Al

Al

From A 6th Bowl of Chicken Soup for the Soul

Al

His room is rectangular with two sets of windows looking out on the street six floors below. There are two beds: One is Al’s, the other his roommate’s. Family pictures sit on a wooden night table that separates the beds. Over his bed are tacked greeting cards from his children and grandchildren. A yellow rosary stands guard as it hangs from the bedpost. He cannot clearly see any of what surrounds him.

Al is my father-in-law. He sits quietly in his soft contour chair at the foot of his bed. His eyes, once sharp and focused, are now clouded with cataracts. He stares down at his hands coupled in his lap. The same hands that turned the pages of dozens of books; built bookcases and shelves to hold them; animated his many conversations and arguments; the same hands that gave his daughter in marriage—now reach out in front of him as I approach. The arms seem to be clearing imaginary cobwebs as his eyes try to see who it is visiting with him. We shake hands, and I realize he knows who I am. His mouth begins to take the shape of a crescent moon lying on its back as he smiles and says simply, “Mike.” He always recognizes me. He seldom knows his own family.

I pull up a chair next to him and place my arm over his shoulders. As is my custom when we visit, I begin our conversation. There are so many memories that are stored up in my brain. I leaf through them and bring one out to him. I recall our first meeting. I was dating his daughter for two weeks when she thought it was time I met her father. I tell him how apprehensive I felt wondering if he would accept me. A faint smile begins to form, but just as his cheeks begin to allow his mouth to expand into a smile, he stops. I realize this partial description of his past may not be enough to strike the responsive chord of memory. I tell him how, as we approached each other, I quickly brushed the palm of my sweaty hand across the front of my jacket extending it with all the confidence of a mouse cornered by a hungry lion. Now I notice the smile return.

He is a die-hard New York Yankees fan. I throw out a few names from the early teams like Ruth, Gehrig, Crosetti, and I watch his reaction. I realize I have unlocked another memory, which has been hidden in a file drawer in his brain. I always pictured his brain containing long hallways in which there were dozens of five-drawer file cabinets, crammed full. He smiles, reaches out his hand and places it on my arm. He remembers Crosetti on third, Ruth on first. “The one-two punch,” he calls them. We cannot linger long on one subject; it is too much for him.

I talk to him about the bungling son-in-law he inherited when it came to being mechanically minded. I look to see if he remembers the time that I wanted to impress his daughter by putting up wall paneling. He was present in the living room as I began. It seemed easy; the book said it was. He likes this story. Al becomes a bit more animated. His arms lift from the arms of his chair and his hands draw an imaginary square on the space in front of him. He chides me about the number of nails I bent attempting to hammer the paneling to the wall. “You couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn with a bass fiddle, I used to tell you, Michael, remember?” Yes I do. I had already ruined half a box of nails and a sheet of paneling. It would have caused more loss to my confidence had he not stepped in and removed the bass fiddle from my hands. “You Irish still haven’t learned a thing yet,” I remember him saying.

He immigrated from Italy with his family. He fought the battles of the streets as a youngster, learned the language and lived the poverty that so many early immigrants lived. He had an appetite for learning. At times during our weekly conversations, he will ask me, “What did you steal with your eyes today?” His eyes stole all the time. He would watch a skilled craftsman at work and learn how a particular job was done; then store it away in one of the file cabinets in his brain. When it was needed, all he had to do was reach in, pull it out and proceed with the task at hand. I tell him how I still have problems with some household plumbing or electricity, and I can tell that he would be anxious to help, if only he could remember. He gestures with his outstretched arms repeating the paneling episode and we both have a smile about it. Sometimes he cannot remember this. It’s happening more now.

The books Al read over the years could fill a small room in a local library. His enthusiasm for what he read would spill over to all of us. He would paint pictures in our minds of the stories. I remember Irving Stone’s The Agony and the Ecstasy, the story of Michelangelo. I had to read that book, after just listening to Al’s descriptions. I talk to him now particularly about that story. I know he remembers because his eyes rise up and search the ceiling in his room. Have his eyes painted a scene there?

He asks me if I am married and how many children I have. I tell him that his daughter and I have just celebrated our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary and have five beautiful children. “The Irish couldn’t possibly have beautiful children,” he says, smiling at his own joke. I point to the picture on his night table and recite their names to him. He does not remember. I tell him how they used to bounce on his knee and play hide-and-seek with him in his apartment. I describe how they would hide in one of the closets waiting for their grandfather to find them. Opening the door, he would fumble around the hats and scarves on the top of the closet calling out their names as if they were hidden there. He would hear their tiny giggles and would only look harder and harder without seeing them. Then suddenly he would reach in between the coats and suits and grab hold of them. He tries to remember, and I know he wants to. “Did I do that every time they saw me?” he says. “Yes,” I tell him, “and they loved it.”

I cherish these memories. Al’s room is his world now. I simply visit it. Hopefully, I can keep his world revolving for a long time to come.

Michael Haverty

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