perm_identity The Last Time

by Derek Alger

Published in Issue No. 202 ~ March, 2014

I was there the last time my parents ever saw each other. It was on West 66th Street at the corner of Central Park West in Manhattan, just outside Dr. Nacht’s office, where my mother had gone, at my father’s insistence, to have a quick look over while her oncologist, Dr. Sara, was on vacation on the French Riviera with his extended Lebanese family.

Of course I didn’t know it would be the last time my parents saw each other, that my mother would be dead of breast cancer within a month. I knew my mother was terminally ill, but her manner, and quiet fortitude, somehow distracted from the inevitable end which was rapidly approaching. I should have known from her arms, now mere twigs of flesh which I could slip between a circle made by the forefinger and thumb of my small right hand.

The final parting was in keeping with the all too familiar traits of each of my parents; my mother, giving and generous, while my father was a secret shadow of detachment, his words very much delivered as if from a bad script.

“Can we give you a ride back to your office?” my mother asked.

I was parked in the garage under Dr. Nacht’s office, and my father’s office, where he now lived, or hid, or whatever he did there, was on the Upper East Side.

My father cleared his throat, a frequent occurrence since his quadruple bypass surgery almost twenty-five years before.

“No thanks,” my father said. “I think I’ll take a cab.”

Then, he donned a beige fedora and ambled off with his cane, never again to see my mother, who died at home in her bed twelve days short of their fifty-eighth wedding anniversary.

I still don’t know what to make of it, my parents’ relationship, or marriage, or partnership. I’m the oldest of four, and I know my two sisters and brother, aside from sharing confusion over my father’s behavior, were very angry at what they considered a major betrayal of his marriage vows.

I wish my mother kept a journal, but she didn’t. She was a very private person, keeping her feelings to herself, and very much into working things out on her own. She had the confidence to do that, growing up in her family, a loving and supportive family where she was free of feelings of inadequacy or irrational, overwhelming fear. My father, on the other hand, wasn’t so lucky; the house he grew up in was one consumed with claustrophobic guilt, not always overt, but ubiquitous, always hovering about, just over your shoulder, waiting to strike with devastating condemnation.

From an early age, I thought my father was different, not so much weird, as unique, special in a way, one who stood out on his own, for good or bad, and couldn’t easily be categorized like the fathers of my classmates at school. He was a psychiatrist, during what turned out to be the golden age of psychiatry. His profession was special, mysterious, or at least that’s how I felt as a kid. I didn’t know exactly what he did, but I knew people with problems went to see him, and by listening to them talk about their troubles, my father was able to make them feel better.

I believed my father possessed that natural aura of omniscience, but in his case, or maybe I should say mine, this was further heightened by his designation as a psychiatrist, someone apart from the rest, the wise sage who can penetrate through the defenses or rambles of the mind to expose truth and meaning. I couldn’t, and didn’t, articulate any of that as a kid, but my father did seem pretty imposing and i was sure glad he was on my side. He was powerful, a man who had figured out the secrets of the day to day world, and thus, understood the incomprehensible, and was willing to explain and tell me I’d be all right, even though I was completely consumed with doubt.

Apparently, during the early 50s, the rage was for wives of psychiatrists to become co-therapists, something, to her credit, and for which all her children were grateful, my mother wanted nothing to do with, ever, at all. So, while other wives went on to become co-therapists and join their husbands in the parlor game world of interpreting the true meaning of human behavior, my mother took the subway alone to Brooklyn and watched the Dodgers play at Ebbets Field.

I suppose it was unusual, or at least not typical, that my mother was the baseball fan and my father considered the national pastime an agonizing bore. But my father was not athletic, he couldn’t be, he was born with a deformity, a crooked spine and one foot over two sizes larger than the other, for which he underwent numerous operations during childhood and spent months upon months at different times with awkward and painful metal braces on his legs.

I still don’t believe it, but it has been verified by more than one person, that my father knew at the age of six that he wanted to become a psychiatrist. Pretty strange, most six-year-olds, at least before the obsessive self-help age, as far as I know, didn’t even know what a psychiatrist was. The idea to become a doctor was pushed by his mother as a way of gaining acceptance into the further reaches of society which was still stratified at the time in a clearly discernible “us at the top” versus “them at the bottom” mindset. The desire to become a psychiatrist, however, was my father’s own idea, though where it came from I will never know. I’m sure my grandmother would have preferred he become a heart or brain surgeon, but a psychiatrist was still a medical doctor, so it still counted, and allowed my grandmother to say at various tea parties, “My son’s a doctor in New York City.”

I look at my two sets of grandparents and they were poles apart, so different, such contrasting values, representing almost diametrically opposed views of society, family, and life. My parents were both born and raised in Canada, in Ontario, both attending the University of Toronto, where they first became a couple.

Although I was born in San Francisco, and then spent my early years in Flushing, Queens, I was always aware of my Canadian heritage. As a child, I never thought about identity — ethnic or national — beyond my immediate family. From an early age, I referred to my immediate family as an independent mercenary unit.

My mother’s parents were traditional, but educated, enlightened, college graduates at a time when most didn’t graduate high school. My grandfather, my mother’s father, Gramp, was a natural proponent of honesty, hard work, and merit. He was stern, but nor judgmental, or rather, when judgmental, he always was aware of the individual and a belief in redemption, in most cases, if one was only given a chance under the proper set of circumstances.

My grandparents on both sides had names from a distant past, names more likely to be found in history books than at contemporary social gatherings. My mother’s parents were Cecil and Bessie, and my father’s were Ewart and Greta. My father wanted to name me Ewart but fortunately my mother intervened and prevailed.

Both sets of my grandparents lived in the city when I was born, but like many, there roots were in farm country. Gramp started his teaching career in a one-room schoolhouse serving the surrounding farming community, moving to a two-room schoolhouse in a neighboring village a year later, mostly because his sister was about to start school where he previously had taught and he found her particularly dense and annoying. Gramp continued on in his chosen field, eventually retiring from his position as Deputy Minister of Education for the Province of Ontario. There’s even a primary school named after him in the city where my parents were born.

My other grandfather, Grandpa, and his brother inherited a weekly newspaper in rural Ontario, nothing comprehensive, maybe eight pages, twelve at most, containing local gossip, and tidings, such as so and so had relatives visiting from Detroit or another person was celebrating a birthday. The two brothers eventually moved to a growing city about 30 miles east of Toronto and began running a daily newspaper. It was at about this time Grandpa met Greta, and while she had hopes of moving up in the world, that was not to be. I’m not sure of the entire story, the exact details, but somehow Grandpa’s brother manipulated him out of being equal partners of the newspaper and he ended up as a mid-level employee in an insurance company. In terms of Greta, it was similar to the classic board game Chutes and Ladders. She thought she was going up the ladder to acceptance in high society, and then, suddenly, the bottom fell out and she ended up going down the chute and living on the other side of town, in a small house near the railroad tracks and factories, the house where my father grew up. And who knows, perhaps because of that my father went on to complete medical school and become a renowned psychiatrist.

My father worked long hours, an industrious overachiever. I would be hesitant to call him a workaholic since he was his work, that was his identify and his definition as an individual, and as such, there was no break from himself. He was, and remained, a psychiatrist, always, his entire adult life, with all other activities and roles secondary beneath the primary one which gave his life meaning, regardless of what obstacles or accomplishments came his way.

And while thinking about all this, it hit me, something I never realized until a couple years after that day at Dr. Nacht’s. In fact, after my father died of a massive heart attack. I was surprised I hadn’t recognized it before, but the last time my mother and father saw each was also the last time I ever saw my father alive.