Joltin' Joe and the Hospice Bed

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My dad, who died a couple months ago, was not much of a music fan. He had the same small stack of vinyl LPs that could be found in millions of suburban American households in the 1960s: Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Herb Alpert, Ferrante & Teicher and, thanks to me, Simon & Garfunkel.

Like most sons, I had an ambivalent relationship with my father. I loved him. He drove me crazy. Sometimes I admired him. Sometimes I wanted to be nothing like him. But he instilled in me a love of baseball, and some of my fondest childhood memories involve sitting with my old man in rust-corroded Cleveland Stadium, watching the Indians battle the New York Yankees. My dad was a Yankees fan, and extolled the wonders of the Great Yankees Teams of Yore: Ruth and Gehrig, DiMaggio and Berra. And with the contemptuous dismissal of impatient youth, I didn’t give a rip about old ballplayers, viewed the Yankees as the Evil Empire, and cheered vigorously for the local Indians.
   
Through the decades, baseball remained the glue that united us, the common obsession that provided a shared space in our lives when other issues divided us. He hated the designated-hitter rule, bemoaned the disappearance of the doubleheader, and believed expansion had watered down the talent in the major leagues. He remained a staunch Yankees fan until the end. And the Yanks provided a musical meeting point when, like his hero Sinatra, my dad decried the evils of my cherished rock ’n’ roll, and pontificated that only the beloved standards of Cole Porter and George Gershwin could measure up to true greatness.
   
“Yeah?” I said. “Listen to this.”
   
I played him Simon and Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson.” I snuck one in on him, like a Whitey Ford fastball, high and hard, and it hit him right where he lived:

Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?
A nation turns its lonely eyes to you
(Ooo ooo ooo).
What’s that you say, Mrs. Robinson?
“Joltin’ Joe” has left and gone away
(Hey, hey, hey, hey, hey, hey).  


“That’s pretty good,” he admitted. “It’s catchy. And I miss DiMaggio, too.”
   
“I knew you did,” I told him.
   
My dad never really warmed up to rock ’n’ roll. But Simon & Garfunkel weren’t rock ’n’ roll, and occasionally I’d catch him at the old console stereo, my copy of Bookends in hand, ready to cue up “Mrs. Robinson.” He always had a weakness for DiMaggio.
   
Dad spent the last week of his life in a hospice room, surrounded by heart monitors and morphine drips and the smell of disinfectant. He drifted in and out of consciousness. He couldn’t speak, and it was hard to determine what he understood. My father, who had spent countless summer evenings with me tossing a baseball back and forth, the picture of middle-aged health and vitality, was now a helpless, shriveled old man. I sat by his bedside and flipped through TV channels. It was October, an upstart expansion team called the Tampa Bay Rays had made the playoffs, and the perennially great Yankees were nowhere to be found. The whole world had turned upside down.
   
A couple days before Dad died, I brought in a boombox, set it on his bedside stand, and pointed it at his unresponsive head. “Listen to this,” I said. I played “Mrs. Robinson,” of course. I kept the volume down low so I wouldn’t disturb anyone, but I cranked it up, just a little, before the verse about Joe DiMaggio. He didn’t move.
 
ever admit that George Gershwin and Paul Simon could both be great? Why couldn’t I let any of it go and just love you in your cussed obstinacy? I laid them all out in my head, all the old, unanswerable, life-haunting questions. He never spoke another word. I packed up the boombox and drove back home.

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