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from Reading My Father

by Robert Gray


Solzhenitsyn & My Dad

Since the early 1970s, I have always had ragged, read-and-reread copies of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Cancer Ward, and The First Circle within reach on my desk, wherever that desk has been.

How does a reader find an author? Why did a young American reader connect so deeply with a Soviet dissident? I was no student of global politics or Soviet history. I was barely a student of Russian literature then.

No, it was personal, as it often is when these connections are made.

I started reading Solzhenitsyn about the same time that my father was dying in his own, low budget version of Cancer Ward. My family had little money. The health insurance from the marble mill where my father had worked for many years was less than comprehensive.

In 1971, a few months before he died, my father was taken to the veterans’ hospital in western Vermont. He could no longer be cared for at home and was placed in a ward with a half-dozen other men in various states of decay.

Memory is a fragile tool at best, but I remember driving my mother again and again to that hospital, a 100-mile round trip. I remember sitting by the hospital bed for hours and trying to find things to say to him, quietly, because there was no privacy. I had never seen my father look so frightened and broken, but none of us spoke in any direct way about his cancer. My mother talked about people in our town, how the garden was going and how it missed his touch; how some of his buddies at work had called to check up on him. I don’t remember those calls. Maybe she made them up.

The garden, on the other hand, was real. My father hadn’t kept a big one for years, but he used to spend a lot of time in the one he had. He hoed and weeded and watered all summer long. The rows of beans and lettuce and tomatoes and cucumbers were straight and well tended, but the harvest never seemed as impressive as the effort. My father lived on potatoes, meat, eggs, and bread. I’m not sure he even liked vegetables. The garden was just another place for him to hide.

At the hospital, I talked to him about baseball, read him highlights from The Sporting News and Sports Illustrated. All three of us tried to shut out the groans and the pathetic cries for help and the coughing and the stench of disinfectant and disease. My father did not introduce us to any of his ward-mates. As shy as he was, it is possible, even probable, that he did not know their names.

My mother and I took turns getting away for a little while during the day. I don’t know how she spent her time, but I often walked across the hospital grounds to a tree at the far end of the expansive lawn, where I'd sit and read.

What did I read?

Cancer Ward, Solzhenitsyn’s harsh, fictionalized account of his battle with the disease in the early 1950s; a battle ultimately won not so much with, but in spite of, Soviet medicine. It was a book with startling echoes of my father’s experience:

He’d fallen ill for the first time the year before last—and bang! It was this. Cancer….for years he had been telling himself it was nothing, not worth a damn. While he could bear it, he put off going to the doctor. But once he had gone, they shoved him around from pillar to post until they sent him to a cancer clinic…he believed what he wanted to believe: that he didn’t have cancer, that he’d be all right in the end.

Although I’d previously read Solzhenitsyn’s The First Circle and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, I hadn’t run out and bought a copy of Cancer Ward during the long stretch my father spent convalescing (dying) at home. It wasn’t until he went to the veterans’ hospital that I decided to pick it up one day, though I also bought a small leather cover with the bookshop’s logo to mask the title, so my parents wouldn’t see what I had. They’d never paid attention to my reading habits before, but this was no time to take chances.

I sat under a shade tree on an emerald lawn that seemed more appropriate for croquet than croaking. I read Solzhenitsyn’s description of a crowded, disgusting ward in a Soviet hospital. It was frightening in a terrible, immediate, and utterly personal way, like reading the libretto for a particularly ghastly opera, then going back inside the theater to see a live version in all its vile theatricality, the veterans’ ward a stage filled with tragic baritones in pajamas, wrenched from whatever their various ordinary lives had been, now playing these sorrowful and ghastly third acts.

It would have reduced the sternest audience to tears.

Sometimes, after a day’s confrontation with the nonfiction of my father’s illness—which was still fiction in his own eyes—my mother and I stopped for a bite to eat at a roadside burger stand about halfway along on our trip home. We sat at a whitewashed picnic table near the gravel parking lot and choked down greasy food without tasting it. We barely spoke, worn out from trying to patch up my father’s punctured spirit. The place was usually very crowded at that hour with local families and tourists—loud voices and too much laughter, too much life.

We made that daily pilgrimage for two or three weeks, until neither of us could bear to look at him any longer in that deadly place. My mother insisted he be moved back to the local hospital and given a semiprivate room, whatever the cost. We had no money, so what difference did extra expense make? There was no managed care in those days. You just managed.

Semiprivate.

My father was a child of severe privation. He was a private man. He lived in his own private world. He was a private during the war. Cancer destroyed his private parts. Almost a joke, that one, though a very private joke at best, or at worst. And nobody would get it, or want it, or want to get it. The cancer or the joke.

This is one way I have read the world.

 

Funeral Readings

My mother woke me early on a hot, dark July morning.

“Your father died an hour ago,” she said gently, sitting on the edge of my bed, her hand squeezing my arm. “The hospital called me.”

I had read somewhere that people never died at home anymore; death was sanitized, disposable, new and improved for a clean, modern world. No matter what anyone said, including the hospital where his emaciated body finally gave out, my father died at home. Maybe his last few weeks were spent on an antiseptic hospital bed, surrounded by gentle, efficient strangers, but for more than two years before that my family had watched him waste away in the small bedroom on the first floor of our house, just off the living room where we gathered most nights to watch television.

Suspending disbelief.

For the rest of my life, the cloying pine scent of air fresheners and cleaning products will always make me gag. Our house was fumigated constantly to mask my father’s decay.

~

When I was an altar boy, I often had to serve funerals. I preferred weddings because people were in a better mood so the tips were higher. But I did what I was told to do. I did my duty.

Sitting in class, seventh grade, I would watch Sister Mary Magdelene scrawl numbers fiercely across the blackboard, chalk dust drizzling on her flapping black sleeve. I glanced at the clock, counted the minutes until it was time to raise my hand, silently ask to be excused. Sister nodded solemnly and I slipped out of the room.

Like a ghost.

Like the Holy Spirit.

~

In a small town, there were no strangers. I always knew who was in the casket and who used to be inside the body but had slipped out.

I concentrated on my responsibilities.

Incense.

Holy water.

Incantations.

I tried like hell not to notice certain things:

The sad, sad faces.

The sound of crying, echoing against stone walls, vaulted ceiling, stained glass.

The smell of incense, ashes to ashes.

Sometimes my classmates were out there, sometimes even my mother. Afterward she always said, a little sadly, that I had done a good job. I think she was proud of me.

My father never went to church. He was a used-to-be Protestant. For a while, I worried about his soul because of something I had learned from my Baltimore Catechism No.2:

“All are obliged to belong to the Catholic Church in order to be saved.”

My mother said that God probably made allowances for people who led good lives but didn’t know any better.

I found some solace in another answer on the same page: “Persons who are not members of the Catholic Church can be saved if, through no fault of their own, they do not know that the Catholic Church is the true church, but they love God and try to do His will, for in this way they are connected with the church by desire.”

She told me I shouldn’t always look on the dark side of things. She said I was too young to worry so much.

~

At my father’s wake, I felt like I shook hands with everybody I had ever known. My mother was well thought of and people turned up for her sake. Fewer of them really knew my father, who didn’t have many friends. Some of the guys from work showed up, looking embarrassed and out of place. His family was there, looking the same.

Later, I slipped out to the funeral home’s porch. People stopped by to chat, saying, “I’m so sorry” and “He was a good man” and “At least his suffering is over” and “If there’s anything we can do.” When they walked away from me, they said, “Supposed to be even hotter tomorrow” and “Goddamn Red Sox.”

The funeral was a simple affair. I don’t know if my father died with any sins, mortal or otherwise, staining his soul. I suspected even then that it didn’t matter. He would be as shy and uncomfortable in the next life as he was in this one. Heaven or Hell, he wouldn’t take up much space.

Reading Baseball

My father was a good baseball player—first baseman, batted right, threw left. I was his mirror image—second baseman, batted left, threw right.

Although a veteran of the Battle of the Bulge, his war story was about being the only private chosen to play for an army team. A lifelong Red Sox fan, he had five sons, all of whom spent uncountable hours playing ball as kids and any one of whom could have played for the Sox (uh-huh). I can even trace my conception to Fenway Park, given that I was born nine months after my parents’ honeymoon in Boston in the summer of 1949.

The Sox were playing the Detroit Tigers.

Whenever my father coached, watched, or listened to a game, he kept score. The Red Sox program for one of the 1949 honeymoon games contains a scorecard filled with the inning-by-inning hieroglyphs of my father’s scorekeeping system.

Looking at it now is like seeing a photograph I’ve just removed from developing chemicals. He’s there, the man who taught me the game.

It’s been a long, long time since I kept a scorebook, but it’s a language I still remember and understand. I might need a refresher course to keep score myself, but translating the language on these pages is still easier for me than trying to read French would be now, decades after my final high school class.

On his honeymoon scorecard, my father diligently recorded every at-bat with a soft-lead pencil. I recognize most of the abbreviations: K for a strikeout, BB for a walk, CS for caught stealing, DP for double play, E for error, HR for home run, SAC for sacrifice. Then there are my father’s inventions: MJ for misjudging a fly ball, SP for Southpaw.

Former New York Yankees player and broadcaster Phil Rizzuto invented one of my favorite scoring abbreviations: WW for “wasn’t watching.”

The grid on the scorecard page features a central image, a mandala, a diamond within a box, representing the four sacred points—a “sign of the cross” for a lifelong atheist—of his holy pilgrimage: home plate, first, second, and third base.

My father meditated on this symbol for a lifetime. I think it gave him more inner peace than the religion he steadfastly ignored.

By deciphering the notations he made for this particular game in 1949, I can follow the action batter by batter, note where stellar plays were made in the field, and trace the game’s emotional peaks and valleys as if I were hearing a symphony while reading a score.

That magical diamond grid on a scorecard represents a world that isn’t the least bit imaginary. The events portrayed there are, or were, real. My father, dead now for more than 35 years, could (and I can) recreate them with shamanistic fervor by reading these curious heiroglyphs and suddenly hearing the crack of a bat, the shouts of the crowd, the infield chatter, the announcer’s call of a sharp single to left field or a home run, the diving catches, the runners sliding into second base just ahead of the tag, trying to stretch a single into a double. In a cloud of dust . . . to dust.

 

Robert Gray is a publishing industry consultant, a bookseller, and a columnist for Shelf Awareness. His written work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Tin House, Publishers Weekly, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, The Dos Passos Review, and Cimarron Review. He earned an MFA in Writing & Literature from Bennington College in 2003 and is currently working on a book about reading and readers from a bookseller's perspective. (10/2006)


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