Apparently My Father is Dying

by Robert Hahn

 

My brother will meet me at Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix and from there he will drive me to Scottsdale Memorial Hospital, where my father, apparently, is dying. Apparently, as I use it here, is a technical term; my parents are devout Christian Scientists, and for them apparently indicates an appearance which the world regards as true but which they consider false. For them, the assumption that my father is dying of Stage IV lung cancer is just that—an assumption and not a well-founded one; the diagnosis is an example of what Mary Baker Eddy labeled Error: a merely material appearance, subject to being dispelled and replaced by spiritual truth.

For the last few years my father’s forehead has sported a furry mole that has sometimes opened and bled. It could have been a harmless seborrheic keratosis, a “barnacle of old age,” but it could also have been a melanoma; if it was on your forehead, you would want to know which one it was. But my father waved the question away with an indulgent smile.

What made him agree, finally, to be taken to the hospital was not the mole on his forehead but his shortness of breath. At the ER, doctors stared at the mole, asked how long he had had it, and ordered x-rays of his lungs. Once they saw the x-rays—the jostling crowd of white blobs on the black screen—their interest in the mole faded; now they knew what his story was, and knew how it would end.

My mother was not surprised by what happened in the ER, because, after all, she knows doctors—knows they think of themselves as knowledgeable authorities while knowing little about the truth. I have always been amazed that my parents feel so empowered to scoff at the medical profession—as if nothing has changed since the founding of Mary Baker Eddy’s faith-healing religion in the late nineteenth century, as if science has made no progress in the last hundred years. For their part, my parents have always seen me as someone who just doesn’t get it.

My father is eighty-two and I am fifty-five. We share a long, by now almost lifelong history of behaving as if our underlying tension over belief—a buried current that carries too much voltage to approach—merits no discussion; we have thought it better to maintain good diplomatic relationships and to preserve, as far as possible, the old-time, plain-vanilla flavor of our Ozzie and Harriet family, in which I played David to my little brother’s Ricky. But beneath the bland surface, at the molten core of our father-son relationship, there has been a profound dissension.

By the age of twelve I had drifted away from Christian Science, and by the time I was in high school, having been introduced to Marcus Aurelius and to Socrates, I had become a novice skeptic, on the way to being a hardened partisan of doubt. Doubt has been useful to me as a writer (our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task, said Henry James), but this nonstop flight from Boston to Phoenix is carrying me toward the disconcerting limit of my philosophy: toward its limit and its inadequacy. Of what use is doubt to a dying man?

That’s the question I should be confronting on this flight westward, but for most of the time I have been doing my best to evade it, thinking about other things, almost anything else. I have read the In Flight magazine and brooded on its schematic map of flight routes, tracing the hypnotic red loops that swirl around the Great Lakes and graze my long-ago Indiana home.

When I was growing up—when my father was working as a textbook salesman for Henry Holt—we lived in the Southern Indiana town of Greencastle, in a stucco house at the lower end of Hillsdale Avenue. I had a first baseman’s glove I wore for any position I played in our sandlot games, and a one-speed maroon Schwinn bike with balloon tires. There were two theaters in town, The VonCastle and The Chateau, where I went to movies on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, usually westerns that featured heroes like Lash Larue and The Cisco Kid.

We owned a boxy Plymouth sedan, nowhere near as slick as the cars I coveted (Buick Roadmasters and Oldsmobile 88s) but suitable for family road trips. That was before the Interstates, when roads were narrow and trips took an enjoyably long time, requiring stops for White Castle hamburgers and frosted mugs of A & W root beer. We went to Chicago, where I had cousins, and to South Bend, where my parents had grown up and my grandfather still lived. Each time we set off, after my father had backed out of the driveway and the car started moving forward, my parents would sing:

We’re off to see the wizard, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
We hear he is a whiz of a wiz, if ever a wiz there was.

Often I declined to join in. I would stare silently and sullenly out the window, as if such singing was silly, but my indifference was feigned. The beginnings of those trips were buoyantly hopeful moments, and I was happy when my mother turned back to us and smiled as she sang.

Because, because, because, because, BECAUSE
Because of the wonderful things he does.

There was no reason to foresee that the wizard would turn out to be a small bald man hiding behind a tacky curtain, trafficking in illusions. Why worry about things like that? For now, the family was together and happy, my father was jaunty—a man in charge—and we were taking a trip. We were off to see the wizard.

 

A white car emerges from among the limos and mini-vans, and draws to the curb; my brother Jim is at the wheel, my mother is in the back seat. I slide into the passenger seat and we’re off. Jim eases into the flow and keeps up with the traffic on the 101 and the 202, but when we leave the freeways and come into Scottsdale, he slows down and almost seems to dawdle, as if he thinks, There is nothing but bad news waiting at the hospital, and we have no good news to bring, so why hurry?

We cruise by blocks of luxury condos, the homes of snowbirds; dark and empty now, in the middle of July, they look like a set for a post-apocalypse movie, the haunt of zombies. And look, here they come, arms stiff at their sides, stumbling out from wherever they were lurking, hidden in the shadows of saguaros or skulking in the garages or slumped like addicts in front of the TV. They rush toward us, and they dissolve into heat ripples. No one is out here this afternoon but people like us, gliding along MacDowell Avenue, across Granite Reef and Indian School, toward the stone beast of Camelback Mountain.

In the back seat—I know without turning my head—my mother has closed her eyes and folded her hands in her lap. She is praying, or “working” as Christian Scientists say, mentally riffling through texts from Science and Health, arranging them in different combinations. Usually she gravitates to the same one: “Divine love always has met and always will meet every human need.”

Mary Baker Eddy based her style on the cadences of scripture and reduced her ideas to a few reflexive synonyms that were endlessly interchangeable; she learned to exploit the power of repetition and tautology. Love for Eddy meant Divine Love, which she equated with Mind, and Mind meant Divine Mind, which was synonymous with Spirit, and Spirit meant Life, which was synonymous with Love. And so on. Eddy was hardly alone in perceiving that a symphony can be composed from a single musical phrase or a temple elaborated from a single motif, but she profited greatly from the insight. Her core notion came from John, 8:32: Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free, which she paraphrased as Divine Love meets every human need, which my mother now silently repeats.

Christian Science grew out of the American faith-healing movements of the nineteenth century, and, somewhat surprisingly, it thrived through the first half of the twentieth century. Its modern success relied to a large degree on factors of social and economic status. Christian Science congregations tended to be upper middle class and affluent, well-connected and well-heeled; Christian Scientists held seats on major boards and advanced to upper echelons of government. By mid-century, the domed marble churches, the ubiquitous Reading Rooms, and the esteemed Monitor gave Christian Science a presence in American society that was, given the peculiar nature of its core precepts, remarkably mainstream.

But by 1960 the Mother Church had become a casualty of scandals, lawsuits, and times that were changing; Christian Science, having entered a decline that would prove irreversible, was on its way to becoming a small and obscure sect (sufficiently obscure by now that people confuse it with Scientology). My parents, however, paid no attention to these developments and remained unshaken in their devotion to Mary Baker Eddy.

My father had been inducted into Christian Science by his mother, and after converting my mother, his high school sweetheart, he set out to raise his family in the faith. He became prominent in local churches and eventually a leader in national church affairs. So sure was he of Mary Baker Eddy’s basic premise—prayer heals all—that after he retired from publishing and moved my mother from New Jersey to Arizona, he embarked on a second career as a Christian Science practitioner: a professional healer, licensed by the Church and paid by co-religionists to solve their problems.

 

An invisible curtain of chilled air drops over us as we enter the hospital; we emerge on the other side with a soundless pop, into a realm where the language and the rules are not ours to determine. My brother—who works at a radio station in Los Angeles and is star-struck—has moonlighted as an extra on the soap opera General Hospital; he tells me you can be summarily dismissed for breaking the rules of the set—no physical contact, no eye contact, no speaking to the actors.

On my father’s floor, a man shuffles toward us in blue paper shoes, dragging a pole with a bag of i.v. fluid. He looks pathetic but for all I know he feels proud of his outing, feels stronger today, more hopeful. In my father’s room there is a cranked-up bed in the corner, and in the bed is a grizzled coot with an oxygen tube hooked to his nose. A nurse busies herself around him. When I wave at him, he lifts his hand and smiles wanly.

Hospital rooms are meant to be neutral but my father’s room takes neutrality to an extreme. There are no personal touches, no cards, no block-lettered messages on lined paper, no gifts, magazines, books, tapes, or earphones. No one has been to visit him except my mother and my brother, but there is a reason for that. Christian Scientists tend not to visit hospitals, since being in the hospital means that something is wrong, and to visit someone there could be taken as an affirmation of Error.

But my father is fine with this. He expects no visitors, aside from us, and he has no desire to domesticate his room; he doesn’t expect to be here long.

The nurse swings the tray away, the lunch still in its plastic containers, the lids unopened. When she leaves, my mother slips into the chair beside my father, who is distracted and irritable—his gown is bunched up, he thinks his oxygen isn’t flowing. The nurse may have agitated him. To others, a kind and helpful nurse could be a comfort, but to my father she is only a sign that he has lost control.

“The oxygen is fine, honey. The nurse just checked it, it’s OK, sweetie, it really is.”

He looks at me, the new element in the scene, and clears his throat laboriously.

“Glad you came, son. Good to see you.”

“Good to see you too,” I say, and then, taking a chance with my tone, I add, “I’ve seen you looking better.”

I think of Reagan after he was shot, quipping to the doctors as he was led into surgery, On the whole I’d rather be in Philadelphia. Have I struck the right note? Maybe. My father gives his smile a wry twist, as if to say, Let’s hope you don’t see me looking worse.

He has always been a handsome man, has taken care with his appearance and dressed well. He once showed me a snapshot taken around 1940; he is resting a foot on the bumper of a black car, smiling confidently, wearing a tweed suit that looks new and expensive. He has the firm-chinned look of a matinee idol, like Tyrone Power. Later his cordon bleu and cream-sauce diet gave him a filled out, Van Johnson sort of look; later still, after he thickened and slumped earthward, he looked like Spencer Tracy. Now, in faded and thin hospital johnnies, he looks like Walter Huston in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. A worn-out prospector hoping for a last stroke of luck.

He mutters something to my mother and she relays it to me.

“He wants an ice-cream sundae.”

She says this brightly because she hopes it means that his appetite is returning. But it is probably a memory of appetite, nostalgia for the treats of his youth—strawberry sundaes, butterscotch sundaes, hot fudge sundaes.

“Chocolate sauce.” He blurts this out, fuzzily but emphatically.

“Vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce,” she summarizes.

He wants it, that’s what matters. Desire makes its case. It’s not over yet, sensation can be reprised, the capillaries crinkle again, a voluptuous chill still slither down the throat.

“Let me see what they have in the cafeteria,” I say.

“I’ll go with you,” Jim says quickly.

On our way to the elevator we pass an open door and see a dozen people crowded in a room, a tableau of overlapping heads, shoulders, arms, and hands vying for space around the bed. They thread tubes, attach clamps, read gauges. They listen to their own breathing. A hand is raised to wipe away a bead of sweat that hasn’t formed yet, to brush away a thought: this isn’t working. When we come back up from the cafeteria, the door to the crowded room is closed. No more staring in here. Keep moving. Nothing to see.

My father is roused by the sundae, by chocolate, the magic ingredient that gives a Christian Scientist the kick he can’t get from champagne (our house was rarely without a box of chocolates—a bulky yellow Whitman’s Sampler box or a flat red box of Turtles).

“I need to call my practitioner,” he announces, in a voice suddenly strong, “and I want you all to listen.”

A Christian Science practitioner could be described as a mix of psychologist, shrink, counselor, consultant, spiritualist, and—above all—mental healer. You and I call our doctors; Christian Scientists call their practitioners.

My father has been a practitioner ever since he moved to Arizona—an active and successful one (as measured by a steady flow of patients and the post-retirement income-stream they produced). Had you been a Scottsdale Christian Scientist in need, and had you called my father for help, the conversation might have gone like this.

The phone rings.

“This is Robert Hahn,” he says, his voice rising at the end of the sentence to add some oomph to Hahn and give you assurance that you’ve called the right person.

“Bob,” you say, “I need some help.”

“What seems to be the trouble,” says Bob.

The key word is seems. Like apparently, for Christian Scientists, seems is a word with a coded meaning.

“There seems to be a belief,” you begin, using a formula that insulates the problem in a double layer of appearance: there must be a problem, otherwise you wouldn’t be calling, but the problem is not accorded the status of a fact. It is couched as a belief, to be dispelled, and as an appearance that only seems to be the case. As you try to explain, my father—who is a quick study, who gets many of these calls every day, and who has already grasped the gist of your problem—interrupts.

“Now Ted,” he says (if your name is Ted), “you know better than that.”

And immediately you feel that you should know better—that you have been yielding to an apparent problem, as if it were real.

My father’s tone in such conversations sounded smarmy to me, but to his patients it must have sounded authoritative and reassuring. The tone had a bit of Jimmy Stewart drawl, a touch of John Wayne twang (wall now missy, looks like you and me better have a chat).

“Yes,” you say, “I know.” You are not about to disagree with your practitioner, who represents authority. Still, you need help. That’s why you called.

My father may say little about the specifics of your problem, may hardly mention it, since his main strategy is to barrage it with Christian Science mantras: We are God’s perfect children. The truth sets us free. You are in your rightful place. Spirit is real and eternal. And the catch-all clincher, Divine love meets every human need. He winds up quickly and says, “I’ll be working for you.”

In their own times of need, practitioners turn to other practitioners as doctors turn to other doctors. My father wants to call his practitioner, Herbert, and he has decided to make us an audience for the conversation.

“Herbert,” he says. “This is Bob.”

Since all Christian Scientist practitioners say much the same things, stringing together the same quotations from Mary Baker Eddy, my father knows what Herbert is likely to say, and he quickly grows impatient. He interrupts Herbert.

“I know, I know,” he says, clearing his throat.

I can see how hard this is, and I feel sorry for him.

“Now Herbert. The doctors are going to talk to me tomorrow. You know.”

Herbert is assuring my father that he does know.

“I need you to keep me in mind tonight.”

Herbert runs through formulae for a conversation with doctors.

“Herbert.”

My father is not getting what he needs.

“Herbert, I need some help with my thoughts tonight.”

I think of a recording I once heard, a last conversation between a flight controller and the pilot of a plane about to go down. The pilot keeps his voice calm but can’t help sounding weary and defeated. The controller makes suggestions but nothing works. The pilot says, “We’re about out of ideas here.” The controller tries something else. “No,” the pilot says, “not at this point in time.” “Can you offload fuel?” “No,” answers the pilot, his voice flat, drained of affect. “It’s too late for that.”

My father needs help in warding off terror and despair. He is running out of ideas. He has appealed to Herbert, as sailors at Pearl Harbor appealed when they hammered on the bulkhead of their submerged ship, that clangor heard on shore, if heard at all, as a faint clinking, Help us please, we are running out of air; as the shaman appealed when he danced his shuffling dance and the dust swirled around him, when his feathers rustled and his charms of bone and wood clattered, when the smoke from his long cigar rose toward the gods to say, Look down, look down, do you see us down here?

“I need you with me tonight,” my father says.

Why does he want us to overhear this conversation? Is this theater meant for me, the unbeliever, to show me how Christian Science works? To prove that it does work?

As of course it does, up to a point. Studies show that people who laugh have fewer illnesses than their dour control group, and studies prove that the placebo effect is real: you can get better because you think you will, and because someone is paying attention to you. If you have recovered from an illness and you want to give credit to Christian Science, or to meditation, acupuncture, massage, aroma-therapy, herbs, diet, exercise, and fresh air, or to hymns sung loudly and joyously, you will get no argument from me. But as far as I know, your beliefs will not make the blind see or the paralyzed walk.

 

My mother says goodnight, Jim shuts the guestroom door and turns on the TV, and I pull out the convertible couch, wondering if I should unpack or live out of my suitcase. I think about a drink but decide against it, though I keep a bottle of Tanqueray and a bottle of Dewar’s lying companionably side by side in a kitchen drawer. It is still absurdly hot, over a hundred, but the night is dark and there may be a puff of breeze out there, so I pad down the middle of the deserted and silent street, heading for the communal pool, which glows bluely as I approach. Slipping into the tepid water, I float on my back and look up at the sky.

When I was a boy in Greencastle, on hot summer nights I liked to lie on the small lawn in front of our house and look up at the stars. There was no light pollution to bleach the view—just widely-scattered streetlights of the comic-book sort, carving yellow cones from the inky dark. Sometimes my father stepped out on the porch and looked at me, wondering what I was doing. I must have seemed strange to him.

In the pale sky above Phoenix, I can see the steady shine of satellites, the red and green wing-lights of descending planes, and the glints of long-dead stars. I would like to move them to pity for my father, who lies and looks at the ceiling, from his bed cranked flat for the night. He can’t sleep. He needs help with his thoughts tonight, and he isn’t getting it. I drop my head back and let the water cover my ears; I look up at a tall palm beside the pool, tracing its shaggy trunk up to the drooping fronds, and I think of Matisse, sketching palms along the curving bay at Nice.

I am no use to my father. Probably I never was. By the time I became an adult with a mind to call my own (a magpie mind made of scavenged scraps: “where’d you pick that up,” my father would say at the dinner table), it seemed too late for a conversation. Or it seemed that any conversation we attempted would circle back on itself and lead nowhere. I thought the certainty of his belief was indefensible; he thought my doubt betrayed a lack of understanding.

If there was ever a time for a serious conversation, it is now, when the man lies dying, but I have no help to offer him, and no hope. I don’t think Herbert does either.

Mary Baker Eddy promised that her theory of mental healing would meet any need, no matter how dire, would cover any condition, no matter how catastrophic. Having made that promise to her followers, she incorporated personal guilt into her system, thus hedging her bets and guarding herself against charges of betrayal. It was a brilliant psychological gambit, and it was also, in my view, so cruel in its implications as to be unforgivable.

Know the truth, Eddy said, and the truth will make you free. If that doesn’t happen, it is probably due to a deficiency in your thinking. The truth cannot fail. But you can. If you think the right thoughts in the right way, you will be healed; if you are not healed, the fault is probably yours.

 

“What we can do,” says the boyish young doctor, “is make you comfortable. But as far as healing goes, Mr. Hahn, your own beliefs will help more than we can now.”

My father has pulled himself up to a seated position and turned sideways, letting his thin, bare legs dangle over the edge of the bed. He nods at the doctor and tries for an expression that will say, I know what you mean young man, but I don’t believe a word of it.

I have never felt sorrier for him. I see how he struggles to manage the moment, to be the one in charge, I see him brace for the blow that does not come. The doctor has taken one look at him and decided that now is not the time for the question on everyone’s mind. But my father gauges the shape of it, feels the weight of it—the question not asked, the answer not given, not yet. He lifts his hand and waves, trying to brush it away.

“I know what you all think,” he says, staring in a shallow space. “You all think I am going to go down, down, down.”

His voice descends a note on each down, his hand pats the air at each repetition.

“But I’ll show you. I’m going to get better.”

Surely this is my moment. The moment when I step forward, when I put my arm around him and say, We’re with you Pop, we know you’re going to beat this thing!

I stay where I am, several long steps from the bed, and so does Jim. My mother is sitting down. We do not speak.

“You just don’t know,” my father says, and he is right. I don’t. He sits on the edge of the bed, looking at no one.

 

The doctor leads us down the hall and crowds us into a small conference room, where he cuts to the chase. He has shown great courtesy to my father but has no sympathy for the rest of us, no patience with our nonsense. He looks quickly around the group and says sharply,

“Why not hospice?”

My mother has tried to explain that the concept is alien to Christian Scientists—to accept hospice, you assent to dying, and as a Christian Scientist, you see—right, right, he gets it, but he’s a busy man, he has no time to hide his impatience.

“Mr. Hahn doesn’t have to go anywhere, it can be done at home, there are good services in the Valley, we can make the arrangements from here.”

Guessing that behind my mother’s resistance lies not only her faith but a naïve ignorance of the facts, he decides to make his final attack there. Just the facts.

In the 1950s our family used to watch Dragnet, a police procedural featuring a detective—Sargent Joe Friday—who interviewed witnesses in a dogged and ironic manner; he kept reminding them to leave out opinions and personal reactions. “Just the facts, Ma’am.” The doctor bores in.

“There will be trouble breathing, it will get worse,” he says.

He presses ahead.

“There will be pain. There will be blood.”

I look at my mother and see what she foresees—my father wracked by spasms of pain, coughing up blood—and the contest is over. The doctor lets the conversation end in merciful vagueness, sliding from one assumption to another without a formal declaration, letting it be simply understood that a hospice will be created at 7947 East Vista Drive, a bright, spacious, semi-detached house in the far corner of Laguna San Juan, where the cactus garden overlooks a pond with a fountain, a placid home for ducks and geese, although occasionally at twilight a lean grey coyote lopes around the pond.

 

I settle my father in the backseat next to my mother, and I slide into the front seat, next to my brother, and attach my seatbelt. We’re ready for the road trip. My father’s last trip home.

“OK Jim, we’re ready to roll,” I say, pointlessly, feeling the need to say something.

“Right,” Jim says, feeling the same impulse, fearing the silence that will fill the car as we drive home, as we look dully out the windows, having run out of things to say, having run out of ideas.

“So we’re off,” he says, steering the car into the flow of traffic.

Off to see the wizard.


ROBERT HAHN is a poet, essayist, and translator. He is the author of five volumes of poetry, most recently All Clear and No Messages. His essays and his translations of Italian poetry have appeared widely in literary journals. He has other new work forthcoming in Kenyon Review and The Southern Review. He lives in the North End of Boston.

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