The smell of a lit cigar wafted up the stairs. I followed it down to a grey haze. When I reached the landing, I saw a bright beam shimmering through the cracked-open library door. I swung the door wide. Fumes billowed toward me and I met the full effects of the fog. It felt like I had spent hours in the pool as a child and saw mists and rainbow halos around every light. The cigar smoke wasn't chlorine but it reminded me of my hazy upbringing.
"Oho!" my father said. He sat upright in his chair. "What brings you here?"
He put down his plate. He had been eating plain toast.
"There was an accident on the highway," I replied. I gestured for him to remain seated. He ignored me and made room to rise. "So I turned onto the back roads. I was driving sort of close to here. I thought, why not take Black Rock?"
"Well, that's nice." He finished brushing his pants. He wiped his mouth.
"I can only stay a few minutes."
"Fine. I just woke up, anyway."
One of the luxuries of my father's retired life was that he got to make his own schedule. Now that my mother was gone, he felt no constraints. He slept more or less randomly.
"How have you been?" I asked. It had been a week since I'd called.
"Can't complain." He wobbled to his feet. His right hand shot out and grabbed the back of his chair. "Doesn't matter if I do. No one listens."
"Last time, you said that you fell at the bottom of the stairs." Although I hadn't seen it, the image rose to my mind of him lying on his back on the landing.
"That was weeks ago." He chuckled.
"Well, I was wondering about your feet."
"They feel okay." He shrugged. "Of course, I can't feel them, not really. But I do look at them now and then. They seem fine enough."
He wore special shoes, which were padded sandals with velcro straps. They didn't help much. Maybe they kept his circulation nearly normal, maybe not. None of us in the family knew it, of course, but he was a few months away from another fall. It would be his last.
He would land on his hip and break it.
I would meet my father and brothers that day at the hospital, where we would debate intensely with doctors. One of the surgeons would turn out to be a former student of my father's. That would change the conversation. The hospital would agree to operate. They would let us wait in the hospital, too, for the procedure to finish.
In fact, my father would get through the operation perfectly well. His deterioration came from the opioids they gave him, which slowed his digestion a day later. This was something that had happened to him before. Sepsis had set in, fifteen years earlier, when he had the first occurrence. A surgeon at Shady Grove had removed the section of his intestines that had died. The next day, his vital signs improved and he was ready to walk. At the time, I had thought the intestinal sensitivity was a complication of his diabetes but I was never sure.
After the hip surgery, though, his health plan sent him to rehab. At the rehab center, the staff gave him more opioids. Again, a section of his stomach shut down. And nothing that his family had to say could persuade the medical staff to ease off the morphine. When my father got sepsis, we couldn't persuade the staff to remove the section of intestine. They didn't feel he would survive the surgery. Maybe they were right, too, but not removing the dead section meant they had determined that he would die of the sepsis.
The general staff reaction to his circumstance was to turn up his morphine dosage. They raised his levels of painkillers for two days until he lost consciousness for the final time, still in pain.
So at their ends, both of my parents died due to multiple causes yet the foremost and most literal cause for both of them was painkillers shutting down their bodies. Each time, the hospital staff made the decision. We in the family were not consulted. It's also hard to see how the patients could have been conscious enough for a doctor to talk to them without us.
But in the library, in the November of my visit due to a traffic jam, we were half a year away from all that.
"I usually get up to watch the evening news," he said. He fumbled with the remote control. He was trying to turn down the volume out of politeness. I had been ignoring his show so completely that I didn't notice until he shut it off. "Lately it's been so depressing."
At the time, the new anchors kept showing the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. They also talked about mosquitoes spreading the Zika virus and creeping north. Ryan Lochte had lied about getting mugged at the Olympics and he was still apologizing. Donald Trump had won the election for U.S. President but there was an investigation of the Russian influence in the voting. Police shootings of unarmed citizens were coming out on phone videos. Pokemon Go players kept wandering into traffic and a couple of them got injured trying to catch a Squirtle.
"How can people be so stupid?" he asked.
In the dimness of the basement lights and cigar smoke we talked about the Russia problems. Those, we thought, were the least stupid. I had a computer security perspective. I had seen plenty of Russian cyberattacks. My father had his past NSA experience. He still thought in terms of the Soviet era. That was starting to seem more and more relevant to us both.
"I had a joke book," he said. "Did you take it?"
"No." My head rose as I recalled some of the home-grown Soviet gags. I had read them over and over. He had found a good collection in a Russian specialty shop back in 1972. "You still have it here somewhere."
The Soviet Union started to crack down on drinking while on the job. An official assigned to handle it entered one of the industrial plants where the problem was said to occur. He asked a worker,
"Could you do your job if you drank a cup of vodka?"
"It would be a little difficult, but I suppose I could."
"Could you do your job if you drank two cups of vodka?"
"I probably could, yes."
"Could you do your job if you had three cups of vodka?"
"Well, I'm here, aren't I?"
We wondered where the jokes had gone as we walked around his library. Instead of his Russian books, I kept finding his math, computer, and philosophy texts.
"It's been a long time since you tried to quote Aristotle to me," I observed as I thumbed through the pages of Rhetoric and Poetics.
"Ah, I don't even like him."
"Socrates was better. And Plato, because he wrote about Socrates. But Diogenes was the best," he said. "Looking for an honest man. The older I get, the more I sympathize with that. Virtue is revealed in actions, not in theories. That's what he claimed."
"Didn't he disrupt Plato's lectures?"
"He teased Plato. Mercilessly. And he mocked Alexander the Great. To his face!" His chuckle ended in a sigh. "I couldn't live in a barrel, though."
"Oh, here's Dylan Thomas. 'Rage, rage against the dying of the light.'"
"I don't want to talk about that," he told me.
We walked among the books of the library, tapping our fingers on the titles or pulling them out for a look. We saw Does it Matter? by Alan Watts and The Way of Zen, also by Watts, followed by a stack of Golden Age of Radio magazines. My father still had his copy of The Science of Logic by Hegel. He owned The Republic by Plato. A row of 1950s-era philosophy books rested underneath a shelf of 1970s high school math texts in faded blue and grey.
My father put his hand on a trade paperback of Man and His Symbols by Karl Jung. He pushed aside a stack of TV Guide weeklies to read the full title. On the other side of the room, between cigar boxes, I found the Collected Confucius and a pair of science fiction books that I thought I'd thrown out.
"Oh, Twilight Zone," my father said next as he picked up a videotape. "I forgot where I put these."
"Did you bring them down to watch them?"
He shrugged. "I'm not sure."
He set the tape down on his pile.
"What are we looking for?" he asked.
At the diagonal corner of the room, my father picked up a faded, green-backed Summa Theologica by Thomas Aquinas but he put it back down. On my side, I found a heap of Science News Magazine issues pressed between textbooks. Next, bound in hardback leather, lurked The Critique of Pure Reason by Immanuel Kant. We had never talked much about it. I gather he didn't think much of Kant. Beside it sat The Wisdom of Kierkegaard. After that came a shelf of Gunsmoke tapes in VHS format, still unopened.
"It's a small book with a white cover and blue lettering," I remembered. There had been a matryoshka doll on the cover, I thought, inked in blue and red.
"What is?" My father was holding a box of cassette tapes and reading the label. "Burns and Allen. I forgot about these."
He couldn't forget the comedy routines, so I knew he meant only that he had forgotten to transfer that particular run of tapes onto CDs or re-record them into some other format.
"What did George Burns say near the end?" he wondered to himself. "It was something like, 'I'm very pleased to be here. Let's face it, at my age I'm very pleased to be anywhere.'"
"Hah, Burns and Diogenes."
"That's right. 'I was brought up to respect my elders, so now I don't have to respect anybody.' That's Diogenes."
"That's Burns, isn't it?"
"You know what I mean." He waved the red and silver cardboard box. "What are we looking for?"
I checked the clock next to his chair. We had been browsing through his books for twenty minutes. I hesitated as I recalled how our search had started.
"Sneaky Russians," I said. I was looking at the table next to his chair, where had had his plate with two pieces of toast. Next to it sat his can of diet coke. On the other side of the chair, beyond a stack of magazines, he kept his dark green, glass ashtray. He had set his cigar into it. The ember had died out and turned to ash. "But I should let you get back to your breakfast and news, I guess."
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