Saturday, July 10, 2010

'Tis You Must Go, and I Must Bide

My dad had always been accident-prone. I’ve already recounted here how, when I was maybe four, he’d managed nearly to knock himself unconscious lowering a garage door, and then later, to my great dismay and confusion, had jokingly explained his bruises as a result of my negligence. His clumsiness made him — as mine has made me — a constant threat to himself.

Given his clumsiness, my mother was horrified, but probably not terribly surprised, to look out the window one weekend afternoon in 1991 when my dad was watering the strip between the sidewalk and the street and see him lying prone, with the hose doing St. Vitus’ dance.

He’d had a stroke, his second in five years. This one would leave him unable to walk.

He hadn’t taken spectacular care of himself. He probably consumed as much alcohol in a year as a moderate drinker, a shot and a beer after work type, would have consumed in a week. He smoked at most four or five cigarettes (nearly all “borrowed”) a day. Men of his generation weren’t gym-goers for the most part, though, and didn’t know what we know now about nutrition. (Which I sometimes think is that everything’s dangerous in its own way.)

At the hospital, he shared a room with a guy with an Irish surname. My dad’s generation, at least the part of it that grew up in the American northeast, was acutely conscious of ethnicity; I think you see traces of that in the way Mr. Sinatra and the rest of the Rat Pack — a couple of dagos, a schwarze, a Jew, and a limey — teased one another. One afternoon when my mother and sister and I came to visit my dad, he announced, perfectly seriously, that he and “the Irishman” would be singing a program of Irish songs for other patients later in the evening.

I would bet a great deal of money that the only two Irish songs my dad had ever heard were those performed by Lawrence Welk’s in-house Irish tenor on TV. My guess is that he’d probably have been able to get through the first two lines of “O Danny Boy,” or even through the “from glen to glen” line. But if I knew my dad, as I’m not so sure I ever did, he’d almost certainly have responded to any expression of doubt about whether he’d prepared adequately for his forthcoming performance by saying, “Oh, hell, I’ll just wing it.”

My dad loved attention, and was a fervent life-of-the-party type — a frightful mismatch for my terribly shy, painfully reserved mother. I can’t remember their having attended a single party over the course of my childhood without my mother screaming at him the following morning about how embarrassed or abandoned she’d felt. My sister and I have come to play the same roles. There’ve been times when I’ve entered restaurants with her and been so embarrassed by her manic glad-handing that I wanted to hide beneath the table we were being shown to. Our parents all over, you see — she as our dad, and I as our mother. But where my dad would invariably profess great contrition when my mother railed at him, my sister becomes furious at me when I urge her to de-escalate her charm offensive (exactly the right word!), to the point of not having invited me and Claire to her recent third wedding.

Every night before sleep, I picture my dad singing “O Danny Boy” for God and not knowing the lyrics beyond “from glen to glen”, and God, winking and saying, “Gil, did you not bother to rehearse, for Christ’s sake?”

1 comment:

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