I keep seeing my father drive around town in a yellow 1975 Chevrolet Impala. This is fine as far as most people (who don’t know my father) are concerned—it’s just that my brothers and I buried dad in November, 2001. For several very practical reasons, dad should be quietly resting in the cemetery and not tooling around town.
I often catch sight of him when I’m driving one of the kids somewhere, to school or some activity. He will be driving in the opposite direction, his ears cocked and his eyes tuned to space as if he were listening to the radio, trying to catch the college basketball scores or something. His face is drawn and empty as when I last saw him alive, in his hospital bed, asking for a sip of apple juice.
“Apple,” he said, and I held the straw to his lips and he drank.
My mother, whom we buried in 1995, has chosen to stay put and is not cruising around with dad. When she was alive, she used to love her little weekend jaunts.
“Got to get out and sniff the bushes and eat the garbage,” she used to say. She and my father would take trips up near the Minnesota border where they both grew up. They’d stop to visit whoever was still alive and sip a beer at the tap. Sometimes they would stop at the Grotto of the Redemption on the way home, and she would light a candle and say a prayer for whoever among us she thought was screwing up most.
Anyway, it seems to me dad took to driving again not long after I started writing a poem about the time I took him to the doctor’s office and he informed the physician he was ceasing intake of any nourishment—in other words, pulling his own plug. The doctor was exasperated with dad’s stubbornness and resolve to die. He simply said, “Okay…” and walked out of the exam room throwing his hands in the air. I was there alone with dad, and the old man just looked at me with those speckled blue eyes as if he were telling me to beat it as well. But I had to be there; he was too weak to move, trembling with Parkinson’s. He bored into me with his eyes as if the loss of his vitality was my doing, a deeply planned and carefully executed conspiracy authored by my brothers and me. I wheeled him out to the car and drove him back to the nursing home. He would refuse to eat their mush and thus weaken himself to the point of death. The poem has been difficult to finish.
Sometimes you just feel lucky. You sit behind the wheel of your car; as poor as you are, you know you are not going to rob any banks, and the ultimate “Oh, crap!” moment seems far off in the crisp fall of an infinitely distant future. What more do you need than a gulp of air, some bright sunshine and a little nudge to get going?
The last time I saw my dead father driving his yellow car was the day I slipped on the ice in the driveway and broke my left wrist. It was 7:30 a.m., January 31st, and it was two degrees below zero. I was scraping the snow and ice off the van when I saw him rounding the corner on Briggs Street and heading up D toward where I was working in the driveway. The moment I saw him, one foot lost traction on a bald skull of ice near the van’s tailpipe, and then the other foot slipped, and I kind of half hovered, my feet doing some crazy skating while I contemplated during several crucial micro-seconds how I was going to take the punishment. One split second said, “Back on your head, dude.” The other fraction of time said, “Trust me, sacrifice the wrist.” And so all 220 pounds of me went down on it, and as X-rays would later show, it was a spectacular fracture.
As the white-hot sickness and nausea began to overtake me, as I lay moaning in the driveway, I saw dad’s yellow Impala slow to the drive’s mouth. He puffed out his lowered window, “I’m sorry, I can’t help you.” And then he drove away, leaving me to struggle to my feet and fight the starry blindness of shock and find my way back into the house and collapse on the love seat and battle the urge to faint dead away.
At the emergency room (my daughter roused my wife from her morning meditation, and she then drove me there) they gave me some morphine and I got calm and a little philosophical and then a little lazy. I watched the sports news on ESPN on a little screen they craned near my face. The orderlies splinted my arm. X-rays were taken. I’m not really sure what the order of events were anymore. The bones on the X-ray film looked like a train derailment. The surgeon said I’d have to be transferred to another hospital because they didn’t have the hardware here. The hardware: carbon rods and brass joints with stainless steel pins that would be screwed into the bones. The morphine gave me the feeling that this was no worse than a little twist—just relax and everything will be taken care of.
The TV screen reported the criminality of one of our current sports heroes. Head shots. Men in tall suits walking in and out of court rooms. Then a cut to a Gatorade commercial.
This was the emergency area, but it was not the same room they had taken my father when he had fallen or become ill at the nursing home. It seems so long ago, now. There he was in a hospital gown with an IV and various tubes going various places. He was conscious and not thrilled to be looking at me. They had to roll him over and I got a glimpse of his pasty white groin and hernia rupture. I was not thrilled to get such an intimate view of his body. He was unhappy. We didn’t talk much.
Wheeled onto the bed next to him was a lady with hair like a frightened cat’s. She was on some sort of drug trip. She kept moaning, “Oh God, oh God.” They did blood tests and an hour later told her she had PCP in her system.
“How in the world?” she moaned to her husband. He was in his fifties—looked like a farmer—wore denim overalls.
“We know you don’t take drugs, honey. I don’t know how they got there.”
Likely story, I thought.
My father reclined on his bed, rolled his eyes.
When I was in my teens, my father and I would golf early mornings,– spring, summer, fall,– at the municipal golf course. Green fees were cheap there, so a 5:30 a.m. tee-off usually ensured we would beat the crowds. Sometimes we would golf, just the two of us, and other times his accountant Jack, and his son Jay, would meet us there and we’d play as a foursome.
The golf course was sometimes spectacularly beautiful early in the morning. Before the sun crested the horizon we would practice chip shots onto the gray practice green and then putt our scattered clutch of golf balls. As the sun knifed into the horizon, the fairway glittered with dew, and, with the strengthening light to our backs, we would tee off. A well-hit ball could fly the length of three football fields, and splash in a spray-wheel of dew. Such drives required timing, poise and healthy wrists.
In the emergency room my wrist looked like the wrung neck of a goose, and it was nearing my time to be transferred to the other hospital for surgery, so they gave me another shot of morphine for the ride (twenty miles).
We didn’t use an ambulance, but my wife drove me in the van—and I felt warm and chatty under the morphine. We stopped for gas at a filling station, and I almost forgot and bought a cup of coffee (I was supposed to fast until they put me under in the operating room). I watched the frosted winter fields roll by. It was almost like we were going on vacation, and then we pulled into Ottumwa and their hospital. I sat in Admissions and signed a lot of papers with my good hand and then took a bed in a ready room where I undressed and got into a hospital gown and waited as my pain started to grow again—nastier than before—making me writhe and sweat with nausea.
They gave me another shot of what they told me was morphine, but it didn’t do any good. Slowly an hour and a half ticked away until it was time for them to wheel me into surgery. I was glad to be going somewhere they would be putting me to sleep and I wouldn’t feel anything for a while.
I had some flashes of fear that there would be some complications and I would die, but then I thought I would not be aware of any of it and if I did die, I would simply be dead and my consciousness, my sense of self, my soul would be…[?]… talking to my mother and father, was one thought, and it was just enough comfort to let myself go and let them inject me with all the mysterious fluids that let the curtain of unknowingness fall and let the healing begin one way or another.
I’ve awoken from anesthesia just twice in my life, and both times I awoke to the laughter of the nurses and orderlies around me. God knows what I had been muttering—or maybe it was just some private joke among them. This time I awoke to the steam of some ventilator under my nose. I didn’t feel talkative, but I felt fine, confident, and almost certain some opiates were at work on my nervous system.
After an hour of recovery, and a light lunch of soup and crackers and apple juice, I was discharged with a prescription for hydrocodone (a synthetic opium mixed with Tylenol) and a bottle of anti-nausea pills.
I would spend the next two months pretty much doped up and snoozing or watching old movies on DVD. Occasionally I’d look out the window fearfully at all the snow and ice, and be afraid I was losing contact with normal life and activity and maybe a bit of my sanity.
I saw my dead father driving in town again. It’s April and tulips are pushing up from every other corner. He seems to have upgraded his ride to a 2001 PT Cruiser—somehow looking quite at home in the 1930’s retro-based curves of this car. Instead of doing a search on the Internet to figure how dead people finance the purchase of good used cars, I decide to coffee up at Café Hemingway to fight the hydrocodone jones that haunts me from time to time. Heroin in pill form one movie starlet in recovery called it. She was on methadone to transition from the habit. And to think that doctors prescribe this shit—so cheap—like $10 for 30 tablets—one tablet every 4 to 6 hours for pain. I can attest that after a week using the stuff, pain gets a fairly liberal interpretation.
But I developed an intolerance to it. It stopped making me feel so good, so invincible. It started to make me feel plain bad. Nonetheless, cravings come back, and I find myself reaching for caffeine and chocolate to fill the void sometimes. I’m a depressed head as a matter of course anyway, so any legal, natural antidepressant is welcome now and then.
So I sit in Café Hemingway trying to get my bearings. It crosses my mind that I could tail my father across town to see where it is he goes. Does he park his ride in the cemetery at night? Does he crawl back down into his grave to rest? I don’t know. I would like to find out. Yet I’m a bit of a chicken, and the thought of tailing a revenant corpse through daytime traffic makes my sense of logic reel—I feel hot flashes and sweat starts to bead on my upper lip. I start to feel that “no escape” feeling—and I’m not really sure where I’d go or what I’d do if I caught up with him, other than find a quick corner to hyperventilate and vomit. Get a grip, I tell myself—think about something nice. Take a walk in the park, look at all the flowers, concentrate on the trees.
Sitting by the window, I sip a cup of some exotic blend like “Senegalese Maximum Caramel” and I can see his car when he pulls up, parks and starts wiping his eyes with a clean handkerchief. Death has not aged him one day, and despite the eye-wiping, he looks fairly happy and content with his afterlife. He is wearing the same powder-blue cabby’s cap he liked, and the powder-blue cardigan he never seemed without—like when he roasted weenies after work on the backyard barbecue in early autumn or late spring. I see him blow his nose in the handkerchief, just like he would blow his nose before he teed off at Willow Wood Municipal. There always would be some magic round of nine holes that would embolden him to enter the city tournament. Every drive would thunder, every approach shot would be crisp (and maybe even hole out), and every putt would clatter into the cup with the sound of triumph. But come the qualifying round of the tournament my father would come unglued. He would turn into a machine that would either slice the ball out of bounds, or top it with a sputter off the tee. Humiliation would deter him from competitive play for about a year. Then his faith would build again.
I’m tired. I drink my blend and something like optimism washes over me. He shifts into reverse and stiffly cranes his neck to back out of the spot. It half crosses my mind to dash out to my car and follow him, to see where he goes, what he chooses to do with his day now that he has passed away. But I don’t. I sit there and drink. “For now,” I say to myself. “Just for now.”