The Mortality of Parents
by Jim Shepard
It’s 1970. He’s the glue that holds us together, the UN van pelted with rocks and bottles, the pro wrestling ref floored by the occasional drop-kick but always gamely back on his feet and working to keep the eye-gouging to a minimum. Morning in and morning out, my father’s up and has the coffee made and is reasonably ready for whatever we’re about to, in our misery and impatience and bell jar self-absorption, dish out.
Ours is not one of those families in which the tensions are played out in intricately subterranean gestures. My brother has thrown me across the living room so that my back impacted the wall above the sofa. To more fully demonstrate his dissatisfaction with the general drift of our family life, in our presence he’s upended the dining room table, fully set, a massive Shaker cherry rectangle with big, cross-beamed legs, so that the entire thing was in the air before it hit. My mother has slung a just-filled humidifier across the length of the kitchen. The water reservoir’s detonation on the floor ricocheted its rubber-sealed cap off the ceiling. I’ve been known to run full-bore at the walls, all shoulders and elbows, the hero in a movie breaking down doors where no doors are evident. Our plaster is patched with football-sized ovals. The trim is scissored with scuff marks. Homicidal or suicidal exasperation is the norm.
As Life magazine reminds us every so often, it’s a time of great uncertainty.
In each case, our attempts at self-expression are diverted by Shep into channels at least eventually more acceptable to the neighbors. He reasons, he pleads, he cajoles, he throws people around. The fact that we’re still standing is incontrovertible evidence that he gets results.
I’ve put the leg of a serving table through the speaker on our console television from across the room during a football game. My mother has snapped an oar – a kid’s oar from a plastic boat, but an oar nonetheless – around a crossbeam support in the basement when I ducked and wove while she was trying to apply a two-handed lesson. My brother has cleared our driveway from his second-story window with his turntable when the thing still made vocalists sound vaguely Quaaluded after a third straight trip to the repair shop.
So there it is, the big broad granite slab perpendicular to our slippery little slope, dug in at the bottom of an increasingly steep drop: What’s going to happen when Shep dies? We’re going to go head-on smash into it sometime soon – he’s fifty-nine and not the healthiest guy in the world in 1970 – and none of us, including him, are anywhere in the neighborhood of being prepared. So what is going to happen? At all of fourteen years old I manage to think about it incessantly without enlightening myself on the matter. I don’t know. I don’t know because I don’t want to know. In our family, we’re either screaming or breaking things or cleaning up. Who has time for hypotheticals?
Everyone calls him Shep. He’s been Shep since the Dawn of Time. I apparently started calling him Shep when I was three, amusing visiting relatives and friends. My mother only became Ida when I was thirteen or so. He has his faults – for the sake of everyone concerned, in social situations, we don’t get my mother started on his faults – but in 1970, for the fourteen years I’ve been alive and the ten I’ve been sentient, he’s been for me the epitome of good -- good being defined as patient and/or generous in his dispensation of care. Nowhere in my world do I know anyone as doggedly resourceful in his desire to do what he can for others.
Though my mother, when she overhears relatives marveling at how often her husband thinks of others, works to make clear that by ‘others,’ we all mean his two sons, me being one. By 1970 she’s long been of the opinion that she gets a raw deal when it comes to conflicts with her sons, and as far as her sons are concerned, she’s right; Shep’s mode with her is an only slightly-amended version of a position he’s taken from the very beginning: They’re just kids, but you should know better.
Our lives are divided into ongoing topics of contention. What do we fight about? Everything. My father has gone on record as believing we could fuck up a wet dream. Some subjects seem to roll out the ordnance more reliably than others, though. In ascending order of seriousness:
Music. My mother inclines toward Jimmy Roselli and Lou Monte: singers so Italian they embarrass even other Italian singers. My father favors Nelson Eddy and Earl Wrightson: booming-voiced guys who sound as though they only sing in Mountie uniforms. Passing the stereo, they turn each other’s music down, or off. My brother and I crack each other up regularly by making fun of both oeuvres. He favors vandalizing my mother’s scungilli favorites – Please, Mr. Columbus, turn-a da ship aroun’ – while I get a bang out of replicating on car rides that basso-pretentious sound my father so enjoys: Give me ten men that are stout-hearted men…
Music generates the most benign of our free-for-alls. My father gives as good as he gets when it comes to heaping abuse on what he hears. He’s caustic on the subject of Janis Joplin. He periodically suggests a saliva test for Joe Cocker. He refers to Jimi Hendrix only as ‘that banshee.’ But when he can make out the lyrics, and they’re witty – as in the case of the Kinks, or Randy Newman – every so often, from down below in the living room, our stuff can get a laugh.
Drinking. Shep puts it away like he has a hollow leg, and the volume annoys my mother mostly because of the insulation it seems to provide. Maybe because he brushed by alcoholism so closely himself, and certainly because he’s had so many good friends who’ve taken that easy slide into the pool (the best man at his wedding died of cirrhosis of the liver), his comedy is particularly blunt on the subject. Which, for Shep, is saying something. “She was a jug artist,” he’ll say. “He was always face down in the sauce somewhere.” “He was always pissing green on St. Paddy’s Day.”
Money. For spiff events, my mother drinks whiskey sours. When she thinks she’s getting a cold, she may take the occasional shot of four-dollar brandy or rye. Her favorite drink is Thunderbird: wine of choice for winos, screw-topped and so cheap that it seems a bargain even to her. It smells so awful that I begin making fun of it when my age is still in the single digits. It tastes like something from a crankcase. “It’s good enough for me,” my mother always says in response.
It’s our children-of-the-Depression parents’ mantra, the bottom-line creed by which they live: It’s good enough for me. Restaurants with linen napkins are too fancy, a big car or a new car is more than we need, vacations somewhere other than a dank knotty-pine cabin on Lake Champlain would be very nice if money meant absolutely nothing to us and was pouring in at an unprecedented rate. In Beloit, Wisconsin, years later, traveling on my own, I come across a marketing strategy apparently designed for my parents: a billboard that reads Miller: Because Budweiser Is Just Too Darned Expensive.
All expenses and all bills for whatever amount irk Ida. All charges of whatever size seem fair to Shep. Ida’s expression will darken after having opened an electric bill of seventeen cents, while Shep’s face will remain unperturbed watching a cashier ring up a wiffle bat for $17.95. Without waiting for birthdays or holidays, Shep spreads his money around like Diamond Jim Brady. He could spend twenty dollars on a trip to the dump. He buys the boys smallish things – four dollar models, five dollar albums – that the boys have agitated for, while Ida does her best to save, hating her role as the bad cop who always gets to suggest that the boys can wait. We’re encouraged to hide gifts when arriving back home, but Ida checks all incoming packages like a customs agent. Fights follow. We sit up in our rooms enjoying our new whatevers while in the arena below the insults escalate in volume. Sometimes we go downstairs for a drink in the middle of it all. Nobody asks, but privately, we always take Shep’s side, while intuiting guiltily that Ida’s probably right.
Then there are the topics that cause much more serious fights.
The Length of the Boys’ Hair.
The Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts.
My brother’s refusal to go to school.
My brother in general.
By 1970 my brother and I have put in a staggering thirty-two combined years with Shep and Ida in our household, and time with Shep and Ida in our household is the analog to spending time with Henny Youngman and Anna Magnani in Beirut. My brother and I don’t have a lot of advanced training in this area, but even we can sense that as far as our parents’ emotional lives go, there are compatibility and empathy issues that are not being properly addressed. Certain goals that are not being well met.
All of this would have sailed along with its own kind of stability – the way events sailed along from Shiloh to Antietam to Fredericksburg in 1862 – but in August of 1970 my father had the first of his three heart attacks.
As far as my mother was concerned, his heart had always been the problem; had always been his weakest link. He’s got a big heart, he’s got a good heart, his heart’s too big, his heart’s too good, his heart’s the problem. His heart was evidently listening.
By the time I’m fourteen and my brother’s seventeen, in 1970, we’ve provided my father with a string of unprecedented opportunities to confirm his status with relatives and friends as the biggest worrier they’ve ever known. At my brother’s suggestion, I’ve taken a wagon down the steepest paved hill in a five hundred mile radius and landed on my chin. We’ve both been caught jumping off the roof of our neighbors’ house in an attempt to conceal that we’d been poking around the ground floor uninvited. Our summer fad of pelting passing cars with jawbreaker-sized rocks has backfired badly.
My father’s response to our mulish and heroic refusal to acquire common sense is a darkly comic and highly obscene mixture of epithets and despairing interrogation that’s often metrically pleasing – What goes through your fucking head? Are your brains stuck up your ass? -- and we can see, in the aftermath of one of our catastrophic exercises of free will, the physical toll it takes on him: for days afterward, he’s exhausted, tentative in his steps, fractionally hesitant when lowering himself into a recliner. He’s too old for this. He ages, while we watch.
Of course, in some ways he brings it on himself. We act up, he acts out. He loves us, he loves us, we think when the shouting subsides. We go to bed pleased, and entertained, besides.
Shep, don’t get excited, Ida says, while he throws Tom Collins glasses against the side of the garage. At times like that – when the boys have shown yet again that they have the collective brains of a squirrel – Ida placates, and assumes a long-view perspective, as if to suggest that we’ll all chuckle over such shenanigans a few years down the road.
But Shep is a long way from Big Picture serenity. On the day of his first heart attack, he’s in a chaise lounge in the backyard, recovering from the revelation that my brother and I have been running around the summer streets at three and four in the morning, potting streetlights with our BB gun, naked. The police have delivered this revelation in the middle of the night after having picked us up. We’re without explanation as far as the naked part goes. Our m.o. is to leave our clothes on one corner or another and retrieve them on the way home.
The heart attack arrives long after the verbal abuse has subsided and all is relatively calm. My brother and I have gone to the beach. My mother is in the kitchen browning meat for a sauce.
All morning long, as far as Shep’s concerned, he doesn’t feel exactly right. Ida lends a sympathetic ear but her capacity for alarm is muffled by her sense of his slight hypochondria. A burning, parenthesis-shaped pain spreads beneath his sternum. Anxiety builds up, conjuring all sorts of scenarios. He resists jumping to conclusions.
When he leans forward, the pain lances upward to the base of his throat. This is cause for concern. He has trouble breathing. He calls Ida. The grease from the beef is making a racket in the bottom of the pan and he has to call her again.
He works at Avco Lycoming Industries, marketing helicopter engines, and so just as a basic business strategy always affects a formality with strangers whom he considers to be better educated. He tells the Emergency Room intern that he’s “experiencing chest difficulties.”
Blood is taken, an EKG is hooked up, and medication is fed into him intravenously before we get word down at the beach. Ida thinks to call a neighbor, who trots the five blocks to tell us, and then is nice enough to drive us to the hospital to boot. It’s the same guy who found us on his roof.
When we come into the room, Ida’s sitting there holding his hand, and he’s chatting with the intern. He’s saying, “Once you know it is your heart, there’s a certain anxiety that takes over, and that effects the whole goddamn thing too, you know—“ and then we interrupt. We take turns bending over and putting our hands behind his shoulders, the quasi-hug for the bedridden.
He lies there for a while while we ask various questions and joke. Ida’s eyes mist up every so often. My brother asks how he’s feeling and he answers, “Not so good. I had a heart attack.”
After his diagnosis, he’s given stuff to stabilize his arrhythmia. In 1970 heart medicine is turning a corner from the Tertiary to the Quaternary, and tests are not as sophisticated as they are today. Certain predilections, certain hidden weaknesses, are missed. After a few days of observation, the little plastic bracelet is snipped off his wrist and he’s sent home with medication. After a prudent interval, stress tests are administered. The problem of arterial blockage is addressed.
But Shep’s heart, that big shaky flatbed trundling us down the hill, is not all right. It goes on about its business quietly, while we go on about ours. But its business involves preparing to blow up on Shep two more times.
As a family we resolve, with a minimum of discussion, to take it easy. No more battling of the sort that would only add to his strain. Israel and the Palestinians agree to be good. The Protestants and the Catholics decide to Just Try Peace in Northern Ireland.
Because we love him so much and because we cannot do without him, our resolution holds up for a month and a half. Opportunities for strife come and go daily, unpursued. In the den one evening after four hours of uneventful television watching, Shep expresses his gratitude. It’s not the kind of thing that comes easily to him, and his family is genuinely touched.
In early October the party comes to an end. My brother is sent home from the shitty public high school he attends for having let his hair get too long -- shoulder-length, in the back – and I come home from the same educational sinkhole two hours later in an equally black mood. He accuses me, even before I set a foot into my room, of having played his Elvin Bishop album. His tone is not interrogatory. I offer to let him kiss my ass. He throws me down the stairs.
This time Shep is the hospital for four days longer than we expect. His face, when we visit, is gray. He talks hoarsely, when he talks at all. The intravenous seems to be pulling stuff out of him rather than putting stuff in. The three of us – Ida, my brother, and myself -- are frozen with fear.
Between visits, our personal grooming habits decay. Our meals are cold cereal or tuna forked from the can at the kitchen table, our expressions ashen.
We were all raised Catholic. My mother prays. When my brother and I watch movies late into the night, she’s audible in her bedroom next to the den, her smoker’s voice quavering through the rosary. When I finally go to bed – school is temporarily out, as far as we’re concerned, for the duration of the crisis – I open negotiations with God. Even at fourteen I feel the need to explain my previous lack of interest, and I do so by proposing that it be viewed not so much as hypocrisy as a desire not to bother Him over every petty little thing.
When I’m at my most honest, my formulations all express the same terror: I can’t live without him. I can’t live without him. I can’t live without him.
Has He listened? Is He affected? In that early morning delirium before sleep, I’m oddly confident. Shep always did. Shep always was.
A specialist is consulted. It turns out that he doesn’t like the look of things. We start bringing as gifts hefty biographies instead of magazines. Back home, nobody sleeps much. There’s a lot of rendezvousing in the kitchen in the predawn hours. In the tossing and turning that goes on before that, I try to kick start my sense of my own good fortune and gratitude. I make an effort to wax nostalgic about things my father taught me, without as much success as I would like. The problem is that I remember few Andy-and-Judge Hardy-type sessions involving either me sitting still for patient instruction or him sitting still to give it. I am able to list for myself, though, some things I picked up, more or less incompletely, by keeping an eye on him:
How to build, and paint, monster models, for example. How to go easy on the glue. How to enhance the effect of the blood by limiting its splatter. Before Shep, my monsters tended to look like last-stage Ebola victims.
The isolating pleasures, in general, of all sorts of absorbed, small-detail work. It occurs to me with some pride that Shep has the most appealing tuneless hum in the neighborhood. It sounds like the Bridgeport version of something Tibetan. The closest facsimile I’ve encountered is a shtick played entirely for comedy: W.C. Fields, as ever henpecked and harassed in a service capacity, keeps some barely restrained customer waiting while humming, just audibly, Grubbing grubbing grubbing grubbing grubbing grubbing grubbing. We watched it together, Shep and I. He hummed as he watched, and to my delight, never made the connection.
We want to bring in other specialists, at this specialist’s suggestion. Shep is unimpressed with the idea. How much more poking and prodding do they need? Is this a convention? This is good enough for me.
Just before Halloween, it looks like he’s finally going to be released. Somewhere in all the information and for their own private reasons the doctors have noted Progress. But on the morning of the big day, having shuffled over to the tiled bathroom rolling his IV stand beside him, his family’s arrival an hour or so away, Shep knows something is going wrong. His head is a helium balloon. His chest has been invaded by a plank. Sweat soaks his hospital gown before he becomes aware that he’s sweating.
The nurses. The doctors. He needs reinforcements. He needs to sit. As far as whatever hope he’s entertaining, the bottom falls out and fear’s what’s waiting there behind it, all the way down.
He tries the toilet but the lid’s slippery, and he tumbles and folds up like a camp stool. I try to imagine his next moments. I try to imagine his next moments, alone on the floor of that actionably narrow bathroom, and something in me upheaves and rebels and inverts itself; something in me that’s fundamentally cowardly refuses the engagement. Thirty years have passed and I’m still a timorous figure navigating a makeshift and narrow life. Thirty years have passed without my having addressed my ambition to shape myself into an admirable figure, in his image. My mother has lost the use of her personality. My brother’s weeping has stabilized as a form of raging at himself and us. My own inventory – a meticulous examination of the barn door now that the barn is empty – reminds me that I didn’t even do my best to love, whatever my best was. When exactly did their It’s good enough for me become our I need more? Why did we let it happen?
Twenty-two years after my father hit the flush tank and then the tile, I fell in love and got married. My wife, a good woman, believes I’m a good man. My children, seven and four, repair my emotions every chance they get. They’re both boys. They sprawl. They tumble. They raise hell. They love me. I can see it.
We had our luck and our luck ran out. We got the news when we arrived at the front desk of the hospital. My mother’s knees stopped working before either of us could catch her. My brother swept his arms into the air and brought them down and cleared everything from the nurse’s station counter in front of us. I gripped the counter with two hands like it was time to steer this lobby somewhere else and thought what I still think now, that all along my father was right: we could fuck up Paradise. We did. We have.
Jim Shepard is the author of six novels and two collections of stories, most recently Project X (Knopf, 2004) and Love and Hydrogen (Vintage, 2004). His short stories have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker, Esquire, Harper's, The Paris Review, and other magazines.
The story first appeared in the short story collection, Love and Hydrogen.