In the summer of 1985, I was twenty-four years old and sitting on a beach, unmindful of my mother’s advice given to me years before as a teenager when she’d said to be careful when the day was overcast, because the clouds could make the UV rays worse and you could burn without knowing it.
I was burning that day without knowing it.
We had taken the train from Penn Station to Jones Beach that morning—I, Craig, Michael, Kimberly, Betsy, and some others I no longer remember. It was an outing for our theatre company, Bad Neighbors, which performed a weekly soap opera at the Good Food Coop on East Fourth Street in Manhattan, right next to Ellen Stewart’s La Mama Experimental Theater Club. We had all graduated from NYU that year or the year before, and we were early twentysomethings out swimming. It was hard going to a beach with a nameless fear, a fear that had little to do with what should have been the fears of a group of twentysomethings out swimming, like the fear of getting melanoma later in life. I was a writer for the weekly soap opera and sometime actor. I played Frankie, a punk with a drug-addicted ballerina girlfriend.
In 1985 I didn’t care about beaches; beaches were irrelevant, not at all stepping stones in my quest for art and iconoclasm. Beaches were for college kids not into the arts. I wore pocketed Hanes T-shirts like my father, who drove a truck and also hated beaches, not because they were provincial but because they detracted from work time he could not afford to miss.
I had begun working at NYU and was about to begin graduate work in creative writing—the benefit of working for the university full-time was tuition remission—and I remember sitting there that day at Jones Beach on a blanket after swimming, when Kimberly, a friend of mine who was my prime outlet for comic women’s roles, looked at me and said, “I wonder something about you.” Her thick, wavy red hair blew in the wind like Deborah Kerr in From Here to Eternity, a retro look that a lot of artsy East Village women had in those years. She wore crystal and black glasses—the kind you see on Flannery O’Connor in pictures of her from the 1950s—and of course all her look was a way of downplaying how beautiful she was, though that only made her more beautiful.
Everybody was in the water except the two of us. She looked at me and said, “Can I ask you a question?”
“Go for it.”
“Okay.” She tilted her face up at me and shielded her eyes, squinting: “Do you have any alcoholism in your family?”
A sense of relief came over me. It was like I’d been waiting for somebody to recognize it. “How did you know to ask me that?” I said. “My dad.”
She pointed her index finger at me and squinted the way people do when they’re demonstrating wisdom. “I knew it!” she said. “My dad’s an alcoholic too.”
“And you know what?” she said. “I’ve been going to these meetings at St. Vincent’s on Sunday nights and they’re amazing. You should come. You have fear of success like I do.”
Since the main adult in my life was untrustworthy, I had long ago learned I could only want what was in my own reach; that I could not want anything that required a trusting relationship with somebody who had authority.
Kimberly was a strong actress with a meticulous sense of satire and comic timing. The dialogue I hammered out in Elite typeface on my IBM Selectric was tailored to her. It was the one point in my experience where I could risk the intuition that I had actual talent and see it pay off, because I didn’t believe that anything about me could be valid. Other people in New York my age were already running stories in the New Yorker. One day in 1983 I met a guy who had already published there and in places like Harper’s. “How?” I asked. He’d known somebody. And the idea of “knowing somebody” was for me off limits; it meant trusting an adult. This was part of the whole “fear of success” script: since the main adult in my life was untrustworthy, I had long ago learned I could only want what was in my own reach; that I could not want anything that required a trusting relationship with somebody who had authority. A script I’d written for Kimberly—as Velma, an Eastern European waitress who took orders from her customers and called out, “Two eggs, vhiskey down!”—even ended up in an issue Harper’s was doing on the East Village theatre scene. But I could not, as I later came to understand in Adult Children of Alcoholics terms, own it. To “own it” meant to accept success and stop identifying with the wounded family dynamic, and this, sadly for adult children, can be more threatening than remaining inside toxic relationships where you feel you don’t count and what you do has no value.
The meetings I went to with Kimberly took place on Sunday nights around a conference table at St. Vincent’s Hospital on Thirteenth Street. There were regulars who complained about the same things each week. There was a woman with a prosthetic arm who made me wonder if an abusive alcoholic parent had caused her injury. There was a big guy with a beard and brushed-back hair who, once when I said my father was sober already, yelled at me, “Our parents don’t change! Our fucking parents don’t change!” because he didn’t like my optimism. Kimberly stopped coming, but I kept going. I didn’t know why I kept going except for the fact that I was lonely and lived in a small apartment on the Upper East Side and needed to go somewhere on Sunday nights because I was so depressed. The theatre company fell apart. I stormed out of a rehearsal once in anger only to later discover in one of those meetings that we run away from friends because it’s easier to hate ourselves or treat ourselves with neglect, as we learned from our alcoholic parents, than it is to accept being loved by people and feel like we belong. Alcoholics need their own children to parent them in their woundedness. To grow up and move on is a threat to this.
My dad’s breakthrough had already come two years before that day on the beach, in 1983, but I had not yet understood that despite his beginning recovery I still bore the effects of his drinking. Read the opening of Phil Klay’s Missionaries and you will see what I mean:
Bone and meat and blood just exists, but to exist is not to live, and bone and meat and blood alone is not a person. A person is what happens when there is a family, and a town, a place where you are known. Where every person who knows you holds a small, invisible mirror, and in each mirror, held by family and friends and enemies, is a different reflection. . . . A person is what happens when you gather all these reflections around a body. So what happens when one by one the people holding these mirrors are taken from you? It’s simple. The person dies.
Alcoholism takes away the people holding those mirrors, though in Klay’s narrative this isn’t the cause. War is.
Picture yourself standing on a porch in 1976 after the weather breaks, smelling the metal screen of the storm door while the air is warm outside. It’s a Sunday and your mother has made you put on nice pants. The Philadelphia Bulletin has sponsored a spelling bee for middle school students, and one Jean Brennan, BA in linguistics from Georgetown, eighth-grade teacher, has entered you in it because on First Fridays before Mass there is a spelling bee, and you have been able to spell “antediluvian” and “schizophrenia” without even knowing their meanings.
In front of the screen door that Sunday you dissociate. You imagine yourself on the steps of the Bulletin building in Philadelphia, as if you could transport yourself there through time and space without any interaction with the man you know will be hostile because he is not the type of “father” who knows how to be dedicated to his kid enough to take him to a spelling bee. You don’t know at the time that this is not fathering at all; it is sabotage because you might be successful and leave.
Your mother calls the bar once, twice, then downplays it to hide her rage. She walks away so you don’t see her face, as you keep yours facing the street where he never shows, looking at the diver’s watch your uncle gave you, thinking you’ve blown it.
The Monday after the missed spelling bee, your teacher asks you how it went, and you take the blame on yourself for not showing up.
When he gets home, he never apologizes or even acknowledges that he was supposed to have taken you. You can’t remind him because the smoldering rancour could turn to rage.
There’s a spite to his unwillingness to be there. Even when he does show up, there’s spite to it. Spite like the spite on Sunday nights when he drives you and some family friends’ kids to swim-team practice against his will and hovers angrily on the cement parapet above you, looking down as he smokes. His eyes on you make goosebumps crawl over your chest, and you are humiliated because you are fat, unlike the other guys in their Speedos who look skinny, like swimmers should look. His rancour only bubbles over occasionally. Instead, what it does is smolder, so that whatever you are doing that kids or teenagers do, normal things, you feel like you’re doing something wrong because you are the cause of it. We became isolated and afraid of other people, the laundry list of Adult Children of Alcoholics reads. Once, on a rare occasion, Brian Anderson, the son of my coach Norman Anderson, tried to befriend me in the locker room, asking me how I was doing. In retrospect it seems clear his parents had caught on to my father and his attitude and they surmised the family dynamic. I was afraid to talk to him, though, beyond a formal yes, no, thanks, I’m okay. The smoldering alcoholic does not want things to open up. Not to strangers. Not to other families. His kids follow suit. We became isolated and afraid of other people.
When I was in my mid-forties, a friend of mine remarked about a mutual friend, older, that you always got the sense around him you were doing something wrong. It had never occurred to me that the face of contempt this older friend often had—the passive aggression, the sense that he needed to make you do things to set up a particular configuration for himself (a kind of narcissism that often goes hand in hand with alcoholism)—was not my fault, was not because of some defect in me. It had never occurred to me to question his behaviour because, as I had done as a kid with my father, I blamed myself for causing it, though I had forgotten long ago this pattern in myself of taking responsibility for the disgruntlement of others.
As with my father, so with this friend, the mirrors stopped being held up. The people who were holding them receded into the background, because another aspect of alcoholism is that the closer you are to the alcoholic, the more they suck you into their ambit and make you unconsciously believe they are the only significant relationship in your life. It has taken me well into adulthood to recover the configuration of these mirrors, like Kimberly on the beach did for me that day in 1985, when suddenly I was a person again and could breathe because somebody read what was inside me and offered friendship and love.
A lot of people never recover these mirrors and end up medicating their suffering with alcohol or other substances, starting the cycle all over again.
There is an alcoholic personality configuration I’ve come to be familiar with: the ability to commandeer a household according to the person’s drinking needs. Since for an alcoholic there is a physiological dependency on alcohol (unlike those of us who drink either moderately or non-moderately but develop no physiological or psychological dependency), in a twenty-four-hour cycle the alcoholic grows sullen and irritable as the need for alcohol increases. His or her well-being and a sense of self are contingent on a resurgence of intake. Thus, becoming irritable, provoking hostility, picking fights becomes a pattern. And if those around the alcoholic are not aware of the physiological dynamic and the resultant emotional fallout that is going on inside him or her, they can get sucked into the pattern, escalating the hostility, becoming the scapegoat for the alcoholic’s rage, or being shipwrecked in the emotional abandonment. Without the mirroring that happens in healthy relationships, they find themselves questioning their own sanity because they cannot come up with an explanation for why they feel so bad all the time, even going as far as blaming themselves for the discomfort in the house or the failure to function as a healthy family or group. Mostly it is because the narcissistic deprivation the alcoholic experiences is something everyone must fill in, and alcoholics are masters of co-opting their spouses and kids into these roles to fend off the pain of loneliness and self-loathing. As an educator, this is something I have witnessed in fellow school personnel who do the same with students, playing off students’ neediness to feel important in students’ eyes.
This played out in my youth in the way my mother, sister, and I would feel the hair on the back of our necks rise the minute we heard my dad’s car come up the driveway. If he’d had a few drinks, things tended to be mild. If he had not, or if the alcohol was already on its way out of his system, the irritability would set in—the long face whose provenance the three of us couldn’t figure out, the irascibility if my mother asked him what the problem was, the open aggression on occasion when his symptoms were severer. You come to think of it, whether you are the wife, the son, or the daughter, as just the way he is. There is almost a conspiracy of silence around the disease of alcoholism, as if it were not something with its own etiology and its own pathology, even when intermixed with prior personality difficulties or configurations like narcissism or sociopathic tendencies.
The latent result of this in my own character is rage surfacing out of nowhere. For years I suppressed my own emotions out of fear that I would provoke my father. It is as if the alcoholic binds and gags everyone’s feelings that do not affirm his or her own or feed into the need to drink. It has a suffocating effect similar to that reported by victims of sexual abuse: the sense of having two hands around your throat, as if the perpetrator were still present physically long after he is gone. This can be exacerbated by the alcoholic’s ability to present a fun-loving, extroverted persona to everyone outside the family, manipulating them into believing he would not dream of perpetrating the things he perpetrates on those in his household.
There is almost a conspiracy of silence around the disease of alcoholism, as if it were not something with its own etiology and its own pathology.
A similar dynamic occurred again in my life in my late thirties. I was living in a house with other men, one of whom turned out to have sociopathic tendencies. He had amassed friends and acquaintances for whom he was close to being a religious guru in a megalomaniacal way with high school teenagers.
In both instances my own unconscious rage mounted until I finally blew up and had to leave the situation. I had fallen—well into my adulthood, well after Adult Children of Alcoholics, Al-Anon, years of therapy—into the same patterns of suppressed emotions, rage particularly, taking it out on myself in various behaviours, until it bubbled over and became an overt problem. The linchpin of my anger this time, however, was that the community we were all a part of was a Catholic one. I had tricked myself out of seeing the seriousness of the pathology by glossing it over with religious platitudes. I told myself that it was charity on my part to overlook my housemate’s tendencies. He had built a cadre of adults, including me, around himself. Our purpose was ostensibly to announce Jesus to the young. But his ministry was laden with accusations of sexual misconduct, and he was quietly removed and sent to another state like they do in these things, as at least two young women I’m still friends with, fearful of going on the record, came forth with instances of misconduct. No alcoholism with this guy, just plain narcissism and sociopathic behaviour. I was once in a car with him and some teenagers. He was speeding furiously, talking as he drove, so enamoured of the rapture of the young woman in the passenger seat with his words that he did not hear me yelling out to him from the rear seat. Another car, a drunk driver as it turned out, crossed five lanes of traffic and collided with us. In the hospital, the father of the girl in the front seat was cynical when I said of my friend, “He has to think about the way he drives with kids in the car.”
“Eh,” the father said. “It’s just his way.”
The problem in these cases can be so subtle and insidious that even when you point out the facts to people, they look the other way. “Your problem,” a psychologist friend of mine said, part of the same community, when I mentioned another guy to her I saw this same tendency in, “is that having come from an alcoholic family, you have a tendency to see it everywhere.”
Someone else I went to for advice was more amenable to the possibility that I was not paranoid. “It happens in religious communities too. You’re not exempt. Your problem is, you can’t blow up. It doesn’t work. Doesn’t change anything. You end up looking like the bad guy.”
I knew that. Knew you were never supposed to confront an alcoholic, a narcissist, or push his buttons, as they say. But I kept doing it, and my buttons kept getting pushed back, and then I was the bad guy.
The personality configuration is something I would broaden from alcoholism and narcissism to a more far-reaching spiritual term: idolatry. When people, in the biblical sense, cling to idols (even when in modern parlance we use the nomenclature of personality disorders or psychological diseases), the rest of us become pawns in their quest to please whatever god it is they’ve chosen. These gods can be as broad as successful careers or as cerebral as overarching ideas about life.
“Wait a minute. I have to call you back,” my mother said. I was talking to her on a payphone, so I gave her the number, waiting while she wrote it down.
“What’s the matter?”
“The police are at the door.”
It was 1983, and I was sitting in the lobby of a building at New York University near Waverly Place and Greene Street. I had finished my BA a semester early and was attempting to train myself to write each morning. That morning I was writing a story about my grandmother in a navy London Fog raincoat raking leaves on my front lawn one overcast October day as light raindrops fell against her face. With every stroke of the rake, she worked out the memory of a son she lost to leukemia at sixteen, my mother’s brother, Fred, for whom she had kept a night light on in the hallway of their row house at 508 Kauffman Street in south-central Philadelphia for when he would wake up in pain and she or my grandfather would get out of bed to sit next to him.
Those were the people who could break the spell. Writing nostalgic stories about somebody who’s been good in your life seemed at the time like one of the least destructive psychological defence mechanisms I could think of.
On the phone I heard the familiar unlatching of the storm door in the background. Oddly, my mother didn’t sound nervous. I knew what this was. It was the relief of some authority stepping in after years of insanity. The relief of having lived with something irrational inhabiting somebody in the family and everybody playing along with it. Coping via dissociation, denial, pretending it wasn’t there because it was too insane to admit. The police were there, I would learn later, because my father had driven down the street to where it curved, passed out at the wheel, and hit a tree in front of Mrs. Fitzpatrick’s house, who saw it all, panicked, and called 911. Little did she know, she was a catalyst in one alcoholic’s hitting bottom and recovering.
This was six years after the first time he had delirium tremens. In the absence of alcohol, the nervous system in the brain begins to misfire. The result is not far from an acid trip: faces in the window, monsters, hallucinations, paranoia. This happened after he’d been injured chasing one of his pipe dreams—a racehorse he went in on with somebody he knew. The horse turned its head quickly on my father as he stood next to it in its stable. He had no training in how to handle horses, only boyhood dreams he had never outgrown. The horse broke a few of his ribs. When Dr. Paisley, the Quaker family-care physician he’d gone to sporadically, told him he just had to sit it out, that you couldn’t put broken ribs in a cast, he hadn’t realized that telling my father to sit home on painkillers would absent him from his bar habit.
I was working after school at a delicatessen during that time. My sister was at home with her friend Robbie, who lived down the street. When she called me, I got home to find her frozen on one end of the couch, fourteen years old, with Robbie on the other end, their faces stiff with horror as my father raged around the house, pointing to faces in windows looking in at him, punching a hole into the plaster wall in our dining room, screaming that he was being chased. None of us understood at the time what it was.
I ran next door to our neighbours Marion and Jack Geiges. Marion was a nurse anesthetist, Jack a merchant seaman. When the paramedics and cops came, after we got Robbie safely out of the house and home to his own family, my sister stood in her floor-length bathrobe on the stair landing, trembling and sobbing with her fingers in her mouth as they carried my father’s shackled body down the steps on a stretcher to bring him to a hospital. I followed in the car with my mother. My sister stayed home by herself. A religious-minded triage woman at the hospital gave us brochures while they were admitting my father, but my mother wasn’t ready to admit we had an alcoholic in the family. Both she and I were too shame-filled; both she and I still thought it would just get better.
Later, when I got home, I knocked on Marion and Jack’s door to tell them the outcome, and they looked at me through the screen door with that look adults get I was so familiar with that told me, What’s a seventeen-year-old doing managing a problem like this? Where are the parents here?
“Dean, you acted like a real pro,” Jack said.
“Thanks, Jack,” I told him. Any affect in me was gone; my insides were erased by then. I had become a living blank.
My father still refused to admit he had a problem. They tell you to give the alcoholic or addict an ultimatum so he or she will face the problem. After they released him from the hospital, my mother told him at the kitchen table, “You have to either stop drinking or get out. We can’t live like this.” But I knew she wouldn’t hold him to it. We had no income outside whatever he managed to scrape together. He would have had no place to go, and he looked at her like he hadn’t heard what she said. So much for tough love.
My mother told me once in the 1990s when I was living in Bay Ridge in Brooklyn that Jean Brennan had called her to locate me, because her daughter had been accepted at NYU’s law school and she knew I’d gone to NYU myself. I never followed up until a long time after, when Mrs. Brennan told me, “Well, it took you long enough.”
By then her daughter had graduated.
Mrs. Brennan didn’t know what I did with people who showed me they cared about me. I preserved them in amber, like those prehistoric bugs you see in science displays that can never go away or perish. Something else: the year I was immersed in reading Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders by Vincent Bugliosi (the LA district attorney who had prosecuted the killers) and Curt Gentry, Jean Brennan said to me, “What are you reading that for? You should be reading The Hobbit.”
In her innocence, she had no idea how irrelevant made-up creatures were to my life.
In the life of Bill W., founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, or at least in the Big Book (the seminal text of AA) and the movie about his life starring James Woods, Bill W. sees a white light that blinds him. He gets lost in it, a kind of complete dissociation if you want to use a psychological term, only the experience is far beyond the psychological. When the white light is gone, he points to a picture of Jesus Christ on the wall and tells the doctor, “That’s who it was.”
The same white light enveloped my father in the hospital those days in 1983, after the final bout of delirium tremens when he hit the tree and my mother had to call me back because the police showed up. A physician at the same hospital he had ended up in prior told him, “If you don’t stop drinking, this will be cancerous tissue in a matter of months,” showing him the live image of his own esophagus.
“Sue,” my mother later recounted him saying, “you have to help me stop.”
First premise: alcoholism is a disease, not a failure of character or a moral problem. In the rehab my father was sent to after his discharge, after his stomach healed, after he was physically free of all alcohol, a counsellor told my mother that his family had failed him, and that’s why, at fourteen, he had turned to booze. Driving a truck for his family’s trucking business. Missing Christmas with anybody. Made to grow up and given responsibility no fourteen-year-old should have had and being neglected emotionally in addition to this. Hating me when I was setting off for Catholic high school he had to pay for once I was in his life, because he himself, a talented artist, had never been given the opportunity to attend a Catholic high school. He wanted me instead to go into business with him. He had escaped the family trucking business in Philly because the mob was infiltrating, and he was afraid for himself and for us. Which meant his own father did nothing to help him sustain his wife and two kids. Had criticized him to me openly one day when I was sixteen, lamenting how he drank too much, but never seeing how his own lack of involvement with his family had caused this effect in my dad, whose mother had died of cancer at home on the sofa when he was eight while my grandfather had already taken up with another woman.
First premise: alcoholism is a disease, not a failure of character or a moral problem.
When my life is over, I won’t be judged for the education I got or the success I made of myself. I’ll be judged by how, in the long run, I loved this man who was given to me as a father. His ridiculing of my piano lessons, the Beethoven I played, the Debussy he found stuffed shirt out of his jealousy and resentment at not having had a childhood—though I could judge it later as part of his sickness—wasn’t the point. The point was, though I was his son, I had an eternal creature on my hands. What kind of mercy did I manage until now, long after his death?
In the early nineties, when I was working as a teacher in Manhattan, I learned about the Pelagian heresy, which posits that humans are not born with original sin and have the capacity to perfect themselves without grace. “AA,” a Dominican friar friend told me later, “is the most anti-Pelagian thing I’ve ever seen.” This is because AA’s premise is to admit one’s powerlessness over alcohol, and to allow a “power greater than ourselves,” which for many—but not all—is the Judeo-Christian God of revelation, to “restore us to sanity.”
A year and a half into his recovery I was sitting in my sister and her new husband’s townhouse one night when I said to him, “Dad, take me to a meeting with you.”
The faces I saw during that meeting were the ones who came into the funeral parlor forty-one years later, in 2014, after their marriages had been healed and their kids had forgiven them. A priest once said in a homily that after Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, it was not like he had perfect health; he always probably had this “green tinge” around him. The men who walked in one after the other at my father’s viewing had a look I had gotten familiar with the night I went to his AA meeting. It was a pallid look, washed out, if you will. A look that comes to a face that has been bloated too much by the fluid that is alcohol, and that begins to lose that fluid once sobriety comes. A quieted face, if you will. One that accepts normal blood flow and oxygen exchange. People pleaser that I was the night of the meeting (a term coined in Al-Anon for the wives and families of alcoholics, which refers to how, to fend off the alcoholic’s rage, we do anything to make him happy), I said to the men in that room, “Thank you for giving my father back to me.”
Cooper University Medical Center, Camden, New Jersey, around nightfall on December 14, 2014. In the ER waiting room, a twentysomething Puerto Rican guy whose Droid is reciting aloud a passage from the Gospel of St. John. On the other side of the room a girl in a one-piece flannel pajama, with pigtails and a hacking cough, brought in by her mother who sits in what looks like a jacket she borrowed from her teenage son, denim, with flannel sleeves, oversized. One of those varsity jackets guys on the football team give to their girlfriends to wear.
These are the only two people in the room who don’t look like junkies.
I ask the Puerto Rican guy why he’s listening to the Gospel on his phone; he tells me all about his church. I ask him what he’s doing here; he tells me he has a backache and came in for pain. I ask him why he didn’t just call his doctor for an appointment or go to CVS and buy Advil; he explains that he has no doctor, that he comes to the ER whenever he’s sick. Pursuing this conversation, of course, is my way of telling myself that what I’m here for isn’t really happening, and that I’m not really here.
It’s past five o’clock now and the parking guide lights around the circle outside sting my eyes in the black winter air. Inside the ER they’re inserting a central line into my father’s neck. The nurse recommended I not stay and watch. The normal IV in his arm isn’t delivering fluid fast enough to raise his blood pressure. They would try pressors—drugs to raise blood pressure—and I’ve already had a conversation with the doctor on duty, younger than me, pregnant, in which, like a foreign language interpreter, I made it clear to my father that what she was asking was whether he wanted a breathing tube should he start to get worse, should he decline rapidly, and my father—eyes darting everywhere, unnerved by the sounds, half-aware of what’s happening, skin and bones at seventy-nine under a hospital gown, white with blue flecks, falling off his collar bone—says no, he wants no breathing tube.
I’m in a black winter jacket and green scarf somebody gave me in 1994 for a birthday, recycled material, Gap, that are like armour when faced with my father’s decline. I knew this on Friday night, when I stopped at the house on my way to New York from DC and he couldn’t keep his eyes open and didn’t have the energy to get up from the couch to punch my arm and offer the guttural sound from the back of his throat he’s been making for two years since his split diagnosis of advanced emphysema and MDS, or myelodysplastic syndrome, a disorder of the bone marrow that resulted from intense chemotherapy for squamous cell carcinoma of the throat in the mid-nineties, the ravages on the body, the payback, for years of alcoholism and heavy smoking. This time the cancer was real, not a threat the GI specialist had posed years before when he intuited that his patient was abusing alcohol regularly. The guttural sound is a combination of throat-clearing and dryness from the oxygen pumped into his lungs, oxygen he has needed off and on, oxygen he has used and put aside, when he’s been feeling up, when his hemoglobin on its own went up to ten (normal hemoglobin in an adult male is 13.8 to 17.2 grams per decaliter of blood) without an erythropoietin shot he was getting from his hematologist every week on Wednesday. The last Wednesday he saw his hematologist, my sister had to pick him up from the driveway because his legs gave out from under him as he got out of the car, and before that my mother had to pick him up in the space between the commode and the wall, and before that from the bathroom floor one night. Learn not to get up fast, Dad. Learn to count to ten and let the blood flow to your head, because you’re severely anemic, remember? That’s the way to beat this, I kept saying, like we were connected in spirit so that the words could go from Washington where I lived to New Jersey where he died.
The hematologist’s nurses hadn’t told my mother to get him to an ER the previous Wednesday, knew she hated taking him to the Cooper ER because both she and my sister were afraid of the junkies and the dark parking garage in Camden. The hematologist’s nurses hadn’t noticed anything alarming—hemoglobin at 8.2, not great but not terrible either, oxygen normal, blood pressure low but not dangerously so (his fluctuated anyway)—only the overwhelming weakness. “I don’t even get light-headed,” he had told my mother. “I just feel my legs give out from under me, and I can’t figure out why.”
The night in the bathroom, she wasn’t able to lift him and had given him a blanket and a pillow until his blood shifted and he was able to get up and get back in bed with her. I had gotten the reports via phone from her every day since last May, when he’d been hospitalized and I’d come up during Memorial Day weekend to take him home when he was discharged and make sure things were stable, before I had to get back to my job in DC. The mental computations I’d performed since early summer through December had to do with hemoglobin and oxygen and how long an artificial drug could stimulate a seventy-nine-year-old man’s kidneys and how long he needed to go between transfusions and, yes, wasn’t he part of the fortunate 70 percent of those with this disorder who didn’t become leukemic—only his red cells were affected, not his white, they were normal, see, so he had no secondary infections. And when I called every day from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference in Tennessee in late July, he was walking around the block with his oxygen again even though they were paving the street and my mother was scared to death about making him walk to the car in the heat because they couldn’t park in the driveway. My sister was texting emoticons with smiles and thumbs-ups because his blood work was looking good and he had energy, could go for hours without the oxygen. He had negotiated with two Ford dealers because my mother had a fender bender when she had crossed into an intersection and somebody in Bellmawr, New Jersey, on a first-name basis with the cops had pulled out of a liquor store parking lot without looking and she couldn’t stop fast enough. The insurance company totalled her Mercedes, and it was time to trade in his old pickup and just get her a solid four-door whose maintenance wasn’t as costly, and one dealer tried to give him next to nothing for the truck. My mother: “The lousy bastards see an old man with his oxygen and think they can take him for a ride, but your father’s still too smart for them; we got seven thousand something for the pickup, what it was worth, and didn’t pay any more for the used Focus than we should have.”
When they let me back in the ER, he has a square patch of tape over the spot where the central line was put in, and there is a rose-like bloom of dried blood behind his head on the pillow. I ask the nurse about his blood pressure, and she says it came up slightly but not like it should have. His hemoglobin was holding at 8.2 from the previous week. His oxygen was good.
Outside in the hallway, on the other side of the curtain where my father couldn’t see us, another doctor asks me, “Why’s he so skinny?”
“He won’t eat,” I tell her. “My mother makes him soups, purees everything for him, but he won’t eat.”
“What about the cancer?”
“That was fifteen years ago,” I say. “I don’t know why he won’t eat, but he won’t eat.”
My eyes stare through everything as something dawns on me, and when she sees it, her voice cracks before she speeds off to arrange his transfer to a private room. The question never gets answered: Did his cancer come back and had he spared us?
Monday or Tuesday—I can’t remember now—the ICU doctor said that if his blood pressure stabilized, they’d move him to the medical floor.
“I feel better that he’s there, and not home,” my mother says. “If something happened here, what would I do? He’s too sick.”
“No, you’re right,” I tell her.
Adrenaline surges through me at a student matinee of The Tempest at the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington on the 17th, a faculty party on the 18th, kids asking me about midterm concerns following Christmas as I struggle to concentrate on what they’re saying, and phone calls from the faculty workroom, behind the glass for privacy, in which my mother tells me, day by day, that he’s not getting better but he’s not declining either. A Christmas gathering Friday night, in which a friend of mine, a cancer researcher, says she’ll make it up on the 26th to see him, to see me, and another friend plans to join her.
I pack the wheeled suitcase I bought for twenty-nine dollars on West Thirty-First Street in Manhattan last January with clothes for two weeks, drive 95 again, wishing it wasn’t Christmas. I’m a cliché of a TV movie about Dad dying around Christmas, fighting over-sentimentalizing myself as I drive home wishing my father were here so I felt safer.
There is a picture on my iPhone, taken November 18 and sent via SMS by my sister, of my father in dark glasses seated up in a hospital bed after a cataract operation at Our Lady of Lourdes Medical Center, which like Cooper University Medical Center is also located in Camden, New Jersey, capped at the top with the Virgin of Lourdes holding out her arms over a city that today is controlled by street gangs running the heroin trade who control the police. Thanksgiving Day he makes me drive him home early because he forgot the antibiotic eye drops, he was supposed to be using daily for follow-up. He’s bundled in a thermal undershirt, a flannel shirt, a hoodie I bought him for his birthday three years ago at an army surplus store in Rockville, Maryland, which the US Postal Service managed to slash in transit so that the American flag over the left breast was cut in half.
He moves before me into the dining room with haste, half turning to me, hostile: “All right. Go back to your sister’s. I’m not sick. Stop worrying about me. I’m not sick.” This followed by his usual gesture of affection: a slap of his hand as he was half-turned, where he used to actually punch my bicep. I lock the door behind me and get back in the car thinking he’ll be dead there by himself.
My sister and her husband own a pit-lab mix, Diesel, with a broad face and patches of white on his head, and when he gets to know you, Diesel will approach, smell your hand, and turn his hind quarters against you in a gesture demonstrating he is ready to protect. He does this to me, has done it to my father, to my sister’s husband, to my mother, to my niece and nephew’s two-year-olds.
Underneath the hospital gown, white, white legs, hairless, knee bone. Chest sunken, hairless. Morphine face dazed, looking up. A few days before he dies on the 24th, when he is on hospice care, the doctor who had treated him in the ER and who was now following him in the ICU says, “We’re in quicksand here. We can’t maintain your blood pressure, your kidneys and lungs are weak, and you’ve had a cardiac event. We can keep going like this, keep helping you fight, or we can make you comfortable.” The doctor is about seven months pregnant, thin, with a belly carrying the child she’ll have almost dangling over my father’s body. I am at the bed, along with my mother and sister, and we are ready to assent to whatever he wants. He looks at my mother and says, “Sue, I don’t want to live like this. Just make me comfortable. I’m ready.” He adds, “Don’t worry, we’ll see each other.”
We watch the ICU nurses remove tubes and monitors one by one, and later the hospice lady comes with her mauve brochures and platinum hair looking like she sterilizes herself to help families prepare for the inevitable while my father sleeps peacefully on morphine and I’m envious.
To take control of things I make a point of telling the ICU physician that I hadn’t appreciated the phone call from cardiology at eleven fifteen the previous night asking me whether to do a cardiac catheterization or give him a Heparin drip if there were blockages when we’d already made that decision earlier that morning.
Nurses brought us coffee and cookies as his bone cage of a chest moved up and down. He’d been agitated in the early morning hours on the 23rd, and here was what we saw—my mother and I—when we had gotten there that morning: his face staring at the ceiling as he whimpered, his body naked, scrotum swollen with fluid, the gown fallen away from him, the oxygen removed from his face.
The small body I helped the nurse lift back into bed and cover up again. The feel of my fingers grazing the edges of his ears as I placed the oxygen cannula back into his nostrils and made sure it was held in place. A smile of relief, peace descending on him again as I imagined passing him my strength, my life. This white body of his—all flesh, protruding bone, heart struggling to beat out its last twenty-four hours.
This thing in front of me was the body of a man without which I would not have life.
My father died on Christmas Eve of 2014 in a corner room they could spare on the orthopedics floor. He died around six forty in the morning, when on any given weekday I would be backing out of my driveway to go to work, switching on NPR for The Writer’s Almanac while it grew light outside by slow degrees. No oxygen or morphine for my father now, only a closed door with a little card on it that I didn’t read. Inside the room his hands were folded, and the expression on his face looked like a smile at something he had seen. “He’s still warm,” my mother said, laying her hand on his arm. We all do this, as if we’re telling each other See? Dead bodies aren’t scary.
In the end you don’t remember the rage at all the years he drank and didn’t come through, the fool he made of you as you waited for him at the screen door. What you remember is this: The night in 1976 when we were at a restaurant with his brother, his brother’s girlfriend, and all his kids—my cousins—and he put two hundred dollars into my hand and said to me, at fourteen, “When the check comes, you pick it up. I want to show you how to take care of people. A man takes care of people. A man picks up the check.” Or the night in ’78 when I came home from North Jersey after winning first prize in a Spanish language competition and was going to take one of my sister’s friends on a date and needed money. “Go tell him,” my mother said. “He’s at the rail.” Her way of trying to see if our own lives could manipulate him to be serious about himself.
When I get there, my father, with liquor on his breath, pats me on the back and brags to his friends, drunk as he is, that I had won. That I had driven to North Jersey by myself, and I was only seventeen.
When I ask for the money, he flushes, feeling his pockets. He pulls out a few bills, throws them on the bar, and he and two other guys start shooting craps. A ten flies, a twenty, something else. I’m bewildered as I watch.
Then somebody’s hand slams on the bar, and he says, “Yeah, goddammit,” gathers the cash on the bar into a wad in his hand, rotates in my direction, not even aligning the bills, and holds it out for me to grab. “Here you go,” he says, handing me the pile. I take the money and run. Before his mood changes again.
Down the street from us lived a girl named Leah, who walked to Seventh Avenue School along with me and other kids on the street in 1965 when we entered kindergarten. She had wavy dark hair, a long nose, and dark eyes, and she wore a navy jumper. I learned the term “jumper” from my friend Judge, who lived across the street from me and was in my grade. When I pointed to Leah in our class picture, he told me that was what it was called after asking his mother on my behalf. Something about Leah in the navy jumper stood out to me that I liked.
A first crush, maybe?
I never knew what happened to her after kindergarten. I presume she went on to the public schools where my buddies went, while I went to St. Rose of Lima grammar school. We were the only Catholic family on the block.
We became isolated and afraid of other people.
Leah’s family still lived down the street from us, but I never saw her after that until sometime in the nineties, when I had gone home to visit my parents and she showed up at a Mass in my parish during a Sunday in Lent as a convert to Catholicism—I assume because she was marrying a Catholic guy. I remembered her name immediately when the priest announced her as one of the catechumens, and a sadness set in—my acquaintance with her, like my acquaintance with so many other people my own age, other girls I had feelings for growing up, was part of the wreckage of my father’s drinking.
Once a few years ago I was at St. Peter’s on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, during adoration and confession. I ran into a friend—a younger woman whom I’d met through another teacher friend. This woman was on her own by then, working on Capitol Hill. We caught up and promised we’d get together for coffee, checking our phones like we always do when we see each other to make sure we have each other’s number. As we spoke, in the corner of my eye, another young woman in a light-striped shirtwaist dress got up and genuflected after finishing her adoration, smiling at me once as I bantered with my friend, nodding at our comic demeanors. She had the same angular nose and high cheekbones, the same dark eyes and wavy hair, of my long-ago acquaintance and kindergarten neighbour Leah.
Before she left, she gave me one of those smiles to show she was getting a kick out of the banter between my friend and me.
Last year I taught the scene from The Merchant of Venice where Shylock mentions that his daughter Jessica took not only the money and jewels to elope with Lorenzo but also the turquoise ring his beloved Leah had given him when they were engaged, so the name Leah had been in my mouth all day—a question I give my students to be sure they’re reading carefully: What was Shylock’s deceased wife’s name, and what was the stone in the ring Jessica stole? Last night, April 20, 2023, I dreamed Leah, my kindergarten classmate, was in the theatre company I’d been in in the eighties and was there the day we were at Jones Beach together summer of ’85 with Kimberly, the friend who had suspected I was the child of an alcoholic. I was running around in stone-colored shorts and a black T-shirt with a script, my script bag dangling from my shoulder. At the end of the dream, she took a seat on a bench by the water and turned around to me, and we said things to each other without speaking, a kind of soul-to-soul call and response:
“I want to have a part in your script,” she’s telling me. She’s turned around on the bench to face me, her arm resting on its back.
“I want you to have it too,” I’m saying, “but I have to tell you something first: I have feelings for you, so if we’re going to work together, I want you to be aware of that in case it’s a problem for you.” She starts to smile at this in her jumper, a grown woman’s jumper now.
I think of the dream, and of the R&B hit by one of my favourite singers, Luther Vandross: “She Loves Me Back.”
It was close to six and I was waking up. I had found out what I needed to know after telling somebody what I needed to tell her from the time I was five. Whatever had gripped my stomach all those years had left me alone.
I wrote above that the actual Leah I mention here came into the Catholic Church sometime in my early thirties, when I was home one year on a Sunday and presumed she was coming into the church because she was marrying someone, but I discovered yesterday, April 21, 2023, when I researched her family, that her mother, a housewife, and her father, a respected woodworker, had died in 2010 and 2012 respectively, and that one of their children, Leah, born January 13, 1962, exactly one month and a day after I was, had predeceased them on July 24, 1994, the year I saw her in church for the first time since kindergarten. She was thirty-two years old.
I was unable to learn the cause of death.
It was my mother’s buoyancy all those years that got her to where she is now. She had begun to have difficulty getting up the stairs of the house we spent our lives in. I suspected at first it was because of the arthritis that is congenital on her side of the family, but this was not the case. A fall one night led to her hospitalization.
The staff in the ER were garrulous and sociable, and brought her dinner late the Sunday I was there, before admitting her. My sister had long since left. The Philadelphia Eagles were playing, and she and her husband spent a usual Sunday at a bar with their friends while I waited with my mother. “It’s okay,” I told her. “Do what you have to do. I’m here,” although I live and work in Washington, DC, 130 miles away, and I usually wake up at six to begin teaching by eight.
I was used to this, though, giving people broad tolerance for their indulgences, and she was on edge, looking for a fight, and I knew what to do not to set her off, like I’ve known my whole life with my father. The recollection and repetition, to use Freud’s terms, is heavy on me.
“Don’t worry about me,” my mother tells me. “It’s not that bad.”
She thanks me for staying and understands I have to teach in the morning. She has at least eaten. I kiss her on the cheek and tell her I love her—something not common in this family. Admitting love and admitting vulnerability is a liability.
I am less unmoored in the black night of this December than I was in 2014. I drive home, praying for her in the car, for all of us, for a significant amount of time during the trip, because I need something here—a father, an authority—who can help me make sense of all this. But all I have in the car is myself and God, so I push myself to trust despite the heaviness in my gut.
After the hospital stay, my mother goes to a rehab over Christmas. I go every morning or afternoon with mail and news from the neighbours. One afternoon, as she’s falling into a familiar late-afternoon sleepiness I’ve seen happen more and more, she looks at me out of the blue and says, “Dino, it got so bad that one afternoon I just left the house and started walking around town, because I didn’t know where to go or what to do.”
“When, Ma?” I say.
“I don’t remember anymore.”
“Was I home or in school?”
“No, I think you and Nancy were in school.”
She dozes, and I picture her small frame walking around lost in town, her friends all home with their reliable husbands. This is something I never knew occurred, and I can’t think about it for long, or about how I might have helped, but I know what she was feeling, am familiar with the complete distancing in a relationship where the sense that you knew the other and could rest in that person is taken from you by their addiction to alcohol. When I think about what marriage is, I think about my parents. Rich and poor, better and worse. Don’t worry, my father said as he was leaving for the next world, we’ll see each other. Even though for a long time throughout sixty years she had no one to rest in. I still talk about their marriage as a point of pride when the topic comes up with friends. My mother stayed, and so did my father. Even when neither of them knew what to do. Had they not, the outcome, I am convinced, would have been far worse.