I arrived at the hospital to find my father lying too close to the edge of the bed, his body splayed in an angular, fetal position. He was eighty years old and being treated for hemolytic anemia, a rare blood condition in which his own blood cells had begun to attack and consume one another. By the time the problem was diagnosed, the volume of blood in his body was half that of a normal man his age. He looked helpless and awful.
“We have a serious problem,” he said, “you don’t seem to want to see my penis.”
My father had his own way of defining problems. Once he informed me that he wanted to go to the dentist by asking me to find his briefcase. He did not mention that he had a toothache. When the briefcase could not be found he shouted, “Meds list! Meds list!” until I determined that what he really wanted was his phone list and asked him who he wanted to call. “Dr. Kafka,” he said, which was, in fact, the name of his dentist.
The real problem that day in the hospital was this: my father needed to pee. He could have said that. He could have said he had to go to the bathroom and was off his Parkinson’s medication and couldn’t move. He could have asked me for help or asked me to get help, but he didn’t. Instead he chose, “We have a serious problem; you don’t seem to want to see my penis.”
My response was swift and defensive, and it infuriated him.
“Why should I want to?” I snapped.
“I didn’t say you should!” he retaliated, and we fell into silence.
I did not know which upset me more, the assault of the original statement or being contradicted. I needed to be a linguist in order to have a relationship with my father. I needed to parse sentences and break code, but at that moment, I had no patience to decipher the communiqué. I wanted to abandon him, just leave him, skinny and tangled in his bed sheets, for someone else to take care of. I stood frozen in the doorway and experienced a deep longing to be a daughter who could enter a room and reliably expect to be met by her father with the word, “Hello.” It seemed like a reasonable request—which was one of his favorite expressions—if you asked my father for something and he felt he could grant it, he would say, “That’s a reasonable request.”
At the time of his hospitalization, my father lived in an assisted living facility four blocks away from me in Brooklyn. He had his own apartment, but meals, laundry and cleaning services were provided. I tried to visit at least once a week with my twins when they were little, and after they started school, on my own. I always entered his apartment with a sense of apprehension. He awaited my visits with an anxiety that accumulated as the days passed, and by the time I arrived he often skipped the formalities of the polite greeting and got right to the point.
“There are three things you need to know about my mother,” he once said. I was not yet far enough into the room to have reached his side. I still had my coat on. “When I was born she abandoned my sister. When we left Germany she abandoned us in England. When we came to America she abandoned us again. If you know nothing else, you need to know this.”
“That she abandoned you three times?”
I don’t remember what I was there to do that day, buy toilet paper, fill his pill strips, tailor his pants. I have no idea if I completed whatever task I had been summoned for, but I remember the vehemence of his plea: If you know nothing else, you need to know this. He wanted me to keep this knowledge for him—after him—the knowledge of his mother’s failure. I did not want to be that vessel.
He was sitting at his desk, near his computer, but he was past being able to use it. Under the glass that covered the entire length of his desktop was an array of photographs. He had always done this, worked on a surface covered with photographs of the people he loved. In earlier days, at the desk in his office, the pictures were carefully chosen and organized. Now the photos under the glass were scattered, random, and not particularly good pictures of anyone. They were stained and even a bit moldy. They recalled no particularly fond memories.
For a long time I held the mistaken belief that it would bring my father relief to not hate his mother. I argued that there was another way to construct the narrative, and I would insist on making excuses for her. She had to work, she supported the family, she saved you from the gas chambers. On the day my father said to me, “There are three things you need to know about my mother,” I already knew what those three things were, but I had never been greeted with them before. I understood what my father wanted that morning. He was very sick. He was very lonely. He had suffered and he wanted someone to commiserate with him; he needed a daughter who would walk into his room and put her arms around him and say, “I know, I know.” But I wasn’t that daughter. I could not give him the gift of hating his mother. I too was a mother, and I did not want to pass along this family trait, this anger, from generation to generation. I wanted proof that forgiveness was possible. I wanted him to prove it.
If you know nothing else you must know this.
And so I found myself in the absurd position of being the daughter who was angry at her father for being angry at his mother.
In the hospital, I scanned the room to see if any of the patients in the neighboring beds had heard our penis exchange and disappeared to find the nurse. She was busy at her mobile computer station and assured me in a very un-reassuring way that she’d be right there. When the nurse’s aide finally came to help my father go to the bathroom, she pulled the mauve curtain around its circular track, and my father disappeared from view. Trapped in the narrow space between the curtain and a dirty white wall I was forced to confront an infuriating fact: no matter how crazy my father sounded, there was always a grain of truth hidden in what he said. He was right. We did have a serious problem. I did not want to see his penis. I was trying as hard as I could to leave one last boundary between us, and he, as usual, was trying as hard as he could to break it down. The question was why? Didn’t he want to keep the status quo as desperately as I did? The answer, of course, was no, he did not. In his own horribly obscure way, he was trying to tell me that moment had passed.
It was not the first time.
On Mother’s Day he had called to wish me well. I was alone in bed, listening while my husband played with the children downstairs, with the same pleasure I took in looking at their baby pictures while they napped: appreciating the beauty of their existence separate from any responsibility to them. My father enjoyed talking on the phone, though he was difficult to understand. His voice was soft and garbled, the quality of his speech compromised by the Parkinson’s, and he had a terrible habit of repeating the part of the sentence you understood, but not the one you didn’t. How often we spoke was, to borrow a phrase of his, a bone of contention. “You’re a good mother,” my father said, and I thanked him. I liked being called a good mother and was not above seeking his approval. But for some reason, he didn’t stop there, “I wish you were my mother,” he said.
The window in the bedroom was open, and a cool breeze brought the garden in. He thinks it’s a compliment, I told myself, don’t be mean. I did not want him to think of me as his mother. I wanted him to think of me as his daughter. Especially since he hated his mother and made a habit of telling me so. And if it were not confusing enough to contemplate that my father wanted me to be his mother, it was even more confusing to contemplate that he wanted me to be the person who had hurt him most. I hung up the phone as soon as the bounds of politeness would permit. In the kitchen, I asked my husband if I was being too sensitive. “Your father is a Freudian landmine,” he said.
For years my father had been urging me to play my part, to accept my filial role, to surrender myself to the physical act of taking care of him. His disturbing language in the hospital that day was my cue, but I could not step out from behind the curtain that separated his body from mine. Instead I waited in the wings and focused all my attention on the red hazardous sharps bin pinned to the wall. When the mauve curtain drew back and the aide left the room, I reached into my bag, pulled out a book I couldn’t possibly focus on, and spent another day sitting vigil from the safe distance my father no longer wanted me to keep. From the foot of his hospital bed, I oversaw the entrances and exits of the various nurses and doctors attending to him; I tried to ensure that his medications and food were delivered on time; I procured icy water when he was thirsty and rearranged the blankets when they became too heavy on his feet. But I performed my duties as a stage manager might, clocking my time to ensure that the principal actor would survive another performance, fussing over the details, but avoiding the central drama taking place over his broken body.