Peter Sellers Killed My Father
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My father died laughing, and although a massive coronary attack was the official cause of death, I have always blamed Chief Inspector Jacques Clouseau. Pratfalls, disguises and straight-faced incompetence contributed to the laughter, but its main cause was Clouseau’s exaggerated French accent. Without it, my father would still be alive, mourning the loss of my mother in his cluttered San Fernando Valley home, hoping his time-bomb heart would finally explode.
When she was alive, my protests of him smoking a pack of unfiltered Camels a day and breakfasts at Dunkin’ Donuts were greeted with boastful accounts of being “the pallbearer at all of my friends’ funerals – all of my clear-lunged, bran-filled friends’ funerals.” His mortality only became apparent to him after the MS slowly and unapologetically accomplished what it had set out to do 30 years earlier. During that time, especially towards the end when the broken neurons left her legs lifeless and the dementia had destroyed her ability to communicate, my father’s heart knew that the time wasn’t right. Since he had to administer her medicine, cook her meals,
arrange to have private nurses treat her bedsores, call the van service to deliver her to doctor after doctor, and take care of so many other things, his heart had agreed to wait.
“It’ll be good for the both of you,” my father was told. “In a nursing home she’ll get the care she needs and you’ll get some rest.”
“Some rest,” he told me when the nursing home experiment began. “I’m there from morning ‘til night – sometimes until 11 o’clock.”
“Then don’t go so often,” I said.
“I have to,” he said. “Half the time they ignore her and the other half they don’t know what the hell they’re doing.”
At 75, my father had mellowed in many ways, but not when it came to watching out for my mother, and twice was forcibly removed from the nursing home. Once for chewing out a nurse for letting my mother lie in urine-soaked sheets for over an hour after her catheter had slipped and another time for throwing a handful of Deltasone out a window.
“Deltasone,” he said. “Can you believe that? She gets her Deltasone on Tuesdays, not Wednesdays. How can they mix up Deltasone with Cipro? Thank God I was there.”
When he told me he was taking her home, I suggested a more competent nursing home.
“No, I’m taking her home,” he repeated. “I can’t stand seeing her in one of those places.”
Two doorbell rings and three knocks after I arrived, my father still hadn’t answered the door. Images of him lying on the ground unable to get up like those geriatric actors on the “Help, I’ve Fallen And I Can’t Get Up” commercials appeared in my mind.
“Dad,” I yelled out Stanley Kowalski style.
“It’s open,” he said.
I entered the house and yelled out a less theatrical, “Where are you?”
“I’m over here,” he said. “In the office.”
The office, a small room in the front of the house, was once my bedroom and only became
“the office” when my father was certain I wouldn’t move back in after college. All evidence of
its former life had been stripped except for an oak bookshelf with a bowling trophy on the top
shelf, awarded to me when I was ten years old to celebrate my consistency of throwing three games in a row of 65. It originally had a tiny man, in perfect bowling stance, his arm raised ready to knock down, I suppose, a consistent six or seven pins. But the little man broke off from his perch a few weeks after I received it and since then had rested on the base of the trophy like an amputee refusing to surrender his arm with hope that someday it would be reattached.
My father was on his knees surrounded by a sea of jigsaw puzzle pieces, which I recognized as the puzzle my mother had nearly completed when she died.
“What happened?” I asked and helped him to a chair.
He stared at the 500 puzzle pieces and seemed unable to respond.
In spite of my mother’s weakened condition, there were still two things that she was able to do well – word searches and jigsaw puzzles. During the final years, when she was confined to a hospital bed in my parents’ bedroom, there was always at least one word search magazine on her nightstand. I often thumbed through them amazed at how many words were circled and complimented her achievement. She usually responded with a smile – the smile of a five year old who had counted to 100 for the first time – and an incoherent explanation of how she accomplished it. The proof of her jigsaw puzzle skill hung on the walls of their room, among which were a California coastal landscape next to a mother duck leading her ducklings down
a slippery path under a dancing Snoopy beside a skyscraper sandwich made up of roast beef, sardines, liverwurst and a variety of other oddly matched delicatessen fare. When pieced
together, the scattered puzzle that littered the office was a blown-up family photo taken twenty years earlier. My parents stand on either side of me at my graduation, brimming with pride. The MS has not taken control yet – not completely at least – so my mother stands aided by a cane.
“I dropped it,” he said. “I was carrying it in here and almost tripped over the cat.”
“But, you don’t have a cat.” “It’s a stray,” he said. “I’ve been feeding it in the backyard for a few weeks and let her in last night when I heard the coyotes.”
A thin, short-haired calico strutted into the office, plopped down on a pile of puzzle pieces and made herself comfortable.
“Jan,” he yelled. “Get off those.”
“Jan? You named it after mom?”
“Yeah, I know it’s kind of weird but I was in the backyard one day and I yelled out her name and the cat showed up and jumped on my lap.”
The cat retreated from her puzzle-piece bed and cleaned herself in the corner of the room.
“You’re right,” he said. “Naming her Jan was a stupid idea. I’ll think of another name.”
“No,” I said. “It’s a good name for her. Keep it.”
He reached down for a puzzle piece but his back wouldn’t cooperate, so with a grimace and a moan, he slowly straightened up and waited for the pain to fade.
We spent the rest of the day putting the puzzle together on the dining-room table. At first I
was reluctant to help and questioned my father’s obsession with finishing it so quickly. But after he explained that my mother’s last request was for him to complete the puzzle, I changed my mind and became a valuable partner. We started with the frame and worked in silence dividing the pieces into two piles – straight sided pieces and center pieces.
It didn’t take my father long to say, “I hate these things.”
I agreed and the silent pile making continued.
When the frame had been completed, and we busied ourselves with the laborious task of
interlocking the center pieces, he complained again and told me that he had no patience for puzzle making.
“Your mother,” he said. “Now she had patience. I remember when you were about four years old, I was helping you with one of your puzzles. You kept trying to put the pieces in upside down and I kept telling you to turn them around but you just didn’t get it. So I lost my patience and started yelling at you. Your mother came in the room and very calmly …”
His voice chocked up at the thought of it and stopped the story.
In the bedroom, where we looked for a jar of jigsaw puzzle glue, he showed me where the graduation photo puzzle would make its new home – visible from my mother’s bed, in between a downtown Los Angeles skyline and a group of diaper-wearing chimpanzees stacked in a pyramid shape.
The jar of glue was nearly empty so my father drove us down the hill to his favorite store. We passed a half dozen other stores that sold jigsaw puzzle glue before getting there, but he had turned into a 99 Cent Only Store junkie, and never considered shopping anywhere else. The hundreds of dollars that he spent there weekly had raised him to a kind of high roller status.
When we walked in, the manager instantly spotted us and dropped what he was working on to
greet my father.
“Hello, Mr. Hirschman. How are you today?”
“I’m okay Frank. Hey, have you met my son?”
Before he could answer, my father’s attention diverted to some items at the front of aisle four.
“Wow, those are great,” my father said. “When did you get the Lakers stuff in?”
“Just this morning. We got a lot of other great items I think you’ll like. Let me get you a cart and show you everything.”
“No thanks, Frank, not today. We’re just here to get some jigsaw puzzle glue.”
“Okay. Mr. Hirschman, but if you need any help, just let me know.”
Once my father was let loose in the store, he was like a kid in a candy store, marveled by item after item and amazed at the incredible deals. By the time we got to the jigsaw puzzle glue aisle, he had scooped up an armful of items. Frank had seen him and appeared by our side with a shopping cart.
“You’re out of jigsaw puzzle glue,” my father said.
Frank was shocked. He looked at the shelf where it was usually kept, pushed things aside, looked behind others and surveyed the entire aisle but was also unsuccessful.
“Wait right here, Mr. Hirschman,” he said. “I’ll check in the back. I’m sure I saw some this morning.”
A huge selection of videotapes caught my attention and I searched through them until I found one that interested me – Revenge of the Pink Panther, one of my father’s favorites. I interrupted his search through a stack of baseball cards to show him my find.
“Put it in the cart,” he said. “We’ll watch it tonight. God knows I can use a few laughs.”
With four bags of 99 cent items, including two jars of jigsaw puzzle glue, we headed back to
the uncemented puzzle to complete my mother’s request.
A strong wind whipped through the canyon where my father’s house sat at the bottom of a
sharp incline. As we coasted into the driveway, we could see his newly adopted cat on the sidewalk. A collar was wrapped around her neck and was being led with a leash by a girl who couldn’t have been more than four years old. Jan was very obedient and walked alongside the girl like a well-trained dog.
“Hey,” I yelled out through the open car window. “What are you doing?”
“Walking my cat,” she said as if there was no oddity in doing so.
I got out of the car and walked toward Jan and the girl with my father trailing behind me.
“That’s not your cat,” I said. “It’s his,” and pointed at my father.
“No it’s not,” she said. “Mrs. Fluffy is my cat and I’m taking her home and if you try to take her I’ll tell my dad. He’s a policeman and he’s ten feet tall.”
As we watched the girl walk away with her newly reclaimed cat, I wondered why her father sent on her own as if she was a preschool bounty hunter. Before I could say this to my father, he had gone after her in a slow lumbering trot. A plastic 99 Cent Only Store bag fluttered in the wind and tried desperately to free itself of his grip.
“Wait,” he yelled, “I have something for your cat”
I ran after him with thoughts of his being caught by the girl’s giant policeman father and spending the rest of his life with all the other cat burglar/child chasers. When I was within striking distance, I grabbed for his arm but accidentally swiped the bag, sending its contents crashing to the ground. Defeated, my father stopped, slowly collapsed to his knees and picked up the only thing that wasn’t whisked off by the Santa Anas – a small bag of catnip-filled felt mice.
He was worn out from the puzzle making, bargain hunting and cat chasing, so he took a nap on his bed, positioned no more than five feet away from my mother’s hospital bed, which he
hadn’t bothered to remove. Instead of leaving, I scavenged through the kitchen for something
that resembled a meal and watched a baseball game. Towards the end of it my father yelled out
for my mother, softly at first then followed by a crescendo of screams. I ran into his room and found him sitting at the end of his bed, his head bowed staring at the ground.
“Dad, you okay?”
“Sorry,” he said and lifted his head.
During the past few weeks, I realized as I stood over him in the partially darkened room, he
had aged quickly and for the first time looked even older than he was.
“I’ve been doing that lately in my sleep,” he said.
“That’s okay,” I said. “It’s probably normal.”
He looked upset about it though and stared silently at the empty bed across from him.
“Why don’t you get some more sleep?” I asked.
He wasn’t tired and wanted to glue the puzzle together, but I suggested he watch the Pink Panther video tape and work on the puzzle in the morning. He agreed, so we watched the movie and sometime between Clouseau being chased by a whip-thrashing dominatrix in a Chinese whorehouse and a gun battle in a Hong Kong fireworks factory, the paramedics came and said there was nothing they could do.
The next night, I went back to the house to get a suit for my father. The completed puzzle was waiting on the dining room table, so before picking out his clothes, I glued it together. With no frame to put it into, I put it on my father’s bed, and on my way out I saw Mrs. Fluffy lying on my mother’s pillow, the collar still around her neck and the leash stretched out across the bed.
The winds had disappeared on the moonless night, and as we walked to the little girl’s house the air was cool and still. It was a little past midnight so the streets in the hills south of Ventura Boulevard were quiet, and except for a sporadic glow of lights from behind closed curtains, the
only light came from streetlights that dotted the winding streets. I enjoyed being alone in the evening air and empty neighborhood, so I walked the cat past its home and continued going higher and higher until we were lost in the hills.