Another foot of snow fell throughout the day and evening. The next morning, we went out in the stillness, wet snow clinging to every twig and wire against a dun-colored sky, and began the process of shoveling out. The snowbanks have mounted to nearly three feet; we haven’t seen a winter like this for decades.
Once we had made a path for our feet and the car, we drove to the post office, and then to the town clerk’s office where we handed in our absentee ballots for the Vermont Democratic primary, and took a small handful of chocolate candy from the big glass jar on the counter on our way out. Then we drove across the river to visit my father-in-law, now home from the hospital.
When we entered, he was sitting in his chair in a dark blue fleece dressing gown and light blue pajamas. One of the staff women was seated on a chair near him, taking his dinner order so that the kitchen could send a tray up to his room. He was saying that nothing appealed to him, but if he had to eat, he would just have some rice, a little meat, a salad – and for her to tell them to make it from the inner leaves of the lettuce, not the outer tough ones. “Where do the inner leaves go?” he asked, a little petulantly. “They never give them to us.”
“I don’t know!” she answered, “but I’m with you. I know what I do at home – I tear off those tough outside leaves and go right for the inside ones. I’ll see what I can do. Now, how about a little piece of angel food cake with your dinner? They can put some berries on it, and that way it won’t be so sugary, I know you don’t want anything too sweet…”
We said hello to them both and sat down; the woman finished her paperwork and left. “So, how are you?” J. asked.
“I’ve been off, and I’m not back yet.” He gave a bitter laugh. “In the hospital they gave me that drug – what is it – the one that people get hooked on.”
“Heroin,” said J., joking.
“Actually didn’t they give you morphine?” I said.
“Whatever. They gave it to me and I went…off.” He waved two fingers in the direction of the window.
“Where did you go?” I wondered if he remembered spending a night in Beirut, as he had told my sister-in-law he’d dreamed a few days before.
“I don’t know. Wherever it is I’m not back from!” He was smiling, but the underlying look on his face was sad and disagreeable. His face was tired and a bit drawn, and there were patches of dry skin on his cheeks and around his eyes, but when he talked he still looked handsome, with flickers of his old vibrancy.
I noticed that something in the familiar composition had changed. “Where’s your radio?” I asked. The big old Grundig wasn’t in its usual place, and Socrates, who usually stood on top, leaning on his staff and listening to the room’s proceedings, had been moved onto the tea table with its faded, dried-up flowers and disheveled pile of books and papers.
“I had them move it into my bedroom, near my bed, so I can listen to it there. But it’s not talking to me. I can’t get the Vermont public station on it. I can’t get anything on it but static.”
“OK, we’ll try later to see what we can do.”
“I really feel miserable. This whole hospital stay was a catastrophe, an utter catastrophe. They took me there against my wishes, and against the orders of my doctor. The nurse stood right there and told me ‘I’m calling the ambulance right now!’ and I said ‘No you are not!’ and she did it anyway, and they took me.” He shook his head. “And of course my doctors were away, so I sat there in that room for four days and they did nothing, no doctor came to see me to do anything significant, until Sunday when I got very angry and told them I wasn’t staying any longer unless something started to happen. Aaagh. What’s the use?”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“It can’t be helped,” he said. “And I’m also miserable because I realize I’ve spent my life deceiving people.”
“What do you mean?”
“I taught people to think, telling them it was important. That was my mission. I’d watch them in class, and one day the light would go on during some discussion, and you’d see them, realizing for the first time, ‘I can think for myself!’ Parents would tell me, ‘You took my child and taught him, and he’s become completely different!’”
I was confused, since this is the sort of praise he often repeats and seems to cherish. “So what’s wrong with that?”
“Think for what?” he said. “What good does it do? This is how we end up – unable to do anything, good for nothing, while life goes on and the world runs itself down under the likes of Bush. So you see, I deceived them.”
I looked at him, unable to find quick words to make a convincing argument, or any argument at all, but unwilling to offer platitudes.
He fixed me with a piercing gaze. “What are you here for?” he demanded. “What are any of us here for?”
I really didn’t want to get drawn into a hopeless argument, since it was clear by now that he was in a very bad mood. I waited a few moments, and then answered, “I think we’re here for love.”
He gave me the same withering look he gives when he thinks I’m defending religion, and pretended not to hear. “They learn to think, and then they find out the world is a terrible place, and all the religions are lies, and that when we die” -- he snapped his fingers – “we just die. Like that. Fini. Anyone who can think comes to that conclusion. So what is the point of being able to think?” He looked at me defiantly. “They might as well throw themselves off a cliff.”
I stared back at him and considered. “I can think and I haven’t done that yet,” I said, looking at him directly.
That threw him off guard. Then he grinned; Socrates stood immobile in his new position on the tea tray, his back to me, looking at my father in law, “So why not?” he growled.
“I love your son, for one thing.”
“Well, when we love, we aren’t ourselves – we aren’t thinking, we are lost in the other person. We forget all about ourselves. That’s what I said at the last wedding I performed.”
“I remember that.”
“You and I consider ourselves the pinnacle of evolution, because we can think. But we humans are not the end point of evolution. We’re just… the tip emerging from nature.” I thought about the article I’d read earlier in the day, about the discovery on an arctic island of a fifty-foot-long fossilized sea monster, the largest marine reptile ever discovered, and the artist’s conception of it rising from the sea on its front flippers, toothy jaws agape, ready to snap them shut on a flying pterosaur. The monster had been dark blue in the painting, the same blue as my father-in-law’s robe. I suppressed a smile at the thought, got up and went into the kitchen and put water on for tea. He kept talking: “Evolution is a continuing process. We can’t see where it will go. I think eventually we will become something altogether different –-" he waved his hand and looked at the ceiling –- “beings of pure spirit, living together in love.”
“Will these spirits die, or will they be immortal?”
“They’ll be immortal.”
“Sounds good! Do you want some tea, while I’m up?”
“No! I can’t stand tea, and they kept bringing it to me in the hospital. And why do people insist on having it every afternoon? I don’t understand it.”
Now it was my turn to pretend not to hear; on the counter there was a slice of cantaloupe in a thick china dish, wrapped in plastic. I lowered my head and cut the melon up into small pieces, thinking he might possibly eat a little of it. My father-in-law had turned to J., who was squatting on the floor, changing the lens in his camera. “Have you listened to the business news today?” he asked. “What’s going on in the world? I feel totally lost, totally out of it.”
(This is the first of four parts, and is the latest in a many-year-long series of posts about my father-in-law, collected under the title "The Fig and the Orchid"; please click on that name under Pages, in the sidebar at left, for the whole series.)