease.
It's an old world custom, which I'm sure can be found in many cultures, and as a kid I found it somewhere between cool and creepy.
I remember my grandmother as a tough old dame, but my Aunt Marie said grandma was never the same after Mary died. She was only human and the loss of her daughter took a lot out of her. I guess she was better at hiding her pain than a lot of people.
Now that I'm dealing with my father's recent death, I see that grandma's yearly tribute to the dead was more for her benefit than for any wandering spirit. Putting out food for her deceased relatives was a way of connecting with them, of keeping them here them alive in her world.
I think of grandma, who died when I was in the fifth grade, of my mom, who died nearly five years ago, of my father, and our pets--Schnapps, Casey, Phoebe--and I sit here in this empty house and realize I could hold a banquet for all my loved ones who've died.
It's nice to think of all us sitting at the dining room table, all this food around us. In my vision, we don't fight, we don't hurt each other. We speak kindly to each other and count ourselves lucky to have all these loving people around us.
My father came back to me Thursday in a dream that was neither pleasant nor sweet. The hell of it is, I had forgotten the damn thing upon waking up. I got out of bed Friday, had breakfast and was shaving when the whole thing came slamming into my brain like a runaway boxcar.
In the dream I'm walking through this massive, crumbling structure. It looks like an old factory and as I pass one of the rooms, I see my father curled up on a pile of rubble.
He's in his underwear with a black ski cap on his head, which he often wore to bed because his head got cold at night.
"I'm all right," he says to me, "I'm all right."
That's something my father used to say whenever he fell down or hurt himself or was feeling sick. Those were the first words out of his mouth--I'm all right.
Like any other normal human being, my father hated going to the hospital, so if he wasn't well, he wanted to let everyone know he didn't need to go to the ER.
I used take my dad's word for it when he said he was okay. Part of it was denial, where I hoped he really was all right and part of it, I'm ashamed to say, was selfishness in that I didn't feel like taking him down to the hospital.
Believe You Me
Years ago, he was sick to his stomach, but he told me he was okay and I went off to work. It was a contract job, meaning if I miss a day's work, I didn't get paid. I was talking to my sister that afternoon and told her about our father.
"You left him?" she said with justifiable disbelief.
My sister worked in Brooklyn, so she swung by the house and took my dad to the doctor. It wasn't anything serious, but at least she found that out for certain.
I took his word for it back in October when he fell down on the way to the bathroom shortly after dawn and assured me he was okay.
I put him back into bed, went to work and didn't think anything of it until his aide Mary called to tell me she was taking my father to hospital because he was sluggish and vague. It turns out he had had a stroke that morning and I felt like a first class idiot.
So when he fell down in the bedroom last month at 2 AM, I hesitated for a few minutes, since I had to go work the next day. But then I remembered the stroke and called an ambulance. It didn't help much in the end and he was dead within a few weeks, but at least I got him to a doctor as quickly as I could.
In the dream, though, I stupidly and selfishly take my father's word for it when he says he's okay--even though he's alone in an abandoned building in a pile of rubble!--and go off to meet some friends in some kind of cafeteria.
I order two huge hot dogs--I was having turkey hot dogs for lunch the next day, so I guess my subconscious picked up on that. But then I feel like I have to go back to him and I leave before my lunch arrives. Cheap bastard that I am, I am complaining to myself because I'm wasting money on food I'm not going to eat.
The dream becomes vague then and the last thing I recall is walking alongside one of my brothers.
"Isn't Dad dead?" I ask.
"Yes," my brother replies.
"But I just saw him."
Obviously I'm feeling a lot of guilt about the way I cared for my father and that shows up in the dream. I leave him, even though I know in my heart I shoudn't, and go off and have a good time with my friends.
I was pretty upset for most of Friday morning as I thought of my father in that trash pile and me leaving him. Even though it didn't actually happen, some part of me evidently thinks I'm guilty of abandoning my dad.
It's easy to drive yourself insane with guilt. I got some good advice from a total stranger the other day, but it took me a few days to appreciate it.
I was going to my gym class on Sunday and the trains were acting up. I got off the R and got on to the N express, only to have the N go down. So I got the next R train, warning a fellow passenger not to get on the dormant N train.
He stayed on the local, which then slowed down, while the formerly deceased N train suddenly came back to life and took off like Carl Lewis at the Olympics. That thing is probably pulling into Tokyo now, it was going so fast. Me, I just sat in my seat raging. I didn't want to be late for my gym class, but I didn't really want to go because I was tired.
I felt stupid because I had told this young man not to take the express and now he was stuck on the local--with me. I knew I was muttering curses a little too loudly, but I couldn't--or wouldn't--stop. Later I thought of an old Bill Cosby routine about the New York subways called "A Nut in Every Car."
It bothered me to think that I was the nut in this car, the one paasnger everyone avoided looking at so as not to rile me up even more. When the train pulled in Pacific Street, the young man got up and nodded to me.
"Good luck," he said. "Don't let it get to you."
Whoever you are, thanks for that little pearl of wisdom. Pleasant dreams.