Gussie has been gone for seven days now. Although for the month prior to his death which he spent in the hospital and palliative care, he wasn’t able to communicate much, and not at all on the phone, I still reach for my phone at night to say goodnight to him, as I have done practically every night when I wasn’t living in his house. During the last year our conversations were short and somewhat frustrating because he was losing his hearing and blamed my phone for the problem, but I couldn’t go to sleep until I told him I loved him.
My sister gave me the chance to do that the night before he died. She put me on speaker phone and I said, as I always did, “Good night and God bless you, I love you.” He was unresponsive- the morphine and infection had him in a state of semi-consciousness. But I know he heard me. I didn’t figure it to be the last time I’d tell him, but after I hung up I was fairly certain it was one of the last. Little habits and traditions come to mind now- the good night phone calls for one, and breakfast for another.
After college I moved home and began teaching in Delaware. Gussie was my alarm clock every morning. “MAESTRAAA” he would call to me from downstairs in our split level home in Spanish but with an Italian accent, “wake up and come eat breakfast!” It was unacceptable to leave the house without eating something. My mom was already at work so Commander In Chief Gussie prepared my bagel or Eggos or English muffins or poured my cereal and had it waiting, always with the non negotiable glass of orange juice (which was nasty after having just brushed my teeth- but brushing teeth as soon as you got up was also non-negotiable) that I was never allowed to forgo. I ate quickly while Gussie drank his coffee and read the paper, quipping about what he was reading. Sometimes we talked about the previous night’s hockey game that I inevitably fell asleep watching, or baseball news.
My favorite breakfast commentary with Gussie was always the day after Jay Leno’s Headlines which I often tried to stay up to watch or my dad would tape for me. We recounted them at breakfast the next day. He liked them so much I bought him the books of headline compilations Leno wrote.
After my divorce I moved back to my parents’ house. My breakfasts were on the run now- my routine had changed: I now had a two year old who stayed with my parents while I worked, my mom was retired, my newly-widowed grandfather was also living there and Gussie still made me drink my orange juice, knowing it was likely all I’d have for breakfast. (It often was.) I left my daughter sleeping, kissed everyone goodbye and headed to Delaware. I missed the short breakfast chats with Gussie, but I still had my bedtime chats with him. That’s another story that merits its own post.
It’s funny how something so remote and seemingly tiny at the time, a toasted, buttered bagel on my plate, the way he would wake me up by calling out “teacher” in Spanish (he was so proud I was fluent in Spanish and a teacher) seems so huge and important now. Simple gestures that my father made- and I was in my twenties, no longer a child, that I recognize as so important now that I will never experience them again.