I was awakened at some ungodly hour of the morning by the harsh clanging of the phone. It seemed that everything had a harsh clang to it recently. It was sometime around the end of August or the first few days of September in 1994. I was in California, and my father was in Manhattan, eighty-two pounds and bedridden with congestive heart failure. He had been in this state for six months or so, and I was his sole caretaker. Though I had hired help, the responsibility of his care and comfort fell primarily on me.
Prior to my father’s incipient demise, I was living in Los Angeles and felt a need to return to my apartment there from time to time. Partly I wanted to check up on my place of residence to make sure everything was as it should be, and the other reason was that simply I needed to get away — away from the help, away from my father’s incessant demands, away from the inane television shows he began watching. Mostly I needed to temporarily escape the fate I knew would ultimately descend on all of us like a bloated, filmy man-o’-war jellyfish on its knowing and doomed prey.
The voice on the other end of the phone was frantic. It was so uncontrolled, in fact, that I had difficulty making out who it was — it took me over a minute –and that’s a long time to not know in this sort of circumstance — before I realized it was my father’s physical therapist.
“I don’t know what he means!” she kept repeating over and over. After she calmed down somewhat, she sounded as if she were on the verge of tears.
“You don’t know what who means?” I replied, baffled and annoyed. I never did care much for this person.
“Your father. I don’t know what he means!”
This conversation was going nowhere, and I suddenly felt a twinge of fear. Had my father possibly mentioned suicide?
Chris finally pulled herself together and told me what happened. She explained that the day had begun like any other. Three times a week she visited my father, propped up in a rented hospital bed, and attempted to engage him in various dull, monotonous exercises to help prevent his body from withering away any faster than it was destined to already. He hated these sessions, and he hated her. He hated the fact that these sessions forced him to bluntly face the reality that he would never walk again. It wouldn’t have surprised me a bit if indeed he had been contemplating suicide. That apparently was not the problem, however.
At the time, I had in my employ three competent nurses’ aides who cared for my father in eight hour shifts, one after the other. They rotated. Gladys, a heavyset, rhinoceros-like woman from Jamaica, took on the night shift, which was the easiest by far. Plodding in punctually at midnight, she basically slept through the evening along with my father and woke just in time to make him his habitual bowl of oatmeal and cup of Twinings English Breakfast tea.
Apparently the evening before Chris called me, Gladys had decided to make something in the microwave which had accidentally burned to a shriveled crisp. Upon entering the apartment, Chris smelled something unusual and unpleasant. She flew to the back room where my father lay, stretched out like the corpse he would soon become.
“Howard? Oh, Howard,” she squawked as she approached my reluctant father. He turned his head a fraction of an inch and eyed her indignantly.
“Do you smell what I smell?” she continued. “There’s a really funny smell in here – can you smell it? Howard, can you smell it? Let’s open some windows in here – this is just awful!”
Howard turned his head back a fraction of an inch to its original position and stared straight into the shiny blank face of the television screen. “It’s the smell of my death,” he replied, ever so matter-of-factly.
Chris turned away from the window, toward my father. Staring at his wizened, bearded face, she shrieked, in a shocked and appalled manner, “What did you say, Howard? Did I hear what you said?”
More vigorously this time, and with a raised, emphatic tone of voice, he repeated, “It’s THE SMELL OF MY DEATH!” An ever-so-subtle hint of a smile crossed his lips.
That was about all Chris could handle. She picked up the phone and called me immediately.
The next morning, when I was certain Chris would not be at the house, I called my father and asked him what he meant by that statement.
“What statement?” he asked quizzically.
“You know,” I replied.
“No, I don’t know,” he said sincerely.
“The smell of your death,” I responded.
I thought I could almost hear a chuckle seeping through the phone wire.
“I only say things like that to people I don’t like. It unnerves them a bit. They become somewhat unhinged. You know?”
The maneuver worked, I suppose. Neither one of us ever heard from Chris again.