The Garden State (Part 2)

Betty has fallen and broken both her hips since I saw her last but is surprisingly strong and full of color. Now she uses a walker. Seeing the way she bounces up from the couch with ease, however, makes me wonder whether the walker is a psychological crutch more than anything else. Al is the same – deep in thought, blind, stubborn, and psychologically trapped in a time and place that no longer exist.

“He’s always been self-centered,” cousin John said last night. “That’s it. He makes Betty cater to him, doesn’t do a damn thing for himself. They would have died if they stayed in the city. I had to pull him by his rotting teeth out of that apartment.” John’s face is worn with disgust and he waves his hands firmly to the side, mentally setting his father as far away as he can. “His behavior is pathological.”

For the first time I am forced to come to terms with the other side of Al – a side that reveals a withered man terrified of leaving the physical and mental worlds he has known since his birth. New York City is and always has been both a place and an ideology, a destination and a sub-culture. All Uncle Al wanted to do was be born and die there. He was priveleged with the former, and resents that he won’t have the latter. Having heard John’s deposition the night before, I find it hard to look at Al with the same “paint the world with frosting” eyes that I once did.

“Writing is an art no harder than ditch digging,” Al says. He is eating half and egg salad sandwich and food smears between this teeth and lips embarassingly. I’m slightly disappointed and concerned with his statement, because for the first time he is repeating himself. After all, he made the same analogy when I called him on the phone in August. “Did I ever tell you about the poet Gray?”

In fact he has, but this time I am prepared because I looked him up. We recite the lines together, my healthy voice filling in where the raspiness of Al’s trickles down his throat and cannot escape: “The boast of heraldry and the pomp of power, and all that wealth ‘ere gave, and all that health ‘ere gave, alike await the finaly hour, the paths of glory lead but to the grave.”

After about an hour of visiting, Dad walks Al downstairs to meet the bus for his eye appointment. Betty and Mom and I squeeze together on the couch, a triplicate of Nyhan profiles that would have made my grandmother proud. WIth Al gone, Betty confesses that she is pleased with the move and couldn’t feel better about their new living conditions.

“And oh, there are so many activities to do here!” she exclaims. “Once I get off this walker, I’ll be ready for senior trips!” She pats her arthritic hands up and down on her knees enthusiastically.

By midafternoon we hit the road, heading further north to Durham, Connecticut where my aunt, uncle and cousins live. We inch through slow moving traffic, like thoughts through a narrow canal in the mind, and I contemplate why it is that our culture is so terrified about the end of life. We’re all driving there anyway, each at our own speed, but inevitably toward the same end.

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