Eric, our grandchild, our number one and only, so much like a son to my wife Milly and me, has called to say he will come to visit next weekend. He’ll want advice, some life knowledge and wisdom to take away with him, but at my age, with the way my mind works, I don’t know if I can be of much help and I find myself thinking of my father.
My father passed away when I was nine, but before that there were days when he would come home from work, open the front door, and find me alone in the living room, doing my assignments for school. My mother would be out back in the garden, or down the street, checking in with the other mothers of our suburban Philadelphia neighborhood. My brothers and sisters, years older, lived elsewhere. So, since I was the one right there, waiting and attentive, my father would tell me about his day, talking to me as if I were old and wise enough to comprehend what he had to say.
Long before the days of charge cards, my father had made himself into the local equivalent of Visa or American Express, minus the exorbitant interest rates and annual fees. He once had other occupations, but after he immigrated to Philadelphia from the shores of the Black Sea, he mastered the language of the city, and, 22 years old, he struck up relations with a number of large department stores, negotiating cut rates in exchange for bulk business. He would spend his days walking from building to building, offering other immigrants the chance to buy whatever they wanted on installment, month by month. “I’m a New World peddler,” he would say. Like peddlers throughout the ages, he never made a lot of money, but he made enough.
Often, when he talked to me those days in the living room, he would take off his jacket, untie his shoes, and complain. He knew first-hand the strain of coming to a new country and starting a new life, and it pained him to see struggling people purchase what they could not afford. “You know, Charlie,” he’d say, “I have advice and wisdom for I have been around and experienced. I try my best to just give it away, for nothing, for free. But too many people want only what will cost them, what will be too much. Wait, I tell them, wait until you’ve been married, wait until the baby is more grown. What’s the rush? You don’t need such a big, expensive appliance now. You don’t need fur, such fine shoes, jewelry. But they don’t listen to me. I tell them I know. I tell them it will cost them nothing to take my word for what I say.”
Then my father would pause, for effect, looking into my eyes, trying to make certain that I, his own flesh and blood, would hear and heed his words. He’d speak his refrain, his favorite paradox: “Everybody wants, but not what I have to give away.”
In the end, no matter what he thought, he couldn’t say no, because they’d just go through his rival Gershowitz or someone else, and he knew, and we knew, that at least he would be forgiving, letting his customers take as long as they needed, letting payments go if they had to go, because that’s what he did. If someone asked for more time, he’d give them that. And he didn’t lord his warning over them. “It’s not for me to tell them I told them,” he’d tell me.
Not yet ten years old, I didn’t understand much of what my father meant. Still, I looked up at him when he spoke. And I listened.
In the 70-odd years I’ve lived since those days, I have countless times longed to hear my father’s advice, longed to see him appear before me again, vivid and so certain. It’s dying young, I’ve come to believe, that let him keep his confidence. He came across the ocean alone, made himself a successful life in an unknown land, and then, before doubts, old age, and powerlessness could settle onto his shoulders, he passed quickly away, sure of everything he knew.
Recently, on his 30th birthday, Eric wanted to give something precious away. Although he grew up with me and Milly, he has not yet fully learned how difficult giving can be. On the phone, he told us what happened, but his account seemed to me reluctant and abbreviated. His answers to our questions sounded too short, missing details. My imagination went to work, filling out the fragments, contributing just a little conjecture. I pictured him up north in his Boston apartment, with Dr. Lisbeth Ninnovich—Nins for short, a pediatric resident, his girlfriend of the past 17 months and the woman he knew he would love for the rest of his life. I saw the moment in my mind, watched it again and again, hoping to discover exactly what I should say to him.
On the first morning of his fourth decade, he was just where he wanted to be, in bed beside Nins. He woke up early, waiting for the sun to rise, which it did, the last thing that went as he expected, orange light brightening the room, sparkling across Nins’ hair, her legs tan from running.
He had a plan, already well-started. He stepped carefully into the bathroom, to clean himself up. Then he snuck into the kitchen, removed the bottle of champagne hidden in the lettuce drawer, grabbed the roses stored beneath the sink, and made his way back to the bed. He took a small, velvety box from his night table drawer, held it in his hand as he kissed Nins lightly on the lips to wake her up.
She knew what day it was, and, moving close to him with a hug and kiss in return, she softly said, “Happy birthday Eric,” nuzzling her head against his chest.
Eric said, “Do you know what I want for my birthday?” but she was still sleepy-minded, she mumbled something about time, to him, or in a dream, and he said, “Listen. This is sort of important. Do you know what I want for my 30th birthday?”
“Uh-uh,” she said.
He considered slowing down, he thought about waiting, but he kept going, according to plan, saying, “I want to give you this,” as he set next to her head, before her almost closed eyes, the small jewelry box.
Up she sat, placing the box in the palm of her left hand, opening with her right, and here he did wait, at least for a few seconds, watching her eyes, hoping to catch sight of her heart there or in the movement of her thin, un-ringed fingers. Then, with his voice full of certainty, so there could be no question about his forethought and desire, Eric said, “Lisbeth Ninnovich, will you marry me? Will you marry me, Lisbeth Ninnovich?”
She was suddenly very awake, admiring the ring, and a pause came, all wrong. He knew first from her breathing, the way there was no gasp of pleasure, only the holding of breath, as if she wanted time to stop, as if she wanted to stay still in the space between her heart beats, use the quiet to think of the right, gentle words to say.
But, really, she had already thought it through, stood far ahead of him, saw it coming, sensed for months now that she would have to tell him, “No. I can’t.”
They talked for a while in his bed, champagne and roses useless on the floor, and Eric became the one who wanted time to stop, to turn back, so he could keep this from happening, and he hardly heard Nins say that she knew they would have to break-up or get married, that she was not ready to marry, that she had planned to break-up. He thought about asking questions, asking Why why why, but then his time did turn back, and his mind filled with the night before, how he went from his office to Nins’ hospital, and they walked back to his apartment and made love moving from the couch to the carpet to the wing chair and then they showered and went out for cajun food, ordering spicy dishes—blackened, tabascoed, hot peppered—but he tasted none of it because he was leaning back in his chair, looking across the table at the woman he had definitely wanted to marry since the day, running alongside the Charles, he found her, and he could sense only her, nothing but her; she was 29, he was a few hours from 30, the two of them so young, fit, and fortunate, destined for decades together on the furniture of their own choosing. And she had glanced up, catching his eyes in hers, saying, “What are you thinking about over there?” as he sat quietly, just breathing and smiling, while she shortened the question, asking, smiling back, “What?”
Eric could not speak, but he knew in the morning he would, and he could see the answer he desired in everything about her.
When he called, he told us how he had been driving through the Berkshires for a few days, and is it any wonder? Hours and hours he spent searching for where he went wrong, thinking his timing must have been off, he should have waited until the evening, or let her brush her teeth first, or chosen a Saturday instead of a Wednesday. Other words, other scenarios, completely different ways of proposing ran through his tired mind until, at last, he decided he should spend some time at home, so he called.
He’s a good boy, our number one and only, and we’re always proud of him. He’s smart, received his Ph. D., though not in a subject you would respect right off the bat, not literature, or history, or some science—he is a doctor of Teaching English as a Foreign Language. Which, even he acknowledges, from my perspective, is a pretty odd thing. My father, for example, when he came across from Russia, all on his own, learned English as a foreign language, and then he met a woman he loved, and he taught her, and together they taught me. Nobody needed any Ph. D. to teach and learn to speak what filled the world around them. You were going to stay quiet? You were going to work only with people who spoke Yiddish or Russian?
I’m Eric’s Zayda, the closest thing to a father he has, and I want to be able to give him sage advice. I want to be able to speak words Eric can understand, take in, use to solve all the problems he has to face. I want to feel, like my father before me, that over the years I’ve accumulated valuable knowledge so that what I say overflows with answers. But, instead, when I search for advice to offer, for wisdom and insight, I discover only anecdotes—my mind drifts back into the past, recalling what happened when, who said what to whom. These anecdotes, these thin strands of our tiny history, they fall down before my eyes like long-sought rain, shimmering with solutions. In my mind, I spin out the story and I can see it as so much of the world’s strongest thread, ready to be grasped, to be woven into something even more powerful, a net, a web, a shining lifeline.
I know about marriage, I know about a love that lasts from decade to decade, passes half a century, and goes on. I know, also, what it is to lose a father. I do. But maybe I don’t know enough. There’s more than I can understand. And listening to what I say, I hear too much silence in response, hollow and empty. All that I mean frays, reaching off uselessly in every direction, connecting with nothing.
Milly believes she understands Eric’s current problems completely. She blames everything on our daughter Barbara, Eric’s mother, who is off who knows where exactly. It is the obvious connection to make, the one drawn forth by parallels of circumstance, by words that echo eerily, like a too right prophecy, in what Eric had to hear. Milly would be correct, of course, but only a little bit. Still, I probably should explain as best I can what she means, about Barbara and her ill-suited suitor, her flim-flam fiancé, her hopeless husband, Leonard Lewis.
Go back to a Sunday morning, decades ago, in this very house, in our bedroom, Barbara running in, all of 20 years old, waking us up to share the story of the proposal that had come her way.
We listened until the end, until Barbara was out of breath, extending her arm towards us so that, once we wiped the sleep from our eyes, we’d be able to see the size and beauty of the diamond ring on her finger. The hand dangled before us, as if it were waiting to be kissed. Milly looked into the green eyes of our daughter and she asked, “Where is Mr. Leonard Lewis right now?”
“Did you just say he left?”
“Yes, yes, he left.”
“Well,” Milly said, getting out of bed, revealing her red flannel pajamas, putting her feet into her slippers and brushing away the ringed hand from before her. “If he doesn’t come back for 50 years, long after I’m dead and decaying beneath the ground, it will be too soon.”
Barbara stood there, not knowing what to do, shocked, as was I. It wasn’t the finest engagement story, it was not at all difficult to imagine better, still I was willing to take a look at the ring and wait for Leonard to come back around to answer questions. But Milly’s mind was made up and she wanted to resolve the situation immediately.
“Of course I forgive you Barbara,” she said, “but that man is not for you. It’s obvious. You give that ring right back to him. You do not know how it pains me to see this. Here, let me right now take that ring off from your finger.”
Barbara snapped back her hand and ran out of the room, slamming the door behind her.
Even then, nearly 32 years ago, Milly could not move very quickly, but her mind never fell behind. Although she did not give chase that morning, she knew well that our daughter was in the process of making a mistake, a mistake that resulted from a thinking slowed and clouded by the desire to be in love. She turned to me, looked at me sitting there, staring at our closed door. “That boy Leonard,” she said. “I’m not happy about him at all. He doesn’t even know his own mind.”
“She’s not going to give that ring back,” I said.
“Not today, maybe. But when she does, sometime in the time to come, she’ll wish she had done it sooner.”
Of course, as she almost always is, Milly was right. Two years and two months later, a year after giving birth to Eric, Barbara did return the ring, just before she ran away again, and further.
Here’s the unorthodox way in which Leonard proposed to our daughter, as she told us herself, uncritical in her momentary happiness: to celebrate a year and a half of casual dating, of meeting for movies, for meals, for drives away from the city, Leonard took Barbara downtown for an Italian dinner on a Saturday evening. He was 24 at the time, she was 20. After dinner, as they drank coffee and shared a piece of cheesecake, Leonard said they needed either to break up or get married. Barbara was surprised and had no idea exactly what to expect, but she bravely agreed. “Let’s break up,” he said. Again, she agreed, then she walked out, found a cab to take her home, and slipped silently into her room. Until she fell asleep, and then on into her dreams, she kept seeing Leonard’s face before her, illuminated by the small flame of the candle that burned at the table’s center. His mouth moved oddly around the words he spoke, “break up, break up, break up,” as if he did not know what he was saying, as if his body was struggling to carry out the intention of his mind, breaking up into its component parts before disappearing, his face separating, becoming unattached eyes, nose, lips, tongue. And yet she could hear everything crystal clear; certainty and determination filled his voice, which, unlike the light and unlike her balance, did not waver.
The next morning, just before dawn, Barbara was neither awake nor asleep, her eyes neither fully open nor fully closed, searching for some space where she could be free of the image of that face, when she heard, again, but more real this time, Leonard’s voice, whispering not “break up, break up, break up,” but, instead, “Barbara, Barbara, wake up, Barbara wake up.” She looked out her window and saw him standing outside, beneath her. In her nightgown and bathrobe, she went quietly down to the front door. When she opened the door, he was standing there, already speaking, talking about having been walking all night; it grew darker, he said, he could not believe how dark, and he could not stop thinking and thinking. “I changed my mind,” he said, “we should marry,” and while she watched, he took her hand and placed the ring on her finger. At any moment, Barbara expected to wake up, but she was awake, so she simply said “good night,” closed the door, returned to her room, and finally fell asleep. It was an hour or two after sunrise when she awoke again and ran into our room.
“Marriage proposals,” Milly said, “should not be surrounded by uncertainty. Forethought is required. A man who doesn’t know for sure whether he wants to get married or get broken up. . . .”
“When I proposed,” I reminded her, “I didn’t know what I was doing.”
“Maybe that’s true, but you didn’t tell me that. You didn’t take me out to dinner and say, Milly, I don’t know what I’m doing. No, you said, “Milly you drive me crazy and I want to marry you.”“
When Barbara did eventually do what Milly had said she would one day do, she did not, by any means, escape blame. Barbara explained how, over breakfast one morning, in the kitchen, rushing and readying herself for work, watching Eric in his highchair, she said to Leonard, “I think we should either get divorced or stay married.” Leonard, tying his tie as he sat at the table, agreed. “Let’s stay married,” Barbara said. Leonard, again, agreed, and he stood and walked toward her and kissed her lips, but in the evening, when he returned home, he found Barbara there, waiting by the door, her bags packed, and she was handing him his ring and a few legal papers. “I changed my mind,” she said.
“That sounds like revenge to me,” Milly said. “There’s no place for retribution in a marriage. Understanding. Compromise. Forgiveness. These are the qualities for lasting.”
Our daughter, however, seemed to enjoy the symmetry of it all. The sense of smooth, balanced closure made it easier for her to believe she could light out for California and begin a new life. The East Coast for her was simply the past, home of her ex-husband, ex-parents, and ex-baby.
I did my best to intercede because, of course, I love my daughter, but, I suppose, also because I was not ready to care for a one-year-old at that time in my life. I went to Barbara in her room, where she was gathering more things, and I asked her to stop packing. I told her I could introduce her to some nice young men and she packed faster. I said I’d help her find an apartment for herself, nearby, and I’d contribute for expenses, and we’d be great, convenient, inexpensive babysitters, and, really, there was no reason to run all the way out to California where no one could ever see her. But her mind was made up. She married when she wanted, had a child when she wanted, divorced when she wanted, and started over when she wanted. As much as she would like to see herself as different from her mother, I know she is the same. I know that when they make up their minds about things, there is nothing anyone can say, especially me.
More than that, though, I believe Barbara is my father’s granddaughter, blessed or cursed by the impulsiveness that pushed and pulled him to another world. What would it have been like to know him as a young child, not yet a man, to watch him pack up his meager belongings in the middle of the night? How straight he would have stood. How unblinking his eyes. Who would dare to dissuade him? And who would not hope for his return, to see him come home again a success, grown, his promise met and surpassed?
In the end I could only watch my daughter go.
“There she goes,” I said, as she walked out the door.
With that sort of background, Milly would say, it’s not at all surprising that Eric sought a form of matrimonial courtship utterly different from that of his long absent parents whom he hardly ever saw. He would know exactly what he wanted and he would directly ask for it. So he wouldn’t fiddle and so he would be prepared, Milly gave him for his 25th birthday the diamond from one of her mother’s earring heirlooms to use in an engagement ring.
It didn’t mean he was going to rush out and proposition the first woman he met. In fact, it seemed to mean he took dating too seriously and would not go out often and once he felt that marriage was not in the cards, he would break up. And who can complain about such honesty, such forthrightness? But where did it get him? Broken up himself. If there’s any symmetry from one generation to another, someday soon Nins will come back to him, tell him he’s right and they should marry. Then what will he do? What would be the correct course of action? Milly and I have met Nins and we like her immensely. She’s no female Leonard Lewis, and we were willing to feel, with Eric, that she was the one who would bear our greatgrandchildren. So what do we know, after all? Where is the knowledge and wisdom in the advice we propose to give?
Sometimes I sense that Milly and I have become too accustomed to loss, making us perhaps not the best people to help Eric through his sadness. We’ve lived too long. Time passes, and we let piece after piece of our lives slip away. Just as our parents learned English because it filled the space around them, we have learned how to relinquish because we must. There seems to be more and more that lies beyond our control—friends and family we’ve known for decades pass away, or their minds go, or a cancer eats away at them and we are powerless, unable to offer real help, unable to stop the process of decline. We can only comfort as best we can those who are leaving and those who are left behind.
Inevitably, the visits to the sickbeds, the graveyards, and the nursing homes remind us of our own vulnerability—a vulnerability of which we are already too aware. Depending on the day of the week, we can be found swimming, walking, bowling, doing what we can to keep our bodies from falling apart, but that too is beyond our control. We yield ourselves up to others absolutely, and they gas us to sleep, they thread tiny cameras through our veins, project our insides onto TVs, decide what to slice, what to save, what to implant. Without the valves of a pig that have been sewn into my heart, I would have been dead for more than a decade. Inside Milly’s body, there is an artificial hip and a pacemaker they adjust from time to time.
Everyday when we sit down to eat, we set before us a small, bright rainbow of pills. Some might see hope in those colorful capsules and tablets, some might see neatly packaged scientific triumphs, cures for what was once incurable, magic containers of health. And there is that, I must admit. But for us the pills are also reminders of past and future troubles. We know that the miraculous pills thin our blood, making it easier for our hearts to work, allowing all the corpuscles to course through our bodies at the right speed. We also know, however, that the same pills make it easier for us to bleed and more difficult for us to stop bleeding, so if we cut ourselves, if our skin, which thins along with the blood, tears slightly, or bangs up against a wall or door too hard, then band-aids and pressure will not be enough to stop our blood from leaving our bodies, and we’ll have to head to the hospital to get the cut stitched.
I’m sure Eric did not want to make me feel old and close to an end, he did not realize his return and need for advice would make me think about conclusions, about the past that will disappear with Milly and me. What I try to keep in mind is that loss, as impending as it is and will be from now on, actually unites the three of us, the grandparents and the grandson, the bubba, the zayda, and the number one. We’d each prefer, I believe, to possess greater control over the forces around us, but our losses, everpresent and yet seemingly random, gradual and sudden, are not without sweetness. That which we find to be missing inspires longing, or reminds us of the memories we want to pass along, or both, and more. And I suppose that’s part of what I want to let Eric know.
So I search for pronouncements, but instead of a clear lesson, unambiguous expression, what enters my mind is a sunny afternoon, a little more than six years ago. Milly was sitting in the living room, innocently practicing on the piano, when suddenly half of her world went dark.
It was as if, she came to say, a black curtain had been dropped down. The metronome was on, clicking from side to side, and the change, complete, took not even a beat. There was no warning. No pain, just a vanishing. She wondered if perhaps her right eyelid had somehow become stuck, “Something’s happening,” she said. “Charlie, Charlie, something’s happening.”
I was sitting in my blue reading chair in the corner of the room, looking at the paper. I jumped to my feet, too fast, and my world grew blurry, as it does when I try to move quickly. My heart needs time to pump my blood where it needs to go.
“What is it?” I asked, walking slowly, carefully toward her, letting the room come back into focus. I said, “Let me see,” and I was frightened, remembering my own experience from years ago, remembering my inability to make sense for moment after moment, how I slipped from the conversation and a friend wisely hustled for the phone. A stroke, I thought. A stroke. Milly’s having a stroke.
We were both scared, but she was staying calmer than I could. She stood up beside the piano. She stopped the clicking of the metronome, closed the keyboard cover, and rested her hand there. “It’s my right eye,” she said. “Is there something in it? Can you see something there?”
For years, Milly has been wearing contacts, almost since they first became available, and she spoke exactly the way she did when she had dropped or couldn’t find one of her lenses, her voice empty of panic. She covered her left eye with her hand and opened her right eye wide. “There’s nothing,” she said. “Not blurry. Just dark.”
“Let me see,” I said again, and with my hand I took her hand from her eye. “Is it only the eye? You’re not feeling faint? dizzy? You don’t think this is a stroke, do you?”
“No, no honey. I’m fine, but something has dropped over my eye, like a curtain or blanket. What can you see?”
I looked closely and I could see both contacts in place. There was no darkness there, no curtain, no evidence of blindness that I could make out, but the color of her right eye did seem to have faded ever so slightly. It was a lighter shade of hazel, somehow paler, a vibrancy replaced with something approaching transparency.
“You look perfectly fine. Are you sure you’re not dizzy? Do you feel confused?”
“No, no, nothing like that, but I’m going to keep my eyes closed until we see a doctor,” she said, and she took my arm. It was as if she wanted to practice being blind, so she’d be prepared. I wanted to tell her that it was a silly idea, that she could see fine out of her left eye. But what did I know? Whatever logic was operating, if any was operating at all, was far beyond me. For all I knew, keeping her eyes closed might be the perfect thing to do, it could save her sight, bring back her right eye and preserve her left. In the far distant future, we could find ourselves sitting on the back porch, talking to friends, telling the story of how the decision to keep her eyes closed saved her life. “OK,” I said, and I led her out to the car.
We made our way slowly, side-by-side, into the emergency room, Milly with her eyes shut, and we told ourselves we were in the middle of a process. We acted as if calmness would help us, a cure in itself, capable of convincing the worrying body that nothing at all was wrong—so each time we were told to wait, I kept myself from shouting out, “Look, my wife is losing her sight. For absolutely no reason. We need to stop this before it’s too late. This is a real emergency!” Either her sight would come back into her right eye, or sight would leave from the left. One eye on and one eye off had the feel of a temporary condition, a middle moment that would not hold. We sat quietly in the slippery plastic-cushioned chairs, hoping we could create a sense of tranquillity that would seep deep within us, return the light to her darkened side.
The first doctor had no idea what the problem was, though he didn’t express himself so straightforwardly. Milly opened her eyes, and sight was still in the left, gone from the right. The doctor’s main questions were about blood pressure. He wanted to know if she had been upset, or very excited, with her heart beating quickly before her vision slipped away. “No, no,” she said, “I’m calm. I was playing the piano, a slow song. It’s my husband Charlie here who has the real heart problems, the too high blood pressure.”
We were directed across the hospital, to the eye clinic, where we waited for a while longer. The doctor did not want Milly to exert herself further, so she sat in a wheelchair and I pushed her down the corridors, into and out of the large elevator. Milly looked at me and then closed her eyes again. The doctor had said she could keep her eyes open, that it would be fine to do that. “Do you know exactly what’s wrong?” she asked him. “Do you know what’s happening to me here?”
“No,” said the doctor. “Not exactly. Not yet.”
“I’ll keep my eyes closed for the time being then,” she said, “if you don’t mind.”
And then she was taken away, and I waited alone. Personally, I don’t like to sit down in hospitals, but Milly won’t tolerate pacing. I think that if you sit there and wait long enough, something will go wrong with you too. People die and it’s not unimaginable that what afflicted them so successfully needs to go off and find a new person, so it floats through the air toward those who are waiting. I keep moving, I walk and walk, and I long to leave. I paced the eye clinic waiting room, unnerving those around me, I’m sure, but my mind was elsewhere.
The seeming temporary condition, we were eventually told, was not temporary at all. What this doctor knew with certainty was that sight would not be coming back to her right eye. He also knew, he said, that there was definitely nothing wrong with her left eye.
Milly and I were silent, which is what happens. We’ve seen it before. It’s the visitors whose job it is to talk in hospitals. Again and again, people ask, “What did the doctor say?” and the patients say, “I don’t know. I didn’t ask.” For those of our generation it is no easy thing to challenge the authority of doctors. They still have a certain power over our health and we do not want to offend them. We do not believe in second opinions, we do not believe that we’re getting opinions in the first place.
But I wanted answers, so after a pause, I rattled off some questions. “Will she have to wear a patch over her eye?”
“Only if she wants to.”
“Can she drive?”
“If she wants to.”
“How, then, does she need to adjust her life at this moment?”
“She will lose peripheral vision on her right side so she will have to turn her head more, use her neck.”
And in the months and years that followed, her left eye remained strong. But because she was not accustomed to turning her head so often, she tripped stepping from a curb and broke her hip, which makes bowling slightly more difficult, but it has not stopped her at all.
The side effect which the doctor did not come close to anticipating, but which I should have predicted, had to do with the increase of power that accompanied this loss of vision. Yes, she had to be more careful moving around. At the same time, however, she had an irrefutable argument for travelling. She would say where she wanted to go. I would say, no, we can’t possibly go there, we don’t have enough money, and I’ve heard terrible things about that place. Then we would go back and forth, about money, about who said what and why they said it, until, eventually, Milly would say, ending the discussion and absolutely winning her way, “I’ve lost one eye already, and who knows how much longer the other will last, and this is something I want to see before I can’t.”
So she has lost some of her vision, and in that respect, her life and living has been lessened. But before our first trip after the loss, we went shopping for a monocular, and she picked out a small device she can wear around her neck on a chain. Since then she has pointed her monocular at the temples of Kyoto, at the bald eagles of Alaska, at the pyramids of Egypt.
Oftentimes, though, when she’s not using the monocular—and this epitomizes what makes me follow her always—I catch her looking at me. I remember as we were leaving the hospital that evening, after we had signed a few more papers, I asked Milly why she tried so hard to keep her eyes closed through so much of the day. “Did you really think that you could keep the sight from slipping away if that’s what it was going to do?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t know. But I did know that if I was going suddenly to stop seeing, I wanted my last sight to be of you.”
What will Eric do when I tell him that? And when I tell him about my father? What will he hear? What difference will it make? Will he ask for more?
So I worry about what to say, about how to help, but it’s not only the big questions that baffle me. I also wonder what we have in the refrigerator, how we’ll spend each day, how long he’ll stay. Should we drive out to the Jersey shore? Should we go downtown for a concert at the Academy of Music? Flea markets? Movie matinees? Bowling?
I don’t know enough, I’ll tell him. I haven’t done enough, and I never will, I certainly do not deserve the gift of being the last sight my wife would choose to see.
It’s the people I’ve stood alongside, I’ll say. Listen.
And then, to wrap it all up, neat and clear, I’ll try somehow to explain that it’s been my greatest fortune to have been loved by those close to me, though I have no idea how or why.
That should take 30 minutes. Maybe 45 if I speak slowly and let myself be interrupted. And the visit will just be starting.
Eric will want something else when he steps through our front door, but I’ll give him what I have. I can’t bring Nins back to him; I can’t make her change her mind. I can’t even make Barbara, my own daughter, pick up the phone, call home from time to time.
No matter what, though, right up until the end, I can keep talking.
Maybe my father was a peddler of advice as well as of appliances and I was just too young to know that he knew no more than I know now. Maybe he said everything when he complained that you can never fully understand the needs and wants of others. Maybe, finally, loss is all we can count upon.
Nevertheless, over the years, I’ve often been amazed by the details that come hurtling back to me about those late afternoons I spent together with my father in the living room. What has been lost is not necessarily gone. Sometimes I’ll wake up in the morning and a whole conversation will have returned to me in the night, as if my father had spoken to me while I dreamed. Or I’ll be walking down the street, or visiting the neighbors, and suddenly I’ll have before me a brilliant picture of the hat he wore, its texture, its color, the bend of the brim, the tilt it had on his head, and the slow motion with which he took it off, set it in his lap, as he sat beside me to tell me about his day.
Eric’s driving toward us on his zig-zag path, haunted and saddened by the memories he cannot forget—the feel of her skin, the look in her just-opened eyes, the roses, the champagne, the offered ring. He’s coming down from the Berkshires, past the Finger Lakes of upstate New York, through the coal-mining Lackawanna Valley of Pennsylvania, and he wants to leave behind Nins and everything about her—he wants it all out of his mind.
But I wish my grandson, my number one and only, were here already, by my side. I would already be telling him, in every imaginable way, Remember.