Don't complain. Don't explain

Charming and vicious, brilliant and stupid, my father was not an easy person to be around -- even during our final visit.

Published June 19, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

Most of you don't know my 86-year-old father, Ralph. I tend not to talk about him much. During college, when my seven housemates and I were all seeing Haight-Ashbury Psychological Services $10-an-hour student intern therapists to discover our inner children, I talked about him a lot, because it turned out my inner child is actually a 42-year-old Jewish man from New York City. Therapist Alice thought this probably had something to do with my father and encouraged me to buy a teddy bear since I couldn't remember having any stuffed animals as a child. I did and it helped, but I digress.

On a Tuesday in early February, I received a fax from my half-brother Jan asking me to deal with my father, his stepfather. Ralph survived his fifth heart attack last month, but had to move into a nursing home. Jan wrote that Ralph's health is deteriorating quickly and that he's easily confused, extremely restless and deeply paranoid. The Robison Jewish Health Center is one of Portland's finest and most expensive facilities; he is there because an on-the-ball hospital social worker discerned he was a Jew in trouble, living in a transient hotel and squandering his social security checks on Night Train and library fines. She managed to fast-track free admission and ongoing care for him at Robison. Jan thought it urgent that I visit because he was refusing to sign over power of attorney and if someone didn't assume legal guardianship soon, we'd have to go to court to have him declared incompetent. The doctors at the center said they would have no difficulty testifying that he is no longer capable of taking care of himself. I took the first flight out on Thursday.

The last communication I'd received from my father was a letter eight months ago that ended, "Don't complain. Don't explain." It's a motto he's lived by his entire life, rarely revealing personal feelings about anything other than art, botany, small children, poetry and animals. His body has been falling apart since I was born 33 years ago, so in a sense I've been bracing for his death as long as I can remember. The summons to Portland was not a surprise, but that didn't make it any easier.

It's not that Daddy and I argue or that we're estranged, as is the case with his other children. His eldest son, Nick, hasn't spoken to him since before I came into the picture, and younger son Charles moved without telling anyone where he was going nearly a decade ago. His stepson Kris doesn't have anything to do with him and, until recently, Jan didn't either. Alternately charming and vicious, brilliant and about as stupid as you can get, my father is not an easy person to be around. He doesn't particularly believe in conversation. He lectures and expects people to hang on his every word and then clap. If my mother or brothers dared voice opinions counter to his, they received his full vodka-fueled wrath. Being the youngest, the only girl and his favorite, I was usually spared his anger. I clapped. And daddy told me I was smart.

By all accounts, during my first few years of life he was an engaged and loving parent, which is probably why I'm not as screwed up and bitter as I could have been. After my parents' divorce in 1975, we spent only short bursts of time together. He regularly wrote letters to me about synesthesia, cats and synchronicity, and he would phone occasionally, each call ending, "We'll see each other soon, baby," which we both knew wasn't true. On the plane to see him, I calculated that since I was 9, we've been together at most 10 weeks total.

There's a lot I will never know about my father. What I do know is that he once saw Marilyn Monroe cross Washington Square in Greenwich Village and he thought she was even more luminous in person than on the screen. His parents were immigrant tailors from England. First-generation American, he grew up in Washington Heights playing stickball in the street and cutting class to go to the Museum of Natural History. He ran with the abstract expressionist crowd, for whom drinking and creativity were inextricably and romantically bound. He had a brother named Leonard, long estranged. He didn't earn a college degree, but spent years auditing Meyer Shapiro's art history classes at Columbia University and the New School for Social Research. His proudest achievement was that Meyer once said he was his favorite person to go to museums with. He worked as a chemist at a toothpaste factory and as a fine arts book rep for Abrams. He taught art to children, prisoners and mental patients. He nearly drowned practicing headstands in the shower. He thought of himself as a smooth salesman and a good dancer. He never saved or invested and he didn't pay child support. When it came time to retire, he was adrift in Ohio and asked a gas station attendant where he would go if he could go anywhere and the guy said Portland, Ore., so that's where he went.

When Jan picked me up at the airport, he warned me that seeing the nursing home would be a shock and that seeing my father frail with oxygen tubes up his nose would be disturbing. I silently thought: I can cope. I've hung out in AIDS wards. I know what sick people look like. Don't pity me. But he was right. When we walked into the lobby, past a row of mumbling, quivering inmates in wheelchairs, I felt as if I'd been punched in the solar plexus. It suddenly hit me that my father was in this place and that this was likely the last time I'd ever see him. The social worker sprinted off to get a box of Kleenex for our briefing. He told us that after Ralph's last heart attack, his lungs had filled, and though he wasn't in immediate danger of dying, his medical condition was known as "failure to thrive." The doctors thought his paranoia and restlessness had to do with alcohol withdrawal and oxygen deprivation. We didn't bother explaining that Ralph has always been paranoid and restless.

I approached his room with dread. He was strapped into a wheelchair, emaciated with painfully swollen feet and gout-ravaged hands, but actually he looked better than I'd imagined. His green eyes were clear and alert, and his newly white hair rather dashing. Too weak to hold court, he was simply happy to see me. Next to his bed were books from the library: a collection of essays by Meyer and a biography of Harry Houdini. He asked about my daughter, Annalena, and husband, Dave, and wanted me to know that his not writing this year hadn't been out of indifference. He wondered several times what day it was. He said he didn't like being there -- that the people in charge were suspicious of him because they thought he was in cahoots with a competing old folk's home, one that had invented a special bionic cream. Then he asked where he was. He said he didn't know what these people were pushing, poetry or food. And had I noticed that when you look at the black lines of a woodcut, after a while they disappear? I told him the staff had given me some forms and that I'd read them very closely to make sure there was no monkey business before he signed them. He didn't acknowledge hearing me. I returned to Jan's house and slept for 13 hours.

When I returned the following afternoon, a vivacious young orderly was telling Ralph he reminded her of someone and she'd just figured it out: Burt Lancaster. This pleased him and he launched into the (probably basically true) story of being a runner-up Marlboro Man. Everyone at the ad agency had adored him except the boss, who decided the Marlboro Man couldn't have a cowlick. When she left the room, I asked if he wanted to go someplace and he said yes, he wanted to leave because these people don't let him go to the bathroom. I said we couldn't leave the building, but maybe he'd like to go to the sun room. When I brought up the forms, he replied that millions of people have died without signing these things and he didn't want to talk about it. He asked a nurse to please bring us chocolate ice cream and peanut butter cookies.

After the sweets, I screwed up my courage to broach the subject again. "Daddy, if you don't sign this medical power of attorney, they won't call me if you have another heart attack. This thing says you give them permission to call me. You have to sign it or they won't call me." I was welling with tears. He said OK. I raced to the front desk to get the notary. The receptionist said the notary wasn't at her desk. Fearing he'd change his mind, I glared at her and hissed, "Find the notary and get her to the sun room immediately, damn it." I told him the notary was on her way and stalled, "Isn't it curious how in Portland all the stores -- shoe stores, record stores, book stores, stationery stores, hardware stores, backpacking supply stores -- carry aromatherapy candles?"

Finally the notary showed. Deep breath. "Daddy, I have to ask you some tough questions. Do you know what life support is?" He looked far into the distance and shook his head yes. "Do you want it?" He shook his head no. "Do you want tube feeding?" Another shake no. I was worried he'd panic at the financial power-of-attorney form, even though he hardly has any money. "This other form just says Jan or I can pay your storage unit rent if you can't." He initialed and signed; the notary stamped and left. We didn't say anything for a few moments, then suddenly he was animated, he wanted a heart monitor, he liked heart monitors, "The doctors shouldn't get confused -- just because they have to hook up a heart monitor doesn't mean you're ready to die."

Jan and I have never been close. Thirteen years between us, we careened out of the nest with seemingly little in common, and as adults have had as little to do with each other as possible. This crisis changed that. Jan's choosing to offer Ralph compassion in these final days when, given their mutually contemptuous history, no one would have blamed him for deciding otherwise, has settled him in some way, made him stronger and more at peace with the world. He and his girlfriend, Nancy, took thoughtful care of me. They let me be sad and accommodated my base survival instincts to power shop, eat and drink too much and limply vegetate in front of "Melrose Place."

I went back to the Robison a third time. Daddy asked again where he was. He said, "This place is a memory parlor. Only everybody's trying to memorize themselves." I wept when it was time to go. He asked why I was upset. I told him because this was probably the last time we'd see each other. He pointed to his semicomatose roommate, "Oh I don't know, baby, I think Gus over there is 89."

By Gina Hyams

Gina Hyams is an expatriate writer based in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. She is currently at work on a travel-parenting memoir titled "Escape Artists."

MORE FROM Gina Hyams

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Family Fatherhood Father's Day