Wednesday, May 24, 2006

My Father's 100th Birthday

If he were still alive, we would be celebrating his 100th birthday in July. Josephine Baker was born in the same year (1906) as well as Dimitri Shostakovitch, Oscar Levant, Billy Wilder, Otto Preminger and Samuel Becket. It was a good year for writers, dramatists and musicians.

My father, was an interesting and somewhat enigmatic character. Jovial and sardonic, sentimental but never demonstrative. I brought him home from the hospital after a month's stay and the death of my stepmother. He was barely able to climb the stairs to his bedroom but after he sat down on his bed, in the room he'd shared with his wife of forty years, he caught his breath and then said "If I let myself, I would be feeling really miserable right now"
He had been driving to my house for dinner when he had a head-on collision with someone who was driving the wrong way on a free-way exit. My stepmother was thrown through the windshield and suffered severe head injuries. She never regained consciousness, and died in a coma a month later.

I'm still not able to understand how or what I felt. Even though she had been the instrument of my parent's separation and divorce when I was a boy, I had become very fond of Claire and in some ways her death affected me more than my father's. That was partly because I was indirectly responsible for her death.

Three months before her death, Claire told me that she had decided to leave my father. She could no longer put up with his abusive behavior and the heavy drinking that caused it. During most of their marriage, my father had been "on the wagon" and as far as any of us knew he didn't drink for more than twenty years but after his sixtieth birthday, he retired and his children were out of the nest, he lost his focus- golf and household chores wasn't enough of an outlet for his creative energies. He began drinking again. At first it was almost moderate but soon it became heavy. I told Claire that she couldn't leave him now because he really needed her and that she had to pay her dues for all the good years they'd had together. Maybe if I hadn't convinced her not to leave her husband she'd still be alive.

When he was drinking, the cruel and bitter side of his nature became exposed. He would attack anyone available at the least excuse. Once, when I came home from Italy for my mother's funeral, I stayed with my father and Claire. The night after I arrived, we went to a dinner party at a neighbor's. When we got back to our house, my father started taunting me because he said I was "sulking". He knew the difference between sulking and grieving but he chose not to understand so he kept on bugging me until finally I said "Hey lay off. I'm upset about my mother's death it was a complete shock. She was only 53. I didn't know she'd been sick"
Then he did his tough guy thing, something he learned from Bogart movies and he said " I say she's dead and the hell with it" I got up and punched him in the mouth.

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