"Mortality" by Martin Green
Martin is a retired freelance writer from Roseville, California.
© 2005 Martin Green
It's difficult not to think about mortality when you're in Miami
Beach. It's especially
difficult when you've come there to see your 90-year old father and your
80-year old mother and your mother's in the hospital after falling and
breaking her hip.
Miami Beach is a city of old people.
At our hotel, the man who checked us in looked almost as old as my
father and the "bellboy" who hobbled alongside us to show us our
room was at least 70.
The hotel itself was old and although supposedly renovated the year
before still had the musty smell of an ancient building.
As soon as the bellboy left, I opened the windows and stepped out
onto the balcony, which looked somewhat crumbling and which I hoped would
not suddenly fall off.
Below I could see the hotel beach and pool, crowded with people,
old people, sprawled out on beach chairs or clustered around little tables
under umbrellas, playing cards. A
few old people had even ventured into the bright blue pool and stood
tentatively waving their arms in the water.
But there was no one in the darker ocean, whose gray waves smashed
implacably onto the thin strip of beach.
I came back into the room, where my wife was unpacking.
We'd flown in that morning from California.
I had recently retired after 25 years with the state's civil
service. My wife, who'd been
an occupational therapist, still worked part-time as a teacher's aide.
"What do you think?" I asked, indicating the room.
"It's pretty small but I guess it'll do."
On an impulse, I went over to her, put my arms around her and held
her tightly, my wife, the slender brown-haired girl I'd met when I'd first
come to San Francisco.
"What was that for?" she asked.
"I don't know. It
felt like the thing to do."
While she finished unpacking, I called my father's hotel.
Driving down Collins Avenue in our rented car, we noticed still
more old people, at the little shopping strips we passed or going into the
restaurants and hotels along the way.
At one point, an old man, intent on eating an ice cream bar,
stepped out onto the road in front of us, seemingly oblivious of our car.
I'd seen him and slowed down; I stepped on the brakes and he walked
past, still intent on his ice cream bar and still oblivious of the car
which could easily have hit him.
In downtown Miami Beach, my father was waiting for us on the porch
of his residential hotel. When he got up from his chair I thought he looked thin and
frail. As a kid growing up in
the Bronx, I remember him as being a short man but husky and strong.
He was a plumber and every morning he'd be up at six to go to work,
hoisting his toolbox onto one shoulder, a toolbox so heavy that even when
I was a teenager I could barely budge it.
Now he was even shorter, shrunken with the years, his arms no
My wife and I went up the porch stairs and we each hugged him.
"How's Ma?" I asked.
"She's doing better," he said.
He asked about our two sons, his grandsons, both now in college.
We talked for a while and then it was time to visit my mother at
the hospital. I reached to
help my father down the porch stairs but he waved me off and came down by
himself. I noticed his hands
on the rail and they were still as I remembered them, thick, with blunt
fingers, the strong hands of a workman.
My mother was dozing in bed when we came in.
I thought her face looked strained and pale.
Her eyes came open and she apologized for not being awake; it was
the pills she was taking for the pain.
Her leg still hurt where they'd put a pin in it.
She touched her hair. "I
must look terrible," she said.
"What are you talking about?" said my father.
"You look beautiful."
My mother asked us about her grandsons.
We gave her the latest news. David,
the older one, was getting his teacher's credential at Chico State
college. Yes, he had a girl friend, in Sacramento.
He saw her whenever he came home for a visit and she visited him at
school. Michael, two years
younger, was going to Sacramento State college; we hoped he'd graduate
next year. He didn't have a
steady girl friend.
"He has time yet," my mother said.
"Let him enjoy himself for a while."
She asked me what I was doing now that I was retired.
I told her I was taking a writing class and had started doing some
writing for a local weekly newspaper.
My father said, "I didn't know you liked to write."
He turned to my wife. "When
he was a boy all he knew how to do was play ball."
"What play ball?" said my mother.
"He used to read all the time.
Remember, he used to go to the library with me and get a pile of
books every week." My
mother shook her head and spoke to my wife.
"He doesn't remember. He's
getting old. I don't know how he's managing without me there."
"I'm managing fine," my father said.
"I went shopping yesterday."
"And what did you get? He
doesn't know how to shop. He
forgets things. And how is the place?"
"The place is fine. What
are you worrying for?"
"I'm worrying it'll be a mess when I get back."
"That's what I miss," my father said to us, "your
mother nagging at me. When
she starts to nag, then I know she must be feeling better."
My mother said, "You're crazy.
Who nags? Don't forget
to give the place a good cleaning."
"Isn't she beautiful?" my father said. He took my
mother's hand and squeezed it.
"Joe," she said. "Stop
it." But her face seemed
to have regained its color and she looked better.
When the doctor came in, he said she'd be able to go home in a
couple of days.
"Uh, oh," said my father.
"Now I better get busy and clean."
That night when my wife was already in bed I again went out onto
our little crumbling balcony and looked down upon the ocean, the waves now
coming in looking black, with the white foam barely visible in the night.
The surf pounded relentlessly on the beach like some immense
hammer. The moon had been out but now thick clouds obscured it as if
someone had pulled a curtain across the sky.
I shivered a little.
"Why don't you come in?" called my wife.
"Isn't it cold out there?"
"Yeah," I said. "I'll
be right in." But I
continued to look out into the dark night, listening perhaps for an answer
to a question I wasn't even sure how to ask, but hearing only the dull
pounding of the waves.
When I think about mortality, as I do more and more often lately,
usually in the dark just before I go to sleep, I must admit that I get
scared. Can anyone comprehend
the simple fact of death, the loss of self, the fading out into
nothingness? I feel the same
when I try to think about the universe.
How far does it extend? Is
it infinite? Does it go on
forever? Is it contained in
anything, like the space in a room? If
it is, what is that something it's contained in?
I try to imagine myself in a spaceship, starting from the earth.
The ship travels through our solar system, then through our galaxy,
then beyond to other galaxies, then . . .
Then what? Does the
ship continue to go on? Or
does it eventually return to where it started?
At this point, my mind turns to the thought of mortality.
I'm not religious and, being pessimistic by nature, cannot conceive
of any kind of afterlife. I'm
sure that when this life ends it is over.
That consciousness which is myself, which seems to be in my head
just behind my eyes, will be snuffed out like the proverbial candle.
When I reach this conclusion, I give an involuntary shudder because
it is this which scares me. My
consciousness cannot grasp the idea of its own non-existence.
I tell myself that it won't be any more than what happens every
night when I go to sleep and for a time I'm in a state of non-awareness.
The only difference will be that this time the non-awareness will
be permanent. But I still
can't accept this. My mind
recoils like an animal at the scent of danger and retreats back into
itself. I shudder again and
do what I always do to put myself to sleep.
I run a movie of the great sports heroes I remember from when I was
a kid in New York. I see Joe
DiMaggio (my father took me to my first Yankees game when I was eight)
gliding after a long fly ball. I
see Ted Williams swinging the bat and in what seems like the next second
the baseball caroming off the seats of the right field bleachers.
I see Ward Cuff of the old football Giants running down the
sidelines in the Polo Grounds, jump over a would-be tackler, and continue
on into the end zone.
But what I see most often is Bob Cousy leading the Boston Celtics'
fast break when, a kid in high school, I'd go to see them play the Knicks
on my student ticket, sitting high up in the balcony of the old Madison
Square Garden. I see Cousy
running down the middle of the floor, head up, eyes seeing everything
around him, driving to the basket, then at the last moment passing the
ball to Bill Sharmon, who then gently lofts it, light as a feather,
through the hoop. I watch the
young Cousy, his movements preserved in my memory, and eventually I go to
My mother was discharged from the hospital and we drove her back to
the hotel. She used a
walker so that she could get in and out of the car.
My wife and I went to a nearby store to get the food and other
items she'd listed for us. The
hotel room was what was known as an efficiency, small with a kitchen and
just enough space for a table, a few chairs and a bed.
While we had tea, my mother resting in the room's one armchair, the
other inhabitants of the hotel came in to see her.
I was struck, not by how old they all were, although there was that
too, but how short and gnarled they were, as if they were a race of people
who'd been beaten close to the ground by a giant hammer.
Then I realized this is just what they were.
They were people who'd come over from the old country, or whose
parents had, who'd suffered through the Great Depression, who'd been
through two world wars and who somehow had still survived.
On our last night in Florida, we had dinner with my parents,
bringing back food, stuffed cabbages, from Wolfie's, a famous Miami Beach
restaurant which was just a block away from their hotel.
My father had introduced us to the restaurant's manager, who now
asked how my mother was.
I said she was doing okay. "She's
ready to come here for dinner, with her walker ," I told him.
"But the doctor wants her to take it
"They're two of my favorite people," the manager said.
"Your mother fusses over your father, especially when he wants
to eat too much. Your father
sometimes looks at her as if she was a new bride."
After we'd finished our stuffed cabbages, my father cleared off the
table and put the dishes into the sink.
"Joe, don't leave those dirty dishes there," my mother
immediately said. "Rinse
them off and put them in the washer."
"So what's the rush?" my father replied.
"I'll do them later. They
won't get up and run away."
"I don't like dirty dishes lying around."
"Okay, okay. See
how she nags me. That's how I
know she's getting better." He
went over to my mother's chair, leaned over and kissed her.
"Isn't she beautiful?" he said.
I felt sad when we got up to leave.
"Take care of yourself, Ma," I said.
"Don't rush it. Call
if you need anything. And do
what the doctor says."
"Don't worry," my father said.
"I'll make sure she behaves herself."
"And who'll make you behave?" said my mother.
She turned to me. "Don't
worry about us," she said. "We'll
manage. Your father always
takes care of me."
On the long plane ride back, I found myself thinking of what my
mother had said about my father. It
was true, he'd always taken care of my mother, and of his family, my
sister and myself. When I was small, he'd worked on the WPA in New York City
during the Depression. He'd
also done all of the plumbing repairs in our building to help pay the
When the war, World War II, came, he worked all over the country on
defense projects, in Florida, Oklahoma, Wisconsin, and at Oak Ridge in
Tennessee, which we later learned was making the atomic bomb.
His pay checks were always faithfully sent home.
After the war, he continued to work on building projects out of
town until finally they started building in New York and he could come
Two youngish-looking men, both plump and red-faced, dressed in
expensive suits, were sitting across the aisle from us, businessmen
returning from a trip, I guessed. They
were loud and drunk, continually calling on the stewardesses to order more
drinks. When a stewardess
came to serve them, they "kidded" her with a string of
During one of these times, when one of the men put
a hand on the stewardess's arm and she started to jerk away, the plane
suddenly dropped and the drinks spilled onto their laps.
The plane continued to buck around and the captain's falsely
reassuring voice came over the loudspeaker: "We're experiencing some
temporary turbulence. Please
buckle your seat belts." The
stewardess returned to her seat. My
wife gripped my hand while the plane went back and forth.
One of the good things about death, I'd always thought, was that it
was the great leveler. Sooner or later, everyone died, including the worst of us,
the people who clambered to success over others, the people who made
others miserable, the arrogant politicians who thought they were above the
law, the hypocritical lawyers, the richest rock stars, the smug, the
inevitably came to the same end. I'd
remind myself of this occasionally when meeting with a particularly
insufferable legislator or pompous agency
Now, if our plane crashed, those two loudmouth idiots who were
ruining our trip would also go. The
trouble was that my wife and I would go with them.
For this reason, I concentrated on stabilizing the plane.
After what seemed an eternity but what was probably only a few
minutes the shaking stopped and we returned to our normally smooth flight,
in which we seemed to be suspended, barely moving, in space.
The captain's voice said we were clear of the turbulence and that
passengers were free to move about the plane again.
I saw that my two loudmouth friends had summoned the stewardess but
she told them she wouldn't serve them any more drinks.
When they protested, she turned and walked away.
I went back to thinking of my father.
Back in Sacramento, life resumed.
I went to my writing class and, our trip to see my folks still on
my mind, wrote a poem I called, "Those Miami Jews," which was
later printed in the school literary magazine.
Those Miami Jews,
men with canes,
women with walkers.
she says to me,
I say to her.
that's the story.
what I mean?
does he know?
does he know?
was here first.
sure this is fresh?
don't tell me.
pushing, exasperating, arguing, admirable.
One day I was in the school library, looking for a book my writing
teacher had recommended. I
couldn't find it but, having a few minutes before my class started, I
browsed through the fiction section, noting authors I hadn't read for
years: Hemingway, Steinbeck, Scott Fitzgerald, Maugham.
All dead now.
Books were supposed to confer a kind of immortality upon their
authors. But a thousand, or
even a few hundred, years from now, would these books still exist?
Would libraries still exist? Certainly,
literary scholars wouldn't still be debating on whether Hemingway tried to
be a tough guy because his mother made him wear dresses when he was a
child. Or would they?
In any case, what would it matter?
What difference did it make to a dead author if his works were
still on a library shelf? I
wondered if a copy of the magazine with my poem in it would still be
around somewhere. Would this
make me immortal? Would I
The year went on. I
called my folks in Miami often to hear about my mother's progress as she
slowly recovered from her broken hip.
Talking to my father so much, I thought about him a great deal.
He sometimes sounded tired but he'd do anything to take care of my
mother. On some nights,
after talking with him, it took a long time before I was able to get to
sleep. For my writing class, I wrote another poem, one I called
"Watching Bob Cousy." It
Bob Cousy comes dribbling down the center of the court,
looking neither right nor left,
the world converges on this point,
looking straight ahead, passes off.
ball, a feather, drops through the basket.
Doesn't such an image persist in the universe forever,
a share of immortality?
This poem was not printed anywhere.
One night, laying beside my gently breathing wife, watching Bob
Cousy in my mind, a thought comes: Surely,
if this image persists, then something like the goodness of my father
cannot dissolve into nothingness. Surely
it will persist, somehow, in some sense, forever.
I see a spaceship, gliding serenely through the universe.
It passes through our solar system, through our galaxy, then
continues through other galaxies. The
stars seem to move along with it, all is calm, all is quiet, then all is
darkness, and I'm asleep.
All work is copyrighted property of Martin Green.
© 2005 SubtleTea Productions All Rights Reserved