Robert Nielsen

He’s gone; Adam, my late brother-in-law.

I miss him; our annual guys-only Sierra horse-packing trip; vacations our families shared; Holiday times at their home in LA, and ours in Northern California. 

I remember that one Christmas years ago when he introduced us all to Mrs. Prothero, and the other characters in Dylan Thomas’ Christmas in Wales.  It was in LA.  And then she and rest of them would come back each Christmas thereafter.  Join us while we had coffee and pumpkin pie by the fire, their story re-told by Adam in his deep sonorous baritone voice.

Adam, the gastroenterologist who didn’t follow his banjo passion when he was in college, didn’t join with his roommate, Peter, who later went on to find Paul and Mary.  Adam, who instead did his family duty and like other good Jewish boys in Brooklyn, went on to a top med school, became a “doctor doctor,” as his mother would proudly say.

From being which, for a while, he tried to escape into acting; moved to LA, took lessons, got an agent, expressive black-and-white head shots, and landed a few parts in TV pilots. 

None of which became a series, though, so he went back to doctoring, met and married my sister, and together they had their son, our wonderful nephew.

He built a medical practice, and in his spare time did community little theater, and also Recordings for the Blind and Dyslexic.

He was good, a marvelous raconteur.

I loved his recitations around the campfire in the Sierra on crisp early fall nights, the black cold sky filled with stars; and his stories as we hiked the trails, or sat on rocks in the sun and had peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch, Snickers for dessert; stories often about Marianne, a free spirit he met on the trail in the mountains years earlier; she was swimming naked in a clear still pond when he first saw her.

His stories, too, that day as he and I climbed cross-country in Yosemite, between two granite peaks, through a cleft called Jayne Mansfield; and then our sitting in happy triumph at the top of that climb by a shiny shallow stream, in a small green meadow with yellow flowers; having lunch and trail mix and laughing until we almost rolled into the water.

And stories about his time as an Air Force flight surgeon, and his once getting a free ride to Europe on Air Force One.

And his observations about his practice, and the amateur plays he’d been in.

And of course his love of Dylan Thomas, whom he shared with us every year. To the point where I knew almost by heart what the boys would do, and how the grown-ups would react, and what they did or didn’t say each Christmas there in Wales.

But then, over time, like someone wandering through and around the slag heaps of that coastal town where Mrs. Prothero lived, Adam ended up wandering through his own life; just doing what he had to do; but increasingly detached.

From his family, his profession, his life.

From me.

I saw him not long before he died. In a rest home in West LA. He wanted a diet Pepsi, his favorite beverage. They wouldn’t give it to him; said he couldn’t swallow. He said he could, and proceeded to name the muscles and nerves that governed his swallowing skills; then pronounced them all in good working order.

I asked the nurse if I could hold the can and straw for him and let him slip slowly. She went to check with the doctor on duty, who came in and then, physician to physician, talked with Adam and they agreed he could have his Pepsi, if I held it.

So I sat there at his bedside. He sipped. I held that Pepsi; then gave it to him after a while.

We sat in silence.  He studied the lights of the little Christmas tree on the table across the room by his TV.  Then he turned to me and asked if I’d like to hear “A Child’s Christmas in Wales.”

“Of course,” I said, and smiled.

“Thank you, Bobby,” he grinned.

He took another sip, gave me back the Pepsi, and put his hand on my arm.

Then, looking over at the little tree, began from memory:

One Christmas was so much like another, in those years around the sea-town corner now and out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before I sleep . . . .

I watched him. He smiled at me, continued; and together we went back into all those other Christmases.

Me, Adam, Dylan Thomas. Wales.

There. In West LA.

He kept on reciting, kept his eyes closed.  But too soon came to the last few lines, at which he paused, as if to let the story and our moment together linger for a while. 

Then he continued, and finished:

. . . I went to bed. Looking through my bedroom window, out into the moonlight and the unending smoke-colored snow, I could see the lights in the windows of all the other houses on our hill and hear the music rising from them up the long, steady falling night.  I turned the gas down, I got into bed. I said some words to the close and holy darkness, and then I slept.

And there we sat, Adam and me, back in his room, in Los Angeles. 

Silence, but for the sound of the fan, and faint Christmas carols from a TV or radio somewhere down the hall.

His eyes remained closed. He smiled.

Then gently let go of my arm. His breathing slowed.  He started to snore.

I stayed by his bed, watched him for a while, then stood up, leaned over, and kissed his cool moist forehead.

I put the Pepsi on the side table, backed quietly away from the bed, and paused at the doorway. 

Stood there.  Looked at him one more time. Then silently said good night, and switched off the light

Turned, stepped into the cold glare of the linoleum hall, and slowly closed his door.

© Robert Nielsen

Carmel Valley

November 24, 2017