The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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The first time he calls the talk line, it’s because he wants to die. Whatever has happened in his brain has made him a stranger to himself. He does not want his wife or son to think he is helpless, but he is utterly cut off from everything he knows. He can hardly read, will never teach again. The man he sees in the mirror and hears every time he speaks is not who he wants to be. He limps. He stammers. He can’t locate the right words, so he tries to talk around them.
I get to know him by his deep, halting voice and his name, Mark, although he could have made that up. He also could have made up the stroke, or the stories he has told me every week for the past eight years about being a vagabond orphan from a small town who ran away at fourteen, hitchhiked west, and educated himself by stealing library books along the way. One of his favorites, not surprisingly, was Oliver Twist. He likes to point out the similarities.
I listen, a volunteer sitting at a desk in the small office of a crisis-prevention line for the elderly. The room is windowless, with desks along the walls and gray institutional carpet stained with whatever anyone has spilled. It is an impersonal room, considering the intimate stories that we hear there. But the physical space seems to melt away when I pick up the phone.
A computer system parcels out the calls to open lines at random, so everyone is eventually assigned the frequent callers: the man who despises his neighbors because they throw trash in his yard; the woman who loves animals so much that she watches Animal Planet with her dog and cries; the man in his nineties who says he is so lonely it feels like he is being stabbed with a knife; and Mark, who calls every day. He knows which morning I come in and asks for me, even though he also knows this is not allowed. He calls repeatedly until he reaches me. We get so many calls that we are supposed to set a time limit on each — ten slim minutes — unless there’s a crisis. When my conversations with Mark creep toward twenty or thirty, the supervisor reminds me with a note and a smiley face to wrap it up. But still I let Mark talk.
Week by week his speech becomes more fluent, yet he won’t call his former colleagues or the friends who knew him before, when he was a teacher; when he gardened, golfed, went out for dinner; when he was normal. It must feel different when he calls the crisis line. We didn’t know him before. He can be whoever he wants.
One day he says he can ride a bike again and plans to visit a local bookstore. He doesn’t have the concentration to read, but he assigns me a list of biographies I should check out. I dutifully write them down. Then he discovers online TED Talks, and he directs me to those. Whatever problems he has with balance or vocabulary don’t affect his memory, and he has a mental file of every assignment he gives me. I keep what I call the Mark List and occasionally watch a video or read one of the books so he and I can discuss it. But mostly I listen while he talks.
Mark recites the name of every teacher he’s ever had — starting with the kindergarten teacher who taught him a song that he can still sing — and every neighbor who gave him a book or told him to be quiet. I begin to think of his brain as an overgrown garden where he’s learned to cut through the tangles until he has a few well-worn paths. Certain phrases act as shortcuts. “Don’t get me started,” he’ll say, then plunge into a story. He tells me how his father died of lung disease when Mark was a baby; how his mother foraged for wild rice to feed seven kids; how she died when he was barely a teen. Family and neighbors took him in, but it wasn’t long before he found himself on the side of the road, looking for a way out of his small town. The trucker who picked him up taught him to drive, fed him, and let him sleep in the rig. In place of high school there was an interstate highway leading from one town to the next, all the way to California. I ask how he knew whom to trust.
“I guess I’m lucky,” he says.
Fretting is my steady state, but I don’t tell him that or much else about myself. He knows my first name and my voice. Everything else is a story he will have to tell himself. Sometimes he asks what I do for a living, what I studied in school, or how I met my husband. I’m relieved at how easy it is to deflect these personal questions. He always returns to his own stories, going sideways when he can’t go forward. When he can’t find the right word, I’ll take a guess, like it’s a game.
The one thing he never asks is why I volunteer every week.
Here is what people say about my father:
He was the kindest man they ever knew. This is true. I knew him close to fifty years, and he never said a mean word to me, even when I was an impossible tween; even when my mother grounded me and I opened up the side window of our suburban house in Los Angeles and screamed, “Help! They are killing me in here!”
He was reserved, with a humor so dry it sometimes blew by unnoticed. And unfailingly practical. He cleaned the bathroom sink with toothpaste samples that arrived in the mail. He sewed his own coffee filters out of cheesecloth. There was nothing he hesitated to mend or fix: clothes, the washing machine, the hot-water heater. Once, he took apart our broken television set, placing the tubes and coils and bolts around the room in an order that made sense only to him. My mother complained and threatened to order a new set, but he calmly put the parts back together. It took him a month. He had no special knowledge of machines. His philosophy was simple: if there’s a problem, you look for the solution.
It should not have surprised me when he called one day and said the time had come. I knew what he meant. He had always told us he saw no point in living if he couldn’t take care of himself. Now he was ninety and had advancing Parkinson’s disease. The medication was no longer working. As a doctor, he knew what to expect. He did not want a nurse or a wheelchair. No one was going to feed him or put him in a diaper.
He said he had fallen asleep in the afternoon, and when he’d awakened, he couldn’t get out of his chair. He’d sat there, nearly paralyzed, until he could move his feet again. He’d been able to get up then, so he thought he could wait a few days for my sister and me to arrive from Northern California. Don’t bother calling the paramedics, he said, because he wasn’t going to the hospital. He would not answer the door for them; they would have to break it down.
I arrived late the next evening at the house where I grew up. Expecting to find him asleep, I used my keys to get in. Over the past few years he’d turned the house into a fortress, with a lattice fence out front and a gate that blended in, so you had to know where it was to find it. The front door had two locks. Then there was the sign, in case you got that far: NO SOLICITORS.
He was in his recliner in the living room, illuminated by a single lamp. “Hello, sweetheart,” he said, but he didn’t get up. His pale-blue eyes were two apostrophes sagging down the sides of his face. He had tilted the recliner so his head was back and his feet were up, as if to say, See, we are for show, useless. “I’m fine,” he said and began stabbing the chair’s buttons to bring himself to an upright position. A recliner was something he never would have allowed when I was young. “If you want to lie down, go to bed,” he’d say. But then a neighbor who was moving was throwing the chair away. My father didn’t want to see it wasted, so he adopted it and now, indignantly, lived in it.
I leaned in and kissed his cheek. He asked about the drive and about my kids. We talked about everything and nothing, until I brought up his plans. I asked why he felt he had to act so suddenly. Over the phone he’d always told me he was fine, for an old man. He had no pain. He couldn’t complain. But in person I could see the change. His hands trembled on his lap. He said he was so weak that some mornings he couldn’t button his shirt or put on his shoes. He couldn’t hold a fork. I asked if he would at least agree to see his doctor one more time. He reminded me he was a doctor and said he’d consulted himself. I pointed out that he was an ear, nose, and throat specialist; he didn’t know about the latest treatments for Parkinson’s. He sighed and agreed. Then he let me hold his arm while he rose from the chair and walked slowly down the hall to his bedroom. That night I lay awake in my childhood room, under the same light-blue cloud-patterned bedspread, the same stuffed frog and red horse lined up against the wall.
I called my father’s doctor in the morning and learned that he had retired and sold his practice. The woman who answered the phone lowered her voice and told me the new doctor made house calls during the noon hour. He had already seen my father once, so he would come over later, she said.
The new doctor was tall and gangly and looked like he’d recently graduated from medical school. He wore blue hospital scrubs, and a stethoscope hung loosely around his neck. He pulled up a dining-room chair and sat next to my father, who was in his recliner, shoulders hunched. The doctor listened to his heart, took his blood pressure, and tested his reflexes. He said my father seemed about the same. Perhaps he was depressed. Who wouldn’t be, said my father, given his prognosis. The doctor suggested some lab tests. My father was too old for experimental brain surgery, but there might be some underlying problems that could be addressed. Perhaps they could change his medication, restore him to where he’d been six months before. My father shook his head and dabbed at a string of saliva hanging from his lower lip. He had worked until he was seventy-five and played tennis and skied until he was eighty-five. But six months earlier he’d already been a rag doll.
The doctor asked what he wanted to do.
“Tell me something.” My father dug a hand into his pocket, felt around, and brought his shaking fist back out. “Are these still good?”
The doctor took the small bottle of pills and squinted at the frayed label.
“These are twenty years old,” he said. “They’re way past expired.”
“Then can you give me replacements?” my father asked. He’d kept them all those years because he suspected that medicine didn’t go bad; the drug companies just wanted you to believe it did. My mother had died after a long, painful cancer. She’d let her body shut down in its own time, a bottle of unused pain pills on her bedside table.
“I can’t just write you a prescription for this many pills,” said the doctor. “Not all at once.”
My father spent the rest of the afternoon in his chair. We looked through some old family photographs. He let me make him scrambled eggs for dinner but barely ate. Then I sat next to him, my hand on his arm. His skin felt like corkboard. Here’s what I didn’t ask him: where exactly his parents had come from in Russia; what his father had been like; why they’d moved to the South; why he was an atheist. I didn’t know the name of his first-grade teacher or the first girl he’d had a crush on or why he’d gotten married in his forties. He was not a man who told stories. He would never have called a crisis line just to talk.
Mark hasn’t called in two weeks. I am afraid something has happened to him. He once told me I should call if I didn’t hear from him. His wife knew about his calls, he said, and she would let me know what had happened. But then recently he changed his mind. If he didn’t call, he told me, it was because his wife felt he was spending too much time on the phone. He had started getting in touch with old friends. He’d contacted the grown children of the couple who’d taken him in after his mother died. He’d called retired colleagues. He’d even developed a grudging friendship with his neighbor, who each year added a new oversize plastic figure, accompanied by bleating music, to his outdoor Christmas display. If the guy’s house mysteriously burned down, Mark said, I would know who’d done it.
He told me how, when he was about ten, a man down the street gave him a copy of On the Origin of Species, by Charles Darwin. Officially that was when Mark started to lose faith, and also when he learned he could disappear into a book. At an age when other kids were reading Hardy Boys mysteries or The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Mark was pondering natural selection and evolution. It was not the kind of book allowed in his staunch Catholic home, so he kept it hidden. His mother never knew he had it, but she’d always told her kids to stay in school and get an education.
That last part stayed with him. Years after he had left home, he told me, he was driving a truck, and one day he stopped during a long haul to Southern California and walked into a community college. A woman in the admissions office explained that to enroll, he had to send in his high-school transcripts. He told her that would be impossible. So he did some asking around and found a teacher who agreed to let him sit in on a course and take the tests. Mark missed most of the classes because he was busy driving the truck, but he studied, took the final exam, and received a top score. He went on to earn a PhD, get married, have a child, and buy a house whose garden he filled with flowers and fruit trees. The last time we talked, he told me about a rabbit in his yard that tried to box with its reflection in a glass door. Then he recommended two movies and said I should write them down.
Since then, nothing. The phone rings. People call in from all over the country, needing to be heard, to explain and grouse and reminisce. One woman reads me a long, lyrical poem she wrote. Another is angry at everything and tells me not to ask her any questions, ever. I might be the only person these people speak to all day, unless they call around to other lines, which some tell me they do. I try to concentrate and not to think about Mark. I could find his number in the computer system, but I’m not allowed to contact callers unless there’s an emergency. Whatever has happened to him might be an emergency, but that’s not for me to decide.
I answer a call from the man who hates his neighbors. They have thrown their trash into his yard again. What really bothers him, he says, is that they come from Mexico. They shouldn’t even be here. His family came here as immigrants, but legally. I point out that their immigration status seems important to him, which sends him over the edge. Do I come from Mexico, too? he wants to know. “Actually, I do,” I lie. He hangs up on me. When he calls again, he asks to talk to anyone but me. I am grateful, even though I know that he is lonely and needs someone to talk to.
The next day my father settled back into his chair, looking glum. He drank milky coffee from a sippy cup so his quaking hand wouldn’t spill it on his pants. I could tell he’d slept in his clothes. He didn’t want me to cook him anything or make any calls for him, and he didn’t reach for the phone, even to call his girlfriend of ten years. She’d visited a few times in recent weeks, but he was avoiding her. I wondered if she knew about his plans and the pills. Was he trying to protect her, or to avoid a conflict in case she wouldn’t accept his decision?
Whenever I asked about his girlfriend, he always gave the same response: she was the most wonderful woman he’d ever met, beautiful and sweet. I knew she was an easier companion than my mother had been. She didn’t yell or criticize — at least, not to him. One time she called my sister late at night to ask why my father was so reticent. His girlfriend said she might have to break off the relationship. My sister and I ended up advising our father to be more expressive. “Talk to her more,” we said. “Tell her how you feel.” We went out and bought her a necklace, which he gave her on her birthday.
My father adjusted his chair and reached for one of the old Horizon magazines on the side table. He’d kept them on a shelf for decades, vowing to read them all. He smiled and said he’d made progress, but he still had a ways to go. I glanced at the article before him, something about the Nile. I wondered aloud what the Nile landscape looked like now, more than twenty years after the article was written.
“I guess the story is obsolete,” he said. “So am I.”
“Not to us,” I said.
“My warranty has expired,” he said.
He went back to his magazine, and I sat beside him, looking at photos that showed a portion of the Nile choked with plants. I tucked a fleece blanket around my father’s legs. The only sound was the big clock on the wall and the heater banging as it came to life. Not too long ago he would have investigated why it clanked and shook, but now he didn’t seem to notice. A year earlier he’d climbed on the roof to clean the gutter, and a woman next door had asked him if he thought he should be up there at the age of eighty-nine. “What a way to go,” he’d told her.
A few hours later he wobbled to the bathroom and back, looking increasingly unsteady. There was no way he’d let me help him in there. Then my sister arrived, carrying a bag of fruit and crackers he would never eat. I was glad to see her. She pulled up a chair next to us and opened one of the photo albums I’d taken out the night before. Our father seemed content just to listen to us talk about the photos. We paged through pictures of my sister and me in bad pixie cuts, of us running through sprinklers in the backyard, of the duckling someone had given me at an Easter party. In the picture it had a popsicle stick taped to its leg. My father had diagnosed a broken leg, then bandaged it up. Who else would have made a splint for a tiny duck?
I don’t know how long we sat there while he took small naps, his head lolling to one side, mouth open. My sister and I had agreed earlier that she and her husband would stay with our father that night. Whatever he decided to do, we would accept it and not try to stop him. I had to get back to my young kids — at least, that’s what I said. The truth was I could not watch.
My father got up to walk me slowly to the door. When I hugged him goodbye, I could feel his thin shoulder blades through his shirt. I didn’t really believe it was the last time. I got into my car and drove away, down the tree-lined street where I’d grown up. There was never anyone out on the sidewalk or on the manicured lawns. Why have trees and lawns if no one is going to enjoy them? That’s something I never asked him either.
My sister called the next morning and said that it was over. He’d gone peacefully: just took the pills and went to sleep. That was it. Practical to the end, he had made his own postmortem arrangements. His body was transported to a nearby university medical school, a donation to science, as if it could ever figure him out. He didn’t want a memorial, but we had one anyway. As a concession to him, we put all the food in his refrigerator out for the guests so it wouldn’t go to waste. Who knows how long he’d kept some of it. “Your stomach doesn’t know the difference,” he used to say, so we let him have the last word.
Our father’s girlfriend came to his memorial, dressed in a pale-lavender suit, with a handkerchief to wipe her eyes. It was clear she didn’t know how he had chosen to die. She sniffled through the afternoon, surrounded by their mutual friends, the ones who were still around.
Another two weeks pass, and Mark doesn’t call. Finally I phone him. His wife says he had another stroke and is in the intensive-care unit. A few days ago he started to breathe on his own, and now he is awake on and off. She expects him to survive, although she doesn’t know what shape he’ll be in. She says she will tell him that I called and that he will get in touch when he can. She writes down the number in case he doesn’t remember it, even though he’s called the crisis line every day for years. I try to picture him lying in a hospital bed, hooked up to tubes and beeping machines, but I don’t know what he looks like.
Mark once told me a story about a cousin of his who went to check on a close friend he hadn’t heard from in a few days. He discovered the friend dead on the floor of his bedroom, an empty bottle of pills nearby. The cousin dragged his friend’s body into bed, pulled the covers up neatly around him, and placed a book on his lap. Then he disposed of the pill bottle and straightened up the room. The dead man’s family never found out. Maybe it was a felony, Mark’s cousin said later. But who would want to leave their family that legacy? Mark and I both laughed.
I went to see a rabbi a few months after my father died. My father had been a stubbornly unaffiliated Jew, but his parents had been observant. The rabbi talked about religious customs and beliefs; how a year is set aside to grieve after a death; how fate, some order in the universe beyond our understanding, determines who lives and who dies. I asked the rabbi what happens when we decide to tamper with that order. Choosing to end your life is never sanctioned, he told me, but neither is judging others. He suggested I find a way to honor my father, perhaps by learning Hebrew. That didn’t sound right to me. Maybe I should learn how to fix a vacuum cleaner, I thought. The rabbi said it didn’t matter what I chose, the same way it didn’t matter that my father had never gone to temple.
I don’t remember exactly how I found the crisis line. It seemed like a good way to honor him. I went to training sessions, but when I arrived for my first shift, I had no idea what to expect. All I could do was listen and not turn away. Though I would never see the people who called in, their words would work their way into me. Some of them would inexplicably stop calling, and I would look up the other volunteers’ notes to see if anyone had reported what had happened. I’d worry about the callers, but none as much as I would Mark. In some ways I know him better than I knew my own father. And, more than anything, I want to say to Mark what I wish I’d told my father: You were not a burden. There was never a time when you were too much to bear.
I know The Sun’s job is to ferret out the best writing, particularly about sensitive or seldom-covered topics. I also know your writers will bring me singular perspectives. Still, I was unusually moved by the final lines of Katherine Seligman’s “Someone to Listen” [November 2019], about answering a crisis hotline: “More than anything, I want to say to Mark what I wish I’d told my father: You were not a burden. There was never a time when you were too much to bear.” The restraint of those lines only underscores the intense emotion that inspired them. Their subtlety is unnerving, in fact, and their beauty is timeless.