I always enjoyed Norwegian class, but that day it was especially pleasurable. It was spring — the date was April 10 — and it was unusually warm, and after class a bunch of us went out for a drink and then took a tram together into downtown Oslo, chattering and laughing like schoolchildren, even though we were adults from America, England, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and elsewhere who, because of jobs or marriages or love affairs, had found ourselves living in this remote northern outpost, where, we had already learned, the warm sunlight of spring feels like far more of a gift than it does elsewhere.
I got back to our apartment later than usual to find the answering machine blinking. Pushing the play button, I heard my mother’s voice from Los Angeles. But she wasn’t talking to me; she was talking to someone else. “I can’t leave a message like this on his machine,” she said. I heard a mumbling in the background. My sister. I don’t remember what else they said, aside from asking me to call them as soon as possible.
I understood, immediately, that my father was dead.
Daddy. That was what I’d always called him. My sister and I had grown up calling my mother “Mommy,” but after we’d reached a certain age she’d instructed us to call her “Mother.” “Mommy,” she explained, was too childish. As it turned out, neither of us could pull off “Mother.” For my part, I tried not to call her anything. But I continued to call my father “Daddy,” and he had no problem with that.
When I phoned my mother back, she told me the details. For years, ever since he’d been living alone in the family house in Queens, Daddy had usually slept in what had been my old bedroom — it was in the back of the house and thus the quietest of the three bedrooms. At about six a.m. New York time, he’tod been consumed in an electrical fire. That was noon Oslo time. I’d been sitting in my Norwegian class.
I flew to New York. A full day had gone by since the fire, but as I walked up our block I saw cops and firemen moving in and out of the house, as if it had just happened. Closer to me, I saw pieces of half-burned, soaking-wet paper stuck in front-yard bushes, in curbside sewers, and under the tires of parked cars. When I got to our house, I saw that the driveway was piled high with books, papers, and other objects, all charred and soaked.
Later, I walked back down the block and recovered a few of the pieces of paper that had been swept away. They were all pages of my father’s novel. He’d spent much of his adult life writing it over and over again. The successive drafts added up to a history of the American typewriter: the earlier ones were written on an old Royal, the later ones on an IBM Selectric. (He’d never moved on to a computer.)
There was much to be done. My sister and I visited the police station, the city morgue, the funeral parlor. We gave a tour of the damaged house to an insurance agent. And we went to the firehouse. We learned that one of the firemen, risking his own life, had braved the smoke to try to save our 80-year-old father, and had wept when he failed to do so.
Not until a few days later did we get around to addressing the contents of our father’s basement office. Aside from being the place where he wrote, it had also been a combination lab and pharmacy. On one set of tiny shelves, facing him when he typed at his desk (not a real desk but a large chunk of plywood he had installed himself), were hundreds of identical green jars containing medications he’d received as samples from pharmaceutical firms. Over the years, he’d meticulously clipped off labels and taped them onto the little jars. Behind his desk chair were more shelves, these ones lined with bottles of chemicals, some of which he had used, years ago, in amateur lab experiments.
The chemicals and most of the drugs had been there for decades, some of them since my sister and I were toddlers. Knowing better than just to toss all this stuff in the trash, we looked online and found a company that specialized in removing such materials in accordance with proper safely guidelines. We phoned; a man came. He looked over the chemicals and gasped in horror. Pointing out one bottle containing pretty crystals that looked like yellow sea salt, he cracked open a book he had brought with him. It was a catalogue of chemicals. The most dangerous of all were listed in the front of the book. That yellow chemical — I don’t remember its name — was on page one. At the very top. Visibly shaken, he told us that he’d never seen this chemical in a home. “If this bottle had gotten knocked over and fallen to the floor,” he said, “this whole block could have gone up in an explosion.” My sister and I were shaken. Daddy had to have known how dangerous that chemical was. How could he have put us all at such risk?
Then again, we weren’t entirely surprised.
How to explain it? This was a man who, all our lives, had been fanatically protective. He was a doctor, with experience in Bellevue’s psych wards, who’d seen humanity at its most terrifying — and he was determined to shelter us from all of it. The house in which we’d grown up had gotten little enough light, flanked as it was by two identical houses with narrow driveways in between, but he’d made it even darker by covering the living-room windows that faced our driveway with bookshelves. On the few occasions when my mother dared to open the drapes and pull up the blinds on the street-facing windows, he’d gone berserk. He wanted those shelves, books, drapes, and blinds to separate him, and us, from the world. It made him feel safe.
And yet he kept in the basement a substance that could’ve blown the whole block to smithereens. Why? I’m not sure. But I’ve thought about it a lot, and I think that, just as a gun owner can derive a sense of security from his collection of weapons, it made my father feel safe to have such a potent chemical in his private stockpile. I think that in his mind, insane as it sounds, he felt he was protecting us with something that could’ve killed us.
During most of my childhood and youth, my father worked hard at two jobs. From eight to noon every morning, he saw patients in the clinic at Con Edison’s Waterside plant, on the east side of First Avenue, just across 42nd Street from the headquarters of the United Nations. The building in which he worked (which has since been razed) was a massive eyesore; inside, it was as cavernous as an airline terminal, only dark and creepy-looking, full of huge, sooty black turbines or whatever they were (or at least that’s how I remember it). In one corner was the shabby little clinic, a place of linoleum and fluorescent light, its waiting room, during my one childhood visit, packed with uniformed workmen sitting in plastic chairs, most of whom, my dad would tell me, were there to feign illness so that they could get a day off. He’d examine dozens of patients every morning, in no-nonsense, assembly-line fashion. He’d diagnose them quickly, chiding the fakes for insulting his intelligence but being generous with the truly sick ones, sending some of them home for more time off than they really needed.
Lunch? Some of the best restaurants in the world were within a 10-minute walk. But when he wanted to treat himself he’d drop in at the Blarney Stone, a now-defunct Irish bar on Third Avenue (more linoleum, more fluorescent light) where the floor was always sticky, where they always had some game on the TV, and where the brisket sandwich was cheap and delicious. After lunch, he’d go to the Midtown offices of the medical magazine where he served as editor-in-chief. At one time, the offices were located in the Westvaco Building on Park Avenue between 48th and 49th streets; later, the magazine shared a floor at 622 Third Avenue, between 40th and 41st, with the Iranian delegation to the UN.
It was during this period that the Tehran hostage crisis occurred, so there were always police on site. Daddy had the northwest corner office, with one of the most spectacular views I’ve ever seen of Midtown and Central Park. The view was as gorgeous as the Con Ed clinic was ugly, but he didn’t revel in it: day after day, he sat there working with the same nose-to-the-grindstone attitude as at the clinic, his back to the windows. In his office at the magazine, however, the ailments he confronted weren’t medical but grammatical. Line-editing articles written by doctors, he raged constantly at their needless jargon, their turgid language. Other medical publications were full of such prose: their editors viewed it as a mark of high seriousness. My father wouldn’t have it. He believed fiercely in simplicity and clarity. He despised pretense in all things. As far as he was concerned, there was no reason why an article in a medical journal shouldn’t be understandable, even enjoyable, to an intelligent layman.
He’d come a long way. The son of Polish immigrants, Daddy had grown up poor, during the Depression, on the Lower East Side, now known as the East Village. His childhood home had been on the third floor of a walk-up at 334 East Sixth Street, between First and Second avenues. They used to call these things railroad flats: a living room facing the street, then a bedroom just wide enough for a double bed and the space to walk past it, then another, identical bedroom, then the kitchen, with a toilet in the back corner and a big white bathtub that, when not being used as such, could be covered with a fitted white metal cover that served as the kitchen counter.
He’d attended the local public schools and then worked his way through New York University — and, afterwards, through his medical studies, internship, and residency — by writing radio plays for CBS and NBC. He’d then begun what he thought would be a career in medical research, which he loved: he sincerely wanted to find cures that would save lives. But the paychecks were modest, and so when he married his first wife he quit research and opened a private practice on Riverside Drive.
But that didn’t last long, either. He hated running a business. A child of poverty, he worried endlessly about money (my Southern mother’s word for him was “penurious”), but charging people for medical treatment always felt wrong to him. Medicine was a calling. You didn’t send out invoices for performing a sacrament.
So he became an employee. By the time he’d divorced his first wife, married my mother, and fathered me and my younger sister, his career consisted of seeing patients in a company clinic every morning and editing a medical monthly every afternoon. And at night he’d go down to the basement and write.
But writing was a guilty pleasure. Medicine was the real thing. From as early as I can remember, he made it clear that I, too, would be a doctor. Anything else, he emphasized, was second best. When I was a child, I fully believed that the president of the United States had only chosen a life in politics because he’d flunked out of med school.
During my teens my father force-fed me novels about doctors. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage. Sinclair Lewis’s Arrowsmith. Morton Thompson’s Not as a Stranger — about a brilliant, idealistic young doctor forced to confront his human limitations. Miss Susie Slagle’s, a charming story about medical students living at a Baltimore boarding house. There were nonfiction books, too, such as Paul de Kruif’s Microbe Hunters, about the great medical researchers who’d vanquished diseases. I scarfed them down, and responded just as my father had intended: Who wouldn’t want to be a doctor, serving Life, fighting Death?
And yet wasn’t it writing that he really loved?
One day in 2018, my sister sent me a Facebook message: suddenly, a TV play by my father had turned up on YouTube. We’d never seen or heard any of his television or radio work. The Guinea Pigs, which had appeared on the CBS anthology series Studio One in 1951, was the second version of that play to be aired on network TV. I knew from a plot summary I’d read somewhere that it was about prison inmates — serious felons — being used as guinea pigs to test a new medical treatment. I’d assumed that the play took a negative view of this apparent act of exploitation.
In fact the story was subtler than that. The criminals were given the choice of undergoing a health risk in exchange for cushier living conditions while the medical trials proceeded. They took it. But as it turned out, their real reward was not the more comfortable cell and better food they enjoyed, but the moral redemption they experienced as a result of knowing that they were performing a service for the society against which they’d sinned.
This thumbnail summary doesn’t do it justice: the whole thing, which was very much in the gritty, realistic mold of Marty, 12 Angry Men, and other noted TV plays of the era, was subtler and finer than I’m making it sound. When I watched it in 2018, it seemed to me to be ahead of its time: the doctor in charge of the experiment was a woman, and several characters, all of whom were rendered with dignity and complexity, were black.
My father had been brought up by Catholics, but had walked away from his parents’ faith, marrying his first wife in a Methodist church on Park Avenue and my mother at the house of a justice of the peace in Sleepy Hollow, New York. Yet The Guinea Pigs struck me as a very Christian work.
Given how much time my father put into his work — and his midnight writing — it’s remarkable, in retrospect, to think how much time he put into me. We constructed a sprawling train set in the attic and played with it frequently. He took me all over New York City with his Roloflex and other old cameras, teaching me about f-stops and shutter speeds and helping me to develop an eye for picture-taking. Then we would take the film home and develop and print the pictures in the basement, where, in addition to pills and volatile chemicals, he had a full set of darkroom equipment.
We built up a stamp collection and coin collection. Visiting my mother’s Southern hometown in the summertime, we’d spend hours wandering the train yards. (We both loved trains.) We went to a quarry in New Jersey and to other sites where you could collect rocks and minerals, and he taught me to identify them all. Long before I took chemistry, he taught me to carry out chemistry experiments in the basement — always in the presence of those yellow crystals that could have killed us all.
When I was in fourth or fifth grade, I quit two piano teachers in a row because I found the lessons unbearably boring. My father then took up the job. He not only taught me to play the piano but also taught me all about chords and progressions and how to play by ear and how to write songs — and he made it all seem easy and fun and fascinating. Years later, when the professional organist who would become my first partner asked me if I knew music theory, I said, “Gosh, no,” whereupon he proceeded to explain it to me. After a few sentences, I cut him off. “Oh, that,” I said. I’d learned it all from my father when I was a little boy, sitting beside him at the piano. He hadn’t told me that I was learning music theory; he was just showing me how music worked.
I know, it all sounds adorable. But there was a dark side to our relationship — namely, his fierce possessiveness. He resented my school friends. “Do you think they really care about you? Do you think they’d lift a finger to save you?” he’d say. “Nobody out there loves you more than I do!
I never felt entirely like a separate person, entitled to my own tastes and interests. Out of his presence, I felt as if I was his emissary to the world. When I read about Emily Dickinson, living out her life in the family attic, I imagined myself being under my father’s thumb until he died, and then staying on in that house in Queens until my own demise.
It was my habit, when I was in junior high school, to leave my schoolbooks and homework on the dining-room table before going to bed. One morning I came downstairs to find that my father had totally rewritten a paper I’d prepared for class. My original text was nowhere to be found, so I took his rewrite to school with me. That day, as luck would have it, the teacher asked me to read my paper aloud to the class. As soon as I started, I knew I was in trouble. My father’s paper was written in what, to him, sounded like the voice of someone my age. But it didn’t work at all. It sounded exactly like what it was: a grown-up trying to write in the voice of a kid. Less than halfway through, my teacher stopped me and told me to go home and try again. The next day, having located my original in the basement, I read it to the class. My teacher loved it.
I never told my father this story. I didn’t dare. He would’ve yelled.
He yelled a lot, as it happened, mostly at me. It wasn’t fair, but it made sense. He worked too hard and he slept too little; he had an unfulfilling marriage and an unfulfilling career. He went through his days deeply frustrated and thoroughly exhausted.
Of course, none of it was my fault. But he yelled at me anyway. It always started out of the blue. Often, a minute or two earlier, he’d been telling me how wonderful I was. He praised me a lot. He praised me to excess. It could get grotesque — my teachers, he would say, were too stupid to appreciate my gifts, and my classmates were little better than savages. But then, instantly, without any notice, he’d turn on me — loudly, viciously, brutally. It tore me apart. And he knew it would. Which, I guess, was why I was the one he chose to yell at.
Yes, he did yell at my mother sometimes — but her standard reaction was just to sit there passively, feeling virtuous in her silence. As for my sister, if he yelled at her, she yelled back, giving as good as she got and showing no sign of being the slightest bit upset by his attacks. Once, when she was in high school (I was three years older, and in college), she told him that she was spending the night with a friend who lived around the corner; in fact, she flew to Houston for the night to attend a rock concert. Her audacity staggered me.
I was different. When he yelled at me, I was devastated, and he knew it. Yelling at me, and witnessing my reaction, he felt a sense of power that, I later came to realize, nothing else in his life ever gave him.
But that wasn’t the only reason for the yelling. Another, I now think, was that he saw me as a copy of himself. I looked like him. Everybody said so. I shared many of his interests and talents. But unlike him, I had my life ahead of me. I might actually be able to take the same raw materials and, unlike him, make out of them a happy life. A third factor, I believe, is that he figured out long before I did that I was gay, and worried about me on that account, and his worrying made him feel powerless, and that sense of powerlessness, again, made him yell.
Sometimes he’d yell at me for a full hour or more. Then, as suddenly as it had begun, it would end. Devastated, I would drag myself to my bedroom, quietly close the door, sit on the bed, and sit there trembling and weeping. Inevitably, after a few minutes, he’d open the door (even when racked with guilt, he’d never stoop to knocking on a door in his own home) and say, in a gentle voice, “You don’t hate your old dad, do you?” Always exactly those words. Never once did he simply apologize.
(Usually, by the way, my mother was elsewhere in the house, hearing everything. But she never interfered. Better he yell at me than at her.)
Oh, I almost forgot. He’d yell at the neighbor kids, too. If they were playing in the street on a weekend morning and woke him up, he’d open his bedroom window and tell them to shut up or go play down the block. If that didn’t work, he’d go outside in his robe and shoo them away.
He seemed like an ogre. And yet when one of those kids got sick in the middle of the night and the mother came knocking at our door, my father, no matter how exhausted he might be, would throw on his clothes, grab his big old beat-up black medical bag, and hurry with the mother back to her house and do whatever was necessary. Sometimes he’d be there all night, sitting at the kid’s bedside. If the kid needed major care, Daddy would accompany him to the hospital to help cut through red tape, ensure that the kid got attended to immediately, order the doctors and nurses around if necessary, and try to keep the parents calm. If the kid had to stay in the hospital for any length of time, Daddy would draw a homemade get-well card. All this, mind you, at a time when most doctors, fearing malpractice suits, or just not wanting to be bothered, would’ve told the parents to call 911.
He was also the one who, after dinner, would collect everybody’s leftovers, cut them up into small pieces, and take them out into the driveway to feed them to our cat Bucky, who became the fattest cat I’ve ever seen (and lived longer than any cat I ever knew). My father was the one who put out bread in our backyard for the squirrels. “Sam!” he would say to the squirrels. “Come and get it, Sam!” He was the one who, when we spent summers in South Carolina, either at the beach or at my uncle’s lake house, would step outside after dinner, holding a plate piled high with unfinished food, and throw it to the seabirds, who soon got used to coming by for scraps at twilight. “Sam!” he would say to the gulls. “Come and get it, Sam!”
When I went away to college, he went nuts. I was beyond his purview. Although only an hour and half away on the north shore of Long Island, I was out in the world, and he didn’t know how to deal with it. Whether he’d articulated it to himself this way or not, he’d always seen me as his property, and I’d stolen myself away from him.
So it was that virtually every day for the first few weeks of my freshman year, he’d phone me and just start screaming, right off the bat — totally insane. I told my friends about it, but they were skeptical. Then one day I was hanging around in my dorm room with five or six of them when the phone rang. It was my father — screaming. I held the receiver out for them all to hear. I can still recall the stunned looks on their faces.
As an undergraduate, I took every pre-med course, still supposedly prepared to follow his path. But I also majored in English. I knew that at some point I’d have to take him on. I’d have been happy, in fact, to become a chemist or physicist — I’d always enjoyed and done well in those subjects. In high school, I’d worked in the chem lab, and my chemistry teacher had encouraged me to become a chemist. One might’ve expected that such a choice would’ve been close enough to an M.D. to satisfy him. Nope: for him, it was medicine or nothing. So during my second undergraduate year, without telling him, I simply stopped attending my organic chemistry and biology courses. I didn’t take the tests, either. So I got an F in one course, a D in the other. With such grades, I knew, I’d never get into any medical school. Thus did I engineer my escape. Cowardly, perhaps, but effective.
I went on to graduate school, earned a Ph.D. in English, then returned home for a while and began a freelance writing career. By now, my mother and sister were mostly living in California, so my father and I were alone together in the house, except when he, too, was in California, often for months at a time. During my years away, I’d acquired a sense of myself — a sense of self-respect, of being my own person. But once I was back in the house with him, it all dissolved instantly. “I’ve really lost my sense of identity,” I recorded in my diary. I found work at a literary magazine, the Hudson Review, and late one Sunday night before starting my second week on the job, I was setting out clothes for the morning when my father walked into my room. I recorded our exchange in my diary immediately thereafter:
“Aren’t you even going to wear a jacket to work?”
“Yes, I wore one on Friday.”
(Sarcastically.) “I thought you said they didn’t wear jackets there.”
“Well, are you going to let yourself be dictated to by what they do?”
“No, of course not.”
“Then why don’t you wear a jacket to work tomorrow?”
“I am. I have one hanging up here, all ready to wear.”
(Screaming.) “You think I care?” (Slams door.)
At the same time that I started that job, I began contributing monthly to another magazine, The New Criterion, which had been founded a year earlier. When Daddy first looked at a copy of it, with its erudite reviews of modern dance and symphony concerts and art shows, he threw a fit, screaming about how pretentious it all was.
Once, around this time, I interrupted his yelling to ask, simply and calmly, “Why can’t you ever treat me with any respect?” As he took the question in, he looked as if his eyes would pop out in rage. I’d known that my question would have that effect, because I knew that respect, to him, always went one way. A child respected his parent; the parent, in turn, respected his boss. To ask for respect, in his mind, was to suggest you were higher up the ladder than he was. In his view, in short, it was all a matter of hierarchy.
“Who the hell are you, that you deserve respect from me?” he screamed.
I replied, softly: “Even a little baby deserves respect.”
That silenced him, as I’d known it would. A look came into his eyes that I’d never seen before.
A few months after I met the man who would be my first partner, we moved in together, renting an apartment in Manhattan. I kept the relationship secret from my father, who, fortunately, was in California when I moved out of the house. When I phoned him in Los Angeles and told him the news, the usual screaming ensued. Yet he soon welcomed my partner into the family. A few years later, my partner began manifesting symptoms of a psychiatric ailment that would end up dragging him — and our relationship — steadily downhill. One night at about three a.m., I walked into the bedroom of our apartment to see my partner lying naked on the floor, supine, spouting gibberish.
What to do? For me, the next move was obvious: I phoned my father. He was there in 15 minutes. As soon as he showed up, my partner snapped into a semblance of sanity. My father, who’d dealt with more than his share of psychiatric cases, talked to him patiently and professionally, and managed at the same time to give me solace.
However much he yelled, I always knew that, as long as he lived, and no matter what I did, he’d always be there for me.
Two years later — it was 1998, and I was 41 years old — I’d been through hell, spent some time alone, gradually recovered, and found a new partner. Daddy could see that we loved each other, and he was wonderfully supportive. Sometimes he’d show up, out of the blue, with a trunk full of groceries that he’d bought for us at a supermarket in Queens, because food was cheaper there than in Manhattan. My partner still remembers a time when Daddy phoned to tell us that the movie Casper was on TV — he thought it was sweet, and he thought we’d enjoy it too.
But our stay in New York was destined to be temporary. My partner was from Norway and couldn’t overstay his visa. We made plans to move to Europe together, and over the course of several weeks Daddy took the late-night drive into Manhattan multiple times to fill his car with stuff we wanted to store in the house in Queens where I’d grown up. On the day before our flight, we handed over our apartment keys to the broker and took a taxi to that house, where we’d arranged to spend our last night in America.
Later that day, our movers came and started lugging the hundreds of boxes of our remaining possessions — mostly books — up the driveway and into the back door of the house, where my father had agreed to let me store them in the basement. While they were doing this, my father started making an insane scene right there in the driveway. I don’t even remember the pretext. What I do know is that he was terribly anxious about my moving so far away, to a place he’d never been and where he couldn’t jump in his car and come help me if I needed him. Also, he was 78 years old, and he doubtless feared that he might never see me again. He was right.
That night, my partner nodded off quickly. I couldn’t sleep. Eventually I gave up and went downstairs and sat in the kitchen. Soon there was a familiar footfall on the steps. My father hadn’t been able to sleep, either. Sitting down beside me, he quietly asked what was wrong. I confessed my insecurities about the move.
“What was I thinking about?” I said. “I’m not the kind of person who does this sort of thing.”
My father had fought my move every step of the way, but now he changed his tune. “You can do anything,” he said. “I’m in awe of what you’ve done with your life and your career, with no help from anybody. And especially what you’ve managed to do in the last couple of years, given all that you’ve had to cope with. And most of all I’m in awe of the way you’ve planned this whole move, and carried it out, with such quiet efficiency and determination. You’ve no reason at all to doubt yourself.”
He asked if I was hungry. I said no. He got up and made fried eggs, toast, and coffee for the both of us. I ate every bite.
And so I moved to Europe. Every week or so he sent me a long letter, invariably offering words of encouragement. Two months after the move, he wrote, “Your strength has really impressed me…. I really believe that your talent and these wells of strength, this resilience, is part of God’s interest in you, that you are precious to Him.” (He’d never been the kind of person who talked about God.) Later, he wrote, “I’m so proud of you.” In times of trouble, he advised in another letter, “remember the multitudes you’ve reached and touched with your work…. You’re a marvel, my son, my son.” Why was that repetition of the words “my son” so heartbreaking?
It had been a long haul. Every step I’d taken out of his shadow had caused me massive emotional exhaustion and irrational guilt. I’d felt like a rocket trying to escape his gravitational pull. But every time I’d pushed back against his efforts to control me, it had made me stronger — and had made him respect me more.
And then, a year and a half after my move, came the fire. In my old bedroom, the room in which he had died, two walls were covered by shelves, every book burned black. On a low table next to the bed were the charred remains of nine or 10 books — the books I’d written. He’d kept them right at hand, in a neat row, beside the place where he slept.