Indeed he seemed to approach the grave as a hyperbolic curve approaches a straight line—less directly as he got nearer, till it was doubtful he would ever reach it at all.
—Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd
My father had been dead about ten months when, in fall 2012, I called his prosthetics company and explained that I wanted to donate his legs to an organization that could reuse them. The lady on the phone was flummoxed. Maybe I could try a church, or the Veteran’s Administration? The VA receptionist put me on hold. The song: “Another One Bites the Dust.” I was hoping the next one would be “She’s Got Legs” when the receptionist came back on and gave me a number for the donations department. I hung up and called the new number, but they couldn’t help either.
Had I not inherited from my mother a strain of doggedness that regards frustration as fuel and obstacles as things to be smashed, I might have chucked the legs in the trash. Instead, I searched online and found Physicians for Peace, a group that accepts donated prostheses—which cannot be reused in the litigious United States—and sends them to medical missions in third-world countries. I emailed their gifts-in-kind manager, who invited me to call him.
And then, just as I was on the cusp of success, my fervor to be rid of the legs died. The email settled to the bottom of my inbox, and I put off calling. The holidays were coming—my first Thanksgiving and Christmas without both my parents—and it seemed too hard to let go of anything that had been part of them.
On the morning of Daddy’s first amputation, in fall 2002, he insisted on driving to the hospital. He seldom got behind the wheel anymore. For several years his doctor had been paring away the mortifying flesh of his feet; besides this impairment, his eyesight was poor and his reflex time glacial. Riding as his passenger was a nerve-racking ordeal, but Mama and I knew it might be the last time he ever drove. I was in my late twenties by then, married, and feeling quite mature for not trying to argue with him. After all, he was sixty-four and had been diabetic for more than fifty years, and the awful thing that had been threatening for so long was finally coming to pass.
Along the way, he chuckled and said, “It’s a good thing we don’t live in England.” It took me a minute to understand: he was attempting a joke about the cars being on the other side of the road and drivers powering the gas with the left foot—the one he was having amputated—instead of the right. I wasn’t sure the joke made any sense. Weren’t the pedals in the same position, just on the other side of the car? But I laughed anyway, cheered and heartbroken by his trying to have a sense of humor about the whole thing. This mood was a welcome change from the days leading up to the amputation, when he’d brooded about a distant cousin who had lost a limb, the subtext of his talk a self-pity that stretched my mother’s patience. Nobody asked, out loud, why he couldn’t just admit he was scared. For as long as I’d known my father, he’d rarely shown any vulnerability, and I saw him then as a man with a range of feeling as limited as the row of faces—smile to grimace—on those hospital-room signs patients are supposed to use to indicate the level of their discomfort.
A day or two after the surgery, he said all he needed for the pain was Tylenol. Was he that stoic, or did he just want us to think so? Most likely, he had studied his previous hospital bills and, ever parsimonious, couldn’t bear the thought of what each dose of narcotic would cost him.
The circulation to the stump wasn’t good enough to heal it. The surgeon had to cut again, this time above the knee.
Five years later, his other foot and calf had to go. I had a son now, almost four years old, named for my grandfather who had died in a boating accident when my father was a boy. We went to visit Daddy, and they made a game together, laughing as they stretched and snapped the green rehabilitation bands tied to the bedrail.
When I was growing up, Daddy was always cross in the mornings until he’d had his cereal and his insulin injection. I used to stand in the dim hallway of our ranch house, listening to see if he was still sitting at the breakfast table. Was he eating, or had he moved on to his shot? His legs were thin, and he jabbed the needle into his wiry thigh muscle with such force that his chair would often creak or scoot. When I heard that noise, I knew it would soon be safe, or safer, to approach.
Back then, I never thought about his diabetes as a disease or a marker of fragility. It awed me that he was tough enough to give himself a shot every day. Our mother told us to forgive his dark moods because he didn’t “feel good,” but I didn’t believe that ought to excuse his temper, quick to fire up and slow to relent. That temper—combined with his looming height and the throbbing vein in his temple (a cliché but, in his case, real)—made him a frightening figure. It wasn’t that he was physically abusive. Sure, he had spanked or whipped us a few times for misbehaving, but that was common enough in the seventies. The main problem was that you never knew what might set him off. He was so easily irritated, all the time, by the littlest things—if we shuffled when we walked (“Pick up your feet!”), if we kicked the seat in the car (“Do it again and I’ll spank you!”), if we were slow picking up sticks in the yard he was getting ready to mow (“Don’t make an all-day job of it!”)—and his reactions struck us as overblown and mean.
In those pre-Internet days, my brother and I were frequently sent from the supper table to the dictionary or encyclopedia for further edification or to settle a dispute.
My brother and I learned to stay out of his way as much as possible, but our mother didn’t practice the same caution. My parents’ morning interactions often devolved into arguments that might be sustained or reprised throughout the day, since they worked together, keeping an antique shop. Mama bought the inventory, Daddy managed the finances, both entertained customers. She’d once been an English teacher; he, briefly, a stockbroker; and they’d regarded opening the shop as a way to quit working for the man and lead an intellectually stimulating life. Together, they enjoyed learning and teaching others about the furniture, art, and smalls that constituted their wares. In those pre-Internet days, my brother and I were frequently sent from the supper table to the dictionary or encyclopedia for further edification or to settle a dispute, and family discussions mixed the day’s doings with talk about Charleston silversmiths or John Coltrane or Hokusai’s One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji or William Blake taking tea naked in his garden with his wife.
In marrying one another and opening a shop together, Mama and Daddy had rebelled against their own parents’ expectations for them, and that defiance was part of what bound them—that and their mutual belief that intellectual compatibility was the best foundation for true companionship. They regarded their strife as the price: only stupid people could be consistently agreeable, and household harmony wasn’t worth being shackled to a stupid person. Whether at work or at home, it was good sport to holler; they both loved to be right, and neither could resist saying something cruel, especially if it was clever. I rarely heard them apologize or admit to being wrong. I’d listen from my room, petrified, outraged, pretty much always on my mother’s side—even when it seemed to me that she was baiting my father. Why didn’t she just back off so the fight could end? Years later, when they were older and had calmed down a bit, she claimed to miss the adrenalin rush their quarrels had provided, even joked that my father was no fun anymore. But when my brother and I were small and they were fighting, it didn’t sound like much fun to us. We became dutiful children, eager to please and quick to lie whenever we thought it might save us.
At times I hated my father so much that I wished he and my mother would get divorced, like other people’s parents. But I knew they wouldn’t. No matter how they fought over money or manners, they’d given us to understand that their union, however tortuous, was inviolable.
The first time my brother’s eldest son saw my father stand up on his prosthetics, he was amazed. At eight years old, he’d never seen his grandfather out of a bed or a wheelchair, and to behold him at his full height of six feet, three inches, was a revelation. Looking at the child’s face, so lit up with shocked delight, I realized that he’d never been scared of my father, and I envied him.
The left prosthetic fitted onto his thigh; the right below his natural knee. First, you had to roll a rubbery, tight-fitting sleeve onto the stump. At the end of the sleeve was a threaded metal protrusion, about four inches long, called the pin, which resembled a big screw without a point. (It sounds like something my mother might have said: Life: a big screw without a point. Or a definition from Flaubert’s Dictionary of Received Ideas, the sort of amusing trifle she used to put in my Christmas stocking.) Over this sleeve went a cotton sock with a hole in the end where the pin poked through. Last you attached the prosthetic, fitting the peachy-colored plastic cup over the dressed stump and pushing it until you heard the pin lock into place.
At the tip of each size-eleven plastic foot were grooves suggesting neat, rounded nails like those of my first baby doll, Boo-Boo, whose tiny toes were nearly chewed off by a dog one summer at the beach. Perhaps these new feet were an improvement over Daddy’s own—high-arched, bony, with dry, mottled skin. His wildly crooked big toes sported thick yellow nails, and the smaller toes curled under—hammertoes, my mother said. Other than his ogre feet, he was good-looking: tall, slim, with high cheekbones, a square jaw, thick dark hair. In photos of him as a young man, he gives off a tense, smoldering air. You can see why he appealed to my mother. In those days, she said, people thought he resembled Clint Eastwood. A bit of swagger. Something dangerous about the eyes. Itching for a fight.
When the first stump healed enough to allow him to put on the prosthetic he’d been prescribed, Mama started driving him to physical therapy to learn how to use it. By then it was his habit to sleep well past noon, and there was the prolonged breakfast-and-shot routine, and then he had to be helped to dress. By the time she pushed him down their treacherous-when-wet, not-to-code ramp and assisted him into the not-wheelchair-accessible minivan, they were late for his appointment and cussing each other.
When they came home, she’d help him remove the leg and get back into his nylon pajamas. Often when I visited, I’d find him in his recliner watching TV, Mama stretched out reading a Newsweek, her right leg thrown up over the back of the sofa. Every chair in the den was stacked with the newspapers Daddy hoarded, except the armchair that held his leg, knee bent so that the plastic cup took up the seat and the shoe’s sole rested flat on the floor. A pair of slacks was scrunched down around the ankle, as though the wearer had been raptured, naked, while watching the evening news.
“Jesus,” I’d say. “There’s nowhere for me to sit. Does the leg have to have its own chair?”
“You can move it,” Mama would say, waving her cigarette.
“It’s like something out of Flannery O’Connor.”
She’d laugh. “It’ll be good material for you one day.”
After our mother was diagnosed with lung cancer, I would go with her to chemo, and my brother would drive Daddy to physical therapy. Eventually, both parents required more care than we could manage on our own, and we moved them to assisted living. But before that, delaying the inevitable, we hired a woman—I’ll call her Rose—to clean their house and take Daddy to his appointments. Having Rose’s help was a huge relief, and we all became fond of her, including, most surprisingly, Daddy himself, who even let her help him practice walking. She’d hold the straps of his gait belt and follow as he slowly made his way across the kitchen, encouraging him as he went.
Rose yelled from the other room to call 911. I grabbed the cordless and ran into the kitchen.
One afternoon while they were walking, Mama and I came in from the hospital, where I’d just taken her for a PET scan. She was nauseated from the barium solution (if you drank it fast, she said, you could fool yourself that it was a bad piña colada). As I was getting her settled on the sofa, Rose yelled from the other room to call 911. I grabbed the cordless and ran into the kitchen. Daddy lay on the floor, eyes closed, Rose calling his name and trying CPR. I knew instantly the problem must be his faulty heart, with its long-ago bypassed blockages. When the ambulance arrived a few minutes later, he was motionless, his hands drawn and clawlike. Urine puddled beneath him as his breaths grew farther apart—sudden deep gasps that the EMS tech reported to his dispatcher as “agonal breathing,” called so after the death struggle, known as “the agony,” a term associated with the sufferings of Christ in the last hours before his crucifixion.
They got a pulse and prepared to put him on the stretcher. Mama, pacing, clutched my arm.
“Get his legs off! Don’t let them go off with him.”
She’d had enough experience of hospitals by then to know how easily those expensive prosthetics could be lost in the chaos.
I can’t remember now whether the EMTs removed his legs or I did. All I know is that it was his last day at home. He never lived there again.
Whenever the doctor upset my mother with bad news about her condition, she said I would have to be the one to tell my father. At first I thought it was because she could not bear to hurt him. But then I wondered if it was because she knew he would think mostly about what the bad news meant for him—all the things she now could not do for him. Failing to understand my explanation of her diagnosis and the treatment options, he would ask questions he thought sounded smart but only revealed his lack of scientific knowledge and his short-term memory loss. Hearing the bad news, he’d feel sorry for himself, a sick man with a sick wife.
Once, when they’d been fighting, I fussed at him, begging him to have more patience, to give her the leeway for cranky behavior that she had so long given him.
“She’s not used to being sick,” I said.
Furious, he took his short stump in both hands and held it up as an exhibit—an action I found, even in the moment, at once terrifying, pitiful, ridiculous. (Pathos or bathos, I might debate, were the detail in a story someone else had written.) His exact words are lost to me now, but they were something like, “And what about me? Am I used to it?”
Time and again, there was bad news for my mother. You’ll have to tell him, she’d say, every time. My heart would sink, then bob up. My writerly fascination with watching other human beings unfold, crumple, and unfold again kept me afloat. While my mother lay on the sofa in another room, I told my father the bad news, hating what I had to say, ashamed at how I relished the power of my telling and what it could do to him.
Even as Mom, tired and in pain, spent the summer of 2011 writing her own obituary and telling us what food to serve after her funeral, none of us believed she’d die. Judging by his shock when we told him she’d finally done it one August morning, Daddy had believed it least of anybody. They’d been married fifty years, since she was nineteen and he was twenty-two. The old folks’ home (their words) where they ended up was half a mile from the garage apartment where they’d started out in 1961, where she’d wept those first nights, she said, because he snored so loud she feared she’d never sleep again. When they’d moved into assisted living, I’d made them get separate rooms, predicting how they’d fight if they were cooped up together. Apart for most of the day, they got along better. After dinner every night, my father would bring her an orange and hold her hand for a few minutes before he went back to his room. After he’d go, my mother would tell me how crazy about him she’d always been—she didn’t know why, she said. He could’ve been nicer. By then I’d taken to summing up their marriage as Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, minus the alcohol. They drove each other crazy but were crazy about each other.
The day she died, we wheeled him down to her room to see her body before the undertaker came. My brother pushed him up to the side of the bed where she lay in her red plaid pajamas, so small now without her sly looks and tireless talk. Daddy leaned forward to kiss her but couldn’t quite reach, so my brother tipped the chair to help him. When Daddy sat back, he took her hand, looked at her face, and said, “I wish I’d done more. I have so many regrets.”
For weeks after her funeral at her family homeplace in eastern North Carolina, where she was laid out in the parlor to be viewed by the mourners who streamed through the house drinking and eating and loudly telling stories in the late-summer heat, I stayed furious with him, my anger a convenient blind against my sadness. Why hadn’t he been nicer to her, if he’d known all along that he ought to be? I was too angry to console my father, and he, in turn, had no comfort to spare anybody else. His own grief was too consuming, his habit of self-absorption too longstanding. It didn’t surprise me—he’d always been so hamstrung by his own inexpressible emotions that he couldn’t worry about anybody else’s—but it hurt. I told myself that I ought to be kind because he was old, sick, and alone, and because she would have wanted me to be. Often, when I was a girl and they’d argued and the house had descended into a tense, silent gloom, she’d urge me to venture into the room where he was brooding and kiss him. I seldom wanted to, but she always insisted, and I always did it, even after I became aware that I was being used in those moments as a pontoon bridge, a way for one combatant to get to the other.
After she died, I visited him several times a week, and struggled to be kind. Once, he complained about a sympathy card from one of her friends; he was disappointed that she hadn’t written more. Annoyed, I asked him how many condolence letters he’d ever written.
“Not many,” he admitted.
Of course not. My mother would have been the one to write such notes, just as she’d been the one to buy gifts for Christmas, birthdays, graduations, for his side of the family as well as hers.
“They’re not easy things to write,” I told him. “It’s hard to know what to say. Sometimes that’s even more true when you’re close to the person who died.” And sometimes, I thought but didn’t say, it’s even harder when you found the deceased so lovable and the surviving spouse not so much.
Months later, as I was going through his things, I discovered a newspaper clipping describing the boating accident that had resulted in the deaths of my grandfather and three other men on Easter weekend, 1950. Along with the clippings were a handful of letters assuring my grandmother that the Lord would sustain her in His own good time and in His own way. Amid these platitudes, someone had written to my then–eleven-year-old father, “You’re the man of the house now. Take care of your mother.” What an ass, I thought. I pitied the bereft boy my father had been, the angry man he’d become. His life had been, like all lives, one long lesson in how little control we are given, and I wished I’d found a way after my mother’s death to be more generous to him, more forgiving. I didn’t yet understand what seems plain to me now—that my wish was the same one he’d expressed the day she died. Both of us wished we’d known better how to go easy on the people we loved.
He died not quite six months after she did, in January. True to form, he’d asked for an inexpensive burial, so my brother called a direct crematory service he found online. Within a couple of hours, a soberly dressed man and woman arrived, hands folded, faces professionally sympathetic. We waited outside the room while they zipped him up in their bag, then followed them down the halls of the nursing home and out the back door, where their minivan waited. They unfolded a carpet remnant, laid it over the rear bumper, and slid the body bag over the carpet into the van. They shook our hands and said again how sorry they were for our loss. We thanked them. It all seemed very appropriate until they drove away, windows down, and then, suddenly, the whole thing felt strange. I said to my brother, “Is it okay that we just let two complete strangers take our father’s body away in a minivan?”
I thought of the time Mama took us to the dollar theater to see Weekend at Bernie’s, in which two idiots have to take a dead guy around with them everywhere and try to make people believe he’s alive. The plot doesn’t matter because the movie’s all about the gags—prop humor with a most unwieldy prop. They put sunglasses on Bernie and sit him up in chairs; they put Bernie between them and make it look like he’s walking; they fix it so he appears to be waving or enjoying his lunch. My mother found this movie hilarious and referred to it often.
The morning after Daddy died, my brother and I sat in my living room, drinking coffee and eating muffins a kind neighbor had dropped off. As we made our list—write the obituary, cancel his cable, plan a memorial service—we joked about what we could do with his prosthetics. We could film ourselves, I suggested, candid-camera fashion, going around public places, each with a leg casually tucked under an arm, asking people if they’d seen our dad—an older man, gray hair, beige windbreaker? We could have them made into lamps, one for each of us, inspired by the movie A Christmas Story. Or, Daddy loved wine: maybe we could stand the leg up, put ice in the plastic cup part, and use it as a wine cooler.
The crematory was out an industrial road on the edge of town. Going there, we passed the discount bakery store where Daddy used to buy bread past its sell-by date for twenty-five cents a loaf. He’d buy six or eight loaves at a time, and half of it always went bad. “Just cut off the green parts,” he’d say when we protested. (When I heard, as an adult, the theory that ergot poisoning from contaminated grain had caused the Salem witch trial hysteria, I thought, Oh Lord, between our dramatic tendencies and all that moldy bread we ate, it’s a wonder we survived.)
A basic cremation in a simple cardboard box was $895. If we wanted a small reception (ten mourners, max), we could pay a few hundred more.
At the crematory, my brother and I filled out forms in a sterile meeting room. A basic cremation in a simple cardboard box was $895. If we wanted a small reception (ten mourners, max), we could pay a few hundred more for our father to be laid out in a fancier cardboard box, suitable for viewing. We checked off that we’d like that. There could be no metal on him, nothing that might explode; we checked off that he had no metal plates in his head, no pins in his remaining knee. Fillings were okay, but his pacemaker would be excised and discarded. We were to leave his dentures and prosthetics at home.
We were given a tour. We saw the small room equipped with sofa and chairs where we could entertain our guests, the air-freshened bathroom and the coffeemaker and the small counter where we could put our snacks, and the dimly lit room where our loved one would be laid out in his upgraded box. We were led through a pair of curtained French doors into a large, bright, warehouselike space with a concrete floor. In one corner was a metal box a bit taller than I—the freezer. In the other corner was something that resembled the trailer of a tractor-trailer truck. This was the oven, the crematory owner said, with none of the funeral-parlor euphemism I expected. Out here on the industrial road, the oven was the oven. Its door worked like a garage door, and the space inside was big enough that I could have walked around in it without stooping. She showed us the gauges and explained that the oven had to get to fifteen hundred degrees and stay at that temperature for three or four hours to fully incinerate a grown man’s body.
Next to the oven was the cooling table, also metal, where they dumped the hot cremains. It was about the size of a small desk, with a hole on one side. A wide-mouthed funnel led from the hole to a can underneath. On the table were various lumps of brownish-looking material, some as big as my fist. A client, she said. When the pieces were cool, they’d be raked down through the funnel into the can, where a mechanism would pulverize them into the rough powder we call ashes.
The day after the viewing, when my brother and I came back for the cremation, Daddy appeared more sunken—even more dead somehow—than he had the night before. His body was doing what a corpse naturally does: his cheeks had grown hollower, his nose sharper, his eye sockets more concave. I was glad he hadn’t been embalmed like my mother, who had looked waxen and uncharacteristically grumpy in her coffin. People have tried so many ways of preserving bodies, trying to give an impression of life in death, hinting at a possibility of return. Mummification. Pickling. Air-tight glass coffins. Cryogenics. Embalming. But all these efforts at preservation do is make a creepy thing more creepy, a dead thing more dead.
He lay in a thin box lined with cheap white fabric and covered with a blue material like the scratchy stuff used on office cubicle panels. The night before, we’d stood around this box, listening to music he’d requested—classical guitar and Pavarotti singing “Nessun Dorma.” We drank red wine and ate peanuts, because those were things he enjoyed, and we put a few nuts in with him because that was our family custom, to send off our dead surrounded by things they favored. Now, looking at the wine stains on his shirt and the nuts right where we’d left them, it struck me as a silly thing to have done. I saw afresh just how far beyond all our doings the dead are. I saw that this was how it was going to be from now on. Each day was carrying my parents farther away from me. For the rest of my life, any attempts to include them would be one-sided, and whatever I offered them they wouldn’t be able to take.
We said, “Good-bye, Daddy,” and they put the top on the box. We patted it gently and said “Good-bye” again. Then they wheeled the gurney to the lip of the oven and pressed the button that raised the door. Inside, I was relieved to see no flames, just that bare, brick-lined space. Still, my mind couldn’t help shuffling a series of horrific associations—Holocaust ovens, suttee pyres, the burning stakes of martyrs. I reminded myself that there was no living victim here, that this was a traditional, reasonable way of disposing of our dead, the way our father had requested.
Just inside the door were several rows of metal rollers. Leaning into their effort, the crematory owners shoved the box off the gurney, across the rollers, and onto the oven’s brick floor, almost running as they did it, pushing hard, and I remembered that even though my father was thin and legless and that cardboard box couldn’t have weighed much, a corpse is still a heavy thing.
The door came down. My brother and I each put a finger on the big red button. We looked at each other, counted to three, and pushed. We knew we couldn’t hurt him, nor he us; we were all free of that now. And it was surely the right thing to do, to be there with our father at the last, to send him on his way. But I’d be lying if I said that pushing that button didn’t feel vaguely naughty, even slightly pleasurable, as pushing a button always does.
Daddy loved to recount this bit of dialogue from a TV show he’d seen:
Son: Mom, do you want to be buried or cremated?
Elderly mother: Surprise me!
I agree: Surprise me. As bad as burial seems—it’s dark, it’s airless, you can’t get out!—I can’t abide the idea of being burned. When it comes to thinking of myself without a body or of my body as a thing without me in it, I admit I suffer a complete breakdown of imagination. Perhaps the loss of your body is less frightening to contemplate if it has failed you so many times, as my father’s had. Maybe then it’s a comfort to think of being free of it forever.
We declined to buy an urn, preferring for both aesthetics and thrift to use a lidded pottery jar that Mama had bought for Daddy’s pipe tobacco. When the crematory returned it to us, his three or four pounds worth of ashes contained in a thick plastic bag inside, I found it incredible that his body—the body that hugged me, the body that spanked me, the body whose ills caused so much trouble—was now reduced to something that fit inside a jar. The last time I’d seen a pottery jar used this way, it had been a smaller one, made by a close friend for the ashes of her five-month-old daughter. At the child’s funeral, as the priest said his words, I watched my friend, milk tingling in her breasts, weep over the dug hole where in a minute she would have to put that jar, and I yearned for my own little son, healthy at home with his grandmother, and thought about what it would be like to have to put his body, so late of my body, into the ground.
At Easter, we drove Daddy’s ashes out east to our family graveyard, which sits inside a chain-link circle in the middle of a big field planted, depending on the year, with cotton, soybeans, or peanuts. My mother’s grave still didn’t have a stone.
“If he goes before me,” she’d said before she died, “we’ll keep the ashes, and you can put them in my coffin after I die. If I go first, bury his ashes on top of me. Make sure you put them at my feet.”
We did what she asked. My brother’s irrepressible younger son, then seven, squatted down to peer into the hole, eager to see what the ashes looked like. They looked like dirt, lying in a hole. We said the Lord’s Prayer, and then the few who had gathered went away, and my brother and I leaned against the chain-link fence, passing a bottle of red wine between us until it was empty.
The summer after my father died, the South African runner Oscar Pistorius competed in the Olympics. Born without fibulas, Pistorius raced on two carbonite prosthetics, springy black contraptions that looked nothing like legs, more like misshapen crowbars or commas rendered in a particularly angular font. The media gushed: he was handsome, he was gracious, he had overcome incredible odds. I had a little crush on him. Everybody did.
Watching Pistorius, I recalled how, after my father lost his legs, he’d talk enthusiastically about young athletes he’d seen on television, running on prosthetics, playing basketball, swimming. He talked as though if he were younger, he’d do the same. That he’d never been athletic—or even energetic—didn’t matter. That he wouldn’t practice the basic exercises physical therapists gave him to do, that he wouldn’t quit eating ice cream or drinking alcohol, that he wouldn’t follow the insulin regimen his doctor recommended—none of it mattered. What mattered was that all things were possible. He’d say, “When I can walk . . . ,” and my mother and brother and I would say, out of his hearing, “Yeah, right.”
Don’t we all like to be assured that the reward for being hurt or tormented or deprived is, ultimately, that we become noble and good and strong?
We called his belief delusion; had we been kinder, we might have called it faith. He probably wouldn’t have called it that, though. He was suspicious of faith, especially the religious sort. Yet, like many people, he tended to prefer stories in which those who suffer are redeemed. Don’t we all like to be assured that the reward for being hurt or tormented or deprived is, ultimately, that we become noble and good and strong? That’s why we love characters who keep standing up when they’re beaten. We hope that is exactly what we will do when the time comes. Even if part of us gets broken, we want desperately to believe that what’s essential will be left intact. Because we want to be better than we are—all of us—and we want others to be better. “The indomitable human spirit,” the book and movie reviews say. But eventually we all are domitable, aren’t we? Many of us much sooner than eventually.
In February 2013, I saw in the news that Pistorius had been arrested for murdering his girlfriend on Valentine’s Day. South Africa is a crime-ridden place, went his defense, so when he heard what he thought was an intruder in the bathroom, he put on his prosthetics, got his gun, and shot four times through the bathroom door. Right away, it sounded like a bullshit story. I read that he’d been involved in domestic disputes before, that he might have been on drugs, that he was given to daredevilry and risky behavior. Over the next few days, numerous articles appeared—all on the theme of the golden boy tarnished. The inspiring story of an afflicted person triumphing over the odds had been ruined, and I was ashamed to find myself susceptible to disappointment when I knew full well that the real victim in this latest story was, as in every story like it, the woman lying dead on that bathroom floor, killed by a man whose body she had both desired and feared.
And what a timeless story it is. Reading Al Rose’s 1978 book Storyville, New Orleans: Being an Authentic, Illustrated Account of the Notorious Red-Light District, I came across this:
One-Legged Duffy (née Mary Rich) did not fare so well. Her boyfriend not only stabbed her but bashed out her brains with her own wooden leg. The mid-nineteenth-century New Orleans underworld was not distinguished for gallantry.
The grotesque violence of this tale made me think of Flannery O’Connor’s work, especially her short story “Good Country People,” in which a traveling Bible salesman steals a young woman’s wooden leg while attempting to seduce her in a hayloft. The woman, Joy, is not a believer, and her existential despair is exacerbated by having to live with her mother, who says things like “A smile never hurt anyone,” and who is a bit of a snob, disapproving of “trash” but fond and trusting of “good country people.” Joy considers herself the only smart person in her world, the only one not deluded by Christianity or the stories people like her mother tell themselves about those with less. But look what happens when she realizes the Bible salesman has fooled her: “Her voice when she spoke had an almost pleading sound. ‘Aren’t you,’ she murmured, ‘aren’t you just good country people?’ ”
A week before my father died, I was visiting him in the nursing home when he surprised me by saying that he’d been reading a book, David McCullough’s The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris. His progress was painstakingly slow, made with a magnifying glass as he fought drowsiness, so he hadn’t gotten too far, but he was excited to share what he was learning about expatriate artists and intellectuals in the nineteenth century. It was the first time in years that I’d seen him attempt to read a book, the first time since my mother’s death that he’d shown enthusiasm for anything.
When I told him it was time for me to go, he said he hoped I’d come back soon. “I always enjoy your visits so much. I think we have good times together, don’t we? We’ve always been able to talk to each other.”
I thought of all the upsetting things I’d never had the courage or the cruelty to say to him, and I thought of all our good talks about how much music and art and literature meant to us. I recalled my mother telling me once, I think your father wanted to be a writer, but he never wrote anything.
I nodded. Yes, it had been true, sometimes: we could talk to each other.
He squeezed my hand. “It’s what I always wanted, since the day you were born.”
I have a few pictures from that last December, the first Christmas without my mother, the last time we took photos of my father. There are several with the grandchildren, and then there’s this one, my favorite. Daddy’s sitting in his wheelchair, wearing his old Black Watch plaid bathrobe, grinning as he holds up what the well-meaning nursing-home volunteers have given him for Christmas: a box of chocolates and a pair of socks.
It wasn’t until after Christmas the following year that I finally called the gifts-in-kind manager at Physicians for Peace. From him I learned that there was a prosthetics company in my city that would accept my father’s legs. A couple days later, I drove along a dreary road lined with office complexes, searching for the right address. By the time I found the low, windowless brick building, there were few cars in the parking lot. It was late in the day and everybody was going home. My nine-year-old son looked up from his book to ask what we were doing. I explained, but he didn’t follow.
“You’re giving them his legs that were cut off?”
“No,” I said. “His fake legs. You don’t ever remember him wearing them?”
I showed him the prosthetics sticking out of the shopping bags. He frowned, shook his head, said he wanted to stay in the car. Inside, a young man and woman sat behind a sliding window looking out into the small lobby. The woman came around to see what I’d brought.
“Wow,” she said, rummaging in the bags.
“This one has a joint,” I said, with a kind of dumb pride.
The man said they might give the unused stump socks to local people, and what couldn’t be used in the United States would likely go to Haiti. I walked out, feeling charitable, do-goodey, relieved of a burden. But a moment later, I felt a flash of the panic that was becoming all too familiar to me in those days. The legs were the closest thing to a body of his left on earth, and I had given them away.
A couple months later, I met an artist who told me about a film called Kandahar, about Afghans living under Taliban rule. She described a scene in which prosthetics are dropped by airplanes or helicopters because conditions are too unsafe for aid workers to come in on the ground. English was not the artist’s first language, and she was so passionate as she talked, so not-American in her willingness to use a frank vocabulary of emotion and aesthetic wonder, that it was hard for me to imagine how the film could be any more moving than her telling of it.
She described the prosthetics falling, each with its own parachute opening above it. As the limbs float down through the sky, a man on crutches moves toward them as fast as he can. A legless man crawls.
“The cripples,” she said, and though I bristled at the word, I didn’t interrupt. “It’s amazing. How they struggle and fight with each other over these prostheses.”
In another scene, she said, a man goes to a clinic to get prosthetics for his wife, but what he is offered won’t do. The artist described how the man puts one next to his own leg to show that it would be too big even for him.
“It’s his tenderness,” she marveled, “how tenderly he says, when he touches the thick, ugly prostheses, But these are not the legs of my wife.”
The receipt came in the mail. I was listed as the donor. The approximate value of the donation: $780. I cried, just a little, over the gift description: unopened liners, gently used knee, gently used foot x 2, other miscellaneous gently used material.
It was that “gently used” and the “x 2” that got me. Why doesn’t the loss of our loved ones break us completely? All I can think is that our selfishness, like brine, preserves us