I find myself writing snarky comments about my father from time to time. Dad probably would have understood, and he’s no longer around to object anyway. Even so, I feel some obligation to paint a more complete picture of the man who was for me a model both of what to do and what not to.
Facts about Dad:
- He was a type 1 diabetic from age 9
- He was a good pianist and could sightread anything, but his great love was choral music.
- Looking back on it, he was almost certainly “on the spectrum” in some way. My brother and sister can vouch for this from their own experience, but I have frequent memories of him completely misreading what was being asked of him or what the right action was in a particular social situation.
- He was an absolutely spectacularly brilliant writer
- I miss him desperately
There’s a ton of things I could say about why Dad was the way he was or how he was brought up, but they would probably be mostly bullshit. I’m going to stick to my own recollections, which although they may also be bullshit are at least things I own.
One of my earliest — probably in fact the earliest — memory I have of Dad is of watching him walk down the street away from the house we lived in in Mount Vernon, New York (outside New Rochelle) to get his train to work. It must have been winter, because he was wearing a big black seal-skin hat he had that made him look like Lenin or an Orthodox rabbi. (He would have been quite pleased with either comparison.) I remember seeing the hat bob up and down as he walked away, and I think I have the same walk today. Mom must have been holding me up to look out the window. I guess I would have had to have been a bit over two years old, assuming it was winter of 1970. I remember his arrival home always being a joyful thing for me — we had a kind of connection that way that seems very special to me when I look back on it.
Dad was lucky (we thought years later) that whatever variety of diabetes he had somehow did not completely incapacitate him. Although he was insulin-dependent from age 9, he was able to get through the day with regular injections and didn’t usually have too much trouble managing it. Occasionally though he would screw up and take too much insulin or not eat enough, and that (if it went too far) could result in something my brother and sister and I learned to spot well before he saw it coming: an insulin reaction. Imagine the worst case of low-blood-sugar shakes you have ever had and multiply it by a hundred — that’s what this is like. It would make him irrational, sometimes manic, sometimes just weird, and then end in a blinding horrible headache or a diabetic coma. Mom would shout at us to bring sugar or honey or chocolate from the kitchen and we would run like our lives depended on it to do that… which in a way they did.
I realized much later that other boys didn’t learn their fathers were fragile and vulnerable until well into adulthood, if even then. I learned it almost as soon as I could talk, as did my brother and sister. I think it tainted all of us in different ways, but I know I grew up feeling the weight of that vulnerability on my skinny shoulders. Miraculously, Dad never wrecked a car or passed out in a public place or did any of the other things that could so easily have happened had he had one of these fits at exactly the wrong time, but the thought that he might just lose it at any point never really left me.
Dad grew up amid great expectations. His mother was certain, I am sure, that he would be a brilliant and successful man at whatever he chose to do. He was just astonishingly articulate, in a way that made people think he was capable of anything and understood everything. (He wasn’t, and he didn’t, and that initial misunderstanding on the part of his audience was always a big problem.) Naturally he found his way into the law, which he both loved and hated, because despite his brilliance he was destined never to succeed at it. I think we would recognize now that he suffered badly from ADHD and being “on the spectrum,” and in later life from depression. In any case, he seemed incapable of organizing himself to finish anything, including important things like getting briefs filed on time. You know, stuff you expect your lawyer to do for you.
I’m going to write more about Dad later, but to close this introduction I will replay one scene that I think he might regard as his finest moment. Dad’s two great loves were choral music and his children, and he was a gifted conductor if an imperfect father. At any rate, near the end of his life — he was 63 — my sister Susie got engaged. Dad already had cancer and he must have known he was on borrowed time. Nonetheless he got himself out to California from Atlanta for the wedding, and rehearsed and conducted my brother Jeff and me and two of my sister’s bridesmaids singing the Durufle “Ubi Caritas” on the beach in Monterey. We did a fair job of it, except for the bit when I almost cried. Nine months later he was gone.