Wednesday, October 10, 2012

It's in The Basement

I'm an unabashed fan of the Rocky movies.* I always have been. In fact, one of my go-to cocktail party stories the last few years is the true story of how I was cast as an extra in the last Rocky film, and missed out on the opportunity because I didn't lie to my then-boss. In that movie, Rocky gets back into boxing because of what he describes as some "stuff in the basement." Enduring grief from a life event that he hasn't finished processing or getting out of his system. I can relate.

Most of the time, my dad's absence is a nagging fact I simply live with. I know he's gone, but as I move through each day, meeting my various obligations and challenges, it's not something that slows me down. But every so often I get the feeling that I have my own stuff in the basement. This week it all came roaring back. Twice.

Friday night I had some too rare one-on-one time with my kindergartner, our middle child. We went to the movies and had a great time. We were laughing all the way home in the car until out of nowhere he told me about a dream he had had a few times, where my dad is talking to him, but then he disappears and won't come back no matter how much my son asks him to. He told me he cries in the dream. In seconds he was crying hard.

Every parent sees their kids cry all the time in the early years. It's a routine event. But seeing your child cry from real, unsolvable grief is totally different, and it hit me viscerally. I tried to take his pain away, to comfort him any way I could think of, but he was really too sad to reach, and naturally his grief brought up my own feelings of loss that had long been sitting in the basement. The hardest part was knowing that the best I'd be able to do would be to help my son deal with the grief, because there would be no way to remove its cause.

As part of being Grandma, my mom has a second role for my kids as their connection to my dad. Every once in a while when my older two, who actually knew him, feel sad about his absence, talking to her has made them feel better. Thankfully that worked late last Friday, too. But before we got on the phone, I let slip a secret that I hoped would calm things down, and instead brought us all a second bout of sadness a couple of nights later.

I told my son about a special story book my dad recorded his voice over about a month before he died. By that time the writing was on the wall and my wife wanted my daughter, who at the time was only ten weeks old, to have some lasting piece of my dad. She knew the two might meet only once, and she had the foresight and the heart to buy the recordable book and ask him to read it, so my daughter would at least have that. Recording that book with my dad as he lay in bed wearing an oxygen tube in his nose, less than two weeks before the shit completely hit the fan, was a gut-wrenching experience. It was clear to us both that he wasn't doing it just because we lived in different states, and we wanted our baby to have his voice between visits.

When we got back from that visit I stashed the recorded book in a hiding place, and for the next two and a half years I felt like a character in an Edgar Allen Poe story. I was always painfully aware of where the book was. I could sense the damn thing when I got near it. Once when I was alone in my house I allowed myself to take it out and listen. Mistake. After a few minutes it was hidden again. That was at least a year ago. One thing my middle guy has in reserve is enough perseverance to nearly always get what he's after. I hoped he would forget about the book, but once he knew about it, he HAD to hear it. By Monday night I caved.

I tried to explain to the princess what she was about to hear, but being two and a half, she didn't process it, and continued happily playing. I tried harder to prepare my boys for the feeling of hearing Papa's voice again. I tried hardest to steel myself, because though I know it's OK to cry in front of them (according to one grief counselor anyway), it would be really unsettling for them to see me in that state. I didn't want to upset them more than necessary. It went about as well as I thought it would. Within a couple of pages we were all in tears, and only Mr. Middle wanted to go on, which I allowed. It was not only tough hearing his voice, but it was tough hearing just how sick he really was by then. His voice is weak and his breathing is labored. It is also clear how unbearably sad he was as he spoke to his only granddaughter - a precious baby whom he knew he wouldn't see grow up. It also conjured for me a flashback to that room, that visit, which was not my last time with my dad, but was the last time I'd see him in his own home, under his own power.

The book is safely put away in a new hiding place for a while. When my daughter is old enough to understand but still young enough to appreciate having a story read to her, I intend to try again. But for the moment, it is still too hard to listen to it. Though I can't rule out one of her brothers asking for the book again and maybe again after that. I would let him, but it would be difficult. When he gets thinking about it, the poor boy really misses his Papa.

The farther into the past my dad's death, and particularly his end-stage illness, recedes, the more I come to understand that grief of this magnitude ebbs and flows. Sometimes when I haven't felt it for a while, I wonder if I am an insensitive robot who can't love people. Then I tell myself I'm growing past a traumatic experience, and nobody could bear a constantly high level of grief. The past few days showed me I'm not a robot, I'm just grieving at my own pace. And so are my children.

To bring this back to Rocky, it turns out that Bill Conti, the composer of the unforgettable "Gonna Fly Now" was a high school classmate of my dad's. I don't know if he knew this, and we never once talked about it, but it's true.  If you stuck with me through this long post, here is a nice video clip I hope you like.

*Except for Rocky V, which never happened.

Friday, June 15, 2012

A Dad in Full

When my dad died two years ago (two years ago!) one of the things that gave me solace was that my sister and I were fully formed by the end of his life. Families, careers, communities, plans. We were established. By living to see his children into their 30s and with families of our own, my dad had in some sense "made it." He left behind five grandchildren, and it seems likely that that's how many there will be. So he saw an accurate glimpse of the future of his family.

Of course, that's complete crap, and lately I see that we're all growing and changing in ways I hadn't anticipated. There are whole lifetimes unfolding in which my dad would have been a major player had things been different. But it wasn't until the past few weeks that the fallacy of his seeing something to completion really dawned on me. I realized recently that I've entered some new phase of fatherhood- and adulthood- and I am only just figuring out what's happening and where we go from here.

My children are still quite young at two, five, and eight. Parenting the younger two consists mostly of doing the same things my wife and I have been doing ever since we became parents, but the oldest one is growing into a new phase of life. He is finishing second grade next week, which I realize still makes him closer to babyhood than adolescence, but he is old enough to have had some real life experiences and lessons now. Old enough to have felt real disappointment and real triumph. Old enough to dream about his future beyond the standard firefighter or baseball player dreams. He has what count now as "old friends." He has in some ways become a member of our tight-knit community independent of his family. His security still derives from Mom and Dad (he dropped the Y months ago), but he also has his own identity.

As he changes, what he needs from us is changing, and we're following him into a new and bigger universe of people and possibilities. In time the same thing will happen with the younger kids, too.

I now know that I was not fully formed when I lost my dad, I was just really steeped in a particular phase of life and had yet to move into the next one. In fact, ten or fifteen years from now I also won't be fully formed. There is more to figure out, more to accomplish, and certainly more my kids will need me to be.

Even at the end of his life, my dad also wasn't finished growing as a person. Perhaps nobody ever truly is. And now that I see how much more is ahead of me, I sure would have wanted to benefit from the wisdom of his experience. It isn't just that I miss him, it's that sometimes even a grown man with a family, career, community, and plans, could use some advice or encouragement from his old man. On Fathers Day this Sunday, love your dad and thank him, but also love your kids and thank them for needing you to evolve. And never stop evolving.

Friday, November 4, 2011


The last week of his life, I spent just about every minute at my dad's side. I'm still struggling to process the rapidity of the decline. We're talking barely more than a week. Much of the time, especially when we were alone, I stared at his face, his hands, his shoulders, his feet. I was trying to keep what I could forever, knowing that these features would soon be gone from my sight. His essential personhood was literally draining away, and I needed to be with as much of my dad as was still available to me, knowing I would have to make it last the rest of my own life.

I remember mentioning this to someone - my wife maybe, a friend maybe, I'm not sure anymore - and he or she asked why I would want to devote my energy to remembering the last days, of all things. I couldn't put it together at the time, but it makes sense now. I wasn't concentrating on remembering those last days. I was taking what I had left and using it to try and gather in all the good memories and good feelings from all the time long past. Time that now felt squandered, because it had become extremely limited. I didn't see how withered and pale his features had become. To me, they represented what he had been in his prime.

Years ago I had a temp at my office who was studying to go into a real estate career. His fascination was with its finite supply. Never mind that at the time there were huge piles of cash in real estate. He told me again and again that the thing that interested him in real estate was that, "They aren't making any more of it." I think that's debatable, but it helps explain why it was so important to me that last week to take in every contour of what my dad looked like.

Of course, in terms of genetics, they did make more of my dad. They made me. We all get older and examine our behavior, and many of us recoil in mock-terror when we see that we're acting like our parents once did. Some of us see their faces in the mirror. Whole careers in entertainment have been built on this. Myself, I see little reminders all over the place. My hands are my dad's. My knees. My unfortunate belly. The tone of my voice sometimes. My habits, good and bad. My inclinations and attitudes, again, the good and the bad. A lot of small things, too.

I wish I believed in some form of afterlife, but I really don't. I sincerely crave the comfort so many people get from trusting that we'll all be together again somewhere, somehow. I'm just not wired for that kind of faith. But absent the hope of spending time with my dad again - a hope I assume I would have to nurture for decades - I can take a little comfort in feeling like he is with me all the time. He's baked right in. As he went through his sixties, naturally he started looking much more like my grandpa. As I make my way through my thirties, I am definitely looking more like my dad when he was my age. George Clooney and Brad Pitt are probably reading this and shitting themselves.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Unfinished Business

In the scheme of things, this bit of unfinished business is more like an itch that was never satisfactorily scratched. We all leave much bigger things undone, but this frustration is nonetheless quite real.

Older readers will remember that magical time before video on-demand, Netflix, and even DVDs, when VCRs were first becoming available. My parents, I'm sure driven my my dad being ever the early adapter in all things technology, brought home our first VCR in the late 1970s. My mom told me that a single recordable blank VHS tape cost about $30 at the time. Think about that. And of course, Blockbuster didn't exist yet.

My parents went out one night and left the new machine (a version of which we've seen at the Smithsonian, by the way) recording an old Frank Sinatra movie called The Man With the Golden Arm, not to be confused with a similarly titled James Bond movie. When they went to watch it, the ending had been cut off for some reason. For a lot of my childhood, the elusive ending of this movie was a sort of cultural holy grail for my parents. Silly, yes, and they acknowledged as much. But it was a tiny enduring frustration that they never knew how it ended.

In the last few weeks of my dad's life, I was both grasping for anything at all that might give him more time, and I was trying to help make what I knew must be his last weeks and days better somehow for him and for myself. One of my favorite things about living in this time is the on-demand nature of just about everything. I am old enough to remember the small thrill of catching a favorite movie on TV, when that was my only shot at seeing it, or lying in wait with my tape recorder for a particular song to be played on the radio. Now we can pull most anything seemingly out of thin air. So in those last weeks I tried to order my dad a DVD of The Man With the Golden Arm. And when I told my wife about this ultimately futile effort to close out a tiny thing for my dad, she reminded me that I actually bought my parents the DVD years before. Wait for it...

The version I got them had an alternate ending! Crap-o-rama.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

On the Other Side

My dad isn't sick. He's not dying. He didn't die last week or month or even this past summer. When I went to the Yizkor service for him on Yom Kippur, it wasn't the first time. My father's illness and death and excruciating absence are facts of life. They are as much a part of my family's daily life as the fact that my daughter has blonde hair. It's just something we all know.

There is a sort of peace in that. I still miss him, and I still wonder whether we could have wrung out any more quality time together, or made better use of the time we did have. But in the main, I am no longer shocked when it dawns on me from time to time that my dad is gone.

I am reaching a point where I recall things about him and can just enjoy a memory without all the weight of having to relive the last few months of his life. That feels like progress.

Monday, August 8, 2011


I'm not sure the cause, but I haven't been able to write a complete post for weeks. Maybe it has to do with my actually having passed a year of living dadlessly.

Over the month-plus since my post on the first anniversary of losing my dad, I have started posts on the terrifying possibility that my kids will turn into their parents (their father, especially), on avoiding trite memorials, on my opinion that I am starting to physically approximate my dad even more than before as I age, and on the nagging feeling that somehow poor quality hospice care and I contributed to a shortening of quality time during my dad's last days. Yet I haven't been able to finish any of these.

I will chalk it up to the season. Summer is exceedingly busy for my family, packed as it is with non-stop activity. I used to actually think the dog days were boring: bad TV, little to no big news stories (substantive ones, anyway), not a lot going on. But the last few years we have been on a tear. Shore trips most every weekend, baseball games, kids at camp, having a toddler tearing through our household again. These things make summer a highly enjoyable blur.

This blog exists because it helps me feel close to my father. Even without explicitly mentioning him, having so much fun with my kids helps in the same way. And the thing about grief is, the feeling may come and go, but the condition is permanent. My dad is gone. He will always be gone. I will always feel that absence, and the grief will be right where I left it once all the summer fun gives way to the school year. No need to spoil a good time. Dad wouldn't want me to.

Friday, July 15, 2011


Tonight is my dad's first yahrtzeit - the anniversary of his death on the Hebrew calendar. Having already marked the anniversary three weeks ago, and given my policy of not allowing arbitrary numbers to drive my grief, there wasn't much to feel or do. I dutifully lit a candle that will burn for more than 24 hours, and moved on. Sort of.