A late afternoon doze in my reclining chair bursts like a bubble at the sound of Tom’s footstep on my plywood wheelchair ramp…a low thump as he quietly makes his way to my front door to hang the day’s mail from a plastic Safeway bag, straighten the doormat and water the zinnias…itself a bubble, this thought, for he is dead. And whether it was actually heard or imagined, this treading, that question slightly disturbs me.
It is the matter of haunting. The dead being where they shouldn’t. Of memories so ingrained and habitual that they keep appearing like the saliva of Pavlov’s dog. Except that the randomness of these ‘memories’ has its own message. That they will come when they want to. Just as life will go when it wants to. And you may witness, but not participate, not interfere. Protests will make you seem foolish, remind you of your weakness. And accompanied or not, you are alone in the presence of the dead.
I missed the transition. At times over the last six months Tom had been talking about The End. It frightens me to get close to such defeat. Even with terminal illness human beings do not completely lose all options, all at once. Utter resignation, simply giving up…I can feel that possibility inside me. It is something to be resisted, and so Tom’s mutterings about decline and fall never got much traction on my side. He remained feisty enough to object when I watered my own garden. I’ll do that, he said.
Tom’s caring for me took on his flavor. In the background, respectful, concerned. He always wanted to know my brother’s whereabouts. I must have given him Richard’s phone number. What did he want with this? He only told me within the last year. He thought I was in peril, Tom did. The way you go about, he said, up one street and down another…into San Francisco and back. He shook his head. Only half in admiration. Errant foolishness, a man in a wheelchair rolling about the land. Carry on this way, Tom seemed to think, and the day will come when your brother gets a phone call with bad news.
In better days, when Tom was still robust, when he was closer to the age I am now, he bounded down his own stairs. Places to go, things to do, that was his air. Retired from the Air Force since the mid-1970s, he had far too little going on. Caring for his mother occupied him during the first years I lived in his apartment. Then she was gone, and something in him went too. He drank too much. Though on the last years he stopped. Completely. In a way, caring for me, the man in the wheelchair, satisfied something in him. Garden watering. Mail collecting. Rubbish overseeing. A landlord’s work is never done. Until he was done, done with life, even done with me.
I grew up mollifying, pacifying and generally pleasing disturbed parents, so I knew how to accommodate Tom. Wherever I traveled, news of the weather satisfied him. A bit of snow in Seattle, heat in Phoenix, and Tom was off. He would be the first to tell me that winds had knocked out some power in the Northwest, the heat soared in Arizona or Europe got flooded. All this seemed to content him somehow. Perhaps to reinforce the sense that he was better off in Menlo Park.
It was hard to say what effect 25 years in the Air Force had on him. Our discussions were generally short, always outside…with me on the way to the rubbish bin, the exercise machines, or coffee at Peet’s. It’s going to get hot, Tom would say, eyeing the sky. Really, I would say, trying to look concerned or at least surprised. Yep, two days, then we’re okay. At this, I would thank Tom profusely…adding a complaint or two of my own, just for authenticity. What have we done to deserve another heat wave? Tom would shake his head bemusedly. And in happier moments he might add, ‘something bad, that’s for sure.’
If I humored Tom on an emotional, interpersonal level, I never did so intellectually. He was always bright, highly alert, aware of much more than he revealed. And the people in my life sensed the same. Tom needed respect, and he got it. Which says much for my own circle of family and friends.
Divorced and badly in need of a temporary domicile, I hobbled up to Tom’s mother’s door one afternoon in 1993. Another landlord, a retired guy named Joe, stood watering his lawn in front of one of a succession of apartment buildings and told me about a possible vacancy down the driveway. And so I crutched my way to an apartment in the back. And the rest, one might say, is history. My own history continuously unfolding.
Soon I needed a wheelchair ramp. Tom hired a carpenter and insisted on paying. More paralysis. A broken hip. He was there for all of it, the sound of his garden hose dragging across my terrace every afternoon. And on the afternoon of Marlou’s funeral, I made it clear one last time that he was more than welcome…almost expected, such was my tone. No, he said that he wanted to remember her on the day she arrived to meet the van bringing her furniture from Sacramento.
By then, Tom was family. Marlou’s parents clad in black sat waiting in a rented car…perhaps my brother was driving them…as I invited him one more time. No. He quietly shook his head. There was something wrong with this picture, my heart was telling me. And yet there was no putting it right, certainly not forcing it right. I had the strong sense of leaving him out of something in which he was naturally included…and I wanted him there. He had known me before Marlou and now he would know me after. And Tom was now the holder, the secret holder, of the continuance of things. Marlou would have wanted him there. I told him that, fearing this might be going a bit too far. No, no. He would stay home.
I can recall a time in my own life, just after my divorce, when I seemed to have lost all friends. Where did they go? Where did I go? In the marriage I had quietly sunk into some old narrative, become trapped within it…and freelancing at home, lost touch. It took a Herculean effort, like winching a wrecked car out of the surf, to start attending a men’s group. The meetings would break up, the guys would discuss going out to get pizza somewhere…and those moments proved particularly excruciating. I did not know anyone, and the risk of approaching one of the strangers in search of casual conversation…well, this stung to the core. How had life brought me here, to a painful adolescence in my mid-40s? Every week, I would set out for the meetings in my already old Chrysler and determine to turn around and head home. Why was I doing this? I knew no one there, this group of men having been around for years and years…. And in the end it was simply showing up, the Woody Allen rule, that got me through it and beyond it…while trailing enough of the experience to have compassion for Tom. Who had gotten trapped in something like the shame and sadness of my own mid-40s.
I am only mildly curious about the details. I know he had been married three times. And a marriage can be quite a catalyst, churning up the most benign field to expose the toxic waste between the furrows. I know it is easy to sink and can take enormous energy to rise. And it must be said that Tom did rise to at least one occasion. Marlou had always suspected that Tom’s regular morning departures were to AA meetings. In one phase, she described his breath as approaching paint thinner. And Matt, friend and neighbor, confirmed this report today. Yes, Tom had told him about his struggles with demon drink and his ultimate victory…only in recent years. Demon life, that was another matter, of course. No matter. At this juncture, I drink to his not drinking.
Time waits for no man. Except perhaps for Tom. Time was standing still in the strangest ways around this apartment. Never mind Silicon Valley’s booms and the way the carports of all the apartments around us were filling with Mercedes and BMWs. Tom retained his 1968 Plymouth Charger, an enormous blue relic, the vast trunk sculpted in a way that suggested that fins were gone but not forgotten. The car required regular upkeep. This consisted of Sunday morning drives up and down the nearest motorway. This event could be predicted like clockwork. The roaring and piston exploding beginning about 7 AM, followed by a wave of air pollution that penetrated the cracks in the old casement windows of my apartment. Gradually, these weekly freeway trips fell away. In their place, Tom simply started the thing up and ran the engine in the carport. Often, this was unfortunately timed with my aerobic exercise on one of the machines. Even when I was inside, the vast petrochemical cloud made its invisible way about my apartment, driving me out to the garden.
Driving Tom back into pleasant memories of car trips to places like Oklahoma, I believe. His birthplace. He loved engines. And now that he is dead an old picture album shows him working on them. Aircraft engines in the 1950s, the first of the jets. There is also a letter of commendation, accompanied by a medal, citing Tom for considerable heroism. He had dragged an Air Force pilot out of a burning plane. This does not surprise me. I doubt that Tom gave it a second thought. I am giving it many thoughts.