he parents of my friends are dying. Cancer, Parkinson’s, bad hearts, the sheet music of scrawled farewells. To recession news my friends add surreal newsreels of their parents’ symptoms. My parents died when I was young and youngish, my father at 19, my mother at 35. Decades later the sound bites return in hiccups.
My father, tidy as ever, gave fair warning. Cancer’s early appetite was a kidney. I was in my early teens. As he recovered from surgery, I distracted myself by collecting sports pages (he loathed sports) and perusing Prufrock: “I grow old … I grow old …”
Eliot wrote his trouser poem at 29 and I supposed that being in possession of a dying father made me something of a prodigy. My peers scanned me for adult wisdom: I was death door’s miniature herald.
I once interrupted a fight between my best friend and his girlfriend with the line, “How can you argue about your future when I just got back from seeing my father in the hospital, dying!” I starched my adolescence with self-righteous authority.
The death itself was more plebian. My father turned into a pained and shrinking mummy, a bedridden satchel of curved archeology. I warned my friends not to visit. The sight terrified them.
“You know,” he whispered at me one day, “I’m not afraid of death but I hate dying.” He put this objection to rest by dying soon after.
“Fuck,” said his doctor in a hospital hallway. “Fuck, fuck, fuck … I should have caught that earlier.” The doctor’s wife had died of a rare and incurable kidney disorder. They’d been friends, the doctor, a lung specialist, and my father, a writer. Both were passionate men. Nurses then gave me a top hat and valise, what he’d checked in with, which I signed for. I burned him (his request) and signed for the bag. My signature was much desired.
From that time I most remember the doctor and the word “fuck,” said aloud and in public. In those days transgression impressed more than death.
My mother’s turn can by way of insinuation. She hadn’t seen a doctor for years. One day she was too weak to get up. The feeling persisted. Her friends checked her into a Rome clinic. I flew to Italy and brought her back.
More ambitious than her dead husband, she’d managed to host and nurture two fatal diseases. She parked herself in the house where I lived, staked out a room, refused chemotherapy and waited to die. “My little life,” she called her existence, which consisted of sitting on a porch and walking slowly up and down a flight of stairs.
Gradually, the setbacks sent her into intensive care, where she rued the absence of Miss Clairol “flaxen blonde” hair color. The Miss had been her two-decade companion. “Comb my hair, please,” she demanded. Her heart was failing and the doctor was hurrying in. She died a few hours later, her hair combed.
This doctor was an unemotional oncologist. “I am sorry for your loss,” is what he said, a line so clinically devoid of empathy it flirts with irony. I missed the mountain-howl “fuck” of my father’s doctor, his rage after the light’s dying.
No birth date on the tomb, my mother insisted, and vanity prevailed. Bewildered chiselers complied. She took her age at death to her tomb, a literally prized possession.
A few years later it was my aging aunt’s turn. She lived in Brooklyn. I last saw her alive in a dilapidated hospital full of the ailing parents of moaning migrants attended to mostly by Haitians who hummed through the worst of it.
“I’m all mixed up in my head,” said my aunt.
“Make the pain go away,” she said.
“This fucking life is no good,” she said.
This last announcement — out of character and upbringing — made me smile. I patted her awkwardly on the forehead. And then she died.