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"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 longer muscular.


     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 sleep.




     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 easy."


     "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 rent.


     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 home.


     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 suggestive remarks.


     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 self-satisfied,

everyone inevitably came to the same end.  I'd remind myself of this occasionally when meeting with a particularly insufferable legislator or pompous  agency head.


     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.  It went:


     Those Miami Jews,

     Old men with canes,

     Old women with walkers.


     So she says to me,

     So I say to her.

     So that's the story.

     Know what I mean?


     Don't tell me.

     What does he know?

     That schmuck.

     What does he know?


     You blind?

     I was here first.

     You sure this is fresh?

     Hey, don't tell me.

     Those Miami Jews.

     Talking, 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 care?




     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 went:


     Bob Cousy comes dribbling down the center of the court,

     Upright, looking neither right nor left,

     Seeing everything.

     As the world converges on this point,

     Cousy, looking straight ahead, passes off.

     Bill Sharmon shoots.

     The ball, a feather, drops through the basket.


     Doesn't such an image persist in the universe forever,

     Conveying 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.






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