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Handballby Joshua Henkin
It was her father, she told me when she got off the phone. His face had puffed up and turned yellow. It was probably nothing, her mother said, but they were going to the hospital, just in case.
I was living in Ann Arbor at the time and visiting New York, where my parents lived. Beth was a graduate student at Columbia. I was flying back to Michigan the next day, so when I offered to reschedule, I was glad Beth refused: I didn't know when I'd see her again.
But I kept revisiting that phone call during our date. Here we go again, I thought: another girlfriend's father who would die before mine would. The father of one of my exes had been killed in a plane crash. Another had died of a brain aneurism. Still another had barely survived a heart attack. And my father, decades older, was outlasting them all.
He was forty-six when I was born, a senior citizen when I left for college. This is less uncommon now, but at the time, most of my friends' fathers were young enough to be his sons, and he was often confused for my grandfather. "Don't you wish you had a father who could play ball with you?" But I did have a father who could play ball with me. He was a law professor at Columbia, and every weekend we went to the Columbia gym where we played four-wall handball, a modern-day version of the game he'd played on the Lower East Side, where he'd grown up the son of an Orthodox rabbi.
I had a secret. My father was never going to die. It was the very fact that he was older, that people expected him to die, that ensured he never would. And now, sitting across from Beth on our first date, I was including her father among the skeptics. Beth's father didn't know my father. He didn't even know me. But that didn't stop me from believing this.
Ten years later, Beth and I live in Brooklyn with our two small daughters. It's a Sunday, and we're going to Manhattan to visit my parents. Now it's my mother who calls. "Dad doesn't look good," she says. "He's pretty beaten-up."
My father is eighty-nine now. He has neither cancer nor a heart condition nor diabetes; he hasn't suffered a stroke. But his body is failing him, as is his mind. I don't recognize the man he was ten years ago. He has spent his life bending the world to his will, and now the world is bending back. He has fallen several times recently, and the other day he banged up his face; this is what my mother is describing to me.
"Do you think we should cancel?" I ask Beth. It's our daughters I'm concerned about, not the baby, who won't understand, but her older sister, who's three. I don't want her to see her grandfather with a black eye.
We decide to go. We enter my parents' apartment on Riverside Drive, where they've lived for the last forty years. And, sure enough, my father has a black eye, but in focusing on this, it's as if I've forgotten everything else: his declining hearing and eyesight, his unsteady gait, his tendency to repeat things.
"I look like a pugilist," he says, and I think of how we used to shadow box when I was a boy, and of that word, "pugilist," how when I was in high school preparing for the SAT he would come home with a list of words "erstwhile," "phlegmatic," "contumely," "pugilist" how it feels as if all the words I've ever known I know because of him.
I bring Orly, our three-year-old, over to him, but it's not his black eye she notices but how he rises from his chair. "Why can't grandpa stand?"
I tell her she was a late walker herself, that she didn't take her first steps until she was nineteen months old. This makes no sense, I realize, but I understand why I'm saying it: I want to remind her we're part of the same family.
We eat lunch in the dining room. My mother serves salad nicoise, and my father eats voraciously, almost indiscriminately; his manners, once impeccable, have gotten worse. At his request, I drape an apron over him to protect his clothes, but a piece of tuna falls on his shirt collar, and I gently brush it off.
He points to the books on the shelves, the Jewish books, the ones passed down from my grandfather, and asks me to make sure they're taken care of. He means after he dies. As he says this, I remember a repeated conversation from years ago, how my parents had bought cemetery plots and my father wanted to know if he should buy plots for the children too, perhaps also for our future spouses. The problem was we didn't know who those spouses would be, and if we didn't know whom we wanted to live with how could we know with whom we wanted to die? My father carried on this conversation with himself; my brothers and I rarely participated. He'd spent years studying Talmud, so he knew about unanswerable questions. Yet he kept on asking them, my father who believed preparing for something would allow him to avoid it.
Now, with the inevitable approaching, I listen to his instructions about the books. Beth and I put Post-Its on them, marking off some for my brothers and some for me, while my mother does the dishes in the kitchen and the girls play at our feet. We put the books in piles, knowing that the next time we visit we will do this again, that we'll keep on dividing my father's books because it seems we can't stop doing it.
Later, alone with me in the living room, my father says, "Do you know what's the worst part about getting old?"
I let a chronicle of indignities, physical and mental, pass through my mind.
"Not being able to lift my own grandchildren."
So now, when Beth and I go to leave, I place the girls on his lap, and I let go for an instant so they're perched like birds on his legs, before I reach out to take them.
That night, in bed with Beth, I say, "That was a pretty bad bruise, don't you think?"
She nods. "The kids didn't seem to notice."
"No," I say, "but I did." And I realize how we try to protect our children when really we're trying to protect ourselves.
It occurs to me that my daughters will never really know him. Already they don't know him the way I knew him, and I think of my own grandfathers, both of whom died when I was young, and whom in the end I never really knew. I see myself after my father's gone, forcing photos on them, trying to plant memories where they can't grow. "He's dying," I tell Beth.
"You don't know that."
She's right. He could die next month. He could also live several more years. Yet I, who nurtured the fantasy that he was immortal, have started to speak of his death with uncharacteristic bluntness. It takes Beth aback. What she doesn't understand is that I've simply changed strategies. I'm like a fearful flier, who believes his anxiety will keep the plane aloft. Like father, like son, I think. If you prepare for the inevitable it won't occur. I talk about my father's death to prevent it from happening.
"Do you think the kids should go to the funeral?"
"What funeral?" Beth says.
But I can't help myself. "What if it's in a year?" I say. Our older daughter will be four then, our younger daughter two.
I tell Beth now about our first date, her father's health scare, my feeling of Here we go again. I was wrong, it turned out; her father was O.K. He's twenty years younger than mine; it's almost certain he will outlive him. Not that if he doesn't it will make a difference. According to Jewish tradition, Adam, the first man, was supposed to live to a thousand, but he lived only to 930 so that King David could live to seventy. But I'm aware of no such deals nowadays.
"Will you take care of me when I'm old?" I'm thinking of my mother, who now spends much of her time caring for my father. I picture her at twenty-seven telling her parents she was marrying a forty-two-year-old. Did she imagine what it would be like nearly fifty years later, taking care of the man she loves? Can anyone at twenty-seven really imagine seventy-five? I'm past forty now, and I still can't imagine it.
Beth says, "Maybe you'll have to take care of me."
It's possible, I suppose. Though I'm seven years older than Beth, and women live longer than men. "Perhaps you'll put me in a nursing home."
"You never know." And I believe that. I don't think a person ever knows how they'll be until they actually get there.
I go down the hall to check on our daughters. They're asleep on their backs, their chests rising and falling to the thrum of their respiration. When they were infants, I would come in every night before they went to sleep to make sure they were still breathing.
Now, back in bed, I go through the mail, discarding most of it. And there it is, amidst the bills and political leaflets: a handsome color brochure with a New Jersey return address. It looks like an advertisement for a high school reunion, but I realize it's from a funeral home. The cemetery has come calling. Beth and I have made it into their demographic. I drop the brochure onto her lap.
"You want me to read it?"
"We could buy plots," I say.
She shakes her head.
"It's good to take care of things."
She looks up at me, and I sense what she's thinking because I'm thinking it, too. Enough, I tell myself. I can't stop him from dying. Not by planning his funeral. Not even, I realize, by writing these words.
"Dad," I say when I call him the next morning. He's at his office where, guided by an attendant, he still manages to work, and where, because I can't see him, he still sounds for a moment like he did thirty years ago, when, just blocks from where he's sitting now, he outlasted his son in a game of handball.
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