Me and my dad just before he died at the age of 97.
I watched a documentary recently on HBO called First Cousin Once Removed by Alan Berliner. It was about the poet Edwin Honig, his cousin. It was a sad and moving essay, lyrical and poignant, until it got to the part about Honig’s children, and their relationship.
Up till then we see a kind, handsome elderly man still use words poetically, despite his ever-worsening Alzheimer’s disease. A man who wouldn’t hurt a fly, a man deserving of all the love and admiration he could get. A beautiful, creative man, still beautiful and creative. There is a mischievous look in his eyes as he plays with words with the interviewer.
One son comes to visit, the other doesn’t.
The one who was too busy to visit explains how his father had once torn up some of his drawings, how when his mother told him his father was moving out of the house he rejoiced, how his father only knew how to show love by being cruel to him, saying “I guess he loved me a lot.”
That statement took me back to 13 years ago this September, when I took my aging father to live in a nursing home. He was infirm, he had advanced diabetes, and he was incontinent. But he was lucid. A touch of dementia, but he knew who I was till the last time I saw him, shortly before he died.
I was caring for him the best I could, but it wasn’t enough. He needed 24 hour care and his doctor convinced me to admit him into a nursing home. I felt guilty but relieved.
The day I took him to the home, a place called Bainbridge in the Bronx, I was assisted by the head nurse that day, who helped getting him settled in.
We were in his new room, we’d gotten him to sit on the edge of his bed, and I was saying goodbye. The nurse, a kindly woman in her forties, close to my age at the time, looked at my father indulgingly and stroked his head. My father sat there and basked in her touch, a little grin on his face.
“He’s such a nice old man.” She said. Suddenly my face flushed hot and I blurted:
“Well, he wasn’t always that way!”
The nurse stared at me in shock, and after a second she turned the indulgent smile on me.
“Perhaps you’d like to talk to our social worker, maybe there are some things you’d like to work out.”
My dad looked up at me with his little mischievous grin. He hadn’t even had to say a word to get me one last time.
My dad when he was young.
I did go talk to the woman, and I talked to a great many people after that, therapists, counselors, friends. I was in the midst of a divorce, and changing the way I lived my life for a long time, recovering from some stuff. I had already realized that my father wasn’t going to change, that whatever he’d done to me, or I perceived he’d done to me, I wasn’t getting any apologies for. I was going to have to take it and like it, or move on, leave him to die by himself in that nursing home.
My father was a drunk, and he was both physically and verbally abusive. Not extremely physical, but the verbal abuse was brutal and constant. There were times I wished him dead and I certainly would have rejoiced had my mother told me he was moving out.
He was in a coma for six months when I was 17; he’d gotten hit by a truck on Atlantic Ave. one drunk and rainy afternoon. Those six months were the most idyllic months of my youth. But I also cried and worried that he would die.
I was able to be kind to him before he died, I didn’t argue with him or try and humiliate him the way I’ve seen other adult children do to their aged parents, I might have at one time but luckily I’d learned to live my life differently. I wish I could share that with Edwin Honig’s son.
My son Javier and his grandpa.