Monday, August 23, 2010
The Old Man in the Picture.
BRIZONI WANTS SOAP OPERA. Your first piece in the MS. Whether you know it or not, I'm thinking you're reacting not to my writing but to the photograph.
He was my namesake, the first Robert Fisher Laird. (I'm the third.)
It's almost impossible to write about him. It always seems Reader's Digest overdone.
I tell people in person, but I never write about it.
He can't have been a saint. No one is. If I were Faulkner or some other southern writer, perhaps, I would have discovered the vice in him that makes me feel superior. But my own dad (RFL, Jr. a.k.a. InstaPunk Senior) never did. No one else in my family or of my acquaintance ever did. He was the man with the cane who came off the porch to drive away the hoodlums. It actually happened. Only not from the porch. He was on the main street of Salem, close to eighty, armed with only a cane, and afflicted with a physical ailment that sounds more literary than real to everyone you tell. The thugs fled. He had gray eyes that could see into your soul.
Let me back off. Nobody has those, except in southern novels. And he wasn't southern. I can't remember the last time I saw him. I remember the occasion. I was fourteen, home from prep school for Easter break or some damn thing. They'd just rushed him to the hospital. He was 82. And I insisted on going to the hospital to see him. My parents rightly said no, no, no, but I refused to be denied. And at the age of fourteen I became a sufferer of what wouldn't be discovered for a few more years -- PTSD. For years afterward, I could not remember what I saw in that hospital bed. I blanked on it completely. I had a conception of it I could not visualize. A man who aged a hundred years in a single day. I was also the one who heard the phone ring that night, the call from the hospital. I ran to my father, but he was already out of bed. I'd heard the phone, but he still somehow knew before me. As with so many things, we didn't discuss it until many years later. And when he did speak of it, my dad was characteristically terse. "He came to me. Before you told me about the call."
What does it mean when everyone speaks of a person in sainthood terms? His doctor was a shallow, narcissistic, social climber asshole with a bitch wife. And I can still remember eavesdropping on his conversation with my grandmother after the death. He was in tears. The tears were running down his sunken, pampered cheeks. "No one will ever know just how much pain he was in every moment of every day."
Why I can't write about it. It's a Lifetime movie, not real life.
But my sister and I knew that it wasn't a Lifetime movie. When we stayed overnight, we knew the nurse would come at something like six in the morning to change his "dressings." She was a kind but annoying woman, who seemed to want to bask in her role. Like she was keeping him alive or something. She wasn't. He was the one who was keeping him alive.
After she left, he got dressed. In a suit and tie. Every day. Every goddamned day. He had a wicker chair in the upstairs sitting room. I don't know why it was comfortable, because he couldn't lean back into its upright back. He rested his elbows on the armrests, he drank coffee, and he was happy to see us kids awake. His voice was soft but clear, a kind of loving brush that went well with his mustache. He had a mustache voice. His hair was snow white. It had been since the age of twenty-one. I don't know exactly why, but it turned white overnight, when he was twenty-one. He didn't have to speak loudly. Maybe you were always straining to hear. I don't know.
The stories he told you were rarely about his adult life. Other people told you those. He repeated himself. He told you the same stories, the way old people do. He talked about growing up in Germantown, Pennsylvania, with five other brothers. We all loved the story about the housekeeper (his mother died when he was four) who insisted the doctor should intervene because all the boys were too thin, and the doctor took note of the fact that all the boys ran everywhere and asked the housekeeper, "Ever seen a fat greyhound?" But he wasn't forgetful. He knew what you were studying in school, he still knew his Greek, and, oh, by the way, he had founded the school you were studying in, and was the head of the Board of Trustees, and the Senior Warden of the church that backed the school, and, yeah, he was living his painful days to make sure you got the education you needed.
There was one story he told about his childhood. I'm pretty sure he wasn't trying to show off. He was telling us something about life. In Germantown, there were a lot of brick walls surmounted by cast iron fences. As a kid, he was doing a kid thing, walking along the top of the wall with his arm over the top of the spiked iron fence... when he slipped. He was impaled through the soft flesh of his shoulder. He was hanging there.
The grownups came , eventually, and hoisted him off the iron paling. He said to us, "I was crying. Then the doctor said to me, 'Why are you crying? It doesn't hurt.' And I realized he was right. It didn't."
He showed us the gossamer remainder of that long ago hurt. On his old old arm. Just to let us know that all hurts can go away. even though they always leave their scars.
Because all grandfathers want to be heroes to their grandchildren, right? Like the way he told us about his attempt to sign up for the military in World War I, and they turned him down because he was a chemist. "You're 4-K," he told us of his classification. "What does that mean?" "It means we take you AFTER we take the women and children."
It was left to other people to tell us of his much more interesting personal history. His father was a successful industrialist with a significant fortune, but Boppa (our name for him) wanted to make it on his own. He started a dyeing company that got burned down by a German employee saboteur at the outbreak of hostilities and Boppa spent fifty years paying off all his debts because you can't go bankrupt. He went to work for DuPont and became a kind of chemical troubleshooter. During WWII, a lead ethyl leak at the Chambers Works in New Jersey threatened the lives of all the employees. He went into the plant all alone to shut off the main valve and came home a poisoned madman, hiding in a closet and threatening to kill anyone who came near him. His brother, another spectacular member of his family, somehow got from Philadelphia to Salem in 45 minutes (this in the days of the ferry) with a made-up, spur-of-the-moment antidote and saved Boppa's life. (I have firsthand knowledge of the brilliance of this doctor. I had my face ripped apart by a heartworm-maddened Irish Setter and the last vial of "Uncle John's" Arkase eliminated my scars The nurse who told my mother I'd be disfigured for life was flabbergasted. Arkase. I come from more talented stock than I am.)
There are are also the people my grandfather put through college, whom nobody knew about until we buried him. And there are...
Oh forget it. Those of us who knew him know. He also came to me after he died. I won't try to convince you. He just did.
But I suppose you're wanting to know about his medical problem. Fair enough. When he was sixty-five he was diagnosed with skin cancer on his back. He underwent radiation treatment. The radiologist forgot and left him on the table too long. I don't know how long 'too long' is, but at the end of it my grandfather had a hole in his back the size of a fist. It could never heal. For seventeen years, the hole in his back had to be dressed like an open wound every day, and once a month the surgeon (the one who cried) had to pick decaying bits of bone out of the perpetually open wound. He forgave the doctor who made the mistake. Did I mention that he was an Episcopalian Christian who taught Sunday school and believed what he taught? Still, no wonder that when the final illness came, his body literally fell apart in a few hours. All that had been keeping it going was will. The one horrifying detail I could remember from the hospital was that he was lying on his back.
A few final thoughts... It's not all Lifetime Channel or even Hallmark Channel. My Dad once took a swing at his saintly dad on the tennis court and got decked forthwith. A brilliant uppercut, I'm told. It's hard to live up to a giant. My dad tried in the hardest way. All those combat missions. And I'm even worse. But here's the deal. Boppa and I were closer than my dad was with his dad. He knew, I'm convinced, what I was here to do. When he died, I felt like my real father had died. When I was fourteen. But the last thing he said to me was, "Be a good boy." And then afterwards, the day of his funeral, he said, "I know you will be." I haven't always been. But I've tried.
No matter how bizarre it sounds to you, that's what I'm trying to be. He had gray eyes that could see into your soul.