Friday, May 30, 2008

Longest Evening

Tonight will mark the second anniversary of what was probably the longest, most emotion-charged evening of my life: the long evening during which my father departed from this life as we know it. Journey's End, if you prefer the romantic phrases (more about those euphemisms later). Irving Swan, born Irving Swenciski, aged 87 years, nine months and 6 days, was checking out. A life's journey which had begun in Brooklyn, New York in 1918 was ending in a Hospice in West Palm Beach, Florida, in 2006.

My sister, my niece, and a friend of my niece's spent that last evening with him in his room at the Hospice, watching and listening as each breath he took grew longer and more protracted, as the pauses between them became longer and longer. The evening drew on - we brought in sandwiches from Subway, and each took a break to eat in one of the relation rooms provided by the Hospice.

We knew he was dying, and that the end wasn't far off - we had been advised that all the signs were there (I can't say enough good things about the compassion of Hospice workers, by the way).

To say the least, it was an exhausting ordeal, one which repeatedly stretched our emotions taut, only to release them to begin the process again. Several times the pause between breaths was so long, up to a minute or even more, that we thought, "Okay, this is it." But it wasn't, and suddenly he'd draw one of those long, protracted breaths again. And the process would begin again, and again. And again. Talk about your basic emotional roller-coaster.

Eventually my sister, my niece, and the friend left - my sister and niece were pretty much all-in by then, and we thought it would be better if they left. It was late-evening by now, but though things appeared to be winding down, there was still no telling how much longer it would go on. The Hospice nurse, and the pamphlets they'd given us to read, told us that the time-frame varied with the individual - many patients, I already knew, died during the night, in the quiet hours, after family and friends had left. Was this my father's plan? Only he knew, and he wasn't telling (which, if you knew my father, you'd know was quite typical of him!).

Many years previous to this evening, I suppose at the age of around nine or ten years old, I began to develop an anxiety about losing my father, about him dying. It had its roots in the sudden death of father of one of the boys who lived in my apartment building, a man who was a year younger than my father. He had felt ill while driving home from work, pulled over, and suffered a massive and fatal heart-attack.

Afterwards, and for many years thereafter, I worried about my father, about something happening to him. If he was late coming home from work, I worried. If he and mom went out for the evening (which they didn’t do all that often) and they were long in getting home, I worried – had there been an accident?. Sometimes I even watched him as he slept, to make sure he was breathing.

I don’t know how long this ‘obsession’ persisted; though I’m sure I outgrew it at some point. With time comes the understanding that one will likely outlive ones’ parents, and that if one lives a distance away, as I did by then, there will inevitably come a phone call with bad news: it’s part of the scheme of things, the natural progression of life. Such a call had come on March 29th, 1996 about my mother, and on January 1st, 2005 a call brought news that my father had had a minor stroke. The stroke had weakened him, and though he'd made some progress for the first couple of months, it seemed that once he had realized he would be unable to return to the life he'd been living, maintaining his own apartment, still going bowling and dancing several times a week at 87, he'd begun to lose his will to get better.

Now, after three months of decline, he had developed problems with his breathing and other physical manifestations of physical withdrawal from life, and been placed in the Hospice a week earlier, where they'd keeping him comfortable with fluids and oxygen. I’d gotten there the previous Thursday, and my sister had arrived the next day, Friday. He was asleep almost all of the time at this point, sometimes waking only to give out a long, deep sigh that was almost a moan - we really couldn't really decide which - our main concern was that he not be in any kind of pain.

At some point during the intervening hours spent at his bedside since then, and away from it as well, something had fallen into place within me without my even thinking about it: I realized that not only was the very thing I had once feared so terribly and so obsessively in fact happening, but that I was perfectly at peace with it.

My father was dying, and I was perfectly at peace with it! No fear, no anxiety, no worry - My father was dying, and I was perfectly okay with it.

Some might call this "Grace" - I don't know. Whatever it was, it was there and it was real.

I remained by myself with him until sometime after midnight, watching him, listening to those breaths, waiting. I knew he would do it his way. My father always had. Over the past several days I had said all I needed to say to my father, regardless of whether he heard or understood. So at last, sometime after midnight, I said, "Well, old man, maybe you want to do this on your own, I don't know. So I'll see you tomorrow, if that's what you want." so I kissed him goodbye, because I knew that it might indeed be goodbye, and then I stood in the doorway for a minute, watching, waiting for his next breath, because if this was indeed going to be my last look at my father, I damn well wanted him to still be breathing. He took another breath. I turned and left.

I went back to his apartment, where my sister and I were staying. We sat and talked, neither of us ready to go to sleep.

At 1:50AM (technically the early hours of May 31st by then) the phone rang - it was my niece - the Hospice had phoned her: my father was dead, had died at 1:40 AM.

Suddenly, with this phone call, I was an orphan - my sister and I were both orphans, at the age of 57 and 49 (my sister's birthday is at the beginning of May).

Moments after the phone call I stood in front of the entertainment center which housed the television, and upon which where various knick-knacks, photos of my parents, my sister, my niece, and I, and of my father and his friends on cruises. I had been joking for days that as long as my father lived this was his apartment and these were his things, but as soon as he was gone, all the pictures of his lady friends would come down! (It was indeed just a joke – I was always very pleased that my father had made a life for himself in the decade since my mother’s death.) As I stood there my eye fell on the photo of my father taken for my Bar-Mitzvah, looking fine
in a tuxedo, as he always did - with a shock I realized that my father
was only 50 when that picture was taken in June of 1969 (actually, two months shy of 51).

Now my father was dead, three weeks before the birthday when I myself would turn 50 - the age he was in that picture. But somehow I'd known or at least sensed that my father wasn't going to be around for my 50th - it was just a feeling I'd had for the past 2-3 months, when he wasn't making much progress - my mother had died 3 months before I turned 40, and I just started getting this feeling that my father wouldn't see my 50th - it wasn't a bad feeling, or an oppressive one, or even a premonition, just a feeling, almost a knowledge.

And so it came to pass. I'm not really one for euphemisms - everyone is different and has their own ways of facing things: many people go to great lengths to avoid any mention of death and dying - I remember talking with a woman about an author who had died sometime before, and more than once the woman used the term "She's no longer with us..." My sister is apt to used the terms "Passed on" or Passed away," and I've encountered many African-Americans who won't go further than saying that "So-and-so passed"(which is quite ironic, considering the negative connotations that the term "passing" has for many African-Americans - but that's another topic).

So, for myself, I have to put it that at 1:40 AM on the 31st of May, 2006, my father died. Whether he "passed away" or "passed on" (to somewhere else) is another story. And yes, the expression I remember it as though it were yesterday still applies.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

A Few of My Favorite Things

I wonder if Oscar Hammerstein could have turned a few of my favorite things into lyrics?

Briefly, and in no order, here are some:

My Boys - Simon and Schuster - I'm the only person I know who named his cats after a publisher (who happened to be Carly Simon's father and his business partner).


Hitchcock: YES (Just about anything).
Scorcese: NO (with the exceptions of RAGING BULL and AGE OF INNOCENCE).

Favorite Actress: BETTE DAVIS. In 1966 I saw a re-release of WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? - (remember when movies used to be re-released to theaters?) - it provided my introduction to both BETTE DAVIS and JOAN CRAWFORD - my life hasn't been the same since - What an introduction! I'm a big fan of Kate Hepburn as well, and of Audrey Hepburn, and Greer Garson. My favorite contemporary actresses: Kate Winslet, Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett.

The Voices: JUDY. Barbra. Liza. Shirley. Bernadette. Ella. Ethel. Lena. Cleo. Johnny. Matt Munro..

I love British dramas and mini-series (the Masterpiece Theater variety) - UPSTAIRS/DOWNSTAIRS, THE FORSYTE SAGA (the original 1967 black-and-white version), THE PALLISERS, THE JEWEL IN THE CROWN, I CLAUDIUS, HOUSE OF CARDS/TO PLAY THE KING/FINAL CUT - the recent CRANWELL was brilliant, and I've been catching up on some Masterpiece Theater Viewer Favorites that I've missed: PRIME SUSPECT 1 and THE ADVENTURES AND MISADVENTURES OF MOLL FLANDERS (the latter featured more heaving bosoms, tremulous thighs and bucking buttocks than I've seen outside of a porn movie, but it was fun nevertheless). And I love the BritComs as well - ARE YOU BEING SERVED?, TO THE MANOR BORN, KEEPING UP APPEARANCES, etc.

There is nothing like a Dame: Eileen, Helen, Judi, and Maggie. . .

I tuned out on American television somewhere in the late 1980s or early 1990s - I've never (or barely) seen SEINFIELD, FRIENDS, MURPHY BROWN, HOME IMPROVEMENT, ROSEANNE, FRASIER (other than a few minutes of a rerun that happened to be on), and that pretty much goes for American television drama as well. And don't even think about mentioning "American Idol" around here, okay?

I was raised on the classic horror films of the 1930s - 1960s, from Universal to Hammer - I still love them, have them on VHS or DVD, and revisit them all every 2-3 years. You could say that growing up my best friends were THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, THE MUMMY, DRACULA, and FRANKENSTEIN - the friendships have endured to this day.

RUTH RENDELL: My absolute favorite writer, regardless of genre. The only writer I like better is RUTH RENDELL when she writes as BARBARA VINE - something really incredible happens when Rendell becomes Barbara Vine - her Vine novel ASTA'S BOOK (retitled ANNA'S BOOK for the U.S.) has become my favorite novel - at last count, I've read it 11 times since its publication in 1993. I've read almost every Rendell twice (a "Rendell" being her 21 Chief Inspector Wexford novels, along with about 25 stand-alone novels of psychological suspense), and I've read several of the 12 Vines published so far (a 13th is due in August), such as A DARK-ADAPTED EYE, A FATAL INVERSION, HOUSE OF STAIRS and THE BRIMSTONE WEDDING, anywhere from 3 to 5 times each. I'm known to some as "Ruth Rendell's #1 American Fan" and it frustrates me that, even though she's been published here in the U.S. for 43 years, she's still an unknown quantity to many readers here. It's a personal mission with me to make sure they find out!

As far as other detective fiction goes, I'm also a big P.D. James fan. I cut my mystery teeth on Agatha Christie, of course - I still collect her, and have a soft spot for Christie Classics such as THE MURDER OF ROGER ACKROYD and AND THEN THERE WERE NONE.

I Knew Him When Department: American crime novelist James Lee Burke was my college writing teacher back at Miami Dade Community College in 1977 - I caught on to his Dave Robicheaux series when the first one was published and knew it was a winner - I've enjoyed his success very much - I haven't met a former student of his who doesn't. When he used to do a book signing in Atlanta, former students would drive in from hundreds of miles away.

Some of my favorite books (aside from Rendell): LOST HORIZON and RANDOM HARVEST by James Hilton (I re-read both every 4-5 years), THE BAD SEED by William March (a favorite since I was in 6th grade in 1969 - one of the best novels of psychological suspense ever - forget the movie!) - TIME AND AGAIN by Jack Finney (the best time-travel novel ever), TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (which I recently re-read for the umptieth time). I loved McEwan's ATONEMENT and thought the film made from it was excellent - they did a good job considering that the book couldn't have been easy to adapt. I used to be a big fan of James A. Michener and Larry McMurtry, too. On the less-than-literary side, last year I re-read THE CARPETBAGGERS by Harold Robbins and PEYTON PLACE by Grace Metalious, and neither can be topped for sheer entertaining storytelling. Ditto Irwin Shaw's RICH MAN, POOR MAN which I re-read a couple of years back and couldn't put down. Honorable Mention to Jackie Susann and VALLEY OF THE DOLLS - it just doesn't hold up quite as well as Robbins and Metalious.

I love good biography and history - David McCullough does both brilliantly (THE GREAT BRIDGE, THE PATH BETWEEN THE SEAS, TRUMAN, JOHN ADAMS) and so did the late William Manchester (THE GLORY AND THE DREAM, AMERICAN CAESAR, THE ARMS OF KRUPP, DARKNESS VISIBLE).

My hero and heroine are Franklin D. Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt - both made lemonade when life handed them lemons, and that's putting it mildly.

Oh yes, I'm a Sondheim fan from way back - I used to think he'd read my mail when he wrote songs that seemed to be about me: "Losing My Mind," "Anyone Can Whistle," and "Being Alive." FOLLIES remains the greatest show I ever saw on Broadway - I saw the original 1971 production about 2 weeks into its Broadway run.

C'est Moi - Greetings and Salutations

Hello Friends, Old and New:

Well, I've finally succumbed to the millennium's concept of self-absorption, so here I am with my very own blog - THE SWAN'S-EYE VIEW (what else could it be, eh?).

I'll post from time to time about my favorite books, movies, or people, or my least-favorite books, movies, or people - whatever is on my mind, a desire to praise or a need to vent, or something in-between.

I hope we'll have some interesting discussions here. I'm not quite sure how it all works, but I'll learn, so be patient with me, because I really haven't the vaguest notion of what I'm doing!