part three of lilian's wish
Trying To Make Sense of It All
Emmett never let go of his dislike of dogs. He showed it with muffled and incomprehensible grumbles about Bobbie. He never forgave her for growling at him when they first met. He said he would rather have a snake in the house than a dog. And no damn dog had better ever climb up on his sofa if they managed to get inside his house. Bobbie was a big ungainly soul who had been Lilian’s companion. She was used to having full reign of my house. Emmett never had a clue that she was much cleaner than he was. I liked to imagine that she got a big canine grin when Emmett would growl, “Filthy old dog.” The feeling was mutual. She only tagged along with me a few times and never showed much curiosity about going inside such a sty.
I tried to be neighborly and help him when I could but I didn’t hesitate to shout back at him at 5:50 in the morning when he would call. Whenever he conned me into being his chauffeur and taking him for an hour’s drive so he could eat his beloved salt fish, I enjoyed watching the two old and heavyset waitresses at the diner work him over. One of our trips reminded me of an incident my father provoked when he announced to the waitress at a Bob Evans Restaurant that he was Bob’s brother. When the manager came over and finally discovered the truth, he told my dad he owed the waitress an apology and to leave right after making it. His business was not welcome.
When the waitresses at the L&S diner asked how Emmett had liked his meal, he replied, “It should hold me till I get to a real restaurant.” On this visit, they told him they had had enough of his sass and both came after him from behind the counter screaming, “That’s it. We’re going to hurt you, old man.” The only thing he could say was “Whoa!” That’s the sole time I ever saw him scared. We got out of the place right away. I later had him half believing me that I was going to bring one of them up to his place to give him a lap dance on his birthday.
Sadly, both Emmett and my father were terrible racists and gladly carried the baggage of intolerance they had been born into. Lots of “N words” were tossed about until I laid the law down. Emmett would look puzzled when I told him, “Enough of this shit language or you can drive yourself.” I had said something similar to my father when I was a young adult and it shut him up. I think he was as surprised as I was. When I scolded Emmett once for going into a torrent of racial slurs, he responded: “Well, at least I didn’t put ‘god-damned’ in front of it.” He always put “god damned” in front of “Japs.” He never appreciated how funny the incident was.
Just once did I see him conflicted over race and that was when Colin Powell was trying to make up his mind about whether to run for president. Emmett admired him as a soldier but hoped for all the wrong reasons that he would drop out of the race. He just couldn’t accept a black man as president. The only professional black man my father knew of was Bill Cosby, but he never could figure out how “Dr. Huxtable” had become an obstetrician and how he could afford to live in such a nice home. The idea that a black man would become president would have knocked my father to his knees.
Another quality in common Emmett and my father shared was their keen taste for food and their eye for appreciating the beauty in the woods. My father grew up in Appalachian Ohio and instilled in me a love for the outdoors as well as a taste for good food. On a particularly sunny day Emmett called to ask if I could come down and help him set up his easel. When I got there, he told me without any prompting, “Just look at the color of that lichen covering that big rock by the creek.” He was an amateur watercolorist and would set up his easel and table holding his paints in the back yard. He had a certain skill and once commented, “If that foot soldier Eisenhower can paint, why can’t I?” One favorite spot was down by the creek where there was a deep hole that was the home of native trout. The light that he enjoyed the most would come in during the late afternoon. He would have everything set up in anticipation. His whiskey bottles, glasses, and some gourmet packets of cheese would be placed there alongside his brushes and various cups of water where he mixed his colors. One day a chipmunk ran onto one of the rocks that jutted out and formed part of a waterfall. As it sat there, Emmett noticed a rare black mink alongside the bank eyeing the ‘munk. We sat as quiet as we could watching the drama unfold. The chipmunk was sitting up on his haunches nibbling on something that it held in its front paws. Its eyes were on the food as it enjoyed every morsel. With such speed we couldn’t take it in, the mink nabbed the chipmunk in its last swallow. We didn’t hear a sound. The mink swiveled around and sped off with the motionless chipmunk in its mouth. The creature that had been dining just seconds before was now the dinner. We both looked at one another in wonder. It was a warm day in summer, the light was as he wanted, and he had a spectacle. Without another word, he reached for the whiskey and poured us both a drink.
He was particularly fond of the large rock outcroppings on the side of our mountain and kept men busily employed by having them move these boulders to settings more to his liking. These were big rough men who didn’t see the point of moving boulders from one spot to another for no apparent reason. But they did as they were bid. It was always fun to watch these men with oversized hands and sausage fingers play nimbly with the levers of their heavy machinery. Boulders weighing tons seemed to move at their command as delicately as one might imagine wood nymphs floating through the woods. When I mentioned this fantasy, Emmett said he was pretty sure he had seen some of these nymphs on occasion but wouldn’t hint where. Like a mushroom hunter, he kept secrets where things hid or were hidden.
I had known a few old men who resembled my father and Emmett a bit, but none had their blend of orneriness and good humor; suspicion of what was different yet curious about the world; generous and always ready to open their wallets to help someone down on their luck, but refuse to accept a black family, a Catholic, or a Jew into their domain. Emmett was not a religious man and, in fact, made fun of people who went to church. One woman turned around and stomped away when he asked her, “What the hell are you learning new that you didn’t hear last Sunday during your silly gathering?”
Brooks and Emmett both valued education, but neither ever had the opportunity to go to college. The Navy gave Emmett his education and he built on it to become a successful business man. He knew he was missing something vital, but was not comfortable around learned people. He liked practical rather than theoretical folks. He had little respect for academics and would often ask, “Now how did he get so smart and still not be able to tie his shoes?” My father also liked to use “eggheads” to describe professors who taught anything other than engineering. Emmett and my father both enjoyed the company of carpenters and plumbers and men who could make bulldozers do their bidding. Richard, his factotum in charge of keeping chain saws and lawn movers operating, had two sons who were both good carpenters. Emmett bankrolled them on several ventures. When they invited him to the grand opening of one of the stores they had built, they used the occasion to repay him with interest for his loan. He acted surprised but made a little speech thanking them for living up to the terms of the bargain and for being honest men. Richard told me later that Emmett took them aside when everyone had left and gave them the money back.
This otherwise hard and inflexible man one day died suddenly in his own yard when a stroke took his legs out from under him and dropped him to the ground lifeless. He seldom talked about dying, but hoped that he would be tossed into the sea, wrapped up like a mummy, when it happened. By some chance his body now stretched within the shadows of two narrow stones that jutted out of the ground at acute angles to one another. The sun light was dappled on his body as though it were a sweater keeping him warm. He lay amongst these two crooked standing stones that he had found somewhere in the woods and had transported to his own garden. It was as though he were some ancient Druid priest lying in the grass contemplating his solitude.
The night before my father died, I kept him company. I sat in his hospital room where he was tethered to many tubes. He was probably already gone, except for the forced breathing. I talked to him throughout the night, asking why, why, why he had chosen to be the way he was. Of course, he probably had not “chosen” his lifestyle any more than he had chosen which air molecules to breathe. The questions were for me, really, and the silence to my questions continues to this day. He was in a coma from a stroke and probably never knew I was there. We had a one-way conversation throughout the night. He was never much of a listener, but always a talker like Emmett. But I had him as a captive audience this time. I only had one thing to say: “It didn’t have to be this way.” He was no longer there to bully me so I just continued to ask him why he had gone out of his way to be such an irascible character and poor role model. My questions just swirled round and round with no hope of an answer: Why had he never had any patience, why had he never laughed spontaneously, why did he spoil so much family life by being angry for no reason? He was under a sheet that I wanted to lift to see all of him. I had never seen him nude. In fact, he had gone out of his way never to show himself. The only time we had gone to a public swimming pool together he made sure I stayed outside the locker room while he dressed. I still do not understand his prudishness. When the morning came, I went home to clean up before I returned with my mother and two sisters to sit with him one more time. As I watched the heart monitor, I began to notice the blips were occurring with less regularity. I finally said, “I think he is going.” My mother rose from her chair to be closer just as he died. The nurses came in and asked us to step outside for a few minutes. When we were allowed back in, I kissed him for the first time in my life.
The four or five days Lilian was in hospital before she passed were so very difficult. When she died, I kissed her lifeless form for the last time. And I thought of Rabbi Sol Landau, himself now long gone, who had also loved her dearly when we lived in Key West in the late 1980s. It was he who had helped her later in the dark days of early 1989 when she was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. In reading the Book of Job in Hebrew–and “correcting” the accompanying English translation–she worked her way through the question of “Why Me” and proceeded to dedicate herself to helping others. As this deadly disease ravaged so many lives, she quietly worked with a number of others to help them better cope with their situation. When she finally slipped into her coma, it was too late to know her inner thoughts. But how much I would have given to have removed this mask of mystery, this madness whose wings beat such a cold wind in my face. When friends confided in me that she had confessed to them that she knew she was going to die soon, I searched for some explanation why she could not have shared these last thoughts with me, too. But I know that she sensed that I could not deal with her death. I feel now that she knew she could offer me no solace at that time. Her pain was too great to have to carry mine, too. And she was so very tired. She probably contented herself with the simple thought that I would understand. I think I eventually did, but my universe was all asunder for so long afterward.
I think of Brooks and Emmett now as my great teachers by negative example. I know Brooks tried in his own way to be a good person and father, but perhaps he simply did not know how. He and Emmett came from another time and world, one harsher and uncompromisingly patriarchal where there was little room for give and take. But as Lilian would have reminded me as she quoted Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, the great lady who helped us understand the stages of grief: “We are all the victims of victims.” I don’t really know the childhood worlds of Brooks or Emmett, what their parents were like, or their troubles during the Depression and WWII. I know general stories, but they’re not detailed enough for me, especially now. I selfishly wish for answers, but again I have no one to ask. No one, perhaps, but myself.
And finally to try to understand the mystery of why Lilian, this young, talented, and good woman of accomplishment, was taken at such a time. As she would have said, it’s just another part of the encoded meaning of life and death that hovers out of reach. In one of the last moments she was able to say something to me, she whispered: “I am sorry I have left so much undone.”
Like most of us, I have seen people die well and I have seen people die in misery. All I have ever been able to do afterward is catch my breath with pain. As Eliot chills us, “I will show you fear in a handful of dust.” In the end, I seem to be left with little more than abstract fragments of understanding and memory. Sometimes it is hard to praise life when it abandons us on such a grand scale. The mystery of death will probably always leave me wondering, longing, mourning, and longing some more. I too am sorry to leave so much undone. As for Emmett, my father, and Lilian, I fall back on the ancient Jewish prayer for the dead: May all their souls be forever bound up in the eternal bonds of life.