Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Roof Was Torn Away

As my father took his last mortal breath, I ate dinner with a girl who had been in the The Waltons. Unaware that my father was exiting his life, I said to her, “I know it’s strange, but in school, I was jealous of the kids who lost a parent. They got special attention. Everyone was nice to them.” It was a revelation of something I’d long been embarrassed of to someone I wanted to kiss.

I had fettuccine Alfredo, which was brave on a date. Well, I’m not certain if it was a date or not. She’d been giving me mixed signals for a year of meals and movies, but we were still going out, be it as a pre-physical or a non-physical couple not yet determined. I didn't know at that moment that she would be the last girl I went out who would meet my father.

A few months earlier we had flown east together on my Continental frequent flyer miles, on a red-eye, changing planes in Denver in the middle of the night and landing in Newark at six in the morning, where my father picked us up before work.

I’d called him a couple days before and asked,

“Dad, when you pick us up, can you come in Mom’s Skylark? The Regal is in pretty bad shape.”

“Okay,” he said in a resigned voice.

“And would you clean it first?” I requested to impress the girl from The Waltons, to impress the girl who I may or may not be taking on a cross country date to New Jersey. He didn't push back. He understood. He understood that his car was rusted and filthy. He understood that I was scared of the girl I was flying with. He understood his role in my social theater.

I am in some ways like my father. If you gave me one adjective to describe him it would be afraid. If I got another, I’d add responsible. Some more that come to mind are smart, teaser, loving, joker, and uncomfortable. 

On second thought, maybe uncomfortable should be first.

I don’t know if he bought his shirts with too short an arm length on purpose or not, but seeing him in a dress shirt with the sleeve buttoned up tight against his arm two inches or more above his wrist was as uncomfortable to witness as it must have been to wear.

I couldn’t see his shirtsleeves when he met us at the airport. He wore a sports coat and tie despite the fact that he didn’t normally wear them to work. He drove us from the airport to his office in the Academy Building, playing tour guide on the trip through the blackened brick husks of mill buildings and factories, telling my maybe date how all the patent leather in the world had once come from right here in Newark, New Jersey.

His voice was subdued – low, maybe out of shyness, maybe just a lack of breath. I interrupted him to get him to stop boring the girl. I pointed out that we could see the skyline of New York if we looked to the right, beyond the black Pulaski Skyway viaduct.

“Don’t forget, your mom needs her car back by noon,” my father said, revealing unintentionally that this was our family’s ‘good’ car, that we had much to hide, and that we weren’t very good at hiding.

We dropped him at his stained white office, the Academy Building near Broad and Raymond.  I quickly steered the Skylark out of Newark, into the Holland Tunnel, and to the City, to the Village, where I deposited my travelling companion at her friend’s apartment, not seeing her again until we met in Midtown a week later for our ride back to the airport.

At the time, I was having dreams that my father had passed. Every dream was different, but in every one he was there, then he wasn't and I knew he was dead. Only I’d wake up and realize that he was alive and everything was okay.

The dreams started on a trip to Berkeley with another girl who I was seeing but not dating. We’d met up with my parents to visit my brother at Cal. As my father, my mother, my non-girlfriend, and I began walking one of Berkeley’s steeper sidewalks, my father stopped and whispered, “I have trouble with hills.  Let’s take the bus.”

He said this matter-of-factly, as if saying, “it’s raining, let’s take the bus,” but he was telling me that the sidewalk was too steep for him. There were dozens of other people of all ages walking up the hill at the time. My father was fifty. He may as well have said to me, “Take me to a doctor,” but he didn’t, or I didn’t listen, and I let him die.

I was writing a play about my father’s death before he died. It was the story of a middle-aged Christian Scientist who took his last breath at home suddenly. I was halfway through the first draft when fiction became reality.

I am 53-years old as I write these words; the age my father was when I had fettuccine Alfredo with the girl who was in The Waltons. I live in an apartment that I share with my wife and two teenagers. Our stove is an old Wedgewood range that we have been told once belonged to Mary Pickford the actress and, like my father, the Christian Scientist.

For years the stove would conk out, sometimes at inappropriate times, as if cooking was too steep a hill. Despite our not having it fixed, it would start again. We didn’t have the stove repaired until one day it died. A repairman came to the house, looked at it for ten minutes, got a new part from his truck, and fixed it. In the seven years since the stove has never conked out again. 

In the years between 1985 and 1989 my father conked out and perked up a lot. There’d be days he couldn’t climb a hill and then there would be days that he was fine. He was a human claxon with an unfortunate mute button.

The night after my fettuccine Alfredo date with the girl, who I may have been seeing or may have not been seeing, I had another dream about my father. In this one, he was alive, in bed across the hall from my childhood room. I was also in bed, kicking the wall like I used to when I was ten.

In real life he would yell at me, “Chuck, stop kicking the wall and go to sleep.”

In my dream he changed it to, “Chuck, wake up so I can go to sleep.”

At that moment that I understood what he was asking of me the phone rang and woke me. I got my wish to be special, to have everyone be nice to me.

Weeks later, one friend, being nice to me, got me a meeting with the Broadway director Ulu Grossbard. I sat in his office in shock that I was meeting someone of his stature. He said, “I am sorry for your loss. I hear you wrote a play about it?”

“It’s not finished,” I explained.

“But you were writing about it before?”

I nodded yes.

“I want to read it when it’s done,” he said.

I never sent it to him. I was afraid. I was uncomfortable.

I still dream of my father. Whenever he appears in a dream, alive and well, I ask anyone else in the dream not to tell my father that he is dead, because if they do he will disappear. Still someone, often me, lets it slip and he vanishes. While he is still there, I’m always inside a safe place (the house I grew up in, my grandmother’s apartment, or somewhere else I feel sheltered) but once he disappears I am outside.

There is no roof. There is just sky, the world and me.

The roof has been torn away.

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