[photo by H.G. Reifsnyder]
I don’t have a lot of pictures of my father. This one was taken over three decades ago by an old BF who, years after my father died, thought I might like to have it. My dad died in January 1994, a quarter century ago now, and while it’s true, time does heal all wounds, it doesn’t remove the scars that build up over them.
I don’t think about my dad every day the way I did when the wound was fresh, nor have I ever been to those same depressive depths that I experienced in the year following his death, a depression so deep you couldn’t find me with a periscope. Those were the dark days, the lost weeks, the months when every thought brought more sadness than I could assimilate and just breathing hurt. It took me the better part of two years to shake the pain. Sometime after surfacing, I wrote the piece that follows.
Oh, the hours my father and I would sit at the kitchen table and talk and snack and drink Greek coffee and smoke cigarettes (a habit I gave up long ago, thankfully).
“Come shoot the shit with me,” he’d say, and hours later we’d still be talking, my mom long gone, off to watch a television show or something. How I long for even one of those hours with him, a bit of time to unload some of the troubles of the day, to have his ever attentive ear and always excellent advice. Someday again, I’m sure, but for now, I’ll have to make due with my memories.
Happy Father’s Day, Dad. Hope you’re having a nice coffee somewhere, and that you finally quit the cigs.
It was Christmas and my father was dying. Not by degrees, as he had been doing since his operation to remove the cancer that had taken over his once healthy esophagus, but quickly and inexorably like Genghis Khan, invading Eurasia, decimating the local population. Years of cigarette smoking had finally grabbed my father by the throat. Now, one operation, two years, and some fifty pounds lighter, he’d stopped eating.
December 28 — Gus’s birthday. I met my parents at one of their favorite restaurants, an Italian place halfway between their home and mine. My father insisted we go despite a lack of appetite. He knew what he was doing, taking my mother out one last time, his birthday his excuse. Gus ordered shrimp and ate a single one. No linguine, no broccoli rabe, no crusty bread. Just one lousy shrimp, cut up into smaller than bite-sized pieces, and even then it looked hard going down.
The next day my mother reported my father had almost driven off the road going home. He’d fallen asleep. I wasn’t surprised given that the breadth of his diet of late would leave a Yogi lightheaded. My father had never fallen asleep at the wheel. He was a salesman and drove for a living, shuttling cigarettes from news agencies to grocery stores and beyond, wherever his wares were in demand. Never mind he was working; his car gave him wings. Every day, he’d have lunch with a different client, swapping jokes and stories. It wasn’t the job he should have had, what with his quick, analytical mind and steel-trap memory for historical facts and figures. He should have been a lawyer, but he was born to Greek immigrant parents who’d fled to the U.S. to escape Turkish persecution and they had their hands full assimilating.
Now he could neither eat nor drive. The fluffy blanket of life that had enveloped him for sixty years had become flat and threadbare.
A couple days after the driving incident I went to my parents’ house. My father had been under self-imposed house arrest since his birthday. He was not eating, barely drinking, certainly not driving. He was a shell of his post-operation self which had been a shell of his former life-embracing self. Like a mirror reflecting back an image onto another mirror and then another, the image bouncing on and on into infinity, he was growing smaller and smaller without ever actually disappearing.
My mother was her typical strong, stoic self. Instead of crying, she swept: the kitchen floor, the bathroom floor, the living room, the porch, the driveway, wherever you could take a broom or vacuum. Sweeping grounded her, kept her tethered to an earth that would soon be devoid of her husband of thirty years. Sweeping was her medication, her chocolate, her daytime soap opera.
In a show of solidarity, I would have liked to sweep too, but I hated sweeping. I dealt with difficulty better while in motion: I walked the dog; I ran errands; I drove back and forth between our residences about a million times. Keep moving was my mantra.
So off I was about to go on some very important errand when my dad announced he wanted to go with me. Me as the driver; he as the passenger. I was at that moment in life when the parent and child roles reversed either through infirmary, dementia or some random insidious disease on the seemingly endless list of modern medical disasters that may afflict our parents. How many times had I ridden shotgun with my father when he ran the Saturday morning errands to the bank, the bakery, the gas station? Too many to count.
“Last ride in the van,” he said as he struggled to climb in despite my ready assistance. The lump in my throat had all the properties of cement block.
Before he got sick and for as long as I can remember, my father loved the horses. He and my mother would go to the racetrack many a Saturday night. My mother went because she loved my father, but my father, he was addicted. Sometimes he would drive midweek by himself all the way to the track just to place a bet, drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes, listening to talk radio the whole way. In a perfect world, he would have been a professional handicapper – someone who picked winning horses for a living. It involved skill and addiction to risk, two things he possessed in great quantities, but there’s really no job security in handicapping, and then there was us, his family. So he sold cigarettes which paid the mortgage and sent us to college — it just didn’t make him happy. He was the most joyous and most despondent man I knew, possessed of more character in any given minute than some accrued over a lifetime. He was both vice and virtue – a self-contained yin and yang – a pure divine spark of God’s light and dark.
Now he was close to dying – my rock, my strength and all those things dads are supposed to be. I was a sensitive, self-critical child. My dad had talked me off the proverbial ledge more times than I’d care to admit. Surely every father does this for his child? Ah, but I knew better. Few men had the wit, the intellect and dead-on observational qualities of my father. He could read people like they came with instructions, a quality I unfortunately did not inherit. He could also hold a grudge like nobody’s business, but I digress.
Now he was leaving. If I felt like throwing up, imagine how my mother felt?
It was a testament to his strength that he lasted two more weeks without food and only a few sips of water now and again. Unable to sleep, he’d wander the house like a ghost, catching cat naps in his living room chair when he got tired. I’d keep watch on the couch while my father sat in his armchair. By morning, he’d be watching me sleep. Even in dying, the strength he exhibited was remarkable.
“You’ll always be a giant in my eyes,” I whispered.
In response, he teared up, pretty un-giant-like by men’s standards, but proving my point. Gussie was unlike most men. He embraced the entire range of his emotions with the verve of one who knows just how satisfying a good belly laugh, a good cry, and all the space in between could be. So while his body disintegrated, his mind shouldered on and in those last weeks he spoke with almost everyone who loved him and more importantly, made amends with everyone he’d ever disagreed with over the years, asking pardon for his part in the disintegration of those friendships. In the end he had created his own absolution, needing no priest to do it for him.
That last night he laid down for the first time in the hospital bed we’d rented a few weeks earlier. We had put the bed in my room so I slept there next to him in my childhood bed, listening to him breathe. At 4:30 A.M. I woke up, knowing something was about to happen. I clearly heard a voice, maybe my own Higher voice, say, “If you turn around now you can watch him leave.” I froze in terror unable to move. How long I stayed that way I don’t know. When I awoke a couple hours later, my father’s body was cold, his spirit gone. Perhaps it would have been too much for me, watching him go.
We sprinkled his ashes across the finish line at the racetrack which is what he wanted. Gussie had a friend who had a friend who got us into the track a few hours before it even opened. I stood there, dead center of the finish line, and tipped the plastic bag, meaning to sprinkle the ashes from end to end. Gussie had other plans.
The wind picked up and ashes swirled everywhere: on my clothes, in my hair, even up my nose, giving me one final kiss before another sudden wind change scattered them in a billion purposeful directions. This time I did see him go.
I often wonder if the horses who ran that night felt his spirit there, cheering them on as they thundered across that finish line. I know I still do.
pam lazos 6.16.19