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Bobby Wonderful by Bob Morris
What do we do when a parent is dying? We, flail about, feel guilty, keep calm, carry on and otherwise do the best we can. If we're very lucky sometimes we even find humor in it. Memoirist Bob Morris did all of the above, as you can see in this excerpt from his new book,Bobby Wonderful.
It's a moonless night in May of 2006 and I'm speeding down from a Catskills holiday weekend to get to my father in the hospital. His nursing aid on Long Island had suggested this might be it for him and his worn out old heart. Is he asleep? Will I make it to him on time? Is he already gasping for his last breath, the death rattle in his throat already started? I go faster while trying to find anything on public radio besides reports about the infuriating Iraq war.
What will I tell him? How much I love him, despite his unnerving, unswerving Republicanism and our other conflicts? I can't miss saying goodbye to the man who brought me up, who always made things right for me in his own hapless way. And now, if he's truly at the end of his life, I want to be able to say a long, sweet goodbye, hold his hand, sing him a song.
Visiting hours are over when I walk into North Shore hospital and ride up in an elevator. I'm scared. What will my father look like? Will he be able to talk? Will I be able to thank him for everything, and apologize for being so critical of him? Or is it a time to just listen, let him talk about his life and the regrets he has, the apologies he wants to make? Maybe we'll be able to have a conversation about the spirit, his spirit, a quiet talk that will bring closure.
I find his name next to a door, knock and with pounding heart, open it. I panic when I don't see him in a bed. I'm too late, I think. It's over. He's gone and I never said goodbye. Then I see something opposite the bed. Legs. His legs. And at the end of them his Velcro- strapped gray vinyl sneakers. He's sitting on the far side of the pale yellow room straight up in his wheelchair. Clear oxygen tubes are in his nose attached to a portable tank on little wheels.
He's listening on his cell phone, grimacing. Then he erupts.
"No, the issue is not the service; it's the amount of peak minutes," he bellows.
He looks up to see me, and waves me inside.
"I have serious health issues and this is very aggravating," he barks.
I guess he's not dying. In fact the opposite. And lately he's been contending that a good argument makes him feel better. Maybe that's why he's been mouthing off so much lately, defending the Bush administration to the many liberal Democrats who populate his world.
"I'm not too old to switch my service," he threatens. Then he smiles.
"That's great, wonderful, thanks very much," he says and clicks off the call.
I hardly know what to think. Not only is he not dying, he has just brought his cell phone service provider to its knees, something not all that far from beating back death itself.
"Bobby, delighted to see you, I'm just thrilled," he says.
"Same here," I say. "I was worried you were dying."
"False alarm," he says as he turns up a Mets game on TV. "I'm not even close."
What to do now? Even at the end, when it might finally be time to relent and give the man what he wanted his whole life "“ a son who watches sports on TV, I refuse. And I have to say, I'm a little disappointed not to have the end of life conversation I'd so frantically scripted on my drive -- the one that so many spiritually obsessed boomers think is essential even when the dying find it unnecessary and intimidating. I want to squeeze some meaning out of this visit to lift it above the rest, make it something between transitional and redemptive.
Let's go Dad," I say, grabbing hold of the oxygen tank.
"Can't we wait until the commercial?"
As much as I never wanted him in a wheelchair, there's something almost enjoyable about the control over him it gives me. With a lurch, I push him out of his room and into the bright and empty hallway. We get to a small lounge, where a big flat screen TV plays in the dark. I turn it off but don't turn on any lights. I lock the brakes on my father's wheelchair and sit down on a sofa to face him. He looks at me and shrugs. Light from the hallway hits half his face. The room is almost as small as a confessional booth.
"So Dad, I was thinking about you."
"Always nice to hear that," he says.
"Have you been thinking about yourself?"
"I don't know what you mean."
Then we go silent. I scan my head for ideas, then see the headline of a USA Today on a coffee table.
"The war in Iraq isn't going so well, is it?" I say.
Dad lets off the sigh of an old steam engine.
His defense of the administration has been an embarrassment to me more than a real sore point. He is, after all, been nothing but humane when it comes to gay rights, women's issues, immigration and social policy "“ the world's most democratic Republican. But he's also stubborn. And now, even when the tide of public opinion has risen against the President, he goes on with his blind support and his harangues of anyone who argues.
A thought occurs to me. Then it expands until I clear my throat.
"Dad, do you think the end of life is a time to take stock and reconsider things?"
He tilts his head and looks at me, then sighs.
"That's what they say, but I haven't given it much thought," he replies.
I stay quiet as news about another suicide bombing in Iraq blares from a TV in the room next door. He fishes a toothpick out of his shirt pocket and starts going at his teeth.
"Well, I have a proposal," I say.
"Because I was hoping you'd think it's time for a gesture of redemption."
"What's your proposal?"
"I would like you to renounce the Republican Party."
My father stays still. Then the hint of a smirk moves onto his face.
"You've got to be kidding," he says.
"No. I almost got into an accident speeding down here on a holiday weekend because I thought you were dying."
"Sorry I disappointed you," he says with a wink.
"I want to get my money's worth out of this trip, Dad."
"Well, you should know it means the world to me that you're here."
"We don't have to put anything in writing," I say. "I'm just asking you to tell me if you regret being such a staunch Republican your whole life."
He stops picking his teeth. He shakes his head with furrowed eyebrows. When he breathes out it is so loud and long that it's as if his soul is leaving him.
"You're always pushing me, trying to get me to see things your way. Why bother?"
I think about this for a moment. Why do I try to get him to change his views? I'm not him and he's not me. Shouldn't I be mature enough to know that?
"Dad, I'm just trying to seize the moment here."
"You really don't think I'm going to live much longer?"
"I just want to ask, even if it's a little premature, will you consider, if only for me, renouncing the Republican party? It could be an act of some kind of personal redemption."
He shakes his head and stares into his lap. I am blushing now at my nerve and at my will. We could have had a nice visit without this. Then he looks me in the eye.
"I can say that I would not vote for George Bush again," he says.
As soon as he says it, I feel light pour into my brain and see angels reflected on his aviator glasses, circling the ceiling. My heart races but I don't say a word. I just let it sink in.
"Well done, sir," I say. "Thank you very much."
"Well, you pushed me into it. What could I do?"
"But you're in your right mind and you mean it?"
"Yes, I'm afraid I do. I would not vote for the present George Bush again."
I feel triumphant as I lean into him and feel his chest heaving against mine.
"Can I give you a hug?"
His eyebrows lift. He smiles. He is always open to any kind of affection.
I put my arms around his neck and, very careful to avoid the oxygen tubes, lean into his face, my big nose to his bigger one, and we hold ourselves there like teenagers in a slow dance.
"I love you, Dad," I say.
"I love you too, Bobby."
And then I get up, unlock his wheels, turn his chair around, find a remote control, turn the Mets game volume all the way up and settle in to watch with him for the rest of the night.
He takes my hand. We hold on to each other in the glow of the TV screen.