Tuesday, August 07, 2007

A suffocatingly personal item that I'm writing just for me.

Today is my father's birthday—or, as my wife sweetly puts it, his "birthday in heaven." He would've been 90. That sounds old, but I play ball with guys who are well into their 50s and 60s, whose fathers still attend the games.

It's been a long time since Dad attended anything. And indeed, I am struck, today, by what a remarkable segment of my adulthood I have lived without a father, compared to just about everyone else I know. Next February will mark three full decades since the snowy night on which the phone beside the bed broke the suburban stillness at 2 a.m.—and I knew, before answering it, what my sister's tearful voice would tell me. You always know, in such cases. Dad had left us.

My sister had stayed behind at the hospital along with my mother, who insisted that I go home earlier that night; the snow had begun to fall in earnest, and my wife, back out on Long Island, had her hands full with our two school-age kids as well as our 10-month-old. We weren't sure how much longer Dad would hold out, anyway. The nurses said it could be several hours or several days. Mindful of the toll the death watch was taking on my poor mother, I remember asking the head nurse of the intensive-care unit, "So this could go on another week? Or more?"

She shook her head ever-so-subtly and smiled at me—one of those consoling ICU nurse-smiles that they must teach them in school, along with blood-pressure monitoring and intubation. Then she said, very softly, "Not a week. No. This won't go on another week."

I left my mother and sister at Dad's bedside, took the elevator down and walked out to where my car was parked, against a curb already piled high with two-day-old snow (filthy and unappealing as only two-day-old urban snow can be). I started the car and pulled away from the hospital that last time, and when the radio came on, Billy Joel's I Love You Just the Way You Are was playing. Though it's a song that was written for romance, it had special meaning to me, in that moment. My father loved me, his odd-duck son, just the way I was. I didn't know it then, but he would probably be the last person—the only one—ever to do so. (You folks who are kind enough to read this blog know me only from my words. Suffice it to say I've led an unusual, highly unorthodox life. Among other things, I have never, as an adult, maintained a close personal friendship with anyone. Those feelings, that sense of platonic intimacy, died with my father.)

I also remember how ridiculous he looked in the coffin: so trim and tan (with his olive skin, Dad always looked tan, even amid debilitating bouts of chemo), and with that full head of thick, jet-black hair that swept back from a striking widow's peak. That was the amazing thing: the hair. It had simply refused to fall out or even go gray, no matter what insults the batteries of surgeons and oncologists inflicted on my father's ravaged body. (That is one thing for which I will never forgive Brookdale Hospital: that they kept poking and prodding and cutting, long after Dad's fate was sealed. It's hard to think that they did it for any other reason except to pad the bill.) The funeral felt disorienting, almost comical, with my father looking healthier in death than half the people who'd come to pay their respects! You almost expected him to pop up at any moment, search me out among the crowd and yell, "Hey, son! Let's go hit some baseballs!"

My father was a good man. He did the right things for the right reasons, hewing to traditional notions of right and wrong as he understood them. Those notions are far murkier today, having been redefined (if not obliterated) by such open-minded, ego-stroking concepts as "personal growth," "codependency" and, of course, that old standby, "situational ethics." Many of us, myself included, would be better off, I think, had those redefinitions never occurred. In any case, ethics were not situational to Dad. Ethics were ethics. And my father lived a life of great self-sacrifice and self-denial (in more ways that I have room to recount on this blog) in order to live up to his standards in such areas.

That is why, when it came time to write a dedication for my book, I thought of my parents, but particularly my father, who set the tone for the way things ran at our house, and with whom I was always much closer. I wrote: "To Mom and Dad—and the other members of their generation who, thank God, were codependent enough to put their kids first."

I think I have been a disappointment to my father. My life has been too much about me; I know that. But Dad, if you're looking down today, I tried to puzzle through, doing the best I could with what I had. Maybe if you'd hung around a while longer, it might have made a difference.


RevRon's Rants said...

I don't know you well enough to judge, and may well be speaking out of my... well... you know. But it's all I've got, and it gets me by. So take it for what it's worth.

You and your dad were close, and from what you've said, I doubt that you were a disappointment to him in life. According to my beliefs, it would be highly unlikely that you would be a disappointment to him wherever he may now be, unencumbered by the illusions inherent in our human experience - including the illusion of the expectations we project upon each other.

My mother was a crusty old broad, opinionated as hell, and not hesitant in the least to share her opinions. And she was very judgmental, to boot. I felt her disapproval many times in my life, even as an adult. That we finally moved beyond the parent/child dynamic has been one of my greatest treasures. in my heart, I know that even those things about me that she would have condemned during her life, she put aside when she passed from this existence. Nowadays, I figure she looks at my "flaws" and shortcomings as little more than examples of the folly I use to nourish my own sense of shame. And I'd be willing to bet she just figuratively shakes her head, assuming I'll get past my BS eventually. I'd be further willing to bet that your dad shakes his head and chuckles at your folly, as well. He knows. Beyond the morality to which we cling in life; beyond the images we try to project upon ourselves and others. He knows. And I suspect he's not too worried about you, and probably wishes you'd quit worrying, as well. No need to wait until your own snowy night falls.


Tim said...

"Just The Way You Are" - my mum's favourite. (She died whan I was 23 - I'm now 51.)

One of dad's favourites' too. He's 89, and senile now. I played and sang it live for him on his 89th. He still remembered it. I could barely sing it, as I was tearing up.

Losing a parent when you're young is a tough one. To cancer (like my mum, and your dad), maybe even tougher.

Take care,

a/good/lysstener said...

This is not suffocating, Steve, but very touching. Like a lot of readers here, probably more than you give yourself credit for, I enjoy when you give us more of a glimpse of the personal side of your life. It's nice to know what makes people tick.

I had a friend who used to go around saying "the political is personal," which I guess was a slogan from early feminism. I think more the opposite, that "the personal is political." Everything that happens to us in life affects how we feel about things, so that even when we think we're making decisions unemotionally I'm not so sure we are. I think you've even talked about this on the blog.

Anyway I enjoyed this very much. It was "a good read" as my lit prof used to say.

Happy Birthday in Heaven to your father.

Anonymous said...

As one of your now-and-again critics, Steve, I think it's intersting that even this blog, supposedly in honor of your dad's birthday, is really "about you." Perhaps you reveal even more than you intended to? Still, it's nicely said.

Anonymous said...


Your dad sounds like the kind of man I'd respect - and, I'm sure, he'd be proud of you.


Mary Anne said...

Steve, be thankful you had your father for as long as you did. I lost my only real parent, my grandmother, when I was 16. I thank God every day that I had her though. I am sure your father is proud of you. If it is any consolation, at least your father was not Satan's brother like mine is.

Steve Salerno said...

Mary Anne, it saddens me to say that feedback like yours has not been unusual today. In fact, I have now heard from about as many people off-blog (with horror stories about their fathers) as on-blog. They say they wrote me off-blog because they didn't want to rain on my parade, or ruin the mood of such a sentimental post--but they wanted to "get it on the record," as one writer put it, that I should be "damn grateful" I had a parenting experience I can look back on with ANY degree of fondness. One emailer reported being "relieved and happy" when she heard that her estranged father had died. She provided no details other than that, but one can imagine....

I'm reminded, also, of when I was in college, and on the long bus rides home from football games, the guys on the team would swap stories about their "dysfunctional" home-lives. (No one actually used the word in quotes till much later, but all of the earmarks were there.) I literally had nothing to contribute to such discussions. Eventually I would reflect on those days and think, "Hell, I must've been the last kid in America with a FUNCTIONAL family."

Who knows... Even as odd a life as I've lived in many respects, maybe that's why I never felt the need to turn to self-help--while so many others did.

Matt Dick said...

Glad you shared, Steve.