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Authors: Hilma Wolitzer

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BOOK: The Doctor's Daughter
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At home I picked up the telephone, but there was nobody I wanted to call, not even Ev, or Violet. Ruth Casey’s manuscript was on the night table next to the phone and I turned randomly to a page somewhere in the middle and willed myself to concentrate on the text. It was a scene in which Ruth tries to get her autistic child to make eye contact with her— first by talking softly, then by raising her voice, louder and louder, until she’s yelling, and finally by grabbing the girl’s face hard and forcing it toward her own. “But she was still defiantly indifferent,” Ruth wrote, a seeming contradiction in terms that worked surprisingly well. And the editing I’d done so far—mostly trimming and cutting and pasting—had helped to make the manuscript tighter and more coherent. But Ruth was defiant, too, resisting my suggestions to “warm up” her prose.

Maybe it didn’t matter; I’d begun to reluctantly see that there would probably still be resistance by most publishers to such a sad story that refused to be a tearjerker, or attempt to either inspire or console. Was I obligated to tell Ruth that, when she hadn’t asked? In her book proposal, she’d stated her intentions clearly. “This isn’t one of those success stories about bringing a child out of the wilderness of her affliction,” she’d written. “And it isn’t a spiritual guide for other parents, or a breast-beating diatribe against fate. It’s a report of what can happen to anybody, of what happened to us.” Perhaps this was only another dance in which I should let the writer lead.

I put the manuscript aside and opened my mother’s folder. Sitting at my desk, I read and reread her Central Park poem until I’d committed it to memory, until the words hardly made sense anymore. I took the letter from
The New Yorker
and put it into the zippered compartment in my purse. Now I knew why there were no other letters like it.

I went to the mirror and tried to cry. Nothing doing. Then I looked at photographs of my parents—their wedding portrait, the snapshot that Thomas Roman had given me, dozens of others in one of my mother’s carefully arranged albums. My father smiled for the camera a lot, I noticed, and he squinted into the sun, like me. Emily Roman had said that he was so much fun. I remembered the smell of surgical soap, the way his black torpedo of a car sliced into the night.

The martini may have helped to deaden my feelings, but even hours afterward, when the alcohol had surely worn off, I was impassive rather than murderous. “I’d like to kill him,” I’d told Andrea Stern, but my heart wasn’t really in it. I was cool enough to be a hired assassin, or a surgeon.

A couple of weeks later, when Mrs. Hernandez called from the home, I was working on a manuscript, and I was annoyed by the interruption. I hadn’t visited my father for a while, but I hadn’t completely abandoned him, either. I still did what had to be done: promptly sending the checks for his care, approving haircuts and visits to the podiatrist. There had been other, recent calls about him. A toothache had to be attended to, and his hearing aid replaced for the second time. “What is it now?” I asked irritably, jarred by this echo of my mother’s question to me.

Miss Hernandez cleared her throat. “Dear,” she said. “I’m afraid I have some sad news.”


I decided on a graveside service. There would probably be only a few people in attendance, and I wanted to get it over with as quickly as possible. My father had never had much tolerance for lengthy ceremonies, either. “Keep it short and sweet,” he’d advise before any public event at the hospital, even when he was about to receive an award. I felt perfectly efficient and composed as I made the plans for his funeral. My only real concerns were about the tone of the service, and that it might rain.

I’d asked the Jewish chaplain at Mount Sinai to officiate. He was fairly young and new to the job, and had never met my father. “Tell me something about him,” he said, as we sat in his office. I was struck dumb for what seemed like a long time, and he leaned toward me, making a steeple of his hands, and said, “Well, he was a surgeon, right? So maybe we shouldn’t give God top billing.” Oh, a comedian, I thought. My father would have had him yanked offstage with a vaudeville hook.

As it turned out, I was wrong about everything. I’d put a notice in the
and a respectable crowd appeared at the cemetery: my own family, of course; a couple of distant paternal cousins; and a few friends, including Parksie and Violet and her parents. But several of my father’s old colleagues and patients showed up, too. The survivors.
was the operative word. Some people leaned on canes or walkers; the occasion must have surely given them pause. I was sorry that I hadn’t provided chairs, and what was my big rush to get my father underground?

His coffin was there when we arrived. The freshly dug hole awaiting it seemed almost vulgar beside my mother’s tidy little verdant plot, the result of something called Perpetual Care. Ev once said after writing the annual check that it was like renting a tuxedo to be buried in.

I used to go to the grave site regularly and pull up a few rogue weeds myself, and tamp the disturbed earth back down, until my mother’s unremitting silence, and my own, made those excursions painfully pointless. The last time I was there, I remembered, a man at a neighboring grave kept muttering, as if he were carrying on his end of a long-standing argument with his dead wife. But maybe he was just praying.

There were no visitors’ stones or pebbles placed, like primitive calling cards, on the white mantel of my mother’s tombstone. I picked up a small handful from the path between the avenues of graves and slipped them into my jacket pocket, intending to set them out later. The largest one was as round and smooth as a worry stone, and I worked it with my fingers inside the pocket.

It was an unseasonably mild November afternoon. That freaky little October snowstorm seemed like nothing more than a cosmic joke now. There was enough of a breeze to lift a couple of yarmulkes, which my boys chased down and returned to their elderly owners. The clouds moved swiftly above that miniature marble skyline, allowing the sun to appear and disappear over and over again in a veritable light show, like a last, spectacular performance of weather on earth.

Rabbi Singer was wonderful. When the time came, he wasn’t inappropriately funny, or inappropriately maudlin, either. To my relief, he didn’t speak in a voice “like a statue,” as the rabbi does in a Philip Roth story, and he didn’t use any of the standard eulogizing words, like
He seemed to have gleaned the essential Samuel Brill from what I was finally able to tell him—the arrogant, gifted doctor; the uxorious husband; the elusive, seductive father; the good grandfather. Music lover, food enthusiast, avid swimmer. He even mentioned my father’s red hair, “that persistent, recessive trait,” with a nod to Jeremy and me, and we exchanged misty, empathetic smiles.

Ev stood next to me and held my elbow, an escort’s courteous gesture, even after I willed him to move his hand to my neck, which ached to be touched. The last thing the rabbi said, before intoning the Hebrew prayer for the dead, was that my father had served the body and that my mother, as a poet, had served the soul, the
That was a little too flowery for me, but I was glad that he’d mentioned her, other than as an appendage of my father’s life. And it made me wonder if my father had ever privately pitted his calling against hers—Science against Art—with his own coming up short. Never, I decided; he was much too complacent for that. Medicine enabled you to live, he would have concluded, poetry only suggested how.

Then one of his former patients, whose years my father had apparently extended, tottered to the edge of the open grave and began to extol him. His voice was too loud at first, and then too soft. We might have all been on a subway platform, trying to listen to an announcement crackling over the PA system. Only a few phrases were clearly discernible—“brilliant surgeon,” “my life,” “eternal gratitude”—before he broke into sobs. Ev took his arm and led him back from the brink. How my father would have loved the tribute and despised the emotional display.

The coffin was lowered into the grave. Careful, careful, I wanted to say, when it pitched a little on the way down, just as my mother would caution the men carrying a new piece of furniture into our house. Someone handed me a child’s red plastic shovel, like the ones I’d had in Chilmark, and I scooped up a little earth with it and threw it onto the coffin before handing the shovel to Ev, who did the same before passing it on to Suzy. And so on down the straggly line of mourners that had begun to form.

If it weren’t for the gravediggers standing by, four burly men leaning on their man-sized shovels, it might have taken days to cover him over. As people approached, one after the other, to perform this symbolic duty, I tried not to think about the times I’d buried my father’s feet in the sand, and how he had always bounded up from that frangible prison and run into the foaming surf. I rubbed the worry stone in my pocket until it grew warm, and then I pressed a sharper pebble under my fingernail, the way I’d once pinched myself to keep from blinking.

At home Esmeralda came to the door wearing a black dress and a sheer white apron I had never seen before. While we were gone, she had let herself into the apartment and arranged an elaborate buffet lunch. Surely I hadn’t ordered this much food when I’d anticipated only a small turnout. Esmeralda hadn’t seen Ev for a long while, but for once she only had eyes for me, the principal mourner, the grand hostess of this funeral feast. When she gripped my hand and said
“Lo lamento mucho,”
I didn’t need a translator.

The children all hovered near me at first, as they used to when they were little and felt shy among strangers. “Go talk to the cousins,” I told Suzy, giving her a little shove in their direction. “Fix a plate for the rabbi,” I instructed Scotty, who was eyeing the food anyway. When I touched Jeremy’s hair, he drifted away, too, toward Celia, who was standing alone on the other side of the room.

They were still living together, in that unknowable way of other couples. Maybe their music bound them, or maybe that was what threatened to pull them apart—what Celia meant when she’d referred to a “power struggle.” In a review of a concert their chamber group gave in Philadelphia that summer, the critic had lauded her technical brilliance and Jeremy’s sensitive interpretation of the music. Did such praise simply indicate their innate harmony, or somehow set them against each other, like shades of Ev and me?

Violet brought me a cup of coffee and said, “So now you’re an orphan.”

“I’m a little old for that, aren’t I?” I said, refusing to acknowledge the wrench I felt.

Then I noticed that Parksie was hanging back like a wallflower at the entrance to the living room, even though she knew several of the people there, and I went to speak to her. We had the usual postmortem conversation, about how lucky we were that the threatened rain had never materialized, and what a surprise it was to see so-and-so again after all these years. Neither of us mentioned my father. Both of us were thinking about him.

She looked considerably older than the last time I’d seen her, only months before, at the nursing home. I noticed a slight, nodding head tremor now, as if she were agreeing with everything I said. And her real eyebrows seemed to have vanished and been replaced by twin arches penciled in by a cartoonist to depict surprise.

I felt a rush of affection and pity, and I said I had a gift for her that I wanted to deliver personally. The idea had just occurred to me, and I chalked it up to sentimental impulse. She invited me to have lunch at her place on Roosevelt Island the following week. “I’d love to,” I said, certain that I’d come up with something of my father’s to bring to her when the time came.

A line had formed at the buffet table, similar to the one at the cemetery. Life goes on, as Marjorie Steinhorn had whispered hotly in my ear earlier, and I was starting to feel hungry, myself. The platter of smoked fish was so artfully arranged, and I could smell something sweet, coffee cake or doughnuts, being heated in the oven. Things had been very different right after my mother died. I’d been such a wellspring of tears then, and nothing had seemed appetizing to me until Ev appeared in the Cedar Rapids Airport with those bagels.

At last everyone was gone, except for Ev and the children, and we all gathered in the living room. Esmeralda had washed the dishes and put them away; there was nothing left to do. I took off my shoes and lay down on one of the sofas. Suzy plopped down next to me and began to massage my feet. “George and I are staying here with you tonight,” she announced.

As soon as she said it, I realized that it was an offer I’d been hoping Ev would make, and I avoided looking at him when I said, “You don’t have to, Suze. I’m really wiped out, and I have a pill to take.”

“Mom,” she said firmly, “our stuff is already in my old room.” She yawned, and that served as a cue for everyone else, except George, to get up and prepare to leave. I urged them to go to the refrigerator first and take some of the leftovers, the same speech I made after almost every family dinner. But I just lay there as I said it, and soon I began yawning, too, and my eyelids fluttered.

When I awoke, I was still on the sofa, with a blanket tucked around me. I felt bewildered for a few moments. The room was dark, but I had no idea of the time, and I had to let the events of the day seep back into my mind.
I thought in chilling wonder. And then I found myself slipping even farther backward, to the phone call from Mrs. Hernandez, telling me that my father had died in his sleep, during an afternoon catnap in his wheelchair.

I’d called Ev right away, and he came from his office to drive me to Riverdale. It was a good, peaceful death, the resident doctor assured us, even though my father had been alone when it happened. We were asked if we wanted to view the body.
What an intimate term for a stranger to use about such a reserved person. And
struck me as odd, too, as if we were being invited to a film or a museum exhibit, where we would be able to keep the critical distance of spectators. “Yes,” I said, daring them to prove it.

My father was still in his room, but they had laid him out on the bed, with the gray cashmere throw pulled up to his chin. The sun hadn’t set yet, and I glanced nervously at the window before I thought: it’s all right to be lying down at this hour, you’re dead. Now the word
didn’t seem quite right, either, although he was tallow-faced and still.
was more like it. Why did the nuances of language matter so much to me, even at a time like this? Was I trying to edit my father’s death? I put my hand on his cold brow. Somehow the title “Daddy” still fit this carapace, if not the middle-aged woman who’d used it. Stop thinking, I commanded myself, but it didn’t work. Old gander, I thought. Cheating bastard.
Herr Doktor.
My love.

We went directly from there to the funeral home, where I chose a coffin—the most grown-up act of my life—and made arrangements for the pickup and delivery of the body. Then Ev drove me back home, with a small carton of my father’s belongings on my lap. “Do you want company for a while?” he asked, when we pulled up to the building.

Language, again. I turned to look at him, but his face was unreadable, aside from the sympathy that had been there all day, and didn’t seem nearly enough at that moment. “No, thanks,” I said. “I’m fine, really.”

“Well, try and get some sleep, Al,” he said. “I’ll call the kids. They can call everybody else.” The motor was still running and the heater was on. He kissed me on the cheek, and then he reached across me to open my door, and his arm grazed my breast and my shoulder. I couldn’t have felt worse if he’d tossed me from the car while it was moving.

Now I threw off the blanket and got up creakily from the sofa to go down the hallway to the bathroom. The apartment was quiet; Suzy’s door was closed. “Is that you, Mom?” she called out drowsily. “Do you need anything?”

“No, dear,” I said. “Shh. Go back to sleep,” something I was certain I’d never do again, myself. After I used the toilet and brushed my teeth, I put on a nightgown and got into bed, leaving the light on. There were a few books on my night table shelf that I’d been meaning to read, and I opened one, and then another, but I couldn’t become engaged. When I closed the last book, I expected to be haunted by images of the funeral, or of the day my father died. Instead, Miss Snow stepped into my head, the way she used to step into my father’s office, tall and blond and elegant, with one manicured hand to the pearls around her neck, and the other holding her steno pad. I realized that I hardly knew anything about her, beyond her appearance and her secretarial service to my father. She was like a movie star who could only be identified by the role she played. It was then that I understood my impulse to visit Parksie.

I got out of bed and went to the closet, where I’d put the carton of my father’s things. There wasn’t much. I’d already given his watch to Jeremy, who’d first learned to tell time with it, and divided various medical awards— the medallions and plaques—among all the children. Some personal items, like his clothing and toiletries and the new hearing aid, I’d left to be distributed to other, indigent inmates of the home. And my mother’s ancient jade plant now stood in fluorescent light on the counter of the nurses’ station of the Alzheimer’s floor.

BOOK: The Doctor's Daughter
12.21Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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