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Authors: Bob Morris

Assisted Loving

Assisted Loving

True Tales of Double Dating with My Dad

Bob Morris

In memory of my parents

I
t's a month after my mother has died, October 2002. My father and I have just pulled into the Mount Ararat Cemetery in Farmingdale, on the flat south shore of Long Island. We pass through iron gates under a Star of David and cruise past row after row of headstones that all look alike. We park and get out of his silver Toyota Avalon, slam the doors, and start walking. Dad is moving slowly. He needs another hip replacement. Not to mention a dry cleaner. His yellow cardigan is a fruit salad of stains. But I have to say, even if his walk is a little gimpy, he looks pretty good for someone close to eighty. Smooth tawny skin, silky silvery hair. Bodes well for me, I guess. Neither of us knows exactly where my mother's grave is. And men don't ask directions, even in cemeteries. So we
wander, two lost boys, sneakers on grass, silently passing endless rows of the dead.

We finally find her between some Cohens and Blums. E
THEL
M
ORRIS
, the footstone reads, that's all. Well, she was a simple woman. A librarian with modest desires—a comfortable pair of shoes, the occasional bouquet of flowers on a holiday, a sing-along in the car, a half-price coupon for ice-cream cake from the supermarket. She wanted to see her husband and two sons happy even as she struggled in the last years of her life.

We stare at her name. It could be a moment to talk about her, to talk about any regret we might feel about not doing our best for her as she withered. Instead, Dad starts to hum, softly at first, then loud enough to drown out the roar of cars on the nearby parkways. “I miss singing with your mother,” he says. “Even when we ran out of things to say to each other, we always had something to sing.”

“I know,” I say. “I know.”

“This is one of her top ten favorites. Every time I come here I'm going to do another one just for her.”

Then he clears his throat, and sings to her grave.

I'll be loving you

Always,

With a love that's true

Always.

He sings the whole song—slowly, wistfully—with white eyebrows arched upward, nostrils flaring, in a sweet crooner's tenor. I can feel my throat burning—the feeling you get when you're about to cry, and I swallow hard to
stop it. I would never want to cry in front of my father. That would be so uncomfortable, I tell myself.

Not for just a year,

But always.

Now he's finished, and the sound of traffic and birds takes over while we stand, staring down at her, unsure what else to do. Some grass, palest green, is starting to sprout from the soil we shoveled in front of a small crowd last month on top of her coffin. It was a rainy funeral. The rabbi had put black ribbons on our lapels and we had to rip them—a gesture of traditional Jewish mourning. Was Dad looking more stricken or relieved as he stood there, the chief mourner? What about me? I admit to having felt, even three days after her death, a sense of exoneration. She had been sick for ten years with a rare, debilitating blood condition. Dad did what he could for her, driving her to doctors, helping her into the car, sticking around when his impulse was to flee the overwhelming sadness. But in the end, he was inadequate. And while I related to his need to keep enjoying life even as she suffered, I also resented him for it. My big brother, Jeff, resented him even more than I did. Dad wouldn't help her with her pills. He insisted on being out of the house for hours for bridge games, yet he wouldn't hire the help that would make our lives easier. He told me she was a lost cause. True as it was, it sounded so cruel. So there's an acrid, unspoken guilt we share now, here at the place where she rests. I stand over her, reading her name on the new bronze plaque in the ground.

E
THEL
M
ORRIS

We shift on our feet, a father and son with everything to talk about and nothing to say to each other. Then Dad thinks of something.

“You know,” he says, “I always liked this cemetery.”

“Oh yeah?” I say.

Actually, I'm thinking as I look around that I don't care for this place at all. And I also don't like myself for thinking such a thing. But lately, this kind of snobbery has started taking up the parking space in my head where nicer thoughts should be. I can't stop myself from looking at this cemetery where my mother is finally resting in peace (from my father and me) and applying the same standards that I do to a hotel or restaurant. I think to myself that the location of this cemetery isn't genius. It's all wrong, in fact, sandwiched between two noisy roads. Who needs that? And the headstones of this cemetery are too much alike—new slabs of polished marble that aren't aged enough to have historical charm. They're all as evenly spaced apart and repetitive as the undistinguished homes in the nearby split-level development where I grew up, homes I was accustomed to as a child but now find embarrassing in their modesty. Some cemeteries are poetic and overgrown, with pretty hills, water views, and famously depressed poets buried beneath towering pines and elms. What does this cemetery have? Easy access to the Southern State Parkway?

“I have to tell you something important,” Dad says.

“What's that?”

“There's a plot for you here, Bobby. I bought it years ago on my way to my Tuesday tennis game. So now you
know you can be buried here with your mother and me when your time comes.”

I nod. I'm touched at the sweetness of his gesture. But then, I'm ashamed to find myself thinking,
The last thing I want is to be buried on the south shore of Long Island for all eternity. Unless it's the Hamptons, of course.

But what kind of son would say that?

“Um, that's so nice of you, Dad,” I tell him. “But what about Jeff? He'll want to be buried here with you and Mom, too, won't he? Will there be room for all of us?”

“Your brother has a family of his own, Bobby, and they love Westchester,” he says, as a groundskeeper drives by in a truck. “But
you
, since you're alone, and probably won't have a family of your own, I thought you'd want to be buried here with us.”

It's a nice offer. And I know I should probably just thank him for the hospitality, then let him give me one of his father-son bear hugs he hopes will bond us. I mean, he's talking about wanting me at his side forever, in the hereafter, and I'm thinking of telling him I have other plans? Sure, my life has always been a little too busy to include him comfortably. But my death? There's every reason why I should just agree to his loving and lovely proposal. But I can't do it. I can't just say thanks and hug him back.

I'm forty-four years old, and I still don't know when to give my old man a break.

I don't say anything for a long while, just keep nodding over my mother's grave, and listening to the traffic with my lips firmly pressed together.

I am feeling something between aggravation and remorse.

Well, what can I say? This little visit from Manhattan, where I live the high-key, low-paying life of a minor style columnist at a major newspaper, is turning out to be the usual decathlon of challenges. I mean, last night, I step off the train in Babylon for a visit because Dad called to say he was lonely and needed some moral support. He's not at the station, late as usual. So I sigh and wait, watching everyone else drive off. Then, finally, he arrives, and I clear the papers and debris off of his passenger seat, sit down in his junk-strewn sedan, and get my favorite new white jeans soaking wet. Something sticky and most likely dietetic is seeping into my boxer shorts as he drives.

“What's on this seat, Dad?”

“Oh, I'm so sorry, Bobby, I forgot to clean up my Snapple.”

We head for a bargain restaurant of his choosing. It's essentially a pizza parlor with plastic tablecloths, lit with fluorescent lights. I know I'm being ridiculous for paying attention to anything other than him, the old man who did his best to raise me. But I'm sorry. As the visitor who's gone to some trouble to get out here from the city, don't I have a say about where we eat? He wants to dine. I want to whine.

“Isn't there anywhere else, Dad?” My voice sounds like a child's.

“Just give this place a try, I guarantee you'll like it.”

I don't know why I'd attempt to persuade him when I know he's so controlling. Why not just say,
Yes, fine, perfect choice!
Is it because of my own raging insecurities and disappointment at how my life has turned out? With no children of my own in middle age, let alone a spouse, I
suppose I have to try to assert myself over
someone
. Am I treating my father's choice of a restaurant with the same controlling intensity my friends use to choose preschools and bar mitzvah bands?

Once we're seated, and he's ripping into the Italian bread in the plastic basket before us, I urge him to put his napkin in his lap, and he takes several cell phone calls from friends and bridge buddies. His ring tone, “The Mexican Hat Dance,” seems to me to be the only politically incorrect ring tone I have ever heard. I should be amused.

“Hello, there,” he says, as he always does. “Great to hear from you!”

Why can't he just put the phone away, focus on dinner, and have a meaningful conversation with me about his new life as a widower?

“Dad, I'm missing good parties in the city tonight to be with you,” I say. “And you'd rather talk on your cell phone to your friends? Should I be insulted?”

“Don't be so sensitive. I'm just taking care of business. No big deal.”

Driving in the car to the house, he is too consumed with a Mets game on the radio to talk. Nothing new. I shrug and put down my window, even though he prefers it up.

“I like the fresh air,” I mutter. “Hope you don't mind.”

We pull up to the Cape Cod house in our neighborhood by the bay. I get out of the car and stand in the driveway while Dad listens to the fourth inning. The old 1950s house—white shingles in need of painting, black shutters, the fading 509 at the door—has not changed my whole life. A stunted dogwood tree shudders, half naked
in autumn. A harvest moon is rising over the water beyond the canal. The night is cool, quiet as it always is out here, except for some crickets. For a moment, everything slows—life expectations, all the opinions, my need to get this visit over with—and it all feels lovely.

But then I step inside and find that the house, spare in the modest decor my mother barely changed her whole life, has become his domestic Dumpster. On the Formica counters in the kitchen—half-eaten desserts, and his margarine tubs with bits of dried fruit soaking like science projects. Over the Jetsons swivel chairs, towels drying. Mail, brochures, and pages of coupons from local newspapers cover the white table like leaves on a lawn. The master bedroom is a weed-infested lot of dirty socks and underwear. Dad can't be bothered to pick up his clothes or throw away his junk mail. Or maybe he doesn't know how. Is he unmoored without a woman to cook, clean, and keep after him? Or is he suddenly having the time of his life, an old bachelor allowed to go hog wild in his own little Animal House, finally free to answer to no one but himself?

I don't know whether to laugh or worry. As a man living alone in my own apartment, I'm capable of an extreme mess myself. But never unhygienic like this.

I should not look in his study. But I do. There are mountains of papers—files, envelopes, bills—spilling out of his olive green filing cabinet, crowding the avocado green convertible couch, and colonizing the pea green vinyl recliner where my mother kept her legs up in her later years because it was too far for her to get to the den. Her whole life she lived in mortal fear of having to deal with his landfill of files—a paper trail to whatever assets
they had, but also a toxic waste dump of endless entangling red tape.

“Honey,” I remember her saying a little too assertively when he was watching a game on TV, “you promised to clean out your study today.”

“Ethel, stop nagging me,” he'd reply. “I'll do it when I'm good and ready.”

Company would be coming, and she was mortified at the thought of someone opening that study door. “It looks like a hurricane hit that room,” she'd say.

“It's my room, and I'll do whatever I want with it,” he'd snap.

Sometimes, when he was feeling magnanimous, he'd agree to let her go in, and while he was at tennis, she'd try to clean up. She moved so cautiously she might have been wearing a Hazmat suit. Taking great care not to disturb his piling (rather than filing) system, she'd pick up the obvious useless detritus he'd amassed—and leave it in boxes on the curb. Later, when he was home, she'd be looking out their bedroom window and see him hunched over and collecting his things from her boxes to bring back inside, looking like something between a raccoon and a lunatic going through the trash.

It broke her spirit. But not her heart. She loved him, stubborn as he was.

“You couldn't clean up a little for me, Dad?” I'm saying now.

He shrugs. “I guess I could, but what's the point? You're family.”

I'm not sure what to say to that. But I still want to have a moderately meaningful father-son conversation. I think we should check in with each other about what
it's like after a woman who loved us both so much has left us. Does he have the same regrets I do? Does he want to talk about how it feels in this big house alone without her? I guess not, because he hobbles straight back to his black recliner in the den, hits the remote control, and turns to his Mets game on TV. I collapse beside him on the off-white couch where my brother and I sat on our mother's lap as little boys, waiting for him to come home for dinner, always late from tennis. We used to play a game from the window, guessing how many cars it would be before his would appear. Dinner was ready in the kitchen. There was nothing left to do but wait. Mom held us close. The lights of cars would come around the neighbors' pine trees. One, two, three, four, five. No Daddy. Where was he? We worried. And the numbers we guessed got longer as we got wiser to his ways. But finally he'd arrive, so happy, so delighted to be with all of us, not distracted or anxious the way some fathers might have been. He never needed a drink. Never needed a moment to himself. When he came in that door, he kissed Mom with such vigor it made us blush and then he was all ours, open-armed and smiling, a father who knew how to love his wife and family without holding anything back.

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