My father only asked me to do two things in all the years that I knew him. I couldn’t do either. And then he died.
My brother seems to have had a completely different childhood from mine as a result of having been born five years earlier. He has numerous memories of our father and an extensive recall of my parents together. For instance, my brother went with both our parents to the 1964 World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows, Queens. My brother would always recount with joy the giant flume ride, which so soaked his clothes that our mother forced him to wear her slinky sequined black cardigan with the fur collar so he wouldn’t get sick. Another World’s Fair memory was my brother’s story about how the Beatles were rumored to be arriving for a surprise on-site concert, and how he, along with our parents, chased that rumor all over the fairgrounds until it was eventually revealed to be a hoax.
Beside the World’s Fair, my brother remembers being taken to tennis lessons in Central Park by my father and mother: the two of them walking a towheaded seven-year-old dressed entirely in white down sun-speckled, tree-lined paths bordering giant fields of grass en route to a happy event.
Knowing my parents as I do, through the kaleidoscope of my own formative years, I can never entirely fathom these fairy-tale scenarios. My brother even claims to remember our parents taking him down into Grand Central Station to board him on the train to summer camp. He says this happened a few years in a row. This particular image of my mother and father, in the same bustling public space, engaged in the unified act of seeing off their child for the summer, always simultaneously amazes and confuses me. It is like a slightly out-of-focus Super 8 reel of a family other than my own.
I was seven when my father moved out of our apartment. I have very few memories of him before that, but the ones I do have, of the pocketful of times my parents were actually together, all carry precursors of the acrimonious divorce that was to follow. I was raised by a single mother. I experienced my father from the passenger seat of cars on weekends and over countless restaurant tables throughout years.
Before my parents split up, there was a recurrent whispered argument between them. Through the closed doors in our apartment, I would listen and piece together the notion of another child, a boy my father wanted to adopt. This boy was an orphan who needed a home, and my father campaigned hard to bring him into our family. My heart nearly exploded with the possibility of this younger sibling coming into my life. He would surely bring a vital energy into our otherwise dying domicile. This would miraculously transform our family into the one I had sensed was possible from the stories I heard my brother tell. We would become a real embodiment of the legends implanted in my memory—the ones I had, so far, missed experiencing firsthand.
My mother was adamantly against adopting the orphan. That was the final decision. I heard it while I was hiding in one of my usual spots, the hallway corner on the other side of my parents’ locked bedroom door. A massive anvil-like weight entered my body when I overheard this news, and it was hard to persuade my legs to transport me back to my bedroom. My mother’s decree was pure, heartless rejection, and, yet, it didn’t surprise me. I knew my mother well by this point; she wouldn’t allow the puppy I had endlessly pleaded for, or even a kitten. It seemed completely in character for her not to welcome a baby.
In my teens, I would learn that the baby my father wanted my mother to adopt had been his child. He’d had an ongoing affair with our chauffeur’s sister, who was Puerto Rican. My father had told my mother that the child was an orphan from Mexico to explain the child’s Latino looks and throw her off an obvious track. But my mother found out that the baby had been delivered at Lenox Hill Hospital, just as my brother and I had been, and she easily pieced together the truth. The child wouldn’t be welcome in our family, and shortly thereafter, my father wasn’t, either.
My father went on to have three more children with the chauffeur’s sister. They all lived in a large house in a part of Long Island called Saddle Rock. I wasn’t told about them or the house. On the rare occasions, after my parents first divorced, when my brother and I would visit what I was told was my father’s “home,” we would go to a small apartment that he kept near his actual house. There were no signs of anyone else in this apartment, which made sense, as I knew my father lived alone.
For most of my childhood, and then slightly beyond, my father raised this parallel family, and I knew nothing about them. There would be strange clues, such as the sleds and bicycles I’d outgrown that my father took for some “kids he knew,” which, he said, “would fit them perfectly.” Occasionally, but not often enough, I wondered what kids my father could possibly know, and if he knew other kids, how come my brother and I never met them?
One fall Sunday when I was fourteen and my brother was away at college, my father drove me, without explanation or preparation of any sort, to his Saddle Rock house. It was large, like the pictures of houses I looked at in the back of The New York Times Magazine. And it had a terrific grassy backyard leading directly out to water. There were no other people there, and at first I didn’t understand where we were.
“Look around,” my father instructed me, so I did.
I wasn’t experienced at exploring houses. I was a New York City apartment kid and took in spaces linearly and on a much smaller scale. But, little by little, I visually absorbed what I knew to be my father’s possessions in each of the rooms. I smelled his Vitalis aftershave and Cuban cigar smoke woven throughout the fabric and furniture. I saw a Magic Marker picture I had drawn years before of a house with a yard and a tire swing hanging from a tree, framed and hung on a wall in the den (I had always wanted a den). I paused, confused, at pictures on a fireplace mantle (I had always dreamed of having a fireplace) of me and my brother, framed, amid other framed pictures of other children. Oddly, I was most struck by two large, shiny metal dog bowls on the floor in the kitchen. I asked why there were two—were there two dogs? I somehow could not imagine anyone having two dogs. My father explained that one bowl was for water and the other was for food. A large dog lived here with my father, his common-law wife, and my half-siblings—though it never occurred to me at the time that that would be what the woman and kids in the house would officially be called.
My father had always known that I desperately wanted a dog. I felt a sharp pang of betrayal, and I thought this feeling was about the dog. We left the house through the garage door and immediately transitioned into one of our usual visits—a familiar silent drive to a restaurant, followed by our typical meal with absolutely no conversation—so quickly as to make me question, the next day at school, whether what I had experienced was in fact real, rather than imagined.
While I was away at college, my father visited me once. It was during my freshman year. He drove down and we had dinner at the only upscale local restaurant I knew. Over our otherwise silent meal, my father asked me, now that I was no longer officially living under my mother’s roof, to accept his parallel family and see them as my own. He wanted me to visit regularly, to get to know my younger “brothers and sisters” and become part of this large established group. I asked about the dog. Apparently he had died of cancer some years before. I didn’t know until then that animals could get cancer. I said I wouldn’t be joining my father’s parallel family or even visiting them.
Two years later, I graduated from college a year early. My father attended the graduation, arriving sometime during the ceremony. He said a brief hello to me sometime between when I pulled my white satin graduation gown back over my head, to reveal my under-layer of blue jeans and a black T-shirt, and when I stood in a long, hot line to return it.
During the few months after my graduation, I spoke to him a couple of times on the phone—and then not at all for the next fifteen years. Each time, he reiterated his desire to have me accept and join his parallel family, and each time I turned him down. I should mention, perhaps, that my father didn’t refer to them as my “parallel family”—that was my silent nomenclature. He simply no longer wanted a relationship with me without the integration he was seeking. I no longer wanted one with him under any circumstances. I knew that not enough had been built between us to sustain a semblance of kinship. People always treat the severing of familial ties as the result of something that must have been so much bigger, but in truth, it was the result of something that was so much smaller.
Around fifteen years after this mutually imposed silence, I contacted my father because I had a two-year-old son. I thought Arthur should be able to say he had met and known his grandfather. We met a handful of times over the next few years before my father was diagnosed as terminally ill. During these occasions, Arthur and I would see my father in the apartment he now lived in with Barbara, the woman who would become his last partner in life. I learned that after my father and the woman with whom he had created the parallel family had split up, he had married another woman who had subsequently died. After this, my father met Barbara.
Barbara was lovely to my father, me, my son, her parents, her daughter, and, it seemed, to everyone who ever came in contact with her. And she was a profoundly transformative force for my father. While he retained some elements of the man I grew up knowing, with Barbara my father became open, genuine, and communicative. This updated version of my father was strange for me to see and hard for me to process.
Given our lifetime of estrangement, I saw my father for a remarkable amount of time during his final few weeks on earth. When Barbara called to say they were changing out his blood and I should visit him in the hospital, I did. With oxygen puffing into his lips and hoses transporting fluid into and out of his body, my father dispensed more conversation in my direction than he had mustered over a thousand restaurant meals. A couple of weeks later, at Barbara’s invitation, I went to their apartment for dinner on the night he would eventually die. I brought Arthur with me to see his grandfather and have what I knew would be his last memory of him.
After dinner, Barbara played with Arthur in the living room, and I hung out in the bedroom on a chair a few feet from my father’s bed. I had never seen a dying person. And I had never seen or imagined my father like this—limp, thinned, weakened, ancient, defeated. I didn’t have a lot to say to him—I never really had—and not enough had transpired between us to effect a complete metamorphosis.
There are a few weird things about me. One of them has always been my family. Another one is that, without any effort, I remember obscure facts. I can still recall lyrics from 1970s TV shows—and not just the ones I liked, such as The Courtship of Eddie’s Father or The Partridge Family—but ones I didn’t like, as well. As a result, the theme from F Troop is firmly lodged in my temporal lobe, right next to the preamble to the US Constitution, the starting offensive line of the 1969 Jets, the hometown of a girl from camp I wasn’t friends with, the name of someone my mother had exactly one date with, and the shoe width of the man who tuned our piano when I was growing up (I’m not exaggerating—it was a D).
One of the countless obscure facts I have stored is my father’s favorite meal as a young boy. He never spoke of it, but I had overheard my grandmother mention it once when I was about six: a tongue sandwich on rye with a vanilla milkshake. I had carried this with me, in my virtual vault of meaningless minutia, never summoning it to the surface until that moment. Since I didn’t know what else to say to my dying dad, or what to offer or do for him, I asked him if he’d like me to go get him a tongue sandwich on rye with a vanilla milkshake. He smiled and was clearly surprised to have that imagery conjured, particularly by me. He declined and told me what he really did want. There was a bottle of pills on the top shelf of the medicine chest in the bathroom. He was too weak to get up unassisted—would I get them for him?
I went into the bathroom and identified what he was referring to. I realized these weren’t pills connected to his current condition but sleeping pills, prescribed over a year earlier.
“Dad, I get it, you want to die right now—I understand, let me get Barbara,” I said, as I got up to fetch his compassionate, endlessly giving partner, who, I assumed, would honor his wish to end his misery.
“No! Don’t ask her—just give me the bottle—she won’t give them to me!” he whispered.
I couldn’t do it. Not because I didn’t condone assisted suicide. And not because I thought his death was not imminent. And not because I believed it was up to god or nature as to when a life ends. It was just that my father didn’t really belong to me, just as during my childhood, I had never really belonged to him. He was Barbara’s, and if for whatever reason she had denied him control over his own death, it was not my place to overrule her decision. My father died a few hours later, after Arthur and I had left the apartment, in the middle of that same night.
My father only asked me to do two things in all the years that I knew him. I couldn’t do either. And then he died.