Love on the Hudson
K.D. Fisher © 2019
All Rights Reserved
I step onto the salt-white sidewalk and into a stream of traffic noise. Rush hour commuters pour their anger into their car horns, laying on them for what feels like minutes at a time. The familiar scents of bus exhaust, cigarette smoke, and the caramel-sweet fragrance of roasted nuts from the stand on the corner overpower the rich steam rising from the to-go cup of coffee in my hands. It’s cold. I know March in Chicago is always cold, really still winter, but the bite of the wind makes me edgy. I find myself constantly checking the weather forecast the moment I wake up, hoping I can stow away my heavy, unattractive coat for the season.
I rush toward the museum, knowing I’ll be early for my meeting but hurrying nonetheless. As I walk, I mentally go over the presentation I’d practiced endlessly the night before. We can work with Chicago Public Schools to widen the reach of the museum and diversify visitorship. I’ve already talked to the assistant superintendent, and she loved the idea, saying the partnership would help supplement the arts programs that got cut a few years ago when the state couldn’t agree on a budget. I’m lost in thought, half hoping I’m not practicing my talking points aloud, when I realize I’m already standing at the bottom of the lion-flanked steps of the museum. It bothers me that I do this—zone out and navigate the streets on autopilot. I chastise myself for taking the aesthetics of the city for granted. On any given day I pass the spaceship-like hulking form of the Thompson Center without batting an eye. I breeze by major public artworks by Picasso and Miró. I whisk past Burnham and Sullivan buildings with my eyes trained on the ground.
When I first moved to Chicago for undergrad, I was fascinated by the city. Everything was vibrant and engaging, unlike Saugerties, the small town where I’d grown up. Every chance I had I hopped on the bus, pretentious leather sketchbook in hand, and went north from my school’s South Side campus to the center of the city. I took silly architecture boat tours filled with tourists who largely tuned out the information pouring from the scratchy PA system as the boat chugged through the dingy river. Spending hours on Google Maps, I planned walking tours of Oak Park for myself, enjoying the lull of the suburban streets as I basked in the gorgeous lines and thoughtful details of the Frank Lloyd Wright houses.
Again I’m lost in thought because I’m now enveloped in the quiet of my office, coffee still in hand, coat and scarf still on, but seated behind my desk. Shaking my head, I set my coffee down and busy myself with the tasks of a Monday morning. Check my voicemail, start my computer, glance at the Post-it-covered Stendig calendar tacked to my wall. As I’m about to reread my notes for the thousandth time since I woke up, my desk phone rings and the small light for the main museum reception line blinks red.
I pick it up on the second ring, running my fingers through my hair as I speak. “This is David Webster.” I always lower my voice when fielding an unexpected call. Although I tell myself it’s to sound professional, I’m a bit self-conscious about the soft, lilting cadence of my words.
A timid female voice responds. “Uh, hi, Mr. Webster? I have a call for you from a, uh, hospital. The nurse said she tried your cell but…” The woman’s voice trails off, growing somewhat hoarse.
“Oh, sure. Okay. You can go ahead and put her through.” The tremble in my voice does not surprise me. My heart races and my fingers shake as I reach for my bag to retrieve my cell phone.
“Mr. Webster?” My name is tinged with the upstate New York accent of my youth.
“Speaking,” I squeak out. “What’s going on?” I know it’s something with my dad. Or fuck, could it be Anna? There’s a sickening swooping sensation in my stomach. Did something happen to Nick? Unbidden, his intense gray gaze appears in my mind’s eye. I shake my head to clear the thought. No one would call me about him.
“You’re listed as next of kin for Dr. Richard Webster. You are his son, correct?”
“Yeah. Yes. Is he okay?” I hold down the button on the side to start up my phone. I always keep it off between the hours of midnight and seven to preserve my sanity and mitigate my technology addiction. It had been my New Year’s resolution. Clearly this is not a good choice when your elderly father who lives alone hundreds of miles away is hospitalized.
“Yes, sir. Your father’s condition is stable. We were unable to reach you on your primary contact number. He suffered an ischemic stroke. We have him on tPA and he’s resting in the ICU. We’ll keep him for a few nights for monitoring and scans. Then we can start talking about rehab. A…” She pauses and I hear a few mouse clicks over the phone. “James Webster is with him now.”
Jimmy must have called me. Quickly I unlock my phone to see a barrage of texts and missed calls from my uncle’s number, as well as three voicemails from an 845 area code, very likely the hospital’s number. I scan through Jimmy’s increasingly panicked then calm texts without responding to the nurse.
“Mr. Webster?” she asks, a note of irritation creeping into her voice.
I tear my eyes away from my phone screen. My hands clench white and my arms are suddenly insanely heavy. My torso is hollow. “Yes. Sorry. I’m in Chicago. Like, I live in Chicago so I need to fly up. But he’s okay, right?”
Line two rings on my desk phone—startling me—and I know it means the superintendent has arrived. My head spins and I lean forward, scrunching into myself and trying to resist the urge to collapse even though I’m sitting. A few moments later I have wrapped up my conversation with the nurse and managed to write down the relevant information on the back of a deli receipt on my desk. I’m about to return one of Jimmy’s dozen calls when Marc blusters into my office, eyes wild.
“Uh, David?” his voice is shrill, and it’s one of the first times I have ever seen him look so irritated.
“I know. She’s here, right?”
“Yes!” he hisses, running his slender fingers through his perfectly messy dark hair. I notice he’s even wearing a tie today. A nice touch for the meeting, I think, and I smile to myself.
“My dad had a stroke,” I say softly. Repeating the information I was told makes my stomach twist sharply and a wave of nausea rolls over me.
The irritation drains from Marc’s face and he quickly crosses over to my desk. “Shit. David, when? Why didn’t you call me?” His groomed eyebrows are raised, earnest.
“I just got the call here… You know, my phone was off.”
Marc groans. “You and your stupid phone thing. I knew it was going to be a problem someday.” He claps a hand over his mouth. “And I’m nagging you right after you found out your dad’s sick.” He paces my small office, from the wall plastered with my calendar and some framed landscapes to the window overlooking Millennium Park. “Okay. Okay. Okay. Here’s what we’ll do. I’ll take care of the meeting. Call, well normally I would say call me…but Vic can handle booking you a flight to New York. You should be able to take leave for this.” He runs his fingers over his lips, leaning back against the window. I know his mind is vibrating at its highest frequency. “Lane and Nisa and I can handle everything for a few days or whatever you need. Go, David.”
Five hours later I find myself behind the wheel of a white rental sedan barreling up I-87 in the direction of Saugerties, a perfectly nice town I’d hoped never to see again. The sky is the same mottled gray as it was back in Chicago, the snow along the highway the same dirt-tinged pewter. The passing cars are spattered with white salt stains. I drive in silence, every radio station bothering me with shrill commercials or horrendous blends of the 80s, 90s, and today.
My mind falls into a chaotic tailspin. I want to call Marc and see how the meeting went. I want to call Jimmy again and see if there is any update on my dad’s condition. The doctors are worried his vision was compromised but needed to run another test. I want to call Anna to hear her soothing voice and ask the one question that absolutely shouldn’t be on my mind right now. Has she seen Nick recently? Again, his gray eyes and those dark lashes flit across my mind and I grip the wheel harder. I need to focus. Plus I won’t even see him. He moved across town when he got married. He doesn’t live in the house across the street anymore.
Our old house, however, looks entirely unchanged. Same bluestone exterior, same red front door, same neat garden beds outlined with smooth white rocks. I look away from the winter-brown tangle of plants, my jaw tight. Jimmy’s truck, dotted with environmental and leftie bumper stickers, rests out front. Although they were born ten years apart, my uncle and father are incredibly close. It was Jimmy I could thank for my dad’s health and safety over the past few years since his first stroke. As if on cue, I hear the groan of the wooden garage door around the back of the house. Jimmy strolls down the brick garden path clutching mismatched coffee mugs. I grin, knowing my coffee will be made exactly right, with almond milk and way too much honey, a combination almost everyone I know finds utterly disgusting. Jimmy wears his standard uniform of olive green hiking pants, a zip-up fleece, a disarmingly bushy beard, and a gleaming bald head.
“I bet you’re exhausted, kiddo.” He hands me the chipped public radio mug he knows used to be my favorite, full almost to the brim.
I take a grateful sip before responding honestly. “I am. I had a big meeting this morning, so I barely slept at all.”
Jimmy nods seriously, taking a long sip of his own coffee. “Your dad’s okay. Thankfully I was over when it happened. We were playing cards on the patio. Anyway, they said at the hospital he’s gonna pull through.” Jimmy trails off, staring down at his hiking boots. “But son, I don’t know if he can be on his own anymore.” His gray eyebrows crash together and his grip around his mug tightens. He heaves a weary sigh, and it occurs to me he looks much older than he did when I last saw him. “Let’s go in. Get freshened up. We’re due over at the hospital in an hour and a half for some appointment or other. I think they want to go over what to, you know, expect.”
I follow Jimmy into the house. It’s surreal. Grief has kept me away since my mom’s death almost ten years ago, but there is evidence of her everywhere. The green plaid couch, still draped with the colorful knit throw blanket she made feverishly after finding out she was sick. The living room walls, adorned with framed posters of Met exhibitions she and my dad took the train into the city to see. I avert my eyes from her paintings, still proudly displayed in a large cluster above the fireplace. Even with my gaze rooted to the oak floor I can picture the fast brushwork and heavy application of pastel paint forming delicate flowers and vibrant leaves.
The kitchen smells the same too, a mix of turmeric and coffee and lavender that always clung to her clothes and hair. I always thought our house smelled like her rather than the other way around. Part of me hoped I would never have to set foot in this house again. I’d tricked myself into believing I could turn my shoulder on the gaping reality of her absence. I could call my dad on the phone and perform mental gymnastics to delude myself into thinking she was alive, out working in the garden or seeing a patient. That she hadn’t chosen to let herself die. The ghost of a sob bubbles up in my throat and I hurry up the stairs, swallowing hard.
After depositing my duffel bag in my childhood bedroom, the walls plastered with high school painting projects and Death Cab for Cutie posters, I dart to the bathroom to freshen up. A sharp twinge of nostalgia momentarily incapacitates me as I step into the stone-tiled shower. I quickly scrub down with the all-in-one peppermint soap, the only bath product my dad seems to own.
Standing in front of the mirror where I’d obsessively combed my hair into questionable styles as a teenager is strange. Sure, I’m the same person I was when I looked into this mirror ten years ago, but I am profoundly altered. My narrow eyes, serious, too-straight eyebrows, and rumpled auburn hair are unchanged, but my face is tired. A few fine lines have appeared on my forehead from constantly raising my eyebrows or knitting them together. I’m taller now too, thanks to a final growth spurt around my twenty-first birthday. I’m not as tall as my dad, though. And not nearly as tall as Nick. And fuck. I’m thinking of him again. I’ve been in New York for all of an hour and he’s taken up far too much space in my mind already. Grumbling to myself, I pull on fitted dark jeans and a thin black sweater. I packed in such a hurry, I’m thankful I have a single presentable outfit to put on.
As I brush my teeth, I reach for my phone, hoping again for an update from Marc or a voicemail from the hospital with some new information. No luck. There is however, a frantic text from Anna.
Anna: You’re here! Jimmy told me about your dad and that sucks. But you’re here! I’m glad he’s okay. I went by the hospital this morning but they wouldn’t let me see him. I guess I kinda thought the whole visiting hours thing was just on TV?? Then again I never go to hospitals so… Yeah. When you’re all settled TEXT ME. Btw your uncle couldn’t get ahold of you because of your dumb phone rule. Stop doing that. And make sure you eat something because coffee doesn’t count as food. Or maybe it does. But not in my book.
I laugh to myself softly. My best friend always texts like this, in lengthy stream-of-consciousness bursts. I quickly tap out a reply.
David: Heading over to the hospital in a few. Haven’t seen my dad yet. Honestly I’m really freaked out. I guess I won’t believe he’s okay until I see him. I’ll swing by the library after?
Immediately a little bubble pops up on the screen indicating Anna is typing. She sends a smiling sunglasses emoji, three hearts, and a thumbs-up.
The hospital room is painted a shade of beige that I know was likely selected to be soothing, but ends up looking grimy. A tangle of cords and monitors surrounds my father’s bed. The fluorescent light keeps flickering, making me feel like my eye is twitching even though it isn’t. My dad looks awful. This is his third stroke and the worst yet. I didn’t come home for the other two because they were so minor that Jimmy and my dad and Anna convinced me I could stay in Chicago and focus on work. Plus my dad knows my thoughts about coming home. But this stroke was bad, largely robbing him of his ability to speak and move and really do anything at all for the time being. His tall, lean frame, so much like my own, looks small and crumpled in the hospital bed. The pervasive tang of antiseptic cleaner and the occasional glance at the IV lines in my father’s arms fill my stomach with a watery queasiness. I can tell he’s trying hard to stay awake while I’m in the room but I wish he would sleep. He radiates pain and exhaustion. His bloodshot green eyes remind me too much of the weeks after my mom died.
While she was sick, I made all kinds of dramatic pronouncements to myself that I wouldn’t set foot a hospital again until I was dying. And, honestly, right now I kind of wish I’d kept that promise because I’m shivering even though the room is pleasantly warm.
I’m watching this all at a remove. I keep trying to blink myself present. It doesn’t work. My dad’s face is almost as gray as his hair. I hold his hand in mine. The skin is dry and looks cracked in places. Absently I wonder if the nurses will put lotion on him. Do they bathe him? Will I have to do that? Will he be embarrassed? He tries to say something, and his normally measured voice has been replaced with slurred sounds, like someone has stuffed his mouth with cotton. My vision blurs and I wish I could sit down but I don’t want to let go of his hand.
The doctor, a woman with shiny black hair who I would guess is around my age, in her late twenties or early thirties, bustles into the room. She explains to me that my father will need months of rehabilitation to return to normal. She keeps using the word normal and I wonder if she couldn’t find a better term. I’m sure they taught her a more clinically appropriate word in medical school, right? What does normal mean for my dad? Certainly he won’t be going on the Appalachian Trail through-hike he’s been planning with Jimmy. He probably wouldn’t be embarking on the trip to Ireland he had planned either. Nor would he be putting up his customary jars of salsa and pesto from the tomatoes and herbs in his garden. No. Normal might mean living at home again, but not on his own and not on his own terms. Normal means walking and bathing himself. Normal means not having another stroke and dying alone in his home while his son is off in a city far away.
“Mr. Webster?” the doctor asks, a sculpted eyebrow raised, clearly aware I’m not listening to anything she’s saying. She seems impatient with me.
I nod slowly, racking my brain for context clues. Physical therapy…occupational therapy…insurance…
Surmising my lack of focus, she repeats herself. “So, Mr. Webster.” She pauses and looks into my eyes. Something shifts in her expression. “David. You know what has to happen. Someone has to be with your dad to help him around the clock. He’s not stable enough to be at home by himself. He will need a great deal of help with simple physical tasks. Of course we’re able to recommend in-home care or nursing facilities, although both options are likely going to be quite costly on your father’s insurance plan.” When she looks at me again her face is sympathetic. She reaches to give my arm a soft squeeze. I’m contemplating her perfectly buffed fingernails but then my vision wobbles. Tears slide down my cheeks too fast to wipe away.
Before my mind even has the chance to catch up to my mouth, I’m saying the words. “No. I’ll stay with him. Tell me what I need to do.”
And that’s it. I call Marc as I leave the hospital and beg him, not that he needs to be begged, to go over to my place in Andersonville and pack up my clothes and toiletries and ship them to my dad’s house. I guess I’ll have to break my lease, but I push all but the most pressing practicalities into a folder in my mind and lock it up in a drawer labeled Do Not Think About or You Will Have a Panic Attack.
Not once as I talk to Marc do I even wonder about work. After a while he mentions the meeting, saying it went incredibly well, but already my job is a relic from a distant past. Something I’m reading about with mild interest but no longer invested in.
I can practically feel Marc’s panic vibrating through the phone. “Are you, like, quitting, David?” Marc has largely banished the word like from his vocabulary so its appearance clues me in that he’s truly concerned.
I weigh his question in my mind, considering my life in Chicago since I took the job at the museum. There’s my apartment, a roomy two-bedroom walkup in my wonderful neighborhood. The gorgeous back balcony with its twinkly lights and potted ferns and the vintage mosaic table Christopher and I found at a shop down on Clark Street. The exposed brick walls dotted with paintings made by friends. Then there’s my work, waking up each day to take the L to a job I genuinely care about. After years of school, laboring over my master’s thesis and making myself sick over my dissertation, years of academic anxiety and competition, now I go to work every morning invigorated, knowing what I do matters. But there’s also the reality that most of my friends from my doctoral program moved to New York or scattered to far-flung universities to teach. Aside from Marc, I barely have anyone I can talk to or count on in Chicago.
On the surface my life looks exactly like I wanted it to when I got on the Greyhound bus to study at the University of Chicago when I was eighteen. I have a great apartment, a fantastic job with benefits and a comfortable salary, and I can go out to bars and meet interesting queer men whenever I want. Not that I take advantage of that perk very often anymore. Deep down, though, my life feels totally hollow.
My stomach clenches. I’m lonely. Even when I was with Christopher I would sometimes wake up early in the morning sipping a cup of the expensive coffee he always bought and think, Is this really my life? It was like I’d spent years sewing an elaborate costume and occasionally I would give it a tug only to realize it didn’t fit quite right. As a kid I always felt so passionate and connected, ready to take things on. Seeing the autumn light cast long shadows in my mom’s garden and being filled with sudden energy. Wanting to find the perfect combination of oil paints to recreate that light. Lying in the grass with Nick—Shit. Don’t go there.
Just like at the hospital I find my mouth moving ten steps ahead of my brain. “Yes,” I finally answer Marc’s question, “I guess I am.”