My father would have preferred to have died a day earlier.
“Dying on April Fools Day,” the man who spent two-thirds of his 91 years as a novelist and playwright would have told me, “is trite or so ironic that it weighs down the story. It’s like having a character die on All Souls Night or Passover.” He would, however, have rather liked the turn of the narrative screw that had his heart give out during a coughing fit fifteen minutes after reaching a room following forty-five hours in the ER of a COVID-ridden hospital on Staten Island, New York. He had been taken there with difficulty breathing, caused by simple pneumonia, I, his only living child, was told numerous times on the phone by harried nursing station staff.
Though irreligious, indeed, militantly atheist, my family fairly collected religious friends, a habit I have continued. He knew that many of the men he respected and loved would have coped with the white terror of the ER – amplified by the dirge around him – by preparing their souls for what they feared or hoped would come. One was Father Brennan, the chaplain in his Korean War-era U.S. Army unit. He and my father were so close that my father used his first name, Pierce, as my late older brother’s middle name. Even when I was an early teen, when we visited Father Brennan in his “difficult” parish in the rundown dockyard area of Brooklyn, I knew that Father Brennan had all but lost his faith. A few years later, we assumed that as he lay dying in a hospital that a lifetime of catechesis drained away whatever solace he might have taken from the good he had done.
Another was Simon Smolensky, who had been brought into the family orbit by my maternal grandparents, years before my parents met at Brooklyn College in 1950. The family friend and doctor became my father’s frequent fishing buddy and my beloved godfather. The heart attack that he knew he would not recover from did not, I was told, dent his good humor. Nor did the Jewish idea of Sheol, the place where the shadowy dead reside, have horrified him. Sy knew he had lived a good life.
What, then, did pass through his mind during those last few dozen hours? I’m sure he wanted to hear my voice calling from Ottawa (on the other side of the closed U.S./Canadian border), a moment of nachas denied him by the disarray of the hospital filled with COVID patients much sicker than he was. He worried about my stroke-weakened 91-year-old mother at the retirement home, though, I’m certain, he was buoyed by the knowledge that Chano, who gives exemplary care, was with my mother 24/7. Unbidden would have come memories of the endless hours he’d spent in hospitals in the late 1950 and early 1960s when one-after-another my mother’s father, his father, my mother’s favorite uncles and his sister sickened, and died — memories that made even going to the medical clinic for routine matters a special kind of torment.
Most men who have passed 60 — I see this in myself — become more wistful. Sometimes for me the thoughts are about Rick, my elder brother, Anita and Irv’s other child: the problem child, dead these last three years. Or about the innumerable Sundays when my father and I spent in the car with blind mother, prowling the streets of Red Hook, Brooklyn after picking her up at what was always called, “the home.” He often asked if I remembered going deep sea fishing off Long Island with him and Sy. To prove I recalled those days that began at 5 a.m., I reminded him we used to stop at the large bakery on Nostrand Avenue where Sy egged me on to order the large jelly donuts.
The sea was ever-present. Once, I must have been 11 or 12, my father stopped me before I left our apartment for school and asked what we were doing in class that day? I answered something about pirates. He looked at me, smiled and then began saying in an unfamiliar voice, “I must go down to the sea again/to the lonely sea and the sky. /And all I ask is a stall ship and/a star to steer her by.” About a year and a half ago, after my wife returned to Ottawa from a week-long cruise on the Queen Mary 2 from New York to Quebec City, I called my parents and told my father that on the morning after leaving New York, the first time I looked out on the endless expanse of grey rolling waves of the North Atlantic, I recalled John Masefield’s words (above). He was silent for a moment and then, his voice filled with the emotion of recalling the months seven decades earlier when he was in the Merchant Marine, he said simply, “Now, you know.”
And what I know is that my father lived for the worlds words created. During those long, lonely hours between when a nurse or doctor checked on him, he would have been elsewhere, cocooned by the very same deafness that made speaking with him in a restaurant a chore for everyone. In later years, the G.I. who had never gotten west of Fort Bliss in Texas regretted not having seen action in Korea; when this came up on a blustery day in Manhattan a few years ago, I told him he sounded like a post-adolescent bemoaning lost macho glory. Yet, I doubt my father reprised Walter Mitty and cast himself in the hero’s role in the theater of his mind. Rather, because of the need for a writer to maintain distance, he more likely saw himself, for example, as one of Falstaff’s friends, close enough to drink with him when he ordered another round of “sack.” And, perhaps because this Shakespearean avatar of my father had feint memories of his creator’s other plays, he might have understood better than did Falstaff himself why, having put his wastrel youth as Prince Hal behind him, the new king, Henry IV, dismisses his boon companion with the words, “I know you not old man.”
However good the care he received in the ER, no one in the family doubted that he hoped to be among those non-COVID patients slated to be moved to the USNS Comfort, the hospital ship moored in the Hudson River, two piers over from where the SS Normandie capsized after a fire in February 1942, a sight he described many times, always in the same reverent tone. Though it shares next to nothing with the Pequod, the whaler Herman Melville’s Ishmael ships out on in Moby Dick, the thought of being on the Comfort would have prompted my father to immerse himself in what he remembered of his favorite novel. Though Melville’s “quarrel with God” interested him, it would not have helped answer the question Melville himself pondered: “Why would a just and merciful God allow such suffering.” Instead my father would have imagined himself hovering close to Ishmael, reveling in his description the sights and sounds of unfurling sails, feeling in his mind the smells of the ship and scents of the sea, joining in the excitement of the hunt for Moby Dick, the harpooning of the great White Whale. Melville’s supreme achievement, he believed and the one he could have experienced a simulacrum of on the Comfort as it rose and fell with the tides, was the evocation of the feel of a ship under sail.
Thinking of the Comfort might be expected to have triggered memories of some of the 250 novels he wrote, especially his Depth Force and Navy series, and historical novels about fledgling American navy during the Revolutionary War. Yet, somehow, I doubt he spent time re-imagining these books. Much more likely is that the thought of them would have set off an inner challenge, to remember the details of a nuclear submarine’s reactor, the g-force of a plane landing on a carrier, the explosive power of the nuclear-tipped torpedoes in the American attack submarine. This might seem just a short step from the sort of mindless patriotic flag waving that more and more dismayed him. It avoids this for two reasons. First, such details are important only insofar as they were one more strand woven into the narrative. Secondly, what interested him about, say, the thickness of the armour or specifications of the big guns power of the battleship USS New Jersey in 1944 or the rigging of the clipper ship Cutty Sark, was the extraordinary technological achievement, the clock work nature of these mechanisms, orders of magnitude greater than the Hamilton Beach watch his father, who worked in the diamond trade, gave him when he was married.
The ordering of human experience in time — dare I say tide— are what he drew from classical literature, the mysteries of Georges Simenon and technology. Even in his weakened physical and emotional state in the hospital, thinking of these, thinking through what they show about sequencing and necessity, would have seemed the antithesis of the chaotic hospital ER in late March 2020.
At times, though, perhaps after eating or being told that I’d called, bucked up a bit, I like to think that my father would have enjoyed doing what he could not help from doing. A few years ago, I read that the landfill used to extend Manhattan Island into the East River was rubble from bombed out London that was used as ballast for the Liberty Ships returning to New York to pick up another vital load of supplies for beleaguered England. What to others would barely rise to the level of a factoid, became for us the germ of an idea of ghost story: no one had realized that in this rubble was a tomb that had been blasted open. For weeks, almost every one of my daily calls were used to build this story: adding, subtracting details and characters involved in the events that baffled the New York Police Department. Our differing sensibilities, he, a novelist and playwright, me, a trained literary critic and history writer, meant that we could never collaborate. But for a few weeks we both had fun and I saw once again his way of constructing a believable narrative. Once the initial “suspension of disbelief” that all literature requires, everything must be a quotidianly logical as getting up to answer the telephone, looking out the window and seeing a car attempt to run down an old man walking with a cane.
This habit of mind often led him to point out someone on the street or, sometimes to my embarrassment, at a diner or restaurant, followed by the spinning out of what he imagined to be this man or woman’s backstory. It led him not to wonder why a man in his retirement home always wore a bow tie but, rather, to decide for himself why this “character” who was forming in his mind wore a bow tie. Some novelists are innately curious about others and inveterate eavesdroppers. I cannot remember a single time my father told me what he had overheard in a restaurant, bar or on a bus. Dozens of times, however, he would remark on a man’s or woman’s voice — and how it fit with the person’s body and demeanor or, if he didn’t think it did, what he could make of that.
Had I been able to visit him while he was in ER and had he been strong enough, it’s pleasant to think that I’d have found him wondering how he would dramatize the world around him. The old game of “What if,” which we played on the long car rides back to Brooklyn from Sag Harbor, near the tip of Long Island or Cape Cod now morphed into wondering about the relationship between the old woman on the other side of the curtain and her son, whom she heard arguing on what he assumed was her cell phone. How did the young South Asian female doctor, for instance, who prescribed his penicillin drip end up in a Staten Island hospital? Perhaps her father had been an immigrant who settled on the island because he could have a larger back yard in which to grow vegetables — and idea that came to him because, after noting his chart, told him that he had to eat the vegetables at lunch and dinner even though they were rather mushy. Did the Hispanic orderly live on Staten Island or did he have to risk travelling from Brooklyn or Queens to get to work? My father knew enough about ERs from my mother’s many visits that he understood what doctors and nurses did, which allowed him to bend them for his purposes, thus, in that chaotic world, the automatic opening of the sterile package containing the IV needle became a moment of curses as the harried nurse accidentally dropped it.
Some years ago, after I mentioned to my father that I’d seen an article that said that the brain survives about five minutes without oxygen, we discussed the horror that Sir Thomas More, the thousands guillotined during the French Revolution and millions more who died at the end of a noose must have experienced in those first few moments when they were still aware and whether they could sense the approach of brain death. We spoke of “An Occurrence at the Owl Creek Bridge,” Ambrose Bierce’s story (1890) in which a Southern terrorist reviews his life and imagines escaping from the Union forces who hanged him from the bridge, only for the reader to discover at the end that these thoughts running through the mind of the man whose neck had been snapped.
My father’s heart stopped at 5:09 p.m. on April 1, 2020, the 21st day of the COVID-19 pandemic; he deserved to experience those moments after the Code Blue was sounded not as white-hot terror but, rather, as a storyline that pleasantly led him into the night.
Nathan M. Greenfield is a Brooklyn-born author who taught English at Algonquin College in Ottawa and has written extensively on U.S. and Canadian history.