A Barehanded Grasp

delmonicos.jpgI have touchstones all over New York that immediately bring back incidents in my life. All it takes is an awning or a doorway to bring memories flooding back. That’s that theater I used to go to all the time. There’s that bar where my friend pissed all over the window late one night. That’s the corner where I pushed a huge metal cog into oncoming traffic.

Right now, I’m working near Wall Street, right in the shadow of Ground Zero. I’ve never worked in this neighborhood before, which is somewhat unusual in my family (between finance, insurance, and the courts, most of my relatives have worked downtown at some point or another). But I used to go down there every now and then, because my father worked here for most of his adult life (when he was working).

When I was in college, we started to meet up for lunch, and it continued as I entered the workforce myself. We didn’t eat downtown too often–as I’ve quickly found out, the meal options down there are slim pickins. More often, we’d get lunch in the Village–my dad was a huge fan of the Waverly Diner on Sixth Avenue, for reasons that escape me.

But before my current gig, my only ventures into the Financial District area were to visit my dad, and so when I walk around those narrow, sloping streets, I feel haunted by him. Particularly since he used to work in the World Trade Center. I visited him a few times there, when he worked in an office on the 102nd floor, where you could actually feel the building yaw slightly to each side. I can’t pretend to know what it’s like to have lost someone on 9/11, but I think I know something like it when I look out my new office’s windows and see workers below laying foundations, paving things over, removing all evidence that anyone was once there.

I called his death years before it happened, at least in broad terms. I declared to my mother that he’d already put us through too much grief to go easily. It would not be a quick heart attack or car accident. It would be something prolonged and painful and probably crippling to all our wallets. I said these things as jokes, but I was 100 percent convinced they would come true, and I was right.

Important for you to know: I don’t really know what my dad did for a living. For a large chunk of my childhood, he tried to drink himself to death. Then he got sober, and within a year he was working for NASDAQ. Not long after that, he was freelancing, doing consultant work in far flung outposts across the globe. Russia. China. Colombia. Sri Lanka. Former Soviet republics in Central Asia–The Icky-Stans, as he called them.

Most of the places he went to experienced some kind of turmoil shortly before or after he arrived. This led to speculation that he was actually a spook. He laughed at these accusations but didn’t address them, which was especially odd because he was a very skilled liar.

He once showed me pics of a gorgeous beach house he stayed in while on business in Jamaica. It once belonged to Ian Fleming, he said.

The last time we truly met, he came to a party at my future in-laws to celebrate my engagement. He looked a little stooped and sickly, almost yellow. I noticed this and
immediately dismissed it. Because I had to, I guess.

Months passed. I was working a job that forced me to work insane hours, often all night, but on this day, somehow I managed to leave work at a reasonable hour. I was wondering what to do with my sudden bounty of free time when I got a call from my mother. She’d been contacted by some hospital in Kathmandu, of all places. Apparently, my father was there, in a coma, and they wanted to know what we wanted to do about it.

I would find out later that my father had terminal cancer, and knew it, but chose to take another “consulting” gig to Nepal anyway. The stress of an 18-hour plane trip to the Himalayas was more than his weakened body could take, and he’d become gravely ill. Since he and my mother were divorced, she couldn’t speak on his behalf. And since my father would never have done something so sensible as write a will, it fell to me as his de facto next of kin to figure out this mess.

The first doctor I spoke to told me there was no hope. Not in so many words, or so many words that I could understand very well (his accent was quite thick), but that was the gist of his comments. My dad was only being kept alive on life support. “You need to decide what you wish to do,” the doctor said. In other words, do I want to pull the plug or not? Minutes earlier, I had no idea he was sick, and now I was being asked to put him out of his misery. I told the doctor I needed a few moments to think about all this and hung up.

But I didn’t exactly think about it. What I really needed to do was prepare myself. I put on a DVD and procrastinated as long as humanly possible. I watched The Third Man, my dad’s favorite movie (another exhibit in the Spook Case File). By the time Anna walked past Holly Martins, I decided I was ready to call back and do what I had to do.

The problem was, this time I spoke to a completely different doctor, who had a much rosier diagnosis. Your father should probably recover in a few days, he insisted. One minute, he was a dead man, the next he as ready to do cartwheels. It would only get worse once the hospital started calling me over the next few nights.

These weren’t calls from doctors. They were calls from accounts payable. In America, a hospital will treat you regardless of your ability to pay and worry about getting the money later. Not so in Nepal. My father had already stacked up a sizeable bill, and if I didn’t start paying it, they said (without saying it) that they’d kick him to the curb.

Thanks to his coworkers, I managed to get in touch with personnel at the American embassy, who schooled me in the folkways of Nepalese bill collecting techniques. They also said they could probably get him out of this hospital and medevac him back to New York, as long as his company was willing to foot the enormous bill for that service.

So the next week was a blur of placing and fielding calls from the embassy, his company, and angry hospital clerks looking for money. And all the while, getting conflicting reports on the true nature of my father’s condition. I dreaded picking up the phone, because I felt that each call would only confuse things further or somehow make it worse. I was fumbling in the dark and not even sure what I should be looking for.

I contemplated flying over there, but was daunted by the ticket cost (the cheapest flight pushed north of two grand) and the fear that he’d be dead by the time I got there. I’d already been assured/warned that getting my father out of Nepal would be much more difficult once he changed over from patient to cargo.

Thanks to the time difference between New York and Nepal, I had to keep my cell phone on vibrate at all times, usually in the front pocket of my jeans. I’d get calls at all hours from strange people with strange accents, muddying the perception of my father’s condition even further, and threatening me to pay up or else. Or else it’d be someone from the embassy, sympathetic and trying their best, but unable to give any true updates just yet. My phone rang so often that I still get phantom sensations in my upper thighs that mimic a cell phone’s vibration.

Between this and my all-night job, the stress caused me to experience sleep paralysis, which was utterly terrifying. This is a condition where you suddenly gain consciousness in the middle of the night but can not move. I’d never heard of it before. The first time it happened to me, I seriously thought I was being abducted by aliens.

Somehow, some way, the Nepalese bill collectors were kept at bay, and the logistics of flying my father home were finally hashed out at the embassy. I honestly can not remember exactly how this all happened, because I was operating on two hours of sleep a night by this point (if that).

A few days later, he was back in the States, in a hospital in upstate New York where he’d been getting some cancer treatment (which none of us knew about) until he’d given up trying to get better. His doctor told me what I’d already managed to read between the confusing lines from my calls to Kathmandu: he’d experienced some serious brain damage, he was only still alive thanks to life support, and he was not going to get better. The doctor was basically telling me I had to pull the plug, just as the very first doctor I’d spoken to had.

In this moment, I felt the worst part of the whole ordeal: He made me hate him again. I’d spent a huge portion of my childhood resenting him for crawling into a bottle and dooming us to poverty and stealing what little money we had. But as an adult, I’d given up this feeling because it had nothing to give me. I got to know him and, if not always like him, at least understand him.

Now, he’d put me through all of this turmoil because he was stupid and inconsiderate enough to travel halfway around the world when he knew was terminally ill. And to top it all off, he was making me responsible for killing him. My brothers and my mother and my wife-to-be were there, too, but I had to be the one to officially say, “Do this.” In that moment, I could feel every bit of anger I’d ever felt towards him in my entire life, every little bit that I thought I’d let go, cling to me again like a swarm of bees.

And then I said “Okay,” and it was gone.

I don’t know what normally happens in a pull-the-plug situation. I assume it depends on the person’s condition. What I do know is that my father didn’t go quickly. Nothing else had gone easily up to this point, so why would the end be any different. As the hours dragged, we joked and made idle chit-chat, because no one was sure of the proper etiquette in this situation.

I wondered about what he might want to hear in his last moments. I tried to use his laptop and pirate the hospital’s wireless to stream or download a Jean Shepherd show or an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, but I couldn’t figure out the password.

When I was in high school, if he came home late, he’d often ask to watch MST3K. He liked to watch it to go to sleep, as did I (and still do). For some reason, I remember one line he really enjoyed. In Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, one of the titular aliens orders around an underling with hilariously fake facial hair–he looks like Harry Shearer as Derek Smalls in Spinal Tap. The commander tells this Martian they will leave for Earth soon. Crow T. Robot barks back, “Pack your other mustache!”

That cracked him up, and it cracks me up too, and I don’t know why.

* * *

We staggered out of the hospital nine hours later. It was late, but still muggy as all hell. The sky was dark and starless. When we climbed into my mom’s car, it was tuned to WFAN out of habit. The Mets were playing in San Diego. We left the game on, because it was a good, dumb thing to distract us.

We weren’t in the car for more than 20 minutes before announcers went berzerk. David Wright had made a mind-blowing, once-in-a-lifetime catch that had to be seen to be believed. Of course, we couldn’t see it, but the rhetorical skills of Howie Rose and Gary Cohen made us think we had. When I think of this catch now, I think of hearing it on the radio, and imagining how it must look, as we plodded back home on the Thruway.

wrightcatch.jpgYesterday, I was driving back from New Jersey and listening to the Yankees-Red Sox game, despite the fact that I’m generally indifferent to both teams. My wife asked, “Why do you like baseball?” Considering we’ve been together for almost ten years, it’s amazing she’d never asked me the question in such a plain way.

The short answer is, I have no idea. I could probably think of reasons, things about the game that speak to me. But ultimately, I like it because I like it.

However, if I had to pick one thing, I’d say it’s because every year, there’s always a chance to see something wonderful. Even the lamest, most failure-filled seasons have transcendent moments.

And if I had to pick another thing, it’s because my obsession with baseball allows me to pinpoint other events in my life. I can remember what year something happened because I’ll remember who won the World Series, or who was in the Mets’ starting rotation that year. So in my mind, this day, the longest of my life, is stamped with the memory of the 2005 Mets.

The 2005 Mets were a thoroughly a mediocre team, but one with promise. They’d acquired Pedro Martinez and Carlos Beltran in the offseason. David Wright and Jose Reyes were on the cusp of being superstars. They hung around in the wild card hunt for most of the summer before a disastrous road trip (one featuring the terrifying head-on collision between Beltran and Mike Cameron) killed their hopes.

But during the very same series as that horrifying accident, David Wright made one of the most amazing plays ever. An arcing fly ball was hit just over his right shoulder. He scrambled back as the ball tumbled toward the earth, seemingly out of reach. At the last possible second, he leaped in the air, extended his throwing hand out into the ether, just hoping the ball might land there.

Somehow, it did, and somehow, he held on, and somehow, he did not let go when he crashed onto the unforgiving turf. Despite being in a foreign ballpark, the crowd, stunned by what it saw, gave him a standing ovation. That catch happened five years ago tonight.

I like baseball because sometimes someone fumbles deep in the night, felled by gravity, just hoping that things will fall into place, and unlike in real life, sometimes they do.