“In high school, my father saw two boys he knew drown. One kid got pulled out in an undertow off the New Jersey coast and his friend evidently dove out to save him. This tragedy became one of the central metaphors of his life. “A drowning person will grip you,” my father told me, “if you get too close. They’ll pull you down with them. You should throw them something, a rope, a life preserver. But don’t touch them, don’t go in after them.” He used to say this to my brother and me, from time to time, as if dispensing advice on driving or study habits, as if drowning were an ordinary occurrence. While I heard the advice, I did not learn the story of the two boys until much later, because my father never spoke about himself during my childhood, only about others.
It took me about twenty years to get my father to talk about his own life. I remember the first day he did. I recall the prickly feel of our old yellow couch as we sat together. I was painfully aware of my father’s great bulk beside me. He was a big man for his generation, six two and well over two hundred pounds, with broad arms, a barrel chest, and a great potbelly that thrust out before him like the bass drum of his booming voice, his laugh.”
“My twin brother, Les, had the good sense to keep a low profile and stay close to the ground, but I was Dad’s gifted child. I was the sensitive one. I was trouble. “You little brat. I’m going to beat you within an inch of our life,” my father used to say. And there were times he seemed bent on making good on his promise. His violence should have pushed me away from him, and consciously it did. But in some primitive way it only drew me closer. As he raged, out of control, even as he beat me, I never lost touch with him. It was the vortex of his pathos, his insanity, his hurt that overwhelmed me, filling me, more than the physical pain, with black despair, with torpor. I couldn’t wait for the ritual to end so that I could take to my bed, pull the covers up over me, and sleep.”
“A skinny twenty-seven-year-old, I pull a thick afghan [shawl] onto my lap and ask my father to tell me about his childhood. He begins with the usual maneuvers: he adopts surliness, then he jokes, evades. But this time I am armed with the fledgling skills of a young therapist. I have learned a few lessons in the craft of opening up a closed heart.
“You know, your mother and I deliberately made the decision to keep all this form you,” he begins.
“I understand, “ I say.
“We didn’t want to burden you kids.”
“I appreciate that.”
“But, I suppose you’re certainly old enough now . . .” he falters.
I am quiet.
He pauses. “You’ll never know what it was like back then,” he tells me, “the Depression . . .” He lapses into silence for a while and then he begins. He wasn’t more than six or seven when his mother died of some lingering disease whose name he affects not to remember. He had only vague pictures of her in his head, hardly memories; he recalled her warmth, an infectious laugh.
After she died, things went downhill for my father’s father. Abe, “a weak, passive man.” Abe lost his job, bought a little mom-and-pop store; then he lost the store. Unable to support itself, the family broke up. My dad and his younger brother went to live with a cousin. “Aunt” Sylvie was mean. She was bitter before the Depression and taking in my father. Edgar, and his brother, young Phil, did nothing to slake the venom in her disposition. She was cruel in a daily, ordinary way.
“Like how, Dad?” I ask him.
“Oh, I don’t know.,” he shrugs me off.
“Like how, Dad?” I repeat the question.
I eventually get my father to tell me about the humiliation of ragged hand-me-downs, about how Sylvie would dish out food to him with a line such as, “Here is a big piece of chicken for Steven, because he is my son. And here is a small piece of chicken for you, Edgar. Because you are not.”
When he was eleven or twelve, the rage in my father, the missing of his mother, his father, filled him to the bursting point. His little brother was still young and sunny enough to adjust, but my dad began acting out. An “instigator” at school, a petty thief at home, he lasted through one or two “incidents” and then Aunt Sylvie summarily got rid of him. He found himself banished to the home of elderly grandparents in another part of town.
“What did you do?” I ask.
“What do you mean, what did I do? I went to school. I worked.”
“Did you have friends?”
“I made friends.”
“Did you see Phil and your father?”
Yes, he saw them. All that winter after school he would walk six miles through the snow to have dinner with them at Sylvie’s house. He would linger over a cup of cocoa until Sylvie asked him to leave. Then he’d walk back again alone.
I look out of the window of our little seaside apartment, onto bare November trees. I picture that twelve-year-old boy walking back in the snow.
“How was that for you?” I ask. “What did you feel?”
My father shrugs.
“What did you feel?” I insist.
“A little cold, I guess.”
“Come on, goddamn it.”
“I don’t hold a grudge, Terry.” My father’s tone levels me. “They did what they had to. All right? These were rough times. Besides,” his voice becomes still, “I understand in a way. I wasn’t so easy to handle.”
“You were a child,” I tell him.
My father shakes his head. “Yeah, well, I was pretty hard-boiled. I could be quite a little son of a bitch.”
“How much of a son of a bitch could you have been, Dad?” I say. “You were twelve years old!”
He turns away. “I don’t know.” He slumps.
“Look at me.” I take his shoulders. “I don’t give a shit what you did, do you understand? You were a kid. Your mother was dead; your father was gone. You didn’t deserve it, okay? Don’t you get it? You didn’t deserve it.”
My father looks up at me, his blue eyes magnified by thick glasses. “Okay,” he sighs. Then, as sudden as any rage, he reached out his thick arms and pulls me toward him. Without a word he lays his head on my shoulder, as tender and guileless as child. Holding him, I breathe in his familiar smell, coffee and cigarettes and a touch of Brylcreem. Feeling the weight of his great head, I am physically awkward, almost repelled, but when he pulls away, I instinctively tighten my hold on him. Gingerly, reluctantly, I stroke his back, his stiff hair.
“It’s okay, Dad,” I murmur.
I look out past him at the trees, and wonder what will become of us, my father and me. I still neither trusted nor grave him, but something deep inside me began to uncoil.
That night was a first green tendril piercing through a stone wall. Others followed. In the years ahead, as our closeness developed, my life became more successful, and my father’s life grew ever more desperate. I watched, helpless, as financial worry, social isolation, and finally, a horrible disease whittled him, sucked the marrow out of him, pulled him under. I stayed as close, I gave as much as I could.
I buried my father in September 1991. The night before, when I left his bedside, he gave me his blessing and I gave him mine. The next morning, I walked into the hospital room to find him dead. His head was thrown back, his eyes shut, his mouth open. It didn’t look like my dad. It looked like my dad’s body, a thing made of clay, like his statues. I touched his eyes and kissed him. His skin on my lips tasted bitter, earthen.
I have often thought about the high school boys my father saw drown and the advice he gave me: “Don’t touch them. They’ll drag you under.” As in so many other instances, his advice on this matter was wrong. I did not go down into that dark vortex with my father. But neither did I let go of his embrace.”
Pp. 15-19 in [Prologue of] Real, Terrence. 1997. I Don’t Want to Talk About It: Overcoming the Secret Legacy of Male Depression. New York: Scribner.