An Agonizing Goodbye dramatizes a daughter's struggle to deal with her dying father's refusal to acknowledge or speak to her.
AN AGONIZING GOODBYE
Inspired by real life events.
His back, stiff as a fencepost, faced me.
“Turn around, Dad. Please. Talk to me.”
His shoulder twitched. Nothing else moved.
Was he asleep? I circled around until I could see his face. Jesus, his skin was as gray as a corpse and his eyes flat as a sheet. The only live feature was his brow bulging with that goddamn knob-sized tumor, double the size since I'd seen him three months before.
"Does it hurt, dad, your tumor?"
"Jesus, I've just flown 2,000 miles to see you, and this is my treatment?" I lived in Anchoragbe but managed to visit him in his Los Angeles nursing home every few months. He'd been in the home for a year, since his failed brain surgery.
He spun his chair 180 degrees away from me.
Again I gazed at the back of his head, at his gaunt neck and curly hair now tangled and overgrown. A memory rushes me. He's getting ready for my tenth birthday. I'm sitting on the lid of the toilet seat watching him ablute. Slowly and carefully he twists a towel into a perfect turban around his wet head, screws up his face and lathers his cheeks and chin for shaving, then brushes the kinks in his hair into even rows of waves, and sings to me, the same song every time:“If I had a million hearts, I’d give them all to you; if I had a million lives, they’d all belong to you…”
“Daddy, what did I do? Did I say something?ell me what’s wrong. Did I do something?"
He maneuvered his chair to the far corner of the room, his back still to me.
Why, why, why was he shutting me out, me, his pet? I lapse back again. I’m twelve years old. Mom’s gone to bed. I’m standing at the kitchen sink watching dad carefully pare, quarter, and eat a Jonathan apple. When he’s done, he tells me a story about his boyhood in Roma, Romania.
His family is poor; he works hard--mornings at cheder learning Hebrew and the Torah and Talmud, afternoons gathering dead turf grass for repairing roofs of the family’s house and outbuildings, and firewood from dead limbs of willows and poplars; toting water from the well to the kitchen; and evenings, helping his papa in the tailoring business set up in the parlor. His burdens don't lift when at the age of nine he migrates with his family to this country. His papa can't find work; his brother earns $6.00 a week in a shirt factory, barely enough to cover the rent. So, dad has to pitch in. In addition to going to public school and heder, he has to rise at 4 in the morning to sell the early edition of the Tribune and returns in the dark after selling the late edition.
“When did you play, have fun?”
He tightens his lips. “I never looked over my shoulder—just did what needed doing."
I admired his unflagging determination when he was a boy, but I hated it now when it was directed to shutting me out I had to do something to break through to him.
“Daddy, I’m here for only three days.”
His silence was giving me goose bumps. I looked around. The sterility of this whiteewashed room musst have crept into his soul. Again I went over and stood before him. He didn’t move a muscle or make a sound. There was nothing more I could do. Maybe he’ll talk to me tomorrow, I thought, as I reluctantly left his room.
I hurried down the hall to the elevator, eager to get away from the the aura of death and despair around me--a woman with elephant-sized legs falling down after taking a few steps, a withered old man curled up on a bench gasping for breath, a frazzled looking nurse with a sour expression who didn't look at me as I rushed into the old groaning elevator. It wasn't until I reached my car that I could breathe easily.
Again dad was in his wheelchair facing the wall, unable to see the red roses and pink azaleas in my arms. After arranging them in plastic pitchers, I carried a single rose over to him. “Your favorite flower, Dad." He averted his eyes. I wanted to shake him, yell at him--damn your hide, being sick is no excuse for treating me like shit.
I plunked down on the edge of his bed and closed my eyes, trying to cool off. But my blood steamed. I am twelve years old again. I come home late from a girl scout meeting. Dad’s face is bloated and red. He grabs me, throws me to the floor; the veins in his brow bulging and throbbing; throb; he swears—“God damn sonofabith, God damn sonofabitch”—while he kicks me and kicks me until I go limp. Mom stands by weeping and helpless, scared to do anything lest it further inflame him. Afterwards, she tells me to forgive him--“He can’t help it,he inherited his temper from his papa.” I feel like screaming at her for being such a weakling, for not stopping him, for making excuses for him. I vow to become strong.
The next day I steal four lipsticks from the dime store and hide them behind the light switch in dad’s bedroom. The day after, on his birthday, I give him a long-stemmed pipe I’d stolen from Walgreen’s and smirk when his eyes moisten.
A week passes. He gives me a present, of all things, a violin. I’d never shown an interest in playing an instrument. I was tone deaf. “Why a fiddle, Dad?” He tells me a story.
“From the money I earned selling newspapers, papa let me keep a dime every week. You laugh. Those dimes held a key to my dreams. I first saw my dream in a pawn shop on my way home from selling papers. It was love at first sight. Ah, the beauty, the shine on her antique body, the lines and curves as graceful as a swan’s. I go inside and stretch my neck so my head will be above the counter. I point to the violin. ‘How much?’ The clerk hands her to me. ‘A genuine Cremona . Only $16.00.’ I rush home to do the arithmetic. Three years she’ll be mine providing I save every dime. I do until finally the day comes. I have enough. I race home from school, take my shoe box bank from the shelf over my bed. I shake it. I shake it again. I scream—‘Mama, Mama, my money, what happened to my money?’
“She comes in, her face the color of chalk, her hands shaking.
"‘Tell me, who took my money?’
“Her voice catches in her throat. She manages to tell me that my brother lost his job and the rent was due and papa said we had no choice.’
“But today, my dream lives, Dollie, my dream of sitting in my easy chair, lighting a Havana, and listening to you play Strauss waltzes.”
What a tender gentle soul, I think. I forget my anger. I determine to make his dream come true . I’ll find a way to overcome my tone deafness I tell myself. It doesn't happen. Mom plugs her ears when I practice. Dad listens without expereession. "I can't do it," I tell him.
Then we will have to fill our ears with someone else's fiddle, he says. He rises slowly and puts a Heifitz recording on.
I curl up on his lap marveling not only at the dulcet tones of Heifitz’s fiddle, but at how my daddy turned the pain of my failure into a moment of shared joy.
It wasn’t long before Dr. Jekyll turns into Mr. Hyde. He discovers a sack full of mouth organs on my closet shelf and pressures me for an explanation. I confess to having stolen them, and he, a fanatic about honesty, becomes a wild man, more brutal than ever before.
That night in bed, my thoughts go beyond minor rebellion. I’ve started to menstruate; I’m becoming a woman. He’ll never lay a hand on me again, not ever again, I promise myself. I’ll run away. He’ll never find me. Then I shudder at the thought of leaving everything I love—my house and room and books and house and mom and cousins and school. I start to cry. I’m afraid. Where will I go? Where will I get money?
I confide my fears to Steve, my thirteen-year-old boyfriend who several times told me his plan to run away to Texas.
I surprise him when I say, “How will we get there?”
He laughs. “You’re no stranger to riding on the bar of my bike.”
We become excited at the prospect of a great adventure, and despite freezing winter temperatures, we decide to leave that very day after school. Equipped with a change in underwear, one sleeping bag, four cans of beans, and 45 cents, we set out. We don’t go far before a storm breaks. Big thick snowflakes block our vision. We stop to spend the night in the basement of Steve’s cousin’s house. The room is bare except for a toilet, washstand, a loose roll of paper towel, and a threadbare couch.
We’re hungry. Steve goes to Walgreen’s to buy two milk shakes—35 cents of our 45 cent treasury. We sit on the couch gobbling all the beans and drinking the shakes. Then, exhausted from the tension and uncertainties before us, we fall asleep, fully dressed, on opposite ends of the couch.
I wake next morning in a state of shock. I jab Steve awake with my feet. “We’re insane,” I say. “We can’t make it to Texas on a bike with no money, no clothes; we’ll die. God Steve, our parents must be tortured with worry about us. My mother frets if I’m twenty minutes late for dinner. We’ve got to go home.”
He leaps to his feet and pulls me to a standing position. “Okay, but let’s get home beefore the kids have a chance to find out we ran off together."
Fat chance. Riding home, we pass a newspaper kiosk. I catch a glimpse of pictures of us on the front page of the Tribune. We stop to check it out. Not only pictures, but a headline:Chicago's Youngest Elopers. We read on: Relatives, neighbors, police of three states searched all night for the elopers.
Mom’s hair had gone white over night. “Call your dad,” she says the moment I walked in without even asking where I’d been. I couldn’t believe he went to work when I could be lying dead in a snow storm. But I called him anyway, imagining the veins standing out on his neck and brow as he strained words through his teeth—“Why did you do it? Why did you do it?”
“Because I’m afraid of you.” I’d never said that before.
That evening and for the two that followed, he sat in his easy chair, as motionless and silent as a post. At dinner on the third night, he made an announcement: “Never again will I hit another person.” And he never did.
For me, he wrenched himself free from something he believed was ingrained; for me, he turned himself inside out. If he could do it then, why not now, why won’t he unseal his lips.
“For me, Dad, do something for me. Look at me, say something, anything, just a word.” I kept talking, hoping he’d thaw. “Remember my thirteenth birthday, Dad. The Lyric Opera House. La Bohème. The blue taffeta dress and heeled patent leather shoes you bought me for the performance. The gardenia you pinned on the lapel of my coat—I can smell it now. The carnation you tucked into that little hole in the pocket of your blue wool suit with the tiny specks of orange and gold.”
The hell with this. It’s going nowhere. He’s not giving me the time of day, not even a shrug or swipe of the hand. I swore at the back of his head: I hate your living guts..
Dear God, what have I said? His guts won’t be living much longer. Has my heart turned to stone? I had to get away from him and clear my head.
It was a gray day, dark clouds scudding slowly across the sky. I pulled my sweater tight as I walked around a block of nearly identical aluminum-sided apartment buildings. I wanted to feel sympathy, not hatred. But when I tried putting myself in his shoes, an aching loneliness crept through me,more painful than a stab wound. I’d rather die than live with it. Ah, does that explain the cold shoulder he turns to me? Is his pain so unbearable he’s declared himself dead even while he still breathes? Except for nurses and orderlies, he was alone every minute of the day. My brother, his only other child, lives in Chicago and hasn’t visited him for six months. And mom, frail and ailing herself, refuses to see him lest he beg to come home. “I can’t take care of him any more and if he asks to come home, I won’t be able to say ‘no’, never have, not once.” So he lay there, day after day in that sterile silent room. A rotten ending for someone who’d devoted his life to his family, working ten hours a day in his business, then rushed home to be with everyone. It was so unfair, so tragic, not only to lie alone but to die alone.
I rushed back to his room. He was in bed, his hands clutching an exercise bar above his head in a vain attempt to pull himself to a sitting position, as if to say, ‘I’m not dead yet.’ Maybe he was coming around, ready to make a connection.
“Dad, I’ll come soon and stay longer, I promise.”
He let go of the exercise bar, slid down to a prone position and closed his eyes.
I arrived on this, my third and last day, armed not with flowers but with a tape recorder and a tape of La Bohème. “Dad, I brought you something special. He was lying in bed as stiff as a corpse. And he looked like one, his skin yellow, his lips dried and cracked, the circles under his eyes as dark as bruises, and the tumor bulging even farther out than yesterday.
I shouted, hoping to blast a dent in his armor: “Daddy, I’m leaving this afternoon.”
He turned on his side, away from me.
Was this the way we must part? Was this to be my final memory--a failed relationship, his unyielding repudiation--a memory that will haunt the rest of my days. I couldn’t bear the thought. There was nothing I could do about his withdrawal, but I could find a way to say goodbye. If only I understood his rejection, I think I could wring a farewell from my heart.
After talking to the nurse this morning, I discounted my earlier notion that dad was declaring himself already dead. She told me that he was not only talkative, but sometimes garrulous, with the caretakers. So his rejection had to do with me. Was it because I visited so infrequently? What would I do if he came right out and asked me to stay with him until the end? Would I leave my husband whose broken ankle hasn’t healed and my son who’s struggling to adjust to his new school? Would I turn my back on the deadline for my research project for which I’d already received an extension? I couldn’t. Why would I even ask that of myself? I wasn’t his wife!
Ah, a light went on! I subbed for mom for so many things and for so long, he’s come to expect me to take care of him the way she should. And he’s enraged that I’m not. And I’m filled with guilt for the same reason. That’s sick. How did it come to pass? How did I play into it? How did mom? I tried to recapture its roots. Mom shared so few of dad’s interests. He loved politics, but she refused to talk about them lest it lead to a fight. So he turned to me. He loved to waltz, but she refused to dance, said she was too fat. So he took me on midnight dance cruises on Lake Michigan since I was twelve. It was the same with his love of opera. Mom said the screeching hurt her ear drums. So he took me to performances.
I could rest easier if I put all the blame on them, but I played a part in this family triangle. I loved being singled out as dad’s companions. I felt so special, so loved, so grown up, and something else I was only dimly aware of then but am acutely so now—I drew pleasure in besting mom, in being the good wife, the preferred wife, and maybe even more importantly, in getting even with her for being so weak she couldn’t protect me from his abuse.
I had never put it together in just this way, and it brought on a sadness so vast I could hardly breathe. I picked up the tape of La Bohème. I had already set the recording to the place near the end where Colline sings the coat song, his farewell to the dying Mimi—Vechia zimarra senti. I switched the on button and listened to one of the most moving, heart wrenching arias I’d ever heard. Tears ran down my cheeks and into my neck. Dad’s shoulders shook under his covers.
The aria ended. I flicked the off switch, put the machine under my arm, and quietly left his room.