At 78 my father is staring over the sheer precipice of 80, a place with rocky outcroppings, bad winds and an unforgiving view. Most of his life now is spent engaging in small gestures to ward off the inevitable. Recently he's taken to dyeing his hair jet black, though patches of insistent gray -- fuzzy tufts with the intractable curl of pubic hair -- still dot his head where he missed with the dye. (There is nothing sadder, I thought the first time I noticed this, than an old man who succumbs to the vanities of a woman.) Even when I was a teenager my father's attempts to remain young were painful. The loud yellow bell-bottom leisure suits. The big hair. The creepy sway of his hips moving to Motown or the Beatles.
My father doesn't dance much these days, but he's still a busy man. He's a sculptor, a painter, a pianist, a lecturer and a professional magician. To keep the cash coming in he's also a psychiatrist with a dwindling practice of mostly borderline schizophrenics and other seriously unraveled basket cases who stumble into his office from the psycho-pharmaceutical wastelands of the city.
When he's done shepherding his patients through emotional war zones my father walks along his deck -- a big wood job with a 180-degree view of the hills -- and ponders the inevitable. "God punishes people who stay too long on the planet," he says. My father's biggest punishment will be living to the ripe old age of 110.
My father has some details to work out before he dies. One of them is to figure out who gets his estate: the house, the artwork, the big Steinway. That it should go to his children is not self-evident. (We grew up with the enemy -- my mother -- and thus will remain forever suspect.) The other detail is to figure out how to be a father.
My father doesn't tell me this but it's apparent in the slightly terrified look he gives me every time I leave his home. It's a look that combines the fear that this goodbye might be his last goodbye with the deep regret that comes from knowing that he has fucked up as a father and has precious little time or know-how to make up for it.
Usually he'll just stand there with his mouth slightly open like a dresser drawer, saying nothing. Other times he avoids the whole mess entirely. "You want to see my new ventriloquism act?" he asks suddenly, pulling a scary 4-foot marionette out of his magic closet.
My father's magic closet: By age 10 he'd taught himself every trick in the book. We grew up with rabbits in top hats, birds fluttering out of silk handkerchiefs, disappearing coins. My father was part Uri Geller, part Groucho Marx. A life of denigration and abandon -- seven brothers raised in a ghetto, World War I immigrant parents, a daily diet of physical and emotional abuse -- gave him an insatiable appetite for the limelight, a serious interest in the otherworldly and an intractably bad temper. He is the Great Entertainer and the burdened intellectual, all Jewish schmaltz and rage.
Before the divorce -- before my mother left him under police escort with the three of us in tow; before the unpaid child support, the lawyer's bill and the bruises on my mother's body -- my parents lived in a Bauhaus-inspired desert-chic house in the city.
My father was a general practitioner back then: fractures, flus, the general stuff. Our house was filled with stethoscopes, tongue depressors, hypodermic needles, vials of chloroform, rolls of gauze. The only thing more unsettling than the morbid, vaguely sepulchral medical paraphernalia scattered around our house was my father's growing interest in the occult. He had "unexplained experiences." Dead patients would appear in his doorway; they had missives for other patients, for family members. Others, clinically dead for hours, would mysteriously return to life and describe exactly what had transpired in the operating room while they were deceased. Strange angels visited him in his dreams. My father took notes, paid attention.
Around this time my father dropped his medical practice to pursue psychiatry. He participated on a panel of doctors who were administered LSD and studied in clinical tests -- a period my mother described as the only peaceful time in their marriage. Later my father went on public radio to espouse the virtues of hallucinogens in the treatment of certain forms of psychosis.
When he wasn't on LSD or experimenting with other drugs in the hopes of breaking new ground in psychedelic psychiatry, things were tough. My mother would rush over to my aunt's house -- a ranch house under an airport flight corridor that we later called the damage-control house. We'd sit in the kitchen eating greasy hot dogs while my mother and aunt shut themselves up in a back room and talked in urgent whispers. Every once in a while the sky would crack open with the sound of sonic booms.
Oddly, despite their irreconcilable differences, my parents shared a spiritual path. They both quested after the metaphysical; they longed to be enlightened. We, on the other hand, longed to be just plain vanilla. Like untended houseplants we grew unruly and chaotic, with the slight air of well-intended neglect. We had too much freedom, too little restraint. We were cobbler's children; latchkey kids raised by bootstrap parents. We ran around naked with wild hair, got lost in crowds. My father's growing eccentricities, his Fellini-esque parties and, later, my mother's black boyfriend -- all this decidedly freaked out the neighbors.
Everything about my father intimidated me back then so I learned the art of being coy, of avoiding his wrath. I never got hit, but I never got his real attention, either. My older sister got both. She rebelled, went haywire, got the brunt of everything she shouldn't have. My younger brother was a dramatically sensitive creature who needed lots of hand-holding. Like a good middle child I tried to hinge the two sides together. It was an impossible task.
In perhaps the biggest irony in our family, my brother joined a cult while my father, as part of his burgeoning psychiatric practice in the '70s, was busy deprogramming children abducted into cults. In the paternal theology of cult life my brother finally found the father he never had. My father's response was to disown him.
Twenty years have passed and still my father can't talk about my brother without blowing a circuit. We have brunch; I avoid certain subjects. My father is feeble (slightly stooped; button popped off where his belly has begun to swell) but still looks formidable; the veins in his hands are the size of No. 2 pencils. "Here, read this," he says one day when we're in the park. "It's my oeuvre." He hands me a large unbound manuscript -- 250 pages of his occult experiences with patients while he was a general practitioner. "Go ahead and read it," he prods. "I'll just sit here and wait."
My father never finished his "oeuvre." These days he lives with various houseboys -- usually obsequious Asian grad students with degrees in nuclear science who sweep the floors and take general abuse before eventually fleeing to more neutral ground. Sometimes they pilfer things before they go; one of them gouged a hole in my father's water bed and made off with a new shaving kit -- a particularly nasty way to go, in my father's eyes.
Girlfriends come and go, too. Barbiturate queens with cocktail smiles. Academics. Hippies. Ex-patients. Fragile women with blond hair who try too hard. "It's so fucking impossible to have a loving, caring relationship these days," he says. He tells me things I'd rather not know: that he prefers women with small breasts ("like ballerina breasts"); that he once had an "adventure" with a man in his bathtub. Still, intimacy was never his strong point.
Once I stopped expecting my father to be ordinary, it got easier to accept his polymorphously perverse (to steal from Woody Allen) personality. I married a man who is the diametric opposite of my father, perhaps out of self-preservation, perhaps out of common sense. Today, I visit my father like one would visit an amusement park: not my idea of fun but something that, as a parent, I'll make an effort to enjoy.
I would have preferred to have had my father as a friend, but we don't choose our parents (though some would claim we do). Only age and our own forays into parenthood allow us to see our parents in a greater perspective: We finally see the busy, complicated firmament of their personal histories and get our own glimpse of the scary, incomprehensible Unknown where we're all heading.
The imminence of this final journey presses on my father; he's clearly not ready to go. There's so much shit to figure out beforehand, like the nature of evil. For my birthday he gives me a book on genocide, the machinery of destruction, and morality in the 20th century. "Happy birthday," he says. "This is a fabulous book. You'll love it."
He talks about making a "voluntary exit," holding up a bottle of pharmaceuticals. "These will put me to sleep for the rest of eternity." This is his backup plan in the event that old age makes his life unbearable, makes him infirm: the fragile body, the brittle bones, the collapsed knees. Already his heart beats to the rhythm of a silent pacemaker. His other backup plan is to sell his house and move to an upscale retirement community. He's not sure which plan is more disturbing.
The last time I saw him he invited my son and me to a soiree. "There'll be an excellent Golda Meir impersonator at the soiree," he says. "Your son will love it." Does it matter that my son is 4 years old and that Golda Meir has been dead for over 20 years? Parenting skills were not a commodity back in his young adult years. I accept the offer, hoping in the back of my mind that Golda will change her mind and not turn up. Chances are, however, that the show will go on for quite some time.