That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in their trees
—Those dying generations—at their song
W. B. Yeats, ‘Sailing to Byzantium’
Is it enough just to name the dead? Is a naming of the names adequate? There should be a meaning, I know, some theme, some lineage back to a sense of understanding, for readers, for myself, for anyone. But there isn’t, and it’s too much, the stream of memories too swift to either dam or float upon. And if I understood or could frame these things in any kind of sense, then maybe life as a whole would be opened, the secret as easy as a sudden-opening from a labyrinth hedge maze.
But that’s not happening, and if Yeats himself could have raised a cup in his cups and simply named the names, the martyrs of Easter 1916 with their fanatic hearts, then that’s what I can try, just a naming of the names and a bowed head and silence.
The set: it is the children’s ward of Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. There is a garden near a chapel, with a small door and steps off Ft. Washington Ave. The surgical residents in their scrubs and nurses in their sweat pants like to eat lunch there, under the trees flirting with each other. There’s a plaque where home plate used to be at the old Hilltop Park, where the NY Highlanders, now Yankees, used to play, where Hal Chase threw games to gamblers in the stands and the crowds filed out to walk along the river, past where the Cloisters and the unicorn tapestries and their own hill-top garden of thyme and herbs now rests, just past the ramp to the GW Bridge, across the huge, huge Hudson River and Jersey Palisades, not so far from the sea.
See how the set keeps expanding? This is impossible. Back to the garden of flirting nurses, because… Well because such a garden could only be pleasant, never mind the sleep-deprived parents eating stale, plastic-tasting ham sandwiches from plastic wrappers, or the grandparents praying in the dim chapel or the smell of oil and gasoline off the street.
Here, in the garden, is where I can name the names. There, if you’ve never been there. If you have, then it is here. The difference between here and there is immense, a closed eyelid away, the twitch of a memory-embedded nerve ending.
To the names. There is nothing else. And like Byzantium, the garden of Babies Hospital is no country for old men.
Nicole. Yellow-skinned, sleeping through her chemo. She was like every little girl I suppose. The rest of us—at most 10 years old—didn’t have much interest in her. She loved the Hello Kitty toys. After asking at the door if Nicole wanted to go in the game room, her mother saying, ‘No, today was her chemo day and she’s sleeping. She has her Hello Kitty, so she’s happy.’
Sylvia. Older, kind of scary, a teen, stomach cancer. Cancer of the intestinal wall. My mother explained it was located somewhere between her skin and insides. Unimaginable. Also almost untreatable. They burned her red and raw from the radiation trying to get at it. Sylvia, always in a bad mood, didn’t want us kids coming near her room. Her mother, going through a divorce like half the other parents it seemed, with dark curly hair, and I thought she was pretty. At least she looked and sounded different than the parents I knew back home, in an upstate rural farm town. Sylvia’s mother seemed blunt, funny, an honest person. Maybe I heard her say a bad word one time or another, because I have the same memory-fondness for her as I do the old hands at my father’s dairy farm. Honest people. Honest in their confusion, anger, laughter. I remember my mother saying Sylvia had passed away, and that she was going down to talk with Sylvia’s mother. Later, then and now, just the snapshot image: her mother leaning on the frame of the door as my mother talked to her, red, raging, dead Sylvia’s mother smiling at me in the midst of all her grief, smiling there against that doorway that she leaned against.
Here is where I don’t want to go on anymore. The garden is such a nice place, squirrels chasing after cheese popcorn, honking cars just close enough to know there’s a world outside the hospital walls, and look, later on Channel 11 will be showing the Yankees game. Phil Rizzuto announcing the game, getting everything wrong, then in the commercials for the Money Store. The Yanks are at home, the blue arcing halo of light from the Stadium clearly visible from my window on the Ninth Floor. Right over there the Yankees are playing, can you imagine? There they are, and here we are, in a garden or my room, I don’t remember which now, and this is why I don’t want to go on, because I am an old man compared to them, and Byzantium with its lights is where the Boys of Summer play, just a window away and up the avenue from where they shot Malcolm X, can you imagine that, and who’s Malcolm X, was he like Martin Luther King, and why did someone shoot them if they were such good people, and this is why I don’t want to go on…
Robbie. He fell out of a tree. And now, it sounds like a ghastly nursery rhyme like ten little Indians maybe, but Robbie fell out of a tree, and his leg broke and they did x-rays and saw he had cancer of the bones, in his marrow, every where. And I couldn’t stand Robbie as my roommate because he cried all the time, for everything. Needles, shots, when they woke him up and dragged him down for more tests, the nurses and his mother promising it wouldn’t hurt, and I’d had the same test before and it did hurt, it hurt a lot, there were needles with electricity and you’d watch your thumbs jerk and your toes move and your elbow bend through the shakes and cold sweats, and I started to say to my mother ‘But Mom, that’s one of those things I had and…’ and she shhhed me fast because otherwise they’d never get Robbie down to x-ray if he knew what was coming, and when he came back he slept for a long time and I was glad he slept just so he wouldn’t cry and I knew how tired he was, because that test hurt, hurt a lot, and poor, poor Robbie, he fell out of a tree and I think if he’d never fallen he’d never have had cancer and never been lied to by his mother just so they could get him down to x-ray for a test with needles and electricity that I knew never, ever came up with any answers.
And now, it’s not so much that I don’t want to go on, it’s that there’s nowhere to go. Do any of the above still walk among us? No. The garden is the only place they walk, at least to me. Who knows what pastures they play in, with their parents and Hello Kitty and trees and make-up? This is the part that is the twitch, the electrified nerve ending. Watch the thumbs move, and control doesn’t seem to have to do with it anymore. This is the story I’ve been trying to tell my whole life, ever since I knew them all, and never will be able to. The garden is no help right now, the set goes down underground as well as out, and there is x-ray, and radiology, sick green-walled wards where people wear lead and gloves and will not stay in the same room as you as the images are taken, cold, hard tables swabbed with alcohol even as you lie there, scales and sheets and saline bottles stacking the walls like they’ve been there forever and in the time you wait feeling like it’s already been forever you wonder who re-supplies the saline and sheets, does anyone, and who supplies the patients, and do they all lie there, waiting, surrounded by masked workers in lead who refuse to stay in the same room as them as the pictures are taken, and who remind them to breathe?
Richie. Richie, pudgy-cheeked, Yugoslavian, with a bloated tummy but who was born missing most of his intestines and stomach. Richie and I, racing the slim, silver wheelchair up and down the hall of the 11th floor, the silent, mean floor with red-painted walls where the neurological cases were put, where the office doors down the almost dark side hall were always closed, the hall where we could pop wheelies without catching flak from the nurses. Richie and I, playing the free arcade games on the yellow-walled 10th floor, the game where you used paint rollers to kill evil fish that tried to get you before you could paint the maze. Richie and I, just after one of his surgeries, sneaking off to the game room without parental permission, our mothers and a gaggle of panicked nurses finding us and making him come back to his bed. Richie and I on the fish game every day, all during the 2-hour game period, one or the other of us always the keeping the machine because we had more practice than most anyone. Hospital or no, rules were like anywhere: make it, take it, and winner plays on, losers line up and wait for another chance. Richie, pissed whenever I beat him just a few times. Me, pissed whenever he beat me. Richie and I looking through his monster joke book, with lines about the Vampire State Building and monsters using skeleton keys. Just me, one trip, everyone else temporarily home, cruising up and down the silent red halls in the silver wheelchair, at first loving having the thing all to myself, then becoming bored. Finally taking a wheelie too high, flipping the chair right in front of the nurses station and having it taken away for the remainder of my stay, 3 days with nothing to do but look out the window, seeing the chair parked down the hall, no one even giving me a challenge on the fish game, one maze after another painted over till the fish got me as much out of boredom as skill, those fish were so dumb, just so dumb, the same trick could be used on them again and again, and eventually they’d fall for it every time. Like Richie almost, but not quite, always cracking up at the same joke about the skeleton key, his pudgy, starving face breaking up in laughter every time.
Here is where I should make sense of it. This is where there is denouement, a conclusion, a moral, a lesson, maybe something half-assed about this being the story I can’t tell but just did, some form of meta-gibberish to save this piece. I don’t have anything though. It’s the names, the naming of them, and that was all that this was ever about. Is that enough, just to name my own Easter 1916 martyrs with their fanatic hearts? It doesn’t feel like it, but at least it feels. Maybe it would be enough to know that you, the reader, would sometimes just feel the names, every once in awhile to say ‘Richie’ and know what it means. You too have your own names, I’m sure, names you’d like someone to say aloud, and to know what the saying is capable of. This is in part for them as well.
I have no conclusion then. Or this is it. Tonight, the baseball playoffs begin. Yankee Stadium will be lit up, a huge blue halo against the early autumn night. A full house, and not far, the windows of Babies Hospital, the windows of Byzantium, overlooking it all, in disbelief that yes, there, right there, the ballgame is being played, and not far either, in the dark garden, the old home plate where a different version of the same team once played, the team that right this night will play under a blue halo.