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TWO FINGERS/WiHwm Holtz MY FATHER DIED under the surgeon's knife on the morning of June 12, 1957, one day short of his forty-seventh birthday. He had been obviously and continuously iU for three years, and in that time we had finally come to understand the occasional frightening spells of weakness that would clamp down on him in the years of his manhood. Sometime as a chUd he had contracted rheumatic fever; it had damaged the mitral valve of his heart, constricting the flow of blood and overburdening the heart muscle. After years of abuse, the heart was failing. "Mitral stenosis," the doctor told us after the tests, circling two fingers of one hand with the thumb and forefinger of the other. "That valve ought to open two fingers wide, and it's about the size of a pencil ." My father had taken the bus to the hospital that morning, leaving my brothers with my aunt whUe my mother worked. The hospital was across the street from a park, where he sat on a bench for a whUe. Then he walked over to a tavern on the corner for a forbidden beer and ham and cheese sandwich. At noon he checked himself in and waited for nightfaU and the gathering of his family. The next morning I sat in the waiting room with my mother and my sister. 'The doctor says he has a fifty-fifty chance," my mother said. Heart surgery was a primitive craft in those days, and I could imagine only a knife slicing into a jumping muscle. In the middle of the morning a nurse came into the room. "Mr. Holtz is not doing so weU," she said. "You had better prepare yourseU for the worst." Then she went out. We all stood up. My mother reached for my hand. A few minutes later two doctors came in, stiU in their operating gowns. The surgeon, a tall, bony man, his face damp with sweat, gave us the news. "We found a blood clot. It must have been there for years. Just as we opened up the heart, it slipped away." He held his hand up, two long fingers pressed against his thumb. "I almost had it. I had it right in my fingertips, and it slipped away. It went right to his brain. I'm very sorry." There were no tears, not even from my mother; for aU of us, that saving flux of grief had leached away in years of intermittent alarms, leaving simply a grief already irreducible as a stone. "I've been ready The Missouri Review ยท 266 for this for years," she said quietly. And so had we all. My father had been dying for almost as long as I had known him. The nurse brought us my father's clothes in a brown paper grocery bag. I recognized his good blue suit, his pohshed shoes. She was carrying his derby hat, which would fit in the bag only awkwardly. "I didn't want to crush it," she whispered. I carried the bag in one hand and the derby hat in the other as we went down in the elevator. My mother went in my sister's car. I put the bag and the hat on the seat of my car beside me, the hat on top of the bag so it would not fall off on the floor. I reached home ahead of my sister and my mother and walked into the house with the bag and the hat. My aunt was dozing in a chair whUe my brothers watched television . I put the bag and the hat down on the dining room table and wondered how I could explain that this was all that was left of my father . The first thing that I can remember my father doing when we moved to the little house in the country was to make me a swing. I was six that year, 1938, and my father was twenty-eight; and my continuous memory does not go back much further. I recaU that when I was four we lived in an apartment in Cleveland, where he had a job driving a truck...


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