Category: Archive

Of books and bridges and saying goodbye

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

I went to visit him in the hospital on the Friday before he passed away. He was sitting up in his hospital bed, bruised — low platelets, he explained — telling the nurse that he needed to get some exercise and, more importantly, finish the corrections on his book manuscript. He nodded his head in my direction.
“Eileen will be helping me with that,” he said.
A bit startled, I started to stammer that of course I would help any way I could, while feverishly wondering how much I knew about misogyny, the subject of his book, whether I had access to his files, and so on. Then I caught the familiar twinkle in his eye.
Jack was teasing me, I thought. Thank God. He’s going to be OK.
We’d always teased one another, back and forth, over the years. When he’d told me about his latest book project, the history of misogyny, I deliberately misunderstood it as “massage-eny” and asked if that wasn’t a bit racy and, well, down-market for a noted poet, novelist and historian. He would laugh, and patiently explain that, no, it was misogyny — the bias against women. I would then ask if he were writing a how-to manual. No, he would sigh. It was history.
We did this every day. It was like a well-worn Abbott and Costello routine.
Other times, Jack would ask for suggestions on column topics — a dangerous question to ask someone like me, an avid student of supermarket tabloids. He’d promise to consider my ideas, like Political Fashion: Armalites and Armani, and Recipes for the ‘RA. Oddly, none of them made it into his very fine column, “A View North.”
Oenophile that he was, he would laugh as I critiqued my Diet Sprite in wine-lovers’ terms: cheeky, with a lorryload of tannins and an obnoxiously assertive finish. He’d drop by my desk on Tuesday afternoon, at deadline, and whisper that he’d be revising that week’s column. After dinner. And a few glasses of wine, of course.
As the paper’s production manager, I was a slave to the clock. But it was Jack. And he was only kidding. I hoped.
Take your time, I’d say. We’ll hold the presses.
As long as you’re not under pressure, he’d reply.
Our last conversation took place in an alcove on the oncology floor, with windows overlooking the Hudson River and the Palisades. He asked me what year the George Washington Bridge had been built. Typical historian.
I don’t know, I replied. I’ll look it up and tell you the next time I come.
A nurse came down the hall to fetch Jack for a CAT scan. As we walked toward the gurney that would take him away, he stopped to say goodbye. I suppressed the sudden urge to hug him — he was too fragile. He left a kiss on my cheek that was as light and cool and delicate as a snowflake.
I’ll see you, Jack, I said.
Goodbye, he said.
In our hearts, I guess we both knew this was it. Please God, I thought. Let him be OK.
When the news came through on Friday, I remember thinking: The bridge was built between 1927 and 1931. I had looked it up. And I never got the chance to tell him.

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