The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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Though several members of my childhood family have died, the passing of all but two of them took place unexpectedly and at a distance, and I was not able to say goodbye. On two occasions I was there, the dying spoke to me, and their conversation was memorable. Their last words to me seemed a summary of their lives and a way of giving me a part of themselves that would remain in the world after they had left it.
When I was growing up, I was almost as close to my maternal grandfather as to my own father. My mother and I lived in his house while my father was overseas, and after the war we never lived more than a few blocks or a few miles away. In my memories of childhood, my grandfather is everywhere. He taught me how to throw a baseball and a football, and how to fish. He loved the poetry of Robert Service and Ogden Nash, and showed me that a grown man can recite verse on appropriate occasions, or even for no reason at all. The only Democrat between Fort Dodge and Omaha, he demonstrated that a sane and honest man could nevertheless vote for Harry Truman.
He was a station agent for the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad. I spent my school vacations following him around the yards, sitting beside him in cabooses and the cabs of steam locomotives, watching him send messages in Morse code or empty bags of lime into vats where the water for the locomotives was mixed. My grandmother was sure that I would fall into these vats and be crushed and drowned if I so much as went near them, but my grandfather only laughed, and lifted me up to see the huge paddlewheels that shook the building and stirred the water white, and I wasn’t afraid.
He had greater talent for the untroubled enjoyment of life than anyone I’ve ever known, a gift he shared so unsparingly with my cousins and me that we never doubted his love for us. Yet he never told us that he loved us, or showed his love in any way other than his constant enjoyable presence in our lives. He was a most undemonstrative Irishman; strangely enough, the weepers and the huggers of my childhood were on the Scandinavian side of the family.
On the day my gran father died, I visited him in the hospital. We talked about the college I would be attending in the fall and the scholarship I had just won — and baseball, which was never far from his thoughts. He was proud of my scholarship, though he didn’t have to say so, and hopeful about Milwaukee’s chances in the National League and in the upcoming Series with, of course, the Yankees — the only people he thoroughly disliked, now that the Nazis had fallen.
In the half-hour we talked, neither of us acknowledged in any way the momentous thing we knew was about to happen. When the priest came to give him the last rites (and to agree, by the way, with my grandfather’s estimate of Milwaukee’s chances), I said that I had to be getting to work. I shook his hand and said “Goodbye, Frank,” and he said “Goodbye, Mike,” and that was that. Both of us knew that we wouldn’t be saying hello again until we met in the next world, if there is such a place; but we couldn’t find a way to say that, and so we made do with a simple goodbye. In the twenty-six years that have passed since that day, I haven’t thought of a better word we might have said.
Fifteen years after my grandfather’s death, my mother was in her final illness, and I was driving to western Minnesota with my family to visit her for what was likely to be the last time. West of Redwood Falls, the “weather capital” of the Upper Midwest, we drove into a blizzard. A few miles farther on, in spite of my slow and careful driving, we struck a snowdrift, and spun into a ditch. None of us was hurt — though my four-year -old looked at me with wide eyes, amazed that I could have let such a thing happen — and we had come to a stop in front of a country gas station that had a tow truck, was open on Sundays, and took Visa. (My mother had often said that I could fall into a cesspool and climb out wearing a tuxedo.)
When I called her from the station to tell her we would be late, she was still my mother. “Get those kids back to Minneapolis,” she told me, “and stay there until this weather clears up. You can come see me next weekend. I’ll be here.”
She was wrong. By the following weekend, she was unaware of anything in this world except the need for another injection of morphine. I sat alone with her for part of an afternoon. I held her while she coughed, and I wiped away what she brought up — preserving for my own sake a dignity she no longer cared about. Between spasms she was quiet; and then, toward the end of my watch, she began moaning and moving restlessly, like a feverish child. I was about to call for help when a nurse came into the room with a hypodermic and took my mother’s arm. My mother opened her eyes and raised her head.
“What are you giving me?” she asked.
“Morphine,” said the nurse.
“Oh,” she said, lying back. “I have a right to know.”
After the nurse had given her the injection and left the room, my mother was quiet for a few minutes. Then she said, “You know, Mike, if you let them, they’ll just. . . .”
The morphine did its work before she could tell me what they would do if you let them. She never woke again while I was with her. At the time, I thought that “they” were the nurses, and that my mother was expressing an understandable resentment of these healthy women going so briskly about their business. Now that I am within ten years of her age when she died, with children old enough to leave my protection for an evening or a weekend, and, soon enough, for a lifetime, I think she was speaking more generally. I’ve come to think that by “they,” she meant the things in the world — the people, the circumstances, the impersonal forces — that will, if you let them, undo you. She never went to college, though she had won a prize in a state math contest, because “they” thought college was no place for a woman. She endured much trouble because “they” thought she should not marry a Protestant, nor stay in the Church after she did. She was dying of a medical mistake “they” had made thirty years before and failed to correct. I think she was telling me to be careful for myself, or “they” might take control of my life, and even kill me before my time.
I want to say the same thing whenever my nearly grown-up daughter leaves the house for an evening with her friends. She turns in the doorway and looks at me as if to say, “Well, say it,” and I want to give her some word to take with her, to protect her from the many hurtful and the one unthinkable of all the possibilities that await her outside my door. “The world is a slippery place,” I want to say. “Watch your step.”
But I am, they tell me, the living image of my grandfather. I know that if you say a momentous truth you diminish it, and, if you say it often enough, it will become mere words, like my grandmother’s admonitions. So instead I say, “Fasten your seat belt.” “I always do,” she says, and she is gone. Indeed, she always does, and thus, last fall, when the call came from the emergency room asking permission to treat my daughter, who had been in an automobile accident, she was able to come to the phone, her injuries minor. She and I have not yet said our last goodbye. With any luck, we will say it in the unforseeably distant future, and I will be the one about to leave.