Monday, May 29, 2006

The Odd Couple

Walter died last week. He was 84. My father in law is dying as I type this. It is probably a matter of hours Hospice says. I met Walter about nine years ago when we became Orthodox and he and his wife became a part of our Mission. Walter was a cradle Russian Orthodox and a WWII veteran. I know that because one day at coffee hour we were sitting at a table and one of our young men was slumped in a chair and yawning loudly. It is a small room, mind you, no private conversations can happen here. Walter says, "What's wrong with you??" The kid says, "I'm tired...I was up late last night." Walter says, "TIRED? What the hell do you have to be tired about? When I was your age I spent all night in a trench in France with a Nazi with a bayonet up my ass! That'll make you tired!" Quintessential Walter as I got to know him. He came off crusty and crude. I talked to him over the years. He told me, "The Army fucked me up, you know." He fought from Normandy to Berlin. He told me he puked when they liberated the death camps. He told me there were things he did in the war he dared not confess to a priest because they'd send him to hell. When Berlin fell he got sent back Stateside. He stayed at a base for 4 weeks then was sent to the South Seas and fought to the fall of Japan. He couldn't talk about the things he'd seen and done because he'd choke up and tears would start welling in his eyes and he'd just say, "Fuck it..." When my father in law became Orthodox Walter was his sponsor. My father in law is a genteel man, very proper and dignified. He also served in WWII but in an office capacity in Europe. Walter came back with wounds too deep for words. Gil came back with antiques and art. After his chrismation Walter says, "Let's celebrate, c'mon, let's go to the tit bar!" Quintessential Walter. He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer two months ago, the doctor gave him 6 months, he made it almost three. I visited him a couple weeks ago. I walked in and said, "Walter, how are you?" He looked at me and said, "Don't ask me how I am, you know how the hell I am...I'm dying, that's how I am. Everyone asks me that, what the hell am I supposed to say?" Then he half smirks. He loves to do that to people. We talk for a while. I change the oxygen bottle for him. He has my wife go in his back yard and pick some oranges and he gives me a half a gallon of antifreeze that he had left over out of his shed. I told him I'd come by and see him again. We left and I never got back. Somehow recording radio shows, work, kid's concerts, wedding showers and basketball playoffs were more important than Walter while he was living. We'll make it to his funeral though. I know he'd probably say, "What are you doing here? I'm dead...go watch the fuckin' basketball game, its a hell of a lot more fun than a funeral!" We'll toast to his memory with orange juice from his tree, with a shot of Russian vodka.

My father in law's breathing is shallow. His eyes don't focus. He hasn't eaten much the last 4 days. I finished staining his coffin and put the handles on it. I visited him last night and told him it was done and all the arrangements have been made with St. Paisius Monastery where he will be buried. They are making the cross for his grave. I tell him we are ready when he is ready. His son and one of the grandsons are also there for a last visit. My wife spent the night with him at the nursing home last night. She asked if he was hungry this morning. Communicating through hand squeezes and blinks, he wanted mint chocolate chip ice cream. Fry's Private Selection brand. I pick some up and take it to him. My wife finally comes home. She calls the people Gil asked to be pall bearers. All agree. She'll return tonight and sit with him again and wait. Wait to hear his last sigh. Then she'll probably cry for her father, the self sufficient, proud and arrogant man she resented for years. The man whose catheters and diapers she has changed, who she fed, cleaned and carried, who has consumed her life for 3 years. She has learned to love him, he has been humbled before her. He will be glad to no longer be a burden. She will be glad he is gone, but also at peace. Both, I think, will be eternally grateful for a disease called progressive supra-neural palsy. In God's brutal providence it has forged love out of the ruins of two shattered human hearts.