It’s Wednesday afternoon, and I’m sitting in a nursing home in South Jersey, watching my father die. I had just gotten back from a business trip to Dallas, when the hospice nurse called to tell me he likely only had 48 hours left. Upon rushing here from Northern Virginia, the on-duty nurse said “could be today, could be a week.” Regardless, every pained, gurgling breath sounds like a stopwatch counting down the time left. They are hard to listen to, and competing with fellow nursing home resident Mary screaming “Where am I” at the staff. I won’t miss coming here.
About five years ago, my father had major surgery for a perforated aorta. He took care of himself for a while, but in his later years, he followed his mother’s belief in Christian Science, which led to shunning medicine and doctors. I found a letter from his last physician, telling him that their professional relationship needed to end and that he was no longer to return to that office. He had a very loud personality and had a penchant for starting fights with just about anyone.
It will come as no surprise to you that he was a loner. He lived by himself in a 1950s Soviet Union-looking apartment building for senior citizens. The rent was $383 and the view was, until recently, of Donald Trump’s old Taj Mahal Hotel and Casino. I would actually park there when I visited my dad. There are no “good “parts of Atlantic City, and with him living in one of the worse parts, it was safer in the Taj garage than in the parking lot across the street from his apartment.
He was a shut-in, who hardly ever left the building except to go to the bank and whatever convenience store hadn’t closed down yet after getting robbed too many times. He played a few quarter slot machines (reels, never video) in the old Trump Taj Mahal, but when it closed down, the Showboat next door was way too far to walk. He had no friends, didn’t own a car, had no savings, couldn’t care less about computers, and couldn’t ever figure out his free government cell phone. We would talk on the phone once in a while and I would visit him a few times a year.
He had a very bad habit of not calling me on my birthday. When July would roll around, I would hope that this would be the year that he called. The latest July 12thcame and went with no call. Even at 46, it still hurt. Inevitably, I would be pissed off and it would lead to me not calling him until his birthday, November 25th. The call would kill two birds with one stone, Happy Birthday and Happy Thanksgiving, and halve the obligation.
I can’t remember if we talked on Christmas, but my gut feeling is no. Then, 2018 arrived, and a few days in, I got a call from the hospital in Atlantic City. The exterminator entered his apartment and found him unresponsive on the floor, with a massive gash on the right side of his face. There was no way to tell how long he had been like that. It’s pretty amazing that he was even still alive.
Tests revealed that he had a series of 4 strokes and his ability to speak and comprehend had been severely diminished. The man who gave me my sense of humor could no longer tell inappropriate jokes to cute nurses, or lie to them that he was ex-NYPD. He tried, but gave up when no one could understand him. More than anything, that was the saddest thing to witness.
I have been going back and forth between Virginia and New Jersey regularly for five months now. I have had hours upon hours of time to think about the end of my father’s life, and how to forgive him for being a “terrible’ father. His word, not mine. But I agree with it.
My father came of age in 1960s Manhattan, frequenting pool halls and other establishments that taught him how to be a smooth talker, and that gave him a Ph. D. in street smarts. My mother was a teenage girl who had emigrated from Romania to New York. Her family started a garment business close to one of my father’s haunts. They met, and the young girl who barely spoke English was no match for the cool cat American.
Her family HATED him. Despised the guy. And with good reason. Early on, he was an absent husband with fidelity issues. He never drank or did drugs. Women were his vice, and my mom mostly raised me and my brother alone. He was verbally abusive and hit us occasionally, nothing CPS-worthy, but a good belt here and there. I don’t know for sure if he hit my mom, but I would guess he did.
We all lived in Queens until I was two, then moved out to Long Island, where they would break up and get back together more times than I could count. They had a toxic relationship. I vividly remember my mom throwing our stuff in bags and telling us we had to leave, quickly. We moved all around the North Shore of Long Island, her often times not telling him where we went. It was awful.
In my pre-teen years, we mostly lived with my mom, and my dad would visit, but certainly didn’t make us a priority. When I would see him, I never knew when it would happen again. Being terrible boys with no father figure present, my mom gave up and enrolled us in a military school outside of Charlottesville, Virginia. Being a Jewish mother, about 6 months later, she regretted the decision and took us out. We then moved to the very small town of Gordonsville, Virginia.
It didn’t take long for my mother and father to reconnect, and eventually, self-destruct. There was lots of screaming and back and forth and once my father even pulled a gun on my mother. They finally came to the point of no return, and my mom decided to move back to Long Island. We were given the option of living in either place. My brother decided to go with my mother. Afraid to leave my dad, I stayed with him.
He rented the top half of a beautiful old Gordonsville house and we lived pretty much as roommates, not father and son. Having separate entrances, I had carte blanche to come and go as I pleased, and we would say a quick hello when I would see him before or after his job selling timeshare properties. He just couldn’t be bothered. One time, I went out with high school friends and they couldn’t drive me home. I used a pay phone to call him to see if he’d come get me, about 10 miles away. It was like asking someone for a kidney. I learned my lesson and never did that again.
It was during those high school years that whenever he would give me a greeting card, he’d sign it “Your Dad(?)” It was his way of being irreverent, but it was a tacit admission that he never wanted to be a father, and that he ended up being a pretty crappy one. I laughed along, but it got decreasingly funny over the years.
Having been raised on the streets of NYC, my father had no use for formal education. When it was time to pick a college, he told me to pick only one because he refused to pay for more than one application fee. Also, he made it clear that he wouldn’t be paying a dime for college. Missing the city, and having to pick a state school, I chose George Mason University, outside of DC. When the day came to move to GMU, my dad didn’t come along. I had to move in by myself. I’ll never forget how low I felt that day.
It was when I went away to college, that our distance grew mentally and physically. We would go years without talking, and it was always me giving in and reaching out to him. As I got older, I did my best to understand and forgive my father. As he got older, he softened and often talked about what a terrible father he was. He also made it a point to say “I love you” before saying goodbye.
During these last few months, when you could make out what he was saying, he has apologized profusely for wasting his life and doing wrong by my brother and me. Our childhood led to a relationship with my brother that has been very tenuous, mostly estranged, and I hadn’t seen or talked to him for over 10 years. When he came to see my father, it was the first time they saw each other in over 20 years.
These few months have been a time of forgiving, reconciling, and saying goodbye. For all of his staggering faults, I love my father, and it has been very painful to watch him slowly die. But he has wanted to die, and as former Congressman Alan Grayson once said, “Die quickly.” He has donated his body to science, and in a few hours or days, an ambulance will come from Philadelphia to take him away.
No ashes, no headstone, no estate. My brother and I never had children, and when we eventually die, it will be the end of this tree branch of Grays. When I saw my brother recently, he said he wanted to have kids, but it never worked out. Having my father as an example, I never wanted my own kids, and that has worked out. For better or for worse.
I love you Dad.