Files, Feuds and Funerals 15

I’ve done a lot of things only once in my life.  Watched a sunset in Key West, for example; been atop a Swiss Alp; sat through Casablanca from beginning to end (for some reason I had only pieced it together for the first 35 years of my life); scaled an Aztec pyramid in Mexico; dipped my feet in the icy Baltic Sea; eaten steak tartar (didn’t think much of it); or …

     Then there is a whole slew of things I’ve never experienced; I still haven’t managed to get my ass over to Rome, and it’s little more than a stone’s throw from Madrid; listened first-hand to an opera; walked through a birch forest in Russia; sunk my teeth in real Southern barbecue; give my jaw the chance to drop before the awesome sight of the Grand Canyon; taken a bungee-jumping leap off of a bridge; or finished reading Ulysses (I left off on page 137 about twelve years ago). I’d never seen another human die, made it nearly half a century before that moment, until that August 18th when I stood bedside my father and watched him expire before my very eyes.

     Essentially what had been keeping him from passing on days before and, in all probability, would have prolonged his state of unconscious inertia indefinitely was a machine known as a ventilator.  In Spanish they call it a “respirador” which I conveniently translated into “respirator”, a reasonable description from my perspective but apparently an erroneous choice and one, I’ve been led to believe, that indicates a certain degree of ignorance when it comes to knowledge of medical care.  “Ventilator” sounds to me like kind of machine you turn on when someone in the room hasn’t showered in a week, but if that’s what the hosptial staff uses, I’m no one to question their choice of jargon.

     Keeping people alive through artificial respiration, apparently now called mechanical ventilation, has been the concern of humans since all the way back in ancient times, though, like so many aspects of Medicine, it wasn’t until the 20th Century that serious advances were made.  Even then, the road to a successful system has been rather winding.  The first ventilators were invented in 1928.  They were called Drinker respirators, but were known in layman’s terms as “iron lungs”.  The intended patients were polio victims whose breathing muscles had become paralized by the disease.  The technique worked via negative pressure, a system in which the body in placed in an airtight metallic chamber and the air pressure inside is lower, thereby forcing the lungs to expand.  You might be more familiar with the effects of air pressure when you take a shower and notice that once the water is running and steaming up the room, the curtain is pushed inward because the hot air reduces the pressure.  Of course, that’s assuming that you have a curtain.  In any event, that’s how they managed to get air into the lungs.

     In the 1950s, a marked switch towards positive-pressure ventilation took over.  A number of individuals can right claim their contributions to the development of the modern ventilator, but it was a man by the name of the Forrest Bird who, it should be noted, worked a great deal on making high altitude flying possible for pilots who did not wish to suffer from hypoxia, as my father had, though from the very low altitude of this bed.  Bird created the Bird Respirator, a model which is still used around the world today in places where a reliable electrical supply may not be available.   Bird lived to the ripe old age of 94.  In fact, he had just passed away on August 4, 5 days before Frank Gifford.  He died of natural causes too.  The jury was still out on what would be the cause of our father’s demise.

     A positive-pressure ventilator, the kind that is used mainly today, with all the sophisticated technology to ensure breathing is controlled to a T, entails literally sticking a tube down the patient’s trachea and introducing the air into the lungs.  Its assisted pulmonary ventilation; the gas exchange in the alveoli takes over from there.  The was the peacekeeper. This was the machine that made Dad seem so quiet and unfazed by life.

     It also kept him from suffocating, as his brain was only able to perform about 30% of task.  Removing the tube means death, but not instantaneous by any stretch of the imagination.  Depending on the strength of the patient and, especially the heart, the body will struggle to stay alive for 30 minutes, and hour, several hours, even days.  From the expression on the doctor’s face when we asked, that last estimate went beyond the limits of reality.

      Once the patient is taken off the ventilator, the body immediately reacts to the sudden limited oxygen being taken in by having the heart beat faster to increase the amount of that gas being reached to every corner.  It’s like being forced to sprint and sprint until it finally gives out. To my shock, I learned that some patient’s may actually be awake for this, though, most, like my father, are unconscious.  Even then, generous doses of morphine and anti-anxiety medicine both help to regulate what little breathing is going on and used to keep the body from suffering.  The body is suffering, no doubt.  We are just comforted by the thought that Dad wasn’t aware of it.  Comforted by the hope.

Files, Fueds and Funerals 14

At first glance, there wouldn’t seem to be a lot in common between my father, a lowkey lawyer from Connecticut, and Cole Porter, the high strung composer-writer from Indiana, many of whose songs can still be hummed, when not sung, by people from different walks of life, from all over the globe and of different ages…though especially those over a certain one.  The fact that I am familiar with so many is not only a tad disconcerting buit it also makes me at least a reference for a cutoff year – so we’ll say 48.  But I was able to find two – to my astonishment. One was that he was went to Yale University and majored in English, just like Dad, and the other was that he went on to study law at Harvard Law School, which was the identical trajectory that my procreator took.

     But that may be just about where the similarities end.  Both seemed to have come from stern fathers, Cole’s grandfather was especially rigid, but they soon took very different paths.  My father settled in New York and kicked off his professional career at the law firm of Whitman, Ransom & Coulson.  I knew nothing of this period of my father’s life, as it would be another fifteen years before I even drew in my first breath of Manhattan air.  It was supposedly a reputable house, with a former governer, a former judge and a former army colonel as founding fathers.  I get the feeling they didn’t put up with much crap from anyone.  Porter, albeit 30 years before, forsook his legal training and dashed off to Paris where he could continue to play music and, in additon, live a lavish life of soirees for entertaining the likes of which only a few could afford.  This is part was a result of his marrying a wealthy divorced American woman who suited her needs to have a formal partner as well as his to appear heterosexual, while he indulged in his true pursuation in private.

     We gathered again at the hospital.  Dad’s heartbeat was stable…stably weak, that is, but stable all the same.  I was relieved to know that we would be able spend a little more time with him, though the doctor’s came him to check him out one more time.  The fiddled around with his body and made him twitch from time to time.  Some of my brothers and sisters thought that might be a good sign, but in reality it was a kind of cruel joke.  “It’s nothing,” they said.  “Just reflexes.”

     I knew what they were talking about because I had become a science teacher that very year for the first time.  It wasn’t easy because I had spent much of my life on the other end of the intellectual spectrum.  But I did learn the basics about the body, and when my 5th grade class got to the part about the central nervous system, we learned that the spinal cord handled a lot of the automatic responses with the need of the brain to get involved.  When I was kid I used to see that when the pediatrician would tap below my knee to see it bounce forward a little.  It was kind of cool, but it didn’t transcend any further.  But that was the kind of thing I had to explain to my kids.  That’s what the book said.  That’s what it said.

     I guess I had a chance to try it first hand with my limp father molded into the bed’s mattress.  His brain was thinking its own thoughts with no one or nothing to recieve them.  The spinal cord made things here and there move.  “So that’s what it does,” I said to myself.  Like some many things, life needs failures to show how it works.

     For an hour before we decided to put Dad down, let nature take its course, we played music for him, pretty sure he couldn’t hear any of it but kind of wishing he could.  Then again, I realized that if he could hear that, he could hear just about everything else we had in store for him, and that would have sucked.

     We played lots of Cole Porter because that’s the kind of music he liked, just like so many other people from his generation did.  I think it was his favorite, and if it wasn’t, it was tough luck, we were going to play it for him anyway.  Then we got into a few classics from musicals, “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” from Mary Poppins was a close to being the top of the list as you can get, for reasons that I have never quite understood.  We also knew that he was keen on the musical version of A Christmas Carol, called aptly Scrooge, with Albert Finney looking bizzarely beyond his real years in life.  There’s a lively tune in the slection called “Thank You very Much”, which my brother Pat quickly found on YouTube and played for all to hear and enjoy.  Seconds after the sequence had started, it dawned on me that there was an inconvenient truth surrounding the song: it’s performed during the visit of the third spirit, when all the townspeople are rejoicing the fact Scrooge has died and therefore freed them of their obligations to pay off their debts.  That is certainly a 19th Century approach to getting out of a loan.  I doubt expiring would suffice today.

      Regardless, that being said, despite the cheeriness of the tune, it must go down as one of the most inappropriate songs ever to be chirped at the bedside of a moribund father.  I think at one point all of us in chorus were crroning, “Thank you very much! Thank you very much!   That’s the nicest thing that anyone has ever done for us.”    I’d like to think that’s why Dad loved his children so much.

      Then we wrapped up the session with the “Bull Dog” fight cheer, created – I wouldn’t quite go as far as to say composed, by Cole Porter, and capped it off with the Whiffenpoof song, or “To the Tables Down at Mory’s”, which is variation of a Rudyard Kipling poem, but just who came up with it, no one seems to know for sure.  For sure, though, they are no longer with us.

        And the corner sign
        Says it’s closing time
        So I’ll bid farewell and be down the road

Files, Feuds and Funerals 13

    “Kathy Lee drinks wine in the morning!” spouted my sister with disdain.

    “What?!!”  Maybe my dad needed the right funeral service for his once and future death, but this was jarring news.

    I moved from the desktop to the couch to seek refuge in the comfort of morning TV.  It was the Morning Show, no the Today Show, and Kathy Lee Gifford was greeting America for as long as decades have existed.

     What surprised me was not that women were imbibing fermented grape juice at an hour when most stores had not even opened in the East Coast, though that would have raised more than one eyebrow even in alcohol-friendly Europe; it wasn’t the fact that people were knocking back some drinks on live TV, though it was uncharacteristic for Americans to portray on the small screen what they spend most of their time doing in real life, if only to pretend that their life is pure and unaltered by impurities.  Mind you, they may have stirred my curiosity, but they didn’t floor me, like ten shots of tequila might.  In reality, what really got me over to the sofa was the realization that Kathy Lee was still presenting morning talk shows in a year when I thought she would have long been nestled in a villa in southern California, or wherever she lived (it happened to be my hometown, if that is any indicator of how little involved I am in following her life) because she had been around for as long as I could remember.  For as long as decades were decades.  Then again, if Harper Lee is still among us and publishing, then maybe just about anything is possible.

     “And her husband just died.  It’s disgraceful, though I admit I shouldn’t be saying anything at the moment,” added my sister.

     That, I didn’t know. Her spouse, the famous former football player and TV sportscaster, Frank Gifford, had just passed away on August 9, also in my hometown.  He was just about to turn 85.  He died from natural causes which I used to think was one of those queer vague terms to sugarcoat perishing from this planet, but it’s actually a valid legal term, often a vital distinction, if you’ll excuse the paradoxical adjective I have chosen, to clarify why the person is no longer with us.  Accidents, reckless conduct, negligence, suicide, manslaughter or homicide, are all causes, but are occurrences that, had the circumstances been entirely different, the victim would have been otherwise living a normal life.  It’s true that if you hold a knife the wrong way, trip and fall on it, one might argue that it be only natural that you die.  But in the greater order of things, in the higher harmony of the universe, you and your death become an anomaly.  Horrific.  Horrifying.  Horrendous.

     But they deviate from the former situation.  For natural causes to be typed onto your death certificate, you need to be killed by microscopic assassins, viral or bacterial.  Or your internal body, a section of your innards, a weary organ, has to give in.  Give up.  Give out.

     Old age is not acceptable as a cause of death.  Naturalness is.

     Dad was not a big sports fan, at least that’s what I recall.  He didn’t disdain it, and he knew the rules to most of the games, so he must have followed it enough as a young man. He may have even recalled Gifford’s glory days as a running back for the Giants and even the year they won the championship back in 1957.  He maybe would have enjoyed spending more time watching the final round of a golf tournament or catching a college bowl game, had it not been for the fact he had eight children to provide for and maintaining a Greenwich lifestyle which was no easy task to tackle.  Those were very natural causes.  As were the clots in his arteries.  As was the ictus.  As was his weary body.

    Mom said she was ready.  She was ready today.  She was ready that day.  I ran down to the Stop & Shop for a Dunkin Donuts coffee, and with an luck, I would have a chance to get another Starbuck’s cup before heading up to the room.  To see dad die of natural causes live for the first and last time.

Files, Feuds and Funerals 12

Carrying out at market comparison study of funeral homes is limited in its breadth in a town like Hamden, CT.  There were only two: Sisk and Beecher & Bennet.  The parish priest recommended the former, and we automatically assumed it meant he was taking a cut for sending any corpses their way, so we wisely decided to check both before settling on one.

     The easiest way to start our research was by swooping upon the websites to see which each had to offer.  Poking around new pages can be an enlightening and even enjoyable pastime, even with the dullest of subjects.  A person can discover a lot about human nature.

     Funeral home websites are an especially rich source of entertainment for the curious. Curious, in part, because I had never had a need to consult their services.  Curious because the person of concern was still lying in a hospital bed, life sustained by the cold metal machine and even colder machinery. They feature many of the sections you’d find in most service-oriented businesses, like a home page, about us, and contact us info.  Then there were a couple of eyecatchers such as “What we do” on the Sisk site.  I like to think that I’ve had enough life training in my background to pretty much have a overall idea of the nature of the funeral home profession, but the mere fact that they felt we needed to be enlightened in this department made me jump at the chance and click on the words.  Beecher and Bennet (going forward “B&B”) discussed at length the advantages of depositing your deceased loved-one on their premises, with one persuasive reason being “conveniently located”.

     Like just about anything in America, these funeral homes like to be careful about how they word things. Everything regarding death and dying either appears to be an almost pleasurable experience or doesn’t appear at all. In Sisk, for example, the word death crops up only four times, from what I can tell. They otherwise skirt the use of the word at all cost.  I could find just one mention of it in Beecher and Bennet’s site.  Their circumspective language can reach such great heights of ambiguity that it’s not always easy to know what they are talking about.

     The section called “merchandise”, doesn’t sell coffee mugs, daily planners, T-shirts and mouse mats with the assertion “I buried my aunt at Sisk Brothers” or “Embalming is Better at Beechers” stamped on it, or several dozen kilos of cocaine.  The term is actually a cover-up for what is really on offer: caskets.  Beecher refers to them as something even vaguer, “commemoration”.  It actually took me four visits to the menu to finally realize that that was what I was looking for.  Casket selection is more varied than one might originally imagine because, as some of you may know but I surely didn’t before I poked around those pages.  But all caskets certainly looked plush and heavy on comfort, ideal for eternal sleep.

     I also learned that death protocol depends greatly on just when and where the act occurred.  And who was there too.  If the person was alone, then you have to call the police.  But from what I could tell, not necessarily so if they were accompanied at home or in the workplace.  That didn’t seem to fit my idea of what happens in all those episodes of the Forensic Files.  A lot of times, the deceased are well accompanied – by the person who put them in that state.  Then they feign they are panicking and call the police.  Of course, if they’ve just beaten them over the head with a stoker, then it might be difficult to say it was natural causes, but there are those who try to pull off the “accident” angle.  Those are the ones who don’t lock their car doors, but on occasion commit homicide.  More often than not, it’s the fact that they try to play it cool and act naturally which makes them seem more unnatural than ever.  And they talk…oh they talk more than they should.  The Spanish they use a Latin phrase “Excusatio non petita, accusatio manifesta”, in other words, “If you excuse yourself, you accuse yourself.”  In one case, a husband killed his wife and dragged her down into the basement to make it look like she had tripped on her way down as a result of wearing some highly inappropriate high heels for the task.  The man kept complaining about the shoes over and over until the police noticed that the shoes were on the steps in a way they normally would be if someone had actually fallen over.  That led them to discovering the truth.

    Neither of the funeral home websites discussed how to handle deaths as a result of murder or manslaughter.  We ourselves were just trying handle the big day ahead of us; as I said, “Mom, come take a look at these urns and tell me what you think.”

     I can assure you it was the first time I had ever uttered that.

Files, Feuds and Funerals 11

It is commonplace for people in Spain to regard America as an extremely violent country, within whose frontiers dwells an ultra-violent society.  It’s hardly any wonder why.  Dozens of bullet-riddling movies overtake screens in every corner of the Iberian Peninsula and their often fast-paced action makes them fill up theaters at a dizzying pace.  Popular series featuring forensic investigators who take on some of the creepiest residents the country has had the misfortunes to live with, or FBI agents who frantically try to track down a psychopathic serial killer before the next victim falls, well, victim, top the ratings in many Spanish households. And hardly a week goes by without some bit of news about some looney who has vented his bent frustration out on a lot of people who certainly had other things in mind for that day than receiving a bullet in the chest.  Indeed, it was in a quiet Connecticut community, most generally are, just 25 miles west of where my father lay, that one of the most grisly shootings of them all took place, when a young man named Adam Lanza entered an elementary school and starting firing away.  First-graders took the brunt of the assault.  20 in all.  And seven adults.  The incredible thing about it was that he carried out the massacre in just about five minutes, and then, as is characteristic of these individuals, shot himself before he could get caught.  He also shot his mother.  First.

     We were also about a stone’s throw from the place where one of the most gruesome murders in recent memory took place.  Back in 2009, a petite Yale medical graduate student named Annie Le, on the verge of getting married, disappeared.  She had vanished in a medical research building in nearby Amistad Street.  Amistad means friendship in Spanish.

      Annie Le was found. On her wedding day, for boot.  Her lifeless body had been stuffed in a wall of a laboratory, in a place called a wire chase.  The killer turned out to be a colleague who had an interest in the orient and all things oriental.  Friends and family had nothing but nice words to say about him, and they were at a loss for how to explain why he behaved that way.   I don’t know.   To my surprise this never made it to Forensic Files, though I thought it was a very worthy case and deserving of an episode, and I planned on writing them to make the suggestion.

     So, yes, I could see why some Spaniards would come to the conclusion that buying a ticket to the United States is about as insensible as a pig booking a tourist trip to Iowa.  And yet many are astonished by how seemingly peaceful and nonthreatening the country could actually be.  The awed at how lackadaisical people are about doing things like locking a door to their house or car.   Michael Moore makes it sound like those things only happen in Canada, but that’s not really true.  There are plenty of regions in this country where the last things you think of doing as you walk out the door is locking up.  In Spain, theft is a national obsession, often unsubstantiated.  They lock everything possible at all times, but life is really quite tranquil.  Burglaries do occur, I’ll grant you that, but not as often as they’d like to imagine.

     What the Forensic Files teaches us, however, is that when things go wrong in the United States, they can turn awfully ugly.  All it takes is a wrong move at the wrong time.  Being there when you shouldn’t.  Going up instead of going down.  Heading back instead of moving forward.  Turning left instead of right.  Just as we did when we pulled out of the hospital driveway and veered in the wrong direction.   In our dismay at not knowing what to do about our father, my sister became hesitant about which way I should steer the car, providing me with a healthy package of contradictory indications, and  I became briefly flustered.  In a last minute panic, I swung to the right, feeling if anything I wouldn’t have to dodge any oncoming traffic if I had done the exact opposite.  In some cities in America, that can be a fatal decision.  And New Haven, despite the beautiful environs of Yale University, can be one of those cities, I can assure you that.   In fact, according to crime statistics in 2011 for the 212 U.S. cities with a population of between 100,000 and 250,000, New Haven ranked:

        #3 in violent crimes

        #20 in murders

        #2 in robberies

        #51 in forcible rape

        #7 in aggravated assault

        #38 in property crime

        #52 in burglary

        #44 in larceny

        #32 in motor vehicle theft

     In short, in the top 25% in all categories and, in some cases, in the top 1%, besting in some  criminal heavyweights of the likes of Flint, Michigan, Richmond, California or Paterson New Jersey.   If nothing else, I had chosen the wrong place to go wayward, and my sister was the first to inform me of this in an unquestionably vehement manner: she shouted at me.

     A lot of it had to do with nerves; but because we were three defenseless white people in a wobbly Ford Escort which was about to break down any second, though that certainly played a factor, but more because we had spent the previous 72 hours containing myriad emotions over a hopeless situation which we somehow wished had hope, not the least of which was fear…of everything.  And of anything.  Of doing the right thing.  Of not knowing fully what that was, let alone when or how.

     So, I joined in the chorus and hollered back.  In wasn’t always characteristic of me, I have greater faults in other areas of my life, but I have to admit that the more I yelled, the better it felt, and before you knew it, we had a full-fledged screaming match raging within the confines of the vehicle. Even mom, an 87-year-old woman with a dying husband and a 15-year-year-old replaced heart valve which, in an earlier life, once belonged to a pig, got into the act if only to end the madness.  We came to a stoplight but ranted on without end.  Traffic lights are often the worst place to have to halt your car.  Even the steel and sturdy glass seem like no match for the menace outside.  There is no such thing as feeling safe as you sense dozens of curious eyes spying you from their porches and windows, and you find yourself praying in a low voice, “Please, turn green. Please, turn green,” and are prepared to violate any traffic code law if it means avoiding being violated.

     I couldn’t honestly tell you if we were being watched, because our melee was such that I no longer gave a fuck where we were.  In fact, if I had to put my money on it, I would say that anyone paying attention to the incident erupting inside the Ford with ill intent would have quietly said to themselves, “There ain’t no way in hell I’m going after them.”  My mom probably would have karate-chopped any would-be delinquent on the bridge of the nose without a second thought.

     The family seizure eventually subsided as I turned around and got us back in the right direction.  Another brother was waiting for us at the apartment with more Eli’s pizza.  I grabbed a slice or two and then collapsed on the couch, hoping to watch some of the Mets game.  They had lost three in a row to Pittsburgh and needed to turn it around. But they had the night off and I dozed off to the boundless universe of cable TV.  Sanford and Son, World War II documentaries and Spanish soap operas awaited me in slumberland.

Files, Feuds and Funerals 10

By late morning, our car was wobbling down Whitney Street towards New Haven and the hospital.  There are two many arteries that take you to and from the city, one being Whitney and the other being Dixwell.  Our preference was the former and I asked why, because it didn’t seem to make a difference to me.  My sister said, “we just don’t.”

    Whitney is a pretty avenue, green and flanked by some pretty nice homes.  As you reach the border with New Haven, you get the feeling this was where the city’s elite once and may still live.  Stately Victorian homes always give it away.  The road allows you to kind of glide into the Yale area.

     I pulled into the hospital and let the valet service do the rest.  It was a Monday and there was no advantage to parking in the street.  Plus, I had taken enough heat from the family for being a cheapskate the day before.  I don’t know how to approach these things.  The service cost $15, not too bad, plus the obvious tip…the natural amount being an extra $5. It wasn’t the end of the world.  But maybe I could use it for other things.  Dad wasn’t a corner cutter by any means in this sense, but he did like to save here and there where possible and put the cash towards something more to his liking.

     But there was something that made me think that if we were going to let Nature take its course on Dad, it wasn’t the kind of day to skimp.  The vehicle limped into the semi-circle.  I could almost expect a loud bang and the back bumper to fall off to add to the effect.   The poor valet service man who had the misfortune to be next in line winced as soon as he realized which car he would be parking, but politely tended to us and made sure Mom exited from the car all right.

     We paused at a Starbuck’s in the lobby, the goddamn shops are everywhere, and I purchased my second cup to accompany to the room.

     Dad pretty much looked the same. His heart rate had settled at the same number as the day before, so that was encouraging in a relative way.  Nonetheless, we didn’t want to take any chances should there be a turn for the worse, and called in a priest to issue Dad’s last rites.  His last rights.  Actually I had phoned my parents’ parish that morning and spoken to the pastor, whom Mom had insisted on performing for Dad.  He knows us, she said.

      He couldn’t make it in that morning but promised another priest, one who was currently staying at the parish during his stay, was on duty at the hospital would be more than happy to stand in.  I figured that if the man was sleeping in a bed at the residence of the same church, that it probably was good enough.  I don’t know.

     “Now,” said the priest over the phone.  “What was the last name again?”

     The clergyman who arrived at the room was a frail-looking man.  His face was gaunt, his complexion soft and pinkish, half feminine half alcohol in tone and aura, his eyes sad and even saddened, quite possibly from something that hadn’t quite worked out in his life or from watching too many people fade away.  His hair was thin and his voice even thinner.  I had a sense he might go any minute himself and considered having Dad scoot over to make room for a new patient. But he seemed a genuinely compassionate man.  A man who listened and spoke only the very words he felt were necessary.  Not a syllable more.  He carried out the ceremony gently and stayed for what I reckon was longer than his normal duration.  He took the time to learn about Dad and to personally meet each one of us.  Then he departed.  I had the feeling he didn’t sleep very much in that bed in parish residence.  Not without the help of some aid.

     Dad had been cleansed.  That was a good sign.  He was free of sin, though I imagine not much of that had been going on of late.   As we get older we become more pious, but possibly by default.  Maybe we don’t have the energy to be as evil as we’d like to be anymore. The window of opportunity shuts.

     Before the priest would have to make several rounds to ensure that the soul was a pure as possible before floating away from the body and ascending into some place.  The 21 grams someone mentioned.  Dad was in no condition to sin in body and, going by what the doctors had to say about his current condition, even if something malicious did slip into his mind, even if he managed to concoct some misdeed, the message would crash a wall of rubber dead tissue at the brain stem and ricochet worthlessly around the miles and miles and miles of cerebrum.  Lost in a cloud without internet connection.  He couldn’t even throw a baseball or pick up a spoon.

     We met with the doctors again and the reiterated the message they had conveyed the day before.  This time there were more doctors and greater insistence…without insisting at all. “What would Brian have wanted in a situation like this?”  The angle was as reasonable as it was brutal.

     “I know what they’re getting at,” claimed one sister.  “I can read between the lines.”

     But there would be no sacrifice that day.  The volcano could be left simmering without the benefit of 190lbs of flesh and bones.  We went down for lunch and Mom said she had to ask some questions and give things some thought.  The onus was on her.  From downstairs in the cafeteria, we ate quietly.  Thought.  Upstairs, lost, frustrated thoughts bounced around the barriers our father’s cranium.  Useless.

     I’ve look at clouds from both sides now, from up and down, and still somehow, it’s cloud illusions that I recall, I really don’t know clouds at all.

Files, Feuds and Funerals 9

On Monday morning we woke up prepared to put our father to sleep.  Put him down.  Put him out of his misery.  Pull the plug.  Remove the machine.  Let him die.  Kill him.

     In Spanish they say something like “sacrificar”, which suggested we would be tossing him into a lake of bubbling lava in the middle of a volcano, but the process, I was told, was much less dramatic, as far as patricide was concerned.  I don’t know.

     We use these words for animals, but reword them for our loved ones, our beloved ones, out of respect for them and peace of mind for us.  The most sonorous is “let nature takes its course”, as if we were sending him off in a canoe softly down a gentle stream lined with birch trees.  In a sense, there was something frightfully truthful about it, and acridly accurate, but it still sounded like a crock to me at the end of the day.  There was no beating around the bush; we were going to do him in.

     But first I needed a coffee.  I had already downed a couple of cups before eight, but by nine was looking for something more substantial, so taking advantage of the need to stock up on groceries, drove down to Stop N Shop in our car with the wobbly steering wheel.  Inside there was a Dunkin’ Donuts.  There’s one almost everywhere now. At least in my part of the country.  Starbuck’s too, but it seems to me that they’ve become rather passé.  It’s much more reverse hipster to stick to the everyday chain.  I always forget how to order at these places, which is frustrating because I want to feel like I’ve been a part of the land for ever, forever.  Then I order a regular coffee with milk (forget that UK “white coffee” stuff – it’s liable to land me in jail for sounding racist), and the woman kindly my drink, but not before adding sugar by the shovelful.

     “Sorry,” I intervened.  “I didn’t want any sugar.”

     “But you asked for regular.  That means with sugar.”  I thought “regular” meant caffeinated.  Who would have guessed that assumed it included the amount of sweetening needed to bake a cake.  I might as well have asked for a cup if diabetes.

     I was tempted to ask, “since when?” but that would have meant running the risk of her replying “Since 1973.”  And then I really would have sounded like a jackass.  She was nice enough to replace it and slide the new cup over adding it was a hot coffee with cream, not milk.

    With that in hand, I was more than equipped to assist my sister in the shopping to keep us from running out of some of the basics.  It’s always such a shock to go around the supermarket in America and try and understand how it is possible for things to cost much.  It’s no wonder people eat out so often.  It’s more economical.  Nowhere is this more evident than at the greengrocer section where fruit and vegetables go for ungodly sums.  You might see something like peaches, a typically summer special, for $2,99…a pound.   Multiply that by 2.2 and you get $6.60 per kilo.  In Spain, it might cost as low as $2.00.

     Just about the only thing that seems reasonable to me is lobster.  You can get it for half the price than in Spain.  The downside is you have to dump the critter in the water yourself.  When it’s still alive.  Woody Allen immortalized this process in Annie Hall, and we all got a good laugh out of it, though the scene has aged somewhat since the mid-70s.  He and Dian Keaton screamed and squirmed and squawked their way around the kitchen as the frightened New Yorker struggled to find the guts to put the animals out of their misery.

     I remember the first time I did it.  I was a little squeamish myself.  I was expecting them to squeal out loud, because someone had told me that that was what lobsters did when you boiled them alive.  It kind of made sense, but never happened.  I just plopped the in and put the lid on top.   It was disturbingly easy.  I don’t know.

Files, Feuds and Funerals 8

I almost didn’t live to see my father die.  He almost survived me by about 38 years.  I think, at least.  It was on a pretty cold night, probably in the fall, and my next oldest brother and a good friend of his and I walked down into the darkness at the bottom of the driveway to throw eggs at cars, which was a fairly common custom back then when you lived in sleepy Greenwich, where nothing ever really happened.  I don’t know if it still is.

     That was certainly the kind of thing kids were doing back on October 30th, which people in my area called Mischief Night.  It was also known as Doorbell Night because kids got their kicks out of ringing doorbells and racing off.  As I was saying, things could be pretty uneventful back then.   That was until they stopped becoming uneventful, like on the night of October 30th, 1975. That was the day Martha Moxley got bludgeoned to death with a golf club, a six iron, in one of the most high-profile murders of the end of the 20th Century. The act was performed so violently that the perpetrator literally split the metal stick in two.  Then he plunged one half into her neck to ensure she was dead.  It was another one of those coups de grace, I guess.  People can be so merciful at the strangest of times.  It would have been a perfect story for Forensic Files.

     The night I was talking about was also chilly.  I remember this because I was wearing a brown winter coat whose collar I used to suck on all the time and which possessed a feature I originally thought was a good one, but it didn’t turn out that way in that particular instance.  Let me explain.

     We were half-hiding behind the white wooden fence mounted on a stone wall.  Further protected with bushes and low trees, it was impossible to be seen.  A car came up the Clapboard Ridge Road hill from the right side and was now heading down towards the triangle where you could turn left or right onto North Street.  I stood and observed the expertise of the older boys as they led the ambush.  I think it was my brother’s friend Eric who landed a direct hit.  An enormous thud echoed out even louder than the car’s engine and the vehicle screeched to a halt and started to back up.  We bolted up the driveway.  My brother and his friend were much faster than me and I couldn’t keep up.  The minute I felt the car lights sliding along the dark trees and shining up in my direction, I dove to the side behind one of the big gumball trees that lined the driveway.  Then I lay on my belly and flattened my body as low as possible, like a lizard on a desert highway.  Part of the reason was that, if I didn’t, there was a chance I would get caught because parts of my dark brown coat, otherwise suited for the occasion, were reflective orange.

     The man was livid and he vented his anger the only way he seemed to know how, though I wish he had opted for something pacific: he wielded a baseball bat and used it to bash the lights that partially illuminated the road up.  Not a single lamp was spared, and, to the best of my knowledge, neither would have been my head, should he have ever found it.  But that did not occur.   It came close.  For a few seconds I had lost sight and sound of the man on the rampage.  That meant he could have been anywhere.  Then I finally detected his footsteps returning towards the car, but not before staring right in my direction and growling, “I’m going to fuckin’ kill you!”

     Just think that I can still recall it lividly.  The I was close to death.  At least that was the only one I can recall.  Maybe there were more that I was unaware of.  There must have been.

     The driver returned hours later to talk to my parents.  He was from the family which owned a gas station near the library.  Now it’s a bank or something like that. It turns out he had been struck in the head, the kind of thing that would have moved me to smash to smithereens a dozen street lamps.  My father defended my brother saying he was sure he done nothing, though my little sister, deciding to take justice into her own hands, shouted out from the fridge door, “Dad, there are no eggs in the refrigerator!”

      But my father still believed my brother.  All the same, we stopped taking our car there for repair work…just for good measure.

Files, Feuds and Funerals 7

If I had to guess, I’d say it had been approximately twenty years since that many siblings of us actually managed to get together at once.  Seven out of eight…that’s pretty impressive.  In Spain, this is inconceivable and I have engaged in many a conversation with perplexed citizens of this countries who just can’t quite fathom how a family doesn’t manage to be together more often…like four or five times a year.  I often use the excuse of the size of the country as a major factor.  It kind of works, but it just doesn’t make a lot of sense.

     Another brother, the oldest, and another sister, the youngest arrived late on the day before and we gathered in the hospital room next to our father.  I knew this happen. We did.  Someone once said something like this would have to happen before we finally convened.  I guess you kind of wished it wouldn’t be that way, but it shouldn’t be that surprising.  What surprises me is how surprised people are.  Personally I find cutting off the head and hands of a twelve-year-old girl so that she can’t be identified to be rather astonishing. My situation was relatively innocuous in comparison.

     My sister, mother and I started the day with some oatmeal and some waffles.  The latter was another favorite of my father’s.  Waffles are originally from Belgium, and the Brussels style was brought to that country mainly through a man named Maurice Vermersch.  It was back in 1964, though Americans had already come up with their own version decades before.  I don’t know how Vermersch died…probably like all the rest of us did, do and will.

     It was a Sunday and I dropped my sister and Mom off at the door and then went to park without leaving it off at the valet service, figuring that I could save us the $15 plus the $5 tip you pay the guy for performing his job correctly, the way he’s supposed to, the way he’s paid to.  Anyway, I received a little flak for that because I guess you’re not supposed to complain about these things when your father is deathly ill.  Incapacitated.

     We were all there with Dad telling stories about how badly we would behave, and how our poor father would have to put up with it or give into the pressure.  Dad was a lawyer and he didn’t always have a chance to disconnect when home.  Litigation was an ever-present possibility.

     One time I had a party in the wintertime and the cars parked up and down the driveway.  The next day when I woke up, I saw the tire tracks all over the lawn as if a car rally had been there.  I shoveled in the tracks and said a prayer and, lo and behold, from through the wicked, naked branches of the trees came gust after gust of wind that erased every last vestige of vehicles.  The interior of the home was cleared of any evidence; swept, mopped, wiped and sanitized to the best of my abilities, and under imperfect circumstances known as a hangover.  With nothing broken and the absence of a CSI crew on the property, we managed to get away with it.

      Not so three years later when we attempted to repeat the act, but this time you could say that we had pushed our luckto beyond its limits.  It happens to most good delinquents.  Pride and cockiness got the best of us.  It was summer and with it came one of those dense rainy summer days where the air becomes so thick and the vegetation so waxy dark green and laden with atmosphere that you would half expect reptiles to appear from amid their leaves at any minute.   The precipitation left the ground so soaked in moisture that inches of soil gave beneath the weight of your average teenager, and even more land ceded to the pressure of the sum of many.  Before two hours were up, our enormous gathering had managed to establish a well-trodden footpath around the backyard which, under normal circumstances, would have required a hundred years and several generations of feet to form.

     Dad’s face got all red as stared out at the backyard and fought to contain his anger.  He felt we had violated the law flagrantly though we did have an argument to hang on to.  Mom had mentioned we could have a few friends over, which we took advantage of to such an extreme that we essentially raped the very spirit of her intentions.

     “Did you really give them permission?”

     “Yes,” admitted Mom almost sheepishly.  “But I didn’t mean it that way.”

     “But don’t you see, Sheila?  You left a loophole?”

     Oh, don’t you know that you are a superstar…don’t you know.

Imágenes de España: La Factura

Últimamente he estado haciendo algunas traducciones para una empresa que se dedica a vender su propio software, lo llaman solución en el sector, no sé por qué, y cuentan que una empresa puede perder ahorrar hasta un 30% de su gasto mensual, y por tanto, anual en telecomunicaciones y energía.  Dicen que uno de los problemas principales tiene que ver con la falta de interés por parte de los usuarios y clientes en vigilar bien las facturas.  Es decir, se nos escapan mil detalles, como tantas veces en la vida.

     Yo cumplía con la tarea casi inconscientemente, pero su duración y la repetición de las frases empezaban a calar las noción de que a lo mejor me pasaba lo mismo a mí. ¡A mí!  Y a ti también.  Sí señor, no sería de extrañar que en algún momento nada sospechado los números que aparecen en ese papelito tienen poco que ver lo que uno espera.  Y eso que por lo menos te lo mandan por escrito.  Los cachondos de Movistar, antiguamente conocido como Telefónica, ni eso.  Y, para mí, y siempre para mí, la razón se trata de aprovechar que la gente no se fija en los detalles.  La gente no se molesta.  Muchos de nosotros no nos molestamos en comprobar las facturas, aun cuando el total es una barbaridad.  Para proporcionar un poco de perspectiva….¿acaso cuando compras leche si te cobran 1,50€ en vez de 0.90€, no dices nada?

     Una visita visual a una factura en España no hace más que confirmar nuestra repulsión ante la idea que mirar uno por uno los ítems de los gastos desglosados.  Es más, hacen estremecer.  Es una bofetada en la cara de los que preferimos pasar la vida con el lema “ignorance es bliss”.  En parte porque no sabes qué hacer.  No sabes si estás siendo estafado y te sientes jilipollas por no intentar hacer nada para remediarlo.  No sabes si, aún peor, te están estafando y resulta que es legal.  O fuera lo que fuese, en caso de descubrir la verdad, no sabes cómo empezar, a quién recurrir, y si verdaderamente merece la pena luchar por la causa.  Nadie, os digo, nadie quiere sentirse así.  Mucho menso un viernes por la tarde cuando, durante unos minutos, la vida tiene sentido.

      Claro está, si eres capaz de comprenderla en primer lugar.

     Mi factura de gas para los dos últimos meses y la de luz para este mes fue 177€.  Gasté… y

      Veamos la de gas.  Según la empresa, no he consumido nada.  Es mentira, pero solo porque no me han pillado en casa para comprobar el medidor de gas.   También podían haber puesto el famoso gasto estimado, pero ni eso.  Pone: Consumo: 0.  Traducido al euros: 0.  Factura de gas: 30,27€.

     Veamos por qué.  Me cobran 8.89€ por el término (me restan un 60% de descuento, no sé por qué), otros 2,55€ por el alquiler del contador, y 24,16€ por algo que llaman un canon, que es una cuota que hay que pagar por la instalación (esto ocurrió hace mil años) y mantenimiento de la receptora de gas instalada en la finca.

     Veamos si lo mismo pasa con la electricidad.  Además de los 77€ de consumo, hizo mucho calor este año y tenía el aire puesto a toda máquina, hay que incluir el alquiler del contador de este servicio, la cuota del término de potencia, un impuesto sobre la luz, que viene siendo uno de esas tasas ocultas, y el IVA, un 21%.  Luego un par de servicios que se suponen que tengo contratados pero que no consigo averiguar lo que hacen ni para qué sirven, además de empobrecerme.

     En realidad, no pago por el uso del gas ni del de luz.  Me sale casi regalado.  Todo lo que cuesta es ajena a mi vida, a mi entorno, a mis movimientos, giros, pasos, y lo demás.   Veamos.