A cry of defiance, and not of fear,
A voice in the darkness, a knock at the door,
And a word that shall echo for evermore!
– from Paul Revere’s Ride by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1861
Few things quicken the pulse more than a knock at your back door in the deep quiet of night. The last time someone came randomly a-knockin’ at the witching hour, it was some young, sloshed soul showing up in search of an alleged long-lost friend. Of course I took every precaution in answering the knock, looking beyond the drifter at the door to see if a bloodthirsty Mongol hoard was hiding around the corner ready to rush in and pillage our house. As it was, it turned out to be a run-of-the-mill case of mistaken address identity. God love whoever he was looking for if that person let him into his house.
A few nights ago when it happened again for just the second time I was no less cautious. And my heartbeat was still somewhere between yikes and boing.
I had just turned off one of the cable news channels at the stroke of midnight and was heading off to bed when a soft but steady tap-tap-tap sounded on our back door. I slowly made my way through the kitchen and peeked carefully through the curtain on the door to see what haphazard caller was darkening the doorstep this time.
Words have not yet been created to fully express the shock at what I saw.
Standing in the breezeway light were my parents. Yep, Norm and Mary. And Dad was staring at me with those steely baby blues that said, “WELL?!?
I quickly opened the door. “Uh … hi. Can’t really say I was expecting you.”
My mother apologized. “Yeah, we know it’s midnight and we’re sorry about that.”
“Not really what I meant, Mum,” I replied as they entered, almost floating one might say, into the kitchen. “It’s a surprise because, uh …”
“Because we’re both dead?” Dad always knew how to cut right to the point.
“Yeah, that,” I said. “It’s been at least a dozen years for both of you. All things considered you look pretty good, you know, deceased and all. The afterlife must be agreeable.” Dad was in his winter jacket with the big blocks of black and just two shades of gray that I hadn’t seen in decades. On his head was his curly wool hat that would make any Cossack of Irish descent proud. He carried a worn folder containing some papers that looked as though it had traveled a thousand miles with him. Mum was in her long brown plaid coat I had seen her wear to church a million times with a sheer beige head scarf delicately tied beneath her chin. They both looked as I remembered them back in the 1960’s when I was a young teenager. “So, what’s the occasion? I think about you guys every day but never expected an actual visit.”
Mum smiled. So did Dad. A little. Then he exploded. “WHAT THE HELL HAVE YOU DONE?!?!”
I immediately flashed back to that moment when I was a kid and took apart my wristwatch with no clue on how to put it back together. Swiss engineering wasn’t part of my DNA it turned out. And wait til your father gets home was never an idle threat. I searched my conscience but couldn’t come up with any real reason for my late father’s ire.
“Watch the language, Norm,” chided my mother.
“I’ve stacked up a ton of indulgences, Mary. Time to use ‘em.”
“Indulgences?” I asked. “You mean those Catholic get-out-of-jail-free cards I was taught about all the time at St. Mary’s? They’re really a thing where you are?”
My parents ignored the question. Dad whipped off his furry lid and laid it on the table. “Let me start with this: Your mother and I lived during some of greatest presidencies we’ve ever known in this country. I was just a toddler when Teddy Roosevelt ushered in things like land and wildlife conservation, the Food and Drug Act, and protection from monopolies. Good luck finding a progressive Republican these days, by the way. Your mother and I were both young and in love when FDR gave us real hope during the Great Depression. We started raising our family when he led us through a war like no other war we’ve seen on this planet. At least so far. Kennedy told us we were a ‘new generation tempered by war’ and ‘disciplined by a hard and bitter peace’ and he inspired us to go out and discover new frontiers and achieve great things. Those were presidents! But now…”
Dad paused. He shook his head slowly like he did back in the day when Watergate was unfolding. My mother’s face resembled the sorrow of Our Lady of Perpetual Help to whom she prayed every Tuesday.
“But now,” he continued, “your mother and I are spinning in the mausoleum so fast these days we could light up the west side of New Castle all by ourselves. What could you possibly have been thinking about when you elected this guy? It’s suddenly all right to make fun of people with disabilities? It’s okay now to make up your own facts and call the truth ‘fake’? It’s perfectly acceptable to say you should grab women by their—”
“Norm!” shouted Mum.
“—naughty bits?” He glanced at my mother, flashed a grin, and then looked back at me. “’Naughty bits’ is something I picked up from an English fellow. Graham Chapman. I think he said he performed with snakes in a circus or something.”
“Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” I offered.
“Yeah, that’s it.”
“Listen, you guys” I said. “If you spent all your energy just to come all the way back here and bitch about last year’s election to me, you need to know we didn’t support the winner in this house. Not by a long shot. We had a goddam billboard for his opponent in our front yard. Her volunteers used our deck as a staging point for door knocking. Austrian journalists descended on us for interviews and pictures. The woman who beat Bernie Sanders for governor of Vermont used my bathroom. So please, for the love of God, don’t yell at me for this debacle.”
Mum loosened her scarf. “We know, we know. When your dad says you he doesn’t mean you. He means, you know …”
“The 63,811,288 voters who bought into his bull—”
Mum cleared her throat.
“—doo-doo.” He sighed deeply. “They were blinded by his darkness.”
“Don’t you mean his orangeness?”
“It’s near impossible to keep up with all the lies, false claims, and disrespect he piles up on everyone every day. I mean,” Dad made a noise somewhere between a laugh and a cough, “can you imagine any other president getting away with this stuff? God knows – and God really does know – every president has had a few moments of, of, of…”
“Doubt and shame,” I suggested, hoping Dad may have bumped into Keith Richards in the afterlife until I remembered Richards wasn’t dead but only looked that way.
“Yeah,”he replied. “Like Japanese internment camps. The Bay of Pigs fiasco. Prosecuting immoral wars. But listen, they all took sober responsibility for their actions. Even Nixon understood and appreciated the dignity of the office before he turned into a wretched sack of paranoia and disgraced it. And let me tell you this: not for a New York minute would any of the presidents I knew take to Twitter in the middle of the night to blame and criticize everyone but themselves for their actions!”
I glanced at my mother. “Twitter?”
“We keep up,” she nodded proudly.
“Franklin told me he still feels very remorseful about those camps,” said Dad. “He wasn’t having one of his best days when he gave his blessing to that.”
“You’d be surprised who your dad talks to every day,” chuckled Mum.
“I’m definitely impressed,” I said as I leaned back on the sink and crossed my arms. “So what’re folks saying about our situation? What’s the buzz up there … or wherever?”
Dad’s eyes seemed to look off into some distant realm as if people were standing there, offering advice on how to answer my question. “Well, let’s start with Orwell. He takes absolutely no pleasure from things he wrote in 1984 that are coming true. Like the elements of English Socialism, especially the one that says Ignorance is Strength. Boy, there’s a ton of that going around. Hamilton says if the Electoral College won’t do its job and act as a stopper to keep an unabashed demagogue out of office, then they should just abolish it. Do away with it. Use it or lose it. He loves the Broadway musical, by the way. His favorite song is Yorktown but says the words ‘the world turned upside down’ strike a little too close to home these days.” Dad chuckled as he considered his next thought. “Madison has struck up quite a friendship with the angels. Every time they see him they go, ‘Hey, James! If men were angels—‘ and he goes ‘there would be no need for government!’”
“That quote of his goes over pretty big up there, does it?”
“Yeah,” said Dad. “Kinda like the ‘O-H’— ‘I-O’ thing they do in these parts, you know?”
The images of my parents hanging out with deceased presidents, authors, and other famous figures from history was almost overwhelming. “What’re the chief complaints about our current occupant of the Oval Office?” I asked.
Mum laughed that hearty laugh I loved to hear as a youngster. “That would take an eternity, something we have and you don’t.”
“Well, shoot me your Top Ten list or whatever.”
“Income taxes,” started Dad. “The audit excuse is crap. He’s hiding stuff. Like Deep Throat once said, ‘follow the money.’ Do that and his conflicts and emoluments will spill out all over the place.”
“Flynn as National Security Adviser,” followed Mum. “Common house flies have lasted longer. They need to find out what was going on there. Playing ‘huggy bear’ with Russia’s never a good thing.”
“This obsession with size,” said Dad, finding it difficult to hide his contempt. “’My crowd was bigger’, ‘my ratings were better’, ‘my victory was huuuuuge,’ when none of it’s true.”
Mum closed her eyes and gently rubbed her forehead. “No one up here can figure out why he chose to exclude from the travel ban the four countries the 9/11 terrorists were from – unless he’s got a hotel or something in those places.” She shook her head as she reopened her eyes. “Security is one thing, but blatant discrimination is quite another. That’s dreadful. Did they put a drape over the Statue of Liberty or something?”
“The damn wall,” said Dad. “Forget about drugs and human trafficking that crosses all of our borders. No, he has to castigate Mexicans and focus only on the raging hordes of ‘rapists’ in his imagination ‘pouring’ into Arizona and New Mexico and Texas. And the bogus claim Mexico’s gonna pay for it.”
“Dismantling the EPA from the inside with a guy happy to sue it as his favorite pastime,” said Mum.
Dad’s turn again. “Signing an executive order bumping the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the Director of National Intelligence out of regular seats on the National Security Council only to fill one with the editor of a fever swamp website.”
“’Fever swamp’?” I repeated with raised eyebrow. “Nice turn of phrase.”
“I stole it from a Republican political consultant by the name of Rick Wilson.” My father then crossed himself as if he had filched a pound of gold.
“Speaking of phrases,” said Mum, “Have you noticed how he likes to use ‘politically correct’ as a pejorative? Apparently, ‘common human decency’ doesn’t sound mean enough.”
“And the tweets!” Dad cried. “Constantly tweeting inconceivable nonsense every time he gets a wild hair up his—”
“—butt. Maybe the Propecia’s gone to his ass.”
Mum’s eyes rolled up to the ceiling. Or maybe it was to the heavens. Then she said, “This president blabs about ‘draining the swamp’ but instead is anxious to make it four times bigger by naming his wealthiest business buddies to cabinet posts like Education, Treasury, and State.”
Dad nodded and added, “The incessant day-after-day-after-day drumbeat of ‘alternate facts’ and his braying press secretary and other spokespeople. Here, let me read you this from Orwell’s book.” He opened the folder he had with him and thumbed through a few sheets of paper until he found what he was looking for. “Even now I can’t remember everything so I wrote it down. George was describing the fascist government’s bending or elimination of the truth. Here it is: ‘…to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it … to forget whatever it was necessary to forget, then draw it back into memory again at the moment it was needed…’”
He paused and then shuddered. I never saw my father shudder when he was alive. “Can you believe it?” he said. “Written in 1948 and now a best seller again because of all this.”
“Sounds like you have the same grave concerns we do,” I said. “What’s gonna happen? Do you know? Can you tell me?”
“We don’t know and even if we did we wouldn’t be allowed to tell you,” Mum said quietly. “We’re really afraid, though…” She paused and looked at Dad and then back to me. “We’re really afraid for Social Security, Medicare, and Obamacare. I don’t have to tell you how much we thanked God for those first two. I don’t know how we would have made it without them. We were gone before the third one came around, but we were too old—”
“—Or too dead,” said Dad.
“—To need it even if it did exist back then. However, it makes me sick to think of the souls who will be joining your dad and I too early if they do away with the ACA. Oh, it makes me sick.”
All three of us fell silent, letting the fear expressed by my mother fill the room. It hung in the air like the smell of rotten eggs. My parents were of a generation who saw their parents live without a safety net, surviving only through the love and strength of family until they simply ran out of time. I wanted to give Mum and Dad some kind of assurance our future security would be okay, but we all stood there uncomfortably for a few moments knowing that real lives were at stake at a time when many people who held the power of courageous decisions would probably fail.
“Well, let me say this before I forget,” said Dad as he put the paper he was holding back in his folder. “I admit I make my share of jokes at his expense, but impugning him and calling him silly names isn’t good when you’re talking to someone that voted for him. His supporters become even more resolute by taking it the same way your daughter would take criticism of her boyfriend you don’t like – just makes her run deeper into his arms.”
“Should I mention this to Stephen Colbert and Trevor Noah next time I see them?”
“I’m talking about whatever passes for water-cooler talk among peers these days, not comedy and satire. Even LBJ said it was part of the price of leadership to be the target of clever satirists. But ordinary everyday people – your neighbors, people in your community, co-workers, whatever – they don’t have to stand on opposite sides of the street and hurl insults at each other to get their point across.”
“It’s not very nice to call someone ‘deplorable’,” added my mother.
“I agree,” I replied. “But wearing ‘deplorable’ as a badge of honor is just as bad. Embracing deplorableness as a virtue is not a good long-term strategy. Just sayin’. So what should we do about this fine mess we’re in?”
Dad grinned with his mouth closed like Frank Reagan in Blue Bloods and said, “For starters, I know your eyes roll and you clench your fist as soon as he utters a syllable, but do yourself a favor and keep that to yourself. Attack his policies and the issues, but try not to attack the man. In fact, for one day just leave his name out of the conversation and see what happens. Frankly, I think if he didn’t hear his name on the news every day, he’d reveal even more of his lack of temperament for the job. But anyway, no one ever solved anything by talking over the next guy. Listen with both ears. And then listen some more. If you listen 80% of the time and ask good, challenging questions and talk only 20% of the time without disparaging the person you’re talking to or about, you might actually effect some positive change. You have no hope of changing anyone’s mind the other way around.”
“There’s one more thing,” Mum said. “If you really want to fix things, fix Congress. Fix the state legislatures. Outlaw gerrymandering. Get redistricting back in the ‘compact’ manner that ensures one person, one vote, and makes races competitive again. Letting lawmakers choose their voters is terrible and unconstitutional. It’s backwards. Voters need to choose their lawmakers. I never missed an election in 53 years, and hell’s fire, I’d be really mad if my vote didn’t always count for something.”
“You said ‘hell’s fire’, Mary,” observed Dad. “Want to borrow one of my indulgences?”
“Shut up, Norm.”
“Is there something specifically you want me to do?” I asked.
“Well,” answered my dad as Mum smiled her delightfully crooked little smile, “turns out you’re the writer in the family.”
“Yeah, who knew,” I shrugged, looking down at my slippers.
“Please keep writing. One way or another, valid ideas must continue to be shared. Cogent opinions must be expressed. Truth must survive.”
I looked straight back at him. “So you’ve been sent to tell me it’s my job to save America and the rest of humanity?”
My parents howled with a laugh I used to hear only at our Irish wedding receptions and wakes. I feigned being offended. A little.
Mum wiped a few small tears out of her eyes as she recovered. “Sorry. That sounded funny and I couldn’t help picturing a ridiculous you in tights and a cape. And while we don’t doubt you may have a great novel inside you, this is an all-hands-on-deck situation. We need everyone to keep the truth alive. It’ll be a team effort. We need very much to make certain truth is never vaporized. Especially when we see this president putting his hands around the neck of a free press and declaring that ‘the media is the enemy of the people.’ How absolutely un-American and repugnant. So keep doing what you’re doing.”
“No problem,” I said.
“Meanwhile,” she added, “we’re going to keep praying hard for things to change for the better and to make sure the hope of brighter days doesn’t dim.”
Dad reached for his hat. “We better get going before we ask you for a beer and really start raising hell.” Mum giggled and threw her scarf around her head and tied it again.
“Boy, I wish you didn’t have to leave,” I said quietly as I led them over to the door.
“Keep your chin up,” said Dad. “You know, Lincoln once said, ‘Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.’ Everything you need to know about the way this president handles adversity is in his tweets. As for power, just remember what Kennedy said about fools who seek power by riding the back of a tiger.”
“They end up inside the tiger,” I said, completing the thought from JFK’s legendary inaugural address.
My father looked me square in the eye. “He will ultimately come to regret the tiger he helped create.”
I took a deep, deep breath and exhaled slowly. “It was great to see you both again. I’ve really missed you. And your timing couldn’t have been better.”
“Midnight?” Dad said with a sly twinkle of the eye.
“You know what I mean.”
“We’re proud of you,” said Mum, a mother’s enormous love glowing in her green eyes. And without my even turning the door knob, they were gone.
As I stood at the door, my wife sleepily sauntered into the kitchen with her nighttime water glass in hand. “What’re you looking at?” she asked, ice tumbling into the glass followed by a stream of cold water from the refrigerator door. I turned to her. She stifled a yawn and said, “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
“I feel pretty good, actually.” I glanced up at the clock above the sink. It was only half a minute past midnight. Huh, I thought to myself, I guess it’s true what Scrooge said about ghosts being able to do whatever they want.
I started over to the stairway as my wife made her way back up to our bedroom. As I reached for the light switch I saw that Dad had left his folder behind. I stopped. “Aren’t you coming to bed?” she asked.
Feeling renewed optimism, I walked over and picked up the folder and thought, no way our republic is going chaotically into the night if I can help it. “I won’t be long,” I told her. “I just have a little reading to do.”
Twenty minutes later I fired up the laptop.