My Dad doesn’t really know who I am any more. I think he’s aware that he’s got a daughter out in the world, and that her name is my name, and she has certain qualities that I have, but he doesn’t associate those things with my physical self. Dad, who was a mathematician and a V1 kind of guy and a white collar criminal, Dad, he of the punny and absurd wit, is losing his mind.
Not in the “What, are you out of your mind?” kind of way, but in a much more difficult way. His brain isn’t working like it’s supposed to. His past is becoming increasingly colorful, with trips to China and stage door adventures at the Metropolitan Opera and collaborations with Albert Einstein. He is rewriting his history, that time in prison was time in school instead, that time in Korea in the military somehow included border runs to China. A wine rack shaped like a cello needs tuning, a fallen leaf in a stream is a fish, Dad your room is that way, no, the other way.
Since he can’t remember how he got to the kitchen, I suppose it’s not so surprising he can’t remember who I am. It’s been three years since he’s seen me last and only five minutes since he found his way to the kitchen. I am familiar and friendly to him, but none of the usual questions are there – how is your work, your travels, your husband? I’ve been bar-coded as a generic family/household member. Qualities? Helpful, will fetch coffee and make toast, can be trusted to assist with shoes and seatbelts. But in front of him, I’m not the me I was when we talked last, about three months before this visit. That me is in his voice mail, in a series of unreturned calls.
I have not spent much time with my Dad over the past 15 years, maybe longer. This is largely intentional. When I was a teenager, my parents divorced and a few years later my father remarried to a woman who I have never been able to get along with. My father and his wife were – are — fairly inseparable. They were business partners, too, and she did time of a different variety for the same white collar crimes that made my Dad what he used to call “a guest of the US Government.” Those were his gap years, his career break, a minimum security facility in Boron, California, with a short relocation to a “real” prison in LA for some medical treatment. Dad came out thinner, with stories and an ability to read gang signs and, oddly, a membership in Toastmasters.
I lived with my Dad and my stepmother for a brief stint during my last years of high school and again upon return from my first long trip abroad, before the prison years. They lived in the Orange County suburbs after I returned from India. I was 23 and living in a terra cotta and tan subdivision that was serviceable only by car. I rode my bicycle for miles and miles and miles through suburban neighborhoods to attend the community college during the day, I waited tables at a pizza place, I babysat my little half-brother from time to time – I adored him, still do – and I recovered, slowly, from a bad bout of giardia and salmonella and travel in India.
I was also crippled with culture shock, absolutely crippled, and probably having had enough of however this was manifesting itself, my stepmom sent me to therapy. One evening, I overheard her telling my father that I had been diagnosed as suicidal and could not be left alone. This made me extremely angry. I was choking in their status driven, increasingly chaotic household, but I never wished for death, only for elsewhere. I didn’t know at the time that they were careening towards another bankruptcy, and ultimately prison time, only that I wanted desperately to not be there.
One day I snapped into focus, packed my limited things, and moved into a house in the Santa Ana barrio with a totally hot Chilean guy and a brilliant German inventor. My mood improved tremendously, and a few months later, I got the hell out of Southern California. I fled for the San Francisco Bay Area, leaving the Santa Ana winds and the traffic and the continual oppressive striving for more that seemed to define Dad’s existence with my stepmom.
I can’t have been easy to get along with. No doubt I’d been spouting zealot’s rhetoric about European public transit and third world disparities and neo-socialism. My time away had also broadened the divide between me and my stepmom. I was relieved to be away from her, from Dad’s occasional outbursts caused, I know now, by his increasing financial distress and impending prosecution. I do believe that they both wanted the best for me, but I suspect what my stepmom wanted was for me to be properly dressed in designer labels, to have societal approval, to have better hair, whereas my father simply wanted his kids — and his wife — to be happy.
If you imagine that thing where the pages fly off the calendar, you can see Dad and my stepmom moving to Tucson, Arizona, to join my half-brother where he’d been living with his grandmother while his parents were doing time. You can see me flying all over the planet, and divorcing my first husband and falling in love again in Australia. You can see Dad making a speech at my half-brother’s wedding about how happy he is to see his family grow. You can see that last time I visited Dad solo, when we went to the Laundromat and played pinball while the sheets dried and where I worried, worried, worried, crushed into a corner of the house where I’d been confined by my stepmom’s hoarding. A few years later, when I visit with my brother and we share a rented vacation property because staying in Dad’s house is impossible, you can see Dad folding into himself a little, and his words gradually disappearing.
Now he is smaller – he was a 6’2” swimmer in college, and I am not exaggerating when I say that pictures of him from this time make him look like a young Richard Gere. Now his eyes are cloudy and his shoulders slope forward and he shuffles, picking out his steps with a cane. He taught math – it frustrated him tremendously that I had no gift with numbers, and later, he was a salesman, your classic salesman in pinstripes and oxfords, a big man with forceful rhetoric. Now, he wanders through dusty shelves of what were once giant volumes of vocabulary and wit just to answer a simple question.
I said goodbye to Dad, leaving him sitting on the couch in my half-brother’s house in Houston, Texas. Before I started the rental car, I sat in the driveway trying to decide if I felt guilty about not having spent more time with him over the past decade, more. It would be easy to paint the situation as your classic Freudian mess, me outraged over my stepmom replacing me in my Dad’s affections, but I’m not – have never been – some kind of “Daddy’s girl.” And it would be tempting to veer into a screed against my stepmom’s slights against me as I have perceived them throughout the years, but that would offer no benefit or satisfaction. At the most basic level, we never reached détente and I never, as an adult, felt comfortable in her company. And in recent years, visiting had become a physical impossibility; there was literally nowhere to sit down in their home.
Not for anything would Dad have told me to visit him instead of going to Antarctica or Zanzibar, he would not have asked me to make that choice, he would not have wanted me to. I know this all the way through to my bones. Before Dad arrived at whatever plateau he’s on today, he would call me and burst with excitement when I told him about what I’d been up to. He was positively giddy over my visit to Antarctica to see penguins; he was the same way when I told him about my safari adventures. Of course, of course, he would have liked to see me more often, but he never said a word that made me think he felt I’d flown the wrong way when I boarded an airplane.
“It sounds like you’ve been having a great time!” he’d enthuse. “Oh, Dad, it’s been AMAZING,” I’d respond. He sounded happy for me. During this recent visit, he did not ask me once where I’d been, what I’d been doing. At the end of our last visit, Dad hugged me and then waved as we drove away, this time, he did not look up. “Oh, okay, see you later,” he said.
My Dad knew me once. Just before I turned 30, I called him to tell him I was getting divorced. “Dad, he wants us to settle down and have kids,” I said. “That’s nice,” my Dad said, “but who is he planning on doing that WITH?” I laughed out loud, I still laugh out loud when I think of my Dad saying this to me. I was heartbroken about this breakup, I loved my husband of the time, but he did not know me. Dad’s wit, his quick humor, black and sharp, but still exactly the thing, made me feel so much better. Though it’s possible to argue that it’s simply a byproduct of being Jewish, I like to think that this sense of humor in the face of sadness or difficulty is something I got from him.
Dad’s sense of humor is still intact, though his jokes make no sense. He was content to tag along on our outings and he seemed to enjoy sitting at the table with us, observing the conversation. He needs a great deal of help, his arthritic old bones make it hard for him to get dressed, his hands are a little shaky making small tasks a challenge. It requires a lot of patience just to get him to the car or to the breakfast table. His physical decline is difficult to see, but the loss of his mental acuity is what is the most heartbreaking.
While my life gets bigger and bigger, as I loop increasingly large circles around the globe, Dad’s collapses in on itself. He was in Hong Kong and Manhattan and a bunch of other places on the globe, and he wanted that for me, too. I could feel guilty, perhaps I do feel guilty, about not being bigger and setting aside the complicated yet ultimately petty things I feel about my stepmom in order to spend more time with Dad. It is, in a maddening cliché, too late for that. I’m stalled in the driveway in yet another generic sedan, sad and angry and confused and frustrated.
In a few days, I will board another airplane. I won’t visit my Dad, yet again. If my Dad knew who I was, he would say, “Oh! San Francisco!” and he might sing a bit. “I left my heart…” before making some kind of joke. “Be sure to wear some flowers in your hair. Have a great time!” I think he would want me to go, but now, I can’t be sure.
The fates like to test us. This afternoon, I heard that my uncle, my father’s brother, lost his battle with leukemia. We’d reconnected via Facebook; he and his wife have been devoted readers of my blog and great supporters of my adventures. I will miss him.