When Connie answered the phone, then mouthed, “Chuck,” I groaned inwardly. Another one- or two-hour conversation, at his expense (in those days, fifty-cents per minute), impossible to close. Politics was the minefield. He would bait and goad Connie, as my father had, and then debate her. He would tell me get off the phone; I’m talking to your wife.
I tried to veer from serious talk in our conversations to some mockery or absurdity that had us both laughing. The family reunion talk, for instance. Chuck on his return from Europe—he and his “fiancé” Maureen had flown on the Concord—wanted to trace our family tree in Ireland and thought we should all meet there. He would pay the way. I kidded that we should trace our origins back to the Druids and meet at Stonehenge and that set us both off howling.
Before and after Mom’s death, he had helped me to accept my secondary infertility and had supported Connie’s pursuit of international adoption. He had followed the news of our choosing the Korean program, and going to Korean culture classes. The night our infant son David arrived, Chuck called, demanding, “How do you feel? Tell me how you feel.” All I could say was that I felt proud, larger, that life would be different. I couldn’t tell him that I was still grieving my infertility, and that life, in fact, felt overwhelming to me.
Both my parents held up Chuck to me as an example. When I visited them from college or graduate school, they drove me into Philadelphia on the Expressway, and then across Walt Whitman Bridge to Chuck’s for Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner. For my mother he was a doctor, serving humanity; for Dad he was rich, respected, and the family man. Especially as I persisted in my own unorthodox dreams (unpublished writer, unemployed PhD), as I put off marriage, and then when I was married, I put off having children, I viewed Chuck’s life with intimidation and chagrin.
He had married Nancy, who was my age, while he was still interning at Bryn Mawr Hospital, where she was taking a nursing degree. They had lived in a residents’ apartment; Chuck Jr. was born there in 1964. Then Chuck took a surgical practice in Woodbury, N.J. He bought a starter house in Wenonah. Two more sons were born, Bob in 1965 and Scott in 1967. He worked maniacally, always on call. Then they bought the rangy Victorian house in Woodbury, much like the house we had grown up in. This was the house that vas had built, Chuck would joke, since sterilization by snipping the vas deferens was in steady demand.
He was a dedicated, gifted surgeon by all accounts. Before long he had moved from partnership to his own practice. He loved telling Mom and Dad about his cases. I granted him that center to his life, though I knew practically nothing about it. I assumed he was meticulous, intuitive, and deft. He saved lives. He improved the quality of life for others, where other doctors had failed. Some patients he cared about personally and grieved when he lost them. And he was always proud and ready to help our family with any medical questions or issues.
After Jack had married, one of his three adopted children needed an operation and Chuck brought her east and performed the surgery himself. On the rare occasions when he touched me as a doctor, he was confident and gentle, fingering my throat for any signs of an enlarged thyroid, for instance. His practice was before computers. He prided himself as a diagnostician with a sixth sense. When Connie was pregnant, one of his jokes was to insist that by looking behind her ears, he knew the sex of our child, but he would refuse to tell us. After the birth, of course, he said, “See I was right. I’m never wrong.”
His favorite novel, Chuck always said, was Magnificent Obsession by Lloyd C. Douglas, a 1929 pot-boiler about a dedicated doctor and anonymous philanthropist, later made into a film. Its playboy hero was saved from a boating accident, but at the cost of emergency care being denied to a beloved local doctor, who was having a heart attack. The playboy decides to devote his life to making up for loss of the doctor’s life by becoming a doctor himself. About his own vocation, Chuck told me later that he had always wanted to be a doctor. As a boy he had healed a bird’s broken wing; at fifteen, with Mom’s blessing, he had followed around our family doctor on house calls. When he had broken his hand playing baseball, the surgeon who saved his hand had helped him to get a job in the cast room at Bryn Mawr hospital, and then had let him wash up, stand in, and watch operations. This contrasted to my own memory of his making his career choice only after he had returned from his Army tour in Korea in 1957, and even then after he had first shown a portfolio of drawings to a commercial artist, asking whether he could make a living by art. The artist had discouraged him, and at that point Chuck had turned to medical school. He meant to use his gifts for the good of others. He wanted to return to Korea, he had told us then, or perhaps to other Asian countries as an Albert Schweitzer. He had wanted to serve unselfishly in places of epic poverty and need, but then this idealism had been checked by Nancy’s pregnancy and their marriage.
Following our father’s death in 1976, Chuck’s family life fell apart. He separated from Nancy in 1982, and got his divorce three years later, awarding Nancy one million dollars. Mom was glad for Chuck, whatever the price. Nancy had been a terrible mother and wife, Mom told me now. Nancy had hated having children and told her sons so. At 20, 19 and 17, the boys had problems with drugs and alcohol. Their futures worried Chuck.
Then Mom fell ill with degenerative heart failure. Over her last six months, Chuck was the mainstay, not only keeping in close touch with her heart specialist, but also visiting as often as possible. Connie and our daughter Ruth stayed with her for two months, while I went back and forth from my teaching. Judy, then Jack took turns staying with her through that summer. She was hospitalized a number of times, the last time in a private room where we visited once. Otherwise we called long-distance to her bedside phone, and Chuck called us later to keep us updated. One visit he waltzed with her, he said, and the nurse rushed in when her monitor fell off. Finally Chuck told us that she had had enough. The medicine that prolonged her life only kept her in pain, so she chose to stop taking it. She would have a few more days. I called and said goodbye. Then Chuck called and told me that she was gone.
Each of us was wounded by her loss, but none so much as Chuck, I think now.
Chuck took on the role of her executor. After the funeral, he had us go through the house, dividing keepsakes. Being within driving distance, Connie and I made two or three trips down and met Chuck at the house. Mom had given me her Buick La Sabre that summer when my car had died in her driveway and had to be towed away, and now we loaded it to the ceiling. Chuck must have shipped us the larger furniture later on. He also shipped paintings and other items to Jack and to Judy. Finally, Chuck had to oversee the estate auction on his own and spoke of the heartbreak, seeing strangers dicker over this or that, the house gutted. He had loaded his own car at the last minute with things he couldn’t see go, including a stack of paintings in the basement. The house itself was on the market for more than a year.
After his divorce, Chuck had moved into a condo which I first saw in 1988. I was attending a teachers’ convention in Philadelphia, and Chuck drove over and picked me up to spend the final night. The condo was Chuck’s statement of a new life, not only a life without Nancy, but now also a life without Mom. He seemed to be searching for the person he was without his marriage, and for Jack, Judy and me, in some way to fill the void. This was after I had published an essay about my childhood in an attempt to reclaim our family past and to come to terms with the pain surrounding Dad’s alcoholism. Chuck was proud of my essay and told me he showed it around his office. He also had Judy’s family album, reproductions of all the family pictures from the 1880s forward, which Judy had assembled for each of us from Mom’s desk drawers. He treasured most of all Mom’s art.
We entered a foyer, past golf bag and clubs, a bowling ball, umbrellas, then went down stairs into a two-story living room, with mirrored walls and shelves, and to the right a split level loft, and under that the kitchen, bathroom, and then down a hall, a study to the left, a dining nook to the right, where a ship model was in progress, and then his bedroom and closets. A huge leather couch faced an entertainment center and dominated the living room. An oversized TV—a rarity then—and state of the art of audio: receiver, turn-table, tape deck, stereo speakers. A table in front of the couch and two matching easy chairs. On the walls everywhere, on the shelves, on the walls ascending to the loft and on the walls of the loft itself were Mom’s paintings, including her largest, proudest oils that had hung before in her living room and bedroom. There were also some of Chuck’s best pen-and-inks, of Korean orphans, framed. There were several of my nephew John’s etchings. Though homophobic, Chuck was as unequivocally proud of John’s talent as Mom had been.
One of his sons or another sometimes stayed with him in the condo, so that making up the bed on the split-level loft was part of a ritual. Food was microwaved, bought at a 7/11 down the street. There was little in the refrigerator other than beer. Everything seemed orderly and spruce otherwise, so I assumed that a maid came in each week.
He took me to his office in a professional building nearby, with a view of a parking lot and fields. He had a secretary. He was loved by his patients, and deferred to by associates, though he complained of paperwork and hospital politics. Increasingly he operated on cancers. He had the dream of someday discovering a cure for cancer, relying more on his intuition and experience than on research. He thought the culprit was the immune system somehow.
Long-distance, he shyly boasted that he was dating different women, so he “must still be doing something right.” There was Irene, a wealthy Guatemalan, who worked for Federal Express, and whom he later visited in Guatemala City and kept in nightly contact with by telephone. There was a woman in New Hampshire, daughter of a doctor friend; he drove up to see her, stopping overnight with us first, the first he had seen our house and my son David, who was four. He arrived looking stylish and dapper. He had always been a handsome man, naturally lean, a little taller than I was. He was driving a new Buick. He wore glasses and his hair was totally white. He was fifty-five.
We had built our family room addition and there is a picture of David in his lap and wearing a dinosaur mask. Chuck slept on the couch. Connie as always was gracious. I think there was some wistful irony for Chuck that he was the lone wolf now, visiting us in our domestic life.
A year later he told us he had a special girlfriend, someone he had been dating regularly. Judy and her daughter Lucia were coming to New York to sell their dolls at a Toy Show. Connie’s mother lived in Manhattan and we could stay there, while she looked after Ruth and David. Chuck proposed that we all go out to a show, expenses on him. He wanted us to meet his honey, Maureen Froman. He bought us all tickets to “The Phantom of the Opera.” He and Maureen took a suite at the Waldorf Astoria and we met there for drinks first. Their fling seemed decadent to us, and even more so to Judy, who was preoccupied with the Toy Fair, and didn’t have much time to socialize. The suite was showy with antique, formal furniture, mirrors, bad paintings, thick white pile carpeting, and I recall a sunken hot tub in a bathroom larger than our own living room. We had caviar and champagne. Maureen in her late forties resembled a well-preserved Doris Day, Chuck’s calendar girl as a teenager. They were each other’s playmates. We caught a cab in the rain. The high-tech spectacle of “Phantom” was a shock. At a Broadway restaurant afterwards for late dinner, Maureen leaned over the table and asked Judy how long she and I had been married—a boozy gaffe, especially given our earlier introductions and the fact of Connie sitting beside me. We laughed it off, but when Judy called from back home in Pasadena, she singled out this moment as proof that Maureen was self-absorbed and shallow, another of Chuck’s party girls.
He had been complaining regularly about malpractice insurance and the trumped-up suits that had been brought against him, but I was surprised when he called to announce that he had retired early at the age of 58. He was embittered and resigned. His life had been for others. If lawyers and bureaucrats had made it impossible for him to practice, then that wasn’t his fault, it was just too bad. He had his honey, Maureen, and they were engaged, though both having been through divorces, they knew better than to ever get married. He would play golf. They would travel together. He had his golf, bowling, drinking, and fishing buddies, mostly doctors themselves. He was building model boats from complicated kits. Otherwise, he lived alone in his condo, and Maureen lived in hers. She had also retired and had independent means.
He told me about one patient, a woman on whom he had performed a mastectomy, and with whom he had joked, saying, “You are mine, now.” When she heard about his retirement, she came to his office, enraged: “How could you do this? How could you leave me? I trusted you!” He said a lot of patients were angry with him and felt deserted.
I told him I thought it was a waste. That he had a gift, and that there must be some way to use it. You just can’t turn away.
“Oh, yes I can,” he said. “It isn’t easy, but I can.”
Nevertheless, at the invitation of a former intern and protégé, who now ran a hospital in Nairobi, he and Maureen traveled to Kenya in 1995, where he practiced surgery for six weeks as a volunteer, performing more than 300 operations. This fulfilled, in some sense, his early idealism. In addition to practicing at the hospital, he and Maureen played golf and toured. He spoke of a hot air balloon trip they had taken, and of the balloon landing accidentally over the border in a hostile country, but after a scary encounter with soldiers, they had taken off again. When he tried to express the fascination of Africa, he could only tell us to see that movie, Out of Africa, it’s just like that. “Gee,” he would say, as if it were a discovery, “they really know how to live life over there.”
In 1992, having finished my first full-length attempt at telling our family history, I sent copies of the manuscript to Jack, Judy, and with trepidation to Chuck. There was silence for a while. Then Judy called to tell me that Chuck had called her upset. And that he had also called Jack. She told him it didn’t bother her, because it was just the way I saw things, given my younger brother status. Jack had told him the same thing.
I did feel that we all had tried to deny Dad’s breakdown and the near destruction of our family. The attempts to spare me a glimpse into this Bluebeard’s closet had, in fact, traumatized me in a different way. I needed to understand the passions behind our family’s pretense of normality. While loving Mom as the pillar of our family, and as the martyr, Judy saw Dad as a self-centered child, Jack saw him as responsible and to blame, and Chuck seemed torn, needing to see Dad as human, as intelligent, as a loving and dedicated family man. We each had our “tribal scars” (my book’s title then) and I thought it was important for us each to admit and to confront them.
Besides stirring up memories that Chuck obviously had set to rest, my portrayal was critical of Chuck himself for his conservative politics, for his seeming racism, and for his materialism, while I idolized Jack for his humanity and nobility. Chuck must also have been troubled by my presuming to write without the mask of privacy, personal or familial, while he himself had attempted to maintain a happy picture both of our family and of his marriage and had prided himself on keeping the painful parts to himself. The one thing he did say to me about the book was that I should write thrillers and stay away from the family stuff. I replied that I could only write what I could write.
Chuck always got sappy when he spoke of Maureen, like a teenager with a crush. They traveled to Mexico, to Europe, to Myrtle Beach. They had fun. He never said much about her tastes, interests or opinions. She and he had agreed officially to be engaged, he would say, but indefinitely—he chuckled about this. They would never set a date. Maureen had neither children nor family, but she did have friends in common with Chuck. Over the years, I had no real impression of her beyond her being pretty, restless, and jealous of Chuck’s time visiting family. They had visited us in Boston once since the New York encounter; just stopping by on their way to Vermont. I remember Maureen perched on the edge of one of Mom’s couches, trying to be polite, but really not relating to our world.
Depending on how drunk or tired he was—he never spoke to me when he was incoherently drunk, as he did, apparently, when he called Judy—he would either ask me for advice, granting me wisdom as if I were Mom; or more frequently, he would slip into talking to me like one of his boys—even calling me Scott once—so that I needed to remind him, “I’m your brother, remember; not your son, Chuck.” He did repeat himself often, circling around set themes or stories, as if he suffered from memory loss.
Over the years, I imagined him alone in that condo, working on a model ship (one time the knife slipped and he cut his hand); watching golf on TV; drinking vodka; barely eating. He would call Judy, Jack, me; then each of his sons; Maureen, when they were close; or the girl friends from before. He went bowling with his doctor friends. He and his friends had collective haircuts, paying the barber to come to them. He went on golf trips. When he traveled he went with style. But the condo itself had slipped into a place of reclusive retreat.
I bought him Richard Ford’s 1995 novel Independence Day thinking that he might recognize something of his world in that story of a feckless New Jersey father, life-crossed, divorced, and trying to build a relationship with a young son. Besides the appeal of local color, I thought Ford’s existentialism might appeal to him. But I doubt he ever got into it. He never mentioned it later.
In February 1996, he called and caught Ruth home from college while I was out. “Was he drunk?” she asked me tearfully later. I called him back. Chuck said that he and Maureen were to visit Colorado this weekend, but their flight had been cancelled because of snow; he hadn’t been able to get out his car with the condo cul-de-sac plowed in until today; he had lived three days on ice cubes, no food; today he had gone out and gotten cold cuts and bread and frozen dinners, but he had no appetite. He was worried about Jack. Actually Jack had called me the night before and sounded well, in good spirits and health. Chuck started telling me about his brotherly bond to Jack. He wanted to tell me the truth about the summer trip the three of us took back when and which I had written about in my book. In his mind I had been eight or nine. I had no idea what was going on between him and Jack.
“Chuck, I’ve written about all this. It’s there. I was 14. It was 1955, one year after Dad asked Mom a second time for a divorce. My understanding was that it was a parent-sponsored bonding between us as brothers, maybe to protect me. I have documented all this.”
Chuck kept intimating that this was my imagination, not the facts, that something else was going on with him and Jack that I didn’t know then and could not understand now. Of course, from my research, I knew that in the summer of 1955 Chuck was on leave from the Army before shipping to Korea. This was the same summer that Judy announced her pregnancy and married Hans; the same that Jack threatened to floor Chuck, when Chuck referred to Hans (who was half-Indonesian) with a racial slur. Later Dad flew with Chuck to Seattle for his departure to Korea, and on the way stopped in the Chicago airport, where Dad found himself standing in line for a urinal behind Adlai Stevenson in the men’s room. “His was bigger than Adlai’s,” Chuck said now; then he returned, in the face of what I had written, to the truth that “Mom and Dad loved each other, only that,” that this was what he saw in their visits to his home in New Jersey. I objected, no, “I lived in their frustration and hate, but life is complex that way. Mom did tell me that the night before Dad’s jaundice attack, that she and he had been lovers.”
Chuck said, “Don’t get into me about Dad. He could have lived.” At that point, he choked and broke down. I was embarrassed. This was the first sign of his vulnerability to me. I tried to comfort him: “You’re not responsible, Chuck. I remember that story.”
“Just remember,” he said cryptically. “You are the product of pain.”
In 1997, Chuck bought a time-share condo in Los Cabos, Mexico, where he wanted Connie and I to visit, but we never did. A paradise, he said, right on the edge of a golf course.
I kept him up on our news. My career struggles. My worries about Ruth at Hampshire College as well as her becoming her own person, worries that had led me to write an essay about her and to co-edit an anthology called Fathering Daughters. She was readying at age 20, in the face of our apprehensions, for five months alone in Guatemala, which would count as her junior year. I told him about Dave’s finishing sixth grade at Connie’s school and our search for private middle and upper schools. I told him about Dave’s trouble in coping with the cancer deaths, first, five years before, of his eight-year-old best pal, and then of his best pal’s father, in the fall of 1998; I told him about Connie’s mother in New York also being diagnosed with cancer in the spring of 1998, and the toll on Connie and on all of us as she went through operations and chemo, leading to her death that winter. I told him about Dave’s loving and needing me, and how lucky I felt to have a living son, a loving wife, and a capable daughter. I told him about my marathon training and running, which made him proud, he said, especially when he thought of all the years that I had suffered from rheumatoid arthritis.
I never told him, however, that for a number of years I had been depressed and drinking myself; or that I had been scared into quitting, when, with Connie and the kids away, I had blacked out and failed to meet a class for the first time. In fact, other than in my writing, I was wary of offering him real intimacies, for fear that he would pounce on the occasion to lecture and intrude himself. Mostly I just listened.
He talked about his sons, one by one, upbeat at first. Bob had dropped out of college in Florida, but he had joined the Navy, which was a good thing. Charles, Jr. had married a stripper in Arizona and had two children. Scott had tried college in Virginia, then dropped out and bummed around back home; then had moved to Boston and after a brief stay with us, rented an apartment nearby and clerked at a convenience store while he took classes first at a Community College, and then at U. Mass. Boston. But each hopeful development was soon followed by heartache and dismay. Bob was in the brig for drug addiction. Charles, Jr. was divorced. Scott had been taking the money Chuck sent for rent and tuition and spending it on drugs. Then Bob was discharged from the Navy and settled in New Jersey to be near his mother. Scott had moved back to New Jersey and married the woman he had been seeing all along, Juana, who was poor, and lived with her three children at her mother’s. Off and on Scott had stayed with them, hungry for the family love (I am guessing) that he had been denied. When Scott and Juana moved to San Antonio, Texas, and when Scott adopted the three children, and got a job as an Emergency Room orderly, Chuck helped them with the adoption expenses and the down payment for a house, and felt proud that Scott was settled. Meanwhile Charles, Jr. had disappeared from the Tucson area, as had his ex-wife and the children. I couldn’t follow the details, something about a court injunction and the children becoming wards of the state. My brother had hired a private detective to track down the children, but with no luck.
In early April 1998, Chuck called while Connie and David were out, and I was alarmed that he sounded suicidal. His closest golfing and fishing friend had died. He felt isolated, he said. He was always the one who initiated the calls to his kids, to his sibs. Why didn’t I ever call him? He wanted to know about Ruth’s progress in Guatemala and asked how I could let Connie go in two weeks to visit her. He knew the place. He knew it was dangerous. He loved Connie and she had saved my life from the jerk I was, but she was political and this was a political trip.
No, I said. He knew nothing about raising a daughter in today’s culture.
He said he had raised a sister.
He said he resented my stereotyping him as a conservative or anything else. I laid all these attributes on him, but I had no idea who he really was.
There weren’t many people in his life who gave it meaning, he said. His boys only contacted him for money and never said thanks. When he died, he would just sneak away.
The one thanks he had ever gotten was a letter from the hospital in Nairobi, which was probably a fundraising letter, but which acknowledged and thanked him for his service there.
He didn’t know what he could do for his sons, for their own good. He had bailed them out of trouble far into their adult lives.
He had mentioned concerns about his estate before. He had all this money and he didn’t know what to do with it after his death. He had our mother’s art; and what would become of that? I had no room for it, nor did I want to pay for storage. He felt that the money would only ruin his sons. I had suggested several times that he talk to an estate lawyer and think about setting up trusts.
Despite his relationship with Maureen, he felt profoundly alone. Soon after this call, he told Judy that he was setting up a fund for the Memorial Underwood Hospital and cutting his sons off entirely, but she urged him to think of his grandchildren and their futures.
In any case, he was asking me now to be his executor. I told him, sure, of course. Think about it, he said.
He had no will, he said. The state of New Jersey had laws that depended on proof of blood claim. I didn’t catch that, did I?
After a moment I asked: “You mean because Nancy was screwing around, you aren’t sure the boys are yours?”
And then he shared the hard private news, at least in his own mind: only Chucky was his. The others looked like their fathers. Bobbie’s was a hairdresser.
He had come home one night in Wenonah and found Nancy’s clothes all over the house and she was naked on top of this guy in the backyard and he had beaten up the guy and she’d tried to pull him off and it all had come out. There had been a doctor at Bryn Mawr also, and others.
What was he thinking in telling me this now? That if he died without a will that Chucky, on proof of blood claim, would get everything?
He had had similar conversations with Judy and with Jack, neither of who wished to serve as executor. Now he was asking me. Yes, I said, of course I would serve. I felt that I owed him my promise, based on his own service as our mother’s executor.
We had another conversation that summer, when I was rehearsing my struggles to plan for paying off Ruth’s college expenses, followed by the costs of private school for Dave and later his college. Chuck was shocked to hear that the going tuition rate was close to $30,000 for each of four years. He wanted to make sure that his grandchildren were provided for against future education costs.
Still later, in December, he outlined the arrangements to be drawn up in his will, and again asked me to serve as executor. I had asked him before, and asked him again now, pointedly, if he had any reason to worry about his health: “Is the Reaper at your door, Chuck? Be honest with me.” After a moment’s hesitation, he said no. In fact, he and Maureen were planning a trip. He was fine.
Judy called me in Boston from Pasadena in May 1999. Maureen had just called her from New Jersey and told her that Chuck was dying of lung cancer, and had been in the hospital for a week. Chuck hadn’t wanted to tell anyone, Maureen said, but now we had to know. Also that Maureen had finally consented to marry Chuck and that they had had a ceremony in the hospital a few days ago. Judy said that she herself had then called Chuck at his hospital bed, and when she offered to fly cross-country to see him, he had said not to bother, that he wouldn’t be here when she arrived.
I hesitated, but Connie insisted, fresh from the loss of her mother three months before: “We have to go,” she said; “right now. You’ll never forgive yourself if you don’t try.” Since there wasn’t time for Jack and Judy to visit, I would stand as the sibling surrogate. We put our lives on hold—our children with friends—piled into our rickety van, just the two of us, and drove the seven hours from Boston. Chuck was in the hospital in Woodbury, New Jersey, where he had served for years, and where the attending doctors, staff, and nurses all treated him with deference, one of their own.
We could only visit for two days, overnight. Though he was close to the end, he had perhaps weeks left (three, it turned out). He was himself, lucid, ironic. He had complained different times that we never visited. “Well, here we are,” I told him. “That was so simple, driving down.”
And he replied, “Yeah, but look what it took to get you here.”
He was in a private room with two beds. From the bed near the windows, and cranked up to a sitting position, he watched a TV mounted overhead. The other bed had the photo albums of Chuck and Maureen’s trips stacked up, opened. Vases and baskets of flowers were on the dresser and the windowsills and a table beside his bed. He was gaunt and enfeebled, stomach breathing. He wore pajama bottoms, but no top. Pillows were stacked behind his back and head. He had monitor wires, an IV and oxygen tubes; as he breathed from a nose clip, he needed a cotton pad, like a mustache, for his runny nose. Maureen, the newlywed, showing their matching gold rings, hovered around him, solicitous. The head of the hospital came to visit. Chuck’s former secretary visited. His friends Dr. Don Weems and his wife, friends also of Maureen’s, visited and met us. The woman minister who had married them visited.
We tried not to crowd him. All three sons came in and out. When others were visiting, or while the hospital staff changed his bedding, or treated him, we waited in a room down the hall.
While I was at his bedside, Judy called; another time Jack. His estate lawyer called also, long distance from Paris, France. The lawyer’s wife had just died and he had gone to Europe for a break. His office had just found him. Chuck’s sudden hospitalization had caught him unawares. Chuck put me on the line to speak with him, Jack Bernetich.
Bernetich rapidly explained the terms of the will that Chuck and he had finalized six months before, when Maureen had been designated as Chuck’s fiancée. Certain properties and cash would go directly to Maureen; otherwise the bulk of assets—I had no idea of the figure until later, some 3.7 million—would go into a revocable trust. Chuck wanted Maureen “taken care of,” by which he meant that he wanted her to continue in the lifestyle they had shared. 55% of his estate would go into a trust for her, with the annual interest providing income. 45% would go into trusts of one third for each son. Bob, unless he had children, would be entitled to his share when he turned 40. Scott, as the most settled and reliable, would receive 34% of his third outright and 66% would go into trust for his children. Chuck, Jr. as the derelict, whereabouts unknown, would get nothing; all would go to his children. The designation “fiancé” in the will now needed to be amended to “wife,” and Chuck could now give Maureen $100,000 as a non-taxable gift. In addition to this, Bernetich wanted Chuck to reduce the estate by giving other non-taxable gifts while he was still alive. I had trouble following all this, even as I took notes, and Chuck would have to repeat it to me again later, when we were alone.
Also as Chuck’s wife, Maureen wanted to be Chuck’s executor instead of me, but Bernetich explained to her that she couldn’t be. Eventually it was decided that Bernetich and I would be co-executors, instead of just me. All of this was tinged by emergency; that business must be concluded while Chuck was still alive and could sign things.
I didn’t feel free to discuss the will with my nephews, who were anxious and talking amongst themselves in my hearing about something “not being right.” Chuck said that Bernetich would send a copy to me later.
The sons had appeared, of course. They had been outside smoking as we first hurried in. Hugs, hellos. Later on, in a probate hearing, Bob would testify: “Apparently Maureen called my brother, Scott, and said your father and I got married; your father is dying; don’t even bother coming, because he’ll be dead before you get here. Then my brother called me. I ran down to the hospital.” Even Chucky had been found and had flown in from out west. Each was seeking bedside reconciliation; each was hurting. But they were all upset at their father’s sudden marriage and its implications on inheritance.
After the lawyer phone call, the phone rang again, and I answered it. “This is Nancy,” the voice said, a voice I hadn’t heard in over fifteen years. “Who’s this? Dee? Can I speak to Chuck?”
I held the receiver: “Just a sec.” Then I whispered to Chuck, “It’s Nancy.”
He made an emphatic, disgusted face, and waved me to hang up.
I felt awkward, not wishing to offend.
“He doesn’t want to talk to you,” I must have said. Or, “He can’t talk right now. Do you want to talk to one of the boys?”
She said, no; but beyond that I don’t remember her reply. I know it wasn’t: “Tell him I love him,” or “Tell him I’m sorry.” Most likely, “Well, goodbye then.”
Chuck and I had our private parting. He asked me one favor. When I got back to Boston, go to Newton City Hall and get a copy of his birth certificate from 1933 and FedEx it to Maureen to make the paperwork for his funeral easier.
We kissed, his stubble on my lips. My eyes welled. “I just don’t like knowing I’ll never see you again.”
“It was a good life,” he told me intently. “Love you, guy.”
We returned to Boston. We called and got calls regularly from Maureen, from Judy, from Jack. The sons were still with Chuck, Maureen told us. The morphine levels he was taking were enough to kill him. He was hallucinating. He insisted on leaving the hospital to die in Maureen’s new condo at one point; then would say no, the hospital was fine. He could be cared for better here. It would be easier on Maureen. She was ready to take him and everything they would need, the oxygen tanks, the medications, the hospital bed, but she was also alone. She confessed plaintively that she wouldn’t know what to do. She was distraught.
Throughout the waiting, I thought of bodies, my brother’s body lying in pieta posture in that hospital bed, as he slept snoring, lax, mouth agape, eyes closed, head back. Motionless.
We had a power failure in the heat wave. I lit a candle and drew a cold bath, soaking for twenty minutes and thinking about Chuck. But as I lay naked breathing, knees drawn up to my side in the shallow tub, the drain wouldn’t close fully, so the twelve inches of water trickled gurgling through the rubber mat. I lay there, breathing, immersed, cooled by the water, candlelight flickering, thinking of Chuck’s life ebbing like this, like the full tub of water, as he lay breathing. The energy, his life, gradually drained. The tub emptied, I sat up, twisted myself out.
Then Maureen called: he was gone.
The funeral was to be a memorial service at our family cemetery; his wish had been to be cremated and to have his ashes scattered on our plot, rather than to be buried there. The funeral director interviewed me long distance for his obituary.
We drove down again, for the day, this time with Ruth and David along with us.
I was and was not my body, I thought, driving with my wife and children. My words were disembodied, my thoughts, my love. My lasting actions in this world. My physical presence had been beside the point of connection with my brothers and sister. We rarely if ever wrote words, just long-distance phone talk, vanishing utterance. Chuck’s calls to me were usually drunken and misty with sentimentality. Now here I was on this visit to his memory, and dust. The car hurtled our seated bodies across distance. Writing notes for Chuck’s obit, I had felt that I was saying nothing that mattered, that facts failed to portray him. I thought of Chuck as a surgeon, his life dedicated to healing bodies, serving bodies. I thought of his repeated confession to me that he felt frustrated at our parents’ deaths, that his knowledge had proved powerless where love demanded most.
How could a cancer surgeon continue to chain smoke and be caught unawares by a lung cancer so advanced as to be untreatable? And at age 65? When I saw him in the hospital Chuck had said he had more cancer than he had lung tissue.
It had not been diagnosed until, according to Don Weems, his friend, they had been out for dinner in January and Chuck had barely touched his steak. He’d been losing weight. Citing a 65-pound weight loss and respiratory problems, Don finally persuaded him to go for a check-up; they x-rayed his lungs and found the cancer; and immediately hospitalized him.
I can only surmise, but it seems likely that my brother knew he had cancer a good two years before it took him, and that this was the point when he had started sounding morbid on the phone and talking about his estate. It seemed likely that he chose not to be treated, not to fight it, which in Hazel’s case he had called only “prolonging the dying.” He didn’t tell Maureen. I doubt that in those drunken phone calls he told anyone.
I spoke at the service, as did Maureen, and several of Chuck’s doctor friends. None of his sons spoke. Afterwards we paid respects to the Henry family plot. At Mom’s grave, I introduced Mom to Maureen.
For his two oldest sons, however, who left the funeral, found a lawyer the same day and filed a caveat against probating the will (as we discovered several weeks later), the true memorial was to be a lawsuit that would drag on for three years before being overruled. They contested the will, the marriage to Maureen, and invoked the divorce settlement from eighteen years before.
My role as staff at a summer writers’ conference in California allowed me to combine visits to my sister with business. I had seen her, my nieces and grand-nephews several times in the years before Chuck died. I had also called Jack regularly, keeping up with his news and sharing mine, but I had not seen him since a business visit to Denver several years before.
Judy took the view that Chuck had sown the wind and reaped the whirlwind, at least in terms of family life. His values had created his marriage. His marriage had resulted in the neediness, misogyny, and despair of his children. She had no redeeming impression of Maureen, so she saw Chuck ending up with empty hands, wanting and needing love and faced with greed instead.
But what about the doctor, I wonder again, the healer, the contester with death? Didn’t he know for himself, in himself, the rewards of helping others, even if they failed to love him back?
Chuck was a surgeon. Even his sons respected him for that, and tried to dedicate themselves in his shadow, as orderlies, as hospital staff in one capacity or another. He needed a studied, intuitive and long-experienced knowledge of disease and of the human body. He needed to read through symptoms to the hidden cause. If possible, I imagine he would have done his own laboratory tests; the whole technical apparatus and resource of medical specialties must have challenged his own sense of exactness and control. I need to think of him operating. I see the documentaries on TV of operations and I cringe, as an outsider, as I see the human body, without personality, anesthetized and inert as a slab of meat. There are the supporting nurses and doctors at hand. The incisions, the bloom of blood, the parting of muscle and fat, the clamping off of arteries, the discovery of malignant tissue and its removal, the precise repair: these are actions not for pride, but for keeps. Nothing is trivial. Just as the surgeon can’t forget the life and humanity of the flesh he cuts, he can’t over-personalize it either. The rule against operating on your own kin, I think, must be founded on a principle of personal distraction. Under the knife, everybody is equal. No black or white, rich or poor, powerful or powerless; no ugly or beautiful; no beloved, no enemy. Every life is sacred.
He had his victories. Of course he also had his toll of losses. Offended by the way I had portrayed him in my writing, especially concerning his politics, he also let me know that he had a social conscience. That he often operated for free for patients who couldn’t pay. That he had secretly put several poor kids through college. But that these things were private.
Those 300 operations in Africa must have satisfied Chuck, at least as a short-term gesture, and also must have worn against the grain of Maureen’s expectations. She had assisted in some of them, but she was not a nurse. On a working vacation, after a point, she would have wanted them to enjoy themselves. Volunteering in Africa was not a way of life.
Why was Chuck drinking? Society itself had spun away from the world of the Eisenhower 1950s. Nothing had mattered to him more than the idea of family and yet his family had fallen apart in his hands. He had been betrayed. He had been exploited. And then his true gifts as a surgeon had been spurned. I think he turned himself against what he perceived to be society’s ingratitude by turning against his own nature and the whole idea of service, and by swerving from what I saw as our mother’s way to our father’s.
I know that I feel frustrated myself, blessed in my marriage and children, and in my teaching, writing and editing, proud of differences I know that I make and have made; and yet disappointed that I haven’t written the books that I felt meant to write, and that I haven’t been more worthy as a human being. But I can’t stop trying, as Chuck seems to have stopped, and what my mother called “the great adventure of life” is fresh within me most mornings.
In his retirement Chuck didn’t rediscover his talents for drawing or photography. His intense focus on building model ships, assembled from expensive kits, seemed to me a parody both of Mom’s art in her final years and his own fine, fine, inspired control of a scalpel etching around living artery, vein and nerve. He must have elevated diversion into obsession. I don’t know where he stood spiritually. He was a stoic and a skeptic, as I knew him. He had a bleak view of history, society, and the personal life. We come; we go. And yet Maureen said that he had told her that you could feel the passage of a soul with a dying patient, like a brush of wind past you.
I need to honor more freely his last words about his 65 years as a good life. I wish for his intimacy with Maureen, the “rare thing in this life when you can trust someone absolutely.” I wish for her private, kindred depths; her true perception of his best self. I wish for the meaning of his money to him as love, as help to the living. I want to grant him his and Maureen’s love on the order of mine and Connie’s or of Jack’s and Janice’s. I want him to feel that his life was shared.
Judy, Jack and I did have our family reunion in Pasadena six weeks after Chuck’s death. I had stopped in Los Angeles on my way to serve on the staff of a writing conference near Lake Tahoe, and Jack had arranged to fly out as well. I stayed in Judy’s guest room and Jack at a nearby motel. We went to the Huntington Gardens to see the notorious “Corpse Flower,” which only blooms once every century, looks like a four foot high phallus, and smells for miles around like rotting meat in order to attract the flies that pollinate it. Thousands of visitors had lined up wearing face masks to see the rare sight. What were we thinking? In any case, by the time we got there, the flower had been pollinated, the crowds were gone, and all we saw were the limp and deflated petals.
That evening we had a mock séance in Judy’s living room; joking was our defense, as always. Here we are, Chuck. We summon you. Among these paintings and sculptures, John’s, Judy’s, Mom’s.
One of our longstanding family pranks when we posed for pictures was to make a V sign behind each other’s heads, like devil’s horns. Judy kept a larger than life sculpture of John’s that resembled Rodin’s The Thinker in her storage room. She called it Big Foot. Big Foot was seated naked and brooding with astonishment at a bejeweled and multicolored skull held in his palm. I insisted that she take Jack and my picture together with it as we both gave Big Foot devil’s horns, Death itself. John had died. Our brother had died. Our own turns would come, but here we are.
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