Voyage

At 4:30 AM my archenemy reasserts control of first my arch, then the spastic foot, then my sleep. The latter has been dense, action-packed somehow, as though the body knew it was heading for this juncture – the stinging and the jerking and the not sleeping. Still, I hang in there for another 2 1/2 hours, finally getting up to make tea and get on with the helpless day. The latter meaning that I do not have help this particular morning. Jane is working. Menchu is exhausted. And all I have to do is not fall in the bathroom. I don’t. As for getting on my trousers single-handedly, this proves a staggering challenge. Yes, I have put on weight. But no, there are worse complications involving my black blue jeans. Somehow the button-buttonhole interface doesn’t work. The aperture is too tight. Yes, the jeans are too tight also, but we are not going there. Not now. For now we are fighting with buttoning the jeans, cursing existence, denouncing myself, and long day’s journey into…. Chorus.
Yes, this is the appalling Saturday truth. I must get myself properly attired, put on the more difficult pair of shoes for driving. And drive, itself an outrage, to the local veterans hospital for the purpose of singing songs about dashing through the snow in a one horse open sleigh, which is a noble endeavor, but distinctly less so on a day when it is effectively summer. The temperature is in the low 80s Fahrenheit. I give up on the black jeans, begin a struggle with green slacks, and on and on until I am almost, but not quite, dressed. The last insult being my shoelaces, twisty ones designed for the kids who cannot tie their shoes. I do make a nominal effort to twist them into something resembling normalcy, and this is what I’m doing now, desperately trying to yank the right shoe’s laces into something like a pleasing configuration. This is wholly cosmetic, but it wholly obsesses me. I look dorky enough, that is the thought. I just can’t have two little untied corkscrew shoelaces sticking out like pigs’ tails. If I am honest, all this has taken…from bed to completion…three hours.
What slightly alarms me is the way I swoon in the course of maneuvering. Say, leaning over to try to grasp my right shoe lace. Woozy. Exhausted. I’m simply not getting enough sleep. Never mind, for the chorus awaits. I have many things to do this morning, and all must be jettisoned in favor of rolling out to the summerlike garden, tilting my wheelchair into the supine, and having a late morning snooze. Should I be doing this? Is this the wisest course? What happens when I try to sleep tonight? None of this, it develops, matters at all. Somehow I am too anxious, noticing my own short breaths, to do anything but try to calm myself.
And the tomatoes have that effect. I sleep beside them, as though under them, turning occasionally to note that more, perhaps 100, are still ripening. Also that mildew is growing on the leaves. Dewey autumn nights followed by hot days. It is an unnatural season. The last of the tomatoes, that is for sure. The last of me, I am also thinking. For surely this cannot go on, this foot-stinging exhaustion. It is time. I check the latest order of music, attempt to punch holes in a Danish Christmas song and, in the way of these things, can only punch two out of three. In fairness, it must be stated that I do not throw the three-hole punch against a wall. I have neither the strength nor the aim. But this would be a worthy physiotherapy goal, punch hurling. I seriously consider putting the punch on the ground, standing up and stepping on the thing with my foot. A plan that is either extremely practical or too foolish for a balance-compromised woozy cripple to attempt. I am angry enough to smash the thing with my fist, creating a sort of outline of one of the three holes. Close enough. I snap the binder shut and head for the veterans.
The Menlo Park Veterans Administration hospital sprawls across an expanse of what must now be very expensive land. Who knows who these veterans are? Old, most of them, quite a few in wheelchairs, many with those helmets that go with too much falling. They are gathered, one by one, and conducted in walkers and wheelchairs and canes to the so-called recreation room. Many sit impassive. But I know this is a false impression. They are happy to see outsiders, these men and, yes, women. I have a vague sense of how they may feel, having once spent six months in a Los Angeles hospital. One of their number has died recently, a nurse explains to the assembled chorus, and one man wants to sing something. Sure enough, once the chorus is lined up and ready for vocal action, this elderly man launches into a highly discordant rendition of the most grating of national anthems. The Star-Spangled Banner run through Stockhausen. Oh say, can you see?
It is all over soon enough. Near the end, there is a rather alarming outburst from the back row. There have been outbursts throughout the concert, such as the neurological state of much of the audience. Not to worry, for I am not unused to these matters, having done this aforementioned hospital time myself. But what is happening in the last row, throttling imitations of cardiac arrest, does not even slightly faze the staff. If they are not worried, I am not worried. The concert is over. I want out. The place is a maze, and naturally I make a wrong turn. Now I am on C Wing, a sign explains, a wing and a prayer and patients apparently too infirm, or too wise, to head for the recreation room. A nurse asks if I am lost. Hard to say, I tell her. Now, having reached the dead end of one ward, I make it a point to reverse and head back toward the nurses’ station. I get the same question, she gets a variation on the same answer, and all this is highly pleasing. You can take the patient out of the boy or the boy out of the patient…I don’t know. Some long buried memory of dealing with literal minded nurses has come back to me, my response being an effort at confounding passive aggression. She may even be phoning Security as I roll outside into the blazing summer’s autumnal sun.
Earlier, before I swooned my way through the marginal morning, almost canceling my concert appearance, and so on…. I lay in bed trying not to think too much about the stinging, spasming foot, and recalling a dinner with my father at age 25. I was visiting the States, and did so at least once a year while living in London. And on one particular occasion, almost a year after deliberately snubbing him, not even bothering to phone while back in California for a couple of weeks…well, we did in fact have dinner together, and even grew a bit closer. Sitting in a Southern California chain restaurant, he said it had been too long, that he missed me. Which surprised me somehow. But touched me. I can’t recall what I said. It doesn’t matter. He was trying, trying very hard. And so was I.
And now, 40 years later, this early-morning fantasy. An angry one. I am scheduled to have dinner with my father, after not seeing him for a year or so…at what must have been one of the Coco’s restaurant chain…and I imagine myself arriving at his house, he coming outside to greet his fairly recently disabled son, and me refusing a hug, pointedly shaking his hand. Then going inside, sitting on his couch and steering the conversation toward general, objective matters. How was work? Whatever I was doing in Britain. And, throughout dinner and whatever was left of the evening, carrying on in this superficially friendly, distant way. Then announcing my departure for wherever I was staying. Presumably not with him.
It is one of those contrived, bitter, not to mention passive-aggressive, expressions of hurt and anger. And I can actually recall handling him this way at times. Not a recommended technique, of course, but one that must have gotten to him. Which is what I wanted. I was so hurt, so angry about my own childhood codependency with him, the sense of never being heard, and so I was determined to…what? Not hear him as payback? An era of inarticulate pain, my 20s. And why does all this come back to me now? The book. Consider
the book. Which if it only sells 35 copies and is otherwise ignored, still marks a milestone. Something completed. And built of the stuff of my life. As though to say, this does add up to something, my survival, my story. And in ways I cannot quite grasp, this development now turns my attention toward my father.
Paul A. Bendix, M.D. The name on the sign outside his office. His persona. His name, my name, and whatever else we share. Including, people have told me for years, physical gestures. I am his son. And I still feel the hurt of his neglect, self absorption and…the key, perhaps…his disability. He never overcame his. He never found ways to keep moving. He got stuck, and although I have that same potential, mostly my life has not stalled. And if I doubt this fact, I can show skeptics a book. My book. I can even show my father the same book can imagine how he might respond. In the realm of the dead, washed clean of his own pathology, he would enjoy it, I think. He would be proud. I think that too.
‘A Voyage Round My Father,’ that is what John Mortimer named his famous autobiographical play. A gift to the stage and to literature and to Laurence Olivier, who never performed any part better. A reminiscence of a disabled man and the stumbling achievements of his flawed life. A voyage. The title is perhaps most magnificent. And since plays occur in the world of action, and the hidden is manifest, a play about a disabled father, Mortimer’s blind barrister dad, seen through my eyes…those of a disabled son…well, it is all very confusing. The effect being either one of double vision or three dimensions. In any case, when I look at the Mayo Clinic’s online description of narcissistic personality disorder, my voyage round my own father sees him drowning in a sea of shame. I am powerless, and always was, to do anything about it. Although as a child, his afflictions seemed to be my own. Certainly they were my responsibility to heal, save a marriage, save me. It was all very sad and tragic for all concerned. But it was a voyage. And whoever has been lost at sea will never know that I have picked up survivors along the way. Principally me. And call it a ghost ship, if you will. But my father is at last on board.

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