I recall my shock, not having seen my father for a few months, when I spotted him waiting for me in a small crowd by the gate at Ft. Lauderdale airport. It was nighttime. He was there by himself, my mother was back at the apartment, reading a murder mystery or watching one on TV, perhaps assembling a puzzle on the dining room table. A tall, heavy man throughout his life, my father appeared shrunken, weak, attenuated. His skin, under the florescent lights, was a pale greyish color. Seeing me he lifted a hand and gave a tenuous half-smile.
His hair was white, as it had been for a while, but his aura, something I’d never believed in, was undeniably sickened. An air of death surrounded him, like an outline drawn around him in a unhealthy color. His approaching death was palpable, I could see it clearly there among the families happily greeting their members from up north. It was as though our long, senseless war had taken its final toll, was draining his blood and the last of his life force. He was fading before my eyes.
My father was, it must be said, in a word he often used of others, a prick. He was also heartbroken and hopelessly frustrated by the time my sister and I were adolescents. He had all the tools to be a great friend, and he’d had close friends throughout his life who roared at his dark quips, pondered his insights, but as far as his children, he was all thumbs. My sister and I couldn’t help but take it personally, the blame, the sudden, towering anger, the abuse. Still, he saw himself as first and foremost intellectually honest and this led me to believe there was some case I could make to show him the folly of his ways. My belief was naive. No case would be heard until the very last night of his life, and it was a case he made against himself, me saying only what was necessary to console a person dying with painful regrets.
I will never forget the sight of him at Ft. Lauderdale airport that night, three years before his death from undiagnosed liver cancer, faded, weak looking, wearing his mortality heavily. He was a dead man walking, in the evocative cliché, though the hematologist, endocrinologist and cardiologist he saw regularly had no clue about what might be ailing him. The ER doctor knew at once, my sister read it in his face before the doctor could give her the bad news. Our father was shrunken and jaundiced, suddenly unable to move, and the doctor palpated the inflated drum of the patient’s stomach. He tapped it and shook his head almost imperceptibly. We learned the word “ascites” — the fluid that builds up in the abdominal cavity, in this case due to liver failure. That fluid, the color of death itself, drained steadily into a large bag attached to his hospital bed. Six days later I would be closing my father’s dead eyes.
I don’t recall the car ride back to Coconut Creek that night two or three years earlier, a drive of about 25 minutes from Ft. Lauderdale airport. My father and I no doubt shot the shit somehow, both of us were fairly adept at making conversation, no matter how meaningless. I suspect the unrelieved tension between my father and his only son was one reason my mother had decided not to accompany him to pick me up, to give us time alone to talk. That and her basic laziness about things like changing back out of her housecoat once she’d put it on for the evening. We drove north on I-95, or, more likely, the Florida Turnpike.
Such drives were exhausting for both of us. My father needed to prevail, he would do whatever it took to remain indomitable. Most of the time we both tiptoed around the explosives at our feet. At this point in my life I was an adult, almost at the age when the mail from AARP begins to arrive, and it was clear my father would never listen to reason about certain subjects. This knowledge made the air between us heavy. Still, I had one last idea, would make one last try to get through to him. I didn’t feel hopeful about it in the least, but something urged me on.
I’m thinking this visit must have been a few months after the terrorist attacks of 9/11/01, since, in the days after that I finished a long letter to my parents attempting to put some things on the table between us. The discussion of this letter, during that visit, would be my last attempt at reconciliation, my father made sure of that. I’d been a lawyer for two years and was still scrambling for work, feeling very reluctant to practice the mostly futile art of making arguments for a living. My ambivalence toward the law was hard to conceal when I spoke to potential employers. I’d had an interview with a group of amoral lawyers from China scheduled for the bright blue early afternoon of 9/11/01, but their office, in tower two of the World Trade Center, was blown up a few hours before our meeting. A few weeks later I took partner Chris, my contact in that firm, to lunch in Little Italy. He insisted on sitting at a table outside, in that persistent smell of burnt bodies and toxic chemicals, and I remember he ordered, and consumed, two full meals, though he was a thin man.
I wrote to my parents in a mood of agitated despair. I’d borrowed a huge sum of money to pay for law school. The sum I borrowed, doubled with interest over the life of the loan, was more than what I would ever earn as a lawyer. Partly my own fault, because over the course of the misadventure that was my legal career, I’d mishandled, for purely personal reasons, the two cases that should have netted me large sums. Banking those sums might have partly changed my view of the profession. I was unable to divorce personal repugnance for a particular client from my need to make a living.
The fees I should have earned on those two cases would have allowed me to pay off my student loans and choose a life more suitable to my personality. I didn’t have the stomach to persevere on either case, finding both clients despicable. I persisted unhappily in a distasteful career I’d undertaken mostly to try to please a father who nothing could have pleased.
My mother years later reported someone had called me “the dumbest lawyer in New York” though the remark was made after she’d done the exact opposite of what her son the lawyer had advised, and urged, her to do. As far as doing whatever it took to make more than a subsistence living as an officer of the court with a license to print money, I was dumber than dumb.
Ironically, the idealism that made it hard for me to argue on behalf of the guilty, the unlikeable or the powerful (not that the latter have any use for a late in life lawyer with a public education) came directly from my father. He wanted something better for me than he had, he wanted me to be happy. The miserable man once explicitly told me that, in a discussion of whether I should go to law school or continue trying to be an “artist”. There are endless layers of irony in my father’s wish for my happiness, laid heavily one upon another, but that was his true wish, in his heart of hearts, his broken heart of broken hearts.
There is birth, there is life, and there is death, that much we all find out. As for happiness and misery, both of which appear in the course of every life, happiness turns out to be a delicate art that can’t be mastered without a loving community, a cheerful mentor or wise partners. Contentment, joy, happiness were not things my father had any handle on, even though he could be hilarious. It took detective work on my part, but in the end, toward the end of his life, I understood the reasons for my father’s essential misery. Still, my father was actually, almost to the end, an idealist.
He once told me a story that made a deep impression on me. A skinny stray dog was out looking for food when he was approached by a well-fed, well-groomed dog who asked him what was the matter.
The stray reported that he hadn’t eaten in several days and was feeling like shit.
“I have humans who give me as much food as I want,” said the second dog, “I can get you a meal in five minutes, I live right around the corner. Come on.”
As they trotted off the stray dog noticed some fur rubbed away around the neck of the other dog. He slowed down to ask what was up with that skin disease.
“Oh, that’s nothing,” said the dog, “that’s just from the collar that goes with the leash, it’s nothing.”
“The collar? the leash?” asked the stray, slowing down some more “what the hell is the collar and the leash?”
The other dog explained that he had a leather restraint around his neck, connected to a leash that was chained to a stake on the front lawn for much of the day, to protect the home of his masters when they were at work.
“Your masters?” said the stray dog, stopping. The other dog urged him on to dinner, but the stray turned around and trotted off to his life of precarious, difficult freedom.
So we drove north through the dark Florida night, my father at the wheel of his leased Cadillac, me tapping back whatever banter my death-haunted father offered. In a very short time the man would be buried in his grave, become a skeleton, and though there was no time to waste, we wasted it anyway.