Frances Badalamenti | Longreads | April 2017 | 19 minutes (4,741 words)
Late on a Tuesday afternoon in January, while I was at my therapist’s home office in Portland dissecting and disseminating a recent holiday visit with family, my elderly father was sitting in his Lazy Boy in New Jersey watching television, his brain slowly bleeding into his skull. I was anxious, unsettled. We were expecting a snowstorm and I now had to make the trek across the Willamette River from the Southwest Hills and back to my Northeast enclave. Right before I left my house, I had received an urgent phone call from my older brother: our father had taken a spill earlier in the day.
“I just spoke to Dad and he said that he fell today,” my brother told me. “He’s upset with himself and doesn’t sound right.”
“What do you mean he doesn’t sound right?’ I asked.
“He said he hit his fed, not his head,” my brother said. “And he hurt his hand,” he said.
A hot wave of energy ripped through the core of my body. The same sensation like when you almost get into a car accident. My father was in his mid-eighties, but had only recently begun showing signs of frailty.
“Have you spoken with Lee and John yet?” I asked my brother.
“Not yet. I’ll call them right now.”
My three older siblings all live within driving distance of our extended family back in Jersey.
“Listen, I have an appointment for the next few hours, but I’ll check in after,” I said. We hung up. But then I phoned him right back. “Someone needs to go over there and check on him right away!” I yelled. “And why the fuck is he not at the hospital?”
“I have no idea, Frances,” my brother said. “I’ll get on it right now.”
“And what the hell does Barbara think?” I asked.
“She thinks he’s fine,” my brother said. “Dad said she iced his wrist and gave him soup.”
My brother and I did not trust our stepmother to take proper care of our father. They had not been on the best of terms during the past few months. They hardly spoke to one another. And if there was a transaction, it was most likely her yelling at him about leaving something out of place in the house, and then him firing back. I had to go to my therapy appointment. There was so much on my mind, mostly around my recent visit to Jersey. I hadn’t been this concerned about the state of my family since our mother underwent cancer treatment almost ten years ago. Now it was our father; he was having a hard time of life.
There was already a benign layer of snow carpeting the ground when the session ended and my therapist, a sturdy woman in her fifties who I have been seeing for over two-and-a-half years–and whom I would describe as tough and unconventional and kind (a Mack truck filled with marshmallows)–walked me out her back door. She lives and works out of a cozy Keebler Elf-type bungalow in a hilly, leafy Portland enclave. “It’s so pretty,” I said looking up at the dark sky, letting the thick wet flakes fall onto my face. I could tell she was concerned about me. Of course I’d shared with her that my father had fallen earlier in the day, and she knew he was having a difficult time in his marriage.
“You okay driving in this?” she asked.
“Yeah, sure,” I said. “I’ll just take it slow.”
She knew I did not feel safe, that I was scared not only about driving through a snowstorm, but that I was worried about my dad. And she was right. I wanted to be alone, with nobody there to witness the distress.
When I got into the car, I found a thirty-something deep text message conversation between my siblings. Ambulances, hospitals, MRI’s, confused speech, unrecognized faces. It felt as if my whole body had been wired with electrodes.
“Sorry, I’ll be home in about an hour,” I wrote back. “It’s snowing hard here.” Then I found my way out of the now hardly recognizable neighborhood, then crawled through the white-out storm in the relative safety bubble of my Subaru wagon.
* * *
My father had been waiting near a sidewalk in downtown Paterson, New Jersey, a bustling urban metropolis that lies a mere twenty miles west of Manhattan and ten miles from his home. His musician buddy Sal, also a trumpet player, who was driving him home, went to go get his car, so my father my father didn’t have to make the block-long trek to the car park. They had just wrapped a jam session at “the union hall” as my father referred to the place he went four days a week from morning until afternoon ever since he retired from the graphic arts industry in the late nineties. As The American Federation of Musicians Local 248 mission statement states, “….we are here to serve, represent, and fight for the rights of all our musicians.”
My father had begun carrying a cane at all times. He shuffled along and braced handrails. He had a hard time on his feet and it frustrated him to be dependent. I had learned about these frailties for the first time last spring when he and I went alone to see Born to Be Blue, an art house film about the once drug addled and movie star handsome trumpet player Chet Baker. I was out visiting alone from Oregon. We hadn’t done anything alone in years, maybe since I was a kid and he would take me into the city for red sauce pasta. “Drop me off in front,” my father said as we approached the theater. I didn’t ask him why. After we bought our tickets, he said, “You’ll need to help me to my seat.” So I silently led my father by his elbow through the darkened theatre.
And as I sat there watching the film, I felt a strange contentment I had never felt before. Being alone with my father. Being able to support him, literally. He was never able to truly support me because my stepmother always got in the way, and he always let her get in the way.
The next day, I called my father from the city to tell him I couldn’t stop thinking about the movie. “Me too,” he said in a melancholy tone. I knew that for both of us, the film represented choices made in life. Chet Baker lived hard. He was a junkie. He got his teeth knocked out by hoodlums and was unable to play the trumpet for many years. He spent time in prison for drug charges. He had a difficult childhood and these crazy ass relationships. But he was this beautiful man and this brilliant musician.
It was the existential struggle that sank deep into both of our hearts, truly resonated. That moment on the phone was the closest that I have ever felt to my father. So many questions and uncertainties were answered and so much was silently forgiven.
When Sal pulled up at the curb in front of the union hall, my father was on the ground. Sal helped my father to his feet and installed him into the car. He asked my father if he wanted to go to the hospital. “No, no, no, I’m fine. Let’s go eat,” my father said. They had plans to meet some other musicians at a nearby diner. My father had just fallen to the ground, had sustained a major blow to the head, had broken a wrist, and yet he was requesting watery diner coffee and a grilled cheese. Sal drove my father right home.
And then my stepmother took over his care for the rest of the day and into the evening hours. “She says I’m fine,” my father told my brother. “She gave me tortilla soup and ice cream. And she iced my wrist,” he said.
* * *
In the six months leading up to his accident, my father had been in the throes of some serious shit with his wife Barbara, an emotionally unstable, highly anxious and sometimes volatile woman who had been his spouse for over thirty years. He’d made a legitimate attempt to leave her in 2001, but subsequently failed. When he served her divorce papers, she begged him to stay. Things would get better, she promised.
And things did get a little better but only for a little while. They bickered incessantly. And my father’s two-martini-plus happy hour ritual exacerbated their arguments, churned up the deep-seated bitterness and resentment. “I never loved her,” my father told me over this past Christmas. “But I danced with her at weddings.,” he said. They kept separate bedrooms, and they led separate lives, to a certain extent. But when I would visit Jersey, I could see that there was this indescribable contentment between the two of them, most especially when they would sit in their recliner chairs in front of the television. They talked about their dog and about the news. As much as she could be prickly and he could be nasty, they weren’t alone in life.
During the last month of his life, my father talked about leaving her again. “But what am I supposed to do with all the stuff in this house?” My father asked me one afternoon.
“Don’t worry, Dad. You won’t have to worry about anything. I’ll come out and help you,” I told him.
“Yeah but I can’t just leave her here alone,” he said.
“Yes, you can. You just don’t want to,” I said.
* * *
I hadn’t driven through a proper snowstorm in over a decade. There was a time, those many years ago,when I would skip work midweek to go snowboarding alone on Mount Hood. This was before I had a child. When my parents were both alive. When life did not feel so burdensome, so serious. When I didn’t live with the constant fear of loss.
I inched my way home, the snow a shield protecting me from what was not yet known. My body shook gently the whole way. And then I thought about my dad. About how I didn’t really know him. About how he didn’t really know me. When I was growing up, he worked many long hours in the graphic arts industry and then gigged on weekends as a jazz trumpet player. And when I was about 10 and my parents divorced, I was shuttled off to stay with him on the weekends. But by that point, he was married to my stepmother and more focused on nursing her anxieties than on raising a child.
When I think back to those displaced weekends of my youth and young adulthood, I don’t have any real memories. There are no scenes to write. There is no narrative to construct. But then I recall this golden nugget of time when my parents were just separated–when my father would take me into Manhattan; when we would ride the New Jersey Transit train into Penn Station and dine at candlelit midtown Italian restaurants. I always ordered ravioli and ginger ale. My father always drank martinis and slurped up big bowls of red sauce pasta, wiping the remains of the sauce with spongy bread. Always rattling off broken Italian to the waiters. When I was in college nearby, I would drive to his house in the middle of the afternoon. This was when my father worked the night shift, and so my stepmother would be at work and he would take a full meal before he left the house for his job. He would prepare a simple meal of what he called Italian peasant food. Pasta, beans, a leafy green vegetable, maybe a small piece of meat. Glasses of soda water with ice. We would eat together quietly, progressive talk radio blaring from the clock radio that sat above the refrigerator.
I think about how my father and I never talked about anything personal, nothing too serious. I knew certain things about my father. That he was the eldest of four. That he grew up during the great depression in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. That he started playing the trumpet when he was fourteen and never put it down. That he had four children with my mother. That he was broken-hearted when she left him. That he quickly got re-married to his second wife. But my father never shared much with me, never told me how he felt about things, only facts, minor details. So I was forced to pick up clues over the years.
In his beautiful memoir, The Invention of Solitude, Paul Auster writes about coming to truly know his father after he had died and being forced to root through his personal things in his oversized, dusty house, picking up little clues as he went. Auster says, “There is nothing more terrible, I learned, than having to face the objects of a dead man.”
* * *
When I made it home after over an hour on the snowy roads, my husband and nine-year old son were at the kitchen table working on some Charlie Hebdo style cartoon drawings of Donald Trump, dirty dinner dishes and crusty pots littering the counters.
“Guys, Pop Pop fell today,” I told them as I began removing my jacket and hat. “He’s in the hospital back in Jersey.” They both looked at me with wide frightened eyes.
“What do you mean?” my husband asked.
“I don’t know a lot yet,” I told them. We had seen my father less than two weeks ago. My son had so recently played my father’s trumpet for the first time, his little cheeks exploding with air, his tiny fingers nested on the circular valves.
When I was a child, I wasn’t permitted to touch my father’s trumpets. It was as if he didn’t want me to get too close to him. From an early age, I was taught that trumpets were special, sensitive instruments. They are not toys, my father would tell me. If I had a desire to touch them, as any kid would, my father had to be there to supervise. I remember the smell of the grease that he would put on the valves, the feeling of the soft velvet that lined the insides of his cases, and more than anything — the familiar comfort of hearing him practice behind a closed door. Again, I feel like Auster picking up clues. “These tiniest of images: incorrigible, lodged in the mud of memory, neither buried nor wholly retrievable,” he writes.
“He might have musical talent,” my father had said about my son. “And he’s smart. A good musician has to be an intelligent person, so they can master their instrument.”
“The kid doesn’t know me,” my father had said many times over the past year. “Make sure to tell him about me.”.
“He knows you, Dad,” I would say.
“But you live so far away,” he’d tell me. “It makes me sick!”
I knew that his guilt was rogue shit leftover from when I was a kid, when I would come to his house on weekends and was swept aside in order to leave room for my stepmother’s tantrums. And it was because it was so hard for my family and me to visit him at his home. Because my stepmother had such a hard time when people were in her domain, it was just so tense. Forced to give up control, she would inevitably crack.
This past winter I told my father that I had rented an apartment in Hoboken for the holidays. “You’re just not brave enough,” he said to me. I could sense he didn’t truly understand, maybe didn’t want to understand, why we couldn’t stay with him. So I framed it as seeming unfair for my stepmother to have to get herself so anxious over having guests. I told him I had made the extra effort to be on the Jersey side of the Hudson, to be closer to him, instead of Brooklyn or the city.
“But Hoboken? That’s too far!” he told me.
“No it’s not,” I said. “It’s twenty minutes away. And I am brave,” I added. In the past, I would lie and say we needed to be in the city for my husband’s work, when the truth was that I desperately needed the cushion of a large river dividing me from my childhood traumas.
All that night and into the next day, a rogue winter storm dumped the most snow Portland had seen in over thirty years. It shut down schools for an entire week. People finally got to put their Volvo Cross Countrys to use. And for days, Patagonia-clad Portlanders whirred around city parks on cross country skis and clomped to Whole Foods on snowshoes–this Elliot Smith mood-infused rainy city suddenly transformed into a snowy alpine village.
While our son ran off to frolic in the ankle deep snow, I sat down at the kitchen table and shared with my husband the few facts I knew.
“But he was fine when we saw him a few weeks ago,” he said.
“Well he’s not fine anymore!” I snapped. Then I choked down some salmon and brown rice and nestled under a pile of blankets in my bed he rest of the evening, into the early morning. My brother Stephen had made it to the hospital and was feeding details about our father to the three remaining siblings .
At one point in the middle of the night, my brother spoke to a doctor. “I saw an image of Dad’s brain,” he texted. “It’s bleeding. And his left wrist is definitely broken.”
Falling in and out of a light sleep, every buzz of the phone would send a rush of adrenaline through my body. But then I would look out of the French doors in my bedroom and I would feel calm. My backyard had turned into a dense white forest. Snow is one of my favorite things about this short life. When I was a kid, it represented hours of running feral with friends through my boring ass town, sweaty under layers of cheap acrylic eighties outerwear, hungry and thirsty to the bone.
As nighttime turned into icy blue early morning, fully awake and on high alert, my three siblings and I began cobbling together the narrative of our father’s accident. But by this point he had already powered off, had slowly drifted from quite confused to only slightly coherent, and then he drifted into a nonverbal, sleeplike state.
“He’s like a Zen monk,” I told a friend the following day. “It’s been so hard for him lately.
And I can really feel his peace.”
* * *
My father had always been a man of slight to medium build who moderated his weight and remained in relatively good health. For as long as I can remember, he had a regimen of morning walks and at least a full hour of blowing his trumpet. He also had two-maybe-more vodka martinis a day and had survived a bout of prostate cancer, in addition to a lifetime of degenerative eye disease that left him nearly blind in one eye.
When I think about why my dad fell, I can’t help but think about the effects of stress on the body. For the first time since my mother left him in the early eighties, my father had been having a really hard time. An otherwise happy-go-lucky finger-snapping jazz cat, during the last months of his life, he had become rather despondent, distracted and depressed.
His marriage had reached the crux of its three-decade long relational disequilibrium. My father was incapable of remedying the situation.
“Dad, do you want me to find you someone to talk to?: I would ask him.
“What, you mean counseling? Nah, that doesn’t do anything,” he would tell me. And yet he would call me almost every day to tell me how shitty things were at the house. “All that woman does is scream!” he would say. “I try to be kind, but she doesn’t want anything to do with me.” You don’t need a trained counselor to know that stress can shut a person down.
Like a cell phone. Like a snowstorm. Like a brain.
As I wandered around my house, now protected by a giant igloo of snow and ice, as my father lay unconscious in ICU, we learned that he had suffered a severe traumatic brain injury (TBI) to the left temporal lobe. Three days after his fall, while we still didn’t know the final prognosis, when we were still hopeful that our father could possibly recover, if even partially––I called on my friend Judy, whose husband is a retired neurologist.
When I walked into Judy’s sprawling colonial home across from Portland’s most beautiful city park, I fell into her arms and broke into tears. I had been trapped inside my house for three days, doing what I could to keep my kid busy while responding to text messages and phone calls about the my father’s fragile state. In the past twenty-four hours, he had actually opened his eyes and begun moving his limbs. It was as if he was coming to life again.
Looking out over the snow-covered park, I sat at Bob and Judy’s well-worn farmhouse table as Bob walked me through the basics of traumatic brain injury. I took careful notes. I relayed back to Bob that my father had, in fact, began making sounds, that he had been blurting out names of people in the room, that he was moving limbs. He was even able to hum a few tunes when my siblings belted out the shmaltzy song that he performed for many years, Louie Armstrong’s What a Wonderful World!
“It’s better than I thought,” Bob said. “The brain might be recovering slightly. But get me the MRIs and all the physicians’ notes and I’ll have to look.”
I left their house feeling tremendous relief, not necessarily because there may have been a chance of recovery–I didn’t want to be too hopeful–but because I had support, and I had information.
Being three thousand miles away from my family during this crisis had been wearing me down. I thought of flying out but knew intuitively that it would have been too hard on my father, me being the youngest. There were already my siblings and their kids and his wife and her kids plus extended family. My father never liked chaos and I didn’t want to add another layer. But I had so many questions. And any information relayed back to me was often third-hand, nurse or doctor to my brother and then back to me. I started making calls to request my dad’s records.
“I’m sorry but you have to be on the call list,” the nurse on duty said.
“How can I get on the list?” I asked.
“Your father’s wife needs to add you,” she told me. I was crestfallen. I didn’t want to speak to my stepmother.
At the hospital, Barbara was cold, stoic and uncaring. I was not surprised. You never knew what version of her you would get on any given day. She was telling everyone that our father would never get any better, that she refused to care for him if he actually survived, that he would go to the nursing home in town.
“That place has two stars out of five and over five hundred beds!” I screamed to my brother. “He’s not going there!” I demanded. But we all knew that our stepmother was our father’s healthcare surrogate. I felt powerless. And so I kept myself occupied by researching brain injuries.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website, traumatic brain injury is “…a silent epidemic and within this silent epidemic is a silent population: older adults with TBI.” “He falls and he’s done for,” I had told my siblings repeatedly over the past few months. I knew that it was common for elderly adults to fall. That recovery was difficult. I had envisioned my father falling down the stairs in his split-level home. But a fall and a strike to the head had never crossed my mind. “In persons 65 and older, TBI is responsible for more than 80,000 emergency room visits each year.”
My father was a Brooklyn-born-and-raised liberal. The idea of Donald Trump as president made no sense to him. “It makes me sick to my goddam stomach!” he told me. “Some of the guys at the union hall voted for that imbecile. And these are jazz musicians!” This exacerbated his stress. So I admit that there is true solace in the fact that my father did not have to live to see our country and our psyches further unravel.
He passed away three days before inauguration. As the sun was just rising on the West Coast. Portland had since turned into a glistening sheet of ice. The roads were treacherous and schools remained shut. I got a call from my sister in the middle of the night that our father had become agitated and was not able to breathe on his own anymore. All the hope that we had for a recovery was gone in an instant. My brother Stephen raced over to be at his bedside, held his hand and told him we all loved him.
I sat in my front window and took a long deep breath. I felt my father drift away from his body. And then my brother called to say that he was gone.
The strange convergence of losing my father and feeling as if we are losing our country was a lot to take. And I know how hard it’s going to be to move forward from here.
* * *
Towards the last months of his life, my stepmother had stopped speaking to my father. She only yelled at him for domestic wrongdoings. To avoid confrontation, my father procured himself a cast iron skillet so he could cook meals on the outdoor grill. It was winter, and bitter cold out. He began cooking full meals in his backyard like some kind of suburban Jersey pioneer.
Where I was dumbfounded, my father was proud of himself that he’d found a solution. It was such a metaphor for their marriage, my father being relegated to the outdoors in his own house like a bad dog.
“Your father is selfish,” my stepmother told me the day after my father died. I pictured her sitting at the round dark wooden kitchen table of my youth, the mustard yellow phone cord stretching from the laundry room. I had her thin lips pursed, her pale face scrunched up into a wrinkly ball. That is, until I realized that the house had been renovated over a decade ago and that my father was not upstairs in his study practicing scales on the trumpet.
It had finally hit me that my father could no longer shield me from this woman. He could no longer say, “She doesn’t mean anything by what she says.” He couldn’t tell me, “Don’t pay attention to her.” I was in my own kitchen in Portland, my heart pounding in my chest as she spoke. My father was dead and she was still using present tense, still berating him, still saying “He is selfish.” I sat quietly and let her rant. I knew that this would be one of the last times we would ever speak to each other.
And then she began weeping. She was saying she was having a flower arrangement made up into a musical note for my father’s funeral. “He loved flowers,” she said. He did? I was dumbfounded. “You didn’t know that?” she asked.
“No, I really had no idea,” I told her.
“He brought flowers home all the time.”
And now I keep coming back to the memory of my father kissing me twice on the cheek. It was the last time that I saw him. It was a few days after Christmas. A beautiful and unexpected light snow fell that evening. We had just finished a big family dinner at a restaurant and my husband, son and I were parked in my father’s driveway. There was a thin sheet of ice on the ground. “Holy shit! You don’t want to fall! Dad,” I’d said. And so I held onto my father’s elbow and I carefully guided him into the house.
* * *
Frances Badalamenti was born in Queens, New York, raised there and suburban New Jersey, and now lives and writes in Portland, Ore. She is currently working on a book.
Editor: Sari Botton