Saturday, January 27, 2007

Father's Night

When I was growing up, every Christmas Eve my old Italian grandmother would put out food on the dining room table as a gift for the souls of the dearly departed.

She had enough of them, poor woman, including her husband and my Aunt Mary, who died at 18 from lung disease.

It's an old world custom, which I'm sure can be found in many cultures, and as a kid I found it somewhere between cool and creepy.

I remember my grandmother as a tough old dame, but my Aunt Marie said grandma was never the same after Mary died. She was only human and the loss of her daughter took a lot out of her. I guess she was better at hiding her pain than a lot of people.

Now that I'm dealing with my father's recent death, I see that grandma's yearly tribute to the dead was more for her benefit than for any wandering spirit. Putting out food for her deceased relatives was a way of connecting with them, of keeping them here them alive in her world.

I think of grandma, who died when I was in the fifth grade, of my mom, who died nearly five years ago, of my father, and our pets--Schnapps, Casey, Phoebe--and I sit here in this empty house and realize I could hold a banquet for all my loved ones who've died.

It's nice to think of all us sitting at the dining room table, all this food around us. In my vision, we don't fight, we don't hurt each other. We speak kindly to each other and count ourselves lucky to have all these loving people around us.

My father came back to me Thursday in a dream that was neither pleasant nor sweet. The hell of it is, I had forgotten the damn thing upon waking up. I got out of bed Friday, had breakfast and was shaving when the whole thing came slamming into my brain like a runaway boxcar.

In the dream I'm walking through this massive, crumbling structure. It looks like an old factory and as I pass one of the rooms, I see my father curled up on a pile of rubble.

He's in his underwear with a black ski cap on his head, which he often wore to bed because his head got cold at night.

"I'm all right," he says to me, "I'm all right."

That's something my father used to say whenever he fell down or hurt himself or was feeling sick. Those were the first words out of his mouth--I'm all right.

Like any other normal human being, my father hated going to the hospital, so if he wasn't well, he wanted to let everyone know he didn't need to go to the ER.

I used take my dad's word for it when he said he was okay. Part of it was denial, where I hoped he really was all right and part of it, I'm ashamed to say, was selfishness in that I didn't feel like taking him down to the hospital.

Believe You Me

Years ago, he was sick to his stomach, but he told me he was okay and I went off to work. It was a contract job, meaning if I miss a day's work, I didn't get paid. I was talking to my sister that afternoon and told her about our father.

"You left him?" she said with justifiable disbelief.

My sister worked in Brooklyn, so she swung by the house and took my dad to the doctor. It wasn't anything serious, but at least she found that out for certain.

I took his word for it back in October when he fell down on the way to the bathroom shortly after dawn and assured me he was okay.

I put him back into bed, went to work and didn't think anything of it until his aide Mary called to tell me she was taking my father to hospital because he was sluggish and vague. It turns out he had had a stroke that morning and I felt like a first class idiot.

So when he fell down in the bedroom last month at 2 AM, I hesitated for a few minutes, since I had to go work the next day. But then I remembered the stroke and called an ambulance. It didn't help much in the end and he was dead within a few weeks, but at least I got him to a doctor as quickly as I could.

In the dream, though, I stupidly and selfishly take my father's word for it when he says he's okay--even though he's alone in an abandoned building in a pile of rubble!--and go off to meet some friends in some kind of cafeteria.

I order two huge hot dogs--I was having turkey hot dogs for lunch the next day, so I guess my subconscious picked up on that. But then I feel like I have to go back to him and I leave before my lunch arrives. Cheap bastard that I am, I am complaining to myself because I'm wasting money on food I'm not going to eat.

The dream becomes vague then and the last thing I recall is walking alongside one of my brothers.

"Isn't Dad dead?" I ask.

"Yes," my brother replies.

"But I just saw him."

Obviously I'm feeling a lot of guilt about the way I cared for my father and that shows up in the dream. I leave him, even though I know in my heart I shoudn't, and go off and have a good time with my friends.

I was pretty upset for most of Friday morning as I thought of my father in that trash pile and me leaving him. Even though it didn't actually happen, some part of me evidently thinks I'm guilty of abandoning my dad.

It's easy to drive yourself insane with guilt. I got some good advice from a total stranger the other day, but it took me a few days to appreciate it.

I was going to my gym class on Sunday and the trains were acting up. I got off the R and got on to the N express, only to have the N go down. So I got the next R train, warning a fellow passenger not to get on the dormant N train.

He stayed on the local, which then slowed down, while the formerly deceased N train suddenly came back to life and took off like Carl Lewis at the Olympics. That thing is probably pulling into Tokyo now, it was going so fast. Me, I just sat in my seat raging. I didn't want to be late for my gym class, but I didn't really want to go because I was tired.

I felt stupid because I had told this young man not to take the express and now he was stuck on the local--with me. I knew I was muttering curses a little too loudly, but I couldn't--or wouldn't--stop. Later I thought of an old Bill Cosby routine about the New York subways called "A Nut in Every Car."

It bothered me to think that I was the nut in this car, the one paasnger everyone avoided looking at so as not to rile me up even more. When the train pulled in Pacific Street, the young man got up and nodded to me.

"Good luck," he said. "Don't let it get to you."

Whoever you are, thanks for that little pearl of wisdom. Pleasant dreams.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

A Message From Uncle Joe

I got an e-mail from my Uncle Joe in Los Angeles today.

Joe is my father's younger brother, the last surviving male in my dad's family I believe; he wanted to share some of his memories of my father as a young man.

It's so hard for me to imagine my father as young so I really appreciated reading what Joe had to say.

"As a young man, "Joe wrote, "Jim could always be recognized by the speed with which he raced from one place to another.

"He ran constantly--up and down the four flights of stairs in the tenement we called home--to and from school--down to the baseball field or just off wildly in some direction to see a friend."

Joe said my father played sandlot football and baseball, sometimes with a guy named Sid who would grow up to be Paddy Chayefsky, the author of Marty, Network, and The Hospital, to name a few.

I remember my dad talking about Paddy Chayefsky. He told me one time they were playing a game and the loser had to pull some goofy stunt. Paddy was the loser and my father said he should sit over a sewer with a fishing pole.

The neighborhood cop came by--back when there were neighborhood cops--and got rather annoyed.

"What are you doing?" the cop asked.

"I'm sorry, officer," Paddy said. "I did it on a dare."

"I'll fan your ass on a dare," the cop shouted and Paddy made himself scarce, as the saying goes.

"Dancing was another of his great passions," Joe wrote. "His constant running as a pre-teen morphed into the Lindy, the Conga, and one of those dances that defined the era and the city--the Big Apple."

Then Pearl Harbor was attacked and my father was drafted. He was just 20 years old when he went into the army and soon became a tech sergeant a platoon leader. I had no idea he was so young; I guess I just refused to do the math.

I remember when I turned 20; I had a birthday party in my house with all my family around me. When my father was that age, he was being shot at, wounded, and killing other soldiers.

He once told me that his friends threw a party for him before he shipped out. He said his friends held a phony wake for him, where they had him lie down and then wrapped him up with a sheet. It was their way of dealing with the unspeakable.

"It is this period that I have some of my fondest remembrances of Jim," my uncle wrote, "We exchanged many letters; his were alway informative and often hilarious. He had a natural knack for telling the difficulties of army life while making them humorous."

Oh, yes, the war stories. I grew hearing those tales of army life and I never got tired of them. Last Christmas, I actually filled in for my dad when his memory had gotten so poor he couldn't remember his army experiences. But I knew them backwards and forwards and I stepped in for him.

Man At War

"He was fortunate in missing the D-day invasion but he fought in France, Belguim, Holland,and Germany--bitter, terrible fighting where he was losing close friends and felt responsible for their loss."

A neighbor who was also in my father's unit said he saw my dad carried from a canal in Holland after he and a squad of soldiers had been pinned down for three days in freezing water by a German tank.

Another time, Joe said, my father spent a couple of days hunkered down in a shallow shell hole in Germany while the Germans dropped a record number of artillery shells on the area.

"No one can expect to escape completely whole from those kinds of experiences," my uncle wrote. "Jim was lucky enough to have survived. His fathering a family of intelligent, well-educated individuals is a legacy of which he could be proud. As I'm sure he was."

Well, Joe, I can't vouch for that last time, especially when it comes to myself, but I love you for writing it.

I have a clearer picture of what kind of man my father was now, of the person he was long before I showed up. I think the war experiences scarred him more than we really can understand. I've heard stories about the "shellhole" incidents, but I'd like to keep them to myself for the time being.

Having gone through the Depression and the horrors of war, can we really be surprised if my father was given to fits of rage, that he had a mean streak that could cloud his vision? He was often in competition with us and I suppose he was angry for losing his youth on the battlefield.

Maybe my father's story is a warning as well about how dangerous is to rush off to war. Wars are easier to start than they are to stop and not all the victims come home in body bags. A lot of them walk back into society, get jobs, and start families. But they're never really a part of this world.

War isn't like the goddamn movies, it isn't about parades and flag-waving and marching in formation. It's about young men--and now young women--dying, suffering terrible wounds, and losing pieces of their souls.

Think about that, all you blogging tough guys who are so willing to send somebody else's loved ones into the heat of battle. If war is so glorious, why don't you lead the charge?

I am so glad Joe took the time to write this e-mail. It makes me wish I could talk to my father one last time. I'd tell him how sorry I was that we fought all those times; how proud I am of him, and how much I love him.

But I can't tell him that, so I'll keep telling the world.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

High Wire Act

So now the Gazette is two years old.

I was looking through the archives yesterday and I saw that I actually missed my blog's second anniversary, which was yesterday.

With the recent death of my father, it's hard to get worked up over much of anything and I let my blog's birthday slip right on by me.

I went out to a local Meet-Up group event tonight in Bay Ridge. I didn't want to go at all, but I like the people and I want to see this group succeed.

It didn't feel right going out and hanging with people in a bar. I didn't tell anyone at this group that my father had just died on Jan. 7 as I don't know them that well and they don't need to hear to my problems. I put in an hour and left.

It feels so strange being in this house by myself. After complaining about not being able to go places or not having any privacy, now I can go anywhere I want and I have more privacy than I know what to do with. I feel pretty foolish about all that whining I did.

Last night I had this old song called "Bluer Than Blue" playing in my head. It is a shamelessly weepy number about some guy who goes on about how much freedom he'll have once his girlfriend moves out. But instead of being happy, our hero is miserable. And so am I.

The song starts off like this:

After you go
I can catch up on my reading
After you go
I'll have a lot more time for sleeping
And when you're gone it looks like things
Are gonna be a lot easier
Life will be a breeze, you know
I really should be glad...

Words of Wisdom

My father, whatever his faults, didn't ask for much. He certainly deserved my time and, honest to God, I did my best. It's just that I couldn't always do it with a smile and yes, sometimes I complained--not to his face (usually) but there were times I felt put upon.

A woman at the funeral parlor told us about a friend of hers who is taking care of her mother, who has Alzheimer's.

"Sometimes my friend wants to kill her," the woman said.

I was shocked and a little relieved to hear this, I guess, because there were times I wanted to strangle my father.

I see that a large number of the posts in this blog refer to my father's condition, so my loyal readers--and God bless every one of you--know a lot of what's been going on. If I come off like a self-centered boob sometimes, I hope you can forgive me.

Several of my father's sayings have been coming back to me lately, which is good in that I am forgetting my anger toward him, but a little painful as I realize he won't be around to give me advice any more.

When faced with a hard job, my father would simply say, "better behind you than in front of you." In other words, get the thing over with and get on with your life. That's great advice, so simple, but often so hard to put into practice.

He also liked a quote that went "Never take counsel of your fears." I googled that line and found it attributed to Andrew Jackson, StoneWall Jackson, and George Patton. I've decided that it is now my father's quote, since he's the one who told it to me over and over again.

I've been doing just the opposite for so long. I've let fear run--and ruin--my life for too long. I'm like a tightrope walker who constantly looks down. That's no way to succeed if you only focus on failure. All you will do is fall to the ground.

I see in my first anniversary post that I said I wanted "to get in touch with my inner geek and make this blog wail." Well, that hasn't happened, but I am looking into getting a web cam and adding some video rants to this baby.

Then you'll able to see and hear me--and you thought life had lost all it's meaning, hadn't you?

So I'm getting back on that tightrope and I'm not going to look down anymore. I'm going to look forward and I will never, ever take counsel of my fears.

Monday, January 15, 2007

His Life As A Dog

A woman was hit by a car at the end of our street earlier this month, on what turned out to be the last night of my father's life.

My sister and I had left our dad in the hospital after being told he was "critical but stable" and we were taking car service home when the driver told us there was a report of an accident on Senator Street.

When we got there, we could see the lights of the various police cars, ambulances, and fire trucks, at the end of the block.

My sister held back a little, while I walked down to the corner and saw an elderly Asian woman on the ground being attended to by the EMT's. A younger woman was standing nearby sobbing while two people held on to each of her arms.

"Don't worry," one of them said, "she's going to be all right."

I had a flashback to my old police reporting days when I went out to accident scenes. There were the cops and emergency people, the victim, the family members, and all the on-lookers, their faces lit up by the spinning red lights. It was like going back in time.

I asked one guy who was holding a little girl in his arms what had happened, but he shrugged and said he didn't know. I thought he was lying and that felt pretty familiar, too.

My father died the next morning and I forgot all about the old Chinese lady until my dad's funeral, when I came home with my siblings and found a flyer in our mail box.

"There was an accident on around 9 p.m., Saturday, January 6th," the flyer said, "at the intersection of 6th Ave. and Senator Street, which resulted in a fatality. If anyone witnessed the accident or have any information, please call..."

So another family lost a loved one in our neighborhood. Whoever they are, I hope their getting through this difficult time. I can tell you from first hand experience that it isn't easy.

My brother Jim from California was staying with me in our parents' house for the last week and for a few days after the funeral my sister, Jim, my aunt and I did things together as a family--going to museums, a Broadway play, or out to dinner--we were like tourists in our hometown.

Jim left for the airport a little while ago, and my sister went to her apartment, so I'm here in the old house by myself. It's hard to believe my father won't be coming home from the hospital or the doctor or the nursing home--he won't be coming home ever again.

While thinking about my dad yesterday, I started remembering our old family dog, Schnapps. We got him when I was in grade school and he died, I believe, when I was a sophomore in high school.

Schnapps was very handsome, mixed breed, who had a hard life. He suffered from distemper when he was very young and the experience warped his mind. We all knew that Schnapps loved us, that he would literally lay down for his life for us.

But we also knew that he was a little nuts and that he could lash out and bite us at any time. It may sound strange to actually have a pet like that, but we loved him.

My dad and Schnapps had a lot in common. We knew my father loved us, would die for us, but we also knew he was a little nuts, that his explosive temper could turn on us at any time.

I still have the shadow of a scar on the back of my right hand where Schnapps once bit me. My hand swelled up something fierce and I had to take a few days off from school. I can't say about any scars that my father might have left.

Schnapps bit all of us and we still kept him. I remember one night he bit my mother and my dad took her to the doctor. My brother and I were in bed crying because we thought this was it for Schnapps, that he would be exterminated for one too many bites. But we let him slide again.

When I was very young, I crawled under a table to play with Schnapps. He didn't want to play, however, and bit me on the face.

I was screaming and crying when my father came into the room and I thought my dad was going to punish the dog.

Instead, he picked me up, put me over his knee, yanked down my pants and wailed on my butt. I remember thinking as I sailed into the air, "Daddy, what are you doing...?" And then he started hitting me.

My father had decided that it was my fault for disturbing Schnapps while he was under the table, and later, when his rage had subsided, he told me the old adage about letting sleeping dogs lie. I wish he could have passed this lesson on without spanking me.

Dog Days

Whenever people came over, we had to lock Schnapps in my parents' bedroom for fear he'd attack our guests. He did bite a kid in the neighborhood but I don't recall how that worked out. This was in the days before serial lawsuits, so I don't think we got served with any papers.

When we went to Montreal in 1967, we had to tie up his muzzle so the vet could give him the necessary shots. My father was wrestling with Schnapps in the porch and I was saying something soothing to the dog.

"Shut up!" my father snapped at me. "Get out of here!"

I couldn't believe he was yelling at me like that and I was so angry I wanted to hit him something.

I didn't do anything wrong, but my father was nervous, worried about being bitten, and I guess he thought I was a threat of some kind. So he attacked. Kind of like a dog.

We had a hard time in Montreal because Schnapps was so handsome and the French Canadian people didn't seem to understand us when we said "he bites!"

One time while walking through a park in the city, a young man bent down, went nose-to-nose with Schnapps and started barking like a dog. Schnapps was so stunned by this behavior he didn't have a chance to rip the guy's head off.

My mother and Schnapps had a special bond; she called him "Schnappi" and "Nap-a-Loni" in an Italian variation of his name.

She used to read her newspapers in her bedroom and Schnapps would climb in there with her. Sometimes to make room, she would gently push him with her foot and Schnapps would playfully gnaw on it. I always thought this was a dangerous habit, but she got away with it.

While we were in the Poconos, my mother took Schnapps out in the woods late one afternoon and promptly got lost. It was getting dark and my siblings and I were sitting in our country house wondering what to do.

My sister wanted to call for help, but the three boys didn't want to do that. Maybe we were afraid to admit that something was wrong.

Finally, my mother and Schnapps staggered in the house, looking worn out and ragged. My mother said she became disoriented somewhere on the trail.

Schnapps just wanted to go home so he put his head down and walked straight through the woods toward the cabin while my mother held onto his leash for dear life. She told that story for years afterward.

Schnapps got old and sick. We saw him slowing down and, as with any loved one, we pretended not to notice, tried not to do the math that invariably told us that he would only be with us for so many years.

One winter afternoon while I was at the old Carnegie Hall Cinema, back when I hid from the world by going to the movies, Schnapps died in my parents' bedroom.

We were all upset, but my mother was heartbroken and she would starting crying without any warning from a long time after Schnapps died.

My mother always said Schnapps was in Doggie Heaven, that he would be forgiven for his sins against us.

"He always felt bad after biting us," she'd say in a serious voice.

So now they're all gone and I'm by myself. The hard part is just beginning, now that the wake and funeral have passed and everyone has left. I see my father's baseball cap on the nightstand and I found his cane on the bedroom bureau.

This afternoon I threw out all his medicines, emptying bottle after bottle into the trash. I was responsible for giving him that stuff and I don't want to look at it for another second.

One time when my mother was scolding us she declared that life only lasts for a second. It may seem like a long time, she said, but it's only a second.

I was a child and I didn't begin to understand what she was talking about then, but after watching her, my father, and yes, even Schnapps all die, I know all too well.

As with Schnapps, we tried not to notice that my parents were slowing down, tried not to do that harsh math. But death doesn't wait and doesn't ask for your permission to go to work.

So my dad and that old dog had a lot in common. They struggled with their demons and did the best they could. I guess we can't ask for much more than that.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Old Soldiers Never Die

An old soldier was laid to rest today, as we buried my father with full military honors.

A veteran of World War II, he will be reunited with my mother, whom we lost nearly five years ago.

His funeral mass was held at Our Lady of Angels Church in Bay Ridge, the same church where he and my mom were married 56 years ago.

My sister told me that after my mother's funeral, as they followed her casket, he said to her, "the last time I walked down the aisle with her was with her." Now they're together again.

My father did not express his emotions easily so when he said that to my sister, it was a bit of a shock.

For while after my mother's death, when my father was still driving, he used to drive over to the cemetery in Staten Island and visit my mother's grave--or "go to see Mom," as he put it.

I was worried because his driving skills had eroded considerably and every day at 4 o'clock I'd call him from my office, praying to God that he had made it home safely. Every day my prayers were answered.

One day I called him and asked him how things went at the cemetery. His response was painfully blunt.

"I feel like getting down there in the grave with her," he said with great sadness.

I couldn't think of anything to say. Men from his generation rarely admit to being depressed and he often spoke scornfully of counseling, saying it he didn't need it. I tried to encourage him to go to one of the local senior centers and make friends, but he wouldn't hear of it.

"Robert," he said with disgust, "you know as well as I do, people are assholes."

I don't know about that, but I could see that he wasn't going to let down his guard, that he was going to try to build a life after my mother's departure. So today, he got his wish and will now share the same patch of earth with my mother.

Honorable and Faithful

Alex, the funeral director, used to live on our street and he arranged to have an honor guard present at the graveside service.

When he first told me, I thought it would be a nice thing to have for my father. But after seeing it, I was quite moved and very happy that Alex had made it happen.

Two reservists stood at attention while a third played taps on a bugle--we later learned this was a recording and that the bugle was just a prop, but it was still very effective.

At the close of the ceremony, they folded the flag and one of the reservists marched slowly to my sister and placed it her hands.

"On behalf of the President of the United States and the Secretary of Defense," he said, "please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your father's honorable and faithful service."

God, those words are so powerful. It made me realize that my father was a hero, an ordinary guy called upon to do extraordinary things. I kept threatening to record all his war stories in a journal or on a tape recording and, of course, never did. Now I'll never get the chance.

I've heard from family members that the war had caused him a great deal of anguish and maybe that explains the way he behaved toward his family. But I'm not going to judge him; there's so much I don't know, so much I'll never know, that it's pointless and flat out wrong for me to say anything against the guy.

My sister held on to the flag and then Alex asked if anyone had anything they wanted to say. We stood silent for a few seconds and I then decided that I had a right to speak and started blurting out chunks of words.

"You're finally reunited with mom," I said. "We love you and thanks for everything."

Then each of us placed a rose on his casket, got to the limo, and drove out of the cemetery. We went back to Bay Ridge and had lunch at Goodfella's, one of my father's favorite restaurants.

I didn't want the meal to end because that would mean my father's life was officially over--the viewing, the funeral, and the dinner. After that, the living and dead have to part company.

I spent so much time either watching my dad or making sure he was being taken care of that I feel kind of useless now, like a large part of my reason for being has been wiped away.

I don't have a wife or children and now with both my parents gone, I don't have any more excuses. For a long time I've been saying that I can't do one thing or another because I had to watch mom and, then later, dad.

I thought of how I'll now be able to go out any time I want; I won't have to cancel plans or hire anyone to come over here and watch my dad. I didn't feel liberated by these thoughts--I felt great sadness. I'd rather have my dad back than have the "freedom" of going to a stupid movie any time I felt like it.

My aunt, my brother from California, and I came home late today and looked at the 3-D slides of my parents' wedding. As I've mentioned before, these pictures are beautiful: they don't age like other photographs and the people are all so young and happy, you feel like you can reach out and grab them.

We saw the church again, saw my parents walking down that same aisle as newlyweds, and saw all my relatives, smiling and lifting their glasses toward the camera.

That's a good way to remember my parents. I'll miss them something awful, but at least they're together, beyond any pain or suffering.

Rest easy, guys, and remember that some day we'll all be together again.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Letter From Boo-Boo

My sister and I were eating dinner on Sunday, the day our father died, when a thought suddenly popped into my head.

"He used to call me 'Boo-Boo'," I blurted as I zipped up my coat.

For those of you who don't know, Boo-Boo was Yogi Bear's sidekick as the pair of them prowled Jellystone Park in search of picnic (pic-a-nic?) baskets.

I don't remember much about Boo-Boo, but since he was small and I was the baby of our family, I guess it seemed like a natural choice for my dad. I hadn't thought about that nickname in years.

We had a bit of scare earlier this week when the Medical Examiner's Office said they had taken my father's body and required us to go down to their office near King's County Hospital and identify him. It seems that since his injuries resulted from a fall, they "wanted to ask us some questions."

Naturally, it was pouring raining when my sister and I went and naturally I was furious and frightened. I felt like I was being accused of something--like maybe they thought I murdered my father. I half-expeced to see Columbo come walking out and start questioning me.

But all we had to do is sign some forms and ID a photo of my father--it was horrible. His eyes were open and it appeared he had severe bruising to his face, something he did not have when we first saw his body at the hospital.

Our funeral director later told us he didn't see any of these markings and figured they had faded away. But it was very unnerving.

So for the last two days we've been holding our father's wake. Family and friends have been coming to the funeral parlor to pay their respects and offer their support. It's really quite touching. The only good thing about tragedy is that you find out who your friends really are.

We put up a photo board with pictures of my father as a young man--there's a shot of him from the army and several photos of him with my mom and the four brats, his children.

There's even one with my Italian grandmother, so there's three generations in one photo. For all the troubles we had, there were plenty of good times, too.

It's amazing seeing him so young. Having been around him so long when he was old and sick, it's quite a jolt to see him back then when he was strong and healthy.

We put up a board displaying his army medals and a photo of him and my mother taken 25 years ago at my brother's wedding. They're smiling, looking into each other's eyes, and toasting each other. I would like to imagine them like that for all eternity.

My brother from California flew in and walked into the service Tuesday night with his suitcase in his hand. He had a long trench coat on and he looked like a soldier on leave. He's spending the week here with me in our family house and we're kicking around a lot of memories.

We're all exhausted, but the turnout has been quite good. My sister and I picked out a memorial card with a picture of St. Patrick on it, something I know our father, a first class Irishman, would have appreciated.

During the calling hours, Mary, my dad's aide, brought in some of Ronin Tynan's CD's, so we had Irish music playing in the background. My brother said we should have played the Clancy Brothers, since my dad used to play their records non-stop. I grew up hearing The Wild Colonial Boy, The Irish Rover, and, of course, Isn't it Grand?-I still remember the chorus to that one:

"Let's not have a sniffle,
Let's have a bloody good cry,
And always remember the longer you live,
the sooner you bloody well die."

Grief can be so tricky sometimes. I find that I'm able to deal with my mother's loss or my father's loss, but when I think about losing them both, I get very upset. I know all things must pass, but that's a lot easier to say that it is to live it.

I wish I hadn't fought with my father as much as I did. There were just times when we got in each other's way. While I was here, he was forever taking my stuff--clothing, books, whatever, and often damaging them. We fought pretty furiously about that more than once, I can tell you.

As we gathered his clothes for burial, I couldn't find a decent shirt of his. So I donated one of my own shirts and ties for the cause and he will now be buried in some of my clothing. Not too ironic, now is it?

I knelt before his coffin tonight and asked him to forgive me. I squeezed his arm and asked God to take care of him. He went through the Depression and World War II, two events I can't even being to understand.

Tomorrow is the funeral and after that, who knows? I wanted '07 to be a year of change and it's certainly shaping up to be just that.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

The Man in the Rearview Mirror

My father died this morning at Lutheran Medical Center at 7:30 a.m.

The new year is one week old and with the passing of Little Christmas on Saturday, he died right after the holidays officially ended.

He had been in failing health for a long time, slowly falling apart after my mother's death.

The last few months have been especially bad, as he had suffered a TIA--a kind of preliminary stroke--over the summer, followed by a real stroke in October, and then the terrible fall in his bedroom last month that caused a seizure.

He went into the hospital for the last time shortly before Christmas and never came out.

My sister and I went to see him on Saturday night. My aunt had come over to Brooklyn so we could have our annual Little Christmas celebration, but then Edith, my dad's aide, called from the hospital to say he had taken a turn for the worse.

We went down there and saw the tubes coming of his mouth, his shallow breathing. The doctors told us he was critical but stable and that the next 48 hours would be very important.

My sister called the hospital later that evening and was told he was "holding his own," whatever the hell that means. The next morning a doctor called her to say that our father was dead.

We were back there this morning to view his body. They had to unzip the plastic bag and I felt my knees buckle as I looked as his colorless face.

God, it feels like just a few weeks ago he was carrying me around on his shoulders, and now, here he is a body bag, old, withered, lifeless. What happened to the last 45 years?

"He fought for his country," I blurted," for some odd reason, "which is more than that cocksucker in the White House ever did!"

I actually gave him a salute then because I felt somebody had to. You say and do rather strange things when your grieving. I called Mary, my father's daytime aide, to tell her the news. She expressed her sympathies and tried to comfort me.

"He's with your mother now," she said. "I don't know how your mother feels about that..."

We both laughed at that one. My father could bring great joy and great pain to those he loved. It was a very strange relationship being close to him--like taking a walk through a mine field that's covered in beautiful flowers. It's really a great place to be, but tread carefully.

I'd like to think that the good parts of my father are with my mom and that the bad parts of him, the parts that caused him so much pain, have been taken away so that she'll be with the man she first fell in love with for all eternity.

My sister and I began the funeral preparations, like we did five years ago for my mother. It seems all so painfully familiar.

We start making and receiving phone calls as news of my father's death spread. My phone rang late Sunday afternoon and I thought it was a relative or friend calling to offer sympathy.

It turns out I just won 20 free tickers to some comedy club after apparently filling out some contest form. So on the day my father died, I finally win something.

After coming out of the funeral parlor, my sister got a call from some stupid sow at the Medical Examiner's Officer. It seems that since my father's death was apparently caused by a fall, they had taken his body and now we have to go to a morgue in a godawful section of Brooklyn and ID him, like an episode of Law and Order.

I'm having a hard time dealing with this since the fall happened on my watch, so to speak. My shrink, my friends and family all say it wasn't my fault, that my father was going to fall or hurt himself sooner or later. And the logical side of me knows this is true.

Still, there is this nagging feeling in the back of my mind that I failed pretty seriously. And that call from the Medical Examiner only makes me feel worse.

Show Me The Way

I have this terrible emptiness inside me. It is not the same heartache and pain I felt when my mother died, but I am hurting nonetheless. With both of them gone now, I feel something very precious has been wiped away.

I was looking through the family photos tonight looking for a photo to run with this post and seeing all these happy memories from so long ago made me so sad.

So our parents bring us into this world, love us and nuture us, give us direction and comfort, and then we lose them? It doesn't seem right somehow.

Things were so complicated with my father. He was a very difficult man, to put it mildly. I wish we hadn't fought as much as we did, but there's no undoing any of that. Let's just say for now that he could have been a better father and I could have been a better son and leave it at that.

I think my father and I had our best time when I moved to Pennsylvania to work for the Pocono Record. I was so nervous, so convinced I would fail, that he would call me every morning to see how I was doing.

When I came home on the weekends, I was treated like an honored guest. And on Sunday mornings, when I had to return to Stroudsburg for the afternoon shift, my father would always guide me as I backed my car down the alleyway.

I like to think I had the driving skills to navigate down our alley by myself, but it felt good seeing him in the rearview mirror, guiding me to the street like he was bringing in jumbo jet and then pointing forward, as if to say "you're good to go."

I remember on time on Father's Day, I was driving back to Stroudsburg and I was feeling guilty--what else is new, right?

I was angry because I had this stupid job that required me to work on a Sunday. If I had been a normal person, I thought, I would be living in New York and working a normal schedule so I could spend Father's Day with my dad.

As I was crossing the Verrazano, I heard this song called "Put it There" by Paul McCartney:

Put It There If It Weighs A Ton,
That's What The Father Said To His Younger Son.
I Don't Care If It Weighs A Ton,
As Long As You And I Are Here, Put It There.

Oh, God, I just started weeping and wailing to beat the band. I guess that was the best way to love my father--from a distance, because living under the same roof could be very stressful.

So now I'm alone in the family house. I've said before that I feel like a ghost in this place and now that feeling has intensified. Tonight I threw out the Christmas tree--the one my father didn't live to see--and I was so proud of myself for taking care of this unpleasant task.

Then I turned around and saw this empty space in the living room, the heart of this house, and my blood ran cold. Another life had been snuffed out.

I know I can't live here forever. My siblings want to sell the house and it makes sense. But I'm frightened of change, I don't have the safety net that I had most of my life when I screwed up job after job, or when I became so ill with Epstein-Barr that I could barely move. I'm really on my own now. I'm an orphan.

This isn't a time for decisions. We have to take care of my father's funeral and then we'll get to the business side of death.

My advice to anyone reading this is to tell you loved ones just how much you love them as often as you can. Don't waste a minute on anger or resentment because people grow old and die faster than you ever thought possible.

And I want to say thanks to that man in the mirror for guiding me all these years. Even though you're gone, it's nice to think that you're behind me, still giving me directions, still pointing the way.

Put it there...

Friday, January 05, 2007

Good, Better, Best

My mother had this little ditty she would recite whenever she wanted us to buckle down and do our work.

"Good, better, best," she'd say, "never it rest. Until the good is better and the better is best."

Yeah, it's a little simplistic, but it's also hard to argue with. What? You want to just sit there and be mediocre? Come on, now...

I've been trying to watch my thoughts since 2007 began and I've notice my tendency to get angry and stay angry, like rage is some kind of drug. Of course it is, and if you don't get a handle on it, it can be deadlier than heroin.

I recall incidents in the past, get all worked up, waste time and damage my health. I started getting worked up about something the other day--I can't remember what it was to save my life--and I thought of the line from John Lennon's Christmas song, "war is over if you want it."

Obviously he was talking about wars between nations, but I think it applies to individuals as well. I make myself miserable by getting so angry, but yet I keep doing it, which tells me that, on some level, I must want to be angry.

If that's true, then I can train myself to want something else--like, oh, I don't know...happiness? It's not going to be easy, but I can't afford not to do this. The alternative is a life of misery and poor health.

The web has been jammed with tons of articles about making changes for the new year and most of them are pretty good.

I go back and forth about making resolutions but these articles all accent the positive and that's good for me since I have a lot of trouble eliminating the negative.

Funny You Should Ask

I particularly liked this article by David Bach entitled "Five Principles for Happiness in 2007." All the guy does is ask a series of questions, but if you take them seriously, you can learn a lot about yourself. Give it a try, if you dare...

  1. What makes you happy at work?
    Not a heck of a lot, frankly. I know, I know, who the hell likes work? But there should be more than I getting right now. I got some good feedback on a story I did today and I've been trying to buckle down and do a better job with my new beat. I'll never be in love with it, but I'm trying not to hate it.

  2. What makes you happy at home?
    Same as above, but I'm working on that, too. Getting out more, looking for that special someone.

  3. What makes you happy with your friends and family?
    Laughter, intelligent discussion, memories of my mother and good times.

  4. What makes you happy when you’re by yourself?
    Feeling safe, unhurried. I enjoy peace and quiet.

  5. What do you love to do?
    Watch a good film or play. I didn't say writing because I usually don't love it until I'm done. As Dorothy Parker said, "I hate writing; I love having written."

  6. What would you do with your life today if you weren’t afraid of failure?
    Move to LA and try to be a filmmaker. I love questions like these because fear of failure is such a key part of my psyche. I'm also afraid that I'll look stupid--whatever that means. It's all wrapped in my ego and I know if I can step away from this irrational fear, I'll be much happier.

  7. What’s not working in your life?
    Just about everything. I’m having trouble finishing projects and I can’t seem to hook up with anyone. But then that's what new years are for--to change all that crap.

  8. What are you currently doing that prevents you from experiencing joy?
    I am not making the calls I need to make for a new job. I am not devoting enough time to writing, and when I do devote time to it, I spread myself out on various projects. This could be a way of not finishing anything and thus avoiding the possibility of failure. Unfinished work is always so brilliant.

  9. What’s working in your life?
    When I get down to writing, it goes very well.

  10. Who in your life is subtracting value from and adding misery to it?
    I could name a lot of people here, but that’s just being bitter. Ultimately, I’m the one who subtracts value and adds misery to my life, by not standing up for myself, failing to take risks, avoiding writing and ducking relationships. No one’s holding a gun to my head, as they say.

  11. Can you fix any of those relationships, or should you let them go from your life?
    I should let go of the past, that’s for certain. As far as relationships with others, some I can fix, some I can only stand pat, and then others must end.

  12. If we were getting together one year from today, what would have to happen for you to be able to tell me that you now have more joy in your life?
    Better job, better living situation, wife or a steady girlfriend, and if I’m not published or produced, at least a better handle of my writing projects.

  13. What’s the single most important thing you’ve learned about yourself as a result of answering these questions?
    Change is up to me.

Monday, January 01, 2007

A Year Without Fear

I'm nursing the first hangover I've had in God knows how long today. But I've got the perfect excuse: it was New Year's Eve.

I didn't set out to get drunk--and to be brutally honest, it doesn't take much to get me plastered--but you get into a party mood and then your brain pulls an Elvis and leaves the building.

I started the countdown early Sunday morning at my gym where I sparred with Peter, my boxing instructor at New York's Sports Club. I know we're all sick of the "see you next year" jokes, but honestly, writing about that class now, it feels like it was ages ago, instead of just 24 hours.

Peter is a professional boxer, kick-boxer, cage-fighter, ah, hell you name it--he'd box kangaroos if you gave him a chance. A truly nice guy, Peter is merciless when we put on the gloves. He likes to make jokes at my expense as we suit up.

"My left jab and your nose should get married," he says, "they spend so much time together."

He says that line a lot, actually, to the point where I want to hit him, but, naturally, he always gets out of the way. On Sunday I was talking all sorts of smack as we sparred.

"The ball's going to come down early for you," I said, as he punched me in the head.

"My new year's resolution for you is pain," I shouted, doing my best Mr. T impersonation. None of the trash talk mattered as Peter cheerfully beat me from pillar to post. If you took my wisecracks and his fighting ability, you'd have quite a boxer.

Rail Life

So I get out of there, hightail it back to Brooklyn, and zip down to Lutheran Medical Center to see my father. It wouldn't be right to let the new year pass without paying him a visit. He was not in good shape and I have seen little improvement since he's been hospitalized, but I wanted to wish him the best before I went off to party with my friends.

I hopped on the train and rode out to Flatbush, to see have dinner with fellow writer/blogger, Anne of Ass Backwards fame. I had some doubts about going: I didn't know the neighborhood; it was New Year's Eve, I might get lost, I might be carried off by the flying monkeys in The Wizard of Oz, the usual crap I put myself through.

But I decided for the new year I want to try new things, I want to stop being afraid all the time. I'm starting my fifth goddamn decade on this planet, it's high time I stop holding myself back and have some fun for Christ's sake.

And that's just what happened. I had a blast. Great food, great conversation--the guest list included a producer of documentary films for Japanese television, a soon-to-be-published author, and a reporter for Voice of America. It was fabulous.

I had planned on getting back to Bay Ridge at around 10 p.m., so I could go to my neighbor's party and ring in '07 on the home turf. But I was having such a good time at Anne's, I lost track of the time and didn't wind up leaving until about 11 p.m.

Now, as much as I hate New Year's Eve, I've got to see the ball drop in Times Square or I am just bummed for the next 12 months. Of course the trains were dragging their asses and I missed the N train at Pacific Street. I realized I'd have to run like hell from the train station if I was to get to a TV before midnight.

I finally pulled into Bay Ridge Avenue, and I flew up the stairs. I couldn't help but think of a scene from the Beatles movie Help!, where the villian's severely battered underling is limping across a beach, afraid he's going to miss Ringo's ritualistic murder.

"I'm going to miss the sacrifice," he huffs, "I'm going to miss the sacrifice!"

Well, I didn't miss the sacrifice, but it was close--and a little bizarre. I dashed home, got a bottle of wine and skipped over to my neighbor's house. I rang the bell and waited. And waited. I rang again and I waited some more.

Oh, Jesus. Either they don't hear me or the bell is out of order. Either way, I'm on the outside looking in and it's minutes from midnight. Screw it, I toss the wine bottle into my porch and roar up to the Killarney Pub, a hole-in-the-wall bar on Fifth Avenue where I celebrated New Year's Eve a year ago.

I'm going to miss the sacrifice, I'm going to miss the sacrifce...

Plan B

I bounced into the Killarney Pub and immediately saw that the crowd was lighter than last year's. There was no band, only a handful of people, including some young Arabic guys playing pool. So what? I made it for the countdown with four minutes to spare.

You know the rest: the ball comes down, everybody cheers, there are hugs and handshakes (not enough of the former for me, but what the hell?) and then things go back to normal. This place was playing country music, which I loathe, but then Barry Manilow's "I Write the Songs" came on the juke box, and my stomach really started to turn.

"Fucking Barry Manilow?" one of the pool players asked, reading my thoughts.

I started putting away spritzers, which mixed with wine I had earlier in the evening and created a nice buzz. I was reading the captions for a Seinfeld episode--it was the one about the gay guy "changing teams"--when I decided it was time to go home.

I thought about taking another run at my neighbor's house, or using a ladder and climbing up to his apartment like a medieval invader, but as soon as my butt hit my favorite chair in the living room, I knew the evening was over.

I picked up the remote and began channel surfing...New Year's parties, a CSI: Miami rerun, Rocky Two in Spanish (I liked it better this way), and The Honeymooners marathon, where I came to rest.

I zonked out pretty quickly and woke up to see the episode where Ralph decides he's going to be a success. He's angry because he never continued his coronet lessons, "never hit the high note", as he puts it, and his words sounded depressingly familiar.

Like Ralph, I don't finish things. I get all excited about something and then the great plan seems to fizzle. He decides he's going to list all his good points and bad points so he can strengthen the good ones and eliminate the bad ones.

In the end, Ralph doesn't get the big promotion he was seeking, but Alice says he's made great progress and tells him to apply for the job again next year. She also threatens to bash him with the coronet if he goes back to his rotten ways.

It was a good show to see on the first day of the year, one of several signals I've been getting in the last 24 hours.

I went to visit my dad this morning--same condition, I'm afraid--and while he slept, I nodded off and for some reason, I thought of an episode from the old Superman show, where this bogus witch doctor on some island someplace has got everybody under his spell.

One woman is wearing paper chains on her wrists, but the villian has her convinced they're actually made of iron and her body sinks as he tells her this.

The Future Is Now

Why in the hell I recalled this particular episode I don't know, but as crappy as that show was--and let's face, it was a dog--that story shows the dangers of letting other people have too much influence of your life. Another important lesson for January 1.

I ended the day having a delicious Chinese dinner with my friend Xiaojing, a filmmaker who is editing her first feature-length work. I met her through a Meet-Up group and was immediately impressed with her determination to be successful (you hear that, Ralph?)

Xiaojing is an artist, but to me, she is also a work of art herself. She is beautiful, intelligent, out-going--I kind of talk with her and watch her at the same time, so it's like a conversation and a performance.

"Buddha told me to call you today," she said.

Hey, tell him I said thanks. We traded stories about our departed love ones, with Xiaojing telling me about her nanny's late husband, whom she came to love like her own father, and I told her about my mother. And soon we were both blubbering all over the place.

"This won't do for the new year," I said, blowing my nose. "Our loved ones would want us to be happy."

So we tried to cheer up. I got my fortune cookie and got yet another message: It is better to attempt something great and fail then to do nothing and succeed.

All right, this is yet another thing that is holding me back in so many areas. I'm afraid I'll fail, I'll look bad or stupid in front of...whom, exactly? My friends will support me win or lose, and my enemies will tear me down no matter how successful I become.

I told Xiaojing about the scene in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, where Jack Nicholson tries to lift a heavy water fountain and hurl through a window. The thing is huge and doesn't budge. Exhausted, Nicholson steps back from the fountain and glares at his fellow inmates.

"At least I tried," he says and walks away.

My shrink advised me to skip making resolutions and just do things. Instead of making all these declarations that are stand a good chance of failing, just do whatever you have to do and let the world judge the results.

I'll tell you, it's hard not to be cynical about resolutions, especially when I look at what I wrote about them last year:

I'll organize, I wrote a year ago today, my room, my thoughts, my emotions, my vision of myself. I'll budget my time so I can work on my various projects and ditch this negativity I have worn around my neck for so long.

That hasn't exactly happened, but I'm getting a little closer. I have a better handle on my bad habits, if I haven't gotten rid of them entirely.

However, I do like the idea of starting off fresh. There's a great editorial in today's Times in defense of New Year's resolutions by Pascal Bruckner.

"Knowing that you can change your behavior, even by an iota, is essential for holding yourself in esteem," he writes. "We’re often cynical about how resolutions are never kept, but we shouldn’t be. Resolutions are perhaps lies, but they’re lies of good faith, necessary illusions."

So I'll tell a few lies of good faith for the new year: I will finish my various projects. I will hit the high note in whatever I do. I will live in the present and not wallow in the past. I will take care of my health in both mind and body. Bulging biceps are of little use if your psyche is a 98-pound weakling.

I will cut down on the net surfing, something that has really eaten a lot of my time recently. I like to tell people I don't look at TV, but parking my tail on You Tube isn't any better.

And I will try to live without fear: I will do new things, go to new places, meet new people. Being afraid hasn't made me any happier so there's no need to keep it up any longer.

Happy New Year to one and all. Let's make this one our best.