A Story About A Stroke
This cigar store Indian sits in my parents’ living room. It’s offensive. Anyone I know who has seen it recognizes that it is offensive. I once asked my father, who likely paid a decent amount of money for this figure and who proudly displays it where people gather in his home and can easily see it, how he would feel if people kept wooden caricatures of Jews in their living rooms. “That would be great,” he replied.
We drove to see him because of the massive stroke he had recently suffered from. When I last had seen him a couple months earlier in the hospital in Asheville, he could barely speak or move any part of his body. He looked sunken into himself. A stroke robs your body and it robs you. I entered his hospital room, and he looked up at me with disappointment. “Why are you here?” it felt. Now, he can walk slowly with a walker, prepare food to some extent, shower by himself, get angry, and complain. He could, however, always get angry and complain.
The cigar store Indian is a stereotype. A stereotype is an imaginary aggregation of various feelings, images, emotions, and biases. The holiday family visit is another stereotype. The father son conflict is one of the most recognizable of all familial stereotypes. Stereotypes populate popular culture because the narratives are so recognizable. The recognizable narrative provides comfort. It presents us with the familiar — like the happily ever after ending — so that we do not get too caught up with the very real unfamiliar narratives (pain, sickness, disappointment, grief, heart ache) that try to creep into our lives. But the recognizable narrative is imaginary. It only exists in the items we associate with each other. People don’t need to cheat in relationships. Boy doesn’t have to lose girl to get girl. Parents and children don’t have to be at odds with each other. Popular narratives do not have to be our narratives. What makes a stereotype so offensive is what it gets wrong and what it leaves out in favor of what it imagines. A cigar store Indian cannot embody the complexity and richness of Native American culture. Fathers and sons do not have to be in conflict. Family visits do not have to be stressful. How much of what we engage and create is simply extended from the imaginary narratives we have internalized?
We drove to Asheville from Lexington. The three of us in the car likely knew what to expect from the visit. That is how imagination often works: it already knows. It aggregates the past into the present moment, no matter how much we wish for the opposite. It’s impossible to run out of Buzzfeed quizzes when you are driving four and a half hours in the car, and your daughter keeps reading them out to you from her phone: “Based on these appetizers, where will you be in four years?” “What kind of traffic sign are you?” “Guess your age based on whether you like hotdogs or hamburgers.” The hidden quiz among all of these online games we were playing is: how do you visit a man who is unvisitable in his time of need? How do you visit a man who cannot escape the daily anger that has occupied his life for over 70 years? How do you visit a man who will look up at you and ask without saying it: Why are you here?
The Buzzfeed questions tap into our basic, primal need for stereotypes. Ask a question, and a pre-made aggregation will provide you a response completely divorced from the daily life you maintain. That I might eat oysters as an appetizer does not mean I should have been a fireman. That I like such and such movie does not mean I am a stop sign. After two years of not seeing each other or of not seeing my kids, after two years of cancer and surgery and a pandemic, my parents offered up their own important, and aggregated, questions to me as I sat in the living room opposite the cigar store Indian. They did not ask about my job, my daily life, or anything of substance. Instead, they asked: “What color is your car?” “Silver? Gray? I don’t know.” “When did you buy it?” “Maybe three years ago….” “It’s tough to buy a new car right now. There aren’t any.” Silence.
He exploded in anger when I asked what the wi-fi password was or when we looked through photo albums. “Don’t give them those albums!” he yelled at my mother. She talked about how their furniture would not fit in the apartment they might move to in Georgia. “Don’t give them my furniture!” he yelled. He got mad when the TV signal wasn’t coming in. He got mad when we went out and came back. My kids looked overwhelmed and traumatized. He stood in the kitchen with my mother and yelled “They are strangers!” He sent my sister a text message saying “help me” because we came to visit. “He can’t control his emotions because half of his brain is destroyed,” my mother said. I agreed. But the anger and mean behavior had always been there. It was the same as it was in my childhood, my teens, my adulthood. When he called a few weeks earlier and said “I’m sorry for the hurt” though his own telephone tears, I thought the anger too had been destroyed by the stroke. It hadn’t been.
When you have a stroke, your brain fills with blood. Does it fill with anything else? All that blood that passes through us, that is pumped by our hearts, that carries our metaphoric genetic lines, that leads to libels and is thicker than water, that is boiling when things go wrong, that drips from our noses and spots our shirts and that we declare goes along with flesh and that reflects a curse in the English language — it can cover our brains and destroy a part of who we are. Blood drowns your being. So many things can destroy a part of who we are, and so many of them are connected to our fragile hearts which often break at any moment. But our brains? The place where we rationalize or figure out our lives that can break into pieces at any moment? That part, too, can fill with blood? And the very thing that keeps us alive, blood, destroys who we are. Nothing else fills in the brain. Our memories begin to vanish. Our sight is damaged. Our limbs don’t work the same anymore. We are left with blood.
The furniture in their home has been the same for over forty years. Some of it is the same furniture from our home in Miami. Some of it is the same furniture my grandparents owned and that sat in their Miami homes. “We’ve had that bed for 40 years,” my mother says. My kids and I look at a photograph on the wall taken in 1975 in Miami. In the photograph, my parents, my sister and I are standing on shag carpet in our deep brown and orange hued 1970s clothes where the hem of my checkered pants falls completely over my shoes. The same shelving and objects captured in this 1975 photograph are sitting in the other room where the cigar store Indian is. The same objects 46 years later. Sameness is suffocating. Same anger. Same furniture. Same bottles of unconsumed liquor in the same 50 year old cabinet. Same photographs. Same cigar store Indian. Same stereotypes. Pain often stays the same. We can convince ourselves that we are “over it” and still harbor the same pains, resentments, sorrow, hurt. I used to sit at the same kitchen table I had as a kid. For over 20 years I had that table. I recently bought a new one. The stroke makes you different. It erases some of the sameness and fills in the sameness with blood. But not everything is erased.
What does it mean to attempt difference? “I’m not the same as I was a few years ago,” I say to my kids. I feel it’s important to say this. I feel it’s important to prove that I’m a “changed man.” “I’ve changed” is the stereotypical mantra of growth. Grown up. Matured. Learned my lesson. Improved. I’ve been coming to this house in North Carolina for 30 years and everything still feels the same: same décor, same furniture, same food, same framed paintings on the wall, same chachkas lining all of the shelves and table tops and counters, same emotions. I enter their home from downstairs and walk up to the main level. Every time I reenact this return to their North Carolina home, every time I emerge over those stairs, they are sitting in their two chairs divided by a small table that supports a lamp, magazines, and remote controls. This chair table setup has been the same one in each house they have lived in, whether in Florida or in North Carolina. Each time when I enter, the TV is directly in front of them, often at a high volume, a DVRed episode of CSI or a Guy Fieri show is playing. They look at me silently. Why are you here? The same.
The banal embodies the same. Brush your teeth. Drive your car. Eat dinner. Watch TV. But the banal is not destined to yield stereotypes and their eventual sadness. The banal has no destiny. Coffee in the morning is banal. Walking the dog is banal. A cigar store Indian is banal, but sad. A man whose life has been reduced by a stroke to sitting in a chair, watching TV, being angry, struggling to walk with a walker, and wondering what color my car is — that, too, is banal. And it is sad. This type of banality has reduced the world to nothing more than waiting for the world eventually to end. “What color is your car?” Does it matter. Do you really care? Are you just passing the time until the end with banal questions? “Nice day.” “Great weather we are having.” “How have you been?” “What color is your car?” I don’t know. It’s gray, I guess.
“How did you get the potatoes so crispy?” he asked in a solemn voice during the dinner I made. He was angry we had to sit at the main table. He wouldn’t sit in a chair; he made my mother bring the wheel chair over so that he could sit in it. He got angrier. “He doesn’t really need a wheel chair,” she said. He yelled. Whenever I’d cook for him, he’d ask how I did it — as if he would then try this different approach I’d shown him. “How do you make pizza?” “How did you make the turkey?” But he never did try my method. He would return to making whatever the dish was his way. His way. There is no other way. Even though his way often yielded poor results, everything was supposed to be his way. Lately, nothing is his way. He has cancer. Has suffered a heart attack. Has had triple bypass surgery. Has had two strokes, one massive. His way. “They don’t know what they are talking about” is a typical response he would say in response to something I said. “You don’t live in the real world,” is another. The same has not provided happiness. The same has not yielded better results. Maybe he could have tried a different way to make pizza or cook potatoes, even if it was just once. The stroke means there no longer is a “his way.” But he needs his way to remain, no matter how poor the results over the years have been. It’s what he clings to: being in control of everything if not himself.
We had to leave a day early. It was impossible to stay visiting the anger anymore. “I know,” my mother said. Around us within the visit, there was too much of the same anger I had grown up with and that I have spent the last five to six years trying to shed from my genes, from my inherited lineage, from my own life, from my banality. I’ve worked so hard for difference, to be different, to become nice, to be caring, to be a good dad, to not be angry at all no matter what occurs around me. “We have to leave early,” I said. Here I was, back with the same. I couldn’t do it anymore. The house stuck to sameness. Their lives stick to it as well. As I said good-bye for what might be the last time we see each other in person, I leaned down to hug my dad. The kids were to the side ready to go. Without looking at them, without looking at the time we had briefly spent, without looking at me, without looking at anything of any substance beyond the banality of simply existing in anger, he then looked up at me and said: “What color is the interior of your car?”