DAD NEVER BELIEVED in heaven. In fact, he was an agnostic until the age of seventy, when he called me to announce that, unlike all the other old people in his Florida retirement condo who were frightened to die and turning to religion, he was now an atheist. It was one of the few times in fifty years that he’d told me anything personal about himself. Amused and grateful, I said, “Good for you, Dad. Good for you.”
“Here’s your mother,” he replied.
My mother and I were close, especially so. She called me the “light of her life,” a phrase denoting a responsibility far greater than I ever wanted or was able to assume. Her death, marked by Parkinson’s and dementia, was slow and laborious; Dad “went,” as he called it, while eating a tuna sandwich in a Florida hospital. My sister and I visited him there several times before he died. “These nurses are terrific,” he’d say. During one visit, the big TV suspended from the ceiling showed the news of filmmaker Woody Allen’s marriage to his ex-wife’s young adopted daughter. “Big deal,” said Dad, who resembled Woody, especially in the eyeglasses department. “Who cares? Leave the poor schlemiel alone.”
At the end of each visit, I’d say, “I love you, Dad.”
“Likewise,” he’d say as I was just about out the door.
Whereas Mom’s death filled me with grief and led to a clinical depression, Dad’s death was comparatively easy to take. I felt little at his funeral, and because I am someone who generally feels deeply, this puzzled me. I reasoned that he and I had never been close, that I hadn’t gotten enough attention from him.
MY FATHER WAS the youngest of six children born to immigrant parents from Brest-Litovsk, Russia, near the Polish border. His father, a carpenter, died of tuberculosis when Dad was three, and so Dad never had a model for how to be a father. I mostly remember him being tired from working six days a week. I think he was on the phone a lot. I know he didn’t travel. I remember the deep trough on the second finger of his right hand, the dent made by a pen.
Dad was trapped in a so-so marriage to a self-righteous pillar of the community and confined to a small apartment. (His siblings and friends all had houses with yards.) He was distant, appearing and disappearing, as if he had a minor role in the drama that was our family’s life. As a parent Dad did not do much besides slave away to support us. He lived in a house of females — my mother, my sister, and me — where he was always slightly alien, with his hairy arms, skinny legs, and boxer shorts. He developed his arm muscles by doing chin-ups on a bar in the hallway of our small apartment. He was awkward around people and never knew what to say to customers, to bosses, to his wife, to me.
Despite his distance, Dad’s love for me came out in one phrase: “Atta girl!” When I was seven and playing in front of the apartment building with the other kids, choosing sides for a game, a boy named David began to recite: “Eenie, meenie, miney, moe, catch a nigger by the toe. . . .” My father came up the walk just as I was berating David: “Don’t say that word! It’s a very, very bad word. Say ‘tiger.’ ” My father, who had overheard me, patted me on the head so hard that it hurt and repeated, “Atta girl! Atta girl!” Years later, it was he who got out of bed at four in the morning to drive my sister and me to a bus that would take us to Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington. And I believe it was he, and not my adoring mother, who planted the tree of self-confidence inside me. He subtly convinced me that I could do whatever I set out to do, even what he had not been able to do himself.
Because of his difficulty with people, Dad lost many jobs. After one firing, he pretended to go to work for more than a month, not wanting to worry — or perhaps anger — my mother. He put on his suit, tie, and overcoat, left at his usual 7 A.M., and came back at his usual 6 P.M., never telling a soul until he’d landed a new position. I imagine him sitting at the counter of Chock Full O’ Nuts in Manhattan, folding the Times the long way in front of him and checking the want ads over a cup of black coffee.
The job Dad finally managed to keep was in lamps and lighting fixtures. I’m not sure what he did exactly, but he said he was in “middle management.” I believe he took orders from distributors and supervised workers in factories. I remember he talked about the Puerto Ricans who worked for his employer, and how bad he felt for them because they were underpaid and had poor working conditions. Dad was pro-union, and I grew up hearing him play a Pete Seeger album called The Talking Union over and over. But because he was just a middle manager, he had no real say in how the workers were treated.
In his youth, Dad had been a kid with street smarts, an excellent cardplayer and craps shooter. At his funeral, an old buddy of Dad’s shook his head of silver hair and said to me, “Your dad was the best pinochle player in Brooklyn, the absolute best.”
My parents got together once a month with “the crowd” from Brooklyn. The men played pinochle; the women, mahjongg. When it was my parents’ turn to host, I’d come out before bed in my flannel pajamas and receive hugs and kisses. From my room, as I drifted off to sleep, I would hear the click of the mah-jongg tiles, the crisp shuffling of cards, and the intermittent sound of my father’s exuberant voice shouting, “I got it!” I was glad because I knew that “it” involved money, something he never made enough of to suit my mother.
The Sunday morning after pinochle night, the living room looked different: more interesting, really lived in. The faint odor of cigarette smoke lingered, and Dad would be in a good mood, smiling and pinching my cheek for no apparent reason. “Ow!” I’d say, and he’d smile. He didn’t mean to hurt me. Poor Dad. What did he mean? What did he want? Underrated, deflated. Even the army had turned him down because of a heart murmur. When did Dad rule, and where? At the card table one Saturday night each month when the Brooklyn crowd got together: Phillie doing his double talk; his wife, Ellie, shushing him; Julia with her raucous laughter; Rollie with his jokes. The men dealing out cards, the women shuffling tiles; the coffee, the cake, the grapes and pineapple slices pierced by colored toothpicks that left circles of green or pink on the fruit; the smoke, the banter — year after year. And Dad, the best cardplayer of them all.
IT WAS A WEEK OR SO after my father’s death that my new relationship with him began to take root. What happened was he visited me in a dream:
I am standing on the platform of a dark, deserted train station in the middle of nowhere. There is a dim streetlamp in the distance, and a blue neon sign that reads, Wonder Bread, like the one we often drove past on the Grand Central Parkway in Queens when I was a girl. I feel a vague portent and think of other trains, their boxcars headed for Auschwitz, Dachau, Bergen-Belsen. But I am here alone, simply standing. Then my father appears in front of me. He holds me in his arms, pressing me tight to his bony chest, and I feel all the love he couldn’t convey when he was alive. Blame it on his not having had a father growing up; blame it on the repressed fifties; blame it on the poverty; blame it on the lousy jobs he held and lost. It doesn’t matter.
I awoke in tears and began to mourn him for the first time since the funeral. My father had come back. “Oh, Dad, how I missed you,” I said.
“Yeah, babe,” he said. “Likewise.”
Years later, Dad returned for an encore. I’d been diagnosed with colon cancer. My doctors had expected surgery to confirm the diagnosis, but instead it brought the odd, fabulous news that there was nothing wrong with me. “I examined her colon six times, thoroughly,” the wide-eyed doctor told my family as I puked in recovery and shouted, “Can you believe it!”
After three days I went home in pain, thinking, It’s a miracle. I’ll never, ever take my life for granted again. But my gratitude quickly changed to rage at the misdiagnosis, the fact that not one doctor had offered anything resembling an apology, the eighteen staples where they’d cut me up the middle. I felt violated and utterly lost. Nights were the worst — sleepless and full of fear. One night, feeling entirely alone, I called aloud to God, or no one, “What can I do? What can I do?” And there, in my green bedroom with the white curtains, was my father.
It wasn’t a Percocet-created vision, nor a wish-fulfillment fantasy. It was Dad, come back to me in my time of need. I could see the long blond hairs on his arms, his bald head, his thin body, his blue-and-white-checked shirt and dark pants. “Put on the light, babe,” he said clearly. “Put on the light.” And I understood immediately that he didn’t mean the overhead fixture, or the night light we keep in the hallway for guests, but the light: our source of strength against the darkness, the one we all enter into at the end.
And now that I am sixty and moving closer to my own time to go, Dad is with me far more strongly than my adoring mother. He’s finally become my father. In life he was outlandish, cynical, brash, crusty, often boorish. It happened only after he was dead: his arrival, his protection, his love.