Three Wednesdays back, Dr. Diaz—Nick—asked me—this was at the clubhouse after a late round of eighteen; Phil and Derrick had already deserted us—he asked me, “Father, can you take my confession. Here, I mean, without your closet thing?” I asked if he was baptized in the Catholic church. “No,” he said, “Episcopalian.”
“Then I can’t take your confession,” I said. “But I can listen, and hey, since when do you call me Father?”
“Sorry, Ben,” he said. “I figured on official business—”
“This is really weighing on you,” I said. It was easy enough to see. He was usually the one to jog from hole to hole, to forgo a caddy even at the little local tournaments. In fact he always looked like he’d just gotten out of the pool, tan and fresh. But that night he looked like an insomniac, like a man working himself up to something crazy. I waved to the waiter and ordered each of us a beer.
“Well if this isn’t a legal confessional—if it’s not, you know, legally protected—then I need you to promise to tell no one about it—really, no one. I could lose my license just for talking about it.” Other doctors I know, they’ll rattle off stories about their patients all day: their halitosis, their gland issues, what they’ve lost up their butts, complete with the real names of the patients—I know some of the people in the stories, and some of the stories have been corroborated in, you know, confession. But Nick? I’d never heard him discuss a case at all, not even Patient X had a cold.
“I promise,” I said.
“Do you swear to God?”
“We don’t really do that.”
“Can you do, like, Scout’s honor?”
“Fine,” I said, holding up a few fingers.
Last week, he began, he got a referral from Abel Meyer over at Brigham and Women’s, an email of a brain scan, an old woman with a tumor, and a note that said, “Can you take this case? I can’t. I just can’t.” Nick’s the type to help out a friend so he said sure, just bus her over. He agreed to take over the consult and, if everyone was on board, the surgery. He called the woman and her husband the Schwartzes, making very clear that this was not their real name—he said it twice.
He gave the transfer a couple hours then headed up to the floor. When he got there he saw an old, old man sitting in a chair outside the room—strange, because why not sit inside? You know, given that the patient he was there with was inside. The guy was like a cartoon or a caricature of an old man: his nose was enlarged with age and projected off his face like a freaking flying buttress, his cheeks hung down to where his lips should have been, and his chin skin dangled in a little nub slightly lower than a chin should be. There was something a little comic about him. A friendly old man from Looney Toons. He looked about ninety. He had all his hair still somehow, but it was thin and gray.
Dr. Diaz introduced himself. “I assume you’re Mr. Schwartz?” (Not his real name—I get it, I said.) “Is your wife inside?” He had a voice like a bratwurst—you’d think like cotton candy, breathy, insubstantial, given how decrepit he looked, but it was the deep voice of a healthy young man. He said his wife was in the room but he wanted to wait outside, to meet the doctor first, to warn him that his wife might have an episode while he’s in there. She’s got Alzheimer’s and—Doctor Diaz interrupted to say he was a neurologist, and quite used to Alzheimer’s patients.
“Well—” said Mr. Schwartz, but Nick was already in the room. He did not mean to be delayed. He was probably thinking about his lunch already. In the bed he saw a woman who looked even older than Schwartz, who looked like every part of her except her head had been shrunk: little elfin arms and shoulders, a concave chest, collarbones you could chain your bike up to. The head tottered over it—the skull really, the soft parts had shrunk as well, the eye sockets gray and sad, her mouth small and drawn.
As soon as she saw him in the room her knuckles clenched around the sheet and her body recoiled as far backward into the bed as possible, like a vampire reacting to sunlight. She started cursing him, warding him off in Yiddish and not using an indoor voice. Her feet churned under the sheet as if she were frantically pedaling a bike. She stopped yelling to catch her breath, breathed deeply one, two, three times, then ripcoiled the highest, loudest shriek you’ve ever heard, like you don’t hear in real life, a shriek of ultimate horror.
He stepped back out of the room. Every eye on the floor was on him: every nurse, CNA, housekeeper, visitors who had stepped out of patients’ rooms, patients in the rooms across the way who could see into his part of the hall. A bit of “I told you so” in the face of Mr. Schwartz, but it was more sad than amused.
Dr. Diaz took him down to the cafeteria for coffee. In a cushiony little booth, the man explained: she was at Buchenwald from late 1943 until it was liberated in 1945. Most of the Jews who were there for that long died from disease or starvation or brutality, but some of the women—“Well,” Nick said, “I’ll spare you the gory details, a grace Mr. Ca—I mean, Mr. Schwartz did not extend to me.” I told him I could take it. I said it’s incumbent on a man in my profession to bear witness to such, and so on, but I couldn’t get any more out of him. He said he didn’t want to have to say it all, to weigh down his choice further.
“What choice?” I asked.
“In a minute.”
Schwartz told him, “One morning when I come down for breakfast, she hits me in the face with the toaster and runs out the front door.” The old man parted a fold in the heavy bags under his left eye with his index and ring fingers, making a peace sign which framed a little white scar the length of his thumb-knuckle and the width of a pencil. It was pinkish-white against the olive tone of his skin, stuck there like a dead albino leech. He laughed a little. “I had to chase her down the street, and of course she was looking back at me and screaming, thinking she’s being run down by a Gestapo knight. But what could I do, let her run off into Washington Square thinking it’s wartime Germany?”
“There are homes, you know. Specific to Alzheimer’s,” Nick advised.
“Not reminiscent of the camps at all, huh, Doc? Maybe they don’t use barbed wire, but…. Anyways, tell me about this surgery.”
He gave Schwartz the rundown, the medical names of the procedures he would perform and the parts of the brain he would operate on, then the summary—“We open up her head and cut the tumor out.” If he was able to get it all, if it didn’t come back, Mrs. Schwartz had no other pressing concerns. There were the risks of course, a laundry list as with any surgery, let alone a brain surgery, most notably death, brain death, mental deficits, strokes, personality change—
“Any chance all this will, you know, help her?” he said, tapping a finger to his temple.
Dr. Diaz was appropriately cautious. He sighed, he waited, he looked at the table before looking back up at Schwartz with his eyebrows in a sensitive deployment: “Maybe it will,” he said, “maybe it won’t. Your wife has Alzheimer’s. But depending on how much compression this tumor is causing, it could be aggravating the dementia. Or it could get worse after the removal. What I think is most likely is no change. Maybe a miracle happens. But that’s like getting hit by a car and getting your memory back. Soap opera stuff.”
It was Schwartz’s turn to sigh and stare off into space. He took several sips of his coffee, setting it down between each one. He was punctuating the conversation—a period, a paragraph, a line break—to make it clear what he was going to say next was not a response to what the doctor had just said.
“I’ve thought about it, you know.”
Dr. Diaz did not need to ask what “it” was.
“Her first, then me.” Schwartz laughed a little, sadly. “Can’t do it the other way. Once I was gone she’d forget to do herself.” He punctuated the conversation again, a minute or so of silence. Then he got up, lifting his coffee with a claw-like hand, but turned to Dr. Diaz before shuffling off back toward the elevators and said, “Maybe you should think about it too.”
From a church standpoint, I told him, that wouldn’t fly.
“But what about the Episcopal Church?” he asked. “In most respects they’re more liberal.”
“I’m no expert,” I said, “but I think they call that murder too.”
“Not that I’m decided,” he said. “But what’s really right, here? I mean, people in the camps either died or were eventually freed. An impossible thing to get over but the torment ended. But Mrs. Ca—Mrs. Schwartz—she is back in the camp. She lives it all over again with no hope of reprieve. If God is merciful, how can he let it go on?”
“God is a lot of things,” I said. “He’s jealous; he says so himself. He’s angry, obviously. God is love, too, but that’s not nearly as important as the Protestants would have you believe. It’s not in the Bible, but I suspect He’s also bored. You can’t predict the mind of God, you can’t understand Him. I can take a stab at it, though. Perks of the collar. Perhaps Mrs. Ca-Schwartz is serving as some perfect message to somebody else: to her husband, to you, to a nurse, maybe even to me. In which case I’m sure He’ll balance the account, you know, heaven-wise. Perhaps her soul is seeking some clue lost in those war years which will bring her to the truth of Christ. Or it’s possible—don’t tell anyone I said this—that as a denier of Jesus the Messiah she’s forgone the protection of God. Not covered under warranty, so to speak.”
“I don’t know,” he said. He didn’t follow it up with anything, though I kept waiting. I thought he might fall asleep on the table. Instead he got up, conscientiously wiped the tabletop with his napkin, said “I don’t know” again, and walked off in the direction of the parking lot.
What was I supposed to tell him? If he wanted frou-frou empowerment—“free her from her prison” and whatnot—he’d have asked Derrick. That he asked me was proof enough he wanted a preview of the blowback.
I remember my own father in his last years, convalescing, yellowing. He suffered, and I thought about it, about kinking a tube with a hairpin or unplugging the monitor whose alarms the nurses mostly ignored anyway. As much for my sake as his. An old Catholic through and through, he loved the suffering. Probably figured he was earning an eternity of foie gras and fellatio. It was him who’d stuck me with my faith. I’d been able to ditch most of the auxiliary aspects. Not convinced He’s listening or that He intervenes, but never able to shake the notion that He’s up there.
I wasn’t sure I believed in hell, but the chance of it was enough to deter me. I thought, What if I go through with it and saddle myself for the rest of my life with this fear of eternal damnation? What if I do the old Kevork’ and just know, just feel in my soul, that I’m going to burn? So during those years, I just waited for a mercy miracle instead. Kept thinking, this will be when He reveals himself. My dad went from ER to ICU to the general floor to a convalescent home to hospice. It took three and a half years. I remember looking up at the clouds on the day after he passed and asking, Do You really think that counts?
The next Wednesday I kept waiting to get him alone. Phil and Derrick were so slow on the course I considered uttering an official malediction, but refrained. Best not to draw the eye of Sauron, so to speak, when you yourself are in the splash zone. They did depart to the bathroom together, giving me a few minutes to ask Nick if he’d done it.
“Her surgery isn’t until Friday.”
He wound his backswing, then let the head of his club fall into the grass and scrutinized me.
“You didn’t tell anyone, did you?”
“What the fuck do you mean, not yet?”
“No—I just mean—no—nobody.”
“Are you going to?”
His golf game had been terrible all night. Derrick and Phil were enjoying the hell out of it, but knowing the cause, I didn’t feel like it counted—like if I lorded it over him he’d just look at me like a prick. Now his swing got really bad. He missed the ball once, then clipped it so far to the left it was gone to the woods forever. “Freebies,” I said. “We won’t mark those. Now what’s your plan?” He set another ball on the tee and launched a high, arching shot that dropped straight into the pond. By then the two lovebirds were speeding back across the green in their cart.
As we played through the sixteenth, Dr. Diaz asked Phil, “What’s the worst thing you can imagine happening to you?”