2012 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Winner - Christine Benvenuto
"Death in Brooklyn"
Some years ago, when he was to undergo triple bypass surgery, I imagined my father's death. But imagine isn't the right word because I constructed no fantasies, saw no images. When I thought of him dying I was simply confronted with a terrible sense of exertion, the idea of an immense weight mustering the strength to lift itself out of existence. Oddly enough, I was right. When my father did die, three years later, cancer-ridden and with a healthy heart, that's exactly the way it was.
When I was growing up, scarcity was an axiom in all things. Scarcity of stories and words. To have was to create imbalance. I felt burdened by the food on my plate, by having more than one friend at a time. Our walls held a single picture, a carving of the Last Supper. There were no decorative objects except the one or two received as gifts and set scornfully down on the otherwise unused coffeetable. My parents, my father especially, liked getting rid of things. When he emptied the little mailbox downstairs from our apartment in East Flatbush, he threw away as much as he could at once, including envelopes addressed to my mother. When we moved from East Flatbush to Bay Ridge - I was fifteen - he left behind a cookie tin containing nearly all the photographs that had been taken of me since birth.
I know very little about my father. He avoided interaction, direct gaze. We never had a conversation. In my mind, I organize his life as a closet of old clothes he would never have saved:
There are the young man's uniforms, baseball and World War II, of the old black and white photographs from before I was born, the dark suit of the wedding portrait. For the middle-aged man of my childhood there's the bus driver's uniform or the baggy pants with the shirt hanging out, sleeveless undershirts, pajamas at any time of day. The same, minus the bus driver's uniform and with the occasional addition of a flat-brimmed cap, for the old man of my adulthood. Also from my adulthood there's the tweed jacket worn by the father of an alternate universe who sat at a desk in a book-lined room, laughing. I glimpsed him one night while I was falling asleep and felt, if this was him, then I could be who I wanted to be. Of course, this wasn't him.
Instead, he ended up the man in the liver-colored hospital pajamas with a cigarette hole he hadn't made himself in the sleeve, a few weeks before his death, not looking especially ill. I hadn't seen him in a long time; it was the last time I saw him conscious. It was mid-June, time for summer plans. For the first time, he talked about coming to New England to visit us, the look in his eyes saying he knew this was a trip he would never make. We - my husband, our one-year-old son and I - had taken the three-hour drive to Brooklyn so that I could see him; I stayed only a few minutes because he couldn't wait for me to leave.
I came back a couple of weeks later, arrived at the hospital on a Wednesday evening and waited there for him to die through the night, the next day and night, the following morning. All this time he lay there wasted, body curled in on itself. Not conscious but in pain, suffering. Terrified.
In his subliminal state he frequently became agitated, twisted about in his bed, moaned, cried out. He scratched at himself, something my mother had been told to expect. He called for his older brother, using a childish nickname, and for his mother in the Italian dialect in which he had spoken his first words.
My mother responded to his agitation with some of her own, and he became more distressed. So long as she was there I did nothing. When I was alone with him I did two things automatically, without thinking the first time she left the room and then deliberately whenever she was gone. I hushed him, employing a skill I had acquired only in the past year, since giving birth to my son, as if I had somehow become the mother he was crying out for. And I sang.
Sh'ma Yisrael adonay eloheynu adonay ehad.
Listen, Israel: Adonay is our God, Adonay is one.
Jews are supposed to die with this prayer on their lips, but my father was not Jewish, though our family name is a common one among Italian Jews, and my own conversion was still six months in the future. Each time someone heard my name and asked if I was Jewish, I wondered whether there was something in our family's past that we didn't know about, something my father would die not even suspecting. Presumably he’d never heard the Sh'ma. I began singing it without thought or plan and went on singing it because whenever I did he grew calm and because it was the only thing I had to offer. These moments, with him unconscious, were the most intimate I ever had with my father.
The last morning he looked utterly ravaged. My mother and I stood side by side and watched him breathe. With his lips pulled back in anguish he drew breath slowly and at long intervals, deep painful rattling heaves, laboring as if his lungs were a heavy freight, as if commanded, breathe!, breathing himself to death, and I thought, I still think, that I have never witnessed anything so effortful.
At one point my mother decided it was over and tried to force his parted lips together with her hand. "Wait," I told her and, sure enough, another breath, two. When we saw the final breath, we knew it. My mother said I had to go and tell a nurse that my father was dead. I could see that this was something I had to do but I didn't move. Finally, she went herself. I can't remember that moment alone in the room. In an instant she was back with the nurse, who looked at my father, told my mother, "Yes," and held her while she began to wail. They both ignored me. I wondered whether the nurse realized that I was the dead man’s daughter – my father was “the dead man” now. Then my three uncles, my father's brothers, who without my knowing it had gathered in the hall, entered and took up positions around the room like security guards, saying nothing.
As soon as he was dead my mother talked about how she would have to clear out my father's things. I watched her sort through his papers. I wanted a photograph, an old one in uniform, baseball or army. I wanted the army release papers that described him as some sort of military garbage man, "picking up sensitive army debris," in Belgium, France, the Ardennes. I didn't ask.It's senseless to keep mementos of someone, now dead, who was a stranger in life.
At the funeral parlor, what appeared to be a wax mannequin of my father lay in the coffin, a face that bore some resemblance to his but was not his, in life or death. My mother didn't notice. She was pleased with what the funeral parlor had done, having told them that they had better make him look good. "You see," she said, pointing to features I had never noticed, "he always had small lips and long eyelashes."
Few people came. There were neighbors who inexplicably spoke only Italian, as if the mass migration that had carried my grandparents across the ocean nearly a hundred years before had gone underground, funneled to my parents’ section of Brooklyn. There were women my mother knew from church, all widows. “They used to be jealous,” my mother commented bitterly. “I was the only one with a husband.” Another, mixed-sex collection of individuals offered my mother perfunctory condolences or none at all and sat at the back with my uncles, talking and laughing.
Between attrition and estrangement, only a handful of visitors were relatives. My father's nephews and their wives sat together and watched me, talking obsessively among themselves about their knowledge of Jewish burial rituals. They hushed each other with significant looks in our direction whenever my husband or I inched awkwardly past, holding the hands of our tottering baby.
When she saw her own niece, my mother announced, “I’ve lost my best friend! I’ve lost everything!”
A buzz of platitudes rose from the people around.
“She says she lost her best friend,” my cousin snapped, silencing the others.
A couple who’d known my parents twenty years before had seen the obituary."Why didn't the paper say he was The Hawk?" the woman asked me.
Some years earlier I had discovered that my father had once had some chance of becoming a professional baseball player. "He was approached by the major leagues," was how his sister described it. "But then the war got him instead. We don't talk about it. He's still mad at the war."
"Why didn't I ever hear about this before?" I asked.
My father gave me a doleful look. "We didn't think you were interested," my mother said, as if family consensus had been reached on the subject. "You knew he was called The Hawk," she said.
I had known my father's nickname. But I had never associated it - why would I? - with the professionally posed photograph of him in a baseball uniform that I had seen as a small child and not since. I hadn't known the origin of the name: speed.
"You won't see your friend again," my mother screamed at a soft-spoken, seriously Christian man from some unnamed Eastern European country who could not have appeared a less likely companion for my father.
"On the contrary," the man told my mother. "We're all going where he's gone."
My mother had no reply. Later the man's wife told me that when he met my father, in an Off Track Betting establishment, her husband had been stumbling aimlessly through an early retirement. "He couldn't find himself until he met your father," was this woman's baffling statement.
The last evening at the funeral parlor, I went up to the casket with my son in my arms. I stroked my father's white-gray hair, and everyone in the room watched me do it. "You won't remember him," I told my son, because this was the only thing about his grandfather that I could think of to say to him.
That same night, in a service evidently provided by the funeral parlor, a priest visited. He mentioned to my mother that our family name was his own mother's maiden name. "Did you ask him if his mother was Jewish?" my husband said later.
The next morning, before it was closed, my father's older brother slipped a dollar bill inside the coffin, said, "Spend it," gave a hoarse laugh and spun away on his heels. One of his younger brothers put in a racing form. My mother placed a picture of a Greek icon inside the coffin. She said a Greek Orthodox priest had blessed the men in my father's hospital ward and handed out these images. Later, my mother said, she’d spied my father kissing the picture. This was the most shocking and pathetic detail I learned about my father in the course of the week. I had nothing to put in the coffin myself.No one had thought to inform me of the custom.
My husband, who’d never been inside a church except as a tourist, had our restless baby to keep him out now. He spent the brief funeral service holding our son outside the open double doors and chatting with the hearse driver. Inside, I sat up front, with my mother. My mother recited the responses to the prayers in an angry, grudging way as if she was being tested to see if she knew them and resented it. I was the only person present who didn't kneel and said none of the responses, a fact the priest could hardly fail to notice. At the end he looked surprised when, following my mother's example, I shook his hand and thanked him.
From the church, the hearse, with the three or four cars following behind it, drove to my parent's street and paused for a moment in front of the small brick house where they rented the first floor. Then the procession headed for the highway and the long drive to the veteran's cemetery far out on suburban Long Island.
Many funerals were taking place that Fourth of July weekend. At the cemetery we waited in long traffic lines for our turn to be directed to a little pavilion where the coffin had come temporarily to rest. The procedure here was even briefer than at the church, and equally scripted. We were all handed rose buds. The National Anthem, canned, was played. A man removed the flag that draped the coffin, folded it into a triangle with the precision of an origami master, and presented it to my mother.
It was over. We left the cemetery with a complicated set of directions to a ferry that would take us across the Long Island Sound to Connecticut, where we would pick up the road north, home. Almost immediately, we missed the entrance to the highway and instead followed the slow, local road that edged the water, finding the pier at last. We joined the cars waiting to board for the next trip.
All week it had been strangely cool but now it was finally summer, hot. We drove onto the ferry's lower level and sat in the car sweating, bickering mindlessly, the baby fussing, while the other passengers streamed past on their way to the stairs, fresh air, behind us. We waited until they were all gone. Then we peeled off our damp black clothes and pulled on jeans and T shirts. We changed our son into shorts and a shirt, the very last clean clothing with us, and climbed the ladder to the deck in another world.
The sky was a clear, deep, birdless blue. My son's red-blonde curls blazed in the brilliant sunlight. He’d never been on water before. He was thrilled, stretching from our arms over the edge of the ferry as if to catch the white foam we were leaving in our wake, careening through the chairs scattered over the deck, making me anxious that he would annoy the only two people sitting in them, an obviously affluent, middle-aged woman and man relaxing behind us draped in casually expensive clothes and an aura of impossible ease. I held my breath as the woman started to speak to me.
"He's all right," she said. "Let him go."