Monday, October 29, 2007

On the roof

This guy leaves his household in the care of a petsitter, and half-way through his vacation, he gets an email. The subject is:
"Your cat's dead."
The guy is so upset, he emails back and says: "You can't break news to me like that! You should break it to me gently...first tell me that my cat's on the roof and you can't get him down, and then the next day tell me that the cat ran away, and then, only then, tell me that the cat is dead. I loved that cat, I raised it from a kitten."
He gets no reply for a few days, and then a response that says:
"Sorry about that last email. By the way, your dad's on the roof and I can't get him down."


We've returned from Copenhagen for the first and probably last time. It's hard to tell this story without the whole of it. It's hard to make sense of the ending without the backstory - and the backstory is ugly: many players, many years, many drunken, violent nights, many hungry, fearful days.

How is a death so good as this? A man dies painlessly while doing something that he enjoyed, surrounded by friends and a loving second wife of twenty years, by children who were not his own, by step-grandchildren whom he taught to make palachinkas? We arrived and were so gracious, so sympathetic to his widow and his sister. They, suffering the loss of the everyday contact - the caring phone calls, and the loving embraces, the pleasant strolls - their tears are hot and insistent.

On this side, it's stranger and more twisted. Why them? Why did we rush across the ocean and sleep in exorbitant Danish hotels like guilty schoolchildren running in after last bell? Why did we pretend their pain was more important than ours? They'd had him. All those years that he was a nasty jackass, a distant, bad connection in a distant, bad accent, it turns out he was having birthday picnics on the Danish seaside with a little girl he claimed as grandaughter. Turns out he was spending the evening in pleasant conversation with an extended family of people we really liked and who really liked us. Did we miss some vital clue? How do you trust when one line is: "I'll take the children and hide them in Croatia, and you'll never, ever see them again," and the next is: "Eh, girls, come to Europe for summer vacation." When one line is: "Vlado, the fucking Americans are calling for money again," and the next is: "Will you help carry your father's coffin?"

The Polish priest welcomed us specifically in deliberate English, and we sat silent and apart during the never-ending Danish hymns, and Sarah and Alexis carried the middle - right and left - stumbling shuffling slowly with old men, and then he was gone, and then the bell tolled, and then we had terrible Danish coffee and heard how loving he'd been, how supportive, and we smiled and nodded and thought:

But you see, it's not my story. I mean it's really not my story, and it's not my question. I wonder it from the third person, I ask like it's one of those interesting family mysteries, and I hurt - not from the empty, final wonder of it, but from the shrapnel, the fallout, the mushroom cloud of shit that this man let fly over my own heart. I sit and bear witness, and I hold aloft in warm water, I listen, cheeks flushed with congenial drink to conversation around a dinner table, I kiss (three times) and hug and wave and wave to windows, but I know the story's not mine.


So, the joke goes like this:

A young man goes away to school, and he meets a beautiful American girl with china skin. He woos her and gets her and they have two tiny daughters, sharp as tacks. The girls know lots of things, right from the beginning. Things like when to call the police, when to hide the wine, and when to call overseas and beg for grocery money. The father is gone, and the children are hungry and they are scared, but they grow anyway - they're afraid, but they're capable, and they make lives for themselves that are stable and safe. It takes years and years, but they are finally able to reach out, to try and find some thread of connection with this man, this father. They see the value in facing the pain of this history - these daughters are so smart and so brave, they visit, and he's an old man already. Too weak to hurt again. They think this is the start of something, not what they wanted, but enough.

But it's not the start, it's the end. The thing is, you don't recognize the end when it comes - it looks and feels like some new thing, like a second chance.

The end feels just like a beginning, and the beginning like the end...that's the joke.

Funny, right?