My father never really loved me. Maybe at some point he had some pride in my adolescent achievement; after all, I graduated with high honors from a top ivy college, turned down a scholarship to Harvard-- -stuff parents can 'bank'. But person to person? He couldn't look me in the eye, we both cringed if a goodbye hug was required, and I used to sigh with great relief if he worked late and couldn't make a school play or performance.
Teachers would always comment on how handsome he was; that was useless for me. In fact I used to wish he'd never come home so my mother could marry someone who wouldn't ask me if I was a moron when I had a question about something. I didn't feel hurt or sorry; for years I thought that's what fathers did. I learned to use books. They were reliable, available, kind and patient.
Maybe I grew up and rejected men who doted on me; it didn't feel right. Of course at some point I realized that shame and alcohol had a lot to do with our family dynamics and my penchant for truth seeking was an unintentional finger pointing at him. He's 95 now. I can feel him squirm if he picks up the phone when I call my demented Mom, old cranky fuck that he is. Once or twice he actually blurted out 'if you wanna give me a present, don't ever call me.' The honesty is a relief… then every once in a while he says something almost 'paternal'. He actually likes my son. He's a boy. He's not an unmarried poet who plays bass guitar in downtown clubs.
Wednesday is my day to get groceries in Harlem; something always on special at Pathmark and I get to absorb some uptown culture. Pathmark in summer is my version of Coney Island. It's massive, it's crowded, it's filled with colorful displays and distractions, most of which I'd rather observe than partake of. There's tons of exposed skin and strange fashion statements… and at any given moment, a good percentage of the crowd is not intending to buy or participate. Some are taking in the moderately cool air, some are consuming anything they did not intend to purchase… gaping, butt-watching, hand slapping and commentating. There is plenty of narrative, family drama, the PA 'barker' beckoning the shoppers to sample the specials and bargains, old ladies shuffling and squeezing things, muttering, judging and spitting. In front of me on the huge snaking line, a young family with 2 giant carts loaded with frozen entrees and french fries, boxed pies and cakes, gallons of juice and punch, pounds of hotdogs, pancake mix, canned icing--- the usual… and a virtual team of kids--- the girls packing and helping-- the 8 year old boy in glasses asking his Mom constantly -- how do you make ice cream cones, what's a ingredient… can you put a motor on the cart… until she whacked him…'No more fuckin questions, you hear me?' The kid didn't seem hurt; he just leaned on the window sill and looked out at 125th street and fidgeted and talked to himself a little.
Of course the white liberal over-educated humanist wanted to pick him up and take him to a library-- I mean, I'm not predicting he's going to grow up and become an angry gangsta or a nerd who gets the shit kicked out of him at Promise Academy. Maybe he'll be a teacher. My own mother wisely bought-- from her housekeeper's handsome strapping football-playing son--- a set of Collier's Encyclopedia. I could look everything up. Jerusalem. Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Penis. I no longer needed to fear my father's impatient wrath. I was saved.
Back in Carnegie Hill this evening, one of the investment banker fathers walking behind his little girl… barely 3, in her little Jacadi frock and the Bonpoint shoes, with her pink my-little-pony and her neat pigtails…Are you sure?, he is saying to her? Are you SURE? And she is saying… mmh hmMM! with the little upswing… and just as I pass them, he actually says… 'and WHAT IF SHE ISN'T?…. '
What if she isn't? What kind of twisted manipulative question is this to ask a 3-year old-- to plant doubt and fear and anxiety and all shades of grey in a tiny mind where everything is not only black and white but pink and blue… Is this what his boss asked him today when he put in a huge margin call betting that the market is going to drop tomorrow….And what if it doesn't? Your Stepford wife will leave you for a richer man and your tiny daughter will imprison you weekends until she is old enough for boarding school?
We are born with eyes and ears and a mouth, the lucky among us. We trust the people who hold us and swaddle us and feed us. We smile at them and helplessly let them pick us up and put us in vehicles and cribs and baskets. And some people pick us up and scold us when no one is looking--- they take our toys and touch us inappropriately and show us things we don't want to see and tell us things that give us lifetime nightmares. Some of these people are even our parents or relatives. And like random soldiers in a brutal war, some go home unscathed, and some are blown up. Some lose limbs and some become emotional amputees. What happens to the Robin Williamses and the Heath Ledgers and the Philip Seymour Hoffmans that opens up a tiny fissure of doubt or fear which compels them to laugh and entertain and compensate and develop extraordinary talents that do little to cover the gaping wound that no one sees?
I know parents who, while bragging about their children, I can see in a nano-second when there is no love here. I have seen these kids overdose, binge drink, do rehab and jail time. And some of them become presidents and rockstars. Actors. Or men like my Dad who are heroes and wonderful human beings to someone but are emotionally cruel to some of the women in his family… yes, these people had their own wounds and damages… I try to understand. And I pray none of my eccentricities ever hurt my own kids in some cavalier and branding way.
We read and watch footage of our beloved Robin Williams on every network… the great irony of the brilliant comedian--- the sad clown. We have read this story before. And knowing in this toxic media world that no secret would be kept sacred, that no detail would be spared… and still, he couldn't find the will to NOT go through with this…. well, we are chilled to the bone in the August summer. Some of us feel the undertow every day of our lives. We hold our ears against the screams of the Sirens and we struggle to make it to another day because even though the darkness beckons, we hesitate to leave this legacy of wreckage for the few that actually might love us.
Personally I thank my father for giving me an inroad to these souls, to the dark side. And as much as we feel the shiver of this passing, we feel a tiny bit of relief…he is free, we have a little vicarious 'what if' moment… and we mourn and go on. .. with our talents and our sadness and our curse of compassion and our gaping hearts…and we ask questions that are not answerable in any Encyclopedia or bottle or needle or warm bed.