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About the Author
DANIEL MENDELSOHN is a frequent contributor to The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books. His books include the international best seller The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award and many other honors; a memoir, The Elusive Embrace, a New York Times Notable Book and a Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year; the definitive English translation of the Complete Poems of C. P. Cavafy; and two collections of essays, How Beautiful It Is and How Easily It Can Be Broken and Waiting for the Barbarians. He teaches literature at Bard College.
Read an Excerpt
HOW I CAME INTO MY INHERITANCE
After my mother broke her hip, I put her in a nursing home.
“You want to put me here?” she said.
The woman was certified senile, but she still knew how to push my buttons. Not that she didn’t have reason to worry; had I listened when she’d begged me “Darling, please, please don’t do anything to hurt Daddy. It will kill him …”?
I swear, what I did, it wasn’t just for the money.
You know that tone people take about old age? The stuff about dignity and wisdom and how old people (pardon me for saying old) should be allowed to make their own decisions. Allowed! My father treated nicely reasoned arguments like mosquitoes. As for dignity, let’s pass over the question of bodily wastes for the moment; let’s suppose that the chronologically challenged father of one such pious person decided to torture and starve his or her chronologically challenged mother. (“So she falls! She’ll lie there till she gets up! … What does she need orange juice for? If she’s thirsty she’ll drink water!”) And not only that, but also gives away practically all that person’s inheritance to a crook. Do you think you might see any revisionism in attitude then?
Until the day I took him to court and the judge laid down the law, nobody, but nobody, interfered with my father. I mean, he was awesome. For instance, he owned this slum building. It was filled with some characters you wouldn’t want to meet in broad daylight on a busy street. The tenants didn’t pay rent, welfare paid the rent. But welfare didn’t pay exactly as much as my father was legally entitled to. So every month, even when he was up in his late eighties, he’d get in his car and drive over to that building, haul himself up the stairs, bang his cane on every door, and demand his five or ten dollars. He got it. Nobody laid a finger on him. Nobody even slammed the door in his face. And the only way you could tell he might be even a little bit nervous was that he left his motor running. And the car was never stolen!
It wasn’t easy to tell when my father began to lose his marbles, because he’d always been such a headstrong summabitch, as he called everyone who had a slightly different idea. But the winter he was ninety he took out the water heater. That was a clue. I went up there one day—they lived about sixty miles upstate in this house they’d lived in forever. Now, the house should have been my first clue. I knew that house. I grew up there. If ever there was a homemade house, that was it. My father built it all around us. First we were living in two rooms, then three; nine by the time he got finished, the rooms all stuck on in unexpected places, connected by closets you walked through to get to other rooms, short dark corridors and twisting staircases. He never got tired of making new rooms. When I was a kid I thought he had made the world. Like once, we needed a shovel for the woodstove. My father took a metal ice tray, cut off one end, rounded it, put a hole in the other end, and stuck a bit of pipe in. Voilà! I idolized that man.
And now the house was a wreck: jury-rigged electrical cords you tripped over, water dripping from the roof, buckets on the floor, smells of accumulated filth. I’d piss in my pants before I’d go into the bathroom. But the thing is, I still believed in my father; he’d always taken care of everything. So when I’d say, “Daddy, there’s a leak over Mama’s bed. Let me find someone to fix the roof,” and he’d say, “Don’t you do anything, I’ll take care of it,” I’d think, Okay, I guess he knows what he’s doing.
“Or I might say, “I’ll get somebody to clean the house.”
“It’s clean! Mama cleans!”
So I say, “Mama, when did you clean the house?” She says, dementedly, “You saw, I just swept out. You know it doesn’t get so dirty in the country.”
I say, “But it smells bad,” and my father says, “It doesn’t smell!” I’d think: He seems sure. I guess it’s not so bad. And everything happened so gradually.
Anyway, I’d go up to see them once a week or so, and this one time I find my father is hacking up pieces of scrap wood.
“Daddy,” I say. “What are you doing?”
He cackles. Hee hee hee. I’m not making fun of him. That’s the way he sounds. “I took out the water heater,” he says, and he’s rubbing his hands together in glee. “I’m putting in a wood-fired heater.”
“We’ll heat with wood. It’s cheaper.”
“But, Daddy!” I say, and that’s all I say. I don’t mention that the outside stairs to the basement are icy in winter. I don’t remind him that he’s ninety years old and he can hardly get up and down the stairs in good weather. I don’t say that my mother’s hands will crack and bleed doing dishes in cold water, or that bathing, which is a once-a-month affair at best now, will occur never. I say, “But, Daddy!” because I know if I say any more, he’ll say, “It’s not your business!” And I’d think: Well, I guess it’s not my business. And the truth is I’m still scared of him.
My father is really something. Everybody says so: “That Izzy. He’s really something.” They mean he’s a force of nature; he takes his course no matter what. If he doesn’t know it, it’s not worth knowing; if it’s not done his way, it’s done wrong; what he doesn’t like reading isn’t worth the paper. One time I gave him a book by this Nobel Prize winner. “Tell him to get another trade!” my father said, no discussion.
About a year after he took out the water heater, he was in the hospital for a month. How he made it out alive, I’ll never know. “Ninety-one,” the nurses said. “God bless him.” He comes home with tubes sticking out of everything. A tube out of you-know-where for his urine, a tube from his gallbladder. I get a nurse to take care of him. Two days later he calls me up: “Get her out of here! Get her out!” So I tell the nurse she’d better leave and I run up on the train to empty his pee bag and his bile bag. I got his bile on my hands!
My mother is no help, of course. She can hardly keep on her own feet. She’s falling down every five minutes. I say, “Daddy, we have to have help. You don’t want a nurse, okay. But for Mama. She falls.” I think maybe I’ll get around him that way.
“She doesn’t fall!”
“I don’t fall,” my mother says. “When do I fall?”
“Mama! I just picked you up! Daddy, you saw! I just picked her up.”
“So I’ll pick her up.”
We’re sitting on the porch. My mother gets up. She thinks she’s going to the kitchen to make lunch. She hasn’t cooked anything for two years. I bring the food. She takes two steps, and falls down. My father says, “Watch!” He inches his chair closer to her and sticks out his cane.
“Belle! Grab the cane!”
The woman doesn’t know what’s going on, she only knows the master of the universe has spoken. She grabs the cane. “Get up!” he orders, and she tries to haul herself up. It takes about five minutes, with him desperately trying to hold the cane steady against her weight without falling out of his chair.
She’s up! My father looks triumphant: “See!”
Right away she falls down again. This time he pretends he doesn’t notice. He thinks he can get away with it because, on top of everything else, he’s just about blind.
By now I’m really frantic. What am I supposed to do about this situation? I go to see some social-service people: Look, I say, my father’s blind, he’s been in the hospital three times with congestive heart failure and kidney failure, my mother’s in really bad shape. I’m rushing up there every five minutes because there’s another crisis, my father’s a regular Collier brother, he’s got plenty of money but he won’t spend money for food, I got Meals-on-Wheels to come and he starts waving his cane around and yelling at them to get off his property, he won’t have a nurse or even someone to clean up, he fires everybody I hire, they have no hot water, he keeps the thermostat below sixty in winter. If they die there’ll be a headline in the paper: STARVING OLD COUPLE EATEN BY RATS: MILLION DOLLARS FOUND IN MATTRESS.
I don’t know how many social-service types I told this story to. And in case they thought I was exaggerating, I had documentary evidence.
This house is very dangerous to work in. The man is a very bad man I think he’s mad. When he don’t want you around he say you steals his money. Before you working here ask around the neighborhood and everyone will say it’s the truth. The woman is very nice and quite but him? It’s the worst human being I’ve ever come across. Be careful and think first before you accept the job. His wife is very sick. She suffers with a fainting spell. When you getting this job he don’t tell you this. He also is suffering from some disease. The food you have to cook turns you off its like YAK. His daughter lives in the city. She’s a very nice person but he treats her bad.
I don’t know which of the aides my father fired wrote this note. Not the one who refused to masturbate him, or she would have mentioned it. But what did I get from the helping professions? I got a lot of Tsk tsk, really nothing we can do if your father refuses help, he has rights.