My mother used to say that my father dug his grave with his teeth. I think the comment suggests the problem in their relationship that ultimately contributed to his death at age 55 of a heart attack: she nagged him without mercy. I knew her to nag him for farting, for drinking too much water, for not walking enough. “He eats too much air with his food,” she used to say of his flatuence. My father followed Benjarmin Franklin’s advice and farted proudly in his home. I don’t think it contributed to his death, but it indicated a willingness to rebel against her obsessive medicalization of everything.
My mother medicalized everything. When my father stopped at every drinking fountain on hot days, she mocked him for it and suggested that it was a sign of diabetes. She abraded my brother because he had acne and suggested that it was because he didn’t wash his face enough: when a pimple irritated her, she wrestled him to the bed and popped it — supposedly a medical procedure done with a specialized medical spoon. She had me screened for tuberculosis because a Hungarian girl in an upper grade at Holy Rosary School had it. (I never had contact with the girl.) She checked my arms for trackmarks and examined the pupils of my eyes. I was always tired, mostly because I lived in anticipation of what new attack on my person her obssessive compulsive disorder would launch. She took this as a sign of sickness or drug addiction, but not — God help her — of the mental illness that it was.
Her nagging, I think, turned my father off to seeking medical reasons for his pain. He preferred to tough it out, I think, because her hectoring used up the energy he might have used to think about that cookie for himself. So as the pain acid-splashed through his chest and into his shoulders, he kept silent. He didn’t want to hear her go on about his every bite of steak and potatoes, his watching television instead of walking, or the flush of blood into his face. Private physical discomfort attracted him more than her public declamations on the way he treated his body.
I don’t know if my father chose to die or if he simply downplayed the significance of the dizziness, the pain, and the shortness of breath. I do believe that my mother’s nagging did not help because she always linked it to insult and dark foreboding. This is why I do not tell her about my condition. I do not want her talking about my every bite of food, the size of my stomach, my feeling winded at the top of stairs. When she nags me, she invades my head and pillages my tranquility. Even if I do the things I am supposed to do, she never lets up. Finally, there is no talk about life if I do things right.
I have, however, asked Lynn to nag me. But in a different way. Think about the vacation. Think about conquering the Silverado Motorway when you feel better. Think about the long walks you can take in Whiting. Think about the renewed energy you will have. It’s not about the ills that will befall me — I am all too aware of those — but of the good changes that will happen.
These lessons came to me because I watched what my mother did to my father, how she wore him down, how she made him feel powerless. Towards the end of his life, he spent five days of the week in an apartment 150 miles from our home in San Bernardino. I know he hated coming home because during that week he’d have a room of his own. They often fought on the weekends and sometimes he drove back to China Lake on Saturday night. He was thinking about divorce, a stunning step for a Catholic CCD teacher.
I only half blame him.
I remember an incident that happened the summer before he died. The fuel line in the car I was driving had sprung a leak and needed to be fixed. We met at the Volkswagen dealer. He was angry that I “had let this happen”. At the heart of it, I think he saw in me my mother’s panic (they were always complaining that I was like one or the other). So he treated the breakage of the fuel line like he treated reports of high chloresterol — an exagerration. The mechanic immediately confirmed that the line needed to be replaced, vindicating me. We went for a walk. I could feel his rage. It was hotter than the unclouded five o’clock desert sun. He was looking to slap me around and I was doing my best not to give him reason. Just as we left the lot and crossed the sidewalk that surrounded it, he heaved in. The air hissed as he drew it through his teeth. His face turned red and he bent over, pointing his left hand at the sidewalk until the tip of his fingers touched the curb. I asked him if it was all right. He became indignant and I dropped the subject.
What should I have done? When my mother heard the story, she blamed me for not taking him right away to the hospital. She expected this twenty year old boy to coerce a large man to do something he didn’t want. What was I supposed to do? Wrestle him to the ground? Send an ambulance to his apartment? Have him arrested for neglecting his health?
If I had it to do over again, I think I would do this: Simply say “There’s a way to get rid of that pain. Let’s go over to the hospital right now and deal with it. It will take some effort to free yourself, but you will be able to enjoy all kinds of things.
Perhaps if I had done that, he would be around still, contemplating life in his eighty-first year. I know that I don’t want to see the end before I am fifty, that I want to see that eighty first year myself. Lynn helps me by accenting an end to the suffering that I feel and the promise of a richer, freer life afoot in the wilds.