August 30th, 2008


Alternative piece of time - part 1

Before my brother Mike went into the hospital for the last time, I visited him from time to time and talked, some of the time, about his condition. I offered one of my kidneys. He went for various tests, he was put off, the doctors said he wasn't a good risk. I kept waiting for that second opinion. I even thought of how I would arrange for the time I was in the hospital, away from work, away from my home.

It never got to that. Here is a conversation I did not have:

"Mike, I am offering you a kidney. I am not offering it to anyone else, so if you don't take it I keep it. So if you are strong enough to make it through the operation, which I think you are, then the main reason you are not being given a chance is that the insurance company does not want to pay for it."

"Sounds right to me."

"Let's confront them."

Here I take down phone numbers and make calls and write letters to find out the real story. I talk to Mike's doctor, see if there are other reasons he should not be given a new kidney. Maybe there are. Maybe there aren't; maybe it comes down to this: he is not a good risk because he will probably keep drinking, and they don't want to pay for that.

Is that any of their business, though? Every day incredible sums are spent on keeping someone alive who is a "poor risk" for one reason or another. Maybe just because they're old. Mike wasn't that old. He was in his early 60s. He wasn't in great health but a new kidney might have given him the impetus to make changes. Who plays god in these cases?

Of course what I am saying is that I did not do any of this. I offered the kidney, then let Mike do what he could, and it wasn't much. I was more than ready to get on the operating table; it was never a matter of doubt for me. But I wasn't ready to fight the doctors or the insurance companies.

I doubt I have changed so much that I would do so now. I have long admired those who will stand out there, beating at the door, letting themselves appear foolish or ignorant or worse, because they single-mindedly want a change. I think these are the real heroes.

Alternative piece of time - part 2

When my father was dying, I didn't necessarily know he was. That is, I didn't know how close death was. He was complaining, he was bitter, he wanted better care. I was uncomfortable around him.

I may have been closer to him than his other children, except Karol, because I worked for him for six or seven years and saw him and his wife Elizabeth almost every day during that time, as well as occasionally at other times. We recognized in each other some similarities. Some were surprising, like the way we held pens and pencils. It is an odd way and the only way I can see it happening is genetics. I was not holding pens when I was one year old or younger, when my parents were divorced. I saw him rarely before we moved to Michigan when I was four and only for short periods during the summers after that. Yet I developed that same strange way of holding pencils.

We also had a similar sense of humor. One time we went to a French movie together, at a small theater on Vermont Avenue in Los Angeles. The entire movie was another movie run backwards, with voice-overs explaining the action. It starts with a head rolling up a ramp and attaching itself to a body on the other side of a guillotine. Here is where the hero was born. From here he moves (backwards, of course) through adventures, all of which are interpreted based on how it looks on the screen. We laughed hilariously. When we got home and told Elizabeth about it she said that we "laughed like drains". I had never heard that expression before, which may be why I remember this incident so clearly. She did not get the humor, needless to say. I am not at all sure about her capacity for humor, come to that. But I am sure that my father and I laughed at a lot of the same things.

We both loved nature, and especially birds. He was always buying the latest photographic equipment in the hopes of capturing birds on the wing. He would literally try to grab images on the fly, from a car or boat, while standing on a deck or walking around. It would never have occurred to him to set up a blind and put the camera on a tripod and wait patiently for his subject, learning which lens is best, what the limitations are. In fact, he was repeatedly frustrated that a camera could not grab a scene the same way that our eyes do. He did not comprehend - or want to accept - that a camera has only one exposure per shot. It can't do a dual or triple exposure, with different parts of a scene exposed differently. There are some ways to set up a scene, use filters, use time exposures, to get what you want, but rarely will it be exactly as the human eye perceives it.

He was too impatient to learn how to get what he wanted. In a sense, he did get what he wanted - he got the view he wanted, the vision. The fact that the pictures may be over- or underexposed or blurry does not take away from that, fortunately.

In the last years of his life he complained about dizziness. He went to doctors in other parts of the world in hopes of figuring out what was the matter. I would ask how he was and listen but I never really expressed any end-of-life feelings. When my sister Mary told me that she had gone into his hospital room, near the end, and told him she loved him and he said he loved her too, I felt grateful to her for doing this and I knew I could not do it myself. In fact, I was overwhelmed with conflicting feelings about him.

I had wanted to be closer to him than I was. I had learned how to steer the conversation so we stayed on subjects on which we "agreed", because he did not understand what it meant to disagree with someone. He felt it was a kind of betrayal and he didn't understand it in me when it happened. It was easier for me to stay with the safe subjects, but of course that means floating on the top of real conversation, never having the kind of conversation I deeply love to have.

During those years, near the end, I was taking classes in film. I took a screenwriting class at one point. I wrote the first act of a screenplay. I created a character who resembled my father and set up a situation that was entirely out of the air. I used this opportunity to do, in writing, what I wanted to do in person, to try it out. I had the characters overcome the distance between them, a distance like my own with my father. After the teacher read the act to the class he asked how the class members felt about the action. He nodded at their comments and concluded with his own take, that this person, with this personality, would not be able to act as he did.

In a way it was cathartic. I understood then that there was never likely to be such a scene between us because our personalities were so different and in such different places. At an earlier time I had been in a therapy group and was asked to do some role playing, with a chair substituting for my father. I hated doing it and thought it would be useless, but when I was asked to tell the chair what I wanted from him I said "I want you to be someone else". That was when I first understood that it was to be this way between us, that I could not magically make us into the movie version of father and daughter. Well, perhaps a modern movie, yeah, the edgy kind.

I suspect that it is nearly impossible to be both a great creator, a driven artist, and a great family person. My father wanted very much to be close to others and he wanted a physical as well as an emotional closeness. But his prejudices and biases as well as his self-centeredness tended to get in the way. There is no doubt my own reserved nature got in the way for us as well.

Thus at the end I did not have that moment. The moment my sister Mary may have had, the moment my sister Karol did not need to have (I think of all of us Karol was free of that reserve, that uncertainty, about where she stood with her dad). I do not know of a way to rewrite that piece of history and make it stick.