Every virtuous act has some dark secret in its heart; every risk we take contains a mystery that can’t be solved.
--Gregory David Roberts, Shantaram
“I’m too old to recover, too narrow to forgive myself.”
― Lillian Hellman, The Children’s Hour
Catholic (and Atheist) Guilt
Six days I’ve been in this hospital room, by the bed of my grandfather, watching him breathe more and more slowly—sometimes even thinking that he has finally stopped. But he hangs in there. Even though he’s not conscious any more, he hangs in there. Mom is at her wit’s end, mainly fed up with her sister, my aunt, and her brother-in-law, whom I begrudgingly call uncle. The two sisters are very different from each other. Hell, I’m supposed to see my cousins for the first time in a decade, and I’m not even sure how I’m supposed to converse with them. City folk vs Country folk. North vs South. Educated vs Drop-Out.
My mind is darting around. I haven’t slept in several days. My insomnia has never felt like a blessing before, but I’m able to make sure everyone else gets sleep while I stay awake with Pa at night. The problem is, everything is so dysfunctional during the day that I have to stay awake then too, making sure things don’t collapse into madness and screaming five feet from a dying man on a morphine drip. I keep my computer playing Rat Pack music for him. He always liked Frank Sinatra more. We argued—sure, Sinatra has more hits, but Dean Martin has better songs. “Sway” is easily better than “The Best is Yet to Come”—his argument as the best song of all time, saying it was a celebration of the future but if you listen closely, there’s something manipulative, almost evil, in the way Sinatra sings about what will happen. Pa was always interested in that.What will happen.
I had always believed that Pa never really cared for the past. He didn’t talk about it much. We would ask him and he’d just pass it aside. I’m a writer—this bothered me. A man of 94 years, who lived in the hardest times of our country, fought in the most celebrated war, and witnessed the changes of America over decades, even just the changes he saw in New York itself, and what made him decide to get his family (at the time, his wife and two little girls) out of the Bronx…he had stories—stories that I needed and felt that I had the right to know. And he wouldn’t give them to me. And now he was dying.
What’s more is that he was concerned with the past, he just kept it to himself. A couple of nights ago, while my mother and I were having dinner with my step-grandmother, she told us that in the last few months, he started talking about how he wouldn’t be forgiven for his past sins. Now I felt like a chump. I was so focused on getting those stories, I never considered that they might be painful for him.
On the ride back to the hospital, I asked my mother what sins she thought Loretta—my step-grandmother—was talking about. But she didn’t know. Sure, he wasn’t always the perfect father or husband, but for all of his faults, mom couldn’t think of anything that he would feel that he was unforgiven for. He was a Catholic, well, Catholic-turned-Lutheran. But really, he was still Catholic. Hell, I’m atheist and I still feel like I am always guilty of something. It’s like Catholicism is in our blood. He was catholic for the first 70 years of his life, of course the habits didn’t break.
We tried a few things, we invited his pastor over (I decided to keep my religious subjectivities at bay until I drove back home to Philadelphia). We prayed. He whispered forgiveness into Pa’s ear. Everyone, even I, felt moved by the Lord’s words.
And nothing happened. A day passed by, and nothing happened. Okay, Pa. What else can we do? I talked to my mom, and told her maybe it wasn’t about religion. Maybe he needed to hear it from his children. Even if she had no idea what he felt was so terrible, he wouldn’t be forgiven by God for it—whom, I understand, is all about forgiving people—maybe hearing her say it would be enough for him to feel comfortable moving on. So, mom held his hand—I held hers. My aunt stood on his other side, her husband’s hand on her shoulder. And my mom forgave him for anything he felt he had done wrong to them or their mother. Everyone was crying—even the nurse waiting outside the door had to leave and get a tissue. It felt like a great burden had been lifted. My mom and my aunt hugged each other, kissed their father’s head.
And nothing happened. A day passed by, and nothing happened. Okay Pa. What else can we—scratch that, we’ve done the “we” part. What can I do?
And that brings us to today. An older nurse came to talk with us and suggested that he might want to be alone. That sometimes a dying patient doesn’t want his family to see him in pain. My mother and aunt didn’t know how to process the information, so I take charge. I gather them all and move them to the family waiting room. If he just needs to be alone, let him be alone.
It’s not that I want Pa to die. He’s been dying for one week now. I want him to be at peace. If that means going to heaven, being reincarnated, or just ceasing to be, I want him to stop suffering. So whatever he needs to move on, I want to make sure he gets it. Which means calmly convincing my mom, aunt, and uncle to leave him alone for a few hours.
We get to the family room and realize I forgot my laptop. Okay, I’ll run back, get my laptop—because I still have to work through all of this. My students aren’t going to read a damn thing if I don’t quiz and grade them in real time. Then, we’ll give him privacy.
I grab my laptop carrier, a bottle of water I was drinking, and a bag of pita chips I was munching on earlier, and turn to leave. Before I do, I hear Pa take a deep breath. I turn back around and see him exhale—the whole of his body shrinking down with it. I can’t stop looking at him. I walk back to his side, stuff still in my hands. I put the laptop on a side table and drop the bottle of water on a chair. The pita chips I toss on the edge of the bed.. I have no idea what’s compelling me to do this, but…if it makes him feel at peace. If it works, it works. It’s just words, after all.
“Pa, it’s Aeneas. I’m not sure if you can even understand what I’m saying, but listen, please. I know you feel like you’ve done something terrible, but whatever it is, you need to let it go. I don’t know what it is, but nothing is unforgivable, isn’t that what Pastor Lewis said? But…if you really think it’s unforgivable, give it to me. I’ll take it. Whatever you feel it is, I’ll take it now. Okay?”
I grab the chips, water, and laptop again, getting ready to leave. I stop, lean over him, kiss his forehead. “I’ll take it. Just don’t worry about it anymore. Okay?”
He takes a deep breath, exhales, and takes another one.
“Well, at least think about it. I’ll see you soon.”
I go back to the family waiting room. A new problem has emerged—everyone is hungry.
“Why don’t we run to that sandwich shop on the corner, mom? We’ll be 5 minutes.”
She nods and gathers her things. My aunt and uncle write down what they want and mom and I go towards the elevator, passing his room.
“Want to tell him we’ll be right back?” I ask her.
“Yeah.” Mom goes into the room. I watch her on the other side of the glass doors. The nurses are getting ready to take his pulse again.
“We’ll be right be right back. Just getting dinner. Love you, dad.” She kisses him and comes back. I watch the nurse take his pulse and blood pressure. The digital reading is really high. I’m not sure if it means anything.
We get into the elevator, to the lobby, parking lot, car. We’re only just pulling out of the parking lot when my phone rings.
I answer it quickly.
“Come back up,” my aunt is crying. “He’s gone.”
The Palliative care unit has everything ready. They’ve called the funeral home before we even made it back up the elevator. The entire time up, I keep thinking of what I am going to have to do for the next few days. Funeral arrangements, issues with my uncle looking and dressing like a homeless man, my mom and my aunt having trouble coping with the idea that both of their parents have died. My step-grandmother, now three times a widow, dealing with the loss of another husband. Working with the pastor of the church on the eulogy, writing the obituary, and writing a eulogy myself—it would be expected of me to say something as I was the writer in the family, after all. And Pa would want that. His grandson—his published grandson—writing and reading something in his memory.
I look down at Pa’s small body, no longer shaking or moving. The stillness is almost overwhelming. You don’t realize how much skin moves until looking down at someone whose skin no longer has life. My aunt and my mom are crying and hugging each other. They talk about how the nurse was right—he just wanted to die in private. That’s all. I don’t tell them what I did. I’m not sure if it means anything or if he even heard me, but if he did, and it worked, I’m happy he found some measure of peace. The old Catholic…maybe he just needed to be absolved at the end. Maybe he needed to be alone. Maybe his body just finally stopped trying to stay alive. Whatever the reason, Pa was no longer Pa. Everything that made him my grandfather has moved on, leaving behind an empty shell. A body that just looks like the grandfather I once had.
Still, I lean over, kiss his forehead, and tell him goodbye.
Eventually, we make our way back to Loretta’s. We eat dinner, we talk. We call his credit card companies to notify them of the death…one asks that they speak with Mr. Calvachio, even after I reiterate that he passed away. It takes them a few minutes to figure out what “passed away” means, but I don’t want to say “dead” in front of my mom and Loretta. Other than that, things go by, and I just counter any possible issues I can. I comfort when I can. I show only enough emotion to let them know I am present and human, but I let them react. I let them be emotional, and pour their emotions on me. And when they are finally asleep, I go to my grandfather’s bed—Loretta insisted I take their bed—and enjoy the peace and quiet of isolation, eating what was left of the chips. I begin writing my eulogy, thinking of how Pa was with my siblings, my cousins, and I. I instant message with my brother and sister. They couldn’t be here. My sister lives in California, and, while going through a divorce, could not afford the last minute flights, even at the special discount the airline offers. My brother, a husband and father of four, is an airman stationed in Hawaii. The logistics were too demanding. But they tell me if I need anything, they would be there for me. I thank them, sign off, and pick up a comic to read. Something for me to space out with before I go to sleep.
By the end of the 22 pages of a sci-fi space epic, I’m finally ready to fall asleep.
Dream Theater of War
I am crawling through snow. There are screams around me, machine gun fire, explosions, and more people screaming. I freeze, looking at the chaos around me. The ground is all white and red—snow and blood. There’s a line of trees in the distance other soldiers around me are crawling towards. Those who get up to run are torn apart by bullets. And someone keeps barking an order: “STAY DOWN! STAY THE FUCK DOWN!”
I look behind me…there’s a field of bodies. Some of them are still alive—barely, groaning and reaching out towards no one. Most of them are just dead. Simply dead.
I keep looking around. A few feet from me, another soldier’s face quickly transforms from scared 19-year old boy, soft brown hair, pretty green eyes, into a pulpy, red, crater. His soft brown hair still lingers over where his eyes and nose used to be. The bottom of his jaw still twitches with movement. And then another vhip sound and he stops moving. I can’t take my eyes off of him. The face that was there and now is not—parts of it, I suddenly realize—are on my face. I want to get up and push the bits of skull and flesh and teeth off of me. I want to scream, to run, to shit myself, to cry, and to wake the fuck up, but I’m not doing any of that. I’m not even moving. I’m just staring.
I turn at the sound of Pa’s name being called out. There’s a man looking at me—he seems official, at least in the way he talks and carries himself.
“Patrick, you need to keep moving. No retreat. Get to the trees and start killing Nazis, or die in this fucking field. Do you understand me?”
He’s talking to me. He’s talking to me, but calling me by Pa’s name. I register what’s happening. I must be dreaming that I’m Pa, back when he served in World War II. This is just a battle he had to fight in, somewhere in Europe—he never told us which battles he fought in. The most he’s ever told us was that on D-Day, he was “on a hill.” What does that even mean?
“Patrick! Do you understand me?”
I look at the guy and nod. “Yes…sir.”
He keeps moving, and I finally begin to move myself. Okay, Pa, take me with you through this nightmare. Of all the Pa related dreams I could have—this? Why this? Why such a horrific situation?
The commander…lieutenant…general…sergeant….um…guy in charge, moves closer to me. “We need to be able to run. When we get ten feet to the tree line, we’re both going to throw grenades at them. And then we charge and take that artillery and turn it on the fuckers. Understood?”
“Yes sir.” I’m getting this “sir” thing down pretty good.
I feel around my body until I find a grenade strapped to me, and realize I’ve had explosives on me the entire time. How many war movies have I watched where a character pulls a grenade off their belt and hurls it, and never considered the implications that they were walking around with several explosive devices strapped 5 inches from their genitals.
I also realize that I don’t actually know how to use one of these. In the movies, it’s pull the pin and throw, but this seems a little more complicated.
We’re already in position? No I’m not ready, I need a Google search on how to use this tiny baseball of death. Why don’t I know how to use this—I’m Pa in this dream, aren’t I? And wouldn’t Pa know how to use a grenade? Damn my conscience sucks. Okay…Pa knew how to do this. I need to figure out how he knew.
“Patrick—are you ready?”
Pull the pin, squeeze the handle down, and throw. The voice in my head…in my dream…kind of sounds like Pa, but much younger.
I nod to the guy in charge.
“On three,” the…sergeant? says. “One.”
Pull the pin.
Squeeze the handle.
Once I release, I see the handle fly off, but I don’t see the actual explosion—the sergeant pulls me down. But there are two distinct boom!s, and then we’re off running. I grab my gun like he does, and start firing wildly into the forest, as he seems to be doing. When we get to the tree line, there are a group of Nazis torn apart and dead or dying, and in the center of them, a heavy powered machine gun on a tripod.
I run to the gun, grab a hold of it.
“Mow them do—”
His body explodes in a flash of light. I swing the gun around and open fire on anything that looks like a human body approaching from the opposite direction of the way I had just come. Trees splinter and crack with bullets. Nazis fall into mud.
Behind me, there’s a roar from the soldiers. We finally have a chance. And they come charging. A group of them form around me and cover me, picking off Nazis as they try to take me down. I just keep firing—and when I run out, another American soldier is reloading the gun for me. And it dawns on me that we are going to do it. We’re going to get out of this. We’re going to—
I wake up with a sharp pain in my shoulder. Balls, does it hurt. It’s like someone took a knife, dipped it in lava, and stabbed me. Like…like I’ve been shot. I lift my hand to the area, and feel a bandage over it. I was shot. I blink a few times and Pa and Loretta’s bedroom dissolves into a medical tent. There are soldiers around me, some moaning in pain. I’m still dreaming. That was really painful for a dream.
“You’re….how do you say…OH-KAY.”
I look up and there is a beautiful nurse leaning over me. She smiles down at me. “Don’t scare me like that, Patrick.”
Her accent. The way she says “Patrick.” Like Pahtrique. Somewhat French, maybe?
“Where am I?” I ask.
She frowns at me. “You are at the base. Beauvechain. Remember?”
I’ve never even heard of Beauvechain before, and shake my head.
“Belgium, silly. You were shot in the shoulder, not the head, love.”
Love?! Am I supposed to know this girl—did Pa know this girl? Were they together during the war? I laugh and remind myself that this is just a dream and everything that is happening is based on my subjective understanding of my own world.
“Who are you?”
She looks partly hurt, partly scared. “It’s your Georgette. Patrick…”
A doctor comes up. “Don’t take it personally, Georgette. He’s been through a lot today. The wound was bad enough, but the cold didn’t help. He needs to sleep it off, and when he wakes up, he’ll remember you.”
The doctor injects me with something, and I fall asleep.
When I wake up, I am again looking at Pa’s bedroom. I blink a lot and determine that I really am in Pa’s bedroom. My shoulder is sore, but not wounded. And the sun is shining really brightly. Loretta is moving around the room, putting Pa’s clothes into boxes. There’s a pile of ties at the edge of the bed.
“I figure,” she says in her southern accent. “You’re a hella lot bigger than your Pa. So maybe you’d want his ties.”
I thank her.
She stops as she pulls a box down from the closet. She stares over the box and at me. “Take this too.”
She puts it on the bed. I lean over and look inside, asking what was in it as I do.
“All his World War Two stuff.”
My heart skips a beat. He kept stuff. He told us it was all gone, destroyed…that he didn’t see much.
But in here, there’s a journal. There are records. There’s a Purple Heart medal. Photos. An entire history.
“Loretta…thank you. I can’t believe he had all of this.
I open the journal and flip through, reading little passages about training, about having to kill. And then I jump a little bit.
Today, I met a beautiful Belgium nurse. Her name is Georgette. I think I’m in love.
He must have said that name before, or mentioned her in passing. Maybe my mom knew of her and mentioned her at some point.
When Loretta goes into the closet again, I quickly get dressed and take the box into the kitchen. My mom is on her computer.
“Mom, have you ever heard Pa mention a woman named Georgette?”
She looks up at me. “No, why?”
“He would have met her in World War II.”
She shakes her head again. “He never talked about the war much. Why?”
I look at the box. “Loretta gave me this. And there’s a journal from his WWII days. He mentions falling in love with a girl named Georgette.” And I dreamed about her before I knew any of this.
Mom looks at the box. “No. He had all of this?”
“I’ve never seen this box before in my life.”
I take out the Purple Heart and hand it to her. “He fought. I think he was injured.”
She nods. “He had a scar on his shoulder. He told us it was surgical, but I never really believed him.
I do my best not to show my shock. My shoulder still burns a little bit. I keep telling myself that I must have heard this before, or have seen his scar, or something. You can’t dream someone else’s memory…can you?
“Do you want to see the journal?”
She looks at it for a moment, but shakes her head. “No. I don’t need to know what he went through. He didn’t tell us for a reason, I guess.”
I look at it, feeling guilty.
My mom shakes her head. “You can read it. If he’d want anyone to know, it’d be you.”
I smile at her and make some breakfast. Loretta joins us after a while. As I eat some scrambled eggs, I open the journal. The inside of the front cover has a torn flap, as if it was once a pocket. And I can just about make out writing on the other side of the flap. I pull it, carefully. It unfolds a little, tucked in for only Pa knows how long. There’s a message scrolled on the inside.
It isn’t a dream, Aeneas.