It is baseball season and the Red Sox are doing well. My husband’s hand reaches automatically for the phone to call his Dad to hoot about wins or grouse over bad plays. It hurts that his father, Colombo, is not there to take the call. Dave phones our son, Tucker, or Colombo’s ninety-year old sister, Cam, and they hoot and grouse together, and it’s a good substitute. It is. A good substitute. But it’s not his dad.
Throughout Dave’s life, spring has meant playing catch, shagging flies, being coached by his father. We are glad that his father is free. We feel only joy for him. But as the Sox return to Fenway and little kids head outside with their mitts and balls, we miss him.
Two and a half years ago, Colombo’s second stroke necessitated a move to a nursing home. It was a painful phase for us, and excruciating for him. The amazing thing is, we adjusted. We rolled it into our lives. And we learned a few things.
Certainly, the jolt of stepping from the world of active living into a world of awaiting life’s end was nightmarish at first. The helplessness. The sadness. The smells of disinfectant, brown gravy, and soiled laundry. Those smells stayed in my nose as I left the building, as I walked the parking lot, as I drove away. But I came to understand that was all surface stuff,
For Colombo, his initial horror at a fuzzy mind and imprisonment in a body that didn’t work melted into brave acceptance as he waited. For my husband and me, insight and connections came through the waiting.
The healthcare workers relieved us of the most intimate aspects of Colombo’s care. For that, we will always be grateful. There was Michelle, the R.N., and Ted, who buffed the floors, as well as Monica, Raymonde, Marlena and Dorotea. Keith, a handsome Jamaican, was Colombo’s primary attendant. He was unable to be with his own father when he passed away in Jamaica a year ago, “But I can do for Colombo. In him, I see my father.” As Colombo grew increasingly unresponsive, there were times when I had to work to see the man I had known in this hollow-cheeked shell (his spirit packing up, getting ready to fly), but Keith never lost sight of the man struggling inside.
Cynthia was another healthcare worker who brightened our nursing home stay. She shared pictures of her daughter’s wedding, introduced us to Jamaican ginger wine and hugged us during hard times.
It fell to us to sculpt our roles. I wanted to be helpful. I wanted to comfort. But I, who had all the stuff and people and places of my busy days as fodder, was at a loss for things to say when visiting my father-in-law. I tried to plan my visits for mealtimes; the partitioned Dentyne-colored dish surrounded by a cluster of eager little cartons and bowls - protein shakes, milk, soup, dessert and tea – provided a whole tray of fuel for discussion. And in feeding him, I was doing something. At times Colombo would purse his lips, refusing to eat the pureed glop that could be pork or chicken or potatoes or rice. Keith would stop in and encourage him, “C’mon Poppy, eat your supper!” And often, it worked.
Colombo grew up in Worcester, the youngest son in a traditional Italian family. He was raised on pasta and fresh vegetables from his father’s garden. When his mother died, his sister, Cam, took over the kitchen. Even though Colombo complained about overcooked noodles, or excess lemon in the salad dressing, he loved Cam’s slow-cooked sauces and the flavors of fried eggplant, stuffed peppers and baccala. Resignation to his lack of choice even in the foods he ate must have been a painful surrender. At times his courage hurt me like a wound.
At the nursing home, Dave always announced himself with a sharp knock on his father’s door – a rappety-rap-rap with his knuckles. Healthcare workers and residents along the hallway knew when Dave had arrived. The sharp sound stood out against the slow, predictable flow of the days. He had no need of food diversions. He would chatter about the Red Sox, or the Patriots or the Celtics as the seasons ran their course. He would drum up memories of old family vacations, friends or business associates. He’d prepare evening cocktails of orange and cranberry juice, asking, “How about a madras, Colombo?
I went light on the vodka.” They’d clink plastic cups with a cheery “Cent’ ans!”
While watching whatever game was on, Dave worked to incite his father to a good hoot or grouse He seized on any response - a grunt, a hand gesture, or the occasional lucid remark - and dressed it up to full-fledged conversation status. Dave had faith that his father was alert, albeit adrift, inside this shrunken husk, and it was Dave’s mission to provide the tow-rope that might lead him to shore.
When we visited Colombo, the bustling hum of the world beyond the nursing home walls was muffled. We came to appreciate the sense of suspension away from that hum. This community was separate, going about the business of waiting-for-the-end. It was life pared down to a room, or half a room, bathing, meals, and the occasional concert or craft project. We’d hear whispers of the past lives of Mrs. McKee in Room 11 or Mr. Watkins in 512 – a famous writer, CEO, or decorated war veteran. Who could tell, in glancing through open doorways at this frail, white-haired fellow or that elegant, hawk-nosed lady, which was which? It no longer mattered. The trappings of those lives had been shed. The defining particulars of appearance, affiliations, responsibilities and possessions were gone, tossed aside like the guy wires anchoring a balloon to earth. Some nursing home residents became bare skin and bones, lightened of their loads as they waited to fly free.
For Colombo, the waiting came to an end in February. He left behind an empty scrap where the feisty golfer and veteran had been. It filled my heart to picture him kicking off that used-up body as easily as a pair of thread-bare khakis, then strutting off across a heavenly golf course of emerald green to meet up with his brothers, Jack and Phil.
Dave and I missed our friends at the nursing home, so we went to visit. Keith was leaving a patient’s room, a dinner tray in his hands, when we encountered him in the hall. His eyes softened at seeing us. He said, “After Colombo passed on and you cleaned out his room, I found a picture you left behind. I have it at home. I see it and think, ‘There is my pal.’ I still miss him.”
Cynthia was on duty too. “Ah, we miss you! We miss hearing Dave’s knock.” She tapped it out on the wall next to her, a good imitation of Dave’s rappety-rap-rap. “Your coming today makes me think of Jesus and the lepers.” With my smile in place, I raised a mental eyebrow, wondering where we would fit into this story of lepers.
“Many people come here – their parents come here. They are angry, or scared, about what has happened. We care for their people, but they put that anger on us, no matter how kind we are. When Jesus cured ten lepers, only one came to thank him. I knew you would come back. You are the tenth leper.”
We hug her. We hug Keith. We hug Michelle and Marlena. How were we so lucky to have Colombo in their care?
But, it is baseball season, and Dave misses his father. Colombo has a prime seat now of course, but Dave wants him here, to hoot and grouse about plays.
A few weeks ago, Dave dreamed about his dad. While driving to work the next day, he passed a car with the license plate, “”614 SYL.” Our last name is Sylvestro. Colombo’s birthday was June 14th.
And The Red Sox are having a good run….