Book of Friedman (7)

It feels like time to take a break from this project, which, in my mildly depressed state, in this disorienting time, I am starting to see as another proof that I’m right to feel depressed. Before I give this instructive tale of the doomed Friedman a little rest, I’ll ladle out that Zen koan of a story I promised yesterday.

It can be hard to forgive someone who did you wrong if they never apologize to you. I had learned to be much less angry at my father by the time he was dying, for example, but until he explicitly asked for my forgiveness for the first time, hours before he died (better late that never) the thought of forgiving him was remote. I know that Mark never forgave his father for whatever Al’s real or perceived offenses were, though nobody will ever know if Al ever asked his troubled youngest son for forgiveness. That might have been answered in one of the letters between them that wound up in one of dozens of contractor bags, but nobody will ever know.

The facts I know for certain are these:

Al Friedman was terrified of dying. I don’t blame him at all, death is terrifying to most of us. None of us know how we’ll react when we get close to the end. He’d been treated for depression caused by fear of death, spent some time in a rehab facility for it. A couple of years later, when Al was hospitalized toward the end of his long life, he signed a Do Not Resuscitate Order. This DNR meant that if he went into a coma, no heroic measures would be taken to bring him out of it.

Mark went to Florida when his father was hospitalized. He wound up staying in Florida for weeks, if memory serves. Most of his days were spent by his father’s bedside. He reported acting as a nurse to his father, including doing some disgustingly intimate cleaning. He told me this with some resentment, intimating he’d had to do worse things than clean his father’s butt. I didn’t understand, and I didn’t question him about this odd detail. I never asked about why an actual nurse or hospital aid was not doing this sort of thing.

Al went into a coma in the hospital and remained in a coma for several long days, perhaps weeks. When he emerged from the coma he was alarmed by the DNR he signed, called for his doctor and rescinded it. He indicated the next time he lapsed into a coma, and it seemed likely he was slipping away, he wanted to be brought out of it at once. Shortly thereafter he fell into another coma, which he again awoke from, this time only a couple of days later.

I spoke to Mark one day as he sat by his father’s bed in the hospital. He told me Al had been in and out of consciousness all day, and that he was currently alert. “He’s pretty out of it though, it’s super hard to understand him, I don’t even know if he knows where he is. If you want to talk to him, I’ll hold the phone next to his ear for a minute or two.” I told him to do that.

As soon as Al heard my voice he greeted me enthusiastically, as befitted a fellow collector of off-color parrot jokes (Al did a superb parrot). “Eliot! Oh, man, it’s so good to hear your voice. How the hell are you? I guess Mark told you how I’m doing…”

I told him he had, and that I was very sorry to hear it.

“Any chance I’ll get to see you? I don’t know how much longer I’ll be around, but it would be great if you could stop by…”

I explained that I’d very recently been in Florida (during the time he was in a coma, I think, otherwise I’d have visited him and his wonderful wife) and that it was unlikely that I’d be back in the near future. He expressed sadness about this, saying he probably wouldn’t be around by the time I got down to Florida again, and then, suddenly, Mark was on the phone again.

“You see what I mean? Totally out of it,” Mark said.

I said nothing then, I don’t remember why. Maybe Mark indicated that he had to go. perhaps the doctor walked in. I have nothing to say now about it, no insight or inkling, beyond what I’ve said above. Except to describe this, the only thing in my experience I have to compare it to:

My sister has a phobia about snakes. I find them a little scary, particularly when chanced on unexpectedly, and have declined invitations to hold tame snakes when they were offered (it may have happened once), but my sister goes into full-blown panic at the thought of a snake. She doesn’t even like to use the word “snake”, she refers to them as “my friends” to avoid having to say the s-word.

One hot summer day, decades back, we headed toward the Delaware River to take a dip. My sister walked down the path first, I was behind her and my brother-in-law was behind me. We were about to head down the embankment. As my sister stepped past a clump of tall grass a large black snake reared up, like a cobra, and hissed as loudly as anything I’ve ever heard. It reared back, ready to strike, mouth wide open, its large head three or four feet off the ground. It was a truly terrifying sight, and, to my later shock, I reacted instantly and with some reflexive courage. If I’d had a split second more to think, I’d have surely hesitated.

I jumped between my sister and the rearing snake and pushed her back and away from the alarmed reptile as decisively as I could. As I altered her path and pushed her away from the snake and the river she asked “what?” and I told her the river looked too muddy today and that it would probably be disgusting to go in. Meantime, my brother-in-law, who had seen the big, black snake uncoil and make it’s get away, behind my sister’s back silently indicated the serpent’s huge size with his hands.

When we got back to the cabin where our parents stayed, my sister went into the bathroom. While she was in there my brother-in-law and I quickly told my father the story. When my sister came out her father said to her “Gee, Abby, you see an eight foot rat snake and you don’t even flinch? You’re getting much better!”

My sister turned with fury on me and her husband, as though we had somehow put her friend there. She was upset, I suppose, that we’d lied to her when she’d asked afterwards if there had been a snake back there and we both reassuringly told her there hadn’t been.

She corrected one element of the story I told about her near brush with the huge, alarmed snake. I apparently hadn’t pushed her out of the snake’s way, as I’d claimed, I had lifted her off the ground, bodily (in the manner of a panicked old lady lifting her new refrigerator and carrying it out of the house on fire) and carried her several steps back up the path. “I was, literally, a foot off the ground,” she assured me.

The point of the story though: she never saw the snake.

That’s as close as I come to understanding how Mark, arm’s length from his father during our brief chat, had heard his father’s remarks as further proof that the old man was completely incoherent towards the end.

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