Dying in Nyack, NY

Pop passed in the 9 o’clock hour. In the morning. It was a Friday. My sisters were there. I was there. And he left half past the hour.

You should be so lucky to pass the way my Pop did: Unknowning in a three-day sleep. Simply, he stopped breathing. His eyes stared into the deep distance.

It sounds noble, lucky, to be at someone’s side as they pass…on. To gift them companionship with their next step.

Here’s what it’s like to be standing still while they move on:

  • Like being punched by a sand dune.
  • Pummeled in the tow of a 12-foot wave.
  • Sounds stop.
  • you.stop.thinking.
  • You hear your rabbit heartbeat and the blood rushing in your temples and you hear nothing else.
  • Your mouth hangs, open.
  • You watch your world, like a tide, retreat and slide away.
  • Wet sand slides tween your fingers.
  • You are alone.
  • Alone.

Me? I hugged the old man, kissed his bald head, tried to close his vacant eyes, and walked out backward. There would be family drama in that hospital room. This shitshow would last three days and then two more years. I wanted none of it. My sister climbed into bed with dad.

In the hallway, I hugged the nurses — one of them twice — and took the stairs to the sidewalk.

On the Nyack sidewalk, you see the Hudson River. You feel its temperature in your face. It’s not a kind river; it’s not for comforting. On this morning, the river told me, life is cold. Across the river, the day before, Peter Tarter’s dad died. We were all in a strange time.

I was vulnerable, like a bunny in a dog park.

So I drove to Congers Lake, to Pop’s favorite Italian restaurant. With tears in my eyes and a bourbon in my hand, the owner and I made a menu for the luncheon to follow Pop’s funeral.

In the car, I called Higgins Funeral Home. Made an appointment for the next day. Then St. Augustine’s Church. Same deal. I was back in Nyack and out of things to do.

Started walking the town. I had nowhere to go and no one to talk to. Man, I got tired fast. I leaned against a brick wall. I was done. I was lost. Didn’t know my next step.

Saw the sign when I looked straight up: Nyack Cigar. I scurried inside.

Met the owner. It was 11 a.m. I felt like I was 12 years old. I asked, can I hang out here? Buy a cigar, he asked? Sure.

In the humidor, he asked all the cigar questions: bold, length, flavor. Look, I said, my old man just died. And he was supposed to. I’m glad he did. He’s not in pain anymore. And it wasn’t fair. He deserved better. And I can’t think.

How about I buy the same cigar you’re smoking right now? Sold, he said. $10.

And that’s how I remember growing up in suburban New York. No one felt bad for you, felt sorry for you. You weren’t going to get hugs from strangers or a freebie from the cigar man. But for a little while, they’d give you space. Just for today, they’d give you a break.

Called my wife from the bathroom and told her dad had died. I blubbered like I was 10 years old. Snot bubbles and yelps until I just couldn’t talk about it anymore. I’d see her in a few days.

Got a tall boy from across the street and sat on a barstool in the cigar shop and I was seeing the place for the first time. Dark. The sun was unwelcomed. The cigar store had a bar, but no bottles. It had couches and broken leather recliners. Old smoke hung in the air. It had the biggest TV I’d seen — like 80 inches. This was a clubhouse for middle-aged boys.

We weren’t alone. Three regulars were in to watch the worst TV possible: Every Bruce Willis blow-em-movie movie there was. I mean, these guys had every action movie channel in the world. I was in the right place. My beer was cold. My head ached less. I was feeling better. I had some calm.

Feeling better, the owner asked. Yeah. Thanks. Heard your old man died, asked a regular. Yeah, over at Nyack. I looked at my watch. About 3 hours ago. Oh, he said.

Where’d he live, another asked. Over in New City. He was a retired fire captain. Down in The City.

Those words carry a lot of weight in suburban New York, especially after 9/11. Fireman is hard work. You suck a lot of smoke to help people you don’t know and you see things the scotch doesn’t take away. Eventually, you’ll get a bit broken; if you’re lucky, not a lot broken. A retired fireman without a bad back is a lucky fireman.

With a lot of overtime, fireman’s good money and the money spends better for a family out in the suburbs. Only one person has a long commute; that’s you. It’s noble work, it’s brave work. Makes you strong. You say fireman and you get a cushion of respect.

Be careful when you say you’re the son of a fireman. It allows you to bask in reflected glory, but you don’t have the right. It’s bad karma to go there, especially when you chose not to be a fireman. Especially after 9/11.

Captain, the owner said. Yeah. 38 years. And you let the conversation hang there. You don’t say the next words; they do. Everyone was ignoring the TV.

I’m the only one with a beer. I drink and I smoke and I stare. Don’t these guys have jobs? I don’t care.

So where’s the luncheon, the third one asks. I tell them. They look at each other and the conversation pivots: You mean those Armenian bomb-throwers? Oh, you can’t give them your business.

They named every restaurant in Nyack and why we should go there, while another would say why you should NOT go there and you should go THERE.

And we went on like this for two hours. Politics. Women. Sports. The Mets (wait, I thought we were talking about pro baseball). These knuckleheads had taken me in with a one-day pass to their boy’s club. They’d become my older brothers for an afternoon. A doorway in a shitstorm.

After that, I left. I shook the owner’s hand and said, thanks. Sorry about your dad, he said. Thanks for saying so.

I walked the sidewalks. I ached. My mind fogged. I couldn’t eat. I missed my wife, the kids, and the dogs. I was alone and needed to be alone for now.

Sitting outside my motel room, I texted Jimmy Ryder. He started most days in Manhattan. I was far out of his way, but he was reliable.

Any chance you might want to swing through this town later on your way home to Allentown? It’s Drinking Man Speak for, I have two beds in my hotel room and the bars close at 4 a.m.

What time, he asked.

How about 6 p.m.?

Don’t know if I can do that, he said.

Oh. Ok.

A few minutes went by. The wind swept the river. It was cold. Biting, if you like that.

A text came up: I can do 6:30……

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