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Deuel_Nathan

Was it really that bad?

Fuck off.

 

Y’know, being a dad…wife in the war, Middle East, etc.

It was a fairly constant struggle for me: The fact that it wasn’t that bad at all. In fact, many times—a lot of the time—it was quite excellent. I can’t really adequately describe what it’s like to get rip-roaring drunk by yourself, as the bats fly overhead, wife in Baghdad, with the sound of the call to prayer ringing out over Istanbul, the moon coming up, and you light an illicit cigarette and the hum of the earth is loud and…A grilled fish lunch at an old cantina in a secluded cove north of Beirut, with the table literally in the water, catching up with an old friend from Riyadh, the waves licking up over the table cloth, sea froth kissing the food with salt water, cold bottles of beer…Or to have Christmas in Erbil, in northern Iraq, the odd situation of your wife agreeing to watch the kid while you put on a suit that doesn’t quite fit, so you can get in a taxi and try to track down Christians who fled Baghdad, in the wake of a bombing at a church that killed dozens, to find a woman who will speak to you, in the middle of the street, on Christmas day, with the taxi idling, getting a good enough quote to go back to the house, so you can file a story, so you can sing “Jingle Bells” and squint in the sun of northern Iraq, and later that night, toast it all with a bottle of duty-free scotch.

On the last day of his life, my father bought two scratch-off lottery tickets. We had just finished a lap through the Price Chopper, filling a cart with foods his urologist said he should eat during treatment for the metastasized renal cell cancer wreaking havoc on his body. The cancer was incurable, Dr. Petroski had told us, but not untreatable. I latched onto that word, to the possibility of prolonged life; I married myself to it. Only three days had passed since the terminal diagnosis, so I floated through these tasks with little sense of reality, a bride who keeps forgetting her new surname. Got cancer? Buy frozen veggies and V-8.

My father’s urologist projected the CAT scan on his computer screen, pointing out the major organs like battle sites on a Civil War map. My father’s body, my homeland. Bladder. Liver. Intestine. Spleen. “Here’s the right kidney,” he said, using his pen to mark the perimeter. “You can see its recognizable shape, a healthy shape and size.” We nodded, my mother, my father, and me. We knew pointing out normalities meant an abnormality was coming. Dr. Petroski inhaled. “And now here’s the left kidney,” he said, moving his pen to a dark area that did not mirror its right-hand counterpart. It was as large as my father’s liver, but misshapen, a bulge in the center like a football. “You see the difference in the shape? That’s a tumor. That’s the problem.”

It’s always a joy to sit down and talk with Michael Kimball. He’s into his cats, he plays softball (and is quite competitive!), he likes music, and he wears interesting T-shirts that make you want to scoot your chair back so you can get a good look. BIG RAY is Michael’s fourth book and, I think, his most intimate and moving. Whereas his other novels (Us, The Way the Family Got Away, Dear Everybody) all deal with loss of some sort, and are touching and powerful, BIG RAY emotionally dives down to a whole new level. You can’t help but be somewhat changed after reading this book.

Here’s what Michael Kimball has to say about BIG RAY:

On weekends, my friends and I play pickup tackle football. Coop is the only younger kid who is allowed to play with us because he’s tough enough to compete with the older boys. By his junior year, colleges will begin recruiting him to play defensive back.

One Saturday, my father plays too. My friends and I are excited to see how he mixes it up. We’re fifteen. He’s forty-five but still in excellent shape, and we want to see if we can hit like him, hit as hard as an NCAA Division I athlete. None of us have played college sports yet.

Our two teams trade touchdowns without me going head-to-head against my father. Then my team kicks off, and the ball rolls right up to him. I shade to his side and come sprinting down, imagining that I’ll lay a vicious blow, imagining my father ripped off his feet, thrown wickedly to the ground. But he doesn’t pick up the ball, and I slow down. He steps forward and lets it roll between his legs. Slowly. The game stops as he stands over it.

I’m in front of him. “Pick up the ball, Dad.

“No,” he grins, “you can down it.”

We both hesitate. The ball is between his legs. Sitting there.

The game is live but we’re both standing still, waiting over the untouched ball.

“Come on, Dad. Pick it up.”

“No. Go ahead and down it.”

I’m confused, but I shrug and lean down to reach the ball.

My father bends with me, slowly, then tenses and swings his forearm like a short axe. I don’t have time to get out of the way. My nose snaps and lodges underneath my right eye. The hit takes me off my feet, lays me on the ground. I blink. Lying on my back. My nose opens and the blood spouts over my mouth, choking me, then off the side of my face. I stand up. The blood runs down the front of my white shirt like abstract art.

My father jumps toward me and I step back wobbling. He’s pointing and laughing and ready to block but I don’t make contact with him. Coop picks up the ball and runs off to the left. All my friends stop playing as Coop runs for an uncontested touchdown.

My father yells, “I broke your nose! I broke your nose!” He’s laughing so hard that he’s hyperventilating. He jogs down the field following Cooper.

My friend Doige says, “Man, that was fucked up.”

“Yeah, whatever.”

My father jogs back. “Want me to set it?”

My friends laugh at the ridiculous scene.

“I guess.”

My father sets my nose at mid-field. “You’re going to feel a lot of pressure, Pete.” He works his thumb left to right. My septum slowly moves out from underneath my eye. He puts his right thumb opposite. Counterpresses and wiggles. Counterpresses again. He shakes his head. “You should’ve seen your face when I hit you. You were so surprised.”

He’s still smiling.

My friends shake their heads.

We keep playing. The blood on my shirt dries to a starch. When I run hard, red mist comes out of my nose.

After the game, my father buys all us ice cream at a shop two blocks away. The girl behind the counter looks uncomfortable as I pick my flavor. My shirt has a two-foot peninsula of blood down the front and my right eye is swelling shut.

Who are your influences?

My father was/is my biggest influence. He is, to me, a working class hero. He worked as a roofer on Long Island, New York, often in the Hamptons where he found himself tarring the roofs over the socially elite’s lives. One of the most memorable anecdotes he would share with us is how he would talk to prominent people, like Willem de Kooning, as if they were anyone else. I could picture my father, a mammoth of a man (both physically and mentally), in his work clothes shaking the delicate hands of the privileged without reservation. Lines are drawn way too often in our lives, which of course is also the case in the literary world. My father helped me to look at people, including myself, for who they are and the quality of what they produce. He taught me to have equal respect for the garbage man and the President and I believe that has greatly influenced the way I not only approach life, but also writing. He also taught me to work hard and I apply that to writing. I write every night; I have learned that you can’t wait for the muse to find you, just like you can’t expect someone to pay your bills or fix your sink. Don Winter, a poet I deeply admire, wrote a great article: “press of the real: poetry of the working class” that delves into the literary relevance of working class poetry. I think my father’s teachings were rooted in working class values and I am more than thankful for all that he gave me.

In addition, oodles of other writers inspire me such as Nathan Graziano, Daniel Crocker, Julie Buffaloe-Yoder, Annie Menebroker, John Dorsey, Marianne Moore, Lorine Neidecker, Martin Espada, Sherman Alexie, Cathy Song, Kell Roberston and I could go on forever.


What are you reading now?

Julie Buffaloe-Yoder actually turned me on to Wilma Elizabeth McDaniel’s work which I am eating up. I just read Karl Koweski’s new collection of short stories Blood and Greasepaint and Patti Smith’s Just Kids, both I highly recommend. I just picked up Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club. I read tons of children’s books as I have a three-year-old daughter, right now she’s really into the Fancy Nancy books by Jane O’Connor. In addition, I am writing reviews for Kirkus, so I read whatever they send my way.


You have the ability to write poems according to themes. Have you always written poems in batches according to a theme? What inspires your choices of theme? Are there any themes you make it a point to stay away from?

Yes, I almost always write in themes, but I have become, over time, more focused on achieving that outcome. After my chapbook Dream Big, Work Harder was published, I realized that the collection, a tribute to my father, the title being his mantra, did not succeed in accomplishing what I wanted it to. Individually, I love the pieces, but I want my poems to speak to one another. I believe this partially stems from a writing teacher, Anthony Robinson, which I had at SUNY New Paltz who only let us write short stories in class. At the time, I was furious because poetry is the genre I want to toil over, but he believed that undergraduates wrote dreadful poems and refused to waste time reading about broken hearts and drunken nights, so I wrote stories from my poems and poems from my stories. He actually really helped develop my narrative style without ever reading any of my poems. As far as thematic inspiration, I am open, alert and allow themes to find me. I do try to steer away from being overly confessional.


Ahhh, confessional poetry, your thoughts?

When my first full-length collection Falling Forward was published by sunnyoutside press, in a review for Chronogram my mentor, Pauline Uchmanowicz, revealed the obvious to me. She wrote that my collection “follows in the tradition of confessional poets, though its autobiographical content remains modulated by skillful crafting. A singular, assured persona emerges in the book, a grim interrogation of the vicissitudes of marriage and motherhood. … With her unblinking look at life’s most intimate moments, Schumejda is a courageous new poet.” Initially, I was somehow offended by being labeled a confessional poet; I mean, I just write what I know. I don’t hang out on the weekends with Greek Mythological figures. I don’t take extravagant vacations to foreign countries; really I am happy that my car makes it to and from work. I don’t connect with the language poets; hell, honestly, I had to look up the word “vicissitudes” when I read the review.

Anyway, for a few weeks, I thought about this review. I asked my husband and he confirmed it, he hates when I write about “us” because every poem is so personal, but completely warped. Well, yeah of course it is distorted; it’s poetry. I do write from experience: being a waitress, working on our fixer upper houses, playing pool, losing a business, losing my father, teaching, having a daughter, having several surgeries, my garden, etc . . . The negative connotations attached to confessional poetry seem to overshadow the craftsmanship and that is why I struggle with that label. Well anyway, I admit I do write 1/3 confessionally.


Do you take other’s feelings into consideration when writing?

Whenever I think about how my work may affect my loved ones, I consider Sally Mann’s photographs and think about how powerful and inspiring her controversial family portraits are. A few years ago, during an interview on Poet to Poet, Writer to Writer with Doug Holder in Sommerville Massachusetts, I was asked this question and I said, without hesitation, that I did not care how anyone else felt, and that I write what I write. I have reconsidered my response and use discretion when selecting pieces for publication.


What kind of music do you like?

Recently, Steve Henn, a fellow poet, said “you can’t really trust someone who claims “I don’t like music,” can you?” Well, I do listen to all kinds of music on my long drive to and from work, when my car radio is working, but there is almost never music playing in our house. I like to listen to the world around me. I love the sound of my husband’s power tools as he is always working on something, the sound of my daughter playing, our cat going bonkers, the neighbor’s dogs barking, sirens, trains, traffic, etc… I really like quiet, so that I can think. Ironically, my daughter, Kaya, is named after a Bob Marley Album, so maybe I am 1/3 suspect.


What do you try to hide?

My inability to stay organized. I am totally domestically disabled; before I have people over I throw everything in the closet, turn down the lights and greet them with alcohol before they can find flaws. I am stubborn and impatient. I am clumsy and accident-prone. Besides writing, every project I start I leave unfinished. My husband always has to clean up my mistakes.


What is in your refrigerator right now?

Probably the remote control that we can’t find, a few packages of high-class hot dogs, a mob of condiments, a bottle of wine that I bought for our neighbors for Christmas and have yet to give them, one lone Coors light that was left here during a party, a jar of pickled tomatoes, eggs, cranberry juice, milk, yogurt, a bowl that I am afraid to look into and a rotting head of lettuce.


What new projects are you working on?

I have a chapbook forthcoming from Propaganda Press titled The Heart’s Unwritten Constitution. I am really into handcrafted and special edition chapbooks especially to balance a world that is quickly moving toward online publications. I am excited that Propaganda is allowing me creative input as far as art and design. I am thrilled that Hosho McCreesh, writer/ artist, will be contributing to the project. I finished a full-length manuscript called Cadillac Men that explores the rise and fall of a pool hall that I co-owned with my husband. I am working on a series of garden poems and a series of poems about fractured memories. You can find more on all that on my Web page.


My friend’s husband Paul came over to cut down trees in the woods behind our house. He arrived with a gas-powered chainsaw, an electric chainsaw, soundproofing earmuffs and protective eyeglasses. My husband, misty-eyed, watched him unload his Jeep. Then they shared a manly handshake.

“I want to get rid of that one, those two over there, and that big one over there is dead, so let’s take it down, too,” I said to Paul.

“C’mon, Rick,” Paul said, slapping him on the back. “Give me a hand.”

As the men scrambled down the hill into the woods, I was secretly glad it was someone else’s husband who would be doing the dangerous work. But I wondered whether Ricky had been harboring resentment: I had refused to let him get a chainsaw or any other power tool that can chew a hand like a hungry bear.

When Ricky moved into my Upper West Side apartment 10 years ago, he had old-school hand tools: augers, planes, gimlets, awls, spokeshaves — nothing that needed gas or electricity. We kept them in the trunk of our car because there was no place inside to store them safely — and because no torture museum was in the market for artifacts. I used to say that one day a sheriff was going to stop us and ask, “Sir, can you open the trunk?” and we’d be detained for hours.

“Why don’t you get rid of these old tools?” I’d ask.

“Because one day I’m going to build something using hand tools,” he’d promise.

When we moved to Rockland County, Ricky got a shed to store his hand tools, but he insisted we needed an all-in-one Black and Decker battery-operated drill driver for our 150-year-old house.

“You can’t call the super every time something breaks,” he said.

Over the years, my husband has come to the rescue more times than I can remember, tightening towel rods, fixing cabinets. He crafted shutters, built planting boxes and framed a patio.

Until I married Ricky, the men I knew, my father included, hired other men to cut, drill and fix stuff. I had at first assumed my husband, who grew up in urban Canarsie like me, descended from similar stock. But his late father was a power-tool dealer who brought every newfangled gadget to their weekend Catskill house. Ricky’s boyhood toys were drills, saws, tractors and Sawzalls. He learned to fell a tree when he was 12.

It’s comforting to live with a man who knows his way around a toolbox. It’s even sexy, so long as he’s not in danger of getting mangled or disfigured.

Three years ago, Ricky wondered if I would consider buying him a stationary table saw for his birthday.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“A flat table with a blade underneath it,” he explained. “You turn a crank and the blade rises from the table.”

The only thing rising at that moment was my lunch.

“Why do you need that?”

“I’m thinking about building a greenhouse.”

The following weekend when we went to look at the contraption, I turned white.

“I guess you’re not too comfortable with this?” he asked. We didn’t buy one.

Weeks later, we were with our friend Peter. I noticed horrific scarring on his hand.

“I severed my hand using a table saw,” he said.

I shot Ricky a look. Even he looked a bit queasy when Peter explained how the paramedics brought his thumb on ice to the ER so it could be reattached.

Father’s Day is around the corner. I asked him what he wanted. He said a slick.

“It’s a chisel with a blade you use for post and beam construction,” he explained. “I’m going to build a timber-frame studio the old-fashioned way, using hand tools.”

I can live with that.

When I was three, maybe four, my parents moved from a basement apartment in Skokie, Illinois into their first house, built just for us, in Buffalo Grove. My sister was just over a year old. In the apartment, we shared a bedroom, crib-to-crib on the yellow shag carpeting, and I remember peering up from the mattress to the ceiling-high windows. The sidewalk bisected the pane, and I would watch the meditative parade of winter-booted feet stamp the snow dirty, the orange of the streetlight pooling like the color of memory itself.

I remember listening to my sister sleep, breathe, as orange coins fell from the unseen sky, landed on the sidewalk, and called themselves snow. Perhaps, still in close proximity to the womb, this age and this scene rested, and still rests, in some escaped safety, the kind we spend the rest of our lives, in vain and occasional depression, in more than occasional delusion, chasing.

We left that apartment with my mom one morning, leaving the tiny kitchen where our toys were kept on the shelf that most people would have used for spices; where my parents stored only four glasses, one for each of us, mine a plastic yellow cup, my sister’s a plastic green; where, in the living room, on that same shag carpeting, I lay on my stomach watching Sesame Street, and pissing myself. My mom, when recounting this story, overused the word engrossed.

She had long, straight, middle-parted brown hair, a high forehead, coffee-coaster glasses tinted rose like wine, and wore wool, button-down sweater jackets, sewn with orange and blue diamonds. My father had then peaked at 240 pounds, his curly nest of brown hair and full beard that ran from bottom lip to Adam’s apple, underlining his role as sleepless podiatry student. Everything about his appearance exemplified the words internship, residency… and perhaps, as I later learned, prescription drugs. Together they looked like a 1970s-era Diane Keaton and her sasquatch lover leaving the Skokie apartment landlorded by the Papiers, an elderly Polish couple who survived the Holocaust, and who would sing opera together upstairs, my mom holding me by the armpits up to the radiator vent to hear.

My mom drove northwest with my sister and me to check out the Buffalo Grove house in its skeletal stage, a two-story raised ranch, done in what my mom referred to as “mock-Tudor style.” I confess I don’t know what mock-Tudor style means. Either it’s Tudor style or it’s not. I also confess that I frequently imagined a series of hecklers pointing and laughing as Henry Tudor fought the War of the Roses. This was only after I learned to read though.

With my mom, my sister and I tramped along the floors and stairs—still in their plywood stage—of what would be, and still is, my parents’ home. During the first couple years of home ownership, strapped for cash, my parents took in a boarder. She was beautiful, in an elfish sort of way—large mahogany eyes, large ears, and large hoop earrings through which I would snake my four year old fingers, pulling just gently enough to watch her lobes droop, then snap back into place. I remember she had a freckle on one earlobe, left or right I can’t be sure. And I remember raking my pointer over it, marveling at the way it would catch then release the fingernail like some small speed bump of the body. She must have been in her early twenties and wore her brown hair short and bobbed, down to her ear-tops, and bangs that sometimes ran into her eyes. She would blow them out again with her breath, her bottom lip extended, pink and a little frightening. I remember her without a name, though it could have been Susan, and with a received sensuality that I couldn’t have possibly felt at four, could I?

But I remember lying with her in her room—the room that my father would later turn into a tribute to exercise, with a dumbbell rack, rowing machine, treadmill, weight bench, where he overzealously designed and lorded over my sister’s and my workout regimen, which began at age five. But before this strange childhood horror, I would lie with the boarder on the high bed that my parents supplied her, with frilly-edged sheets and blankets and pillowcases of the same orange and blue of my mom’s sweater jacket. We would lie on that bed of petticoats and talk and touch each other’s skin, before my mom would call me upstairs for dinner. She seemed then my touchstone, my point of entry into the world. She stayed with us for about six months, I think, and then was gone. I don’t remember saying goodbye to her. One day she was there, and the next, she was not, the bed empty, soon to be sold at some garage sale.

Though I didn’t speak of the boarder again for many years, until I was probably about her age, twenty-six and poised to marry Louisa, I recalled her fondly, breezily at intervals throughout my life, in some hazy and delicious sense of loss, so sweet it hurt, some engine driving perhaps, the wanderlust that led me from place after place after place to my wife. When I brought her up aloud, Louisa and I were having dinner at a steakhouse with my parents, my sister and her fiancé, my mom beginning to feel the stirrings of illness that were for so long misdiagnosed as polymyalgia or “general malaise.” Perhaps it was this upsweep of togetherness, of having arrived as a family at some sort of initial platform of…well…arrival, of love, of partnership, of complicity, of medium-rare ribeyes and loaded baked potatoes the size of footballs, of rocks glasses filled with whiskey and vodka, of blue cheese-stuffed olives and the silverware din that releases the mystery endorphin responsible for over-indulgence, but I asked at that table, if my parents knew what became of my beloved boarder and her elastic earlobes. I imagined her happily married to a lucky, lucky man.

A little drunk, my parents laughed and wrinkled their foreheads, confused, my mom’s eyes snapping open and looking healthy for the first time in months. Swallowing, they told me they never took in a boarder at all. That I had imagined the whole thing. It became a joke at the holidays, during Louisa’s and my once-a-year trip into Chicago. Have you talked to the boarder lately?

I can’t explain this. Whoever or whatever she was, she ignited something in me, some sugared longing that Mexico helps put into context. Here, wandering the middle of the night streets of Mexico City, full of food and aphrodisiac elixirs, out of sorts with the love of my life, the world seems full of ghosts. They are almost pedestrian here, not one of them dominating another, and all we can do is submit to their distant sirens, flashing Zócalo lights, legless beggars, orange stone churches, silent bells, Aztec sun gods perched at the dark rooftops.

I take Louisa’s hand and we walk back to the cavernous Rioja. I wonder what is real and what isn’t. I wonder what Louisa sees, strokes, says goodbye to, that I can’t. At a certain age, the world’s radiator vents close themselves, climb too high, and we’re far too heavy to be lifted by the armpits. I wonder what I’m looking for up there anyway, or down there in that inscrutable bedroom; where, in this life, I have yet to board. A wild energy runs into my legs and Louisa must feel it too, thick as crude, because we simultaneously quicken our pace, rush like erogenous ghosts back to our room of echoes. We pass two ancient Aztec women, hunched and tiny. They whisper secret operas to each other, hiding their answers, and perhaps ours too, in the thick black of their braids.

A year ago at this time my father played, what I believe to be one of the funniest April Fool’s Day jokes ever, on my mother while at the University of Virginia hospital in Charlottesville.

Three weeks before on March 13, 2009 my father was diagnosed with a rare and extremely aggressive type of cancer, Acute Myelogenous Leukemia (AML). Approximately one month and three weeks later, complications from this cancer, a bacterial superbug to be more precise, claimed his life on May 21, 2009, while at Duke University in Durham, the hospital he had been transferred to after leaving UVa.

He was 59.

I received a phone call that morning at 1:30 AM while in Charlottesville. Arising from bed, feet hitting the floor, I slammed my upper leg into the footboard by accident, dropping me to my knees in pain, forming a bruise that wouldn’t completely go away until over a month later, a constant reminder of what had transpired that morning.

My fiancee at the time–now wife–Allison and I had just put this bed up, having taken down our previous bed. This bed was a queen and roomier so that she and I and our dog, Motzie, could sleep comfortably altogether at night piled on the bed. I wasn’t yet used to its bulkiness, its shape in the night.

When the phone rang, I knew what it meant. Because of the time of morning, I knew it wasn’t a phone call I wanted to answer. I did nevertheless. My sister’s voice came across the phone, sad and serious, the voice of an older sister, my only sister, telling me our father was dying and for me to come as quickly to Durham as I could get my shoes on.

I packed my clothes quickly and for a brief second, pulled out a pair of khaki pants and a dress shirt and tossed them on top of my travel bag. I knew this weekend I would be going to my father’s funeral.

But instead of packing them, I placed my pants and shirt back on their rack, my loafers back in the closet, and refused to pack them. I couldn’t give up hope though I knew at this point I should. I wasn’t going to pack clothes for my dad’s funeral.

I tossed on a pair of basketball shoes, an oversized black t-shirt, and jogging pants. My wife was ready as was my dog. My wife and I have no family in Charlottesville and had to make a pit stop in our hometown which was on the way, two hours south of Charlottesville, two hours north of Durham, in Charlotte County, Virginia.

It was a long drive from Charlottesville to Durham, the longest drive I have ever taken though having traveled physically longer distances before and since.

I arrived at Duke and my dad’s sister, my aunt Gloria, met me just outside the lobby at the front door.

“It’s bad,” she said. “You need to prepare yourself.”

I knew it was bad but I didn’t know what she knew. My mom had called me a number of times while on my way to ask how far along we were.

“His blood pressure is going down,” my mom said to me, crying. “The doctors don’t know how much longer he can hold on.”

And though I knew it was bad and though I thought I had prepared myself as best mentally as I could, I couldn’t prepare myself for what I was about to see.

My stomach was extremely upset and I told my aunt that I had to go to the bathroom first, there was no way I could hold it any longer. I did so.

Then Allison and I walked toward my dad’s room in ICU, which if I am correct, was on the 9th floor. I can’t remember anymore.

My mom and sister were inside, as was my uncle Rodney, my dad’s brother, his wife Kim, and Gloria.

The machines were beeping steadily and there was a musty smell, the smell of chemotherapy that I now identified with my father’s odor.

My mom looked at me and broke down crying as did my sister.

“Talk to him,” my mom said. “He can hear you.”

His bright blue eyes were yellowed and rolled back in his head. His mouth was wide open and there was a tube going down his throat if I remember correctly. His arms were scabbed and peeling. His chest was slamming violently up and down, up and down, from the ventilator which was pumping oxygen into his chest.

1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10

1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10

1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10

If you count those numbers as fast as you can over and over again, that’s how fast my dad’s chest was moving up and down. I couldn’t get that image out of my head for over six months and am still haunted by it from time to time.

My dad wasn’t on life support. They weren’t keeping him alive on life support just so that I could see him before he died. I heard someone say that once. I wanted to punch their teeth into the back of their throat it made me so mad.

My dad was still living on his own. Yes, with help. But on his own.

“I love you Daddy,” I said to him. “I want you to know that we will be okay.”

For the past three weeks leading up to this day, I had drafted a letter to my father.

I want you to know that you are a great father. I don’t know if I ever told you that. But you are. I want you to know that you and Mama raised two responsible, hard working kids who love you. I know you got on me when I was younger. I’m just as hard headed as you I guess. And I did some real dumb shit at times. But I want to thank you for being the stern father you always were. It made me who I am today. And just to let you know, I plan to be exactly like you when I have a kid one day and I hope he’s a boy, Daddy. I hope he’s a boy because I’m going to name him after you. I’m going to name him Wayne.

But I never did give my dad that letter. I kept writing it and rewriting it and tearing it up. If I gave my dad that letter, I thought to myself, I would be giving up hope that he would be okay, that he would outlast this cancer just like he outlasted the Stage IV Colon Cancer he had been diagnosed with ten years earlier.

I didn’t want to give up hope.

I didn’t want to abandon that human emotional response to his diagnosis even though I had a gut feeling from the moment I heard his diagnosis that this was a whole different ballgame, that it would take his life unlike the last time.

As I held my dad’s hand, I reached for his forearm and stroked it, those strong forearms that once lifted me above his head on his shoulders when I was a kid. I rubbed my thumb against his hand and then the machines started beeping, his vital signs began plummeting.

The nurses came in. The machines grew louder and louder and the beeps coming faster and faster. His chest up and up, up and down.

He didn’t want to be resuscitated.

And then he died.



You may be wondering, what was the funniest April Fool’s joke my dad played on my mom. In keeping with my mom’s wishes, I won’t say.

I called her a few days ago and asked if she would write in detail that April 1st morning last year.

But she wrote me back and asked I not tell the story.

“Mama,” I said. “It’s the funniest joke ever. I want to post it on The Nervous Breakdown first thing April 1st morning so everyone can see how funny he was. 50,000 unique readers from around the world visit this site and read what us zany writers say each month.”

“It might embarrass your father,” she responded. And I understood that because I know what the joke was.

So if you’re wondering what it was, I can’t tell you. All I can say is I alluded to it once in a response to a post by Brad Listi not long ago. And I’ll leave it at that.

As I played numerous jokes on my co-workers today, I thought of this day last year and I laughed thinking of what my dad had done.

After posting a sign on the elevators leading to my company’s office building that said, “Out of Order – Please use stairs” and then posting another sign on the doors to the stairs that read, “Stairwell Closed – Please use elevator,” I hightailed it out of work and am writing this now. I hope I have a job tomorrow.

I could have been more descriptive, yes. But that wasn’t the point of this memoir entry. It was from the heart and it’s in memory of the funniest man I’ve ever met, my own dad.

Here’s to my dad’s favorite holiday and mine.

If you ever want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.

Woody Allen said it originally, but it’s my dad’s voice I hear when it echoes in my head. It was December of 2007, five days before Christmas. My father was going in for heart surgery the next morning and I was headed to our nation’s capital to tape a special for XM Radio. I called him from the balcony of my Los Angeles apartment. I shivered in the cold and smoked a cigarette as we talked.

“I have the flights all booked,” I said proudly. “I go to DC for the shows this weekend and then I’ll be in Texas on Sunday in plenty of time for Christmas.” My itinerary was perfect. “No,” I told him. “I can’t stay for New Year’s. I’m meeting Titus in Oakland and then we’re driving back to L.A. from there. I have it all figured out.”

“If you ever want to make God laugh…” he said.

“Yeah, yeah,” I said, laughing. “Everything’s going to be fine. I’ll call you when I get to DC and see how the surgery went.”

“I love you, son,” he said.

“I know.”

* * *

My father and I had our ups and downs through most of my life. Some of my earliest memories were the sounds of my parents fighting loudly as I tried to sleep. When I was almost nine they divorced, and I can still remember sitting in my dad’s little blue truck when he told me. The black, plastic, fake leather seats were cracked and smelled like cigarette smoke. The engine idled as we sat in the parking lot that evening after soccer practice. I was too young to know what he meant when he said that he wasn’t going to be living with us anymore.

I went from eight to thirty quickly, and our relationship swung drastically throughout those 22 years. Some memories are stronger than others, but most are just flashes of moments, captured in still life like Polaroids.

I’m nine. I’m walking the top row of the bleachers like a high wire artist. My dad is at the bottom talking to the woman that would eventually become my step mom. I’m eleven. Willie Nelson and Ray Charles sing Seven Spanish Angels in the living room as my dad adjusts the knobs on his new stereo and I lay on the floor. I’m thirteen. I tell him that I’m not going with him when he comes to pick up me and my brothers for the weekend. “I hate your stupid church,” was the excuse I gave before running back inside.  I grew up a lot after that.

There are pictures in my mind with no dates on them. I could have been twelve, or twenty. He had dogs, one after the other. Fritchie, Beignet, Max. There was a kitchen table with a bench on one side. I ripped my finger open on the lid from a can of Pringles at that table. You can still see the scar. The ceiling of the game room upstairs was covered in models I had made, painstakingly painting them and straightening the decals. Airplanes of every sort hung like icicles over the pool table.

When I was twenty-one, my grandmother went into the hospital. My dad paced the halls there waiting on the inevitable bad news from the doctors. I couldn’t imagine how he was strong enough to face the death of a parent.

* * *

I landed in DC and made my way to the hotel. My phone rang as I unlocked the door to my room. “Dad’s in a coma,” my brother told me. “He never came around after surgery.”

“I have a flight in the morning,” I told him, then hung up the phone in silence. I slid down the wall onto the floor of the hallway, staring blankly in front of me. I had a show in two hours.

The club was packed with people when I walked in, and I hated every single one of them. I had spent my entire life mocking the general population, with their real jobs and their fluorescent lighting and their boring offices. That night I wanted desperately to hide in a cubicle, to peck away at some keyboard with no one staring at me. This was the trade off, I learned. Now, not only did I have to pretend to be happy myself, I had to make other people happy on top of it.

My grandmother, long before I ever started doing comedy, used to say how amazing it was that Jack Benny was able to perform while his son was dying. I understand it now. I stayed on stage for an hour and a half, somehow removed from, but still aware of, my sadness and fear. To this day the stage remains the one place that I still feel completely in my element, regardless of what is going on around me. Jack Benny must have gotten that.

I walked off stage that night and back into the dark reality that was now my life. I started canceling my 2008 dates before I even got on the plane the next day. I was going to stay in Houston indefinitely.

* * *

It was Christmas Eve, three days later. I had sent my brother home to spend the evening with his wife and daughter. I sat huddled in the lobby between visitation periods, aimlessly surfing the web on my laptop and waiting for the next opportunity to stare down at my father and hope for a response. I walked into the cafeteria late, hoping for something to eat.

“How are you today?” the lady behind the counter asked.

My question was a simple one, and the words fell out of my exhausted lips like leaves from a dying tree. “How late are you open?”

She repeated herself. “HOW are YOU today?”

“How LATE are you open?” I tried again.

“I asked how you were today.”

“I am in the hospital on Christmas motherfucking Eve,” I said, bouncing my tray loudly on the metal rails. “How late… are you… fucking open?”

“Sir, you don’t have to use –“

“Maybe you should just slosh some mashed potatoes on the plate next to my chicken fried steak, pick up your minimum wage based check, and take your soulless body away from people that could not care less how fucking chipper you pretend to be around the holidays.”

My phone rang as I walk away. It was her. “Merry Christmas,” she said, and I thought to myself how much my dad would have liked her.

* * *

Days rolled by, and I spent every one in that very same lobby. It was a waiting game. Just wait. There are no other options. You can wait, or you can wait. For twenty minutes at a time, five times a day, seven days a week. Nothing you can do can change the situation. Friends call. “I’m sorry,” they say, but they don’t know.

My youngest brother was still in Hawaii. He had moved there on a whim, with one bag and nowhere to stay. He had gotten off a plane in Honolulu two months before and carved out a niche for himself there somehow. He wanted to come back now to be involved but he didn’t have a plan. My car was still at my apartment in Los Angeles, and the goal became to find a way to get him there so he could drive it back for me.

Coordinating a trip for that particular brother has always been like playing Plinko. No matter how much planning you try to do, that little plastic disc is just going to end up wherever the hell it wants to go. We sorted out his flight and I arranged to have him picked up in L.A. I had everything arranged actually – a place to stay, my car keys, and enough cash to get him back to Texas. All he had to do was get on the plane. Whether he got distracted by a shiny object or simply got lost I don’t know, but he missed his flight. To his credit he did try to come up with an alternative plan. “I can catch a flight into San Francisco instead,” he said.

“Of course,” I told him. “Go right ahead. It’s only seven hours from L.A. Great job, Magellan.” Eventually he did make it back, though I’ve never managed to find out exactly how. I was actually worried more about my vehicle than I was him. Not that I didn’t love him, but I had two other brothers; that was my only car.

* * *

Days turned into weeks, and the diagnosis grew more and more grim. There had been a series of strokes and brain activity was virtually nonexistent. On January 17, the decision was made. Family was gathered in the small, now private room. Goodbyes were said, tears were shed, and the breathing machine removed. He was gone. The tension hung like humidity in the air, thick and suffocating. My brother and I turned to each other and embraced, heads buried in each other’s shoulders.

I felt something move as we stood there – a vibration – down my upper leg. It was awkward as we both held each other.

“Tell me that was your phone,” he said.

“God, I hope so,” I replied, and in the most unlikely of places, we laughed hysterically.

* * *

I was getting dressed on the morning of the funeral.  How am I supposed to get through this?  I’m the oldest; I’m supposed to be an example.  I don’t want to do this, I told myself over and over again.  My phone rang.  Who would possibly call me on a day like this?  Moments later my voicemail beeped.  My friend Kevin’s voice came through the speaker as I checked the message.  His father had passed away a few years before.  “You are the strongest son,” I heard him say.  “You’re going to be okay.”

I smiled.  I hope you’re right, I thought.  I’m going to have to be today.

* * *

It’s been over two years now, and some things have faded. Sometimes I get disappointed in myself when I realize that I’ve let more than a day or two pass without thinking of him. How could I forget? Then, out of the blue, a day or so later, I’ll pick up the phone to call him. I’ll stop myself as I scroll down to the D’s. “Damn. He really would have gotten a kick out of that story,” I’ll tell myself.

Or maybe he will flash into my head over a bowl of cookies and cream ice cream covered in chocolate syrup. I use to eat it at his house on Saturday nights after everyone had gone to bed. Just me, sitting on his living room floor watching Star Trek: The Next Generation… God, I was such a nerd.

The comfort is there now though. I don’t have to carry it every day. The memory has disappeared and resurfaced enough times now that I know it will never go away for good. It seems like an eternity since I stood on that balcony with my big plans for the future. I was going to take over the world, and he was going to have his heart fixed. I’ve had to readjust my plans now though, to compensate.

And somewhere, I’m sure, there is laughter.

My father, a man with a degree in physics and an impressive resume of important sounding acronyms, does not really read.

As an avid reader who grew up in a house full of crowded bookshelves, it has taken me several years to recognize this, though I still have not fully accepted it. The worn paperbacks that constitute the majority of my parent’s library are thin sci-fi and spy thrillers, which I eventually realized had not been read for years.

My mother holds me in her arms under a tree – or so the story goes, I am too young to remember on my own – and explains that daddy is broken and has to go to heaven. In heaven he’ll be fixed, she says. If he comes back here, he’ll still be broken, that would be bad, and we wouldn’t want that, right? I guess I agree to keep daddy in heaven because that’s where he stays. I really wouldn’t want him to be broken. I mean, I don’t think I would. At least he’d be here though. No, I’m sure I wouldn’t. Not really.

He is buried. I don’t know where. Then he is gone. We leave town, move to New York City and soon everything is different.

I grow up and go to school. I go to camp and take dance lessons. I read books and play in the park. My mother remarries and we have a new family. Somewhere in between she writes a book about our loss called Rachel and the Upside Down Heart. It allows people to ask us questions and it allows us to give advice. We’ve moved on quite nicely, we are told. We agree. We are fine.

I don’t know when I realize there might be a tangible access to him, a grave. He is in New Jersey I learn, B’nai Jeshurun Cemetery, to be exact, just over the river, near Newark. I wonder if I can see him from my balcony.

Visiting him never seems like an easy option. My mother is always full of excuses. The roads are confusing. We don’t have a car. Next year. Maybe.

Somehow, when I am old enough to drive, I round up a car and rally my mother and we are off. We may float over the Hudson for all I know. I have no memory of that day before standing in the rain in front of his grave.

It is very odd, almost creepy, to see your own name on a headstone. ZIENTS. There it is. I am not used to sharing my name with others. I am the only Zients in my immediate family since my mother remarried. It is one of the reasons I love going to dinner with my grandfather. “Ah, Mr. Zients, right this way. Your table is ready.” I love the sound of it. It makes me feel special to share his name, our special bond. But seeing our name like this makes me pause. I know that my father died, obviously. But there it is on a tombstone above some grass with his casket and remains of a suit below. He is all alone too. No one by his side. My grandmother is there, true, but she is just a little too far, a little too out of reach. To his left and to his right are empty plots. At least I know my grandfather will fill the space next to my grandmother. I do not know if I, or my remarried mother, will do the same for my father.

My mother has brought a candle that she and my father purchased together many years ago. My mother is the overly-sentimental-keeper-of-unnecessary-nostalgia type. I usually find this irksome, but right now I love her for it. We light the candle at the base of his grave, and my mother strolls away so I can meet my father.

“Hello,” I begin. “I just graduated college. A real big girl. I’m doing great.” I lie.

“Stanley, my stepfather, you know Mommie’s husband, well, he adopted me,” I explain, half expecting lightning and thunder to strike me down as I do. “Grandpa said it was okay. It’s a good thing, actually, but still, if it bothers you, I’m sorry.”

It begins to rain a little bit harder. I begin my goodbye, imagining, as I am prone to do, that I am not just talking to some wet grass off the New Jersey Turnpike and that he can actually hear me. As I do, the candle goes out. Damn rain I think to myself, ruining my moment. I turn to my mother and complain, “the candle went out.” She walks over to join me and it goes back on. Hand to God, it goes back on.

For a brief moment I am jealous that he chose to show himself as my mother approached. Was he talking to me or to her? Why couldn’t he have been clearer? I want to think it was to me, or even to us, but what if it was just to her. It did go back on when she walked over. Nothing changed as I stood there, except that it went out. He hates me. It’s quite clear. I am not important enough to overcome the rain. It’s true.

This is stupid. The candle went back on. It is magical actually. He was talking to us. Yes, he was talking to us. That is tremendous, really quite spectacular, a sign from above, if you think about it.

My mother and I hug and cry and declare it lovely. Lovely indeed. This is what we call beautiful we discuss, and we decide it is the most beautiful day ever in the history of ever. We leave the cemetery and head back to New York, and I feel worthy of being alive.

We drive, maybe in silence. I’m sure there are no words that would be right. No words to express what I now know, that my father up on the slant of the hill above my grandmother and the other to-be-filled spots is king of the cemetery. He reigns there, all powerful. And he’s watching out for me. I love that. I smile and feel comfortable (or at least as comfortable as I can) leaving him behind.

I drop my mother off, loving her just a little bit more and race to the East Side to pick up my friend Jennie. I had it perfectly planned before the day even started. I was going to spend the morning in New Jersey with my mother and would still have enough time to make it out to Long Island in the afternoon for Sam’s funeral. When I planned it, it almost seemed appropriate to do them both on the same day.

Jennie had called a couple of days earlier to tell me Sam had died.

Sam Mazlow was one of three brothers who owned Mazlow’s, the restaurant where Jennie and I had worked for several summers out on Fire Island. We’d started as busgirls and worked our way up, all the way to waitresses. Mazlow’s was our life for four months out of the year and now one of them had died.

“Of course, I’ll be there,” I explained as she told me about the service. I thought about our summers and the trouble we got into and the safe haven that Mazlow’s and their whole family served for us. I knew them well, even though I hadn’t worked there for a while. Paying my respects all the way out in Long Island, it was the least I could do. What a shame, really. He was too young. It’s really quite a shame. I made a note to bring my mother’s book.

I pick up Jennie and all her curly hair and head out of town for the second time that day. I want to tell her about the brush with the other side that I have just miraculously experienced in New Jersey. But it is a somber day and so is she, so I soften the story and just present the facts, leaving out all the grandness and glory. She is supportive and interested, but only as far as she can go. She could never fully understand. It was just between the three of us, a mother, a father and their daughter.

We drive, again in silence and my mind wanders, loving the concept of just the three of us – a mother, a father and their daughter. Mommie, Daddy and Me. I bathe in it for awhile because it is so foreign.

I don’t think anyone meant to dismiss me as a full-fledged family member, on either side. But that’s how it feels. I was too strong of a memory to be fully embraced by my father’s family and too weak of a presence at nine, when I met my new one, to demand my own niche. Even my grandfather, whom I adore, drunkenly referred to me in a toast at his 75th birthday party as a walking reminder of his dead son. It is not pleasant to think you trail grief from room to room at family functions. So I smile and mind my place and don’t make waves and hope it will adjust itself. But when the candle relit, I knew I was worth more than that. He was telling me he hadn’t dismissed me.

He should know I’ve never dismissed him. I wonder about him all the time. I picture him wooing my mother through the streets of Florence, Italy and finally proposing on the Ponte Vechio. I watch and rewatch his broadcasting videos and think about what else he could have accomplished. I know he would have been a huge, huge star. I check behind doors when I am home alone convinced there is someone there, a constant presence, a watchful eye that always makes me question my behavior before I am about to do something naughty.

I have imagined he hadn’t really died. It was all a ruse. He’d been wandering the streets with amnesia actually. And only, when the gods intervened, convinced I could handle it, and it was time for us to know each other properly, he’d walk back into my life and all would be explained. I’d take him by the hand and say, “It’s okay. I’m here.”

Or he’d pick me up from ballet one day before my mother had arrived and explain he was really a secret agent and the world had needed him and that was that and I needed to understand. I’d tell him I did. He’d say, “Good girl” and we’d grab my leg warmers and off through the back door on some adventures together.

I still see him in strangers on the street. I am constantly told people see him in me.

My head spins at the cosmic importance placed on the day, but as we head out of Queens I suddenly decide my father is an asshole, a real prick. Good riddance. Then I scramble for forgiveness and cry out to erase those thoughts from my stupid, stupid head.

What could he have possibly been thinking that day? Was it a hit on the head, a chemical imbalance or, waiting for me as well, an all encompassing “crazy” gene? Did my then four-year-old self flash before his eyes as he placed the noose around his neck? Did that image make him pause from what he was about to do for a moment, even just a second?

I spin recklessly out of control in my head as Jennie studies the map. Then the goddamn car begins to spittle and fiddle, and soon we are on the shoulder of the Long Island Expressway. The car is smoking and it is still raining, and this isn’t how I planned it at all. And how the hell did the candle relight? And now, above everything else, we’re going to be late.

A nice man stops and helps us. He brings us to a mechanic who says he can fix it, easy. We wait and get donuts as he does. Jennie is silly. She must think something’s wrong. She reminds me to breathe.

We finally arrive at the memorial drenched and stressed, but otherwise intact. The Mazlows, Carl, Renny, little Renny, they all just keep coming. More family from all nooks and crannies, from everywhere. I spot Erica, Sam’s widow, who smiles as she greets everyone who comes her way. I stop my approach and quietly judge her. How can she possibly be smiling at a time like this? That isn’t proper. We mingle and make our hellos and then there’s Ryann, Sam’s daughter, who is beautiful, all brown big eyes who embodies all that’s wonderful about being seventeen. I offer her my years of survivor wisdom and take her address to send her my mother’s book, which I have stupidly forgotten.

“It’s hard,“ I tell her.But it will pass. Really, I swear. Look at me. I turned out just fine.“ I smile all knowingly.

We hug and she says thank you like I have just whispered a secret in her ear that her father is really just outside.

When I get home I am all too aware that I have lied to Ryann. Why would I lie to her? She’s so pretty. Did I even know I’d lied? No. I meant it. I did. But because of me, she now expects an easy road ahead. What a dreadful, awful person I am. But I didn’t know what to say. I had to say something. I had to. That’s my job. I’m good at it. Or at least I was. What will I do now? Will I run away? Keep crying? Call her up and tell her it really sucks, like a film that wraps around your entire being or a stench that never washes away? Will I pretend? Pretend I even know what’s wrong?

I am jealous of Ryann with her big sprawling family. At least she knew her father. Like those whiny girls in gym class who complained about their parents’ divorces and only getting to see their dads on weekends. I wanted to punch them in the face and scream, “At least you have a father, you stupid little things.“

I want to tell myself to shut up, but only crazy people do that. And then I get it. I’m right on schedule. Today’s the day, the day I’ve been dreading, but secretly knew would arrive. The day I become broken. Well isn’t that perfect. It is my destiny, obviously. My father went crazy, and, according to my mother did not show signs until his early twenties. Well, here we go. Dammit.

The wind rattles the cheap windows in my fourth floor walk up and the pink paint continues to peel. I light a cigarette, my new dreadful habit, and put on my overly appropriate new favorite song, Joan Osbourne’s Crazy Baby and collapse on my bed.

My bed, which I just shared with Alex, the bartender from work, whom I don’t even like. He’s kind of an asshole. But I was bored and declared it French night and he could keep up when I ordered en francais and that’s all it took and then we were here. There are studies that say girls without fathers tend to be either prudish or promiscuous. I had always leaned towards prudish, but recently, I don’t know why, with the likes of Alex, Steve, Barney, Robert, I am single-handedly trying to prove the prosmiscuous studies right. I’m disgusting.

I am a failure, a fraud from the “put together” life I’ve led.

I call my mother and quietly tell her I need help. I am grateful she does not judge and we agree to call a therapist in the morning. Anticipating my next worry, she assures me that she and Stanley will pay for it. And so it is done. I’ve staved it off for today anyway.

I smoke my Parliament Lights, unsure of what has just happened. The stereo wails and I sit and wait, aware of every sound. My hand shakes holding the cigarette, as I think about the simplicity of a candle and some rain and of him up on the hill alone. I search for a moment of calm inside my little apartment, because I know that crazy swirls in the wind right outside my door. And I’m pretty sure it’s looking for another way in.

 

My father turned on the speakerphone, then dialed the number. His long, recently dyed hair shone black against the sunlight streaming through our Los Angeles apartment windows.

I glanced at my stepmother, Natali. She winked, a pair of golden teeth gleaming at me. She loved meddling, gossiping, trouble of any kind. So did her teeth.

Lyda–a retired hair dresser from across the hall–stood behind my father, arms crossed at the elbows, lips moving in worried waves.

I couldn’t believe they were actually doing this. But they would not listen to reason, so I hoped nobody was home. And then it came, the answer on the other end of the line. “Hello?”

Natali jumped in her seat. Lyda looked like a ripe tomato at a food festival, happy and terrified at the same time.

“Bless me, Boris,” my father said, motioning for us to stay quiet.


A pause. Then, “Who the hell is this?” Boris sounded like an unhinged cemetery gate.

“I am a man in love, Boris.”

Another pause. This one longer, testosteronier. “And I don’t give a damn, asshole.”

Well, this Boris was not an overly polite fella’, but I still felt sorry for him. He had no idea what was coming. He should never have answered that phone.

You might wonder to yourself why, why would a sixty year old man (dad), crank call an eighty five year old man (Boris)? Well, as I enlighten you, keep in mind that love, as is obvious from many Hollywood blockbusters, knows no common sense.

It all started with Lyda the hairdresser, who at seventy, had discovered a renewed zeal for coquetry. The first time Lyda saw Boris, she knew he was the man for her. They flirted shamelessly for the next three months, and soon their friendship grew into something which the American Idol contestants try to sing about every week at eight sharp.

Lyda and Boris became inseparable. But no matter how Lyda tried, she failed to move the relationship to the next level-marriage. Boris, the rascal that he was, preferred long matches of backgammon with his many friends, to the doldrums of matrimonial existence.

The couple began to quarrel until one day Boris packed up and left.

Lyda shared the sad news with my father and stepmother who quickly devised a plan to teach Boris a lesson.

So here we are. The phone call.

“Who is this?” Boris demanded.

“I need your help,” dad said. “My woman won’t marry me without your blessing.”

“Oh, really? Who’s this crazy broad?”

“Her name is Lyda and she’s my sunshine.”

This pause was indignant with a forecast of outrage in the near future.

My father gave Lyda an all knowing smile along with a nod of a man who was winning. “Please brother. Bless me. I love her and I want to make her mine–”

“You son of a bitch. Lyda’s my woman, mine, and I won’t let some Casanova schmuck like you, take her away from me.”

Lyda blushed. One wrinkled hand flew to her chest. Her eyes watered.

“Boris, all I want is a blessing,” dad said, motioning for my stepmother to cease her giggling.

“Well, you’re not getting it so shove off,” Boris shouted. “My Lyda is a flower that only I can pick, you got me? You touch her and I’ll feed your entrails to my dog.”

I had to cover my mouth to keep from laughing out loud. A flower? Really? I gave Lyda a once over. Standing there in her half rolled up stockings, a floral Mumu, and lipstick red enough to stop traffic, she reminded me of my grandmother minus the stage makeup. I began to doubt Boris’ sanity and his eyesight.

But as the man fought for his flower with ardency of a Shakespearean Romeo, I forgot about his age and hers. My amusement slipped behind something that surprised me very much. Wonderment, and a tiny drop of envy. Despite the crusty exterior, Boris turned out to be a helpless romantic, a knight defending his princess, Rhett battling for his Scarlett. I was nineteen and absurdly sentimental. To me true love was a religion. But I had never expected to see it demonstrated so feverishly between two people who, I had thought to my greatest shame, were too old to feel passion of any kind. So I stopped assuming, I listened, and I learned.

The conversation ended with Boris hanging up. My father was unperturbed by the other man’s hostility. In fact, he welcomed it as a good sign. “Don’t worry,” he said to Lyda. “It turned out better than I had expected.”

Are you sure?” Her face lit up around the edges.

“Like the sun in the sky.”

The next day Boris came back, a bouquet of daises in one hand and a ring in the other.They were married inside a week, and they are still together.

Bless me Boris!

Suicide and I have a relationship.

I would not say we are friends, but we go way back.

Way back to that day in 1975 when I was four years old and my father took the rope of a robe and tied it around his neck.

It’s the relationship I just can’t shake. It’s always there.

It was there when my mother moved us, not just from the house he died in, but the state.

It was there when I slept in my mother’s bed next to her for several years. She would buy me colorful new bedding hoping to lure me back to my room, but the sheets went unused.

It was there as I sat in our back room watching videos of my father over and over until the tape wore out and his image went missing.

It was there when each new school year I secretly hoped he hadn’t really died and had just lost his memory roaming the world aimlessly. He’d be my new math teacher and during attendance he’d see me and snap out of it.

It was there when my mother made me take down a photograph of him from my bedroom. And wouldn’t explain why.

It was there when I looked in the mirror and saw my father’s features. And there when my mother would tell me to stop making a certain face, so closely resembling him in that moment, upsetting her with just my smile.

It was there as I saw her huddled on our couch reading, alone.

It was there as I asked my friends each night on the phone if they were really my friends. Did they think I was funny? Pretty? Smart?

It was there when as I grew older I kissed more boys than I should have. And there when I excused those boys who turned out to be liars or cheats, and let them back into my bed.

It was there when I worried, at the end of my own rope, if it was my time now. The words would whisper from deep within and I knew that these same words spoke to him. I thought about following the sounds.

It was there when my grandfather after a few Grey Goose and tonics would grow quiet and sigh, “stupid kid” under his breath, but loud enough for me feel each word.

It was there as I traveled from place to place seeking out information. I went looking for his thesis at his college, now my college. I got his autopsy report and held it in my hands. I had dinner with his friend and felt jealous at his memories of him.

It was there when I got married and he didn’t walk me down the aisle.

It was there when I made my husband promise that if we had a son we would not name him after him. I did not want to chance being sad each and every time I called after my child.

It was there as thirty years later I found myself in a Survivors After Suicide group therapy meeting pleading and hoping to no longer be so burdened by his action.

It was there when I swore I did not want it to be there any more.

I was more than just the girl whose father killed himself.

It was there when determined to do good work I signed up to be a grief counselor. I cried as I toured the facility for the little four year old girl that I was that did not have a place like that. And it was there when I sat during the first day’s training and knew I would quit. I had a secret. I was two months pregnant and there in that moment I realized I was no longer interested in being so enmeshed with death, with suicide. I wanted to concentrate on this new life, not the one that I had never really known.

It was there when my son was born in an emergency, dire situation. “No. Why me?” I thought. “I have already had my tragedy.”

It was there when as my son got stronger, I realized I too had great strength from many years of practice.

It was there when we named our son after each of our grandfathers. And it was there, but by my invitation, when we gave him my father’s Hebrew name, needing to connect them. I needed to honor him.

I am determined to share with my son how my father lived. That includes how he died. But it will no longer be the first and only information about him.

My father was charming.

He made people laugh for a living.

He proposed to my mother in Italy.

He struggled with his weight.

And he killed himself.

My son will know these things.

My father’s baby picture hangs on my son’s bedroom wall along with all of his other grandparents’ baby pictures. Each night, I tell my son how much they love him. I have come to refer to my father as Grandpa Daddy. He holds equal weight each night with the other grandparents. But when I scan the pictures, it is Grandpa Daddy who my son most resembles.

Sometimes I get sad as I say our goodnights and place my son in his crib.

I am sad that they will not know each other. Sad that he is just a photograph to him.

I am sad that I never really got to know him, except through other people’s memories.

I am sad that he died, but not as sad for how he died.

There in that moment, after thirty years of hard work, how he died does not seem as important.

It does not go away. It is always there.

But now more like just a little bit over there.

Not right here.

Marty couldn’t hear my father. Historically, all the men in my family seem to have a difficult time relating to some children. Nobody has ever quite figured it out, either. Some say it’s the baritone voice, others say it’s because we tend to talk to children like adults, rarely raising the pitch of our voice, and never dumbing things down. Marty, the younger brother of my best friend, Reed, was just such a child; it’s like he didn’t even know my father was in the room. We were on this dual family trip at our desert lake-house on Lake Mead, Reed’s family and my own, and one morning, before we all loaded up and headed out on the lake, my father tried to get Marty’s attention. It became the biggest inside joke of our two families, that everyone heard my father except for Marty.

I don’t know if it’s entirely relevant, but I can’t describe the scene without wanting to explain that Marty was something of a different child. Don’t get me wrong, he was not at all retarded, not even autistic, just different. I’ll try to sum him up with a few images: As a toddler, though, oddly, only as a toddler, Marty spoke fluent Spanish, having spent, we presumed, a good deal of time more with the Mexican nanny than the rest of his family. In kindergarten, his parents were often called in for teacher conferences because he kept trying to take his clothes off, usually succeeding. He was prone to tantrums, and we, the older kids, exploited this, as mean little kids do, by taunting him as often as possible. Finally, I feel it is, if not important, at least colorful to note that, as a teenager, years after this episode at the lake-house, Marty was in the habit of creating and maintaining a prolific collection of potions and their accompanying bottles. His room was full of of blue vials. He was a special kid, and even that weekend, at just six years old, we all knew it.

Marty, Marty’s parents, my friend, Reed, and I were all in the living room, the parents reading, Reed and I playing Monopoly and Marty playing on his own, in the middle of the floor with some cowboy and Indian toys. My father came in wearing his usual boating gear of corduroy short-shorts, old tennis shoes and safari hat, and Reed and I looked up, eager for news that the boat was ready to go. “Reed, Thomas, do you two want to ride in the boat to the Marina?” my father asked us both. It was the coolest way to get there, and we both nodded with big grins. While everyone else would be in the car, the boat in tow, we would get to ride up in the boat, taking turns to control the steering wheel and pretending we were driving it down the highway. We had just turned nine, and riding in the boat on our own was a new testament to how old were were, practically young men it seemed. We were very excited. “Okay then, why don’t you two help me finish loading the coolers up in the boat,” my father said, glancing over at the coolers on the kitchen table.

My father thought Marty was weird – we all did, except for his parents, of course, though I’m not even certain about them – and I think he must have become quite self-conscious about it, as though Marty’s parents might start thinking that he was just as guilty as we two boys in all of our juvenile meanness. So he had taken special effort all weekend to try to get Marty to do things, join a hike, notice a particularly interesting rock, or go snorkeling. We hadn’t noticed it at the time, but Marty just never seemed to pay any attention to my father.

Now, in the living room, my father earnestly tried again. “Marty, do you want to ride with the boys up in the boat?” He couldn’t have been standing more than four feet from Marty, but Marty just sat there, making little gun noises with his tongue against the inside of his cheek, smashing this Indian into that cowboy. Reed and I hadn’t moved, both of us anxious to see if Marty would get to go, and we sat there, ourselves, waiting for Marty to respond. He didn’t.

My father tried again. “Marty? The boys are going to ride up in the boat on their own today. Would you like to go with them?” He stood there, looking down at the little boy. If he were the sort to take off his hat and scratch his head, he would have at this point, but he just stood there. I caught his eye, and couldn’t help but smirk, not quite giggle, but smirk. He almost smiled back, but kept his attention on little Marty, who was now in control of a mighty raid of Indians against one lone cowboy. “You know, we haven’t had enough ice cream for breakfast, have we Marty? I’d better put you in charge of all of the ice cream today.” At this, Marty’s Parent’s looked up from their respective books. They didn’t say anything, they just looked, brows furrowed in fresh confusion over the situation, and it seemed we could all feel the silence in the room as my father stared down attentively, trying to break through whatever magic kept this child from hearing him.

My mother, who had been busy throwing towels and shirts and whatever else into the duffel bags for the boat, came stomping up the hallway with a pair of walkie-talkies and addressed my father. “Fred, do we have batteries for these things, I don’t want them going out like last-” She stopped, apparently sensing the preoccupation in the room, and noticed my father looming over Marty. The Indians, at this point, had surrounded the lone cowboy, and one of them was throwing big marbles into the walls of a domino fortress he had escaped to.

Marty…” my father whispered, this time leaning in, drawing out the name. Nothing… By now, none of us could believe it. Clearly the child was right there, able to hear all of this. He must be able to, right? But none of us spoke. Nobody wanted to break the moment, everyone too entranced by this oddity of physics and child psychology. I started to get up, thinking I ought to get his attention or something, but my father motioned with his hand to wait a moment, and I did. “Marty, maybe today I’ll let you wear my favorite hat.” He leaned over to the hat rack by the door, eyes still fixed on the boy, and pulled off a stiff, white-mesh, safari hat that had a little solar panel on the top of it with wires that ran down to a small, electric fan at the brim. It wasn’t just my father’s favorite hat; it was everyone’s favorite hat. It was the most marvelous of hats, so absurdly practical, so brashly unattractive, that it held a kind of chieftain wonderment, as though the bearer of such a hat must be, ostensibly, the most important person in the room.

The cowboy stuck just the tip of his gun out from behind the massive domino wall and fired a single, deadly shot, killing one of the many Indian raiders. The Indians let out a holler, while the little boy made quiet, persistent, “lu, lu, lu, lu…” noises, both scaring the cowboy back behind his fort’s wall.

My father started waving a little, first a hand, then an arm, then both arms, still holding the marvelous hat. The boy didn’t stir. Then my father marched in place. Nothing. Then he started singing, not loudly like in a parade, but like a kid’s tune with some made up melody. “Marty, Marty, marty, marty, marteeee!”

Reed and I started laughing with our mouthes shut, hands covering our faces, trying, oh, trying so hard, to keep the laughter in. Marty’s parents sat there, wide eyed, looking down at their quiet son, up at my mascaraing father, and at each other, waiting for a cue.

Marty sat, scratched his own head for a moment, and leaned in to the action before him. Two of the Indians made a rush, smashing against the less protected eastern wall of the domino fort. My father, now more cartoon than man, turned with a disciplined about-face, paused, pulled open the sliding glass door, and marched outside onto the stairway. Another about-face, hand upon door, and he pulled the sliding door shut. “Marty!” He seemed to shout, his big voice rattling the door. At this point, both of us boys were actively giggling. My mother couldn’t believe her eyes, and she was laughing too. Marty’s mother, neck craned over to see my father’s antics behind her, she lets out a nose-laugh that sounded like steam from a valve, and Marty’s father just shakes his head, smiling.

Finally, my father stopped. Whatever this was, it was serious, or, at least, it was real. Something kept that boy from hearing him. It couldn’t just be his voice, because everyone heard that, unless there was some specific tone or frequency that this boy’s ears couldn’t receive. And it couldn’t just be that Marty was distracted, because he was never that distracted, and even now his head popped up and he looked around incuriously to see everyone laughing, never once noticing my father moving wildly behind the glass door.

Head a little lower, my father came in, quietly, with no singing, and no marching, and gently shut the sliding door. He put his favorite hat back up on the hat rack. “Okay Marty, well, I’m going to get the boat loaded now.” Held firmly in Marty’s hand, the Cowboy hopped on his horse and started fleeing. The Indians hadn’t counted on him having a horse.

Marty’s father leaned in a bit from his chair. He raised an eyebrow. “Marty,” he cooed, gentle as the breeze. “Fred is talking to you.”

“Who?” Marty’s head popped up, as bright and as eager as a squirrel’s.

Laughter. Oh my goodness the laughter. Laughter from everyone, from Reed and me, so that we both rolled back onto the floor. Laughter from my mother who leaned in against a chair by her side, chest heaving, eyes squinted. Laughter from Marty’s parents who both fell back against their chairs, mouthes open, knees up in the air and feet stomping back down again. Laughter from my father, who gave a satisfied, if not ironic chuckle, as he reached over to support my mother. “Huh?” Marty repeated, his face red with embarrassment but his eyes unsure why. He dropped the fleeing cowboy. The Indians fell silent.

The rest of the day was spent reliving the moment, mostly by the observers. Marty’s parents thought it was a real gag, just the cutest damned phenomenon, and egged on my father to say all kinds of things to their little son, some of which he heard, much, to our enjoyment, that he didn’t. Reed and I kept trying to lower our voices, calling out “Marty, Marty, come to me…” like a mixture of my father and Count Dracula. Marty, in his usual way, would throw a tantrum and storm off. Things went back to their usual routine, and the joke, as jokes do, wore old and nostalgic within hours. In the late afternoon, my father led us boys on hikes, and took us snorkeling, and pointed out particular rocks, and Marty would eventually come out of his huff, and tag along, never quite hearing anything my father had to say.