As Robert Barsanti cleaned out his hospice-bound father’s junk-ridden apartment, he gave this final toast to the old man.
In my father’s refrigerator, I found these things: a box of Hot Pockets; a box of shrimp (“please keep frozen”); lentil soup (made by his girlfriend and dated); year-old orange juice; fresh asparagus; dried mushrooms; four jars of sun-dried tomatoes; three jars of artichoke hearts (one opened and furry); and three take-out containers from the 99 Restaurant, each containing half a handful of French fries amid bites of cheeseburger. The pièce de résistance emerged from the vegetable crisper: one package of salmon, 24 months after its expiration date, and open.
My father loves the pleasures of the table. He loves them so much that his apartment is one big movable snack. On his desk, I found a jar of nonpareils that had dried and molded into milky whiteness. In a drawer, I found an opened box of Needhams, and on his dresser was an unopened bag of Goldfish. He had left them all for me.
Two hours before I began evicting the rubbish, I had taken my father from his apartment for the last time. In the previous three months, my father has been slowly losing his Legos. A few slipped away, sending a few names and places skittering onto the rug. The important stuff remained in one large Italian castle. He knew how he wanted his veal done in his favorite restaurant. He could tell the stories of traveling through Europe in his father’s Cadillac convertible. He could hold forth on matters legal and culinary for hours at a time. And then, then, then, the pneumonia came and the medicines got mixed up and it could have been morning, he wasn’t sure, his girlfriend called crying and I was driving him to the emergency room.
Before I piled him into the car, I let him sleep. I piled up his clothes, vacuumed his floor, and got rid of the flotsam and jetsam of an unclicked mind.
Five years ago, my father sold the family house, moved onto the ninth floor of a Soviet apartment block, and arranged the furniture exactly as it had been in the house for 40 years. The sofa went under the hideous gold mirror, the buffet lay beneath the windows, the TV sat at the end of the room. His life was simply condensed moved 90 feet higher. In the quiet of the afternoon, sitting in the only comfortable chair in the room, I could have been inhabiting any afternoon in my past. While he snored, I could have been 12. I could have been 22.
But I wasn’t. I was 45 years old, he was 82. And it was time.
At that point, he still held on to most of the Lego pieces. They were piled up in his pocket and waited to be reassembled. He know who he was, what he was doing, and where he was going. He gave me instructions for his bills and his clothing. He apologized for being such an asshole.
I walked him through the perfunctory and permanent formalities of the hospital visit. When I left to move the car, they had placed him on a gurney and had replaced his clothes with a johnny. By the time I returned from talking to a doctor, the IV was in and he was sleeping. I waited for an hour for him to wake up. He asked me to kiss him goodbye and I did.
But I did not return to my bed, my classroom, and my own children. Instead, I drove back to his apartment and kept on cleaning. My father has never been a neat man. A debris field of crumbs grew under his seats, toothpaste painted the sinks, and paper clutter drifted on the flat surfaces. I started in the refrigerator and removed the rotting and the dead. Then I moved to the kitchen table. The Wakefield Sons of Italy Newsletter went, along with the WGBH solicitation, the cruise-ship-vacation offers, and the final notifications from the Central Awards Distribution, Office of the Director. The dollar-store skeletons and expired Santas joined the junk mail and the rotting fruit.
Old birthday cards, receipts, stale spaghetti, wrappers, used Kleenex, boxes, bags, broken glasses, exploded fruit cups. It was a merry festival of trash. I cut through the clutter like a cleaning Achilles.
I stopped at the wine. Fifteen bottles of Italian Chianti were lined up in the cabinets and stacked in the wine racks. He had long been a habitual red-wine drinker, but he only became an aficionado after my mother’s death. When I was younger, the two of them would pour wine from the big Ernst and Julia Gallo five-gallon jug that sat next to the marble cutting board to the left of the stove. Sometimes, on hot Saturday afternoons, my father would cool down his glass of red wine with a few ice cubes.
After my mother’s death, my father got back in touch with his white-leather Italian side. He took several trips to Italy to see his sister, to go on long tours through Lombardy and Sicily, and to buy wine. So now, in his apartment, I found these bottles of Chianti with various Italian labels.
And they were going with me. In addition to having Sinatra wine-cellar dreams, my father has had epilepsy for 60 years. He had had one famous Grand Mal seizure in a court room in his youth, which became the hook that he hung his failures on. Since that time, he had taken enough Dilantin to stupefy a wolverine. His one trigger was, of course, alcohol. Just a month previous, I had sat with a doctor as we looked at an Alpine EEG, massed with epileptic peaks. “No more wine,” she said. “Not a little. None.” And here it all was.
I could have thrown them all out. I could have left them just where they were. I could have donated them to the Sons of Italy Wakefield Chapter. I didn’t.
Like my father, the biblical Noah also liked his red wine. Long after the seas had receded and his ark had rotted, the first sea captain grew a vineyard. One afternoon, his son Ham found him passed out in his tent. Always the hooligan, Ham made fun of the old man to his brothers. The brothers cudgeled the boy, then, with eyes averted, covered up their father’s nakedness.
Were my father to wake up, he would rise to anger at the things I have thrown out, at the surrender of his car keys, the theft of his wine. But, unlike Noah, he is unlikely to wake up or to return. I am safe from his wrath, and he is safe from mine. His body remains in Room 316. He has a foley catheter in, heart monitors stuck to his chest, and that IV hooked into his hand. The Legos have fallen from his pocket and hidden themselves in the shag rug.
He won’t miss his wine bottles. Nor will he miss his Award Number Identification Letter, the Cuisinart, or the salmon he always meant to have for lunch. His bus has arrived and it’s not coming back.
All of the arguments have ended. All of the grudges are over. All that remains is vacuuming and laundry. At the handoff of generations, family is only weak eyes, photographs, and rubbish.
So this is what the son must do. He must go to the apartment, find the stale candies and empty cheese boxes, and throw them out. He must rid the place of trash and embarrassment. He must drape the memory of his father in the best clothes it can wear. Then he pours the wine out into the old glasses, spreads the snapshots on the table, and starts telling the stories again.