The Empty Chair

A note to my father, who died on Thanksgiving morning, 1999.

Hey Dad,

Thanksgiving is a week away and it will be a different sort this year, but then it has been different, progressively, since you left. It sucked you had to die in a hospital bed after a protracted battle with a ridiculous disease. Ironic, much? That was the last real family Thanksgiving for me, at least until Summer showed up nine years ago, and you had long since left the building by then. We did it for you, mostly. It went really well, considering. Then it just kind of petered out.

Over the past nine years, though, I’ve had plans. I do again this evening, and you’ll be impressed to know I worked a full day shift first.

I remember very well how that last real family Thanksgiving took place.

Remember that day you called me at work? I should have smelled a rat since you sounded like you’d been gargling with razor blades. I said “Jesus, you have one hell of a cold!” and you, Superman, for the first time in memory, agreed. I believe you said “I feel like shit.” I was bowled over. Then you asked if I could come by and make you something for dinner on my way home that evening, said you didn’t have the energy to get up off the sofa. I wasn’t worried then, just slightly flabbergasted. I was happy to do it, though.

A close co-worker friend asked me what was wrong. She was very perceptive, an old soul, I always thought, but in a rather young body. I wonder if you’d have approved; 26 years is a big difference. You wouldn’t have been able to tell, though. Trust me. Really old soul. Wonder whatever became of her. Ah well, it doesn’t matter. Summer found me, the age difference is similar, the old soul thing is a certainty this time, and Summer has given me new life, new perspective, and closed the circle on a very old mystery I’ve owned since I first dreamed of her in 1957, back when I used to sleepwalk a lot. Remember?

I told the co-worker you were sick, no big deal, just kind of surprising because you had actually asked for help. We’d talked about you before (don’t pretend you’re surprised), so she understood. She understood lots of things, which is why I always forgot how young she was, or to even think about ages. Just as with you, who were never an old man, didn’t even sound old as you’d croaked out that request to me over the phone. Just a guy with a horrible cold. In fact you were 84! It looks crazy typed out like that. No one ever thought about it. It was just Frank, just Superman.

You were a rather cryptic, secretive person in all the years I knew you, and you remain something of a cipher to this day, from your disappearance into Florida right after your first marriage was “annulled” (thanks for the information) and right before you’d married Mom. That still comes up from time to time. I have photographs of you down there. Still no one knows, or will say, why you quit your job and went down there, right in the middle of a blooming romance that would last the next 53 years. And what’s with the swabbie gear? You weren’t really ever in the Navy were you? No, I’m pretty sure you weren’t. In fact, don’t even answer that. Thanks.

One or two things I did know about you though, and one in particular used to bother me a lot. It doesn’t anymore, but when I was little (and not so little) you used to bring up death and dying and your indifference to the whole matter. I felt not only did you protest too much, but it made me uncomfortably aware of the random nature of life and death. You made me nervous with that death talk. You know that, right?

I understand it now. I feel different about it now. I understand “Comin’ Through the Rye, “ too, at long last.

One thing you used to tell me was how you’d like to drop dead in your tracks on a busy street corner, briefcase in hand, the penultimate traveling salesman. You realize I have always had a very visual mind. Well I did and I do. I still can’t get that picture out of my mind. Or you’d perhaps die in a plane flying into the side of a mountain while lost in a cloud bank. All those hundreds of thousands of miles flown without a mishap. Hell, even I had a plane lose an engine once!

I would cringe at these fantasies of yours, but now I understand.

One of his your exploits (so far as any of us knows) took you to the Bahamas. You were going to Florida again, for reasons unclear, as usual, and had said you “might” hit the Bahamas during this trip. It was 1957 and none of us had been off the North American continent, though you’d made sure we’d explored the eastern part very thoroughly, having created one more mystery, your obsession with Oak Island in Nova Scotia (I get that now, too, by the way) as well as Florida and the Gulf. But this time there was the prospect of a place slightly more exotic, and I’d hoped you would make it to the Bahamas, come back and tell us all about it.

On your return from Florida you claimed you “didn’t have time” to make it to the islands. It was something of a vicarious letdown, if there is such a thing, but before long something very funny happened. I know you remember this. It is illustrated below for your amusement:

You’d made me join the National Geographic Society when I was ten, so you sealed your own fate regarding the Sea Turtle Incident. The picture was part of an article on the Bahamas, that place you hadn’t had time to visit, even though you’d said you might. I went straight to that article when the NatGeo magazine showed up some months after that trip. I flipped a page or two and saw the picture. I knew who it was right off. Upon reading the caption I realized somehow they had even gotten your name and though it’s too tiny to read it here most likely, it’s there, below the picture. The woman is not identified. Remember what Sharon said? “All I want to know is: Who is that lady?” We’re still waiting on the answer, Dad, you player, you.

And when confronted with this damning evidence, you looked up from your newspaper, glanced at the picture, and said flatly “That’s not me.” God you were such a liar! A domestic crisis was narrowly averted only because Mom was a woman of great grace, poise and patience. I’d have loved to have been a fly on the wall that night.

Over the years I brought out that magazine many times when you were around, and each time you’d just get that big, foolish grin on your face and make some dismissive joke about the picture. It is a family legend now, though one no one quite knows what it means. Do you realize you often remind me of Peter Griffin in retrospect? Oh, never mind. Trust me, it’s creepy sometimes. Especially that goddam laugh. Everyone knows that was your fake laugh. I heard you laugh for real. I know the difference.

You were always something of an enigma, but one who lived every moment dancing around the mouths of volcanoes, not because you were secretly suicidal but because you were, by God, going to live every moment you were given and “never yawn or say a boring thing.” Kerouac reference. I know you know who he was. We had that talk more than once.

For much of your life you attempted to master the principles of Christian Science, another wedge issue which finally went away after a series of confounding medical problems and a very funny auto accident once and for all cured you of your affair with Mary Baker Eddy. (Yes, that accident, near a thing as it was, was very, very funny. With all the blood in your hair and that bandage around your head you looked like Grandpa Simpson. No disrespect intended. It’s just true). Remember how you insisted I take you to breakfast after we finally got you stitched up? You drew some looks at Nick’s diner with that screwy looking hair color and the bandage. Actually I think most of the patrons left.

Still, you maintained one principle which did not require help from a Christian Science practitioner: You would, goddammit, not die in a hospital. In fact my literary hero William S. Burroughs, in “Interzone,” enunciated your philosophy of death and life. I quote it here:

God grant I never die in some fucking hospital! Let me die in some louche bistro, a knife in my liver, my skull split with a beer bottle, a pistol bullet through the spine, my head in spit and blood and beer, or half in the urinal so the last thing I know is the sharp ammonia odor of piss…Or let me die in an Indian hut, on a sandbank, or alone in a furnished room, on the ground someplace or in an alley, on street or subway platform, in a wrecked car or plane, my steaming guts splattered over torn pieces of metal…Anyplace, but not in a hospital, not in bed…

No plane ever careened into a mountain with you in it. You never lost your balance on the lip of a volcano, didn’t drown after having swum too far out into the Indian Ocean, weren’t snapped in two by that giant turtle nor killed by some nameless disease carried by the monkey that bit you on the arm as you leaned against a tree in a Puerto Rican rainforest (“Never, ever tell your mother about that!” Do I ever get to find out why I kept that secret??), didn’t fall down dead on a street corner, were always too big, too fast, too strong to be taken out by some lesser idiot with a knife or broken beer bottle. No, in the end you died in a fucking hospital bed, just like Burroughs. I remember, it was two years earlier and you remarked on what lousy luck it was for him.

In celebrating your choice of life in the shadow of death one might question my own choice of vocation in emergency and critical care nursing. I was only following in your footsteps though, you having served as a civilian corpsman for the Navy during WWII, and there is much to be said for trying to save the organism, to live to fight or trip and fall another day. I know you did not have a death wish. You had a life wish, and simply did not want to waste away in a hospital bed. In emergency medicine we fix most of them, lose a few, but the majority move on and get back to what they were doing, or doing something else. They don’t waste away in the ER or the ambulance, or on the street with EMTs trying to stop the bleeding. One is either in the game or out, and as you told me first, very young, “The bleeding always stops.”

There is much to be said for fixing the body and getting the most out of it, of using it to live life to the fullest. It is only when one becomes trapped in a hospital and knowing one won’t walk out, or worse, not even knowing but simply vegetating, that it becomes a curse. You made it abundantly clear over the years you did not want to be kept alive simply because it was possible. You went in and got that aortic aneurysm repaired. You were treated for the sting of that exotic tropical wasp in Central America, from which you otherwise might have died — saved in a primitive hospital. So long as the body can be salvaged there is living still to be done in that body. I can get behind that program. I want to live a long time, but only because I want to live. I could live with impediments; I just don’t want to waste away or eat up the estate keeping the blood circulating through a dead brain. That is the difference, and now I can understand far better what you meant when you talked wistfully about death by misadventure or inevitability. You were no fool, either, but there were rainforests and volcanos and sea turtles to see, to climb, to wander, to wrestle. You didn’t want to just look at the pictures, and I can’t tell you how much I came to admire that. You wanted to sit in a pub in Ireland arguing existential shit, stand on China’s Great Wall, meet poor people on the street in Calcutta and try to learn enough of the language to discuss why the world thought it was OK for them to be stuck there like that. Your gift for languages still astounds me. Adele got it from you, you know.

So when that bad cold turnd out to be bronchiolitis obliterans organizing pneumonia (BOOP — even a cartoonish acronym) and no one could diagnose it in a timely way (not unusual, since it is not an infectious disease), the organ systems began to fail. One domino would fall and then another, and by the time the doctors knew what it was, too much damage had been done to too many organs. You had reached that downward spiral from which, by then, there was no pulling out. The line of Masonic friends coming to visit almost caused the ICU to be shut down. They didn’t understand how you could have that many “brothers.” That was actually pretty funny.

Mohammad did his best. He really did. But you know that.

The last time I saw you alive you weren’t able to talk because you had been on that fucking respirator for over a week and your vocal chords were swollen. Do you have any idea the trouble I had to cause, the hell I had to raise, to get them to take the tube out? You’re welcome.

When I visited you that night before you left the body behind, you resembled a little boy who had had a very long, busy day. Remember laughing silently at the wisecracks from the kids? I wondered how that felt, laughing being unable to make noise. You did a lot of smiling too, and yeah, the sea turtle did come up that evening. You grinned and of course said nothing. You wouldn’t have anyway. Is that why it was so funny? You finally didn’t have to deny it out loud? Jesus.

Remember what I said to you before I left? When I left I bent down and said softly, “Everything’s under control”? You knew what I meant and smiled at me. It was a passionate, loving smile, difficult to describe. Happy though. Glowing.

That made me cry, but not til I got out to the car and no one was around.

Early the next morning you quietly checked out for good. Thank you for that, for letting me off the hook. I was going to have to decide whether or not to withdraw life support and start the morphine drip, and I knew it was what you wanted, but for Christ’s sake, Dad! You never made things easy. Well, actually you did, you just made them complicated. Except for that one thing.

It was Thanksgiving Day. We all consulted and decided we would still gather at the house for dinner, which had, for many years, been a huge success with you presiding, telling stories and bald-faced lies, arm wrestling Barry (I knew better than to try) and making bets over insane things like who could eat the most habanero peppers. You know you left a twenty laying on the buffet the year before? You know Adele palmed it after you were gone? Yep, that’s my girl. Barry lost the bet anyway, and I’m sure he didn’t have it covered. I still laugh when I think of her picking that up, looking at us, shrugging and putting it in her pocket.

Over the past decade Thanksgiving had become less and less a family affair, kept alive only by Adele and Justin. Even then we would get just get together and go to an Indian restaurant for dinner, none of the usual turkey, a creature not really designed for eating anyway, if I am to be honest, else we’d have it more often than once per year.

Finally, for the first and perhaps only time, I spent Thanksgiving with not only Adele and Justin but also her mother, her mother’s husband (yes, of course she remarried), and the in-laws, at her mother’s house. It was nice, but a little odd. Okay, it was funny, surreal.

This year Adele and Justin will be in England, where they are living now, and Thanksgiving is not celebrated as it is here, for obvious reasons. They will be traveling most likely anyway, freed of the ritual and instead living life. Dan and Kate live too far away, and for various reasons have also let go the ritual gathering and pretending to like turkey. I think they lost interest after you left. Maybe next year, if COVID stays away from our door, we’ll get together with Danny. It’s been too long anyway.

But hey, I have plans anyway! Despite the gradual disappearance of immediate family, I will be quite busy. In that way I will honor your philosophy that one ought to live while alive. Summer and I will celebrate Thanksgiving, and your chair will be vacant as usual, but we will be telling stories about you anyway. I cannot think of a better way to honor life than by living it. No, not that “Live like you’re dying” shit, but what I now understand you to have meant: Live while you’re living.

For the opportunity to do some living, minus the turkey delusion, I am profoundly thankful, and in that living and doing I will express my thanks — for that and for you and for those people in my life who are the closest, blood or not.

It’s going to be fine, Dad. In fact it’ll be great. But you knew that already. I’m finally catching on.

I’d like to see Norman Rockwell paint this one.

I love you, man,

Hoss

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AJ Calhoun

Writer, activist, novelist, sixth generation DC, local historian-storyteller, and 1:1 patient care technician five days a week.