G o l d e n W a l t e r
The problem with Golden Walter isn't only that he’s dying, but that he’s dying so close to our father. Why do hospitals do that? Put the yellow dying next to the pale living? Next to Golden Walter our father looks pretty good. His cheeks aren't the least bit yellow, even though I heard the doctor tell the nurse that our father's run-down heart doesn't owe him anything anymore. And our father even tries to console Mrs. Golden Walter, who comes every day and sits silently by her husband's side.
My two brothers and my father's new wife think our father is lucky that his children are at his bedside. They think it's a shame that none of Golden Walter's three grown children could manage to be there. But I disagree. I think Mrs. Golden Walter wants her husband to herself at a time like this. And it's not for selfish reasons either. Her children wouldn't be much use standing around his deathbed anyway.
I think our own mother would do the same thing if she was still married to our father. But she wound up divorced. She said she never saw it coming. That it was like suddenly being unemployed and riding the trains at mid-day with the crazies, the old, and the men reading the racing column. She blames herself for knitting clothes for my Barbie doll instead of making supper. For waking us kids up at midnight for pancake parties and being too tired to iron our father's shirts. My two brothers and my father's new wife blamed her too. But I blamed him. When I was ten I told him he had a black heart.
If there hadn't been a divorce, our mother would come and sit every day at our father's bedside because she is a barnacle and barnacles aren't emotional about the fact that they can hold on to damn near anything, regardless. Anyway, there was a divorce. Our mother wasn't the same after that. She came home from work every night, exhausted, only to get a list of complaints from our grandmother: we kids didn't come home for supper, the washing machine was still leaking and the puppy shit on the couch again. Then our grandmother would turn away so our mother couldn't respond. (Our grandmother was deaf and even though she could read lips sideways even she couldn't read lips with her back to you.) Our mother is a spontaneous person who's hard to be afraid of. Even when she's angry. She grabbed wildly at the clean laundry on the table. She got two socks and stuffed one in each ear so she couldn't hear.
"Now I'm deaf too!" she shouted. We all got her point and laughed so hard my big brother leaned too far back in his chair and broke the kitchen wall and my mother peed on herself. (Later on she told me laughter must be a chemical because the pee that came from laughter smells different.)
Now, my mother says it’s time for me to start to think about forgiveness. Now that my father's back in the hospital. She also says I should try to remember the good things about growing up and all the interesting people I never would have met if she had stayed married to my father. But most of them never stuck around long, and when they were gone our grandmother would nod as if she knew all along, and say how our mother was too smart for them anyway.
Louie is a perfect example. He was from the old neighborhood. He begged our mother to do him "a favor" because it had been so long since his wife died. When he called her he got so worked up at the thought of having sex that he developed a speech impediment: "Eh bedeh bedeh 'sya mudda home?"
There was also Harry, the former lightweight. His nose was flattened on one side of his face, as required. He liked to talk to our mother's parakeet. Pressing his shiny face against the cage he'd say, "Hello boid." Of course the bird didn't give a damn. It sat on its perch and blinked in that annoying way birds do. The way they make you think either they know absolutely nothing or absolutely everything and either way you still can't stand them.
"Talk, boid!" Harry would yell. He just couldn't remember that this wasn't a talking parakeet. We figured he was beginning to accept that fact when he jabbed the bird with a stick and said "Son-of-a-bitch boid, talk!"
We convinced our mother her bird would talk if she would only play with it, so she bought a little bird bathtub, a little swing, a little bell-on-a-string, and a bird food log. That was when the bird decided to call it quits. How it broke down that little wire door we never found out. It was a family mystery.
Our mother gave up on men, and I understood. They just didn't make men of her generation who were sewn straight. But she still visited our father while he was in the hospital. By then Mrs. Golden Walter knew our father's new wife very well. When our mother came to visit, Mrs. Golden Walter was confused but polite. She had never stuck socks in her ears or smelled laughter in her own pee, so it didn't surprise me that she thought our father was a fine gentleman. After all, she must’ve figured he had managed to keep his present wife, his former wife, and all the kids on speaking terms because there we all were by his bedside, and there she was all by herself.
Nobody visits Golden Walter. We disagree about the reasons for this but I know it's because no one wants to leave a dying man and then go home to supper. When our father has visitors we kids move out into the hallways. Except when “The Abysmals” come. Then, I make like a plant and stand in a corner. The Abysmals aren't abysmally cruel or negligent. They're abysmally ignorant, which I've always said is far worse. Now that I am sixteen I know there is plenty of ignorance in this world, but their ignorance was special because I used to think all adults were the same. Now I know better. The first time I realized it I asked my mother and she said, "Well, they never were wrapped too tight." The Abysmals taught me that I could meet Abysmal Ignorance every day of my life, but still couldn't do a thing about it.
Anyway, my mother says to be ignorant is no crime, but to be unforgiving is. And that I must forgive in spite of The Abysmals, and in spite of the divorce that happened while I furnished my Barbie Dream House. My mother points out how my father looks lately: too sick to eat and too tired to speak, his parched mouth closed to the hot hospital air. He tries to grasp my hand, to place it on his forehead.
"Your hands are always so cool," he whispers. Now he wants to speak but since he got the thrush he only whispers. It so happens my hands are cool because of bad circulation. This used to worry him and he dragged me to doctors. Now he is using it for his own good...My own father! And it wasn't even me, but my brothers, he confessed to when he admitted for the first time that the divorce was his fault. He wouldn't admit it to me...because of what I said when I was ten. And now I know what regret feels like. And why my mother used to say regret was the bitter seed in the heart of the fruit. Because if I never said that about his heart being black, my father would have confessed to me and I could have at least practiced my forgiveness. I could have placed that cool hand of mine squarely on his forehead and whispered, "When you get well you can try to make it right."
The problem with Golden Walter now is that he is dead. And I was there. And none of his kids were. And his wife just stood up and pulled that curtain around his yellowness. And I studied my own father for signs of that same color. And I wanted to lay my cool palm on Golden Walter's sticky forehead and give him all the forgiveness of the natural world. And all the forgiveness of his three absent children. And all the forgiveness I'm supposed to find in my own stubborn heart for my own father. Only I haven't exactly found it in there yet and it isn't because I haven't looked. And if it's not here yet I hope to God it gets here. And, I hope to God it's soon.
Copyright 2018 Rachel A Levine