It’s nearing the tenth anniversary of my father’s death, and I keep thinking about something that happened in the last year of his life. I was involved, and I’ll never know if I did the right thing.
At that time, Bob had been diagnosed but was still capable of living independently. My sister and I both lived in town and were keeping a close watch on him, checking in every day, knowing at some point he would need a higher level of care and a safer living situation.
That living situation wouldn’t be with either of us. My sister lived on the second floor of a two-family, and Bob had trouble navigating stairs. And since Shauna had asked me to move out, I’ve been staying in a carriage house behind an old Victorian near the center of town. That meant plenty of solitude. So some nights I took myself out for a drink, like when I realized I hadn’t spoken to another person for two days.
Even the old-school Italian joints had a specialty cocktail menu now. Plus, the bartender there had caught my eye once. When she came over, I ordered a negroni.
The negroni had a reddish tint, a complex flavor, and a tang of bitterness from the Campari. It was a beautiful and classy-looking drink. Cocktail lovers only.
“We try our best.” She didn’t linger. Other patrons were at the bar waiting for drinks, and a cocktail server had just called an order.
Two televisions were mounted above the bar on either end. Soccer and baseball. I switched my attention back and forth, casually interested but having no team to cheer for. At least I was out of the house. I wasn’t at my desk with my head in my hands or mining the internet for a spark of inspiration.
“Dave? I thought that was you.” Leonard DeFalco had come up behind me. I swiveled my stool and began to get up, but he put a hand on my shoulder and said don’t.
“How are you, Mr. DeFalco?”
“Thank you, but what’s this Mr.? You call me Leo and I’ll call you Dave.”
“David,” I said.
“Sure. Tell me, how’s your father?”
“Thanks for asking. He’s doing okay. We’re looking for a place he can move into because it’s getting where he shouldn’t be on his own.”
Leonard DeFalco took the stool next to mine. “Your father means a lot to me. I wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for your father, and I owe him a great measure of gratitude.”
My father had defended DeFalco on racketeering and attempted murder charges. Got the acquittal. This had to be twenty-five years ago when I was in college. Local media heaped attention on the case, but I didn’t follow it closely. I was righteous back then and considered my father a collaborator with organized crime, although his profession paid for my education through graduate school.
My father had told me, “No matter who you are, no matter what you’ve done, you have rights, and your rights must be upheld.” I had a snappy reply: “As long as you can afford the fees.” But I’ve gained empathy for my father over the years. We’ve had a good relationship since my mother died and he became devoted to my sister and me.
“When’s the next book coming out, Dave? You know I’ve read them all, don’t you? In the afternoon I sit in the sun by the water and read. How do you think that stuff up?”
“It takes a dark and troubled mind.”
DeFalco laughed in his throat.
I authored a dystopian thriller series featuring a mystical rainmaker who rebels against an authoritarian regime that had turned the population into thirsty slaves in a parched, climate-changed future. Three books so far, two more under contract.
“Your father, be sure to give him my best.”
“He’ll be glad you asked about him.” If he still remembered Leonard DeFalco. That’s the point we were approaching. Poor Bob. He’d always been a witty, learned type, with keen intelligence and deep memory.
“Look, Dave, I want to talk to you. Come with me.” A pained expression crossed DeFalco’s face as if he were about to share bad news.
He picked up my drink and led me to a booth near the back of the dining room. He sat on the side facing the entrance, one of those “never sit with your back to the door” kind of guys, with good reason. I slid in across from him.
“I have to tell you something, Dave. Maybe I shouldn’t, because I swore secrecy, but it’s bothering me too much. And seeing you here, I take that as a sign I should confide in you.”
I nodded. “Of course, sure. Anything.” I had no idea what might be coming next.
“You remember that time your father went swimming in the lake and he came up on shore right here?”
He was referring to this day last summer when my sister and I brought Bob to a get-together hosted by our friends, Jessica and Frank, who had a lakefront house. We were all outside gathered around the fire talking and drinking and having just finished dessert. Then we noticed Bob was missing. We hadn’t seen him get up. We called his name. We searched the property, the house, the neighborhood. Then we found his shoes, socks, and shirt tucked under an Adirondack chair near the shore.
It turned out he had gone into the water and became disoriented. He was still strong for his age and condition, and he ended up swimming across the entire lake—more than two miles—and emerged from the water and dragged himself onto the pebbly shoreline right in front of DeFalco’s Ristorante, grunting, gasping, like a prehistoric amphibious creature testing the feel of the land. The customers dining on the deck of DeFalco’s pointed and stared at the man, and one of the waiters hopped the railing and came to the swimmer’s aid. Leonard DeFalco recognized Bob.
He told us he’d had the urge to swim on a warm summer night, that’s all, and he hadn’t thought to turn around until he was already more than halfway across. We didn’t know what to think. Stripping mostly down and heading out for a swim without telling anyone? We kept a closer watch on him and there weren’t any subsequent episodes of dangerous behavior.
“You know what your father told me that night?” DeFalco said. “That he hadn’t been going for a swim—he was trying to drown himself.”
He waited for my reaction and when I didn’t have one, he continued. “But when he started getting tired and swallowing water, and it looked like he was going to get his wish, he panicked and swam with all of his strength. A survival instinct, he told me. The will to live trumped all. He swam toward the brightest lights he could see, which were here.”
“I can understand why he didn’t want to go through with it,” I said. “And I can understand why he wanted to.”
When the swimming incident happened, I wondered about my father’s intentions and even asked him, but he scoffed. He said he got confused in the water, that’s all. He said life was too precious to throw it away like that.
I believed him. This was the same man I begged as a kid to take me into the Ripley’s Believe-It-Or-Not museum when we visited Niagara Falls. It was devoted exclusively to daredevils who rode over the falls in barrels or other makeshift paraphernalia.
“I can’t stand these kinds of people,” my father told me. “Are their lives so meaningless they have to risk them with this kind of stupidity?”
“They did it for the thrill, for the ultimate rush,” I said. “Because they only go around once in life.” I had just read this off a plaque on one of the exhibits and repeated the words to my father.
“Only go around once?” my father mimicked. “All the more reason not to ruin it like this. They’re going to die eventually. Are they so frightened of that fact they want to hurry up and get it over with?”
So he didn’t strike me as the suicidal type, at least not before he became ill.
I lifted my glass. It was empty. DeFalco flicked his hand and signaled the cocktail server. A moment later another drink was in front of me, and a glass of red wine for DeFalco.
“This next part is what I need to tell you.”
“A lot more, Dave.” He leaned across the table and lowered his voice. “Your father asked me to do the job for him. You know. I refused, of course. How could he think I would do something like that? He offered to pay me. Again, I refused. I didn’t want his money. I didn’t want to hurt him. Your father saved me from a lifetime in prison.”
But Bob pressed his case. He still possessed some of that courtroom persuasion. The idea of getting progressively worse, becoming a burden to his children, having to live out his life in a mindless state, trapped in an institution, recognizing no one, forgetting how to swallow—it was unbearable to him, a man who prized dignity and self-reliance. That was why he wanted to kill himself. But he couldn’t go through with it—his swim proved that—although if he didn’t act soon while he still possessed the cognitive prowess to decide, he would miss his opportunity. He’d forget how impaired he was. He wouldn’t even know he was ill. But if he did it too soon, he’d miss out. He still had quality time remaining. He had kids—my sister and me—and he had grandchildren, and he liked to read and exercise and listen to music and see friends.
“I’m indebted to your father, and he is very persuasive, so I helped him come up with a plan,” DeFalco said.
It was this: after one year, there would be a phone call, and Bob would be reminded he had made a dinner reservation at DeFalco’s. If Bob remembered making that reservation, he had the option of canceling or keeping it, or even rescheduling for a future date. If he didn’t remember, if he had no idea about any reservation, that was the signal for Leonard to send someone for Bob.
“How is he going to remember that? I wouldn’t remember a reservation I made a year ago.”
“I believe he wrote down the information.”
“And if he doesn’t remember making a dinner reservation a year later, then you send someone to shoot him?”
“We didn’t discuss means. He only asked that his face not be ruined. He said something about an open casket.”
“What the fuck,” I said.
“Please don’t be angry, Dave. I’m already angry with myself. This is not the business I’m in, and I consider your father a friend.”
“Then forget the whole thing, the way my father likely has.”
“Is that what you want me to do?”
I didn’t say no. I didn’t say anything.
“Your father trusted me. He knows I don’t make promises I can’t keep. But this one, I’ve never had this kind of situation before. I’ll let you decide. You tell me what to do or not do and that’s the way we’ll handle it.”
“You’re his son. You decide.”
“When is this supposed to happen?”
“The call is in September.”
Eight weeks away.
“If I don’t hear from you, I’ll take that as a decision to keep things the way they are, and I’ll do what your father asked—unless you tell me otherwise. Or he tells me, right? He could cancel or reschedule. But if he doesn’t, that’s where I’ll come back to you, Dave.”
And he did.