(Originally published in The Paumanok Review)
The Nearness of Heroism, a short story
They tell me he was the first man I ever saw nude; that when I asked him, pointing, in my high, three-year old’s simper, what “that thing” was, he didn’t even flinch. He stood in the big tiled shower stall, holding the door ajar with one hand, toweling himself off with the other.
“I’m a little teapot,” he sang, in his exuberant tenor. “Short and stout. This is my handle, this is my spout.”
They say I stared, and then frowned, running out to demand of my grandmother on the spot — I want to be a little teapot! Show me my spout! Where is it? Where is my spout?
Where, indeed? If only the gulf could have been reduced to those dimensions. Am I wrong to feel we would have been closer, had I been a boy? Would he have loved me more, or less?
I liked to sneak up on him while he used his glove, just out of the shower, a white towel tight around his waist, his hair slicked back, parted precisely. Even from my earliest memories, the old baseball glove was missing one or two fingers, the ball deprived of whole sections of its leather wrapping, worn through to the string-mended core in several spots. Both glove and ball had darkened to the color of cured tobacco, carrying a sheen of sweat-polished grime that lent a gleam akin to the finest shellac. Arms moving, hands a blur, he would move in automatic rhythms of meditation, pounding gloved fist with clenched ball as his lips moved, the words inaudible, his gray eyes focusing up and out at an angle, viewing a corner of patterned plaster, seeing something I wanted to share but couldn’t.
Then he’d notice me. He’d stop in mid-pound, his mouth open for an abrupt chuckle, too embarrassed to be embarrassed. “Hey there, lady,” he’d say, the broad vowels of his Brookline childhood making his words seem exotic.
He kept the glove and ball on the highest shelf of his closet, a level I couldn’t reach, not even with a step-stool.
He was, in fact, the only male presence in my life, even after I started to dwell on the concept of boys, the one I ran to in the early morning — crawling into his bed, burrowing deep under the covers, where he sang the old songs he’d learned from his Irish mother and held me in his arms, my nose burrowing into his soft feather pillow, into his wrinkled cotton pajamas, seeking out his bitter-tea-with-lemon smell, seeking out his body’s distinctive shape and radiating warmth, which possessed a steely eloquence no less comforting than my grandmother’s padded torso. Since he was home with us every day, having retired years before I was born, I didn’t realize he was different from other men, other fathers, who were defined not by their presence but by their absence.
“Oh, you dirty little devil,” he’d sing, “Does your mother know you’re out? With your hands in your pockets and your shirttail out?”
I would hear my grandmother fuming from across the room, not speaking but moving the various brushes and trinkets around on the glass-topped surface of her dresser with snappish clinks and taps. At other times, whenever he knew she disapproved, he’d make disrespectful rubber-faces behind her back until my face couldn’t keep a secret any more, and, looking at me, she’d see some sign of what was going on, then wheel indignantly, catching him in some fish-lipped, pouting impersonation of her, their demeanor so ridiculous, so upside-down, that for a moment it seemed that he was a small boy again, no one’s husband, and she his strict governess, no one’s wife.
He was related to me by marriage, not by blood, something that seemed to bother him a lot more than it bothered me, especially near the end of his life. From the very beginning, I had pledged my allegiance to him, had given him that affirmative declaration of the heart, and for a short time, during childhood, it seemed that he had pledged the bond in return and accepted me as his own. Not even in dreams did I measure him any differently than I measured his wife, my grandmother. As I grew older, however, and he grew more and more frail, the absence of an actual cell between us appeared to chip away at his feelings. “I don’t have any family of my own, you know,” he’d say, gazing at me as if for sympathy, never knowing how caustic the mild-sounding words were to my ears.
“I’m your family, aren’t I?” I asked him, the first time he brought it up, but he shook his head, smiling at me with a thin-lipped yet dreamy smile.
“It’s not the same,” he answered.
On various occasions, as his health became less certain, I promised him one of my eyes, one of my ears, one of my kidneys, half my heart, half my liver, half my stomach: everything and anything he needed to survive, anything he might need to be comfortable, which I swore to give to him when he got “old.”
In my last year of college, I had a boyfriend who got physical with me on several occasions. Nothing serious, no marks: a thump on the head with one knuckle, a scuffle in the yard, pushing matches. One day I reacted badly, bolting my apartment door and calling home. He answered on the first ring, but, having expected my grandmother, I found I couldn’t stop the tears. His voice deepened, becoming rough around the edges as he interrogated me. An old man, on six kinds of heart medication, he swore he’d drive the four hundred miles and teach the boy a lesson.
“No, Grampa,” I said. “It’s all right. I’m breaking up with him. Don’t worry.”
“Call the police if he comes to the door again,” he said. “Have him arrested.”
This reaction, despite his often-repeated joke: “Never hit a woman,” he’d say, shaking his head, staring at my grandmother’s back. “Use an axe.”
His fourth heart attack came only days before my wedding. He managed to walk me down the aisle anyway, spiffy and broad-shouldered in his plain black dinner jacket, a single pink rosebud clipped to his lapel. Since both my parents were dead, he was “giving me away” to my fiancé, a practice I found offensive on feminist grounds, because it seemed to exclude my grandmother from the giving. So we compromised: when asked by the priest, “Who gives this woman?” he was to answer, “Her grandmother and I do.” Except, when the moment came, he said only “I do.” My grandmother, standing in the front row in her baby blue satin lace and picture hat, whacked the prayer rail with her wedding service programme in frustration. The sound echoed off the front wall of the small church and stayed with me for the rest of the day.
Later, at the reception, he was critical of the music we had selected without consulting him: a wandering string quartet. “All your guests are leaving,” he said, after his fourth or fifth glass of champagne took hold. “Why didn’t you have a real band? Some dancing. It’s like a funeral in here.” I trembled all over from the exertion of holding my tongue. Only if I had screamed at him, my face reddening under its halo of white silk flowers, would he have been happy.
I was home for a long-overdue visit when the last battle came. Semi-invalided, by then, Grampa moved only from the bed to his recliner, spending the day reading the paper in a slow, deliberate rustle. The television blared for hours each evening, his expensive hearing aids — the same kind Reagan used, he’d told me — plucked from his canals and discarded, tossed into a dainty porcelain ashtray: hand-painted with a rising, twisting phoenix, it was the only memento he had kept from his service in Germany during the war.
He didn’t like going to bed at night, waiting until two or three in the morning to call for my grandmother to help him to his room. Arising no earlier than noon the next day, he’d swear he hadn’t slept a wink. “He snored like a baby all morning,” my grandmother would whisper.
His appetite was slight too, and then one day, nonexistent. Supper waited out in the dining room: over my grandmother’s objections I took him in a bowl of ice cream. He lay against his pillows while I spooned it into his mouth, noticing how he lipped the spoon as I withdrew it, sucking it like a baby. The bowl finished, he thanked me, his voice hoarse with exhaustion. Turning to leave, I heard him start coughing, a deep cough that seemed to come from his gut, his eyes widening under the thick cataract glasses, his cheeks bulging, seemingly an imitation of his old comic fish-face. For a moment I laughed, thinking it a joke, but he put his hand over his mouth and made as if to hold his lips together with his fingers. He was trying to keep from throwing up all over the bed, I realized, running for a basin, almost too late.
After Gran and I cleaned him up, I felt his forehead. It was hot, dry, but the rest of him was clammy and covered with an oily sweat. As I took his temperature, Gran called the doctor, who told us to get him to the hospital right away. When we told Grampa where we were taking him, he shook his head. “Now what’d you go and do that for?” he said.
He looked so small and frail laying there it was a surprise to find I couldn’t carry him — what remained of him was deceptively heavy, as if his bones were filled with lead. It took both of us to get him out to the car. Each step seemed so difficult, so impossible — by the time he lowered himself clumsily into the front seat, he was glistening with a symmetric pattern of droplets, the sweat beading his skin like opalescent sequins.
At the hospital, an orderly dressed in green surgical scrubs helped Grampa from the car into a wheelchair. The orderly was tall and long-limbed, and moved with an ease, a lean fluidity born of professional indifference. His arms were the color of imported chocolate, warm coppery highlights underlying the pigment. His arms were like a god’s: so full of life and possibilities, I held my breath as he lifted the skeletal, ashen old body of my grandfather out of the car. I couldn’t say what the orderly’s face looked like other than that it was — like the motion of his limbs — devoid of both pity and scorn. His eyes remained downcast, looking only at Grampa in the chair — and I wanted to speak, but nothing came to mind, only regret at not being permitted to be similarly borne away, out of my own uncertainty and into a place defined by someone else’s ministrations.
The young man’s arms, in that moment, seemed to emit forensic signals, speaking without words to a pain I hadn’t realized was there, the arms themselves justifying birth, justifying suffering, justifying death: paying for perfection all over again — skin so smooth it looked hairless, poreless, as if it smelled of allspice and cinnamon and blood and salt. The arms were immaculately sculpted; the bones just long enough, granting a perfect inertia between muscularity and leanness. The miracle of such arms and skin held my attention like a time-release dose of whatever manna makes heaven heaven, and so it was that I found myself spiraling into an upward-rushing eddy of panic when the orderly left, forever, just seconds later, rolling my grandfather to the admitting desk like so much cargo, then vanishing into the angular whiteness and pulsing fluorescence of the hospital corridors.
We left Grampa there, in the midst of a cotillion of duly licensed strangers — what choice did we have, not knowing, not wanting to know, not capable of that knowledge? By not speaking, we maintained a positive attitude. His room seemed comfortable, his nurses kind. His glasses glinted, the reflection obscuring his eyes, as we waved goodbye from the doorway.
By the next morning, he had been moved to the intensive care unit. He was comatose, hooked up to a ventilator, stripped of his pajamas, gleaming plastic tubes invading his throat, his nose, his bladder, his veins — his heart had stopped in the night, from the pneumonia: the doctors speculated he might have had irreversible brain damage before they got it going again.
Machines everywhere, whirring, beeping — my grandmother and I couldn’t even touch him. His chest shook under the ventilator’s control, his whole body quivered. The vent itself hissed, clicking, coaxing his reluctant breath, forcing it when it hesitated. Pushing his lungs in and out without his body’s permission. The respirator had a device to allow him to breathe for himself, if he could, like training wheels on a child’s bicycle, and sometimes he did, but even that primitive desire for oxygen would vanish, and the machine would kick in to bring him the next breath.
We were there when the respiratory people had to change his breathing tube. With the most well-meaning, tender sort of violence, they ministered to the tubes, his whole body curling into a fetal position with the deep, gaglike coughing that resulted. They couldn’t say if he’d ever wake up, or whether he’d come off the ventilator. His arms were twisted, contorted, the hands grasping at nothing with a desperation that made my shoulders quiver in an involuntary spasm of sympathy. I bought him a tiny teddy bear, uncurling his stiff fingers to place the bear against the taut, unyielding palm. His other hand appeared to relax once the toy was in place, but perhaps it was only my imagination.
My grandmother and I, without speaking, understood our own feelings clearly enough. We wanted him gone; this kind of life was too painful to watch. We wanted it to come: but at the same time felt wicked and evil. Who knew what he himself would have wanted? In the end, she signed the thick sheaf of papers authorizing no further “heroic measures.” Each place for her signature was marked with special red removable tabs.
In a sort of minor miracle, in several days he did awake, and they removed the intrusion of the ventilator. He was himself, more or less, and knew who we were, but underlying that surface was a terrible confusion. “How’s Jessie?” he asked me calmly, the name of my great-grandmother, dead long before I was born. His memories suffered no restraint; no contradictions existed in his inner flow of time. “Seeing you’s the best present I could have gotten,” he told us. “I’m going to take us all on a vacation when I get out of here.”
He seemed better than he had in years: I left for home, knowing it wouldn’t last; for the first time not wondering whether he would live or not. Later that day, I called him at the hospital from a thousand miles away and let him speak to my husband and my daughter. Say I love you, I told them. Say I love you, Grampa.
The next day he slipped back into unconsciousness, gently, easily, as a bar of soap floats downward in warm water. Notwithstanding the papers, the hospital wanted to put him back on the ventilator. No, Gran told them, no ventilator. No more.
I asked her what he had looked like, at the end. He lay on his side in the bed, she said, breathing shallowly. He didn’t seem to be in pain. He panted a little, she said, not moving, his face smooth.
I feared perhaps we had decided it the wrong way. Grampa’s doctor, without saying anything, seemed to look at us as if we were bad people, as if we cared more about ourselves than Grampa himself. As if we were selfish.
It wasn’t until a couple months after the funeral I thought to look for his glove and ball. I searched his closet first: most of his clothes and things were already gone, and the closet seemed a different space, altered by no longer containing him. When I couldn’t find them I didn’t panic — I knew Gran had put them away somewhere safe for me.
“Where’s Grampa’s glove and ball?” I asked her, not wanting to reveal how much I wanted to have them, now that he wasn’’t there to keep them away.
“What, those old things?” she asked, incredulous. “You wanted me to save those?”
I gaped at her then. The floor under my feet got soft; my knees turned into grating stone stubs lashed together by rusted wire. She was right, in a way, since at the last the glove hadn’t been a glove, just a thumb, the ball not a ball, either, but a roundish wad of wrapped string, its leather covering gone. That was all he’d had left, all I’d wanted: a piece of him I’d thought I was entitled to.
I would have kept them in a little box and looked at them every now and then, touched them with my finger. Maybe, if I was feeling daring, I would have taken the glove thumb and slipped it on, holding the ball in my hand, sliding the brittle thumb piece back and forth over the grimy string. I would have smelled them: a few tentative whiffs of the powdery leather.
I didn’t yell at her, there was no point. It was over. In spite of my outward act of forgiveness, I couldn’t help thinking that perhaps what Grampa had said all along was true — maybe people did reserve the deepest sort of caring for their own blood, maybe that kind of caring was inseparable from cells, inalienable from life. Gran hadn’t cared as much about his feelings about the glove as she had about mine, for example. Or was it just that she didn’t care as much about the archival, historical things as I did? Whatever the explanation, it was done: she had not even understood enough to realize the issue existed.
“Why didn’t you tell me not to throw them out?” she asked later. “Why didn’t you tell me you wanted them?”
It was simple: I thought she knew. “I just assumed you’d keep them,” I said. “They meant so much to him.”
“They were ratty old things,” she said. “Just pieces, really. They were unrecognizable.”
I told myself that perhaps it was a good thing that the glove thumb and string ball were gone. I’d wanted them for the wrong reasons. I’d wanted something I didn’t deserve. I felt hungry — empty — but without focus, without specific appetite. He — damn him! — was leaving me all over again, and for the third time: the person I’d wanted him to be; the person he’d been; the person I’d wanted him to remain.
I thought of all the other useless things I already had in my personal archives, from my father’s crocheted baby blanket to clothes worn by my mother in college. I thought of letters they’d written to each other before I was born, airmail letters on thin blue tissue, drawn in irregular strokes of faded ink. I thought of brittle brown paperbacks and the curling edges of photographs. We are naked in our mourning, we cannot speak, and we cannot touch.
Grampa was gone; the glove and ball were gone; I was still here. The hell with it — I didn’t want to know, I didn’t want to hear what the dead had to say anymore. Only in dreams would the dead be able to seek me out again.
The dead never say much, anyway, not even in dreams. They look into my eyes, mainly, their own abrim with a solitary sort of gentleness, hoping to inoculate me against what they know is unnecessary sorrow — unnecessary love? — hoping to protect me from whatever it is that only they can see: all the while, nodding their heads in a slow, assured rhythm, a rhythm nearly invisible to the unaided eye.