Guilt by Association
Irving A. Greenfield
“I was thinking about Sy,” Essy suddenly says.
“I was too,” I tell her amazed at the synchronicity of our thoughts, which is something that rarely happens these days, or to be more truthful, in a very, very long time though we’ve been married for over six decades.
“He would know what to do,” she tells me.
What she means is that she doesn’t trust her doctors, a feeling I share with her. They are too aloof, too out of touch with the “human side” medicine. The old time diagnostician is antediluvian; today’s doctors depend the printouts from their electronic gadgets.
I met her surgeon once; he is young, brusque, and obviously saw me as the classic doddering old fool who took up his time with unnecessary questions. What he failed to realize was that I saw him as a very good mechanic, nothing more. When, out of pique, I told him that, he blanched and said, “Three months in a rehab and she’ll walk again.” He was right, but then she fell again.
Essy began to reminisce about Sy and his family and the things we did together. Concerts, operas, and the ballet were high on her list. Essy and Helen played the piano; Essy even taught piano for several years. Despite her physical problems, she still had one student.
Her conversation rambles touching on the time we were in northern Italy, which we both agree was the best time of lives. All of our travels were with our sons; I often think that because we had our children with us, the native population with who we came in contact treated us with more kindness than they might have treated tourists who traveled without their children. Of course I had no way knowing if this was true or something we preferred to believe.
And then her musings move to where I know they will go because they almost always go to the same place: her mother, father, and her two brothers, her aunts and uncles, all of whom are dead and have been dead for a long time. But to Essy they are alive or their past still lives in her thoughts.
I know the litany by heart. Over the years it is the huge wedge that has come between us. I never doubted her love for those people. But it interfered with her life and her love for me and perhaps our sons, such as it was.
I listen to her, but I don’t want to hear the same stories again. I remain silent. She is speaking about her world, and it’s peopled with dead of her family.
I want to get her on to another topic, and say, “The sky is full of Mare’s tails and that usually means that rain is in the offing.” A bit of lore I picked up at sea so many years ago.
She doesn’t acknowledge what I said and continues to speak about her father, a truly wonderful person and a very good friend to me. But he’s been dead for over fifty years, and despite her efforts to resurrect him and other members of her family, it’s not going to happen. She still refers to the high-back chair near the window that I sit on as “Daddy’s chair.” Does this infuriate me? Yes, it’s an itch I can’t rid myself of. Her claim is that I never loved my family, whose members are also dead, as much as she loved hers. That’s indisputably true. What I wrote about them will bear that out. But I saw them as people, not as minor deities.
To break the spell of her recitation, I suggest that we walk a bit. Besides, I am tired of sitting and the muscles in my back are beginning to cramp. She agrees, and I move the walker in front of her and unlock it while she places herself between the two handlebars.
“Which way?” she asks
“Let’s go up-river.”
We move very slowly. Her steps are small, and I have difficulty cutting my stride to match her movement. I am usually several strides in front of her where I wait until she reaches me and we begin the process all over again.
A slight wind has come up, and Essy stops to pull the hood of her hoodie over her head, the change gives her what I refer to perhaps unfairly as her LADY OF SHALLOT look. Until her first accident happened, she was incredibly beautiful woman even at her age. But the consequences of the double accidents have taken their toll. She is bent over. The wrinkles that scar her face clearly mark her age, and the look in her green eyes has a wildness about it that speaks to me of her pain, her disappointments, and her blind anger at her circumstances.
As we walk, there is more land between us and the river, which is taken up with flowerbeds and stands of trees. But the river is always visible either in narrow cuts or broader openings between the trees.
Suddenly I see the upper portion of cruise ship’s bow. The ship is headed down river toward the open sea. Within minutes, its entire entity is there. It is huge. I have always wanted to take a cruise, even one that is offered to “nowhere.” But Essy couldn’t bear the thought of the amount of food that is served on the cruise ships. She claimed that I’d put on ten pound in as many days. As an alternate, I suggested a trip on a freighter. But then I realized that would have been a bad choice, especially if we could not connect with the few other passengers on board the whole experience would become a disaster.
The ship, the Norwegian Princess, is white with some abstract painting wrapped around her bow and extending to amidships. She is huge and the people on the top deck look like miniature figures, which is the way the people walking or cycling along the river’s edge must appear to them. The last time I was at sea in a ship even larger than the one I’m looking at was many years ago when I was a guest of the United States Navy on the aircraft carrier America. The details of how that happened aren’t important. But it was an exhilarating experience, since it required a carrier landing when I met the ship and a carrier take off when I left her.
Such are my thoughts. For a few infinitesimal moments, I relive the experiences of landing and taking off, literally being flung off the carrier by one of the catapults. The memory clears away the darkness of Essy’s dead. At that moment, Essy is still several steps behind me and I glance at the departing stern of the Norwegian Princess; then, I look back at Essy. She is still coming toward me, and slightly behind her and to her left is little girl on a blue scooter. She is blond and wears a red frock. Her parents must be close by, but she holds my interest because words come, “Hupf, Mien Madel”—German for “Skip My Lassie.” They are implanted in my memory. I read them weeks before in THE DAY OF BATTLE byRick Atkinson. They, the words I mean, are part of song that was sung by a company of men from the Bozon Police Regiment on the Thursday morning of March 23rd in 1943 before a bomb went off that killed or injured most of the contingent. Hitler was so enraged that he ordered the destruction of the entire district of Rome and all of its inhabitants, but was finally talked down to the terrible reprisal of fifteen Romans for every dead German. The process of picking the victims was random. They were executed in the Ardeatine Caves. Their rotting bodies were later discovered by the American troops who liberated the Eternal City. This brief recitation of the interrelationship between the song and the atrocity that followed took no more than a moment, and I am left standing with Essy in front of me with an odd expression on her face and the child on the scooter somewhere behind me.
“Is something wrong,” Essy asks.
I shake my head; then, to give more credence to silent denial, I lie and say, “A sudden cramping of my right foot.” It happens often enough for her to believe me. But the words “Hupf, Mien Madel” stay with me. I still don’t move. There’s something more than those words, something I feel but can’t understand.
Suddenly I realize we must look peculiar to the passer byes. “Home?” I ask.
“Yes,” she says. “I’m tired.”
Paul sat in front of Dr. Ekeen’s desk. They always met on a Tuesday at eleven o’clock in the morning. She was young enough to be his granddaughter. Short, with more of a young man’s figure than a woman’s, she was his analyst at the Veteran’s Administration Hospital on East Twenty-Thirds Street for the last eight years. She knew more about him than even Essy; it was that way too with the men in his group therapy. But there they knew about each other. During his sessions with her, he learned practically nothing about her, except that she had once lived in the building where he and Essy now lived, that she has three children and an elderly father who was an academic and taught English Literature at a small New England College.
There were times when what he told her was told with tears. It was extremely difficult to face some of the realities of the past and some that more recently manifested even before Essy’s first accident. Now after he told her what happened on Sunday, he was speechless. It was dead end for him. He looked out of the window to his right. Two blocks away another huge building was going up. Whenever he had a session with her, he saw the progress that had been made. It was now almost twice the size that it previously was.
“Tell me what you think is going on?” the doctor asked.
He faced her and shrugged. “I seem to be looking for something.”
“Have you spoken to anyone else about it?”
And so the hour went full of long pauses and short on a breakthrough. Before he left, he reminded her that he would not be seeing her in two weeks because there is a conflict between the time he saw her and the time of Essy’s appointment with one of her many doctors.
“Three weeks then,” the doctor said writing out a reminder card and giving it to him.
He thanked her, and as usual, she escorted him to the door. He left her office with an unhappy feeling of having accomplished nothing. Sometimes, he knew from past experience, it was like that. But then, suddenly, the nothing became something and he understood or came to grips with whatever was disturbing him. Memories he learned were like birds; they fly where they will and not when or where you want them to fly.