When I was growing up in our house on Long Island, we had a couch in the living room covered with reddish fabric. My Dad worked in the city, and each day he'd bring home a newspaper -- usually the late, great Herald-Tribune. The 10-year-old me would spread out the broadsheet on the couch, kneel on the floor and enter the world of Red Smith, Jimmy Breslin and others who painted pictures in 9-point type.
Unfortunately, the ink from the paper rubbed off on the couch, eventually staining the reddish fabric a dark gray. Mom and Dad never complained. With six kids to raise, maybe they had bigger things to worry about. Or maybe they thought it was a small sacrifice for a son to discover the world of words.
The couch is long gone, but the cookie-cutter four-bedroom house still is there, and my parents -- he's 89, she's 83 -- are still in it. While their kids scattered around the country, they stayed -- anchored by sentiment, habit and independent spirit to what is no longer a safe harbor.
He's nearly blind, but her eyes are OK. She's wobbly, but he can climb stairs. Neither drives anymore, but these save-a-buck children of the Depression finally agreed to an account with Yellow Cab. He needs a fist-sized magnifying glass to read the bills, but he hasn't paid one late in 30 years. It's not easy, getting old. But like Jack Sprat and his wife, put them both together and they keep the platter sort of clean. Until a few weeks ago, anyway.
Dad for years ignored a prostate problem, and it finally landed him -- unconscious -- in an emergency room. An initial misdiagnosis -- he's too proud to carry a card listing his various conditions -- took him from bad to worse. As his kidneys failed, his lungs clotted and his heart fluttered, the battle was joined among earthly forces, God and the devil for the soul of the storytelling, poetry-loving Irishman.
We kids answered the call, logging round-the-clock bedside duty, doing Internet information dumps on kidney function and prostate procedures, and lying in wait for doctors on early-morning rounds. Pulling a string that only the more fortunate have, we enticed a better hospital to take him with the king's ransom of a Platinum card. Mom and Dad celebrated their 63rd anniversary in a hospital room, she gently pushing aside an IV line to seal the occasion with a kiss.
With better care, the rooster-tough old guy rallied. His kidneys came back, his lungs unclotted, his heart -- unburdened by the sudden stresses -- resumed its rock-steady beat. One by one, the IV lines that aided the ancient warrior came out. He celebrated the final untethering, the pulling of a catheter, by reciting a verse from Yeats. Wednesday, after nearly three weeks, he was wheeled out of the hospital and headed for a rehab center.
After he mends, we'd like them to think about moving to a new home, where they'd be better taken care of. I suspect they won't want to leave the home they've been in the past five decades.
Dad's greatest pleasure is carrying his folding aluminum lawn chair into the back yard to sit peacefully under the tree as each summer day expires. Mom looks at the scraggly shrubs in the front yard and sees not an eyesore, but a happy reminder of her three sons pushing each other into those bushes during long-ago touch football games.
We kids see the old place with our eyes. Mom and Dad see it with their hearts. So I don't know what comes next.
I do know what just happened. God and the devil each got a grip on Dad, but he pulled himself free. If it had gone the other way, I think I know who would have staked final claim on the old Irishman's soul. I guess God will just have to wait awhile longer.