Published in The Gettysburg Review, Autumn 2010
Reprinted in 2012 Pushcart Prize XXXVI: Best of the Small Presses
My father sits at the edge of his bed, insisting on his shiny concert shoes. Their lack of traction on a polished floor is treacherous for a man who can no longer stand up on his own, a man who has seized and used every moment of living left to him. But the shoes are not negotiable, nor are the button-down shirt or the pants that need to be safety pinned to secure them to his wasted frame. In an hour or so, my father will find the weight of his clothes unbearable. In a few hours, my father will be dead. But first there is a final concert to play, and there is the proper attire in which to play it. I watch as my mother helps my father get into his clothing for the last time.
Earlier in the day, I held my father’s mottled hand, the baggy skin flaking away, but the grip still sturdy from a lifetime of scaling the strings of his viola. For much of his career, my father was the assistant principal violist of the New York Philharmonic. “You have to know when he’s going to start,” my father whispered from his pillow. He took a noisy, shallow breath in, and released a long, rattling exhale. “You have to know when he wants you to play the beats.”
Well, of course! I thought. Not a black-hooded hooded figure with a scythe, but a conductor with a baton. “You know when to play the beats, Dad-ling,” I said gently, though I hadn’t been a gentle daughter.
“But you don’t!” he said, with more strength than I thought he had left. He hadn’t been a gentle father.
“Well, I’m not the musician,” I said evenly.
He took several percussive but unhurried breaths. “It’s deceptive. It begins with a rest.”
“Oh. A rest.” I pronounced the word lingeringly, softly. “That sounds like a good idea.” My father hadn’t slept for several days. His body was strung tight, and he couldn’t stay still; he had plowed an agitated path between his bed and the reclining chair in the living room, going back and forth like the needle on a metronome, assisted by my mother or my sister or me. And when he no longer had the strength to get from one room to the other, he had relied on us to help him sit up in bed, lie down, sit up. All day. All night. “Do you want to rest?”
He didn’t answer. His mind had drifted elsewhere. His hand was cold; I let go of it, and pulled back. The smell of death already permeated his body, and though I wanted to kiss his brow, as I had done the day before, the stench drove me away. He held the hand out in front of him and examined it. The skin under his fingernails looked bruised. His green eyes had a pale, opaque glaze to them, as he slowly rotated the hand from side-to-side, and then brought it back toward his gut. Was he already leaving his body behind like an old coat, wondering to whom this hand belonged?
I sat with him, trying to hold onto just being in his presence. As I had become more than a guest in my parents' home, my father and I had shared a comfortable closeness that had been pointedly absent from our adult relationship. My sense of the minutes floated away with him.
But then he was back. “What time is it?” He could barely get the words out, but there was a sense of urgency. “When… when do I play?”
“In a couple of hours, maybe,” I told him.
“No!” His voice held a faint trace of power and rage that lingered like the smell of sulfur after a gun is fired. “When is it? When am I playing?” Rage was our family’s stunt double for passion, for deep feeling… for life. To rage was to live.
“It’s your concert, Dad-ling.” I made my voice soothing and slow. “It can be whenever you want.”
“No, it can’t. I don’t trust them. Who are the other players?”
“It’s your concert,” I repeated. “Who do you want to play with?” And then, “You’re going to play beautifully. It’s going to be beautiful.”
He seemed to consider this. “Eve, go away,” he said, not unkindly, followed by a characteristic, “I’m very busy.” I left him to gather the last bit of himself, to concentrate his focus.
Out in the living room, I was alone. My mother, dodging despair, was in her study, asleep. My sister had briefly relinquished the role she’d carved at my father’s elbow during his long illness, and was off at yoga. I sat down on the couch, next to the empty leather recliner my father had favored as he had grown weaker, and across from the piano, where a few weeks ago, my son had played for his grandfather one last time. My father had lectured Leo on the art of taking a bow. “The audience claps; they’re saying ‘thank you.’ You acknowledge this by bowing. Never leave the stage without a gracious bow.”
This was the room where we had hovered over my father all these months, while death hovered over us—unspoken, unspeakable, because to speak of it violated my father’s force of will. It was maybe five or six months ago that he decided he wanted to ski again. He could barely walk. What he told me was, “I want to stand on top of the mountain.”
I drove. It was the sole time he was in the passenger seat and I was behind the wheel. While he didn’t get to the top of the mountain, he did stand on the peak of the bunny hill and skied down it. Once.
And he and my mother had gotten to the Cape only a month ago. Cape Cod, where he had taught me to ride waves, where he had showed Leo how to scour the bay at low tide, and fill a wire basket with oysters, where the day started with a swim in the pond and ended with a sunset dinner. When they arrived, my father didn’t have the strength to leave his bed. But the bed had a view of the bay. He declared he’d be back—and better—when summer rolled around.
His students were still calling on his work line to schedule their next lessons.
But there was no more time left for him. I swung my legs around and stretched out on the couch. The sun glinted off the remaining sliver of the Hudson still visible between the new steel-and-glass high-rises that had gone up as my father became sicker. The diffuse, afternoon light bathed the apartment. It was silent, except for the flow of traffic so far down that it was easy to imagine it as a distant brook moving over rocks and stones to the river. I felt guiltily peaceful.
No more bearing witness to my father’s dogged decision to take his meals via IV needle in his arm when his appetite died before the rest of him. No more sharing close quarters with the grief my mother and sister had claimed as an identity. I was near release from their insistent ardor that burned my oxygen. Near release from my father’s orbit, with the flare of violence it had left on my adolescence. In the waning day, all that remained were the tender, complicated feelings, threatening to push up through the surface of my momentary calm.
My father is almost ready. Back in the bedroom now, I ache at his tenacity, his engagement, as he asks my mother for his white shirt. He rubs the fabric gently, weakly between his fingers. He manages a shake of his head. “No. The black shirt.”
I fight my tears. Of course the black shirt. He requests his tails, a fixture in the back of his closet since the Philharmonic had gone from tux to the less formal suit and tie. I had little-girl memories of him wrapping his satiny cummerbund around the waistband of his trousers, fastening his bow tie, and shrugging into the jacket with the penguin tails hanging behind him like a bride’s train.
My mother buttons him into the shirt he has chosen. But she eschews the satin-sided trousers that would need to be dug out of some ancient suit bag, while my father waits, hunched over on the edge of his bed. No matter. My father sees himself in his most stately clothes, rather than in his old khaki pants, pinned up, that he has worn to his last two doctor’s appointments, and that my mother somehow manages to get on him for the last time. I hurt for what she will feel when she no longer needs to call up her courage and brisk efficiency. My persistent friction with her subsides in the poignancy of the moment.
Finally, she slips on the concert shoes. No socks. It’s too difficult.
His legs, no power left in them, dangle down, his feet in those slippery shoes resting on the floor, marionette-like. His face is in his hands. I can see his skull through the sparse, downy wisps of hair the chemo left behind.
My father is filled with anxiety. “It’s been seven months since I played,” I hear him rasp, through his hands. And then, “Can I do this?” He looks up. “How will I get where I’m going?” His question takes me like a sucker punch.
I hear a key in the door. My sister drops her bag at the foot of my parents’ bed, and moves in to position herself close by my father’s side--nurse, disciple, look who’s daddy’s girl. I step back, not out of kindness or deference. But at this moment, I am able to let in her tenderness, her need to protect him.
We’re all here. Now he acts. Instantly. He strains to get off the bed.
“He’s got a concert to play,” my mother tells my sister.
“Carnegie Hall,” he says, resolutely. It’s where he first played when he joined the orchestra, a young man with his life ahead of him. We lift him, our arms under his arms, around his waist. He shuffles forward. We move instinctively. We know this route. He’s back on the metronome track that leads to the living-room recliner. In a few precarious steps, he is off the bedroom carpet, and out onto the parquet hallway floor. We can barely keep him up. And now we see how those shoes glissade against the polished wood tiles, like dull skate blades on smooth ice. We move him a few more steps down the hall, pausing at the front door of our apartment. We can’t possibly get him to the reclining chair, nor even back to the bedroom.
The previous night, my father tried to get out of bed alone, and fell face-first on the bathroom floor. He sports a Band-aid on the bridge of his bruised, swollen nose. Broken, I think, though my mother can’t bear to consider the possibility of one last indignity. We struggle to hold him from another fall.
My sister races to grab an armchair, which she positions where my mother and I stand, clutching my father. “Margot, go. Call for a taxi,” my father instructs her. It takes all three of us to turn him around and get him seated on the snow-white cushions. And now?
My father asks for his viola. “My fiddle,” he calls it. My mother retrieves it, positions it on the floor in front of him as if the instrument itself is onstage. “Is my music in there?” My sister pulls a score from the side pocket of his instrument case. She places it in his hands. My mother locates his glasses, and perches them on his bandaged nose.
He does what we have seen him do hundreds of times before. He leans back in his chair. He takes a breath. He licks his thumb and forefinger deliberately. His motions are weak, but so familiar. With his moistened fingers, he opens his music. He scans the two-page spread. Licks his two fingers again, turns the page and repeats the process. How often we have seen him do this, without ever thinking about it. With clear vision gone, what music is he reading? What notes is he seeing, so purposeful, that for a moment, it’s only him and the printed pages?
“Okay.” He closes the score. “I’m ready.” It’s the voice I know. So tired, but deep, gravelly and grave. In the final, brutal stages of his illness, I have fervently wished for it to be over. Now I can’t bear his letting go.
My mother moves to the stereo. Through the final weeks of his illness, my father didn’t listen to music. Nearly any sensory experience seemed to be too much. Sounds were too loud, lights too bright, the tangible world too saturated, perhaps too exquisite to bear. Music above all.
But my mother senses what is required now. She opens the jewel box on top of the stereo, pulls out the CD, and puts it on.
A violin sings out a gripping, declamatory phrase, supported by the bold chords of a piano, second violin, viola and cello. My parents’ home is suddenly filled with music, as it was nearly constantly before my father became ill. I feel the majestic first bars in my stomach, the clear, simple rhythm of the opening passage. My mother comes back to stand behind my father, her hands on his shoulders—holding him, bracing herself. My sister and I are on either side of his chair, sitting on the floor and clasping his hands. His viola is front and center. Schumann’s Piano Quintet, opus 44 is the last piece my father will ever hear.
As the cello hands off the melody to the viola, his foot manages a few weak taps. Here is his moment; he is the voice.
We ride the mellow, honied sound of the viola line, the four of us. The music connects us, holds us fast in this magnificent, agonizing moment. This is a gift my father gave me, this mindful delight, and its power to bring a work of art to life--a book, a painting, this piece of music. Each note vibrates with our collective focus.
“Can you believe this?” my father says, his voice uncharacteristically subdued.
“I can’t. I can’t believe it,” my mother replies.
It was only yesterday that my father allowed himself to consider the inevitable. “You’re going to start hospice care on Monday,” his oncologist had said, the previous afternoon.
I think the last conversation I had with my father when he was fully cognizant went like this:
“Eve, how long are people on hospice care?”
I had been banging away at my computer for days, checking the signs of imminent death. The loss of appetite, the physical agitation, the purple fingernail and toenail beds, the cold extremities. “A year,” I said slowly, “or six months, or a few weeks, or a few days. It depends.”
He nodded. “I see.”
So now he knows he is dying, and he has made short work of it. Made sure to embrace it, get right to it, do it well. If life is over, then his work is to die. He is good at working. Always has been. He has been busy. He told me so himself.
The piano, in the lower registers, introduces a passionate, urgent dance of instruments. How lucky, how grateful I am that it ends this way.
My father doesn't die with the final chords, though how could we not have imagined he might? Somewhere in the middle of the joyous, vibrant third movement, my father says sadly, “The concert’s almost over.”
“It sure is,” my mother echoes. She met my father sixty-two years ago, when they were young teens.
“I have to go,” my father says. He strains to get out of his chair, and we help him move the few steps down the hall and back to bed.
He doesn’t take the final bow.
A few hours later, I say goodnight to him. “I’ll be back in the morning,” I tell him. I kiss his forehead, trying to experience only the tender gesture, rather than the waxy feel of his skin or its odor. “If you want to leave before I get back, it’s okay.” He doesn’t react. “It was a beautiful concert,” I add.
I leave the apartment for the river of traffic.