A MONTH AND A HALF OF SUNDAYS
Is reliving really living?
Emil Schubert was ninety-six years old, but nine hundred and sixty-nine years tired. It was late. Bedtime. 8:15 p.m. It felt so much later. Maria was certainly already sleeping. He would need to be quiet. He could feel his fuzzy slippers on his feet. She would never hear him coming. He smiled. Then a confused frown overtook his face. There was something he still had to do. Tapping on the bathroom door startled him. “Papa? Are you okay?” Who was that? He was concerned for a moment, then it passed.
What was it he was supposed to do? He stared in the mirror. Something about… his hair? He contemplated the few remaining wisps of white. Then it struck him. The old man took his hand off of his walker and reached into the drawer beneath the sink. All the way in the back, underneath the waxy contact paper. There was his comb. Old, worn, and missing more teeth than remained. Like himself, he smiled. He held the comb, and with an unsteady hand, wiggled free a faded black tooth. He wrapped it up carefully in the folds of a tissue with several more identical plastic shards. More tapping came from outside, more insistent. He slipped the broken comb and folded Kleenex back underneath the liner and closed the drawer. He was ready.
“I’m ready,” he heard his own shaky voice say, and Eve, who had been waiting outside the door for the sake of his last shred of dignity, opened it. “Time for bed, Papa,” she said, carefully seating him in the wheelchair and pushing it to his room. She took his slippers off, helped him lay flat, drew the covers up for him. “I’ll see you in the morning,” she said, quite certain of that. “I love you. Goodnight.” “I love you,” he parroted. “Goodbye.”
The last part of their days together was the best part, Eve thought. When Papa was in the recliner, under a cozy blanket, and the television game shows were playing at moderate volume. The two did more talking than watching, really. Inconsequential, yet poignant, her most cherished moments were ones she had nearly missed. She was there for him now, though. He did not deserve to be alone. He had devoted so much of his time, so much of his life to his cherished daughter. Always so eager to introduce Eve to others, always beaming so proudly. And since the day that he became a father, he also became known simply as “Papa” to everyone who knew him.
Each night, before bedtime, Eve would ask him a question. Always the same one. “Tell me a story, Papa?” His shining eyes would suddenly find focus. “Of course, Ma,” he would respond. “What do you want to hear about?” “Tell me all about your favorite day ever. Tell me your favorite memory.” Memory. She was testing it, perhaps. There was precious little of that left to be assessed. Emil Schubert smiled and told his daughter about the only day he could still remember.
“It was Sunday,” he began.
How long ago, he had no idea. He frowned, trying to get old and rusty gears to turn.
“Was it Christmas Eve?” his daughter prompted. The wheels began to turn. “Yes, t’was,” he said, suddenly animated, and they both laughed at the joke he didn’t realize he’d made. “It was Christmas Eve. You woke me up, excited like you were just a child. ‘It’s snowing, Papa!’ you hollered. Woke me up, and,” he chuckled, “maybe the neighbors, too. Pressed your nose up against the window, oh, Maria, what a giddy young thing you were! We stood inside and watched the snow, your little hand pressed in mine.” He held up a hand, surprisingly steady, and gently grasped the air. “What a lovely start to the day.” He made no mention of how she had stripped the soiled sheets from the bed, helped him wash, helped him into the wheelchair, did countless things he could no longer do for himself. He was in a different place entirely. “There was a bluebird out in the holly. Why it had not gone South I will never know. So blue!” His face lit up. “Blue like your eyes.” Not hers, Eve, knew, but her mother’s.
He stopped then. “Maria. We’ll open the presents tomorrow, right?” “Yes, Papa. Of course, we will.” It was a practiced lie. “Go on, Papa, tell me more.” And so, he did.
His recollection always picked back up with breakfast. Banana pancakes. She had made countless batches of them, warmed the syrup, watched him eat every bite. There was a toasty fire crackling. Eve helped him dress for church, even though they would only watch the Christmas service on the television. “Which tie, Papa?” “The blue one,” he said, the one you bought me in Paris.” He and Ma had honeymooned there three-quarters of a century ago. “We watched the football game. All these years I never realized you liked football.” Eve loved the game, her mother never had. “Do you remember who was playing?” Eve nudged him along gently, unnecessarily. There was no hesitation. “The Jets,” he said. “I nodded off. Did they win?” “Yes, Papa, they did.”
“Dinner was delicious as always, at the Forever Eve Pub on the Boardwalk.” He paused, whispers of a smile on his lips. “What did…” Eve began. “Shepherd’s pie,” he answered before she could finish the question. “I had the Shepherd’s pie.” There had been Christmas songs played by a live band, he recalled. “We sang along. Everyone sang along. You always had such a pretty voice, Maria.”
At the pub, he remembered, a few couples got up and quietly danced around the worn wood floor. Years ago, Papa and Ma would certainly have been one of those couples, shuffling slowly, arms wrapped tight around one another. After dinner, Eve had driven along the boardwalk so they could take in the sights. He loved the colored lights, never tired of them. The car was chilly but his seat-warmer was on, and he was cozy. They listened to Christmas tunes on the way home. The weather report talked about snow in the morning. “There might be some inland,” Emil spoke with authority, “But in Ocean City? Quite unlikely.” He faltered a bit just then. “Tomorrow we open the gifts, Maria?” There was the briefest of pauses, then he continued decisively. “Yes, of course, tomorrow we’ll open the gifts.” His reminiscence complete, Emil fell silent.
“That was a good day, Papa,” Eve said. “I remember it. It was exactly the way you described it.” That was true, he had gotten it mostly right.
But what Eve did not say, besides the fact that she was not Maria, was that the day he had just been describing was today. And yesterday. And so many yesterdays. Ever since the very first time he had described the details of his favorite day. His memory loss was not completely a curse; it had allowed for Eve and her father to enjoy many wonderful days together.
Dr. Mendelsohn had been clear, and he had been correct, when they had seen him not all that long ago. Emil had only so much cognizance remaining, and even less time. Eve remembered the kind doctor’s hands shaking slightly, not from age, but from genuine sorrow as he delivered the prognosis. The news had not been a surprise, not really. What had been, though, was the resolve that surged within Eve, so much stronger than her “I can’t go through this again” that she had fostered since Ma passed. It was that moment that she decided to make up for her negligence.
She had nearly put him off the day of that appointment. What was she paying the home health aides for, after all? They had their work, and she had hers. She had so much of it, in fact, at the restaurant, first managing it, then owning it, which meant more work than ever. She made the job her life, too much of it for too long, always knowing in the back of her mind that it was just an inconvenient excuse. A feeble explanation for her absence, for the distance between her and Papa. They lived mere miles away geographically, but worlds apart emotionally. It was no wonder that Papa didn’t know her name anymore. Ma was gone, eleven years now? Twelve? Yet her name was always on his lips.
There was so much lost time. There would be no making up for all of it, not ever, Eve knew. But she would spend the rest of Papa’s life trying. Standing there in the oncologist’s office, all three of them shaky, was as close to a religious experience as Eve had in decades. Her epiphany? She and Papa would not keep track of his remaining time, but rather they would simply enjoy it. Every moment from then on, the two of them together. It took surprisingly few phone calls for Eve to delegate all her responsibilities at the pub to others. She immediately dismissed Papa’s health aides (he had always complained about them, while she rolled her eyes on the other end of the phone) with a handsome severance, and she became her father’s full-time caretaker. Calendars went into the trash. The subscription to the newspaper was cancelled, effective immediately. She purged her father’s life of every sign of passing time, any hint that each day he woke up was anything other than the one he thought it was. Christmas Eve. He would have joy, and she would have redemption.
“Maria?” Eve came to his side, pressed her palm into his. “It was a wonderful day, wasn’t it? Do you remember it?” A tear burned her eye. “Yes, I do. Like it was yesterday.” And like it would be tomorrow.
Eve was awake long after Papa had fallen off to sleep. It was a long, tiring, wonderful day. Really, they all had been, since she made her decision to keep repeating every detail of the day that her father had proclaimed to be his favorite. She built and carefully maintained a safe, warm bubble, where he could relive his best memories, and she could add to her own. Still, nagging questions kept sleep out of reach. Was it kindness, what she was doing, or was it somehow cruelty? Was she imprisoning her father in an illusion, just to appease her own accusing conscience?
The next morning, a carbon copy of many previous mornings, she watched Papa devour his banana pancakes with a vigor that belied his age. She saw his obvious joy and enthusiasm as she helped him into his Sunday best. “Which tie, Papa?” she asked, the blue one already in hand. Later, she gently took the television remote away from Papa, and watched football with him until he dozed contentedly. The recorded Jets game, replayed for the countless time. Eve resigned herself to knowing that she would continue this for as long as she had him. It would be her penance. Realistically, in a matter of weeks or months, she would return to her restaurant and her old schedule. This was a kindness she was providing for her father, she concluded, it was not a prison.
She was wrong, however, as it turned out.
“Time for dinner, Papa, are you ready?” Eve’s voice conveyed slightly less patience than the day before, and the one before that. Papa was standing in the bathroom, staring at the useless comb, and the neat pile of forty-some teeth laid out in the tissue. He removed the final tooth with shaking fingertips, held it up to the light, squinted at it. It had meaning, he knew. It meant… he was ready. “I’m ready,” he said firmly. Eve guided him into his wheelchair and toward the car parked in the garage, at a brisk pace, as if making up for the ninety-six-year-old man’s slowness. “It’s cold out,” she told him, “You’ll be glad you’re wearing that sweater.” It had been a bit of a struggle to get him to agree to it, and a bit more to get his frail body into it. The sweater was unnecessary, except to solidify the charade. When she parked behind her restaurant, she’d roll him only a few feet beneath the overhang, and then they’d be inside the warm interior of “Forever Eve’s,” where the regular crowd knew “It’s always Christmas Eve,” and newcomers quickly caught on.
The car stereo played the recording she made as they headed along the Boardwalk. He reached for the radio tuner. “No Papa,” Eve said, “Let’s hear the weather report.” It preceded the music on the recording she had cued up. He listened dutifully, squinting out the darkly tinted window. “Snow?” he snorted. “Not today.” Then the Christmas songs began to play, his favorites – Bing, and Burl, Nat King Cole. Elvis sang, and Papa sang along in monotone. “Wish every day were Christmas, Eve,” he murmured. Those were not the words, not exactly. He had always got them right before. Eve did not notice; her mind was on the restaurant. She wanted to look at the books, update the menu, review the payroll, but there was no time for that anymore. “Tomorrow, Papa,” she said, looking straight ahead. She was on autopilot, speaking robotically. “Tomorrow, we will all open up the gifts.” It was another lie. Like every other day, the old man would wake up tomorrow and relive today, never remembering this conversation. “They’re showing your favorite Christmas movie, too,” she added. “Yes,” he said, “It’s been a wonderful life.” His bony knuckles whitened as he grasped the door handle and twisted, his other hand releasing his seat belt.
It all happened before Eve could react. She braked with a screech and jumped out of the car, where the dying man lay smiling in the summer heat. The toothless comb lay unnoticed on the pavement. “Why, Papa, why?” she cried, cradling his fragile and broken body. “I’m tired, Eve,” he said, “so tired,” and he coughed out an impossibly cheery laugh. “Tired,” now his voice was much weaker, “Of banana pancakes, and Shepherd’s pie.”
It was a horrible quip and yet appropriate. “Tomorrow,” he gasped. Drew a breath and smiled. “Tomorrow, I see Maria.” His final words.
“Yes, Papa,” Eve said, sobbing, “Yes you will.”