Ten years ago today (October 3 fell on a Friday in 2003), I was just about to leave the office for my weekly weekend trip upstate to visit my kids when I got this message: “Dad’s not doing too good, you’d better come right now.” So instead of getting on a bus to Ithaca, I got on a train to Providence, and arrived just in time to join a bunch of family members around the death bed of my father.
You know you’re getting old when six months go by very quickly. Dad had shared the news that he had lung cancer in April. I’d visited him several times in the intervening months, more than I usually would have done during a similar period, but still, for most of that time I was far distant from the front line of his decline. I didn’t expect it to happen as quickly as it did at the end.
I’d heard that he’d been bad for weeks, but all along I maintained an attitude of aloofness and denial, really borne out of the fact (I think) that I’d never gone through anything remotely like that before. “Nah, never think of it”, I told him, “you won’t die.” Ordinarily a month between visits was of no consequence. I’d last been there in late August with my boys. He took them both in his lap in his big TV chair and tried to say goodbye to them like a grandfather. They were too young to realize what was going on and wriggled out of his arms, giggling, and he got pissed off. And I thought, “Well I’m not about to facilitate these histrionics. Who says he’s dying, anyway?”
I wasn’t there to see his descent in subsequent weeks: the oxygen tanks, the progressively deteriorating ability to breathe, the time he fell down and an ambulance had to be called. By the end, on that last day, every single breath for him was like pressing free weights, it seemed to take that much effort. His eyes were closed but twitching. We suspected (hoped?) he could hear us. I got a couple of minutes alone with him and said the only words I could think of to comfort him, that I loved him, which was true, if far less complicated than the reality. Then the decision was made to remove his life support, it was done, and I watched him pass from this life to the next. It wasn’t peaceful, it wasn’t beautiful, it was grim and gruesome and nightmarish, and the image, of the position he froze into on his last exhale, will never ever go away.
Whoosh — one minute you’re walking out of your office, then next you get a call, then next you’re watching the door close on the only world you’ve ever known, the one where someone always has your back.
Somehow I could never help thinking I was supposed to be — fated to be there. I had just been on my way out the door when I’d gotten the message. Just a few minutes later and I’d have been on a bus on the way upstate. Yet my last words to him were so inarticulate, so fumbled. Can it be possible that THAT was the message I was supposed to deliver? Maybe. It’s certainly possible he needed to hear it.
So, last night I’m alone in the house and I walk into the kitchen for a drink and behind me I hear a noise, a sort of faint rustling or rattling, as if a sheet of paper was being shaken. It was so slight I almost didn’t bother investigating. But then I did – – I was sure I had heard something, however quiet. And — right where I had been sitting on the sofa — was a piece of yellowish paper with Max Ernst drawings on it.
Now, this freaked me out. Certainly, this was a piece of art owned by the Duchess. In fact, I’d even seen it before. But where on earth had it come from? It hadn’t been hanging on the wall. It hadn’t been tucked someplace up above. It hadn’t been on the end table or coffee table. It was too big, I would have seen it. When the Duchess came back, she showed me where it had been resting — on top of a book case, eight or so feet away, over seven feet in the air. Now, I have tried to work out the physics of the thing. This is a heavy, thick piece of parchment-like paper. It’s not the sort of thing to get carried aloft on the mere puff of wind I might produce in my wake as I walked into the kitchen. It hadn’t been precariously positioned up there — I would have seen it if it were hanging over the side. It is conspicuously BIG. It is, in fact, the Duchess tells me, part of the unbound raw pages for a book that somehow she got a hold of at some sale or something. And it had sailed across the room and landed precisely where I had been sitting.
Now. I neither believe nor disbelieve in ghosts, which I think should be the position of any true skeptic. To me, all intellectual certitude is dogma, and that includes atheism. But I do find the concept of living without at least a willingness to consider realities that are unexplainable too antiseptic and charmless to bear. So I seek meaning in everything. Not to an extreme extent, certainly not to a…schizo extent. But just enough so that the world takes on a kind of personality. I anthropomorphize animals and inanimate objects, I give nicknames to everyone and everything, I try to befriend my surroundings. It is a spiritual impulse, even if most of the spirits I summon look a bit like cartoon characters. It’s a very primitive thing to do, it’s a folkish thing to do, it’s the sort of thing I’m willing to bet our ancestors did 50,000 years ago.
So I like to think an AGENCY lifted that paper and placed those pictures were I was sitting. LIKE to think. I don’t say that’s what happened, it is merely an interpretation I prefer to entertain. My primitive, medieval imagination likes to think a message was sent, indistinct, garbled, so clumsy as to leave real doubt that anything was even being said, or that anyone was saying it (as I’m sure most of you do — your perogative).
But how to read this message? A paper containing Ernst’s grotesque but whimsical images of death, of hangings and heads on pikestaffs, done to resemble medieval etchings or woodcuts. H’m…What do pictures like that remind me of? If I was….ten thousand miles away, in a cave in New Zealand and I saw pictures like that, what would they make me think of? Anyone who doesn’t know us would think it weird, but such images would immediately make me think of the pen and the imagination of the Duchess, whom I love so dearly, whom I feel always….has my back. An endorsement? A sermon? A pep talk? A congratulations card? My father was a frustrated artist who secretly drew whimsical caricatures and I know he would have loved Carolyn’s art — and Carolyn — a great deal. I’m thinking about him today, and it consoles me to believe he’s thinking about us right back.