Horatio

Horatio
[Photo by Jacquelyn Griffin)

Monday, September 21, 2009

Death in the Family

Growing up in Floral Park, we knew all of our neighbors. One of them, who became close to my family after my grandmother's death in 1977, was a cross-grained, crusty man, who nonetheless had buried (sometimes deeply buried) wells of affection in his nature.

He died today, after three years of being in a nursing home, where he relentlessly refused to engage in any kind of activity. My mother, who had been named by him as power of attorney, cared for him, visited him, and did everything anybody could to soften the harshness of those last years. (You understand, I hope, that he was hardly a ray of sunshine before this, right? Just checking).

Part of his tragedy was that he wore the "hey kids get off my lawn" mask so long that it became impossible to discard. But sometimes I did see beyond that, and could forgive his rudeness to my family, to me, and sass him right back. And I remember an unexpected phone call, a decade ago, when he shared with me a deeply personal hurt, one which, I believe, helped him to don the mask of disappointed, angry man. He wore that until almost the end, although when I visited him, he would occasionally smile, and respond to the sort of sarcastic banter that had marked our friendship since I was a boy. He taught me, in a way that no other experience I have had could have, the truth of a profound statement by Kurt Vonnegut, in Mother Night: "We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be." Or, more to the point, if you insist on turning your back on life, it will, eventually, turn its back on you.

But no piece of a life reflects its whole. I remember pool games, Thanksgiving dinner (when he would, sometimes, show up briefly, chat for a while, take a plate and go home, despite my mother's repeated invitation to stay for dinner,or at least dessert. Over the years, this became a stylized kabuki drama of hospitality, with Mr. L refusing to come over, and my sister or I (or both) bringing the plate over, and on certain propitious years, him turning up at the end of the meal), and other occasions. We are not, after all, only our masks.

Rest in peace, old friend.

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