J. David Liss
1. Aglow, Alive
2. Dreams Adrift
3. His Important Work
Returning to New Jersey from Memorial Sloan Kettering where their son lay meant traveling around two sides of a square. Tonight it was the East Side, and they moved along the FDR Drive, perched on the edge of the East River as they made their way amongst the glowing, speeding, halting cars, each shining like a cell that has sucked up sugar and radiation to set it alight.
These five boroughs of a city laid out like five fat organs of a patient on the table—and Daniel, who drove, thought to himself, “What great giant spread himself across this harbor in the Atlantic and opened his chest to the moon?”
It was beautiful to drive south on the FDR at night passing under the Queensboro Bridge, then the Williamsburg Bridge, then the Manhattan Bridge, and lastly the Brooklyn Bridge——bridges growing like a ribcage between Manhattan and Brooklyn. Daniel realized that the heart of the giant was in the river. Not on Broadway or the Promenade, but under the restless estuary that never flowed just one way, upstate or down, but vacillated between sea and mountain ice, and couldn’t choose to be either salt or sweet.
Those bridges, like ribs bedecked with diamonds of white and rubies of red and sapphires of blue, all lit and for show.
Daniel wondered where the giant-who-was-this-city ended, and the built part began, for in New York he couldn’t see the difference. He just felt like another cell passing through a body that was always dying, always receiving the next treatment.
Daniel and Molly did not talk about their son, filled with poisons of one kind or another. Some from his rebellious, devilish organs and some from the kindly men and women who fought fire by lighting different fires;, theyn spent their days and nights in the bucket brigade to keep the fire in check, for that is how chemotherapy works.
It is lovely, this island city of towers that seem to grow at night like gorgeous, symmetrical tumors filled with electric light. They weren’t ready to talk about their son, so they bemoaned the traffic at 10:00 pm. How was this possible, he asked, to be caught in a blockage such as this so long after the rush hour was completed? She pointed out that they would be doing this for many a night and that he might as well find the place in his soul that lets him drive, or wait, or try to squeeze through, for all they could do was be patient. Daniel realized that Molly was metabolizing their situation and saw the wisdom of it. Their situation was temporary. So he just drove the car.
“Twenty-five years old, my son, he turned twenty-five last week on that bed and the tubes were in his chest that pumped translucent poison and shimmering saline and other people’s red blood into his body.” This is what circulated in Daniel’s head. “He couldn’t make his own blood anymore, my son, who just months before had run like an antelope on the greenway with his great heart beating sound, and he was so proud of the woman he had found in the South and to bring her home to his parents.” How Daniel longed to be driving him back and to watch him enter their house and hug him and say, “You are home, son, you are home.”
That young man needed other people’s blood and Molly and Daniel had gone door to door asking friends and neighbors to please give if they were compatible. People gave. We all have love to spare and we have many pints of it and it is red.
They travelled the eastern perimeter of Manhattan and slowly through the Holland Tunnel, until the city was done with them and they were digested and passed through the tube into New Jersey, to return tomorrow to be with their son who would be healed or not and would leave them one way or another, or they would leave him. But that was more than Daniel could bear and he had to turn his mind to other things. So he thought, “This city, this city, lies supine and cut open and glows with his own life beneath a moon that glows with her own life, looking down like a doctor with a round reflector on her head such as doctors no longer wear.”
Daniel hardly slept as he tried to spend his days and nights next to John, until the walls of his son’s room were not white but the graffiti and cave paintings that covered the concrete walls of his own youth. Not knowing where he was, he thought:
This happened years ago, during my time when dreams were much closer than countries like China or Holland, when every day was like standing in a warm tide and the sea was sleep and the land was awake and I, an amphibian, was moving between.
I dreamed of John, never knowing that he would come later. I was a young father and John still a boy. We were playing catch. He had the first mitt I was ever to buy him, a tan first baseman’s glove. We were in old Brooklyn, where John never lived——the intense, dangerous place that swallowed the best parts of my own childhood. We were in a lot, surrounded by old, worn brick buildings with fire escapes. The sun was directly overhead and splashed buckets of yellow light against the brick walls and the asphalt ground.
There was a rumble, and a sleek train pulled into the lot, as if there were tracks and a station when in fact there were none. Doors opened and an old man stepped out and walked toward us.
“Holy cow!” I said. “John, that’s Casey Stengel; he’s one of the greats.”
“Hi boys,” Stengel said. Then he waved at the train and said, “Let’s go!”
I said to my son, “John, this is going to be good,” and we set off to the train. But Stengel looked at me and said, “Not you.” He pointed to John and said, “Him.”
I got terribly scared and held on to John and said, “You must not go on that train, John, don’t go on that train.” He looked at me with eyes as round as the circles on the bottom of question marks, unsure if he should go with one of the greats or stay with his dad who loved him.
It was years later that Molly and I had our son and named him John. I had long ago forgotten the dream. John was a slim and powerful young man in his second decade, and then he got sick and became a frail copy of his good self when he was himself.
Then I remembered.
When he would lie on his bed exhausted from the chemicals and the puking and the pain, I would hold him and murmur, “Don’t go on that train, Johnny, you mustn’t go on that train.”
I would eventually return to my bed, dog-tired, and soon be walking the tidal pools between awake and unconscious, until I stepped in a puddle and sank into sleep.
I was in the old house in Brooklyn when we had an apartment on the first floor. I saw my father in the street outside the front window and called him, “Dad, Dad.” But he didn’t come. “Dad,” I said even harder because the look on his face was so sad and adrift, but he didn’t hear. “Allan,” I yelled, and he looked up.
He walked to the window where I sat. He could tell that I was someone who knew him and was grateful for that, but I don’t think he knew who I was. When he spoke, my father, his words seemed rehearsed, like a song with no music.
“Nobody spent more time alone than me. My mother was submersed in her pride, having tossed my father from the house like trash. Take out the trash, Allan, she said, and I did what I was told because I didn’t want to be alone and my father was a room that was empty more often than full. Oh yes, mom was always there, but she was a room locked from the inside and I was on the out, so I spent my days in the street watching the couples and families and tribes, and learning to entertain myself.”
Then he looked at me, and there was a bit of a spark in the vast, pale, blue of his eyes as he realized who I was, and he said, “There were a few years when you and your brothers were young and I was the world to you, and that was my heaven. Your mother gave me that. It was all she gave me, and I lived with that and hoped better for you. But I had to catch a train, though I longed to stay with you and in the good years.” Then came the rumble of a subway and his eyes went blank and flat, like a sky with no rain and no flying things. And what hurt the most is remembering that in the end, that was how his eyes were in life.
He turned to drift away, and I called him Dad and I called him Allan but he moved slowly away, even reluctant, though never looking back. I sat at the window for a while until I felt a coldness on my back and neck.
His Important Work
Daniel held his son in his arms. The young man did not have the strength to sit up, so his father was practically cradling him.
John said, “I’m scared.” A pause. “I’m scared.”
“Don’t be scared John. I have seen what comes next. It’s good.”
“What are you talking about? Nobody has seen it. There’s nothing to see!”
“I have seen Heaven, John. When I was in the car accident. I saw it for a little bit before the EMTs revived me.”
“You never said anything about this before.”
“I hadn’t thought about it in years. And it’s the kind of thing that doesn’t stay with you until you suddenly need it.”
A long pause.
“Dad, what was it like?”
“John, I couldn’t take it all in. I just didn’t understand everything I was seeing. There was a lot of light. But the main impression I got was there was a lot of important work to do. God needs things done. And everyone had a part to play in getting that work done; everyone had a job.”
“What was the work?”
“I don’t know.”
“Is there work for me there?”
“Critical work. And you are crucial to getting it done. And I know there is work there for me and your mother too, right beside you. I saw us all there. And there was someone with us. I didn’t know her at the time, but it was Marybeth. Time is different there, John; it all gets laid out plain to see. Your sister and Harry were there. And Grandpa and Grandma. And Grandpa was laughing that deep laugh of his because every dog we’ve ever had was there and had as much work to do as us.”
His son started to relax and he gently let the too-thin body settle down on the bed and pillow.
At 2:00 am, Daniel walked to his son’s empty room, John being gone now 9 months. Unconsciously gasping for air, he sank into his son’s desk chair and inhaled memories. John was in middle school and his friends had just left the house. Daniel would go to his son’s room while John straightened things up, and they would talk about what was going on with the gang. John would scope out what everyone had said about the latest middle school issues and what he believed they would do. Then they would talk about the Yankees and comic books, and on the weekends, Daniel would go to make dinner.
Sometimes Daniel thought about John’s visits back from college, and then graduate school, when he would tell both Daniel and Molly about how things were going with the girl that had become so important in his life, Marybeth.
And lately, Daniel would sit in John’s room and watch his son’s ghost move about. He appeared to be texting on a smartphone, adjusting his autographed baseballs, or staring at the dark television as if something was on to watch.
This was post-cancer John, thin as a twig and bald from the chemo, sad and stooped over as if his head were a softball perched on a fishing rod. He would often pause in front of the picture of Marybeth.
Daniel was glad they didn’t get rid of John’s furniture. He pictured his son’s poor ghost trying to find his way around a room, once so familiar, that had been transformed into a den or library. John loved his room and loved his space. All those months in the hospital were hard on him for so many reasons, but not the least was the loss of privacy. It made sense to Daniel that his son would come back to the room he loved in the house he loved.
Molly did not see John’s ghost.
After the third time Daniel saw the ghost, Molly suggested that he get counseling for his grief and he thought that was a damn good idea.
“Let’s make sure we’re starting from the same place,” said Dr. DiTomasso. “There is no pain equal to losing a child. Nothing that you’re feeling, nothing that you’re experiencing is out of bounds.”
“Have you lost a child too?”
“No, I haven’t. But I have patients who lost their children.”
“Then you can’t know what this feels like.”
“You’re right. I don’t know exactly what you are feeling. Tell me what you believe I won’t be able to understand about how you feel?”
“Dr. DiTomasso, I’m terribly sad because my son has died. I don’t know what else to say.”
“Mr. Stein, I would welcome your calling me Mark and I would appreciate calling you by your first name, if that is comfortable for you.”
“I prefer that, Mark. Please do call me Daniel.”
“So let me return to the question I asked. What do you feel that only someone who has lost a child would understand?”
“I never realized how much of my future was built around my expectations for John. I can’t picture a future where my children aren’t there. I always saw myself as having grandchildren, of sharing with my grandchildren the experience of raising their parents. I feel like I’ve spent my entire life traveling to a place, only to discover that it doesn’t exist.”
“Maybe we can spend some time talking about the place that you find yourself in now, and where you want to go from here.”
It was late and Daniel sat in John’s room and remembered. Their friends had gone to France while John was sick and brought back water from Lourdes. John didn’t want to use it because he was an atheist, and anyway if he were going to use any religious approach it should be something in Judaism since they were Jewish. But Molly was desperate and told him to use the water and insisted that he pour it on his bald head and on his chest, where the tumor had begun.
It was 2:00 in the morning and the ghost restlessly moved about, looking for something on the surface of the desk that his parents had cleared off months ago.
Daniel thought of the holy water that had been spilled on his son’s head and shoulders and chest. He thought of the holy water, the chemicals, that had been pumped inside John’s veins.
“Etoposide, carboplatin, cisplatin,” he chanted in his head. “Cyclophosphamide, chlorambucil, cisplatin. Vinblastine, vindesine, vincristine, vinorelbine. Cisplatin. Holy cisplatin.”
Molly came in to take him back to bed. He had woken her up. He didn’t realize that he had been speaking out loud.
Daniel was telling Mark about how he would sit up many nights in John’s room. He didn’t talk about the ghost.
“Why do you choose to sit in John’s room at night?”
“I miss him.”
“Does it make you feel closer to him when you’re in his room?”
“Tell me what you miss.”
“John loved me and admired me. Believe me, there is a lot about me not to admire. But that stuff didn’t matter to John. He based his view of me solely on what we did as father and son. He took pride in the good things about me——and there are some of those too——and he didn’t care about the bad things. I never felt judged with John.
“And as much as I loved him,” Daniel paused, then corrected himself, “love him, I never judged him. I think that’s unusual between a father and son. He was a smart kid who sometimes made mistakes, but as he got older those mistakes became infrequent and unimportant. I trusted him. If he had lived beyond 25 I think we would have still been friends.”
“How is that different from your relationship with your daughter?”
“It’s the same amount of love. But Becky has her own internal standards for her life, and her life seems very far from mine and has for a while. John and I identified with each other. This is hard to explain. Because Becky had become financially independent and well- established in her career, I was less involved in her life.
“John was just setting out on his career. Also, we shared the same interests and concerns, and I just felt that he was more present in my life than his sister.
“She knew from the age of 15 that she wanted to be an architect and just went for it. John never had a clue as to how he wanted to make a living. But he knew he liked politics and wanted to understand how people got things done. He was really concerned about how to make things better. He didn’t know what job he wanted, but he knew he was going to organize his life around living with Marybeth and that they would figure it out together. That’s what I did at his age with Molly. We were a lot alike. And he appreciated my sense of humor more than anyone else.
“I am just as close to Becky as I was to John, but it was different.”
Daniel had stopped talking because he was crying.
Daniel sat on the edge of John’s bed. They had kept John’s childhood bedroom set in the room until he was diagnosed with cancer and had to move back home. At that point, they moved the double bed they had slept on for 30 years into his bedroom and got him a new mattress. In his apartment on the college campus he had a queen size bed.
John used to say the double bed had plenty of room for one person, but was mystified how Daniel and Molly could have both slept on it for 30 years. Daniel pointed out that when John and Becky were kids, they used to always come in bed with their parents and somehow it always seemed big enough. And when they got their dachshund, Strudel, he would join them as well.
The house was so full of life back then, when the kids were home and the dog still alive.
Daniel realized that John was sitting on the other side of the bed. He was leaning over and was doing something with his hands. Daniel walked over to the other side of the bed. His son was petting the barely discernible shape of Strudel. The ghost was smiling, something Daniel hadn’t seen before.
His heart swelled with happiness that John wasn’t alone. Strudel was with him. John had loved the dog so much. His son picked up the dog and brought him over to the picture of Marybeth. He pointed to the picture and smiled again.
The dog turned and looked directly at Daniel, held his gaze for a second. Then John put Strudel down and was alone again; then he wasn’t there. Daniel felt as if he had lost his mind.
He told Mark about the ghost and what had happened that week. Mark was quiet for a while.
“How long have you been seeing John’s ghost?”
“About six months.”
“And this is the first time that you also saw the ghost of the dog?”
“What else was different about this time?”
“John smiled. I haven’t seen that. He interacted with Strudel. I’m certain that Strudel looked at me, was somehow trying to connect with me.”
“And they were looking at the picture of Marybeth together, you said.”
“Yes, they were.”
“When was the last time you saw Marybeth?”
“About six months ago when she stopped by. She was at a conference at the university and came to see us. We’ll see her next week at John’s unveiling.”
“It’s a ceremony around erecting the headstone at a grave.”
“Was Marybeth with John at the end?”
“Yes. She moved in with us for the last three months of John’s life. No one was closer to him during that time. She always seemed to know the right things to say to make him feel good. She was the last person to speak with him before he died.
“She told him that life happens and death happens and she will always love him; that he will always be in her heart and she truly believed that she would always be in his heart; that this would be true forever. It made John smile.”
“What were your last words to John?”
“I told him to hang on. We were working on getting him into a clinical trial for immunotherapy that had some promise. I told him not to give up or give in, because we had another trick up our sleeve. But he couldn’t hold on.”
“How does it make you feel when you think about your last words to John?”
“It makes me feel bad. Mark, we’ve talked about my work as a healthcare lobbyist. After years of making sure government officials could get in to see the best doctors, I had to use my contacts for my son, but it didn’t help.
“Years ago I helped an important corporate executive see an oncologist about an aggressive cancer. This executive was a pretty hard-nosed guy and wanted the truth, without sugarcoating. He wanted to settle some financial matters.
“So the doctor said to him, The tumor always wins. The executive thanked him and did what he needed to do.” Daniel stopped. Then he repeated. The tumor always wins.
He continued, “I sat on that for the entirety of John’s illness, knowing it, hating it, not wanting to believe it. But Dr. Norwich was right. I couldn’t stand the thought of the tumor winning. I think that came out when I said those last words to John. I’ve wondered if he thought he’d let me down. It would have troubled him if he did think that.”
“So it troubles you to think about that last conversation.”
“Yes. I am also troubled by the fact that I am hallucinating. I’m afraid that I’ll have to be institutionalized or take psychotropic drugs.”
“Has this gotten in the way of your being able to function?”
“Have you seen the ghost while driving?”
“Are you fatigued?”
“Of course. I’m lucky if I get five hours of sleep a night.”
“Makes sense. You have to grieve, Daniel. How the mind handles grief is its own business, and it is different from person to person. For you, hallucinations may be a good thing because they provide an outlet for you to express grief, literally see your own grief in front of you, outside of you, and not be overwhelmed by it.”
“Do you think . . .”
Mark cut him off. “No Daniel, I don’t think you’re crazy.”
That night Daniel awoke at 2:00 am. He went into John’s room. The ghost wasn’t there. Daniel spoke aloud but softly, “It wasn’t about my life; it was about yours. I’m sorry if I made it otherwise. You were always going to leave me, or I leave you. I just wasn’t ready. I guess, neither were you. But I should have known better, set the example.” He paused.
“Life happens and death happens and I will always love you. You will always be in my heart and I truly believe that I will always be in your heart. This will be true forever. There John. I know it’s not original, but Marybeth did a great job in summing up how I feel. You never, ever disappointed me for one minute in this life. There never was a minute that I wasn’t proud of you.” He paused, then said, “I’ll see you soon.”
Daniel saw a movement at his feet and he could just barely see the outline of a dachshund——Strudel. The dog appeared to be looking at Daniel. Then he spun around and looked at the far end of the room. John was there, gazing at the picture of Marybeth. The dachshund appeared to bark, though Daniel heard nothing. But John turned and looked at Strudel, smiled and began walking toward him, and coincidentally toward Daniel. Daniel saw his son’s face, his familiar smile.
Strudel had this way of jerking his head in the direction he wanted to walk in, and he did it now and started to walk away from Daniel, toward the bedroom’s window. John turned and followed the dog. Strudel faded away and was gone, and John, who was walking after him, also faded and disappeared.
About the Author
J. David Liss received an MFA from Brooklyn College in 1984. Trained in writing and inclined to politics, he became a speechwriter, then a lobbyist. In the past 35 years, Liss has worked in corporate, academic, and healthcare centers and all his work has been touched by literature (he likes to think). His prose has been published in “Caustic Frolic,” “Inwood Indiana Press,” “The MacGuffin,” “Lake Effect,” “Blood and Thunder,” “Adelaide,” “Forge,” “Inscape,” and others. His poetry has appeared in “The Naugatuck River Review,” “Fifth Wednesday Journal,” “Euphony,” “Poetry Quarterly,” and others.