My father succumbed to lung cancer on December 29, 2010.
An hour after my brother Terry, and I left hospice that morning—having learned he would not regain consciousness—I sat down in my home office to prepare his obituary. I had planned it as an addendum to Family Connections, my Sunday column for the New York Times: A brief announcement of his passing to follow that week’s feature story.
The words emerged from me as I had always intended them to: Respectfully and faithfully reflecting my self-administered oath to never publicly criticize my father while he was alive, or posthumously. But after the first two sentences I was overwhelmed by regret.
I had never disclosed to my father the true feelings I’d harbored about us. Now I never would. I typed severely on my keyboard: “I hated myself for not loving you but I tried. You hated yourself for not loving me but you never tried, did you. Did you!!!!!!!!”
Un-cleansable shame enveloped me —a spreading stain that was the pretense I’d made my peace with him. I sat up. My truncated breaths quickened. A dissonant metronome that ticked inside me accelerated. I loathe my father, always have, I realized, and then I thought: His life has ceased, but he is not dead.
I escaped my room, dismantled. Until yesterday, I believed that a sanctuary in my soul, in everyone’s, existed: A purifying oasis that permits acknowledgement of the other’s humanity, no matter who they are or what they’ve done. It’s a location not easily recognized or cultivated, but I searched my soul and found it, and it was to be the permanent resting place where my liberated memory of him—free of agony and sorrow, rancor and pain—would reside.
As I shut my door, I thought, I am his self-loathing puppet on a string, condemned by him to revile him, forever.
I completed the obit the following afternoon. After a phone call from hospice, I sent it to my editor, the only non-family member I’ve ever confided in about my father:
Date: Thurs. Dec. 30, 2010
Subject: FYI, Obit
Attached will follow next week’s piece. Just wanting your nod of approval. About to email Terry for his. In advance, Herr Word-Count Sentry, I’ll shorten the column to compensate for the obit’s length and resend tomorrow.
I slept fitfully that night. I summoned the float—my palliating routine that finally transformed fifteen drug reliant years—increased doses of valium, Lunesta, Ambien – into reliance on me. On my back, one palm over the other, I placed both hands on my chest. Mouth closed, willing my fingers to tingle, I sailed above myself, rhythmically breathing, in and out—small, simple breaths—while listening to my heart, my soothing friend, beat pleasure and trust and acquiescence and the float. But my eyes remained open, my brain on. I persuaded myself that the dissonant metronome was like a phantom limb and that closure—the healing act of letting my father go—was already occurring and would finally occur so long as I acknowledged him. I hazily pictured Jack’s knotty index finger clicking open the attachment and wincing over its length:
My father, Lawrence Crosby Brennan, (aka Bing to intimates and his legion of fanatically loyal readers) succumbed to lung cancer on Dec. 29th, 2010. A day later this newspaper’s official obit acknowledged Bing’s passing as well as his best-selling novels and enormous popularity. Though several of my father’s earlier novels (which had longer titles) outsold his one word Peacekeeper Series, he often told my brother and me that these gratified him the most. Each story’s protagonist, as Bing once wrote us, “…embodies the courage to do what is right.” Among those he expressed the most pride in were: Payback; Respect; Cheetah, Patriot, Southie, Linebacker, Minister, Townie, and Phoenix.
At 4 a.m. I eased out of bed, and noticed my wife’s eyelids flutter, then still. I opened the door to my home office and shouted silently in the dark at a child, me: Get over it. I slumped in front of the computer, scrolled down my emails and clicked open Jack’s:
Date: Thurs. Dec. 30, 2010
The obit is fair and accurate. Given what you’ve shared with me over the years, it is also charitable. You’re a good son, Ken.
A good son. I’d steadfastly refused every opportunity to publicly excoriate Bing for his outrageous and humiliating treatment of my family and me. I was a good son. I’d always wanted to be. Ken knows what good son means to me, so his characterization was especially gratifying.
I printed out my obit. I moved to the couch. Tugging at the floor lamp’s two chains for maximum illumination, I read it over. My words, meticulously chosen and arranged, had fulfilled their promise: Accurate reportage, no fanfare or hyperbole.
As I perused my obit, I imagined the words as a tightly sewn dispassion-quilt that cloaked their inner malice. I lowered the paper to my lap and saw myself, the angry, intolerant son, drunk on duplicitousness. I thought: My unyielding commitment—glibly proffered in professional journals, educational forums, and The New Yorker and at a cocktail parties—is to insist that acknowledgement of the other’s humanity is the only way can we locate our own. I thought of Family Connections, conceived on this immutable ‘acknowledgement ethic’ that was conspicuously missing from Bing’s obit.
I stared at each word – as cold as the light’s glare – and grimaced, then snorted, thinking how this obit would have confirmed my father’s unspoken sense of who he ultimately was to me: A dead star, flickering pretense.
Anxiety tugged Jack’s “fair and accurate” reassurance from me. “Fair and accurate” was, I thought, my escape route from a lie, not about Bing, but me.
I emailed the obit to Terry, then went back to sleep. Disgrace slogged through me all night. Apparently, I had fallen asleep. WQXR startled me at 6:15. I jumped from bed, went to my computer and opened my brother’s email: “LET’S MEET SOMEWHERE – TER.”
We’d decided on Gee Whiz – my old neighborhood’s first choice untrendy diner. A block south of Chambers, Gee Whiz was a sanguine chapter in my history: Sponsor of my son’s soccer team; a familiar comfort nestled among Tribeca’s increasingly upscale residential and commercial establishments, where I sometimes wrote or contemplated— cocooned by its ambient hubbub—in solitary.
I waited for Terry. Seated alone in a booth by the window, looking west across Greenwich Street, I recalled, as if it were yesterday, the coffee, oatmeal and raisins, scattered packets of Equal, empty half and half mini-containers, reading the Times, and boom! And then rushing to the street to witness the billowing fireball from one of the Twin Towers. My God, what a horrific accident, I’d thought.
I blinked as the winter sun poked through blackish clouds and illuminated the cityscape. It was already making good on the forecast’s promise of a seasonal reprieve: Sunny and a high of fifty-six.
“Great obit,” said Terry, “if you’re writing it for Wikipedia.”
“You know, generic, like you never knew him. Perfecto!”
“What should I say?”
“Try, how you feel,” he said.
“And how do I feel?”
“The wicked witch is dead!” he replied, as he slid out of his parka, then removed that ridiculous looking Elmer Fudd sheepskin hat.
“Ter, it’s practically summer out. You look like a fuckin’ Eskimo.”
Terry raised his hand to signal the waiter.
“Did I ask you?”
Terry ‘signaled’ with what he calls, “My motivating three-ring sign:” Arm extended and three obnoxious fingers wiggling their impatient alert. Personally, I’d be motivated to slice them off.
I caught Elena’s eye—the ageless lifer waitress whose enchanting Nuyorican was sometimes indecipherable but who cares—and waved my lowered hand, subtly. She smiled back and nodded. I hoped my nicety would somehow compensate for Terry’s brutishness.
“Obviously it’s devoid of sentiment about him,” I said.
“Aaaaaaand?” he replied, his hand still in the air. That patronizing, elongated vowel splattered in my face like a toilet paper spitball. “Should there be something good to say about a motherfucker?”
“Terry! Elena sees you!”
“I’ll let you know when she sees me, okay!” Terry lowered his hand. He drank the apple juice I’d ordered in advance for him.
“Thanks,” he said, after his first sip.
I smiled. Asshole.
Terry’s never bought that his in-your-face hostility towards Bing was useless. But it was indicative of Terry’s overall emotional m.o.: Self-defeat. Eviscerate Bing, you eviscerate yourself, I regularly admonished him, especially after he mounted his Tourettes-like ire. To which Terry responded by cursing Bing again–and me, if I pushed him. That said, our experience of Bing as children and adults was identical: No Rashomon, no disparate perceptions.
Elena stood over us, scrawling feverishly. Terry ordered his usual He-Man Special: Short stack, sunny side up egg on top, links, fried potatoes, toast. She turned to me.
“¿Y usted, baby?”
“Oh, make it whole wheat, butter on the side,” Terry said.
What a joke, like whole wheat is gonna spare your arteries; you’re gonna slobber butter on it anyway. Pig.
I ordered oatmeal, skim milk, and whole wheat toast. “Dry, Elena.”
“Más café coming up pronto.” She winked at me and was gone.
“What kind of sons are we?” I said.
“You speak for you! Don’t speak for me!” Terry shot back.
“I appreciate the reminder,” I answered. Jackass. “So, what kind of son am I?
How do I recall Bing?”
“Goddammit. So what does this make me now?”
“I just want your opinion.”
“No you don’t because I just gave it!” he said.
“Really? Maybe I don’t understand.”
“What about ‘don’t speak for me, goddammit’ don’t you get?” he said, in a quiet burst.
“I’m speaking for me,” I replied.
“Bullshit. I’m here to make you feel better, not help you,” said Terry, louder.
“Now you’re a mind reader.”
“Remember, I don’t have your ball and chain, Ken, your hidden agendas. I don’t have to get up every morning and impress readers-”
“With my moral superiority!”
“Fuck you, you dumb fuck!” I leaned into him and then poured forth from a sutured wound only Bing and Terry could rip open. “Do not analyze me! Do not criticize what I do as if you had a fucking clue!”
My breathing evened. Wow! Big step backward. I couldn’t recall the last time we’d gotten into it like this. I’d thought we were past it. Terry didn’t retaliate, or storm out, as he’s prone to do. We sat till our food arrived, then ate. Occasionally, we glanced at each other.
Five years ago Terry and I had quit speaking. We couldn’t finish a conversation without one of us mentioning Bing. Invoking his name was instant Whac-A-Mole time that launched Terry into ‘unload mode.’ Since he rarely saw Bing, Terry’s harangues were usually over their latest phone non-conversation. “Had another one-way idiotlogue,” he’d begin and then he’d rail about Bing not giving a shit, much less listening, and then when he finally did get asked to talk about himself how seconds into it Bing would obsequiously—my word—drown him during a mid-sentence breath with, “May I modestly change the subject.” Terry’s revenge fantasy generally concluded his rant: “I’m in his writing room and I ram the phone up his ass and cauterize the motherfucker’s hole shut.” I’d second his enduring rage but admonish him: “Just like Bing’s diatribes subjugate me, yours do, too. You have to stop-”
He’d interrupt. “Well you subjugate me with your turn-the-tables intellectual bullshit. Bing!”
“Do not ever call me him!” I’d scream.
Ka-Boom! We were Bing to each other, spewing the toxic repercussions of life with father as if venting our enmity might requite our yearning for his attention. We’d go weeks, then months without talking. Eventually we quit trying. We’d succumbed to the impossibility of acknowledging one another.
After Bing was diagnosed in 2009, Terry and I met at the hospital. Like reunited cellmates, we rehashed our jailer’s psychic assaults. It was then that Terry and I determined we would not pick up where we left off.
We left Gee Whiz that day forcing ourselves to connect, trying so hard, I thought. On the way out I asked myself again, is his always leaving a twenty-five per cent tip to prove he’s better than me?
We meandered west on Chambers, crossed the West Side Highway.
“Up or down?” asked Terry.
“Up,” I said, and we headed north along the bike path. The grand Hudson and plain Jersey shoreline to our left, fast traffic shimmying against Manhattan’s muscular urban backdrop to the right released a pleasure pheromone in me.
“My version of you?” I said. “Can I?” It was our post-conflict venting procedure. No rebuttals allowed. Terry nodded. “Tell it like it is. Straight shooting equals self-righteousness. How do you think I feel when it’s shot at me?”
“My version of you.” Terry said. “You swallow your anger, deny it, like it’s not there. You swallow it about Bing. About me. You think I don’t notice? Think again.”
We walked more or less a mile in silence. I looked across the highway. We’d reached Bank Street. I leaned over the iron railing and stared at the river. Terry stood by me. I thought about the silence. We’d resolved to create a silence-pact that day in 2009 at the hospital, a space we’d carve between ourselves the moment one brother’s intrusion upon the other became intolerable.
“I should have apologized for turning my problem into yours,” I said.
“Sorry for the column remark,” said Terry.
“Okay,” I said.
“Okay?” he said, hesitantly. His hesitation particularized ‘okay.’ A plea for my unequivocal forgiveness, I thought; it was a recognition of my older brother leverage, a reminder, too, that his fear of sibling dissolution exceeded mine.
“I meant to ask you,” Terry said. “Oh, and just to say, no withheld feelings. Um, anyway, there’s an opening for a copywriter at my agency.”
I squinted at the water’s reflection of the sun: Rippling in perpetuity, like us brothers, I thought. Terry was no Bing: Why could I never recall that in the midst of our arguments?
“I know some people,” I replied.
The unseasonable temperature brought out a shirtless jogger, cyclists, a nubile rollerblader’s taught thighs, bare midriff, and as I glanced back, undulating tush, hmmm, luscious – all passing us brothers as we strolled anonymously up the path. Between warm silences, the ebb and flow of our small talk—about the Jets’ playoff chances, bouncy breasts robbing our concentration, Obama, Bloomberg, the city—moved us closer to each other.
“Staying home tonight?” Terry asked.
“Oh yeah. You?”
“Fo’ sho,’” he said. His bonding smile confirmed our mutual disdain for the New Year’s Eve silliness.
“I’m gonna email my editor,” I said. I couldn’t withhold the big talk I longed to have with Terry.
“You have to head to the office?” I asked.
“I have time. So? What?” said Terry, halting like a soldier.
I stared into his prepped-for-melodrama face, the Fudd hat, the no longer friendly Hudson and Jersey shore behind him.
“Ken. You don’t have to mine for the good in Bing,” he said, having read my thought, as only my brother can.
“Goodness,” I interrupted.
“Am I speaking here?”
“Not whatever,” I insisted. “Goodness, meaning his humanity, even if he didn’t show it.”
“Alright, alright, you’ve told me…”
I felt chilled and zipped my jacket.
“Will you just tell me for chisssakes what is on your mind?”
“You have to approve my obit,” I said.
“I approve it.”
“No, I’m writing a new one.”
“Not whatever, goddammit.”
“I’m sure I’ll…” Terry inhaled and his squeezed mouth closed tight. Reeking condescension, an impatient puff of exhaled air caused his upper lip to flutter. “…approve,” he said. His habit is so Bing, the over the top, mannered commentary that suddenly makes another’s simple declaration suddenly all about him. Listen up asshole, I felt like replying. I said, “My obit must not contradict your experience of Bing, okay.”
“Because it’s the same as mine, can I just finish my sentence?”
“Finish,” said Terry. “I’m listening.”
“Look,” I said, “the animus-”
“Anger, okay. It still drives me, even posthumously, to want to annihilate him. Will I ever let it go? Will you?”
“Fuck Bing, Ken.”
The distinct hum of propellers alerted my ears. Terry and I both looked toward the small plane scurrying north above the Hudson.
“I need to acknowledge Bing, his humanity-”
“You don’t neeeed to explain yourself,” he stage whispered.
God you are sooooo Bing! I said, “Look, you don’t possess a public venue like me to express your side of things. I will not write anything about him you don’t approve of. Period.”
“Well could you maybe read it first?”
In the ensuing silence I thought that sometimes I, too, must really piss Terry off to the core.
“That’s fair, Ken.”
“So, it’s okay for me to email you the finished version?”
I left Terry and briskly walked south along the bike path, and was agitated by his use of the word fair. Didn’t get passed me. It was a slight, albeit proffered respectfully. Terry often reminds me that I use fair as a weapon to sabotage his ability to argue. He should have been a shrink.
I crossed the Highway onto Chambers and headed towards City Hall where I’d catch the uptown R for the east side. We’d maintained our civility pact, somehow, and I was relieved.
Invigorated by a renewed commitment to uphold my integrity and that of Family Connections, while respectfully prioritizing Terry’s feelings, I planned to wrap up this acknowledgement obit on New Year’s day.
Date: Sat., Jan. 1, 2011
Please pull the obit. Revise coming shortly.
Date: Sat. Jan.1, 2011
Subject: re: Obit
When can I expect it? Happy new year!
That night, I stared at the computer screen: Nothing. I could more easily have retrieved a redemptive sliver from Pol Pot’s life than Bing’s. With every reach for Bing’s humanity, I recoiled at a lifetime of him seething and screaming over infractions I neither understood nor could have anticipated. No thanks for the memories, I sang to myself, after recalling one of Bing’s greatest hits: A long ago dinner hour – Mother, Terry, and I cackling over something frivolous that had occurred between us earlier in the day. And Bing, not privy to our intimacy, suddenly exploding, slamming his fist on the table, line-driving his fork into the wall and bellowing something about us three never giving him one goddamned second worth of peace which, if he told us once he told us a thousand times, meant “lowering the fucking decibels.” Then, following a burst of invective unintelligible to me he turned to mother, his sneer icily precise: “Mama tittie-fucks her little mama’s boys.” Then he vanished.
I thought about two years ago, almost to the day, when the Times announced my Sunday column. I remembered how I couldn’t wait “…to honor the familial connections that inextricably bind us,” as I wrote in my inaugural installment, “despite the vicissitudes that too often turn blood relatives into intimate enemies.” Bing’s emotional gutting of my brother and me was the source of my calling to celebrate family: Fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts and uncles who are particularly connected, forever.
Now I noticed the time: 10:17 p.m. C’mon, already. I deleted unfinishable sentiments for what seemed the hundredth time. I could not locate the courage to acknowledge Bing’s humanity, to connect it to mine, to refer to him as other than Bing. I was mama’s boy, I thought. She tried her best to shield Terry and me. She coddled us. What Bing called tittie-fucking enraged him, but soothed me. Terry and I quaked when Bing’s presence erupted— frightened weaklings subdued by his tempest—and we whimpered helplessly as mama tittie-fucked her worthless little boys. I wanted to wail to the world: He was a scumbag. I wanted to crush him and pulverize his legacy. You’re right, Terry: Fuck Bing.
I went online.
My eyes panned aimlessly over unopened emails, among them, dozens of condolences awaiting my response. Who cares. My thoughts migrated to the letters, not to mention the packages and manila envelopes – stuffed with God only knows – that had been piling up in our lobby’s mailroom. Bing’s international notoriety insured that tons more would come.
Yesterday, the Times dutifully messengered mail addressed to their office over to my East 68th Street high-rise. Sooner or later I’d have to sort through this shit. I’d ignored the super’s terse knocking at my door that afternoon. I’d snickered after surreptitiously nudging the latch and squinting through the peephole. The wide-angle lens had distended his grumpy expression like taffy. Incinerate them, I’d growled silently. He knew I was home. I lowered the latch. No thanks for the memories, I’d hummed to myself as I slinked away from the door.
I clicked the Apple icon and scrolled down the menu to Sleep. Before raising my index finger from the mouse, I noticed—sequestered among the fans, celebrity colleagues, other notables—an email from a Flo Pines. U.S. Representative Pines? I’d always admired her. She knew Bing?
I opened the email.
It was Congresswoman Pines. I read her remembrance. I thought: My God. Leaning forward, I read it again, then a third time. I sat back in my chair. I tried to fathom a father I never knew.
As if it had always been in me, but cloaked somehow, my Family Connections obit poured forth, un-coaxed:
The Father I’d Known, and Didn’t Bing: 1918-2010
My father, Lawrence Crosby Brennan, (aka Bing to intimates and his legion of fanatically loyal readers) succumbed to lung cancer on December 29th, 2010.
A day later, this newspaper’s official obit acknowledged Dad’s death as well as his enormous popularity. Ironically, The New York Times never reviewed one of his books, whose aggregate worldwide sales topped those of his peers, including his best friend and critically acclaimed drinking buddy, Evan Hunter (a.k.a. Ed McBain). Ironically, Dad’s Times obit was 300 words longer than that of the “dego workaholic motherf*****, as he often called Evan.
Bing was once asked by Larry King —whose show he appeared on nine times—how he felt about the Times’ perpetual snub? “I’ll answer it this way, Larry. See, why Bing is so popular with the workingman, is that reading Bing makes him proud to be the workingman. Let the Times reify intellectualism, Larry. F them.”
Publishers Weekly, my father’s true nemesis, never awarded one of his books a starred review. I’m told they’ll “star” his oeuvre, and life, in a forthcoming cover story titled, Bing: Chronicler of the Red, White and Blue.
Though Dad’s earlier works had longer titles, the most popular of his twenty-three unabashedly chauvinistic Peacekeeper Series novels were one word, reflecting, as he often said, “the purity of his protagonist’s nature.” The best selling were: Payback; Phoenix, Patriot, and Resurrector.
Lawrence Crosby Brennan was born in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, in 1918. His parents bragged to everyone that he shared their favorite singer’s last name. Dad once said that the symmetry embedded in their insipid, albeit heart-felt adulation, was his greatest inspiration.
Bing is survived by: His two sons, (Terry and me); his first wife, and our mother, Grace Neal; Inez Carrera, wife two; his third wife, Rashika Jones-Brennan, to whom he was never legally divorced; and his current partner, super-model Irena Lukova.
Dad received a B.A. (business) and MA (American literature) from City college, in New York.
I cannot recall my father fondly. It’s no secret to readers of my mother’s best-selling memoir, Bing! Bang! Boom!, that while Dad was a saint to his fans he was a tyrant to his family. He repeatedly threatened my mother with physical abuse. Occasionally he acted out his threat – usually in the form of an open-handed whack or multiple pushes.
Bing’s rage erupted from a darkness that was as frightening to my mother, Terry and me as it was incomprehensible. If we confronted him, separately or as a family, about the toll his outbursts took on us, Bing would turn mute; he would look away docilely. Days after an explosion, on his terms, Bing’s standard mea culpa – summarily presented to us at the dinner table or before we went to sleep – would seek to eradicate our pain by invoking his. “If I knew why I did what I did, I wouldn’t do it.”
Bing terrorized us.
I remember when Terry and I accidentally-on-purpose entered Dad’s writing room – verboten as he’d always made clear. No matter. Damn the torpedoes! His seven and five year old couldn’t help bursting in unannounced to tell him about the backyard swing-set mother had finally purchased after we’d all pinky-promised to never swing without her present.
His chair swiveled. This gigantic ogre grabbed the toy I had in my hand and plopped it on his desk.
“Goddammit!” he bellowed. He leaned into my brother’s face.
“Out!” His scream was ferocious.
Terry rubbed his eyes furiously but he could not defend them against the invasive spray of saliva.
“Out!” Fear paralyzed us. We couldn’t move. Bubbling tears flowed down Terry’s cheeks.
“You fucking deaf,” he growled at me. His face touched mine. His breath burned my nostrils. I was suddenly choking as my shirt pressed into my throat. Lift-off. He had Terry and me by the back of our pants. Airborne, we sailed out the door and crumbled to the ground.
Terry wailed uncontrollably. I was dry-eyed.
Mother had had enough. She called a lawyer.
Days later, sitting at the dinner table: “If I knew why I did what I did, I wouldn’t do it.” Shortly thereafter came another predictable, post-meltdown ritual – the thought of its familiarity as disquieting as the act itself. It followed particularly harsh abuses: Like after the time I watched him spit in Mother’s face for some unfathomable transgression, then grab her shoulders and force her chin up, then push her to a mirror so she could watch him watch the snot drip from her nose; or the day after he slapped mother on the back, the impact so stunning her knees buckled as she tried silently to inhale the pain away while digging her fingers into my shoulders in an effort to keep from falling.
The ritual: He’d mumble plaintively, again, during mealtime (guaranteeing my loss of appetite), that he would help himself, if it weren’t for his dysfunctional childhood. The memories perpetually tortured him. He’d remind us – his waxing accompanied at times by glistening eyes – that his childhood was the cause of his unacceptable behavior and his lasting regret as a parent. Understanding him should be the impetus for our forgiveness and love. Our unequivocal acceptance of his trauma, he often said, made him smile during private moments.
And that was that. All better. For Bing.
The psychic scars my father bequeathed to Terry and me are indelible. As adults our bewilderment over how to locate the emotional tools necessary to create a healing process is an indicator of why it is so difficult for us to manage the wounds that fester beneath these scars. We brothers are equally enslaved by bitterness and anger. We rarely preside over our feelings as adults when we discuss Bing. At best, we ruminate impotently. Bing thrives permanently in us. He is The Terminator in relentless pursuit of empathy. When we argue, he neutralizes our capacity to feel for the other. Conflict between Terry and me ensues and metastasizes to rancor that short-circuits our emotional compass, and frantically turns its needle from resolution to dissolution.
It seems that during so many of my conversations with Terry, there’s a moment that we no longer see the brother but instead, the father, who never acknowledged our God-given right to be heard. One brother becomes the other’s worst nightmare: his enemy; his Bing. We rabidly defend ourselves against The Terminator. We are powerless to halt this destructive juggernaut that seizes our better judgment and commands us to inhabit Bing instead of each other. Devoid of empathy we spin out of control in anger’s black hole. Ka-boom! Then, we disengage. We emotionally retreat to our separate spheres: Wounded, angry, and dehumanized. Maybe we’ll try again. Maybe we won’t.
Because of Bing, Terry and I are defective grown-ups.
Yes, Dad behaved badly. He left his sons emotionally inept. He left me unforgiving, without compassion, hating him, I imagine, almost as much as he must have hated himself. Along with his fiction he produced a traumatized former wife whose public outburst, luridly colorful, assured its position among the recent spate of ‘life-with-a-raving-narcissist’ memoirs.
So, now you know how I’ve always felt about Bing—the elephant in the room, the ignored truth that, because I haven’t been forthcoming with my readers, assures my place among an undistinguished list of sanctimonious hypocrites. Now you know that my mantra—engagement connects/acknowledgement binds—applies to everyone except me.
Even in death, I could not dislodge the malignant tumor that was my father. The best I could do was never face it. I could not muster the courage to seek a pathway towards acknowledging Bing’s humanity. Until an email I received from U.S. Representative Florence Pines visited my loathing:
From: Flo C. Pines firstname.lastname@example.org
Sent: Thurs., Dec.30, 2010 12:35 am
Subject: My Lawrence
I’ve not had the pleasure of making your acquaintance, though I will introduce myself at your father’s memorial service. May I express my most heartfelt condolences to you and your family for your loss.
It is late and I am somewhat enervated from a grueling day of haggling with several of my good Republican friends from across the aisle. Retiring before midnight was my 84th birthday resolution. It’s a good thing I believe in compromise.
Ken, I am aware of Bing’s reputation as a less than admirable parent and father. But I hope you will permit me, by reading further, to reveal in death what Lawrence asked me not to disclose during his life.
On August 17th, 1945, I was forcibly dragged from a gas station’s Colored-Only bathroom. We were in rural Mississippi, near the Colombus army base. Of all things, Ken, I was daydreaming and accidentally walked into the Colored men’s room. Well, bad as that was, I saw three white soldiers standing over the urinal, in the midst of their business. When they turned to me, I closed my eyes, frozen in shock.
The flesh on my knees tore as they dragged me out of the door. “Grab her jigaboo hair,” I remember one of them saying, his country drawl reminding me who I was in the deepest South. They took me to a wooded area behind the gas station. I lay on my back and kept my eyes shut tight. I knew better than to scream. Not in Mississippi. They were going to rape me. I was going to submit. I would not, however, look at them, even if they threatened to kill me.
Pairs of hands began to destroy my soul. I fought not to grimace from the grotesquely foul smell of a whisky-voiced soldier yelping in my face. Something about celebrating VJ Day with “nigger-poon.”
And that quickly, the hands were gone.
“You had your fun!” a voice threatened.
I heard a fierce scuffle: Cussing, shouting, someone gasping in pain, threats of extreme violence. My eyes shut tight, I lay there, imagining they were fighting over who was to get me first. The vileness of their anger towards each other scared me more than their hatred of me. I was surely going to die.
The silent minutes that followed were an eternity. I felt my heartbeat return to normal. And then the most powerful urge to cry, as I realized that not only was I alive, I had not lost my soul.
“Open your eyes. Please?” said a voice. It was somewhat breathless but compassionate and full of sorrow. Had I been rescued from these soldiers?
“You’re okay,” said the voice. “I’m going to take you home.”
I shook my head no.
“Please,” asked the voice. “I’m not leaving till you let me,” the voice said. “And it’s getting dark. And, ya know, I’m kind of afraid of the dark.”
I shook my head no. Two fingers gently touched my eyelids. Not to force them open. “Please,” the voice said. The fingers departed.
I opened my eyes slowly. A soldier’s lips tried to smile.
“Are you alright?” he asked.
I was shocked and frightened again, when I recognized him as one of the three soldiers. I turned away.
“May I accompany you home?” he asked. Accompany me home, I thought? How that honest-sounding formality from this white solder-boy tampered with my fear by making me feel respected. I was scared to look at him. But I nodded, yes.
On the way home he told me that I had changed his life. Forever. He wanted to meet my family, I remember him suddenly saying. When we arrived at my house – a small, wooden shanty, mangled by the elements, made hoary from a lifetime of disrepair – I remember him looking around, his eyes searching and searching. No electricity, he said. I nodded. He pointed.
We shaded ourselves under the red maple tree in front of my house (what I later dubbed The Faulkner Tree. But I’m ahead of myself). The soldier – young, and like me, less innocent now – stood nervously, at attention. I saw in his gaze a determination. I averted my eyes, demurely.
“I do not have the words, ma’am, to say what I feel,” he said.
I remember, still looking away and then, of all things, thanking him for saving me. I felt stupid and angry at myself for being a nigger.
“No, ma’am,” he said. “You saved me.”
Moments later he walked away.
He returned the following morning. Before dawn, I supposed, because I always left at daybreak for my job as our church secretary. I smiled but could not possibly undo my conditioning: Was he here to hurt me? Though I kept my eyes from contacting his, when I glimpsed his hat tucked underneath one arm, I felt less threatened. He pulled an envelope from inside his pocket. I noticed how clean his pressed uniform was. The sun, inching above the horizon, seemed to direct its first light to the small gold bar on each shoulder.
He handed me the envelope. I saw the words “Stars and Stripes” printed on the upper left hand corner. I looked at him. I tried to hide my surprise at the dark purple under his left eye, and the emerging scab over his thick lower lip. He nodded slightly, maybe in recognition of my raised brow.
And, there I went again: “I can read, you know.”
He smiled. “Yes, ma’am.”
He asked me to read it while he waited.
And so I did.
“Ma’am, my name is Lawrence Brennan. Two days ago I stood by and pretended that you were not a woman, much less a human being. Though I finally stopped the others before they could further hurt you, my actions till then spoke for me. My inaction, actually, hurt you every bit as much as their actions. Standing there, everything I believed about myself, morally and ethically, vanished. I became those men.
“I neither expect nor deserve your forgiveness.
“I have searched for words that can adequately express the sorrow I will live with forever for the pain and humiliation that I have caused you. I cannot find them.
“You are human. You are a woman. I understand better what that means now than I did two days ago. I can only say that, for the future, if I am ever witness to one person’s hatred for another, I promise you, I will become the hated and I will react instantly, no matter what physical jeopardy awaits me.
“Second Lieutenant Lawrence C. Brennan, U.S. Army.”
I can hear him admonishing me, Ken, as I write this. That’s enough, Flo.
May God bless Lawrence. And may God bless you and your family, Ken.
So now I saw Bing as Representative Pines did. I sat and tried to visualize the man she knew. I thought of my father as Dad.
I read her email again. But from a new venue, a sightline that permitted me to reach out, even in death, and to connect my yearning for him to his humanity. Hey, Dad, it’s me, your son. I tried to live inside her words and wondered, what if—even had I never discovered these or other acts of kindness—I had assumed that, like all of us, Dad had his story. And that his story was, in its most essential form, an expression of his yearning, his desires, hopes, dreams, successes, disappointments: His humanity. Would that insight have permitted me to say, once and for all, what I now feel: I forgive you, Dad.
I will meet Representative Pines at Dad’s memorial. I will thank her for the remembrance of a father I wish I’d known. I will thank her for teaching me that I can celebrate what I preach—a fundamental goodness, a shared humanity that binds my father to me. I will tell her: You have liberated me from being destroyed by the thought of him.
I typed my obit’s concluding paragraph:
Dad, in recognizing Congresswoman Pines’ tribute to you, this obit represents my first step towards dislodging my fear that I will never succeed in tranquilly navigating the ties that bind us, much less honoring them. I am determined to keep trying, Dad. At fifty-three, I am still angry, unforgiving and afraid. I have a long journey ahead of me.
I sent my obit to Terry. I hoped he’d approve, which meant I suspected he wouldn’t. I leaned back in my swivel chair, cocooned in the night’s salutary blackness. A gusting wind rattled my office window and comforted me.
I raised my head and gazed at the photos on the wall to my right. Above the couch, framed memories stretched from one end to the other. Generations, I called it: Early 20th century individual and family portraits of my grandparents and Trish’s, as children and adults. My favorites: A post-war UPI shot of Ike with his arm around a surprised, rugged-faced war correspondent – the only time I’d ever seen Bing look flustered. To the left, Ensign Neal (my Mom), saluting an aircraft carrier as it departed her Navy base in San Diego. Mom’s eyes, as if they saw from her heart, always softened her stolid expression. I imagined her wondering, as she often told me she had, whatever became of the sailors she’d attended to—who’d returned, who hadn’t. “C’est la vie,” she’d say and I heard the four sentient notes that were the music in Mom’s voice play: Melancholy, sorrow, hope, stoicism.
Mother did not possess the mental or physical strength to challenge Bing, much less defend us from his assaults. Her volitional ability surfaced post conflagration, when she would hug our violated souls, wipe our tears, and listen patiently to our endless complaints. Mother’s compassion and unconditional love for her sons couldn’t protect Terry and me. C’est la vie. I loved mother, unconditionally. I always will.
My focus shifted to a photo of Bing standing among his twin brother (whom he despised from birth), future sister-in-law (whom he despised the second they met) and mother’s parents (“Morons,” to quote Dad). It was his twin brother’s wedding day. My revulsion over Bing’s petulant smirk, the disengaged eyes averting the camera’s lens, surfaced like a missile. I shook my head, resigned only to perplexity over what drove Bing to be such an asshole.
I thought about the final six months of Bing’s life. Terry and I saw him more than in the previous six years. I remembered Terry spoon-feeding him strawberry sherbet near the end (Bing’s favorite), then dabbing his lower lip with a Kleenex, and, speaking softly, asking if he wanted more. Bing barely nodded. Terry gently pushed two small spoonfuls between his parched lips.
Leaving hospice that day, I complimented Terry for his delicate compassion and he reiterated his major concerns: Probate; and the disposition of our seven-figure inheritance.
My eyes drifted from the photo gallery, to my desk, to a crooked row of several pennies, nickels, a dime. He’s actually dead, I thought, and in his absence, I wasn’t so much angry with Bing, as bewildered by him.
I curled fetally on my office couch, reached up, tugged the lamp’s two chains and in the blessed, silent dark, willed myself to float, maybe just an hour or so.
I awoke with a start at 7 a.m., and raced to read Terry’s email: “MEET ME SOMEWHERE.”
Elbows on the table, Terry’s fists cradled his chin. He was wearing his black and red flannel shirt, and yellow tie—emblazoned with multi-hued letters spelling, ‘Peace Out’ —indicative of a forthcoming meeting with his agency’s ‘creatives.’ The tip of his tie dangled precipitously over a gooey, brown smudge blemishing our otherwise spotless table. We eyed each other: Empathetically, I prayed. He sipped his apple juice.
“Speak to me,” he said.
Elana quietly placed our food on the table, smiled and left, wordless—her sixth sense, I guessed.
“Your omelet’s getting a chill,” I said, thinking how foolish he looked in that getup and that I loved him. I glanced out the window and watched the powdery snow stick to Greenwich Street. The plain-gray sky was ominously flat. I was determined to win Terry over, respectfully.
“No matter how you slice it, Kenny, good outweighs bad. It’s what people are wired to hear.”
“I thought I was the one explaining,” I said.
“It’s not about Flo’s anecdote, Terry. It’s about allowing the goodness it reveals in Bing, Dad, to connect me to his humanity. Okay.”
Terry’s voice murmured, like he was suffering a low grade fever. His chin was tucked in his palms, hands pressed against his cheeks. “Like I wrote, Kenny, even if it’s one good deed to fifty bad ones, all people will hear is the good. It’s like Foreman losing on points and then, one punch. Boom! Down goes Frazier! No one remembers how well Frazier did. It’s the obituary’s nature, what it does, it sanitizes the shit.”
Whatever. I said: “Acknowledging his inherent goodness is practicing my faith, Terry, in our inherent humanity, my belief that we must, we must recognize that what we all share matters. If we don’t, who are we, Terry? Our remembrance of Dad-”
“Bing to me.”
“Okay. Terry, this obit isn’t about Bing, it’s not about good verses bad,” I insisted. “The obit is about how I choose to remember him and what that says about me, the son, and you. If you approve.”
“How about Hitler?”
“You don’t find Bing’s version of humanity…a problem,” Terry said.
“I’m not talking about Adolf,” I said.
Terry lowered his hands. He leaned in to me, his boil still on whisper.
“I am. And Bingo was his name-o.”
Mr. Melodrama. I should have known better, I thought.
“In plain words, you’re telling me what?” I asked.
“Plain words are my specialty! They were my major at City College, remember,” he said.
In the silence, Terry’s banal glibness was all the more annoying because it churlishly discredited my discourse, my Philosophy of Religion PhD from Cornell, and my choice to unpack life’s purpose the way I prefer. I listened to myself breathe.
“Can I be me? Pretentious asshole that I am,” I said. Terry sliced through the middle of his omelet. I noticed the tomato, melted Cheddar and bacon bits oozing from each half. Bite, chew, coffee, swallow – that’s how he always eats his omelet. So annoying. He lowered his fork, then knife.
“Yes,” he said.
“I’m talking about our highest calling—where I find god—lower case g, okay. I encounter god – what I think of as our essential goodness – when I bravely acknowledge the humanity of others, even those I hate, as if they were me.
“He never, never, never acknowledged me,” said Terry. “Or you.”
“Let it go,” I replied.
“I’m stuck on Adolph, and Saddam and Pol fuckin’ Pot, and,” he whispered, “Bingo was his name-o!”
Jesus, what a hard-ass.
“His life wasted us,” he said.
“I know,” I said.
“That cold fact does not need your asterisk, Sister Mary!”
“Sorry,” he said.
“I’m acknowledging his humanity. That’s all,” I said.
“Your obit is shit with whipped cream.”
“Oh, my God.”
“Don’t mock me!” he said. “Fuck yourself.”
My heart beat faster. “You fuck yourself,” I said.
Terry lowered his fork and knife and looked at me. His eyes intuited what was in mine. He gently bit his lower lip, nodded. “I know. Bing won’t come between us, Ken, will he?”
“Never,” I said.
“Count me out of the celebration,” said Terry.
His voice was faint, garbled. I realized his mouth was full.
“I already told you. Down goes Frazier.”
“You let Flo Pines turn him into hearts and flowers-”
“That’s not the point.”
“It is.” His deliberate calm drew me to lean in to him. “Everyone who reads this is gonna weigh her experience against ours. She wins. It’s human nature.”
“If he was a piece of shit then so am I. You see that.”
“What do you see?”
“An irresponsible motherfucker. You want my obit? ‘Here lies an irresponsible motherfucker. Drive home safely!’
“Terry, it’s a slippery slope. First I vilify him. Then I marginalize him. Then he no longer means anything, to me, to you, to anyone. Then there’s a place for no meaning in this world, Terry, and that’s bullshit because when there’s a place for no meaning in this world you can snuff out a life or half the population, just like Pol fucking Pot, and what would it matter?”
He licked his lips.
“There’s still egg there. Gross.”
The napkin muffling his voice, he said: “You and this Congresswoman are letting him off the hook. Not me.”
Terry scraped congealed cheese with his fork, then tongued it, like an anteater.
“What if there was no Flo Pines, Ken?”
“What if, Terry? Then maybe I’d be one unsalvaged, angry motherfucker forever.”
“He was an irresponsible father.”
“Alright! Alright! He was nuts. I’ll just say that!”
“Ken, I can’t make the memorial.”
“I read it all, Kenny. Word for word. I stand by what I said in my email.”
“You need to explain yourself. Your way. I get that. I respect you, Ken. And what you believe. So, we’re good.”
“We are good,” I said.
“I mean it, Kenny, publish the obit.”
I emailed Jack.
Date: Tue., Jan. 4, 2011
Attached is obit to replace next week’s column. Sorry it’s so last minute. And waaaay long. Could it run in 2 parts? If this doesn’t work, forget the obit. I don’t want to embarrass you/compromise the Times. Jack, if the obit can’t be printed as is, I’ll ask to resign as Family Connections editor as soon as is convenient for everyone.
Thanx for letting me give this a go. Oh, and Terry approved it.