how could he

By the time I was 15, my father and I had come to a “rough” place, to use one of his words when many years later dementia had stolen away most of the rest of his words. Now, I know it’s what two people who are uneasy in their own skin do, when all they see when they look at each other, is themselves. Back then I only knew how angry I was at him, constantly on guard, and I wished I had the courage to speak up – except that I would never do that. I would just disappear into my room, the one place in the house that felt safe.

Except for this one time.

A friend of mine gave me a ride home and just as he was pulling out, dad arrived home from work and had to wait for the driveway to empty out before he could pull in. This in itself was a problem…someone else’s car was in dad’s “place” – already we were off to a bad start.

As I closed the front door, my father blasted in right behind me in a rage. He roared, HOW DARE YOU GET IN A CAR WITH HIM! WHAT WILL THE NEIGHBORS THINK? DON’T YOU EVER LET ME CATCH YOU WITH HIM AGAIN! DO YOU HEAR ME?

In my father’s eyes, my friend was dangerous for two reasons: first, he was a teenage boy, second, and this made him extraordinarily more dangerous, my friend was a black, teenage boy.

By the time my father had slashed his burning tirade across my tender heart, we were both standing in the living room, precariously close to each other. Like always, my first urge was to run to my room for safety, but he had crossed a line that I didn’t know existed in me until that moment.

HOW CAN YOU TALK LIKE THAT ABOUT HIM? AFTER ALL THAT YOU WENT THROUGH?

I made a move like I was going to step toward him. He raised his arm like he was going to hit me. I fled to the place that gave me the deepest sense of sanctuary – I ran out the back door, slamming it as hard as I could, and made for the crude rope swing that hung from a branch of a grand and noble tree. By now its huge outstretched arms served as an umbrella over the entire backyard, over my entire world. I loved that swing, I loved that tree and now it held me as I sobbed my heartbreak and utter disappointment in this larger-than-life man, my father.

Even as I gently swung, sobbing, choking on my tears, it never dawned on me that he, the one that I was doing battle with, was the same one whose hands had made that simple swing. Its ropes had been tied around the branch so many years before, the tree had just taken them in as its own, and now the rugged twined rope that my hands grasped for dear life, magically emerged right from the center of the branch.

The swing carried me tenderly, and we swayed that way together, past sunset, dusk and on into darkness. I couldn’t imagine ever looking at him again. I heard the doorknob clink and then the weather stripping at the bottom of the door scraped against the linoleum squares of the den floor. The back door opened, but not the screen door. The swing, with me in it, hung only ten or fifteen feet away. My whole body tensed as I waited silently. His voice had a quality I had never heard before. Quietly he spoke through the screen into the night, “I know it’s wrong. At least I never taught you that way.” And then the door closed and he was gone.

As his words echoed I realized that was part of why his rage stung so deeply. His reaction came as a total surprise to me. I didn’t know that something burned so fiercely inside him that he would worry, “WHAT WILL THE NEIGHBORS THINK?”

Here’s what I did know about him. He grew up during the depression in Detroit, his family was Jewish and they were close to the bottom of the heap in that city. He’d told a story of what happened to him when he was stationed in Georgia before he went overseas during World War II, when, more than once, some soldiers threw him into the shower room and ripped off his clothes so they could see once and for all, the “horns and tail those devil Jews have”. How could he look at someone else with that same kind of disgust and fear? How could he? Bless the youth for their tender hearts, the ones that do not yet know of a twisted and warped fear, of a hatred of “the Other”, how it can mangle so completely.

The chasm that was burned by that river of pain continued to wedge itself between us, until mercifully, his fortress of protection began to crumble as dementia moved in, and mine, well, I consider myself lucky. My fortress began to crack wide open, as if someone had thrown ice on hot glass. We both had to shuffle around a bit to try and pick up the pieces and in the shuffling, we saw each other’s true heart.

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he was ready early

He was ready early, and impatient to leave for our destination once he was ready; that was his habit. He was wearing a suit and a tie, and his wingtip shoes – that’s what he wore when he was going to an important event as a young man. Only he wasn’t young now – he was 90. At 90 the best he could do was grab back into his memory and use what he found there to guide him in his current life. When he was a young man and really wanted to impress someone, he didn’t hold back, he went right for the suit and tie, and those stylish wingtips.

The wingtips were still in great shape. By now they were so heavy for him, he could barely lift them out of his closet. But he had a plan and he was going to wear the shoes – what else would he wear with his suit? That’s what his expression asked me when I brought them to him. He had to practice walking in them – the shoes were so loose. He was an old man now, a skinny old man – even his feet were skinny and the shoes weighed almost more than his 116-pound frame could manage. He took a few laps around the coffee table hoping if he practiced, he’d look like he’d been wearing them every day since the day he bought them over forty years ago.

Mom had been gone for close to a year now – her death a shock to us all since it was dad whose health had been failing. His doctor re-evaluated all his medications, took him off everything save one prescription and all of a sudden he was looking and feeling better than he’d felt in years. Then everything changed. Mom went for a check-up with a complaint of getting too easily fatigued. That same evening I got a call that the doctor had sent her straight to the hospital from her appointment. She ended up having open-heart surgery which initially seemed to go well – and then it didn’t. Her death came just one month from the day of that appointment. We were all still reeling, each in our own way.

Now, dad had finally given in to a recently widowed neighbor and, to both his brother and sister, who were just as stubborn and hardheaded as he was. They would not stop nagging him. They weren’t going to let it go: he should join the Grief Support group “at the temple”.

Our roles had begun to change. Sometimes now when I’d come over he’d tell me about something he was thinking about trying…and ask me what I thought. When we were both younger…he would never ask me such a thing. This was new territory for us. He could read me so well, I had to exercise great control over both my internal and external reactions to these kinds of questions, otherwise he’d spook like a wildcat and the conversation would end before it began.

“What do you think?” he asked after he told me about the “thing at the temple”. WHAT DID I THINK about dad going to a GRIEF SUPPORT GROUP? ? ? This idea sounded so far outside of his comfort zone – he was 90 for God’s sake – I absolutely could not imagine him going to such a thing. My uncle had gone…but he was gregarious, or, as my father would say, “a loud mouth” which is what he called him every week after they had lunch together. One time they got so angry at each other over lunch, that the one who had driven stormed out of the restaurant, leaving the other to find his own way home – both of them in their late-eighties at the time.

Dad was heartbroken, grief stricken, lost in this unimaginable new landscape, but he was also a pragmatist. At some point he just decided that if that’s what people did…then he would have to try it. The first time, he went with Elbert, the widower across the street. Even though they’d lived across the street from each other for over 50 years, it had been so very hard for him to actually go with Elbert and then come home with him, too: too much intimacy. So this second time, the plan was that I would take him there, and he’d get a ride home with Elbert.

Dad was all dressed up. I knew that no one else was going to be wearing a suit, or even a sport coat, and definitely not a tie. I struggled with an oddly parental protection of him…not wanting him to feel too out of place. I have never had children but I was feeling a kind of kinship to parents as they watch their child prepare for the first day of school – wanting to support grand self-expression, but also fearing the old, “what will they say?”

It was dark by the time we were on our way. Living with dad as I had for the first 6 months after mom’s death, I had come to have a very real sense of what his vision was actually like, at 90, with advanced macular degeneration. Darkness decreased his vision all the more and he compensated well; hid his near-blindness so that only very astute observers would catch on.

The front steps to the synagogue were daunting to me, knowing that dad was going to need my arm all the way up an entire flight of broad, shiny, stone steps, knowing there was no way he’d allow us to take the elevator. He’d fought his way through his entire life, believing fiercely that he had to, and that he would always manage “just fine” without any help from anyone. Now here we were…this proud old man, mostly blind, walking arm and arm up each stone step with his eldest daughter at his side. I knew that he could barely see where we were going, knowing that darkness arrived in his world several hours before it came to the rest of us, because of his limited vision. But there he was standing tall, taking my arm like we were just having a lovely visit. Once inside the enormous building, dad knew where he was going – had put it to memory from the first visit. About 20 feet from the door to the conference room he let loose of me, and said he’d take it from there.

I retraced our steps slowly, feeling so tenderhearted for this old man whom I’d spent a good chunk of my life being afraid of and then later, angry at. Now, I didn’t want to leave him there alone. I dawdled a bit in the lobby, walking through it as slowly as I could, pretending to be interested in the artwork on the walls, every so often glancing back at the over-sized door that he had disappeared through. He was gone, and I hoped from the bottom of my heart that he would find some kind of comfort or wisdom or something there in that room. But I would never know. And he never went back.