To his old girlfriends, Robert Barsanti’s father would always be Romeo. But for Robert, Benito was Lear.
This morning, my father, Benito, celebrated his two thousandth birthday. He had booked the Captain’s table on the Platinum Deck for just this occasion. His mother was there, of course, as were his brothers and his sister. Grace and Elvira and Mary and several other women brought presents. But no one brought him any cake and that really wasn’t fair. It was his two thousandth birthday. Quite an accomplishment. He should get cake.
In truth, my father’s life has shrunk down to a wheelchair, a table, a bed, and the illuminated past. He wears the polo shirts he bought on yesterday’s cruises, sweatpants, and a diaper. His closets and his dressers are reduced to one suitcase and one laundry bag. Anything that doesn’t have his name on it disappears into the great rolling pile of nursing home laundry. But he is comfortable, he no longer complains about his food, and it no longer matters what is on the television.
I am slowly disassembling his apartment and, by extension, his life. He has no more secrets. They have been bagged and send to the Salvation Army or dropped down the garbage chute. His vanities and his treasures are revalued and redistributed. His brother wants some of the family paintings, his sister wants a scrap book, but no one is asking for his Rossignols or his Pings. There is no fortune. There is no great unfinished work. There is no monstrous secret shame. There are only snapshots, credit card bills, and a dozen cans of Progresso Soup.
No one need feel any pity for Ben. He had the retirement we all want and so few of us will ever have. He cruised the Caribbean and the Mediterranean several times. He sailed back and forth across the Atlantic. He skied when he could, golfed when his friends would go, and enjoyed the familiarity of waiters, maitre d’s, and bill collectors. His adolescence never really ended; it just became better funded. To the best of my understanding, it still rolls on in a warm Tuscan haze of Alzheimer’s and Seroquel.
His story falls to me; I must build the museum of his life. Which pictures do I keep? Which rings, which books, which blazers? What story do I tell? Do I tell the story of the man who could not remember his grandchildren’s names or do I tell the story of the boon companion. Every father remains a monster to his sons. He is the man that we never want to be, but will become. We never let our fathers wipe the greasepaint off and become human. They always remain onstage and we will always remain their critics.
Last week, I took my father’s most recent girlfriend to visit him in the nursing home. His girlfriends were all of a type. They had married steady, reliable, and solid men who had worked hard, saved prudently, and died young. They had been Ants, while my father was a Grasshopper. He loved a good meal, a good wine, and the attention of a waiter. He was ready to go off to Italy and Florida. He could dance. He could laugh and tell a joke. He would spend the kids’ inheritance with a laugh and a shrug. These women dropped their pots and sponges, picked up their clutches and headed out to dinner with him.
This one, Grace, had been my father’s girlfriend back in high school. A lifetime later, she came back to him. They had travelled together, lived in the same building, and enjoyed each other’s company. She and I had been holding out some hope that he would leave this building on his feet and return to his apartment. That hope faded as the spring bloomed. Instead, a tumor had grown to remarkable size inside of her and she was bound for surgery.
I drove carefully. I avoided sudden stops, quick turns, and railroad tracks. For her part, she winced silently and kept up an amusing patter. The two of us shared an Irish aspect; a good day is the one when you only get spattered by the mud, not drowned in it. Her years with my father had given her a shrewd eye; she knew his vanities and his foibles. Like my mother, she possessed a sharp tongue and a quick jab.
Yet the weight of this visit overcame her eventually. Ben knew her and wanted to take us all out to lunch. He told her of the golf match he played that morning against his brothers. She played along and held his hand. On our trip away, she wept. Three days later, when the doctors told her that she would need chemotherapy, she cried that she didn’t want to live without her boyfriend. They had seen the world together.
Perhaps Grace was being dramatic. Perhaps, faced with her own illness and her own limitations, she wanted to ascend into drama. Her story made sense if she pined away. Ben was her ancient Romeo, just as he was my Lear. When our lives don’t make sense, we order and edit them into the old patterns of story.
Or, perhaps, Grace loved him that much. It is hard to allow my father that. To me, he remained a cad and a buffoon. Mary, my mother often threatened to divorce him. After her death, he picked up his first girlfriend, Elvira, at the church’s bereavement group for widows and widowers. Later, Elvira found out about his other girlfriend when the two women met at his hospital bed one evening. His flaws overwhelmed me; I couldn’t see why any woman would go on a second date, never mind dying with him.
But Grace was in tears. She remembered, fondly, their cruises. The laughs still rung in her ears. They had plans and amusements, whether they were for lunch or for the spring. She had purchased Ben fine gifts. She treasured her time with him, and, even in her pain, kept those treasures close to her heart.
I am no better than my father, and, hopefully, not much worse. I have my vanities and my failings. I like a good bourbon as much as the next man, have been known to have an extra donut in the morning, and have bounced more than my share of checks. Moreover, when I look back on my own romantic history, I have caused my share of heart ache and pain. Turn me upside down, and I look the same as most other men. We are not all that different from our fathers; not much better and not much worse. No matter how much I labor, I will be the Lear to my son, just as my father is to me.
The story of a man’s life may be better left to the women who loved him, than to his sons who feared him. The lovers chose him, after all. They saw something and felt some thing more that led to his table and his arms. A son sees the flaws and the foibles that he will spend his life fighting; a lover will see the gleam that redeems and forgives them.
In the end, we get by on the grace of women. I have come to a point in my life when I look back on those bright faces of the past with a fond appreciation. Every relationship ends badly; if they didn’t, they would never end. Yet the years have smoothed down the pain and the heartache, then burnished the mornings when my name floated on her tongue and my face glittered in her eyes.
When I am two thousand years old, may they all return for a birthday party on the Platinum Deck. They can have a piece of cake, a glass of champagne and a story to tell.
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Image of giant ant with grasshopper courtesy of Shutterstock