“Knowing Jerry” by Marlene Olin

Issue 10 / Summer 2017

 

Though I had known him for over forty years, I never really knew him. He was dying now in the hospice wing of the nursing home. A nurse sat at a desk by his side taking notes. She looked up from her clipboard, glanced at the clock, then down again at the clipboard. Writing, sighing, nodding her head. “It’ll be soon,” she said. “It’ll be soon.”

 

Jerry was my father-in-law. I first met him in 1969 when Michael and I started dating. Michael was in twelfth grade. I was in eleventh. The war in Vietnam was raging. Sex was out of the closet now that people popped the pill.

Troll dolls, smiley faces, Rocky Raccoon
Lava lamps, love beads, the man on the moon
Your hair’s too long, Kathy’s song, Scarborough Fair
The Rolling Stones, The Twilight Zone, The Cuban Missile scare

My parents were a Jewish stereotype. Short. Round. Loud. Though my future in-laws were just a few years younger, they seemed part of another generation. They tried hard to act cool. Zoe dressed like Nancy Sinatra: hot pants and go-go boots. Jerry pierced an ear and grew a beard.

 

Seven years later, Michael and I had married, finished school out-of-state, and moved back home to Miami. My in-laws’ relationship was already showing signs of trouble. The rare times they vacationed they went separately. Jerry had changed jobs three times.

Staying Alive, The Jackson Five singing their ABCs
Han and Luke, Daisy Dukes, The Beatles Let It Be
Eight track tapes, Three Dog Night, Carole King and leisure suits
Space Invaders, Lost Ark Raiders, Camp David, Haley’s Roots

We lived a few blocks from our families. First our son Jonathan was born. Then our daughter Rachel. But in 1980, things fell apart in rapid progression. Right after my daughter’s first birthday, my father died of a massive coronary. As soon as their youngest kid left for college, Jerry divorced Zoe.

Billie Joel, Billie Jean, The Challenger explodes
Iran Contra, Dirty Dancing, Koosh balls and Dusty Rhodes 

While my son talked and walked like other kids, something was different about Rachel. She didn’t make eye contact when she spoke. Instead she twirled like a little pink top, her arms outstretched, her face fixed on the ceiling. We started intervention early. Speech therapists. Occupational therapists. Social skill therapists. No one heard of Asperger’s back then.

Just when I needed help, I was alone. My husband worked at his law firm seven days a week. Mom never recovered from Dad’s death. And Zoe was wrestling with her own demons. When she wasn’t chain-smoking, she was drinking. Cheap Chablis. Johnny Walker. Canadian Club.

 

Jerry surfaced unscathed. He moved in with a Danish masseuse who was the anti-Zoe. While my mother-in-law was tanned and petite, Ingrid was built like a Viking. They bought a waterbed and ate only macrobiotic foods. One day they took the kids to the circus. An excursion with Grandpa was a novelty. My son and daughter were confused, nervous, buoyant.

John Hughes, a Rubik’s Cube, boom boxes, AIDS and Goonies
Hacky sacks, the first George Bush, Beetlejuice and Moonies

 

At first we just thought Michael’s sister was under the weather. She was having problems at home and under a lot of stress. No one expected the cancer diagnosis. As soon as they started the leukemia treatment, Lori’s husband bolted. A pregnant girlfriend, we later found out, bolted with him. Lori had scored a misery trifecta. We sent them money, consulted with doctors. Zoe regrouped and moved to Orlando to help.

Beanie Babies, Boyz II Men, O.J. and Rodney King
Berlin unites while Bosnians fight, Timon and Simba sing

Jerry decided that what his daughter needed was a vacation. Together, they flew to England to visit an ashram. They dipped Lori in vats of freezing water, then plunged her into hot baths. The minute she came home, she headed straight for the hospital. Within a year, both Lori and Zoe were dead.

Whitney Houston, Yitzak Rabin, mad cow, and Blaze of Glory
Rachel and Ross and Who’s the Boss, The Green Mile and Toy Story

 

I once asked Michael why his father never remembered birthdays. None of the grandchildren ever received a present, even a card.

“He never remembered my birthday,” said Michael. “Do you think he’d remember my kids’?”

 

Jonathan was our star student. He made everything look easy: making friends, joining clubs. Once he landed the starring role in the high school musical. Of course we asked all the relatives to come.

“Sorry,” said Jerry. “I don’t enjoy Sondheim. Sondheim is not for me.”

Meanwhile Rachel ricocheted from school to school, was tutored in all her subjects, struggled to fit in. Though her I.Q. tested in the gifted range, any skill that required multitasking was a challenge. Crossing a street. Riding a bike. Taking notes in class.

Like many people on the autism spectrum, she was sensitive to a fault. The sort of kid who scooped up lizards in the house and carried them outside. On a geek scale she rated a ten out of ten. I was her best friend. For years her only friend. I rarely left her side.

Then when Jon was in eleventh grade and Rachel in eighth, Michael and I were invited out of town for a Bar Mitzvah. In desperate straits, we asked my father-in-law to babysit. It’s only for two days, we told him. One night and two days.

Fanny Packs and roller blades, Hale Bopp and Elton John
Clinton lies, a Princess dies, Mandela, Pokémon

As soon as the coast was clear, Jonathan ordered a pizza then disappeared in his bedroom to watch TV. Meanwhile Jerry cooked a vegetarian feast for Rachel and himself. Chopped liver made from walnuts. A tofu turkey. Ratatouille. After dinner, Jerry got in his car and drove off. The masseuse had left for greener pastures. He had a date with someone new.

The following morning he was nowhere to be found. There was a note. “I’ve left to play golf.” Jon stayed home with his sister.

Harry Potter, the climate’s hotter, Snoop Dogg, U2, Cold Play
The Towers crumble, Frodo stumbles, George Bush, iPods, Green Day

 

Another ten years went by. As Jerry approached his mid-seventies, his warranty ran out. Spinal stenosis. Prostate cancer. Gall bladder disease. Wife number two complained that he was tired all the time. Jerry’s not as much fun as he used to be. All Jerry wants to do is sleep. She got half his savings and all of the house.

Jerry’s world became smaller. He got lost finding his way home to his apartment. Then he got lost finding his way to his car.

It didn’t take long for word of Jerry’s decline to course through the community. Suddenly, the masseuse was back in the picture. One day she called from Tampa and invited Jerry to visit.

“You’re going where?” we asked him. “You’re seeing whom?”

It took Jerry a week to negotiate a five hour trip. He came home beaming. “Ingrid wants to marry me,” said Jerry. “She says she loves me. She says she wants to be my wife.”

And at first, we were elated, too. Maybe, we thought, separation did make the heart grow fonder. Perhaps, we thought, she’d see Jerry through in sickness and in health. We assaulted him with questions. Each and every one was answered none of the above.

In the decade since they parted ways, Ingrid had immersed herself in the American way of life. Her newly enhanced vocabulary was littered with phrases like “Social Security benefits,” “survivor’s benefits,” “pension funds.” She had no interest in moving to Miami. What she wanted was a long-distance relationship. What she wanted was financial security with no strings attached.

Angry birds and rainbow looms, food trucks, selfies, George Romney
Gluten-free and Tea Partys, Zumba, vampires, zombies

It didn’t take long for Jerry to forget about the whole incident. His thoughts flew like birds now, here one minute and gone the next. At the assisted living facility, they unplugged the stove and hid the utensils. Before long he was moved to an Alzheimer’s unit in a nursing home. Finally all there was to do was to wait for him to die.

 

“The problem,” said the hospice nurse, “is that he’s developed pneumonia. They lose muscle memory, you know. Forget to swallow, forget to breathe.”

We took turns sitting and watching. Michael’s brother. An aunt. Michael’s brother’s wife. Jerry hadn’t recognized us in months, hadn’t spoken in days. By now, his eyes were clamped shut. A hand twitched. He opened his mouth, gasped, then closed it fast like a fish.

While our children had visited him when he was healthier, we decided to spare them the final stages of his deterioration. Even Michael hadn’t seen him in days. Whether it was from a surfeit of love or the lack of it, I’ll never know. I watched for both of us.

“You see how his color is changing,” said the nurse. “How his skin is already gray.”

I reached inside my purse and grabbed a letter my daughter had written. She has spent a lifetime being judged by others and embraces any act of kindness. She remembered the time Jerry took her to the circus. She remembered the most delicious home-cooked meal she ever had. Of all the grandchildren, she bore the closest resemblance. The blonde hair. The blue eyes. They had the same gait, the same way of tilting their chin while they talked, talking past you instead of to you. When she looked in the mirror, she saw her grandfather looking back.

The poem she composed took me four maybe five minutes to read. When I approached the final lines, I glanced over at Jerry. His head was tilted toward me. It looked like the words were sinking in.

You may not have been around, but you were there.
You may not have shown it but you cared.
You may not be like other dads, but we knew
how much you loved us and that we loved you, too.

I could swear he was listening. He leaned forward, opened his eyes, and tried to speak. They say that Death closes doors. The living can mend wounds, put arguments to bed, start over. Rachel’s words had penetrated something deep inside that had lain fallow for years. Jerry looked at me. He lifted his hand. Garbled sounds erupted from his throat. In one tremendous effort he opened his mouth as wide as he could. Then he lay back and died.

 

Spotify and Bitcoin, Ben Carson and Ted Cruz
John Boehner quits, the Pope’s a hit, The Donald’s bound to lose
Clinton’s missing server, Fitbits, quinoa, The Voice
College shootings, Baltimore lootings, Jeb Bush and women’s choice

The next few hours spun. Jerry wanted to be buried with Zoe and Lori up in Orlando. I called funeral homes, bought a plot, ordered food for the shiva. Only a handful of family members attended the service. A rabbi who never met him spoke. A plane flew overhead. A shovel slung dirt. The casket was lowered. Rachel wept.

 

 

Marlene Olin‘s short stories have been published or are forthcoming in journals such as The Massachusetts Review, Prime NumberUpstreet Magazine, The American Literary Review, and Arts and Letters. Her stories have been nominated for the Pushcart as well as the Best of the Net Prizes, and for inclusion in Best American Short Stories. She is the winner of the 2015 Rick DeMarinis Short Fiction Award. Find her on Twitter @writestuffmiami.

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