When my father died at fifty-one from the second of his two heart attacks, I was not prepared to cope with the crushing grief I would experience in the months that followed. It is true that I had had an extremely difficult home life and that certainly I had had more than just a taste of grief when I was small, but I simply was not equipped to face the finality of such an immense loss.
Although I had a few friends whose love I could count on during this time, for the most part I was left to sink alone in the heartbreak because, by and large, I was invisible to members of my family and only came into their line of sight when they believed I could be of use to them. Whether my mother, stepmother, brother, and sister-in-law understood how much trouble I was in remains an open question. In my chillier moments, though, when I am painting three of these four with a wide, dark brush, I think theirs was a self-centered indifference brought into even starker relief because of my largely successful attempt to make myself invisible to them.
But it is impossible for me to recall my brother Robert without seeing in him a rot that began to spread unchecked the day he touched down on the planet. Although it revealed itself in myriad ways until we stopped speaking to each other more than a decade ago, when I was a child it was his malignant, inexplicable contempt for me that drove his relentless physical and emotional abuse and that crippled me irreparably.
Still, I managed to grow up and to marry twice: The first time, in my late twenties, it was a secret elopement to Carson City, Nevada, with a man I would divorce not long after giving birth to our daughter. When my brother later learned of the nuptials, he decided, oddly, to throw me a lavish party in Los Angeles, which I remember thus: a feverish Fellini film starring Rita, my mentally ill mother, in the role of a dying starlet lamenting.
At some point during the evening I approached my brother and thanked him for his efforts. To this day, I do not know what he meant when he replied, “I didn’t do it for you. I did it for Dad.” I never asked for an explanation, though, certain as I was, and am, that his response would have been even more cruel than the original remark. Yet that is how it was with the lot of us. Such terrible, gouging things would be said, things that no one could take back. Then eventually, maybe years later, someone, almost always me, would do a belly crawl to the other with an apology, whether or not it was deserved. And after a while the other one, satisfied and smug, would open the front door and pretend to forget — or would stand there and actually forget. While the words themselves surely went off to live in us somewhere.
It should not be hard, then, to understand why I did not know how I would live after my father died. He had been my only hope, the only one in a family of impostors and scoundrels to have loved me, however imperfectly. I have very few happy memories of my childhood but for the delight I felt when he was nearby. And, on the day of his funeral, as I watched him being lowered into the ground, I would have thrown myself onto the coffin if there had been assurance I could have followed him into the afterlife.
To survive, I gradually walled off the part of me that loved him so and instead distanced myself from any memories that summoned my terrible grief. This year, though, in the week leading up to Father’s Day, I found myself looking with much tenderness at a photo taken of him shortly before he left his parents’ home in Brooklyn and enlisted in the Army. One evening I heard myself say to him, “Maybe when I die, Daddy, I will see you again.” Then added, “And wouldn’t that be nice?”