Years later, as Al Friedman lay dying in a Florida hospital, the oddest Mark Friedman story of all would take place. I cannot really begin to explain it, even all these years later, though I will tell it in as much detail as I can.
First I need to point out a subtle element of this story. The harmful nature of very smart, deeply damaged, people we become attached to can be very hard to see. They are able to intelligently explain why any problem you may perceive is not a problem they have any part in creating. They can often convince you, as is routinely done with children, that the problem is all in your own confused, less than perfectly rational, head.
Exactly how my father inflicted great damage on my sister and me, the lifelong actions he apologized for so miserably right before he died, took decades for me to understand. I fought against the clear unfairness and sometimes irrationality of his abuse as it was happening, but I had no real grasp of the full scope of the harm this otherwise reasonable, peaceable, politically sensitive, philosophical man was doing. The subtle nature of it, the way our father’s anger was always hidden behind some greater principle, made it a very slippery form of abuse. Much harder to understand than a sharp smack in the face. You want subtle? How about simply deploying silence when an answer to a perplexed question was requested?
In the case of my father, once I understood the unforgivable abuse he’d suffered from his mother, the face whippings, the furious demands that he have no will of his own, I could explain his desperation to myself. It made sense that he’d be filled with rage, anyone would. After enough time I came to see that, in a real sense, he couldn’t help acting the way he did, and further, that it was actually a kind of victory over his horrific childhood that he didn’t beat or humiliate his children. He merely raged at us, and made us feel it was always our fault. Bad, yes, abuse, certainly, but, at the same time, a great improvement over what he’d experienced. Silence may hurt when you are a child hoping for an answer, but a good whipping for no reason, when you are two, leaves no room for interpretation.
It was a matter of great, wonderfully-timed luck that I’d reached these understandings, digested the idea that he’d done the best he could and that anger toward him was unproductive, at best, when I got the call from my sister that he was suddenly on his deathbed. When I got to the hospital room where he’d die two or three days later I asked if he was in pain.
“Only psychic pain…” he said, his weary voice trailing off. He told me he wanted to talk to me, but that he was still putting his thoughts together.
The last night of his life we talked for hours. He talked, mostly, I asked a few clarifying questions and refilled his cup of water. He had certainly put his thoughts together. He put his impressive mind through its paces one last time, this time trying to get it all right. The organization of his thoughts struck me, obviously he spoke without notes, but he could have been reading from a thoughtfully edited essay. He had this great ability to speak off the cuff, always had. Finally he was using it to make amends. It was, as I’ve said, a blessing to us both, him making this attempt at peace, me finally in a position to hear it with sympathy instead of anger.
The day after my father died I walked around the circle in the retirement community where my parents lived. In my memory it was dawn. I’d been getting a steady stream of calls from Friedman who wanted to know how it was going, wanted to offer his support. By that time I’d begun to dread his calls. I called him back as I walked.
I was stunned by his first question after I mentioned the long talk the last night of my father’s life: “did you tell him to go fuck himself?”
I explained that there was no need, that we’d had a very productive conversation. Then, for the next forty minutes or so, as I completed the two mile circle and started around again, I heard the story of his oldest brothers’ new sports car, a beauty from the sound of it, and the beautiful, young girlfriend he had now, how things were really looking up for him, just as things had been looking pretty bad for him recently. Mark’s stories were always fantastically detailed. When he was done telling me these fabulous developments in his brother’s life I said “well, here, my father is still dead.”
I finally came to realize the difference between a struggle to come to peace with your father, or another family member and the constant vying with a friend who is a surrogate for these same people, who, while like the troubling family member in essential ways, was once a stranger and can easily be one again. We owe ourselves a certain psychic debt to figure out how to make peace with those in our family, if we can. We owe nothing to friends who insist on their right to be as vexing as the troubling intimates we are born into a family with.