It was late Friday afternoon when I arrived at my grandfather’s house. Some waited by his side, kissing his lifeless hand. Others paced the halls, counting their steps. I, however, found solace in reading some of Sam’s birthday cards that were sheltered by a pair of living and dying orchids. Most of them said the same thing. There was one, however, that I found rather poignant. The image on the cover was of a birthday cake, as many of them are, but this particular birthday cake was rather small in size with hundreds of candles jutting out from it, some even falling off. Upon opening it, it read- So many candles for such a small cake? Happy 93rd Birthday.
I suppose when you reach a certain age it doesn’t really matter how big the birthday cake is or what flavour it is, only that you’re able to fit all the candles on.
Having not eaten much that day I went to the kitchen to see if I could find something to pick on. I found Sam’s birthday cake, well, what was left of it anyway. I think most of the family had gotten to it. That was how it was every year. In all honesty, Sam was never one for cakes unless it was his birthday and that was because every year we would have an image of his favourite movie character printed on it. That particular year it was a chocolate sponge cake with characters ranging from Blondie in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly to James Bond in Casino Royale. In fact, James Bond was the only character left on the cake.
Lizzy, the domestic worker’s voice came calling before I had a chance to even open the fridge. So I grabbed a few crumbs from the cake and made my way down the hallway towards Sam’s bedroom. Passing Frank, with his hand perched on his lower back, I asked him if he was all right. He said that he was fine and would be along in a minute. I would call him a liar if I thought my grandfather cared. He never did like Frank. He always thought he was something of an inchworm. “No imagination,” he would say. I was the last one to enter the bedroom and when I did it was as if gravity had been doubled; the air seemed a little more dense than usual. Even walking through it was a struggle. Looking toward my grandfather I was reminded of a story he had once read to me as a child. I can’t recall the title but it was about a twenty-something-year-old boxer who took to the road to make his fortune. Why this is pertinent is because my grandfather too was a boxer who spoke of the fight and how it was exactly that which kept him breathing. My mother, Norma, and her two sisters stood over him like a superfluity of nuns, their heads bowed in mourning. If it were staged Sam could get up and ask the photographer to see a negative. But it wasn’t. The moment was alive as you and me and it took a long time before anyone did anything else but transfix their gaze upon Sam’s dead body. Of course, there was nothing to do but wait for the Chevra Kadisha.
When they arrived, two elderly men, hunched over and balding, stepped into the bedroom pulling the squeaking stretcher at their heals. A black body bag lay atop the stretcher. It had that newly manufactured plastic smell that forces anything in its wake to catch one’s breath and take another. They pulled the stretcher alongside the bed and unzipped the bag. The men mumbled something to each other and then tried to remove the bedding, which they struggled with. Lizzy went to their aid. She lifted the checkered quilt and then the duvet just as she would have done if she were making the bed. And there he lay, stark naked except for a pair of boxer shorts. Having very poor postures, the men didn’t need to bend much to slide their arms underneath him. On a count of three, the two men tried to lift his body but gravity took hold of the dead weight and pulled the body back down onto the bed, dragging them with it. After some heaving, they were eventually able to lift the body up and place it inside of the bag. The last thing I remember being said before they wheeled him off came from my younger brother, Ryan. He said, “Goodbye old man.”
I stayed behind as everyone left. I looked down at the sweat stained bed and then over to his bedside table where he always kept a glass of water, his reading glasses, and more importantly, his books. There were always at least three books under his lamp but there wasn’t then, only a piece of chocolate wrapping. I found the book on the other side of the bed, slightly hidden by the duvet. I thought it would be a novel by Ernest Hemmingway. But it wasn’t. It was a novel by an author I had not yet heard of, Jack Kerouac. I sat down on the bed and took the novel in my hands. I gazed at its cover for some time before I began to flip through it, searching for my grandfather’s bookmark. There wasn’t one to be found. So I began at the beginning – On the Road by Jack Kerouac.
I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up. I had just gotten over a serious illness that I won’t bother to talk about, except that it had something to do with the miserably weary split-up and my feeling that everything was dead…
I had just walked back into my father’s bedroom carrying an orchid that I had bought from the Flower Emporium when my father put aside his bookmark and opened his book. I asked him if he would like me to put the orchid on his side of the bed or on Sylvia’s. When he had a book in front of him he was like a child in front of the television; you would literally have to pry the book from his hands to get an answer. With no answer, I made my way to my mother’s side of the bed. “No, no,” he said with his mouth full of chocolate, ‘You must put them in my study before Sylvia notices.’
They were my mother’s favourite flower and she always made an effort to decorate the house with them, even in my father’s study. He would try to remove them later on but she would secretly put them back. She had passed away a few months earlier but in Sam’s last few days he spoke of her as if she were in the other room. Sometimes he would ask me to make her a cup of tea or have me take her a book. Other times he would ask what Sylvia thought about the book. I, of course, would have to make something up, “She said it was a lovely book.” It was often the wrong thing. “Lovely?” he would say, “How could it be lovely? You know, Norma, sometimes I wonder.” His famous last words, “Sometimes I wonder.”
I was a little shocked when I opened the door to his study. It was as if an earthquake had hit this room and only this room. There were books at my feet, books on the desk, books hanging from the shelves. I placed the orchid alongside its deathly cousin that still shaded my father’s birthday cards from a few days earlier and called for Lizzy. I asked her if my father had been in the room since the previous day. She said he hadn’t and offered to clean up. I told her it was fine and shut the door behind me.
If there is one thing I regret about that last day it is not spending its entirety with my father. Instead, I spent the rest of the morning packing away each book in its rightful place. There were a few that I recognized from my childhood and flipped through them. So many great lines by so many great authors. And in each of those lines was a little piece of my father. But there was still one that my father had not yet replaced in all the years.
There was this boy in highschool who I really liked. His name was William Fletcher. He was a bit of a nerd but he had a way about him. And he was an avid reader. So I went to my father’s bookcase and randomly took one from his collection. I read it day and night until I felt confident enough that I could speak to William about it. When I did, he told me he hand’t even heard of Kurt Vonnegut. I was so angry that on my way out from school I threw it away. My father never found out who took his copy of Slaughterhouse-Five. And you know what? I don’t think my father minded much either from what he said – So it goes. The irony of it all.
I was just leaving to fetch my youngest son from school when Lizzy called me back into the house. She said Sam had stopped breathing. I rushed to his side pushing the book he was reading to the opposite side of the bed. I remember saying his name over and over again, “Sam! Sam! Sam!” But he didn’t say anything back. I ran around to my mother’s side of the bed and picked up the phone, dialling my sisters. While waiting for them to arrive, I sat on the edge of the bed with Lizzy and cried. We both did. Turning back to look at my father I noticed his bookmark just beneath his hand. It was a picture of my father and mother in their youth. It was taken in the tailor shop where they had first met. She had come in with her father to have his trousers taken in. When telling this story, my father used to say that he dropped whatever it was he was doing and immediately attended to Sylvia even though it was her father who needed assistance. My mother would always slap his arm and say, “No you didn’t!” She used say that Sam was so engrossed in reading some book that her father had to take it away from him just to get his attention. Knowing my father, how could what my mother said be untrue? I kept the bookmark. It had been about twenty-five minutes before my middle sister arrived with her daughter and my youngest son, Ryan. Then came my oldest sister with her Husband, Frank who I didn’t see until after we wheeled my father out of the house. Shortly after, came their two daughters. While we waited for the Chevra Kadisha, I remember sitting by my father with my two sisters standing behind me with their hands over my shoulders. They were my two pillars of strength. Always. Even as children they stood up for me when I was being teased by the neighbourhood girls. I used to sit on this wall in our backyard that looked onto the main street and have tea parties with my imaginary friend, Rosabella. We would watch my sisters scream at those other girls like they were their children. Giggling away, my father would always call me down from the wall and Rosabella. He didn’t like it much that I had an imaginary friend. But years later my mother told me that whenever he came to her about it she would tell him not to be such a hypocrite. He had his imaginary friends in his books and I had mine out in the garden.
After some time I asked Lizzy to go see if my oldest son, Tim, had arrived. I heard her calling for him from just outside of the bedroom. Moments later he appeared in the doorway. I was so relieved that he had arrived. I think it was important for him to be there. He was very close with Sam. Whenever there was a Friday night dinner or Sunday lunch, there they were in the corner discussing some book. It was good for the both of them. Then came the Chevra Kadisha. To be honest, the two men who arrived looked just as frail as my father who had already passed away. I looked up at my middle sister who, I knew, was thinking the exact same thing. She told me not to worry and that everything would be fine. They set up everything alongside Sam’s bed. And as they tried to lift him, they dropped him back down onto the bed. We all gasped but not all of us let it go. Eventually, they were able to get my father onto the stretcher and into one of those black zip lock bags. I followed the stretcher with my two sisters still behind me as they wheeled my father out. Only when they left did it really occur to me that I had been holding my breath the entire time and only then do I remember releasing it. And when I did, I cried and cried and cried.
There is nothing like a single malt whiskey on the rocks after a round on the back nine. I had just sat down in my cracked upholstered lounge chair and turned on the reruns of the 97th U.S. Open when my wife, Sharon, had gotten off the phone and called me to the car. I told her to give me a minute. It was the third round and Tom Lehmen was leading with five under par. Then she told me her father had died. I never liked Sam. He was always too pompous and pretentious for my liking. The only thing he ever liked speaking about was books. Even when I first met him thirty odd years ago, the first thing he asked me was what kind of books I read. With a bunch of flowers dripping dry in my lap, waiting to take his oldest daughter on a date, there I was, dumbfounded. I will never forget that moment because from then on he always treated me as if I were a secondary citizen who worked at a furniture store. All the while, all he knew was that poor old Huckleberry Finn could now return safely to St. Petersburg. Don’t get me wrong, I haven’t bothered with the book. I only know what happens because Sam decided to give us a full academic breakdown one Sunday afternoon. Thank goodness for that single malt.
Sharon was out of the car before I had even parked. I pulled up behind the garage and let myself in. Everyone seemed to be in Sam’s bedroom, probably hovering over him like he was royalty. Not so much now, but then, it really bothered me that no one was there to greet me. Come to think of it, I should have stayed home and finished watching the golf there.
Despite feeling the way I did, I thought it best that I am by my wife’s side. But as I passed Sam’s study something came over me. I suddenly felt taken by a flurry of anger and resentment as I noticed the sweet mahogany desk that bore a pot of withering orchids and dated birthday cards. I had given Sam a similar desk for his sixtieth birthday but he said that it wasn’t practical and would have preferred a book. A book? Prior to that birthday, Sam didn’t even have a chair in his study let alone a desk. All he had was shelves, some empty, some full. But he would sit in there, on the floor, with a lamp by his side, for hours on end, reading his books. He was a ridiculous old man.
Leaving the study, I paced the corridors until my back started to ache. I pulled it a couple of weeks earlier and having a round of golf that morning must have aggravated it. The best relief I found was to rest on a couch. On my way into the lounge, I passed Norma’s son, Tim. I would be lying if I said I didn’t feel some sense of indignation towards him. Sam always favoured him over my children because of the kind of books he read. It was very unfair and I felt frustrated for my children especially when my daughter would come home and tell me that grandpa thought her book was rubbish. I even shared words with Sam about it. And all he had to say back to me was, “Some people have it and some don’t. I don’t have to tell you which category your daughter fits into.” I thought about punching his lights out but I had more common sense than that. I went to the liquor cabinet, poured myself a whiskey (they didn’t have single malt but Jack Daniels did just fine) and turned on the television set. I then eased myself down onto the couch, which Sam had purchased from the furniture store I worked at. He didn’t like that I worked there. He once told me that working in a furniture store is a lazy man’s job, that it requires no discipline or imagination. The truth is, I don’t think he had much room to talk. The only thing I ever saw Sam doing was reading. He might as well have been a librarian, not an English teacher.
I flicked through the channels, searching for the golf. It was still round three. I can’t recall who was playing but they had a very poor tee off and landed behind a stand of trees. I remember it being a very difficult shot. For him to make the green he would have to hook the shot so that the ball could travel around the trees and under the branches. He took a while to hit the goddamn thing. A long story short, he didn’t make it. And that is where I stayed until the Chevra Kadisha had wheeled out Sam’s body.
I had worked for the Brudno’s for almost thirty years before the master’s wife passed away. The doctors said there was a problem with her lungs. She used to cough and sometimes there was blood but still she smoked. When I cleaned up her ashtray it was always full. The master asked her many times to stop but she said she couldn’t. She said the monster was too deep. After she died, the master was very quiet. He locked himself in his study from the morning all the way till the night. Even before I came in the morning to make the bed he was not there. The master liked to read very much. Sometimes when I brought him his breakfast, which was the same for many years; matzo meal eggs, two pieces of brown toast with butter, a grapefruit and freshly squeezed orange juice, he would ask me to sit with him so he could read like he did with the madam. It was very good for me to listen to his stories. Some of them reminded me of the stories I read in the bible but not as good.
Norma arrived just after the master had finished his breakfast and taken his medication. She brought with her the madam’s favourite flowers. It made him very happy to see them in the house. But he didn’t want them anywhere except for his study. Sometimes he asked me to take him to the flowers just so he could smell them. After the master said that Norma must put the flowers in his study, he asked me to bring his chair and a cushion and place it by his bedside. I thought maybe he wanted to read in his chair but he explained that Sylvia was coming to visit him and that she has a sore back so she needs a cushion to lean against. It made me very upset to hear the master talk in this way because I knew he would be disappointed when Sylvia did not come. I hoped that Norma would come and sit there for a while and make him forget but she didn’t. She stayed hidden in the study until I went to call her.
While waiting for Sylvia, Sam read some more. It was a very interesting story. It was about a boy named Sal who enjoyed very much to write and drink the alcohol and listen to the jazz music. But I wasn’t thinking about the story. I was thinking about what was going to happen after the master dies. Where will I live? Where will I work? How will I support my son? These questions scared me. Deep down I hoped that maybe I could work for Norma. That was when I heard her calling for me. I found her in the study where all of the master’s books had fallen off the shelves onto his desk and floor. She asked me if I knew anything about it but I told her I didn’t. The master asked me to lie. The previous night he asked me if I could take him to get a new book from the study. He first smelled the flowers that were dying on his table and said that I mustn’t throw them out until Norma brings the fresh ones. He then went to the bookshelf. But when he couldn’t find what he was looking for he became very angry. He asked if I had changed the order while I was cleaning or if anyone had been in his study. I told him that everyone knows not to touch his books. He searched all the shelves and when he couldn’t find what he was looking for he began to throw the books from the shelf until there were none left. And then he just laughed to himself. I asked him why he was laughing but all he said was ‘so be it,’ and laughed even more. I laughed with him. I didn’t know at what, but it was funny. I sat with the master for the rest of the morning. I saw he was in pain so I gave him more medication but he didn’t want to take it. He was a brave man and wanted to fight it like it was the devil. I asked him why he was fighting so hard, why he couldn’t let go. He said to me exactly like this, “Lizzy, my dear, I am waiting for Rosabella to come fetch me.” I didn’t know who Rosabella was. I thought that maybe it was a character in one of his books. For me that was a very comforting thought and so I prayed to God for Rosabella to come and fetch the master.
Every room was empty but not meaningless. There used to be people that told stories about you. I wonder which came closer to the truth… I suppose a singular memory of books and orchids will have to do.