I filmed my father just once. He was an extra in the scene, clapping in the background of my daughter’s first birthday bash, still handsome as Dean Martin, though his hair had turned electric white. In the thirteen months that followed, I was too shy to whip out the video camera he had gift-wrapped for me as a wedding present. I was desperate to record my father’s story and more–his adoring eyes–but I didn’t want him to worry: Why is she taping me? Because I’m dying?
Yes. He looked like hell, anyway.
A writer’s job, and curse, is to notice stories and try to hold on to them. I own notebooks of various sizes, jammed with hundreds of scraps of paper. In miniscule, hurried print, I strain to capture snatches of conversation, irony, hardship, humor. An Italian woman in the supermarket squeezing plum tomatoes: “I no like.” A woman with only her eyes showing through a pink burka, standing on a Manhattan street corner holding a placard pointed to the nearest Subway sandwich shop. An electronic police sign flashing “PERSON HIT/RUN, 10/08/11, ANYONE W/INFORMATION CALL ECPO HOTLINE 866-777-3535.” My daughter’s hormonal “oooh, I’m melting” for Philip Philips strumming his guitar on American Idol.
Lately, though, when I catch sight of this obsessive note-taking, I feel an uneasy sense that it is coming from–or creating–a lunatic. I flash to the movie The Hours, and hear Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf writing her novel in her head as she walks to commit suicide in the river.
I never bothered to write my father’s stories down. They were entertaining tales that often surfaced when his gang of lifelong pals arrived for rowdy barbecues in our New Jersey backyard. They met as teenagers while studying engineering at NYU in the Bronx, fresh off the boat from war-torn Greece, bumbling with their two words of English. In a black and white photo from those days, its edges curled with age, the guys are skinny and wear jackets and ties, posing playfully in Central Park. To earn tuition, they waited tables in the Greenwich Village of the 1950’s. My father did a long stint at 17 Barrow Street, a romantic restaurant owned by two lesbians who were good to him, as he told it. Listening to his tales in our backyard, years later, I could picture the restaurant floor covered with sawdust, the chianti bottles with dripping candles illuminating the tables.
My favorite stories were the ones that revealed my father’s penchant for rule-breaking. He and his crowd used to crash dinner dances at the Waldorf Astoria. They slipped in through the kitchen, aided by less fortunate buddies washing dishes that night. My father was hungry in those student days, and used to scarf shrimp and puff pastries from waiting trays, before sneaking onto the dance floor.
I never bothered to scribble down a word of my father’s past because I was a self-involved teen, then a self-involved yuppie, and there was plenty of time.
Suddenly, there wasn’t. It would have been awkward to pull out the Sony after an oncologist’s visit, when Dr. Number Five threw up his hands at “this insidious disease” and showed my father the door, basically telling him to go home and die. It would have been tactless, after overnighting his MRI’s to Japan/Italy/Baltimore in search of a miracle cure, and after hearing the incomprehensible “12 months maximum.” How could I hit the record button then, as if it were Christmas morning, or my dad were crossing the finish line of the New York Marathon, which he did four times?
Was America everything you dreamed? I would have asked. Can you love a second baby as much as the first? Do men go through midlife crises? How’s my mutual fund? Azaleas or rhododendrons? Buy or lease?
In the hospital, when his tiny granddaughters arrived for a visit, my father could bear only one glimpse before mumbling, “These kids are breaking my heart.” When the ambulance transported him to hospice, he lifted his drugged head off the gurney. “Ah.” He fell back. “We came here to die.”
I don’t need a pencil to remember that.
Which scenes would I have filmed? The catheter hanging off his metal bed, filling with bursts of blood, my father bellowing in agony? His wasted face asking us to look after my single sister? I couldn’t project these images onto a flat-screen. It took seven years after we buried him to display a framed photo on my mantel.
Words matter less to me as I grow older. My journals have been banished to the attic. In the face of a gory disease, words don’t matter at all. And yet, the dying hold on. In a coma, systems failing, they clutch their earthly stories as tightly as writers do. Often a family member must release them from the good old days or the people they love: use words not to tell a life, but to end it. “It’s all right to go, Dad,” I gave my father permission one afternoon when we were alone and his runner’s heart refused to quit. “We’ll be all right,” I said while he was unconscious. I didn’t have the courage to stare into his open eyes.
Luciano Pavarotti, another victim of this insidious disease, died September 6, 2007, the exact day as my father, though nine years later. “God kissed my vocal chords,” the tenor said at his heights, and at the end: “I have led a blessed life, and now this blow.” Posterity will remember Grande Luciano via an array of media. You can see him on YouTube singing Nessun Dorma, his signature aria, the one played as his coffin left the church. It is the first time opera moves me the way it is supposed to, the music peaking like a roller coaster, tinged with the inevitable valleys to come, Pavarotti bellowing, “Vincero.” I will win.
Nobody will see my father on YouTube.
But here is the final point: it makes no difference that I missed interviewing my father, that I have no record of his story. Writing and recording life is not the same as living it. He taught me that. “Don’t read too much,” my father warned.
And yet. While I was cleaning out his closets and piling his belongings at the curb, I discovered decades of desk calendars he had saved. My father jotted down not only business meetings but daily happenings, a diary of sorts: P. goes off to college. B. mammogram fine. S. asks, “Are you ready to be grandparents?”
I had always assumed that my father had a predilection for inviting friends to rowdy barbecues, as opposed to sitting alone, covering scraps of paper with miniscule scrawl which resembles a lunatic’s. Now, I cannot be sure. I only know that for his last twelve months, my father woke up each day knowing he would not see snow again, not see daffodils. Outside my window, I study the young spring, the neighbor kids chasing a terrier. I close my eyes and try to imagine blackness, not waking up in the morning, losing this planet.
I carry in my gut the knowledge that life can be cut short, and so I, an isolated writer, struggle with sitting at my desk. I want to watch TV with my daughter, meet my sisters for lunch at the mall, sit in my mother’s kitchen and learn (finally) how she cooks lamb with orzo. I am careful, now, about how much I record, how much I hold on to, versus how much I live. More and more, I let go. Still, certain memories refuse to loosen their grip; they remain.
His favorite place: Aegean. Hobby: running. Drink: Scotch. Pastime: us.