October 22, 2014
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Windows to the past
This Side Up

It’s good of you to come.” The words were said evenly and forcefully, as if he had been expecting me, although my father seemingly hadn’t opened his eyes. He laid ramrod straight, his head raised slightly in the hospital bed with a sheet pulled up to a blue-striped pajama shirt. Out of the shirt pocket poked a neatly folded handkerchief. He always carries a handkerchief.

Marge arranged to bring the bed home when it became increasingly difficult for him to move around. Getting upstairs would be impossible now, but the familiar first floor guest room looks the way it has ever since we moved to the house when I was a teen. Of course, there have been a few changes, including fresh coats of paint over the years and the removal of a bookcase that once filled a wall. In the last month, there’s been the addition of a TV, but the basic setup, a pair of beds separated by a side table, hasn’t changed. I sat on the side of the bed, its cold stainless steel rail pushing into my thighs.

“How are you feeling?”

“A bit wobbly,” he said.

They are the words he uses frequently to describe his condition.

“How about the back?”

He thought for a moment, shifting his weight slightly.

“Not too bad.”

I decided to hold off on a back rub. Rather, I reached for his hand. His grip was strong. For a time, we said nothing.

Kate, one of the caregivers Marge has arranged, offered her input.

“He’s been dozing off and on,” she said, over the drone of the TV weather report and colored bands moving across the country. I got a report on what he had eaten and when he last took his pain pill.

When I arrived, Marge told me he had been obsessed most of the afternoon that he had received credit for something someone else had done.

“He keeps talking about it and wants to make sure it is straightened out,” Marge said.

That’s so like him, I thought.

I imagined he would bring it up, but he didn’t. Nor did he have anything to say about Kate’s report. She left the room and we sat silently, with the weather report as company.

“It started snowing shortly before I reached New Haven,” I told him.

“Slippery?”

“No, but the traffic slowed to 45 and everyone stuck to the middle lane.”

He didn’t say anything.

“I had a book,” I said.

I didn’t wait for the anticipated question.

“It’s on disc and I’ve been listening to it whenever I’m in the car for the last week.”

The book, “The Garden of Beasts,” is nonfiction. It is the story of Nazi Germany, in 1934-38, as told in the diaries, letters and reports of multiple people, but chiefly the American ambassador to Germany and his daughter.

I started recounting some passages and described the fears of the time; the persecution of the Jews and Hitler’s outrage at his mock trail held in New York City. That got extensive coverage in this country but was censored in Germany.

It was a big story. I wondered if he remembered the mock trial. He was 18 at the time and, with his interest in government and international affairs, I’m certain he would have had an opinion. Often, as we have seen his short-term memory slip, he’ll ask the same question two and three times over. Yet his long-term memory can be as clear as if the incident happened yesterday.

“Do you remember it?”

He still held my hand. His eyes were slightly open.

“Weren’t you in Germany?”

“Yes, but that was later.”

Before the war, my father took my grandmother on a tour of Europe. As he tells the story, she protested such extravagance, but he insisted that it was his treat. Once convinced, my grandmother evidently raised the question: What would become of his older brother? What would he do?

My father hadn’t saved the money to bring him and wouldn’t have spent it if he had. Alan went, but it was my grandmother who paid his fare. My father used to say it worked out to be a great arrangement, as he could slip off to visit a marvelous young French woman who went on to become my mother.

I fully expected him to recount that story, but he was thinking about Germany. He talked about the goose-stepping ranks of uniformed men, the feeling of impending war and how the three of them were watched most of their time in Germany. He recalled the fear.

“We were amazed our government wasn’t doing anything to stop it,” he said.

I thought of playing some excerpts from the book but then abandoned the idea. He was tiring of the subject.

I muted the TV. We sat silently. Our visits have been like that; windows into the past and moments to savor the present. I cherish them all.


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