Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that.
A Christmas Carol, in its entirety, was read aloud to us. There was pleasure, reverence, and amusement, as my father spoke the words.
Now, I watch helplessly, his withered arms before me. Face too thin. Neck too thin. Hospital gown hanging off bony shoulder. I am 8 years old, and horrified. My father, the reader of Dickens, the round-bellied man with a double chin, the griller of steaks and corn on the cob, the maker of sparks and flames, the slatherer of butter, and salt, and plenty of black pepper. Now, he can barely lift a tiny wooden spatula to his vanishing lips. A pale middle-aged nurse, whose saccharin voice is as nauseating as the vanilla ice cream she is coaxing, says, “Would the girls like some, too?” She’s so pleased at her own thoughtfulness. I want to scream. But not for ice cream. I hold a paper cup, and gag on melted sweetness, desperate for the visit to be over.
I want to save my father, but I can’t.
Old Marley was dead as a doornail.
A few days later, the word “coma” floats and repeats in the space between our mother and us. I don’t know what it is, but I know it’s not good. I imagine a cocoon, a mummy of sorts. I’m not far off.
We are given permission to skip the next visit. “He may not recognize you,” our mother says. “Once you go into a coma, you rarely come out.” I go. Seeing him withered and weak is terrifying, but for some reason, I think I can handle a coma. Go figure. My sisters decline.
What transpires at the hospital is the final scene from The Little Princess, with Shirley Temple. Sarah has found her father. “Oh, Daddy, you’ve got to know me! Look at me! Look at me!” My father never comes out of his coma to embrace me, repeating my name over and over. He mumbles and moves his head from side to side, and I become increasingly hysterical. The nurses pull me off, escort me out of the room. I am too young, they say.
You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.
A few days later, my father dies. It’s a relief.
At the funeral, we have fun touching strange, cold skin. The cakey foundation on his face, pinker than his natural tone, is oddly comforting in its aroma. My sisters, and I are mostly happy. We have new outfits. We have company over. Lots of company. It’s the first party we’ve had since our parents separated.
There is life in the house, and lots of attention.
The mention of Marley’s funeral brings me back to the point I started from. There is no doubt that Marley was dead. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.
I remember having my fathers complete attention once. Sitting in his recliner, probably after a few beers, I emerge from the vestibule in a puffy white hooded parka. My arms, outstretched, float up and down, in cloud-like fashion. I, Neil Armstrong, the man on the moon, am 2 years old.
“It’s the Moon Child,” my father says.
He gave me poetry.
He gave me the moon.
He read Dickens aloud.
Now, he was dead.
There was no doubt whatever about that.