The Story of My Father

Old age is a great leveler: The frailer elderly all come to resemble turtles trapped in curved shells, shrinking, wrinkled and immobile, so that, in a roomful, a terrarium of the old, it is hard to disentangle one solitary individuals karma from the mass fate of aging.

Is it not clearer than day, that we feel within ourselves the indelible marks of excellence, and is it not equally true that we constantly experience the effects of our deplorable condition?


Old age is a great leveler: The frailer elderly all come to resemble turtles trapped in curved shells, shrinking, wrinkled and immobile, so that, in a roomful, a terrarium of the old, it is hard to disentangle one solitary individuals karma from the mass fate of aging. Take my father. Vegetating in a nursing home, his character seems both universalized and purified, worn to its bony essence. But, as LSD is said to intensify more than alter one’s personality, so old age: My father is what he always was, only more so. People meeting him for the first time ascribe his oddities (the withdrawn silences, sloppy eating habits, boasts and pedantic non sequiturs) to the infirmities of time, little realizing he was like that at 30.

A man in his 30s who acts the octogenarian is asking for it. But old age has set his insularities in a kinder light—meanwhile drawing to the surface that underlying sweetness that I always suspected was there. Dispassionate to the point where the stoical and stony meet, a hater of sentimentality, he had always been embarrassed by his affections; but now he lacks the strength even to suppress these leakages. I have also changed and am more ready to receive them. These last 10 years—ever since he was put away in old age homes—have witnessed more expressions of fondness than passed between us in all the years before. Now when I visit him, he kisses me on sight and, during the whole time we are together, stares at me greedily, as though with wonder that such a graying cub came from his loins. For my part, I have no choice but to love him. I feel a tenderness welling up, if only at the sight of the wreck he has become. What we were never able to exhibit when he had all his wits about him—that animal bond between father and son—is now the main exchange.

Yet I also suspect sentimentality; and so I ask myself, how valid is this cozy resolution? Am í letting both of us off the hook too quickly? Or trying to corner the market on filial piety, while the rest of my family continues mostly to ignore him? Who is, who was, this loner, Albert Lopate, neglected in a back ward? I look at the pattern of his 85 years and wonder what it all adds up to: failure, as he himself claims, or a respectable worker s life for which he has little to be ashamed, as í want to believe? We spend most of our adulthoods trying to grasp the meanings of our parents’ lives; and how we shape and answer these questions largely turns us into who we are.

My father’s latest idea is that I am a lawyer. The last two times I’ve visited him in the nursing home, he’s expressed variations on this theme. The first time he looked up at me from his wheelchair and said, So, you’re successful—as a lawyer?” By my family’s scrap-ing-by standards, I’m a worldly success; and worldly success, to the mistrustful urban-peasant mind of my father, befogged by geriatric confusion, can only mean a lawyer.

Lawyers, I should add, are not held in the highest regard in my family. They are considered shysters: smooth, glib, ready to sell you out.You could say the same about writers. In hindsight, one reason I became a writer is that my father wanted to be one. An autodidact who started out in the newspaper trade, then became a factory-worker and, finally, a shipping clerk, he wrote poetry in his spare time, and worshipped Faulkner and Kafka. I enacted his dream, like the good son (or usurped it, like the bad son), which seems not to have made him entirely happy. So he turns me into a lawyer.

Not that my father’s substitution is all that far-fetched. ì had entered college a pre-law major, planning to specialize in publishing law. Secretly I yearned to be a writer, though I did not think I was smart enough. I was right—who is?—but bluff got the better of modesty

The last time I visited my father, he said, “I know what you want to be. Abogado.” He smiled at his ability to call up the Spanish word you see on storefronts in barrios, alongside notario. So this time I was not yet the successful attorney, but the teenage son choosing his vocation. Sometimes old people get stuck on a certain moment in the past. Could it be that his mental clock had stopped around 1961, right about the time of his first stroke, when he’d just passed 50 (my present age) and I was 17? Abogado. Its so characteristic of my father s attachment to language that a single word will swim up from the dark waters of dotage. Even before he became addled, he would peacock his vocabulary, going out of his way to construct sentences with polysyllabic words such as “concommitant” or “prevaricate.” My father fingers words like mah-jongg tiles, waiting to play a good one.

Lately he has been reverting to Yiddish phrases, which he assumes I understand, though I don’t. This return to the mother tongue is not accompanied by any revived interest in Judaism—he still refuses to attend the home’s religious services—but is all part of his stirring the pot of language and memories one last time.

I arrive around noon, determined to bring him outside for a meal. My father, as usual, sits in the dining room, a distance apart from everyone else, staring down at his chin. There are a group of old ladies whom he manages to tantalize by neither removing himself entirely from their company, nor giving them the benefit of his full attention. Though he has deteriorated badly in recent years, he still remains in better shape than some, hence a “catch.” One Irish lady in particular, Sheila, with a twinkle in her cataracted eye, is always telling me what a lovely man my father is. He pays her no attention whatsoever.

It was not always thus. A letter he dictated for my sister Leah in California, when he first came to this home, contained the passage: “There’s a woman by the name of Sheila who seems to be attracted to me. She’s a heavyset woman, not too bad-looking, she likes me a lot, and is fairly even-tempered. I’m not sure of my feelings toward her. I’m ambivalent.” (Ambivalent is a favorite Albert Lopate word. Purity of heart is for simpletons.) “Should I pursue this more aggressively, or should I let things go along at a normal pace? “The last line strikes me as particularly funny, given my fathers inveterate passivity (what would aggressive pursuit entail for him?) and the shortage of time left to these ancients.

It took me awhile to give up the hope that my father would find companionship, or at least casual friendship, in a nursing home. But the chances were slim: This is a man who never had nor made a friend for as long as I can remember. Secondly, “friendship” is a cuddly term that ill describes the Hobbesian enmity and self-centered-ness among this tribe of old people.

“Don’t push anything out of the window!” yells one old woman to another. “If anything’s pushed out the window, it’s going to be you!”

“I want to get out of here, I want to forget you, and I won’t forget you unless I get out of this room!” yells the second.

“You dirty pig.”

“You’re one, too.”

So speak the relatively sane ones. The ward is divided between two factions: those who, like my father, can still occasionally articulate an intelligent thought, and those with dementia, who scream the same incoherent syllables over and over, kicking their feet and rending the air with clawed hands. The first group cordially detests the second. Meshugana, crazy, my father dismisses them with a word. Which is why, desperately trying to stay on the right side of Alzheimer’s, he has become panicked by forgetfulness.

Asked how he is, he responds with something like: “It worries me I’m losing my memory. We were discussing the all-star pitcher the Dodgers used to have. Koufax. I couldn’t remember Koufax’s first name. Ridiculous!” For a man who once had quiz-show recall, such lapses are especially humiliating. He has been making alphabetical lists of big words to retain them. But the mind keeps slipping, bit by bit. I had no idea there could be so many levels of disorientation before coming to rest at senility.

This time, he has forgotten we’ve made a lunch date and sits ready to eat the institutional tray offered him. In a way, I prefer his forgetting our date to his response a few years ago, when he would wait outside three hours before my arrival, checking his watch every 10 minutes. As usual, he is dressed too warmly, in a mud-colored, torn sweater, for the broiling summer day. (These shabby clothes seem to materialize from nowhere: Where does his wardrobe come from, and whatever happened to the better clothes we bought him? Theft is common in these establishments.)

I am in a hurry to wheel him outside today, before he becomes too attached to his meal—and before the atmosphere of the nursing home gets to me.

I kiss him on top of his pink head, naked but for a few white hairs, and he looks at me with delight. He is proud of me. I am the lawyer, or the writer—in any case, a man of accomplishment. In another minute, he will start introducing me to the women at the next table, “This is my son,” as he has already done a hundred times before, and they will pour on the syrup about what a nice father I have, how nice I am to visit him (which I don’t do often enough), and how alike we look. This time I start to wheel him out immediately, hoping to skip the routine, when Sheila croaks in her Irish accent, “Don’tcha say hello to me any more?” Caught in the act of denying my father the social capital a visitor might bring him, I go over and schmooze a bit.

Meanwhile, the muskrat-faced Miss Mojabi (in the caste division of this institution, the nursing staff is predominantly Pakistani, the attendants mainly black, and the upper management Orthodox Jewish) reminds me that I must “sign the form” to take legal responsibility for our outing. Were Armaggedon to arrive, these nurses would be waiting pen in hand for a release signature. Their harsh, officious manner makes me want to punch them. I temper my rage with the thought that they are adequate if not loving-—that it was we, the really unloving, who abandoned him to their boughten care.

My father’s nursing home,^` located in Washington Heights, is perched on the steepest hill in Manhattan. After straining to navigate the wheelchair downhill, fantasizing what would happen if I let the handlebars slip (careening Papa smashing into tree), I bring us to a Chinese-Cuban takeout place on Broadway, a hole in the wall with three formica tables. It’s Sunday, everything else is closed, and there are limits to how far north I am willing to push him in the August heat. My father seems glad to have made it to the outside; he wouldn’t mind, I’m sure, being wheeled to Riverdale. Still, he has never cared much about food, and I doubt if the fare’s quality will register on him one way or the other.

After asking him what he would like, and getting an inconclusive answer, I order sesame chicken and a beef dish at the counter. He is very dear on one thing: ginger ale. Since they have none, I substitute Mountain Dew. Loud salsa music on the radio makes it hard to hear him; moreover, something is wrong with his false teeth, or he’s forgotten to put in the bridge, and he speaks so faintly I have to ask him to repeat each sentence several times. Often I simply nod, pretending to have heard. But it’s annoying not to understand, so as soon as he clears his throat—signaling intent to speak—I put my ear against his mouth, receiving communiques from him in this misted, intimate manner.

From time to time, he will end his silence with an observation, such as, “The men here are better-looking than the women.” I inspect the middle-aged Dominican patrons, indoor picnickers in their Sunday best—the men gray-templed and stout, wearing dark suits or brocaded shirts; the women in skirts, voluptuously rounded, made-up, pretty—and do not share his opinion, but nod agreement anyway. I sense he offers these impressions less to express his notion of reality than to show he can still make comments. Ten minutes later, another mysterious remark arrives, from left field, like the one about “abogado.” I prefer this system of waiting for my father to say something, between long silences, rather than prying conversation out of him. If my wife Cheryl were here, she would be drawing him out, asking him about the latest at the nursing home, whether he had seen any movies on television, what he thought of the food, if he needed anything. And later, she would consider the effort a success: “Did you see how much better he got, the longer we spoke? He’s just rusty because nobody talks to him. But he’s still sharp mentally….” I’m glad she’s not here to see me failing to keep the conversational shuttlecock aloft.

You must have heard that corny idea: A true test of love is when you can sit silently next to the beloved, without feeling any pressure to talk. I have never been able to accomplish this feat with any woman, howsoever beloved, but I can finally do it with one human being: my father. After 50 years of frustration as this lockjawed man’s son, I no longer look on his uncommunicativeness as problematic or wounding. Quite the contrary: In my book, he has at last earned the right to be as closemouthed as he wants, just as I have earned the right to stare into space around him, indulging my own fly-on-the-wall proclivities.

He eats, engrossed, engaged in the uneven battle between morsel and fork. With the plastic utensils they have given us, it is not easy for a man possessing so little remaining hand-strength to spear chicken chunks. So he wields the fork like a spoon to capture a piece, transport it to his mouth, and crunch down, one half dropping into his lap. Those dark polyester pants, already seasoned, absorb the additional flavor of sesame sauce. He returns to the plate with that morose, myopic glare which is his trademark. My wife, I know, would have helpfully cut up the pieces into smaller bits. Me, I prefer to watch him struggle. I could say in my defense that I am respecting his autonomy more by letting him work out the problem on his own. Or I could acknowledge some streak of cruelty for allowing him this fiasco. The larger truth is that I have become a fly on the wall, and flies don’t use utensils.

Eventually, I too cut up everything on my fathers plate. So we both arrive at the same point, my wife and I, but at differing rates. Cheryl sizes up a new situation instantly and sets about eliminating potential problems for others—a draft, a tipsy chair—as though all the world were a baby she needed to protect. My tendency is to adjust to an environment passively, like my father, until such time as it occurs to me to do what a considerate Normal Person (which I am decidedly not, I am a Martian) would do in these same circumstances: shut the window, cut up the old man’s meat. My father is also from Mars. We understand each other in this way. He too approaches all matter as obdurate and mystifying.

My father drops some broccoli onto his lap. “Oh Al, how could you?” my mother would have cried out. “You’re such a slobí” We can both “hear” her, though she is some eight miles downtown. As ever, he looks up sheepish and abashed, with a strangely innocent expression, like a chimp who knows it is displeasing its master but not why.

It gives me pleasure to spare him the expected familial reproach. “Eat it with your hands, Pop. It’s OK,” I tell him. Who can object to an old man picking up his food? Certainly not the Dominicans enjoying themselves at the next table. Many African tribes eat with their fingers. The fork is a comparatively recent innovation, from the late Middle Ages; Ethiopians still think that the fork not only harms the food s taste, imposing a metallic distance, but also spoils the sociability of each eater scooping up lentils and meat with soft porridgy bread from the common pot. Mayhap my father is a noble Ethiopian prince, mistransmigrated into the body of an elderly Jew? Too late: The tyranny of the fork has marked him, and he must steal “inadvertent” bits for his fingers’ guilty pleasures.

I empathize with that desire to live in one’s head, performing an animal’s functions with animal absent-mindedness. Sometimes I too eat that way when I’m alone, mingling culinary herbs with the brackish taste of my fingers, in rebellious solidarity with his lack of manners. Socially, my older brother Hal and I have striven hard to project ourselves as the opposite of my father—to seem forceful, attentive, active and seductive. But I feel my father’s vagueness, shlumpiness and mania for withdrawal inhabit me like a flu when no one is looking.

Across the street from the cafe, a drunken bum about 60 is dancing by himself on a park bench to Latin jazz. He has no shirt on, revealing an alkie’s skinny frame, and he seems happy, moving to the beat with that uncanny, delayed rhythm of the stoned. I point him out as a potentially diverting spectacle to my father, who shows no interest. The drunk, in a curious way, reminds me of my dad: They’re both functioning in a solipsistic cone.

Surrounded by “that thick wall of personality through which no real voice has ever pierced on its way to us,” as Pater phrased it, each of us is, I suppose, to some degree a solipsist. But my father has managed to exist in as complete a state of solipsism as any person I have ever known. When he gets into an elevator, he never moves to the back, although by now he must anticipate that others will soon be joining him. Inconsiderateness? The word implies the willful hurting of others whose existence one is at least aware of.

I once saw an old woman in the nursing home elevator telling him to move back, which he did very reluctantly, and only a step at a time for each repeated command. (Perhaps, I rationalized for him, he has a faulty perception of the amount of space his body takes up.) The old woman turned to her orderly and said: “When you get on in years you have to live with old people. Some of them are nice and some are—peculiar.” Meaning my father. When we got off the elevator he said, loudly: “She’s such a pain in the ass, that one. Always complaining. I’ll give her such a luk im kopf’ (a smack in the head). His statement showed that he had been aware of her, but not enough to oblige her.

My father has always given the impression of someone who could sustain very little intensity of contact before his receptive apparatus shut down. Once, after I hadn’t seen him in a year, I hugged him and told him how much I loved him. ‘‘OK,OK. Cut the bullshit,” he said. This armor of impatience may have been his defense against what he actually wanted so much that it hurt.

“OK” is also his transitional marker, indicating he has spent long enough on one item and is ready for new data. If you haven’t finished, so much the worse for you.

My sister Molly is the only one who can challenge his solipsism. She pays him the enormous compliment of turning a deaf ear to his self-pity and assuming that, even in old age, there is still potential for moral growth. Years ago, hospitalized with pneumonia, he was complaining to her that nobody cared enough to visit him, and she shot back: “Do you care about anyone? Are you curious about anyone besides yourself?” She then tried to teach him, as one would a child, how to ask after others’ well-being. “When you see them, say: ‘How are you? What have you been up to lately? How are you feeling?’” And for a while, it took. My father probably said “How are you?” more times between the ages of 75 and 79 than in all the years preceding. If the question had a mechanical ring, if he speedily lost interest in the person’s answer, that ought not to detract from the worthiness of my sister’s pedagogy.

My fathers solipsism is a matter of both style and substance. When I was writing an essay on the Holocaust, I asked him if he had any memories of refugees returning from the camps. He seemed affronted, as though to say: Why are you bothering me with that crazy business afer all these years? “Ask your mother. She remembers it.”

“But I’m asking you,” I said. “When did you find out about the concentration camps? What was your reaction?”

“I didn’t think about it. That was them and this was me,” he said with a shrug.

Here was solipsism indeed: to ignore the greatest tragedy of modern times—of his own people!—because he wasn’t personally involved. On the other hand, my father in his 80s is a hardly credible witness for the young man he was. What his reaction does underline is the pride he takes in being taciturn, and in refusing to cough up the conventionally pious response.

As I ask the Chinese waiter for the check, my father starts to fiddle with several napkins in his breast pocket. He has developed a curious relationship to these grubby paper napkins, wThich he keeps taking out of his pocket and checking. I’ve never seen him blow his nose with them. I wonder if old people have the equivalent of what clinical psychologists call “transitional objects”—like those pacifiers or teddy bears that children imbue with magical powers—and if these napkins are my fathers talismen. .

Just to show the internalized super-ego (God or my wife) that I have made an effort to communicate, I volunteer some news about myself. I tell my father that Cheryl and I are soon to have a baby. His response is: “C’est la vie!” This is carrying philosophic resignation too far—even good news is greeted stoically. 1 tell him we have bought a house, and my teaching post is secure. None of these items seems to register, much less impress. Either he doesn’t get what I’m saying, or knows it already and is indifferent.

My older brother Hal called him recently with the news that he had had his first baby. On being told he was a grandfather, my father’s answer was, “Federico Fellini just died.” This became an instant family joke, along with his other memorable non sequiturs. (I findeed it was a non sequitur.The translation might be: “What do I care about your new baby when death is staring me in the face?”) Though I could sympathize with Hal’s viewing it as yet another dig to add to his copious brief against our father, who has always tended to compete with his sons rather than rejoice in our good fortune, this Fellini response seemed to me more an expression of incapacity than insult. The frown on his face nowadays when you tell him something important, the c’est la vie, is a confession that he knows he can’t focus enough to hold on to what you are saying; he lacks the adhesive cement of affect.

Even sports no longer matters to him. It used to be one of our few common topics: I was guaranteed a half-hour’s worth of conversation with my father, working my way through the Knicks, Mets, Rangers, Giants, Jets….His replies were curt, yet apt: “They stink. They got no hitting.” He it was who taught me that passionate fandom that merges with disenchantment: loyalty to the local team, regardless of the stupid decisions the front office made; never cross a picket line, just stick with the union, for all their corruption; vote Democratic no matter how mediocre this years slate. I would have thought being a sports fan was part of his invincible core, as much as his addiction to newspapers. He continues to have the Times ordered for him, but now it sits on his lap, unopened, like a ship passengers blanket.

About the Author

Phillip Lopate

Phillip Lopate's nonfiction books include essay collections (Bachelorhood, Against Joie de Vivre, Portrait of My Body); film criticism (Totally Tenderly Tragically); an urbanist meditation (Waterfront); and, most recently, Notes on Sontag.

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