Today is my fathers birthday.
He was born in a bathtub on Houston Street, named Henry, and since all the Lower East Side kids of his generation had Yiddish or Hebrew (or some combination of the two) nicknames, he became known as "Chunnie" which happened to be his Hebrew name and thus began with the scraping sound one makes when exhaling through a closed throat. My mom was introduced to him as such but never picked up the clearing-the-throat thing and so mis-called him "Hunnah" the first time and "Honey" for the next fourty-six years.
He showed his love for me with hugs and kisses and by introducing me to acquaintances or friends as "the greatest guy in the world". He meant it. I believed it.
Dad was clinically depressed and frequently hospitalized and by the time that surviving The Great Depression, electric shock, medication, cardiac arrest, cancer, poverty and toothlessness had failed to shake him into any sort of normalcy, our family was plagued with more incapacitating illnesses and my brothers suicide. He had it rough.
Once, as a little boy I stood outside the hospital on his birthday and waved up to him waving back from his window a few stories up. I thought "sick" was normal and it wasn't until fairly recently that I realized that most of those non-specific "sick" hospitalizations were in psychiatric hospitals. I can now appreciate my family's choice to bend the truth, as I was certainly not equipped to understand such things then. Hardly am now.
Somehow he lit up when talking about the East Side or if a good war flick was on TV or a heavyweight boxing match or anything Mel Brooks. And around certain people. My wife, Jenn for instance was the daughter he'd wished he had. From very early in our courtship he showed her a rare warmth and began to hug her goodbye with an "I love you".
And Rose Schwartz. Rose was a four and a half foot widow (five feet with her hair) who lived at the end of the hall. Dad and she had a very sweet relationship. Ten years his senior, she'd tell him when Sanka was on sale or ask him to bring her sour cream if he was going out. And he'd spend time there talking and drinking flavored seltzer and sometimes he'd bring home her famous rugelach. She made him forget. She made him happy. A few minutes at a time.
I asked Mom what she thought of Rose and she said she didnt know what to think and I detected the faintest hint of something like jealousy. Like she had the feeling and felt silly for having it. The thought simultaneously amused and offended both of us.
After dad died I visited Rose and she assured me that he was now more peaceful than he'd ever get to be in life and she worked hard to comfort me. She unwrapped and gave me coffee flavored sucking candies and said that the two of them had a very special, very deep relationship and then poked my chest twice as she barked up at me, "Nothing sexual!"
My parents would have loved that.
When I was small he told me about the care he took in choosing my first and middle names. He'd gone to the New York Public Library and thumbed through several books (I don't think he ever opened a book after that) and my first name jumped out at him. And then my middle name. I asked what HIS middle name was and he told me that he didn't have one. "None of us had middle names....we were too poor. Lucky we had first names.". I took this at face value. My growing up has been an unfolding of ordinary moments into revelations. Some funny. Some cute. Some devastating.
The only heart to heart we ever had was when I was 16. I'd been honing my self destructive habits and was constantly fighting with my girlfriend, but unable to end it with her. I stumbled in one night sometime after 3am and he came out to the dinette and asked me to sit with him....he had to tell me a story. He told me he'd had a girlfriend who's family was "no good" and that he had to break up with her because of pressure from his own family and friends. He procrastinated for a long while and then she was in a car accident which sent her to the hospital in pretty bad shape. He went to the hospital and broke up with her. I have no idea why he thought this was the time to get that off his chest, but for the first and only time we held each other and cried. I thanked him and went to bed.
It took years after he died to put together a clearer picture of who my dad was. And why. It's still foggy. My aunt said that he changed upon returning from WW2. My mom said that having my my brother had ruined his life. I used to blame myself.
And while I always loved him, I pulled away in my teens and I lost respect for him. I felt sorry that he was messed up, but ripped off for having a father that bore me into poverty, aimlessness and mental illness. I really could have used a break. Ya know? Some money or guidance or a healthy example of how a man thrives in the world in a few of the various departments he avoided or failed at.
I saw James Dean in East of Eden at nine and became suddenly aware that dad said things to my brother that he never said to me. He was severe, critical and abusive to Kim and gave me a rough time for sure but never abused me. He would throw Kim out, call the police if he didn't comply, tell him to drop dead. Say he wished he'd never been born. Call him a dirty dog. Never me.
I have ridiculous amounts of guilt. He always took Kim back at my moms pleading. I used to think that kept Kim from ever getting to stand on his own feet. That if he didn't have a warm meal and a bed to return to after performing all the dirty deeds he needed to do to maintain his habit, that he'd have sought the help that might have saved him.
Dad spent his last days in Long Beach Hospital recovering from a broken hip. I was scheming to move him to the beach to be closer to me and to get him out of the dark, cluttered apartment where my mom was about to die. He was desperate to get home to her....his best friend....his everything.
I visited him a couple of times a day and advocated for a quick release but he was still healing and continued to negotiate with the psychiatrists the only way he knew how....by saying "if you don't let me go home I'm gonna throw myself through a window." I'd prep him in the morning. Begging him to contain his anger and say what they needed to hear....that he was no longer thinking of hurting himself (he'd recently spent 3 weeks at L.I.J. after taking a bottle of my mothers pain pills). They were required to ask, and despite our prep work he said "of course I want to hurt myself....what do I have to live for?", or "no...I'm not thinking of hurting myself. But if you don't get me outa here I'm gonna hurt YOU!". On one of these days he said that he'd woken in the night with a huge banging in his chest and couldn't sleep. I told the doctor who seemed to be worried. And eventually he stuck to the script and was determined to no longer be a danger to himself.
On my last visit he sat up in his bed beside the window with a view of the bay and across to Island Park and he was smiling like he always did when Jenn was around. If Jenn could have been with him all the time he would have lived longer. He asked if we could "see the peacocks" on the other side of the water. "Peacocks?", I said. He smiled bigger and a little tentatively and told us yeah....there were about a dozen peacocks. Jenn and I smiled and said they were beautiful. He half-knew he was delusional but was enjoying it way too much to come back down to earth, and so were we.
Jenn left the room and I held his hand and he said "Well, we really did it.". I asked what we did and he looked softly into my eyes and whispered, "We beat the system." I smiled. He winked.
A social worker came to talk to me about aftercare and I introduced her to my father. "This is the greatest dad in the world" I said. That was the last time I lied to him.
He died on the morning before his scheduled discharge. Completely out of order. Mom was the one with multiple terminal cancers. My big brother was only 46.
Sometimes we find ourselves in over our heads and the worst thing we can do is to remember our inability to swim. Dad gave me the chance to just show up and to be a good son. And I now realize that to the best of his ability he was a good dad. He tried and tried.
I will always love my dad because he threw me in the air, he flew a kite with me, he ran down the block with me, he taught me how to tie my laces, how to navigate toilet paper, to laugh at myself, and he always found some little bit of warmth for me. And because he tried. It doesn't matter that he could have tried harder. Maybe it was all he could have done.
If there were a heaven and if they celebrated birthdays there, I'd say happy birthday, Dad. I love you.