The Long Goodbye

06.14.14

Adam Hochschild on Keeping Company With His Dying Father

As his father lay dying in a New York hospital, Adam Hochschild kept the older man company and meditated on the bonds, spoken and unspoken, between them.

Before Adam Hochschild wrote King Leopold’s Ghost, his acclaimed book about the Belgian Congo, or celebrated histories about World War I, and the fight to free the slaves of the British Empire, the co-founder of Mother Jones penned a beautiful memoir about his father. The story, told with precision and restraint, is full of yearning and quiet reflection. Here is a bittersweet chapter about a son and his dad for you to appreciate on this Father’s Day. –Alex Belth

From Half the Way Home: a Memoir of Father and Son

1939. WAR CLOUDS OVER EUROPE. Molotov and Ribbentrop shake hands to celebrate their pact. Germany prepares for the roundup of the Jews. From the American Dust Bowl, thousands of destitute farm families stream westward. On a New York terrace, there is a dinner dance one balmy summer evening. Among the guests, though they do not know each other yet, are two friends of the hosts. He is in his late forties; intelligent, people say, but stiff and restrained, an eternal bachelor. She has a warm, gentle beauty that catches the eye, but, like him, is clearly destined to remain single; all her friends have long since married.

They are introduced; they call each other “Mr.” and “Miss”; they dance a sedate foxtrot. What goes through his mind as he makes small talk with her? That she was impeccably Anglo, for sure; that she would be his final certificate of entry into that world (as, indeed, he was to make it into the Social Register a year after they married). And yet … there was much more, too. Some deep kindness in her face says: with me it is safe; with me you can take that step out of yourself you have not taken for nearly fifty years. After the party, he says something to the host, asking to be invited to dinner with her again; he is afraid to call her directly. Waiting for others to arrange their next meeting means a months-long delay. How impossibly hard it must seem to him to make that first call to her.

What were the mysteries that lay ahead of them in bed? For her, almost certainly they were mysteries; maybe they were for him, too; I still do not know. Whatever was to happen there, there are clues that it was good: a few shy, tender references in letters I was to find after they both were dead, even in letters written long after they had been married. Ahead of them lay all the proper forms of things: I was also to find, filled in neatly in her handwriting, a leather book, its cover embossed in gold: “Wedding Presents,” with ruled columns with printed headings: “Gift,” “From Whom,” “Where Purchased,” “Acknowledged,” “Remarks”; it mostly listed silver from Tiffany’s and one or two other stores. And yet, if there were two people of their generation who were happier to find each other, who better rescued each other from otherwise lonely lives, I never met them. Could any child ask for a greater gift?

***

1981. Three weeks after that final New Year’s weekend at Eagle Nest [the Hochschild family estate in the Adirondacks]. Once again, a hospital in New York. Father, my father, is here, and the doctors say he has little time left. As my mother, my protector, stayed with me for my ear operation when I was five, now I stay with Father. I feel as if it is her caring, her compassion, her love I am expressing toward him, for I feel in myself something more complicated than love. When I ask if he wants me to move into the hospital room with him, to my surprise—and to a flooding feeling almost of exhilaration: his need for me is greater than my fear of him—he says yes. And so I move in, sleeping on a cot, for the duration.

Just as I thought one of them would die abroad, so I thought one might die here. Gertrude died in this hospital; a director of [Amax Inc., one of the largest mining companies in the world] is now dying across the hall. Just as there is Mother Teresa’s famous Dying Home for the poor in Calcutta, so this hospital, with its windows looking out across the Hudson, is a Dying Home for the rich. On maps of Manhattan it appears as one giant hospital, but it is in fact two. Late at night when the wood-paneled entrance to the private pavilion is closed, you have to walk through the hospital for the poor to get to the hospital for the rich. Patients in the former are nearly all black or Hispanic; some fifty or sixty of them wait on folding metal chairs. Security guards stand about, bristling with straps and guns and billy clubs. There are curtained cubicles for seeing the doctor, dimly lit halls, a smell of stopped-up toilets. Painted arrows on the linoleum floor direct you where to stand in line. When he first came here some months ago after falling off the horse, Father had to wait five hours in this emergency room. His doctor found out about it the next day and raised hell: what had happened, of course, was that Father, being injured (only the poor get injured; the rich get ill), had been put in the hospital for the poor by mistake.

When you pass through a set of glass doors, you cross the frontier between the two hospitals. This floor, where Father is, is the most exclusive of all, with handsome wooden doors on the rooms, and a special kitchen which prepares things like lobster tail and rack of lamb. Doctors come by frequently; the nurses—everyone has a private nurse—are not black, as they seem to be in the hospital for the poor, but Irish, with soft brogues. Above all, the rich have purchased the solicitousness of doctors, of nurses, even of hospital officials, one of whom, wearing a business suit, makes the round of the rooms like a restaurant owner visiting tables, “just to make sure everything is all right.”

We talk very little. Father has energy to do so only for a few minutes at a time. But his mind is totally clear. We reminisce about a few of those trips together when I was small. I read him an article I’ve just published; he says he likes it. And he tells me, for the first time, about something he did as a ten-year-old boy visiting Germany with his parents before World War I.

Tears collect in his eyes; he cannot move his head to let them drain; I wipe them away.

“I used to sneak off on Sunday afternoons to watch a cavalry band on parade. There was one part of Frankfurt where they did that. With the big kettledrums on either side of the saddle, and all that. My father didn’t know. He wouldn’t have approved. Jews were not allowed to become cavalry officers, you see.”

I wonder: Is this where Father’s lifetime passion for riding came from?

There is a smell of death about him now; no hospital deodorants or rubber gloves or absorbent pads can take it away. When he talks to me: “Adam, can you mop my forehead?” “Adam, can you get me my slippers?” I have a strange feeling that it is not me he is talking to, but rather an imagined, childhood Adam, an Adam with all the emotions a son is supposed to have, not me as I am now. Then that feeling ebbs away; the two Adams collapse into one, as he says, “Adam, come sit by me for a while,” the only time in his life he has asked that.

He wakes and sleeps at intervals that have become disconnected from the flow of night and day. One night he wakes and says, “I’d like some vodka.” There is none in the hospital. So I walk out, through the hospital for the poor, past the waiting room full of policemen and junkies and street-fight victims, to a liquor store. A continuous sheet of bulletproof plastic goes all the way to the ceiling; you slide in your money, and receive your pocket-flask bottle, in a tray recessed in the counter. Back in his room, with the vodka we toast each other in Russian, the language we had once worked so hard together to learn.

Another time he wakes in the middle of the night and, conscientious to the end, dictates to me a letter answering a request for news from his college class secretary: “… I traveled to Europe in June. I continue in my interest in Adirondack history …. ” Groans sometimes escape him, but when you look to inquire or comfort, he says, “Excuse me,” as if he had involuntarily spoken out of turn.

He focuses on his movements from bed to chair and chair to bed: a huge effort each time, planned and coordinated.between him and me and the nurse. At night, restless, he moves back and forth between the two more often. We succeed in getting him into bed; in a few minutes he wants us to lower its side railing so he can get out again, into the chair. That old, intimidating obstinacy flashes out:

“Take down the railing, please.”
“Aw, but darling ye were just awp,” the Irish nurse says. “Try t’ sleep now.”
“Take down the railing, please.”
“Try t’ sleep.”

“Take down the railing.”

We do.

Later, it is an effort for him even to move from one side to the other in bed. There are more groans, but he cannot name where it hurts. Tears collect in his eyes; he cannot move his head to let them drain; I wipe them away. What is the pain he is feeling? Is it exhaustion, something intensely painful in itself to someone who always felt boundless energy? Or is dying itself a hurt, a wound, not located in any part of the body, but pain of a sort different from anything the rest of us can imagine? I feel a rush of vertigo, an unexpected fear that this is not death as it is in novels and movies, not death in which one looks back on life and sees all things truthfully at last, not death as I’ve imagined my own death will be, no, no, not at all.

He begins to bleed internally; he vomits blood; there is blood everywhere. The nurses and I clean up; the doctor comes and gives him pills, for God’s sake. Father’s eyes look like those of a wounded, cornered animal.

He sleeps. I eat a little dinner. There is a lull, a peacefulness. It seems as if the end will surely not come for at least a day or two. Surely we will have time to talk more, maybe even to have, in abbreviated form, that conversation we have never had, about him and me. I sit beside him and hold his hand.

Suddenly the nurse hears some subtle change in breathing, something I can’t hear, and quickly comes over with a stethoscope. His eyes fly open wide, staring up, not at me but through me. I have not cried since I was a teenager, but now a sob comes tearing up from an unknown territory inside me. My lips form around the essential, difficult “I love you.” I think it is true. I think he can hear.

His breath comes in deep gasps, then subsides. I press my ear to his chest. Something; yes, definitely some sound is still there. But the nurse tells me the heartbeat I’m hearing is my own.

Excerpt from Half the Way Home by Adam Hochschild. Copyright © 1986 by Adam Hochschild. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All Rights Reserved.