Before Entrepreneurship 6: My Ph.D
My Dad Died
The time I spent at Syracuse getting my Ph.D totally changed me, for many reasons. First, I was married and living away from my parents. Second, I began to be a teaching assistant, and third, I got to Syracuse just as all the drugs were starting. My 17th century literature professor was an experimenter with LSD, hash, and pot, and he used to have the graduate students over to his home for seminars and drugs. It was all about expanding your consciousness, and I had a husband in medical school who was studying and working long hours, so I had plenty of time to play.
I was doing very little, since by the time you got to the PhD program, you were reading the same books for the third time, and were thoroughly familiar with the canonical works of western literature. I diligently recycled my papers, adding some new seasoning that came from reading under the infuence of mind expanding drugs, and explored the areas outside the middle class while my young husband was working to get into it.
The professor who taught me 17th century literature and had such a profound influence on my life later de-camped from academe for a life being a salmon fisherman in Alaska. I thought this was romantic and wonderful, although I didn’t really want to do it. I wanted to go to California and play with the hippies. I defined myself as a hippie, and I was proud of it.
And yet, I was never able to get out of myself completely enough to enjoy the drugs. Once, high on hash and sitting in a circle in the professor’s living room, I found myself unable to get up when I wanted to leave. This caused me major anxiety, because I thought I was paralyzed, that it was the fault of the drugs, that I was a bad person being punished for using them, and worst, that my husband would come home from med school, find me not there, and somehow punish me.
None of this was true, but after that I confined myself to pot. And wine. Tons of Gallo Chablis. Gross, even at the time, but affordable, along with Rose d’anjou. I wanted to be a wine snob, after taking all those wine-tasting classes at Cornell and growing up in New York, but that was another of my husband’s areas of expertise (like music and bridge) and I was always second to him.
Like all married graduate students with no money, I entertained lavishly, cooking mostly recipes from Julia Child’s cookbook, and most of those because they were challenging, impressive, and required days of work. My fellow grad students, mostly men, came and ate them, along with husband numero uno’s med student friends. The med students were all married and brought their wives. The grad students, on the other hand, were all single — closeted gay, straight, Jesuit priests, all kinds of single men. The commonality among us was our lack of concern for our poverty. We thought it was temporary, and necessary. Not only that, we thought it was genteel — far more genteel than the wealth some of our families displayed. We actually WANTED to be poor, in solidarity with the people who actually were. We didn’t believe in money as the measure of all things, and we had faith in our ability to do social good.
These were the Johnson years, when all the social programs that are up for dismantling now were put in place. They were also the Viet Nam years, when smart men were in school for as long as they could stand it in order to avoid the draft. The war in Viet Nam cast a big shadow over my youth in the sixties, but on the campuses, where I isolated myself during most of that period, change seemed possible. We totally thought we could create social change, and that we could avoid the traps our parents had fallen into — the hard work and lousy marriages. Much as been written about the Sixties, but I still don’t understand how and why we failed.
Well, maybe I do. A metaphor for where we were was my attendance at the March on Washington. Of course I was a civil rights advocate. And of course I was against the war. So I flew down from New York for the march, and then met a friend of mine in a trendy Washington restaurant for drinks. And then flew back.
And there you have it. Did I go on a bus? No. Did I get arrested? No. Conflicted as I was, I carefully avoided the worst consequences of protest. I was a limousine liberal. I was proud to say I had attended the march, but disappointed in myself for my lack of courage. I was my mother’s child. My mother of the adage, “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything.”
Childhood ended for me abruptly on the night of the New York City blackout in 1965. My father, whom I loved and admired more than anybody, who was my hero (despite my refusal to go to law school) and my ardent supporter in my need to be different, dropped dead entering the family’s apartment after walking up eight flights of stairs. He had waited in the lobby for the elevator for hours, but of course it didn’t work because there was no electricity, and finally he decided to go home. He made it, and died right in the living room in front of my mother.
Nearly forty-five years later, I had a golden retriever, whom I named Chauncey after my father. Eerily, he died of a heart attack at the front door, just like my dad, after barking at the approaching mailman. I saw him on the floor inert, and I had a rush of thoughts: a great death for him, but a horrible one for the survivors. Did I curse him by naming him after my dad? Was there any connection between my dad dying at 57 and my dog dying at 8, which is 56 in dog years? Even an atheist like me was shell-shocked by the dog’s death, and I ultimately wound up in an emergency room with my own version of PTSD.
My brother, who was living with my parents while attending law school, had the nightmarish job of trying to get an ambulance in the blackout for our father. It was impossible, although later we came to realize it didn’t matter.
I don’t remember who called us to tell us, but my husband picked up the phone (we were already in bed) and it became his job to tell me. I couldn’t believe it. Then I wanted to go home immediately, although my mother and brother told me to wait until the following morning. I felt like my life had ended. For years I had had a premonitory dream about my father dying, and about my inability to go on. It was the only subject of all my nightmares, and now it had happened.
By the time I got home to New York City, I had put myself into denial. I was so terrified by the thought of death, any death, especially my father’s death, that I could hardly participate in the preparations. I went to see my father at the funeral parlor, and in the open casket he looked like wax fruit. That was not my vibrant, joking, brilliant father. I turned away and left the room.
At the funeral, I entertained everyone, because I didn’t know what else to do. The ceremony was packed, with limos lining up in front waiting to let off important people. Some were celebrities, some were corporate CEOs, because by that time my dad had started a different business: an over-the-counter securities brokerage, and he was engaged in small IPOs. This business I never understood from my vantage point in academe, but I absorbed enough of it to begin investing in stocks at an early age. I remember at the time of my dad’s death I already had mutual funds, which were a new kind of investment,much like ETFs are today.
I think my husband went to the funeral, but I’m not sure. I know he went right back to Syracuse, because he couldn’t afford to miss school. Then, as now, anyone in medical school was a god who had to be given every opportunity to succeed, and the world revolved around medical students and doctors. We English professors had a lot more freedom for family. I stayed with my mother and brother for a week, although I hated every minute of sitting shiva (I was an atheist existentialist you remember) and thought it was a primitive custom that embarrassed me.
When I got back to Syracuse, I headed right for the student health clinic to see a therapist, since I didn’t know how I could coninue my life without my father. In the therapist’s office I said “who will take care of me now?” The therapist was a medical resident psychiatrist, Bruce de Monterice, not much older than I was. I wasn’t sure I could trust his abilities.
He looked at me as though I were very peculiar and said “no one takes care of anyone. You will have to take care of yourself.” (I think he was also an existentialist.)
I wish I could tell you lightning bolts fell from the sky that moment as I took in what he said.
They didn’t, but in a lot of ways they did. My father’s death changed me forever. In retrospect, it made me an entrepreneur, a person responsible for her own self-sufficiency forever more. That was the good part.
The bad part? It put the fear of God into me that I couldn’t do it. And it removed my trust in the Jewish middle class savior husband. I saw what happened to my mother: she was head over heels in love with my father and he STILL left her. I got it. If my father would leave me, all men would.
That was a tough lesson to unlearn throughout my life. That trust, which up till then I had carried with me, was gone for a long, long time. And that was as detrimental to my personal life as it was good for my business life. I still can’t decide whether it was my father who made me who I am, or my father’s death.