FRESH YARN presents:

When This is Over
By Karen Rizzo

"Jim, tell me something comforting." I say to my husband, as I lay in bed staring at the ceiling.

"Okay." He puts down his book. "We don't really exist."

Not quite what I had in mind.

I fall off to sleep and dream of my father being chased by a police car. The siren on the car interrupts my sleep, then morphs into a muffled, wailing cry. Is it Drake, my five-year-old, in the midst of a nightmare? A feral parrot with its acute imitation of a child in distress? The baby's monitor? My father's monitor? It's 3 a.m. and it's the baby, August. Jim is either sleeping or feigning sleep or has left his body on a sojourn to another dimension. Two hours ago we gave Dad his morphine for the night.

I whisper to Jim, "If…you put the baby back to sleep, I'll…owe you a blow job."

He opens one eye in brief consideration, then passes out. I propel myself out of bed.

My father wanders into the kitchen as August sits in her highchair, painting her face with yogurt. "Is everything all right?" He asks.

"Everything's fine, Dad."

"It's the craziest thing." He turns to August. "Hello, beautiful baby, you're amazing aren't you? What was I saying? There's something…it's crazy…what was it…my…you know…choppers. Goddamn, I have no idea where they are."

I pull his gleaming white teeth out of the blue cleaning solution beside the sink.

"Son of a gun," he says, shoving them in his mouth and sitting beside August.

She shrieks in delight and yells, "Poopy, gogama!"

He laughs and says some combination of the same back at her. They moo and giggle at each other as I prepare my father's toast and jam, which he will pretend to eat but actually fold and cover with a napkin then slide into the garbage when I'm not looking. He's not eating and we're not making him. We're doing hospice for him because the cancer in his gut is going to kill him much sooner than the Alzheimer's. So here he is, with us -- gliding in and out of rooms like an apparition as I give the kids their meals and baths -- losing the fat and flesh anchoring him to the planet, standing in the middle of the living room waiting for the impulse to move or sit or speak or for me to tell him which to do.

"Dad, sit down. I'm making you a milkshake."

"I've had those before, right?"

"Every day."

"GRACO," he reads aloud off the high chair as he does every morning. "Grrraco! GRAH-COH." He stares out the window, then says, "Look outside. It looks like Shakespeare. You see what I mean? Just like Shakespeare."

"Is Poppa gonna die?" Drake asks.

"I don't know. But we're going to help him."



"No, Momma, I think this is the die kind of sick. I think we have to say goodbye to Poppa."

We don't say goodbye, not yet. What we do is move Dad into our tiny Los Angeles home where my husband and I live with our two small kids. In the beginning, when Dad is lucid, we talk to him about his choices… tubes for food, tubes for breath, resuscitation? He grunts disgustedly at the notion of being kept alive by artificial means. No, no, no. But Dad soon forgets his diagnosis, his emphatic wishes for his end of life care, and plans to move to Arizona when he gets better. A house in the mountains or in Lake Havasu, you know, where the London Bridge is. "We can all move there and Jim can commute." He asks why he's feeling so lousy and we remind him that he's very sick. "How sick?" he asks.

"Sick like when Mom was sick," I say.

He falls quiet. "But, how did this happen?" he asks, incredulous. "I've never been sick before."

That's how I want to go, is what I want to say. Healthy eighty years and then, boom, I've got six months. "I don't know, Dad."

"I can't say my feelings. Is my mind going bad or is my body really sick?"

What's the right combination of truth and kindness and hope? "I don't know," I mumble.

"Well, we've got to find a doctor and find out. I have to find out why I can't think. We're in…the sunny land…west?"


"I am so… unknowledge…of…the whole thing. How…is…Jim's father?" he says to show me that he remembers Jim, remembers Jim's dad, remembers.

"He's fine."

"How old is he?"

"He's 61."

My father's aghast. "Is that possible?"

"Maybe he had Jim when he was thirteen," I say.

"Are you playing with me?" he asks, looking pained.

"Oh, no, no, I'm just kidding." Then we both stare at the floor.

My father is sweeping, this last man on the planet who would ever want sympathy, ask for help, or admit to growing old. He sweeps everything in his path, then spends the rest of his day on a lounge chair in our backyard, wrapped in fleece jackets and blankets in the seventy-degree sun. I watch from a window as Drake approaches Dad, who is sleeping with his mouth hanging open. Drake stares at him, then runs back to me. "I think Poppa's dead, Mom."

"I don't think so, Honey. Let's go out together and see." And he's not, yet.

Jim comes into the living room dressed in pressed chinos, blue oxford and white sneakers. He's an actor; the TV guest psycho/bad cop/abusive husband/pyromaniac and the man who sits with my father nightly, he with a Heineken, my father with his morphine cocktail. "There. How do I look?"

"What are you?"

"Social worker, but he's the killer. Killer, but he's a social worker."

"It's so clean. Maybe a darker shirt."

Drake comes in. "What's your audition, Dad?"

"I'm a social worker."

"Nah, that's all wrong. You're supposed to wear a black shirt and black tie and black shoes. Like Cobra Bubbles. In Lilo and Stitch? He's a social worker and that's what he wears, Dad."

August runs in, then stops short, eyeing Jim suspiciously. "No like, Daddy."

My father enters and gestures to Jim. "Hey…young man. Have you…got…one of those things where you do that thing…you do?"

"An audition."

"Right. Knock 'em dead," Dad says, throwing shadowboxes, nearly knocking himself out. "Give 'em hell. Who are you…supposed to…be?"

"I don't know anymore, Tony. Maybe you should tell me."

Dad squints. "Is this a trick question?"

Some mornings Dad spends all his energy running after August. "Careful," he coos at her as she picks up a plastic sword and jabs it at his knees, which makes him laugh so hard that he covers his mouth for fear of spitting out the false teeth that have become too big for it. "She is the smartest…and she has a beautiful…form. She'll be…anyone she wants."

Fine, it's fine, better that he die running after his grandkid than live six months longer in a bed. I'm reminded of the scene in The Godfather when Marlon Brando runs after his grandson with an orange rind in his mouth, then keels over and dies.

"Dad, I'm gonna pick up Drake. I'll be back in 15 minutes."

"Is he at the airport?"

"No, Drake's at school. I'm picking him up and I'll be right back."

"Where are you going?"

"To get Drake."

"Where's Jim?"

"At an audition."

"Did he get the part?"

"He's auditioning."

"I hope so."


"I see. So, that's it then."


"You're alright, Karen?"

I remember acting in Ionesco's The Bald Soprano in 12th grade. I had no idea what I was talking about, but my parents told me that I was very convincing.

We take Dad for a drive to the mountains on a beautiful Saturday afternoon. The rains have washed away the smog, and giant, swollen clouds are perched on the summits north against blue skies as we drive higher in spirals and dips up the Angeles Crest Highway. "Look, Drake. Look at those clouds," I say.

"Look at them," my father says. "I think I'll find a place up here when this is all over."

A place up here. When this is over. Dad as cumulonimbus cloud.

Growing up in a Long Island suburb, I never knew that my father liked mountains. We were never a family that played outdoors or cooked on anything other than our avocado-colored Amana. Outdoors we walked to the car. We walked from the car to Greek diners and movies and other people's homes. Sometimes we walked the boardwalk at Jones Beach at night in winter. After my mother died, my father spent days at the beach, walking, golfing, collecting rocks that he recognized faces in. Jim and I would take the train from Manhattan out to his tiny apartment on the northeast end of Long Island and he'd drive us to some rocky, deserted beach for a walk in icy winds. Dad would hold up a rock to Jim before sliding it into his pocket. "You see the profile in this one? Big Chief Meroke." Then, "Mrs. Rizzo and I used to drive down here."

"Did your wife like to walk on this beach?"

"Hell, no. We'd come down in a storm, sit in the car and watch the waves."

My father came to Ellis Island from Italy when he was four, with his parents and older brothers. Long ago when we were driving along the causeway to Jones Beach, I asked him if he remembered anything about that trip. He took a deep breath. "The smell. I remember it smelled like this." Then he added, "Your mother liked this drive."

That is to say, Mom would drive and Dad would sit back and watch the road fall under the car at eighty miles an hour. They came of age in The Depression, a decade or two older than my friends' parents. They never wore sneakers or t-shirts, and certainly never owned a pair of jeans. Jim bought my father his first pair for his 70th birthday. "They're Wranglers, you say? So, Jim, do you wear them belted or not?"

My father is convinced that there's something lodged in his throat and insists on seeing a doctor. His GP says to humor him, so Jim heads off with Dad to see a throat doctor who, evidently, has no fucking clue as to what hospice means. He tells Jim that Dad is terribly undernourished (no shit) and that death by starvation is a terrible way to die. Oh my God, what have we done? We call our hospice nurse, Cyn. I hear her yell to someone, "You won't believe what this asshole doctor said to my people." She returns to the phone. "Those fucking, excuse me, doctors," she sighs. "Doesn't he know what hospice is?"

"It's Dad's body closing down, right? Isn't that what's…supposed to happen? I mean, Dad said he didn't want feeding…all the tubes and --"

"Of course!" She says. "You're right! I'm so sorry. That doctor…he was just plain wrong. Damn doctor."

I throw together a milkshake, unable to swallow myself, and bring it out to Dad. "Please, you've got to drink this. Please."

Calmly, my father looks up at me as I twitch, my throat aching from fighting back tears, and says hoarsely, "Honey, I'm just not hungry."

A clear, full moon night, I'm barely awake after two glasses of wine with dinner, and the kids are asleep. "C'mon," says Jim. "Let's go out back with the rest of the wine."

No, it's cold, no, I'm sooo tired, no, I'm gonna be up at 5:30. "Okay," I say. Jim grabs the wine. He's hoping to get lucky, I'm hoping he does without my falling asleep, and we're both hoping for a few minutes of temporary amnesia.

I step one foot out the back door and stop cold. "Dad… he's out there. In the middle of the yard." In only an undershirt. Jim bounds down the stairs, then glides slowly across the grass to Dad's side. For a moment they are in a frozen tableau, younger man broad-shouldered and upright, legs apart in the moonlit patch, older man skeletal, hunched.

"Hey, Tony, whatchu up to?"

My father turns, looking as though he has just been asked to pass the salt at dinner.

"Oh, hello. Jim. I was…trying to find…the thing…lost."

"It's chilly out here, Tony. Let's go inside."

"Yes, that's a…" Dad's voice falls off.

Jim leads him to his room and tucks him in. I want to sleep for a week. Stupid wine. Stupid moon. Stupid dying.

There's a photo of my father circa 1985. He's seated at a table next to me at CBGBs, a dark, dank rock club on New York's Lower East Side. He's smiling broadly, in a beige sports jacket, powder-blue pants, and Ray Bans, watching my brother play in his band. Dad liked to be the first to the stage after these gigs to shake the boys' hands, yelling, "Great show!" over the din.

Dad taps me on the shoulder. "Sorry," he says. "You were thinking. Are you alright?

"I'm okay, Dad."

He holds up a coffee mug with a photo of my brother and his wife on it. "Where'd I get this?"

It is late January. "You got it for Christmas."

Dad looks stricken. "Christmas?! I don't remember Christmas. What the hell is going on?"

As I help him to his chair in the sun he says, "Maybe I should go home to the guando garudas. They would know who I am." For an instant I think he's being slyly, intentionally absurd, like when my brother and I were kids and he would talk to a waitress in a made-up language just to crack us up. Is he making fun of the fact that he can't remember? A million years ago I would have laughed at the guando garudas, instead, I swallow hard.

Dad is at the kitchen table, his sunglasses on, holding a small photo album when Jim and I come in. His head drops. "How did I become a midget instead of a man? When?" Then my father cries, behind his Ray Bans, cries for the first time I have ever seen him do so. I lean down and hug him and Jim tells him how glad he is to have him here with us.

"Is…there a chance it will go the other way?" Dad says, with great clarity.

"You mean you'll get better?"

"Yes," he whispers.


Dad is unable to speak and barely able to stand. I press my forehead to his. "I know you're in there." He nods imperceptibly. He hears me.

Later, Cyn arrives to take his vitals. "How do you do it?" I ask her. "All your patients die."

She laughs. "Hell, anyone can deliver a baby. Been there, done that." She takes a deep breath. "But to give a person a good death, to help them with their final wishes… that's something. This is something."

Dad has fallen… no, leaned into a coma. One minute sitting on his own next to me, the next minute leaning into my shoulder, into his coma. I propped him against a cushion and stood. Then Cyn and I picked him up, and lay him in bed, his being caught in his petrified body, waiting for release, for the vessel to shut down and the portals to open. So tough my father, looking and acting years younger until the end, hanging on so tightly. He believed in God, and although I did find some ancient, mildewed Bible amongst his belongings, I never knew him to have set foot in church. My mother was Jewish and they were married by a Justice of the Peace. Hospice sent chaplains in the beginning, but Dad danced around their inquiries into his faith, his simple and very private faith. He believed in the here and now, in what he could touch and feel and do, and he believed in those he loved.

"Everything's okay. I'll be back in a couple hours." I say into Dad's ear, although he doesn't even seem alive. Cyn told me he might be waiting for me to leave to die, so I take Drake to karate after all.

"When is Poppa gonna die?" Drake asks in the car.


"What time?"

"I don't know."

"When he dies, can I take him to school for share day?"

"I don't think so. I'm pretty sure there's a rule against bringing dead people to school."

"I'll ask, Mom, just in case."


"Mom, why do people bury dead people in the ground? That's a dumb idea."

"That's just their choice, honey. It's not what we're gonna do. We're going to burn Poppa's body. Because, remember, Poppa's spirit--"

"I know," Drake interrupts. "Poppa's spirit won't be in his body. It's gonna fly really high away. Poppa'll be like Superman in the sky. Maybe he'll meet your mom."

"Poppa sky." August offers and makes the sound of an airplane, hands whooshing madly in circles.

On my morning walk I think of my father's walk, his brisk, torso straight and still, chest open, arms led by wrists gracefully snapping back and forth walk. When Jim and I would walk the beach with my father, Jim would invariably say "Tony, what's your hurry?"

"You stop, it's all over," he'd say.

I've never thought of Dad's walk so precisely until now. Is that what happens, our parents actually become more a part of us after they die? Or is it that we never stop and examine the small idiosyncratic gestures that made up their lives until those lives are over?

I'm certainly more my mother now then when she was alive. I imagine that I'll be more my father as well. My mother used to say, "The first hundred years are always the hardest," and I'd invariably roll my eyes. Recently I found the occasion to say it to my son. Maybe next time we're all out to dinner, I'll speak to the waitress in a made-up language just to crack the kids up…and to remember.

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