By Clare Ultimo
Four days after the first crippling snowstorm of 1996, four months and thirteen days after my mother died, I was sitting with my father on the living room couch in his home in Brooklyn. It was a Saturday night, and he was reading to me from the Catholic newspaper, "The Tablet" from an article about how God lets all the souls out of Purgatory around Christmas time each year.
"It says here that every year right around Christmas, all the souls in Purgatory get to go to heaven", he said. That means that cousin Carney [who had died in the previous September] and mama are in heaven now. That's great, isn't it? I had a dream once that I saw your Aunt Marie in Purgatory, with a big crowd around, her arms waving above her head, yelling up at me, saying 'thank you'. It's because I pray for the souls in Purgatory every day, that's why she thanked me. She came to me in a dream to tell me that. Isn't that somethin'? You should always pray for the souls in Purgatory, Clare". He continued to read the article.
"What makes you think mama is in Purgatory?" I answered. "She was, like, the most generous woman on the planet! She was like an angel to everyone. Everyone loved her. I'm sure she went right to heaven", I exclaimed. I couldn't believe that a man whose poetry- writing and dreamlike presence made him seem so spiritual to the rest of the world – that a man like this would even consider that his wife would end up in Purgatory first to be cleansed of her sins. He always had some kind of religious reverence for her. It seemed logical to me that since he couldn't see any of my mother's flaws while she was alive, he wouldn't see any in her death either. I couldn't understand his hesitation in response to my question, as though he was silently counting the reasons why my mother didn't get to go directly to the pearly gates.
"Oh well, I don't think she went right to heaven." he finally said. I was so exhausted, I couldn't challenge him. I didn't sleep at all the night before. I had stayed over to keep an eye on him and my dad had a very rough night. I had never seen him so weak and disoriented.
The initial snowstorm of 1996 crushed New York City and all its boroughs earlier in that week. It virtually stopped street transportation so I didn't know how I would get him anywhere when he called me at work to tell me about chest pains on Wednesday. Until the streets were cleared, I couldn't even get him out of his house. I checked up on him a few hours after he called to report the pains, but by then he was fine again. He still felt as though he should see a doctor so I made the first appointment that I could.
After my mother died, his eccentricities hit new extremes. He had phantom physical afflictions that always disappeared; imagined that his daycare nurse was stealing money from him (which was never true once we counted the thin pile of bills he carefully kept at the bottom of an unused dresser drawer) and called me several times during my work day to tell me some article of his clothing had been stolen.
On Friday, once some of the snow had been cleared, I went with him to the cardiologist, carefully guiding him through dangerously icy sidewalk and snow piled five feet high on either side of us, like a celestial hallway as we walked. It was a dark, gray afternoon and I had left work early so I could take him to a 4 o'clock appointment.
"I don't like the looks of it" Dr. Caccasi said. "We need to do some tests." The doctor wanted me to admit my dad to a nearby hospital that Sunday morning since he was scheduled to be on staff at that time and could get him into a room quickly. My father needed to be observed as well, it would only be for a few days, he said. When I heard the words "Sunday morning", I immediately got a sense of foreboding. It seemed natural that I would. My father had never been in a hospital before. He was almost completely deaf at the time and I was afraid that if he couldn't hear what the doctors and nurses were saying to him, he would become belligerent and angry. I wouldn't be able to interact for him. I imagined him laying under a white sheet in the dark at night and becoming disoriented and afraid or even inconsolable and I wouldn't be there to interpret or communicate for him. What if I had to race to Brooklyn from work at all hours of the day to "fix" something? What if a few days became a few weeks?
I was buried between a kind of unmanageable grief at my mother's recent death, a business to run in Manhattan and the daily affairs of my father's unbearable life without his wife – the first time he was without her in 45 years. Friends told me that men my father's age, 83, generally live about two years after their wives die. Since my mom had died a few months before, I began to try and plan things I thought he would enjoy doing without her (if such things existed) like going to plays in Manhattan, visiting me for dinner, going to see a few of his relatives. He never seemed very interested in doing those things, though. He had become more cranky, more fearful, more dreamy. My mother had made his unusual behavior much easier for me to deal with. She hardly seemed to take anything seriously and was even making jokes even on her deathbed.
The night he was reading to me from "The Tablet" he was sitting in a red and black plaid flannel shirt with the cuff buttons closed, his T-shirt showing up by his neck, mysteriously uneven rows of tiny holes by his collar that was yellowed from age even though the shirt was clean. He was almost in a jolly mood. This Purgatory thing seemed to make him childlike and ebullient. I was laying down next to him, my feet up on the couch back beside him, trying hard not to fall asleep.
"Hey Clare, are you with me here?" he said as he noticed I was nodding off. "are you awake or what?"
"Dad, it's just that I'm so tired. I was up all night. I'm sorry. No, I'm awake, I'm awake".
I adjusted myself to sit up and he continued reading. I stared at his profile as though he could hear my thoughts. Isolated beard stubble and a line of uneven bumps. Ancient acne pockmarks on the side of his face, his thick, too long, almost-all white hair now sticking out in all the wrong places, his thick black-rimmed glasses. A familiar smell that could never be entirely unpleasant to me coming from the red flannel shirt. Could he hear my thoughts? That would be terrible. I was so angry with him for getting sick so soon after my mom died, so frightened of how this would change my life again.
He just couldn't get sick "on me". Not now. I went through a list of reasons why I just couldn't deal with witnessing my father's fall into complete helplessness. What if he ended up in a rented hospital bed in the living room like my mother did a few months ago? The doctors would call me at work, the nurse would tell me he hadn't eaten that day, I would have to come and stay on weekends with him and maybe have to change a diaper, or help him pee. He would probably never let me help him pee either, but the thought seemed perverse to me anyway. Would we argue over it? How could I do this?
Months before, I had been sleeping on this same couch while my mother lay in a rented hospital bed a few feet away. I spent four days a week, Wednesdays and weekends, overseeing her growing weaknesses, making sure she didn't fall when she went to get up at 4am to use the portable toilet near her bed. From the day we knew my mother's heart condition was no longer treatable, in April, to the August morning she died, I felt lucky she was able to be taken care of in her own home. I actually considered this a kind of miracle but it took every breath out of me for the nine weeks she laid there. Hardly a full season, just nine weeks from the day of diagnosis to when she passed away. It was not enough time to forget feeling angry and powerless and empty. My father's flannel shirt was missing a button and I noticed that he had mismatched the holes on their way down. This was all happening too fast and as I lay silently beside my father that night, I felt like a car without the breaks on, heading straight into a brick wall.
Did he know what I was thinking? That I was afraid I had to take care of him too, that it was a curse to be an only child, that is was just too soon and I wouldn't make it this time. I just needed more time. He was also a patient person, unlike my mother. What if he took a very long time to die? What is a very long time to die? Should I just hope this is temporary and he will fully recover soon?
If he did know what I was thinking, he wasn't paying too much attention to my panic. He was reading out loud from the paper, telling me all sorts of information about how Catholics deal with the newly departed and how he believed all these things were true. How he had proof from his own life that these things happened, even though we couldn't witness them. I couldn't pay attention. How could I be so heartless? How could I imagine that taking care of him in his last days would be a burden to me? How could the daughter of such a kind man be so selfish and self-involved? I felt deeply ashamed of my fears.
What if he could actually hear my thoughts? Well, Dad, it's not that I don't love you, that I don't deeply love you, but I'm wrecked right now. I'm exhausted and I'm scared and my mother just died. I loved her as much as you did, and I miss her too. I mean, she was my mother! And I'm not even sure yet how the death of a woman who stuffed olives in a factory – "we did dates and figs too", who never approved of how I wouldn't eat meat or sugar, who made me change her living room curtains four times a year – had transformed my life yet. But my life looked like it belonged to someone else, someone whose mother had just died and now had an old man to take care of who was deaf and moody and inconsolable.
My father turned to me, the brown circles of his eyes looked huge beneath block-thick eyeglasses and he was smiling. "How are you doing, doll?" he said. "I feel like having a snack, you wanna have a snack? How about it?"
He went on about maybe having a glass of wine too and I sunk into the lumpy couch a bit more. I breathed his flannel shirt smell into me, watched his beautiful hands that always looked like they could hold a bird safely within their long fingers and I just wanted him to forgive me for my fear and anger and hopelessness. I kept thinking it would be easier right now, the night before I had to take him to the hospital, to imagine that he could hear my thoughts. I was too tired and mixed up to try and make my mouth say the words so he could hear me. I sat up and began pressing his mad-scientist hair down by the sides of his face. Unlike my mother, he was affectionate and never cared if I touched him.
"What happened, you couldn't find the comb today?" I said. He laughed and began listing what he thought was in the refrigerator for a snack. "I think there's chocolate. I bought some chocolate. Isn't there crackers? Do you want to have some bread and butter with me? C'mon, Clare, what do we have?"
I began thinking that there may not be much more opportunity to watch his eyelashes blink when he talked to me, when I could hear him call me "doll" or have a snack with him at the kitchen table. He was such a strange man. A WWII Veteran who fought in the Battle of the Bulge but couldn't watch violent movies or appreciate a dirty joke. My mom used to say "I don't know how he ever got through the army; the way men talk and joke with each other. He shoulda been a priest, you know, that's what he shoulda been."
My father, the would-be priest, sat at the kitchen table with me, the only light coming from a dim golden bulb on the stove. There wasn't much in the house for snacks; the storm made it hard to bring anything in for a few days. I found two whole wheat pitas and some strawberry jam. "There's no chocolate, pop, but there's bread and butter and jam."
"That's OK", he said. "How about some wine? Don't we have some wine? I didn't have any at dinner. I feel like having a glass."
Dr. Caccesi said the new heart medications could not be taken if he was drinking any alcohol. I didn't want to take any chances, to risk anything at this point.
"The doctor said you can't drink because of the medicine you started taking," I said.
"Gee, I really wanted a glass of wine. You don't think so, huh?" He was visibly disappointed.
"Oh, dad, I don't know what to do. This is what he said. I guess we should follow his orders. I'm sorry, dad. When you come out of the hospital, it will be better then. I'm sure you can have a glass of wine then."
I ate the stale pita with him and he drank a glass of milk. He ended up with a milk mustache, and I wiped it off with a clean napkin, but he didn't respond. "I better go to bed, it's late" he said as he finished with the jam and bread.
"I love you, pop," I said and kissed him. "We've got a big day tomorrow and I'm making a list of stuff we have to bring."
"God love you," he answered and hugged me. It had become the way he responded to me when I told him I loved him – "God love you" – as though he felt it was more important for me to know that God loved me, rather than himself, my plain old mortal dad. Maybe he thought I had to be reminded that God loved me, and that he was the messenger, the interpreter for God. Everyone said he certainly had an unusual way of looking at life. I put all the food away and waited in the kitchen so I could watch him get ready for bed, paying attention so I could hear anything that might not sound right.
I sat down at the edge of my old bed that was in the room next to his and looked out the window facing streetlights and white-blanketed backyards. I smoked cigarettes as I created a mental list of things to buy for his hospital stay: toothbrush, paste, soap, socks (his feet were always cold), a notepad and pens so the doctors could write stuff down in case he couldn't hear, his radio with earphones, what else? In the dark, I began to panic again. What if he needed me and I wasn't there? What if he started fighting with the nurses when they went to change his bedpan or something? What would happen if he couldn't understand what they were saying to him?
I began chain smoking and looked at my watch. Two a.m. I've got to get up early and go buy the stuff he needs to take with him. Something terrible will happen. Sunday morning was a mistake; I shouldn't have said he would go to the hospital, I should have insisted on another route, or postponed it entirely. I thought if I stayed up longer somehow the morning wouldn't seem so unwelcome. I wished that there would only be this night, this Saturday night and no morning would ever come.
I didn't sleep for another hour, but at eight a.m. I was awakened by my four-year old cousin who lived with her mom downstairs from my dad's apartment.
"Can you play with me?" she asked.
"Did you have breakfast? Are you hungry?" I answered.
When she nodded, her brother, another toddler came up behind her, the foot part of his pajamas dragging along past his small legs. I went into my dad's room and made sure he was awake.
"Dad, you've got to get up, we've got to get you ready to go to the hospital. I've got to go to the store soon," I told him. He mumbled something I didn't understand and looked as though he was about to get out of bed.
Cereal, hard-boiled eggs and some ridiculous conversation that I couldn't really enjoy with the three and four-year olds. "Please sit down and eat...don't put the doll on the table...watch when you pour the milk...not too much noise, poppy's got to go to the hospital and we've got to get ready...no television now."
Unaffected by my distraction, they talked to their toys and each other in the kitchen. My dad didn't come out of his room to use the bathroom. It had been at least 20 minutes since I went in to get him up. I went in to see what had happened and he was still in bed, this time looking like he couldn't breathe too well.
"What happened, pop? Are you OK?" I walked to the side of the bed and his body began moving in small, tense ways, jerking slightly as though he was shivering.
"I...I must have had an accident", he whispered.
His lips began to turn blue and I ran out to the kitchen to call an ambulance. I told the four-year old to run and get her mother, that Poppy was sick and she had to come upstairs. Trying to sit my dad up, talking to him, trying to do something. I didn't know what to do. I called 911 a second time, this time screaming that someone had to come to 246 74th Street right away, that my dad wasn't breathing right and where was the ambulance that I just called?
Finally, three big guys with navy blue jackets and "Methodist Hospital" insignias by the front zippers came to the door. They were holding some equipment and raced towards the bedroom in the back. "He's here, he's here, hurry, in the back" I led them to my dad. They stood close to the bed, looked down at him and asked me to leave the room. They would help him. I didn't have to panic. They knew what they were doing. In minutes, they had him in a wheelchair, rolling him past the cereal and hard boiled eggs on the kitchen table, his body leaning down to one side, his bare foot dangling dangerously near the wheel at the bottom. He might scrape his foot that way, I thought. His foot is just hanging there and it might get caught by the wheel. He looked lifeless and I ran behind them, getting ready to get in the ambulance.
"You can't go in there", one of them said to me. "Wait here".
On a Sunday morning in the middle of winter without my coat, I stood in front of the entrance to my parent's house. Neighbors came out from their homes and asked me what had happened. I was staring at the white truck with red and gold letters in front of me, while it was jerking, moving sideways back and forth, my father inside with the three men.
"It's my father" I said. "I don't know. They won't let me go in the truck. What are they doing? Why can't I go in the ambulance with them?"
A second truck came by and parked behind the first one. This time a woman in a blue jacket got out and called to me, "You can come in this car. We'll follow them".
I ran and got my coat and got into the second ambulance. "Why can't I go in his truck?" I asked. "What's the matter?"
"This is how we do it. We'll get you to the hospital, don't worry." They must do this a lot, I thought. They were calm and focused and didn't say anything else. I was silent too. I can't think about him dying, because maybe then he will die. I can't think about that. It would be bad to think about that. We're just taking him where he can get some help, I thought. That's all.
I waited outside the hospital while he went into the emergency room. I sat on a low concrete step because they told me I had to wait somewhere else until they came and got me. The snow had melted; we had a bright, sunny weekend. The sky was very blue and across the street there was a park with lots of twiggy trees, piles of spotty snow and used soft drink cups on the patches of sidewalk by the gate. All at once it seemed, a large group of pigeons convened at the top of the tree directly in front of me. My dad loved to feed the birds. He once got into some kind of trouble because he was feeding pigeons in front of the Methodist church down the block. He didn't pay any attention when he was reprimanded. "I just came back with a different jacket on so they wouldn't recognize me", he said. That was my father – flawed logic but a lot of imagination.
Then I noticed one white pigeon, apart from the rest, flying away from the pack. I didn't even know there was such a thing as a white pigeon. And he was perfectly white except for tiny black tips on each side of his wings that I could still see clearly before he flew up beyond the tree and the other birds in the group.
"Wow, where's that bird going?" I thought. That's right, distract myself from this moment when I am sitting on a concrete step outside a hospital waiting to find out if my dad will be allright.
The bird began to fly up. A distinct direction towards the sky, up so high that at one point I could no longer see it as it disappeared into the blue almost directly above me.
Does this mean something? No, just a strange bird going away from the rest. What if it meant something? This would be just like my father, to make some kind of sign when he passed over. The bird disappeared above me into the crisp winter blue almost completely straight over my head.
The priest in the emergency room asked me if I was related to the man they just brought in. "He's my father" I said.
"I'm sorry, dear, he just passed away", he said very softly. "Do you want to pray with me?"
I wasn't sure what he was saying, but I followed him to a darker area of the room, away from the hospital beds and hanging tubes where my father lay on a stretcher with a white sheet over him. I could see his face. It looked just like he was sleeping.
I pushed his long hair back into place. I don't remember what I said but I spoke to him. I think I was crying. The priest left and reminded me that my dad was with God now and I stood there for a long time, pressing the thick strands of his hair back, touching the side of his face.
My father always told me that when his mother died it was snowing out. "When we got the call from the hospital, I looked out the window and everything was white," he said. "Grandma always loved Our Lady of the Snows", he would say. "Pure, like snow, see? She was somethin', your grandma. She used to translate all the letters in Italian that the neighbors got from back home. She could read perfectly in Italian. She was a good student, Clare, she loved to read like you."
It was forty blocks from the hospital back to my dad's house and I walked all the way without my boots on through the uneven piles of snow. The hospital was on a desolate avenue, no stores or homes, a vast white emptiness of factory buildings, empty lots and schoolyards, long stretches of clear blue above. I called relatives from a phone booth on a street corner. "My father just died, I'm going back to the house" was all I could say.
The four-year-old who had overheard me talking about the strange white bird outside the hospital took one of my father's old brown shoes from near his bed later that day, and brought it to me a with a big smile on her face.
"These are funny," she said.
"Why, Margaret, why are they funny?" I asked.
"These shoes are too big! Poppy can't wear them now. He has small bird feet, teeny bird feet and now his shoes won't fit him anymore," she giggled. Then she began to try and make his bed, pulling the covers from this side to that, not making any progress, dropping the pillows on the floor, running from one side to the other. This was the Sunday morning in January that my father died and a four-year old, unaffected by the ambulance and the panic in the house only a few hours before, was making the bed he had only just been sleeping in, throwing herself on the mattress to smooth out the sheets. Maybe she really knew something. Out of the mouths of babes and all that. Maybe she really knew that the bird, the weird white pigeon of all things, was a sign that my dad was allright. It was all over so quickly.
"Do you want to play with me?" she said.