Read The Bill from My Father Online
Authors: Bernard Cooper,Kyoko Watanabe
His physician, Dr. Graham, considered it a particularly debilitating attack and suggested that, until the pain and inflammation subsided, my father hire a live-in nurse to help around the house. Impressed that I'd arrived at the same diagnosis as his doctor, Dad asked if I could be there to advise him when he “tried the new nurse
on for size,” or what the home-care service more prudently called “the patient/provider intake session.”
The interviewee, a short, sturdy woman with a brassy stack of teased hair, arrived right on time. She wore a pantsuit whose pants were neatly creased, and this, along with a purse slung like a duffel bag over her shoulder, gave her an air of almost military preparedness. Dad and I greeted her at the front door and immediately started talking at the same time, flustered by the fact that this unfamiliar woman wasn't simply here to visit, but possibly to live. When we found the presence of mind to invite her inside, she strode through the foyer in silent white shoes, assessing the house with the keen eyes of a person who'd worked at hundreds of different homes and had learned how to sum up, with a single glance, the lives led inside them.
Once she'd settled into the living room couch, Betty Schaefer fished a notepad from her purse and began asking my father questions about his blood pressure medications and their side effects. She proposed a diet low in animal fat and dairy products, telling us how high levels of uric acid in his bloodstream had caused crystal deposits to form around the joint in his big toe. “Gout used to be called ârich man's disease,'” she explained, “because only people like kings could afford the foods that cause it.” My father smiled.
âgout was now a badge of honor as well as a goddamn anvil. Betty laid out a plan for his convalescence that made a strict regimen of Indomethacin, bland food, bed rest, and diuretics sound as rejuvenating as a tropical cruise. Dad shot me a glance that meant:
As long as there are nurses like her in the world, people walking around in bodies are better off
. And as we both realized but would never admit, having Betty there to offer assistance and enforce the doctor's orders would keep us from becoming more touchy with each other than we already were.
The second my father told her she was hired, Betty dashed out the door and rummaged through the back of a yellow station wagon parked in our driveway. She returned with a pair of aluminum crutches that enabled my father to hobble around the house without
putting pressure on his swollen toe. Even when it came to simple tasks, however, the crutches hindered as much as they helped, making him as awkward as a man with six limbs. It quickly became apparent that the less my father could do on his own, the more stubborn he'd become. Instead of telling one of us he was thirsty, he'd thump through the kitchen on his crutches, teeter at the sink, and draw himself a glass of splattering tap water. If Betty and I made a move to help, he'd shoo us away with such an emphatic wave of his hand, he'd nearly lose his balance. He must have worried, I realize in retrospect, that unless he kept a stranglehold on health, he'd begin a quick, precipitous slide toward a life of dependence. But back then, as I watched him fill a glass to the brim, his forehead bunched in concentration, all I saw was misplaced pride. Why had he hired a nurse, I wondered, if he was so determined to fend for himself?
This question became all the more pressing when I visited him a few days later. Betty had taken a break to watch
This Is Your Day,
a weekly show in which Benny Hinn, a placidly evangelical man in heavy stage makeup, laid hands on a steady stream of sick and injured audience members, each more telegenically abject than the next. One would think that, for a nurse-practitioner such as Betty, the sight of all those eye patches, slings, plaster casts, neck braces, portable oxygen tanks, electric wheelchairs, and rolling IV stands, all those frail people weeping and falling to the ground, would make viewing the show a sort of busman's holiday, and yet she'd surrendered to the salmon-colored couch, setting a box of Kleenex on her lap in case a miracle moved her to tears. When I told her I was going to take my father upstairs for an afternoon nap, she told me to yell down if I needed help. Try as she might to turn her head, she couldn't wrench her eyes from the set, where Hinn was frantically snapping his fingers near the ear of a blinking deaf-mute who may or may not have heard the audience break into applause.
At first my father refused assistance, poking the tip of his crutch at the lowest step as if testing its strength. Then he glanced toward the top of the stairsâKilimanjaro capped in white shagâand handed me the crutches.
With his arm slung over my shoulder and mine around his waist, my father and I made halting progress. He had to pause every few steps and wait for the pain in his foot to pass, sucking air through gritted teeth. This gave him ample opportunity to assess aloud each nuanced throb:
What a doozy. Coulda been worse. Like a toothache in my toe
. Meanwhile, the sound of the TVâthe chords of an electric organ punctuated by yelps of praiseâgrew fainter and more terrestrial the higher we climbed.
No sooner had we entered the bedroom than I noticed that not only was his side of the bed unmade, but also the side that had been my mother's. The bed had been my parents' refuge in sickness and in health, and as far as I was concerned, they hadn't merely slept on, but possessed, their respective sides. They'd purchased the bed, with its high mahogany headboard and king-size mattress, before I was born. This was the bed in which I'd been conceived (to the extent that any parents can conceive of the child they actually end up with). What upset me wasn't the idea of my father sleeping with another womanâit had been a decade since my mother's deathâor the idea of him sleeping with another woman in that particular bed. What upset me was the sight of my mother's side abandoned;the bedspread had been thrown back to reveal a swath of linen as pale as a shroud, the impression of a head indenting the pillow. It was as if my mother's resting place in life had suddenly merged with her resting place in death, and I felt, as strongly as ever, the intractable fact of her absence.
“With all this hopping around,” said my father, winded from the stairs, “my good foot hurts as bad as the bad foot.” I propped the crutches against the wall, and before I could turn around, he'd plummeted into a sitting position atop the bedspread. He paid no attention to the disarray on the other side, perhaps thinking that if he ignored it, I would, too.
I debated whether to say anything. Two years earlier, when I'd told my father that Brian (who he referred to as “your mental-doctor friend”) was more than just my friend, Dad knitted his brows and stared into the distance. With his other sons dead and his
youngest gay, his lineage would end with me, the genealogical roadblock. At least that's what I worried he was thinking, and I scrutinized his face for signs of disappointment. Finally he took a breath and blurted, “Love is no one's business,” which sounded like a depressing generalization without the addition of “but your own,” though I knew what he meant and gave him a hug, hoping my disclosure might help make our future relationship more frank and even-keeled and agreeable.
But now, taken aback by the state of his bed, I found myself unable to offer him the same quick, unstinting acceptance he'd offered me. Surely the people who ran the home-care service would object to these sleeping arrangements. Such intimate proximity might not only jeopardize Betty's job, but compromise the way she cared for my father, in both the medical and personal sense. If the two of them are just going to throw the rules of decorum out the window, I thought unironically, at least they could have waited a decent amount of time. Coincidentally, Brian and I had just talked to a friend whose affair with her boss had come to an unpleasant end, and the three of us agreed that, with its potential entanglements, romance at the workplace was usually a bad idea. Imagine how much more complicated it would be if the workplace was someone's bedroom and the only thing keeping employer from employee was the figurative partition of self-restraint. It's one thing to be bedridden in the presence of a nurse, and it's quite another to be bedridden with her.
“I take it Betty sleeps with you?”
“What do you mean, sleeps?”
me. There's sleeps and then there's
“Okay. She sleeps with me.”
We were like two men racing each other on stationary bicycles.
“You know,” I told him, “I'd never object to your having companionship â¦”
“That's very big of you.”
“â¦ but I wonder if these are the best circumstances.”
“She's not my girlfriend for God's sake!”
“Does she usually share a bed with the people she's taking care of?”
“Where else is she supposed to sleep?” he asked. “On the floor?”
No, Betty shouldn't sleep on the floor,
would have been the same as saying,
Yes, Betty should sleep in your bed
. As often happened when my father and I reached a rhetorical impasse, I began, against my better judgment, to consider things from his point of view: if half a perfectly good mattress is just sitting there empty, why waste the space? The bed is so big he probably can't even see her without putting on his glasses, and how enticing is a blurry nurse? It's as if they're sleeping in twin beds, really, except the beds touch.
“Well?” he asked.
“You should elevate your leg.”
My father lay back and, without protest, allowed me to lift his foot by the heel and set it on a stack of pillows. A long
escaped him like steam. The swollen toe, even covered by a sock, was painful to see.
Betty could have stayed in my old room down the hall, or she could have slept in a foldout bed provided by the home-care service, but by the time these suggestions occurred to me, silence seemed like the best advice. Besides, I had to admit that my father's irrepressible interest in sex was the genetic trait I most hoped to inherit, a legacy I could share with Brian for the rest of our lives, or at least until one of us was no longer ambulatory. Still, the business with the bed worried me. Asking me whether Betty should sleep on the floor wasn't so far-fetched. Someone
once slept on the floor of his bedroom, and that someone, as it happened, was Dad.
In 1983, a sordid story about a divorce proceeding appeared in the pages of the
which by then had featured both
Case of the Baking Newlywed
The Case of the Captive Bride
. Reporters from the paper routinely visited the Los Angeles County Courthouse, where they combed through divorce petitions in search of claims sensational enough to merit a few inches of print. One day a reporter stumbled upon an ideal tale of failed love, of good behavior devolving into bad, the claimant leveling such scandalous accusations at his spouse that matrimony and acrimony were one and the same. The article contained my father's name, but unlike his earlier appearances in print, he was the plaintiff in the case instead of the attorney.
The defendant was his second wife, Anna Hill. Their marriage had lasted four months, during which he disappeared from my life and also, it seemed, from his own. I'd first heard about Anna when he phoned to tell me he'd met a woman in line at the bank who he planned to marry the following week at her Episcopal church. Shock made my congratulations sound a little shrill and helium-filled, and therefore indistinguishable from delight. Don't get me wrong; I was happy for him, but in order to reach that happiness, I had to jump over a few hurdles:
Wife. A week. Episcopal church
“I should warn you,” he said. “Anna's younger than me. You'll agree I'm no spring chicken.”
“If you say so.”
“I'm saying so. But I'm not dead yet, either. I have needs and she meets them. She's a wonderful woman.”
“As long as you love each other.”
“How'd you like to join us for dinner tomorrow night?”
“I'd love to, Dad.”
“Do me a favor, though, and don't call her âMother.' ”
“It never occurred to me to call her âMother.' ”
“Of course it wouldn't have occurred to you; I just now told you about her. The point is, your mother will always be your mother. She was your mother when she was alive and she's still your mother when she's â¦ not alive.”
“Absolutely. One mother.”
“Anna might not be comfortable calling you âSon.' ”
“First of all, I'll be her
son, and besides, what we call each other doesn't matter. The important thing is that you found someone.”
“It does matter,” he said, “and I'm telling you not to.”
“Okay,” I said. “I'll call her âMommy.' ”
My father made a disgruntled puffing: antilaughter. “I don't appreciate your making fun.”
Jokes about marriage usually made my father howl. “Take my wife,” said Henny Youngman on
The Ed Sullivan Show
. “Please.” How often my father repeated that gag, relishing the pause before the punch line. Cuckolds, floozies, louses, shrewsâthese were matrimony's cast of stock characters, and if anyone required proof that this was true, they need only have switched on the television or leafed through the pages of the
. Wherever there were couples there was strife, public or private, mild or grinding. I'm sure my parents took one look at the world in which they lived and consoled themselves with the thought that their marital unhappiness was the symptom of a general condition.