One memory that always surfaces from that weekend in the south of France while my father lay in a coma, hooked up to machines but already gone from his body, was my mother sitting in a hospital hallway, doing crossword puzzles, or “ratsel” as she called them. While the rest of us ran around making arrangements or sat in dumb grief, she focused her entire attention on a little book of word and math games clutched hard in her lap. In a way it was as if she, too, was out of her body – the communicative, responsive part that could acknowledge what was going on around her. That was how she dealt with her sorrow and loss. How did I deal with mine? The experience was so surreal, I can’t exactly say. On Monday, July 4, each of us went in singly to say goodbye to Gustavo. I kissed his cold cheek. If I made a promise to him, I don’t remember it. My mother was the last person to be with him and she stayed in the cold little room where he lay with his eyes taped shut for quite a while. After that they unplugged the machines.
My sister and brother-in-law flew back to New York a day ahead of us to begin funeral arrangements. I returned with my mother – and with my father, whose body was transported on the same flight. And what a weird flight that was. We were in first class. Franyo got extremely tipsy on champagne. While I clutched the armrests and sucked my breath in with every little shock of turbulence, Franyo smiled happily and sang bits and pieces of show tunes. The bumpier the flight, the more she liked it, she said. She also said that Gustavo had been a very passionate man right up to the end, and she hadn’t always wanted to accommodate him, something that now, in her grief, made her feel guilty. TMI, I thought, wishing she would close her eyes and take a nap. That trip home with Franyo lit up by champagne and talking a blue streak as the plane dipped and bounced across the Atlantic was the closest to happy I saw her for a long time to come.
I returned to my house in Brooklyn to find that my bedroom had been totally trashed by my three-year-old daughter, Gabriella, who’d never been separated from me before and couldn’t grasp the concept of her grandfather’s death in a distant country or why I’d had the temerity to go away and leave her. Clothes, books, upended waste baskets, pillows all over the floor. Life continues, I thought, cleaning up the mess. A week later we moved to the country where we would remain for the rest of the summer. Our little shack of a house was in a town called Shady, just outside Woodstock. It was very rustic. Wood-burning stove in the middle of the living room, bunk beds for the girls, hills and a burbling creek behind us, smells of fresh-mown grass, flowers and pines. It was such a relief to be there! Gabriella was in a small home daycare with her best friend from Brooklyn, whose family had a country house nearby, Jofka was away at camp, and George took the bus up from the city Thursday nights. Suddenly I had a lot of free time. This is going to sound odd, but I spent most of it looking for my father. Where was he? He had to be somewhere. It was my first experience with the death of a close relative and I couldn’t get it into my brain that he was gone. To the contrary: I had the distinct feeling that he was just there, inches away, behind an invisible curtain and if I could only get my hands on it and pull it apart, I’d see him.
That summer I bought tons of books on psychics and psychic experiences, thinking I’d find answers, but the only answers I received came unexpectedly from daily walks up into the mountains where the air seemed to grow thinner and the white bark of the birch trees looked ghostly against the greens and blacks of the forest. I’d sense my father walking with me, telling me I had to be disciplined and make something of my life. Earlier in the summer I’d met with an editor about writing an AA novel. On those lengthy walks, gnats swirling in the heavy air, sweaty clothes clinging to my body, the story I was to write told itself to me – a complicated story about four women getting sober whose plot line was so complex I could barely keep it in my head. But I heard it like a song repeated over and over, and eventually that song became the novel, “Hearts of Glass.” It took me three years to write and was published by Crown in 1992, a gift from my father whose spirit led me up into the mountains and opened my ears to music I might not otherwise have heard.
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