Tongues Shall Utter Peace. . . .”
by Martin McKinsey
Five years ago, with uncharacteristic
bravado, my father took full retirement from the successful law firm of
which he was a founding partner. Maybe he was bored with the divorces,
wills, and child-custody battles that made up his family law practice.
Or maybe he was just tired. He looked it. The previous year or so he’d
been losing weight. His skin, deeply scored with wrinkles, had taken on
a faintly yellow cast, like parchment.
Retirement opened up new vistas
to him. “Why should I go on living in boring old Long Beach,” he confided
to me, though in recent years my California hometown (once known as “Iowa-by-the-sea”)
had been noticeably enlivened by an influx of such diverse groups as Asian
refugees and gays. By some accounts, it had even spawned its own school
of beatnik poetry.
But my father was thinking of
changing more than just cities. “Why not Mexico?” he said. He had always
enjoyed vacationing there with my mother in the old days. A favorable exchange
rate would enable him to stretch his pension. “Or Greece.” He had been
there too, once, and liked it. Greece also happened to be a major preoccupation
of mine. I had lived there for a couple of years, and spent much of my
spare time translating modern Greek poetry into English. So it was natural
for him to suggest that I go with him as a guide and help him get established,
in a location suited to his purposes. What those purposes were, aside from
a change of scenery, wasn’t entirely clear to me, but I responded with
enthusiasm, if also with private misgivings. My relationship with my father,
while closer than it had once been, was not without complications.
One drizzly December evening ten years
before, after teaching my class at a language school in Athens, I called
home from a phone booth to wish my parents Merry Christmas. “Tom and I,”
my mother informed me soon after answering, “have separated, and we plan
to get a divorce.” It wasn’t exactly a bolt from the blue. My parents had
split up once before, for a year or so, while I was away at college––a
strangely fuzzy memory from a time when I was keeping the family at arm’s
length, without allowing it to become a full-blown rift. It had been my
first experience, during brief trips out between terms, of the dislocations
of “broken homes,” of shuttling back and forth between hastily furnished
Now it was different. “Divorce,”
my mother said. It had a ring of finality. I wondered if it might be a
cultural phenomenon, the result of a decade of encounter groups and women’s
rights. How many of their friends had separated and divorced in the course
of those ten or twelve years? My parents seemed among the few old-time
I was all for their first separation.
I hadn’t been a big believer in marriage at the time, and certainly not
in theirs. Its complacencies rankled. But I was five years older now, warier
if not wiser. They, too, were older, well into middle age. Maybe it wasn’t
such a good idea. Was she positive, I asked, that they weren’t doing it
for the wrong reasons––because it was “the thing to do”? No, my mother
assured me, they had thought it through and decided it was the only way.
She and my father were still good friends, of course, but they had come
to realize they were not compatible, or in love. I jotted down their new
addresses and hung up. But I felt confused. Something about it didn’t make
Nine months later, I visited California
before settling back in Boston. My mother picked me up at the terminal
and took me to her place, where she said I would be staying. This irritated
me. After all, my father’s condo was bigger; more importantly, it came
with such luxuries as a swimming pool and jacuzzi. I thought she was being
petty and possessive. After I had unloaded my things in the guest room
and grabbed a beer from the fridge, I asked what was going on.
“Martin, I’m afraid there’s something
I have to tell you.” She retreated into her bathroom to take out her contacts.
From her tone, I knew it was important. But what could it be? If my father
was living with another woman, so what? I was grown-up, I could take it.
As she re-entered the room, another possibility flitted through my mind.
And fantastic as it seemed, I knew instantly it was true.
“Martin,” my mother said, “your
father and I are getting divorced because he’s gay.” Or maybe it was simply,
“Dad is gay.” Either way, it had the ring of a much rehearsed line.
It’s not often things take you
so completely by surprise. My father, gay? For as long as I could remember,
he had flirted with women; I’d even say he had a way with them. Female
clients were in the habit of falling in love with him, including one we
called Moon Bunny after the purple and green stuffed animal she gave him
as a gift. Somehow I assumed he’d had affairs. Otherwise, he’d been an
ordinary father: not always there for us, distracted by his job, but also
capable of bringing real humor and warmth to the dinner table. He cheerfully
executed his fatherly obligations. We played catch in the front yard, flew
my gas airplane at the park. Every year or so, he’d take me to Dodger Stadium
or to Riverside Raceway. If, left to his own devices, he preferred to spend
his Sundays listening to opera, I took this as a sign of intelligence.
Friction developed later on, when I hit my teens, but this too seemed in
the normal course of things.
The first words out of my mouth
were probably, “Oh my God...” Then, as we sat and talked, as my mom told
me the secret history of my family––how she had found out, years before;
how they had tried to cope, partly for the family’s sake, but also because
they really did care for each other; how the strain had finally been too
great––I felt sadness more than anything. I could only think how hard the
last fifteen years must have been for them––what it must have meant for
her as a woman, what it meant for him (he felt “just awful,” she said).
Mixed with these thoughts must have been an awareness, edged with grief,
of what it would mean for me.
Late one night, sitting at the
kitchen table after the kids were in bed, he told her he had met someone,
a law clerk at the courts. A man. He wanted to go away with him for the
weekend, to a place in Palm Springs. He wanted to see what it was like.
Perhaps he thought she wouldn’t
object. After all, it wasn’t another woman. But she panicked: screamed,
pummeled him with her fists. (As she was telling me, fifteen years later,
I wondered which of the faintly overheard outbursts––a rarity in my family––it
had been.) Seeing herself as an abandoned mother of three, she told him
Soon after this, they both entered
analysis: it was what people did. Their analysts held out hope that it
was a passing aberration, a fluke of middle age. My mother was heartened;
before long, she began to see it as a hurdle they had encountered and overcome.
Their marriage, she sensed, was back on track.
Over the next few years, my father
drank more heavily. Then he began to disappear at odd moments, and not
answer the phone when he was supposed to be working late. Still, my mother
was afraid of rocking the boat, of losing him completely. Afraid for him,
too––afraid he’d pick up “the wrong person” (back then, this meant an undercover
cop). She’d seen stories in the paper. She knew what it would mean for
his career, his self-esteem.
“Jesus is my head fucked up,”
he told her one time. He put on weight; his hair was turning white.
(A photograph: My father and I
together at Riverside Raceway. I look about thirteen––my hair’s still short.
Next to me, my father’s hair is even more close-cropped, a “buzz-cut.”
His arm is propped around my shoulders. In his sky blue short-sleeves and
white slacks, he looks ungainly, bloated. He’s wearing dark glasses.)
Even now, after the final split,
they hadn’t been planning to tell us. Then my younger sister Kate, the
one in L.A., grew suspicious. She had phoned his new place a few times
and a stranger, a man, had answered. She asked around. She called up an
old boyfriend of hers, a professional ball player turned accountant who
used to sail with my father. My sister put him on the spot: Did he know
anything? After a silence, he said that my father had once made a pass
at him. Incredulous, Kate phoned my mother, who reluctantly confirmed it.
He was a homosexual. That’s why they were divorcing, yes. No, she still
didn’t think they would tell the other two kids. Dad didn’t want to. He
was ashamed, she said, terrified of rejection.
My sister persisted. Either they
tell my older sister in Colorado, and me on my return from Greece, or she
would. After phone calls back and forth, my parents caved in.
At first, anyway, the news drew
us all together. My older sister Lauren took it hardest, but even she rallied
temporarily to my father’s side. We all wanted to reassure him and my mother
of our continued love and support. Moreover, we kids shared a stunned need
to revamp our mental images of the past. The new facts would have it no
He and I faced each other, mutually
embarrassed, over a platter of appetizers.
He had always been a handsome
man. His hair was now completely white, but it went well with the tan.
His crinkled skin gave him a weathered look (this was the height of his
sailing days). He was sixty years old.
The Francois Manhattan was a staple
of my childhood. A glorified steakhouse with a French twist, of which my
parents had once owned a part (“Which part?” we had demanded as kids, “the
silverware? The tablecloths?”), it was a throwback to an earlier, more
It was deserted at lunchtime,
almost too quiet.
My father had never been much
good at heart-to-hearts. He found it hard to talk about feelings, as my
mother had pointed out more than once. I wasn’t much for confidences either,
especially not with my parents. With a shrug, we launched into unknown
“Don’t let anyone tell you any
different,” he was saying. “It’s a sickness, not a lifestyle.” Waiters
slowly folded napkins in the background. “I have my dear old mother to
thank,” he went on. He laughed nervously after each sentence.
This didn’t seem the moment to
argue the point. I tried to let him know that as far as I was concerned,
he was okay. I told him how many artists and writers I admired who were
gay––the Greek composer Hadjidakis, for instance, who once said, “The best
Greek song-writers are either Communists or homosexuals. And you know I’m
not a Communist.”
Did he plan to come out of the
closet, I asked. “Too much hassle,” he said. I told him I was glad he had
come out with us kids, at least. Now we would have a chance to get to know
him and mother as people, not the stage parents they’d been.
He was still uncomfortable when
we hugged in the parking lot, but seemed relieved. The dreaded moment had
come and gone.
It was only back in Massachusetts
that I began the long process of unsnarling my own tangle of feelings:
betrayal, disinheritance, self-doubt, plus an evanescent sense of jubilation,
as if I’d been declared winner by default of our ongoing Oedipal wars.
“Fascinating,” said a friend when
I described my family situation. As it happened, he knew someone in my
father’s shoes: gay, divorced, a nine-year-old son. The father was debating
whether to tell the youngster. What was my opinion?
Of course he should, I responded
promptly. Just think of all the years of pointless misunderstanding my
father, both my parents, would have been spared if we had been told outright,
instead of perceiving the truth in roundabout and unconscious ways. I had
gone for years having as little to do with him as possible. I found it
hard to be in the same room with him; he grated on my nerves. Adolescence
had something to do with it. So did the times. A high-school hippie, I
considered him a phony, a buffoon, and let him know it. He only made matters
worse when he tried to get hip himself––smoking pot, wearing paisley ties
and flared pants; styling his hair. More than once my mother came to me
in tears: “Be nice to your father,” she pleaded. “He tries so hard.”
None of this prevented me from
spending his money––on concert tickets, drugs. When the time came for college,
I used it to propel myself to the other side of the country––as far as
possible from this picture-book family that perhaps I sensed was not everything
The process of seeing my father anew
continued at other lunches over the next few years. I suspect he dreaded
them at first. Then I think he came to accept them as part of the ritual
of fatherhood, like our outings, years before, to the ball game or the
races. Certainly he must have preferred these low-key encounters to his
fierce tête-à-têtes with my older sister, who was in
the throes of psychoanalysis.
Between visits to California,
there was the telephone. I called my father on birthdays and holidays,
and occasionally in between. Talk didn’t always come easy. Kate, my sister
in L.A., quoted him as saying that there were times, caught up in the gay
bar scene, when it was hard to relate to being the father of three. Sometimes
when I called, his words sounded slurred. My mother attributed his drinking
to “unresolved conflicts.”
At the time of the original truth-letting,
my father was living with a young computer programmer named Keith. I remember
Keith as a sweet-tempered man in his thirties, eager to get along with
the family. He and my dad lasted just over a year. Then it was back to
the bars. On my more or less annual visits, my father would introduce me
to his latest friend. I never knew if it was someone he had been with for
a period of time or had just met the night before. A few years later, Tony
moved in and stayed.
Tony was a Kansas boy who’d joined
the Navy to see the world, and wound up working at the Seal Beach weapons
depot. He’d wanted to learn a technical skill and was stuck with bookkeeping.
He had the slow, leery drawl of the border South, the protective bigotry
of a country boy in the city. He could be charming one moment, withdrawn
and peevish the next. He was younger than I was.
Throughout, my father wanted to
maintain a sense of family. Christmas dinner was usually held at his place,
my mother and Tony collaborating in the kitchen. One year, when my two
sisters and I were going to be in town together, my dad paid someone to
stencil the sliding glass doors out onto the balcony. When we arrived,
our names, surrounded by fist-sized snowflakes and ringing bells, hovered
against the palm trees on the skyline. That New Year’s, he took Lauren
dancing at his favorite bar.
He never did “come out.” At the
office, he would mention a lady-friend in L.A. But it wasn’t much of a
secret––the town wasn’t big enough for that. At night, he would go out
to The Silver Fox, or The Mineshaft. After the divorce, friends asked my
mother if Tom was gay; they’d seen him “down on Broadway.” Or he would
go to dinner with his lover and their friends and bump into business associates,
people from his “straight” past. He tried not to let it worry him.
(A memory: walking with my family
in the old amusement park downtown, since demolished. My father points
after a group of young men in tight pants and striped T-shirts. “Look,
kids,” he says. “Homosexuals.”)
Over time, our relationship lapsed
back into one of respectful cordiality. The phone calls grew scarcer, our
conversations more formulaic. So I was surprised that day five years ago
when he phoned (something he rarely did) to suggest the retirement trip
to Greece. After all, he had never shown much interest in my involvement
with the country and its literature, my experiences living in Athens. At
first, my guard was up––something to do with protecting turf. But I also
recognized it for what it was: a slightly awkward gesture at friendship,
an attempt to bridge the distance that remained between us. True, I had
a hard time visualizing the day-to-day reality of it: how we would pass
the time, what we would talk about. Still, it would mean a chance, yet
again, to redefine our relationship. As his guide, I would be the responsible
one, the one in charge of arrangements. He would be dependent on me. I
told myself it had something to do with maturity.
Our plans were on track. We would
fly to Greece in April, well ahead of the summer tourist glut. My father
was looking forward to the adventure. He just had to get over this case
of bronchitis, he told me on the phone between coughs.
He’d brought a chest cold back
from Mexico. His two-month stay in the central highlands hadn’t been all
he’d hoped for. It was the coldest winter on record, he’d rarely strayed
from the electric space-heater. And the prices were steeper than he’d expected––the
town was flooded with expatriates like himself. As if that weren’t enough,
his lover Tony had been prone to fist-fights (“the last time I take him
anywhere”). Greece, my dad was convinced, would be different.
His bronchitis worried me. After
all, he was a lifelong smoker. He had started out at the age of nine, lighting
up corn husks in the fields. Despite his best efforts, he’d never managed
to quit. I feared emphysema, or worse. But a couple of X-rays turned up
nothing, so I tried to treat it as lightly as he did.
A few days after I returned to
Boston from a low-key honeymoon in New York, and a month before the scheduled
departure for Greece, the phone rang. It was my mother. Her voice sounded
flat, almost detached. “Martin,” she told me, “I have some bad news. Your
father . . .” (where had I heard this before?) “. . . is in the hospital.
He has AIDS.” It took a minute to sink in. His condition was stable, she
went on, but who knew what that meant? She wanted me to fly out to see
him while he was still himself. I put down the phone and managed to gasp
out the news to Karen, before burying my face in her shoulder.
The next day, I tried phoning
him at the hospital but must have dialed wrong. “Lesions,” an official
He was a skeleton: bones papered with
skin. I could see the ribs, the joints, the gristle. The grin of the jaw.
It was like a science-fiction movie, where somebody ages thousands of years
in a matter of seconds.
Outside, it was spring. The California
air was warm, laced with the perfume of orchid trees and star jasmine.
After the damp, lingering cold of New England, it was hard to resist. There
were moments when I had to remind myself why I was there.
His hospital room, a single, was
cramped and airless. On my second day, I visited wearing shorts and a T-shirt.
“I see you’re taking advantage of our weather,” he said.
His spirits were at rock-bottom.
He couldn’t bring himself to eat. When he did, he usually threw it up.
Meanwhile, he’d been given suppositories for his constipation. As he climbed
gingerly out of bed, he looked like Gandhi after a fast, only his face
was gray, almost green. Hurrying past me, bent double, into the bathroom,
he glanced away. A few minutes later, he came out. “It’s hardly worth the
trouble,” he said with a snort of desperation.
He had been healthy all his life––his
way of getting back at a hypochondriac mother. He didn’t know how to be
sick, and had an exaggerated fear of doctors and injections. At one point,
before AIDS was diagnosed, his doctor told him another pneumoscopy would
have to be performed. This entailed sliding a wire down the brachia and
into the lungs while the fully conscious patient hacked and gagged. “I’ll
take an overdose first,” he told my mother, and he meant it. With the diagnosis,
the second pneumoscopy became unnecessary. Still, he kept the bottle of
pills. “Some lives,” he confided, “aren’t worth living.”
“I can’t complain,” he said another
time. “Here I am pushing seventy. I’ve had my fun. It’s these young guys
that make it so tragic. I’d probably be dead in a few years anyway.” Given
how he drank and smoked, it was hard to disagree.
He had lived a full if not altogether
happy life. Up to a point, it had been the life of his generation: the
Great Depression, the War, college on the G.I. bill; a career, wife, three
kids, a tract house in the freshly-built suburbs. After a childhood like
his, it was something he needed.
Later there was the other life,
the shadow life, that gradually overtook the first. Or did he see the life
he shared with us as the unreal, shadow life? “I too was a family man,”
a poet I admire once wrote. “It was a phase I had to go through.”
His nurses were amiable and efficient.
They were also taking no chances. They wore disposable plastic gloves when
they entered his room, even if it was only to turn on a light or switch
off the intercom. Hanging on the wall outside his door, and outside several
other doors on the ward, were large notices on canary-yellow paper: HAZARD:
One day when I visited, he was
in the corridor taking a few tentative steps, I.V. in tow. He was wearing
a blue hospital smock and slippers. As we stood talking, he greeted a doctor
he knew, a social acquaintance from the old days. I saw the man flinch,
all but recoil. He told my dad he’d heard he was sick; I guessed he knew
with what. I don’t think his reaction was out of fear or revulsion, so
much as a professional reflex, a resistance to pity. Still, it was painful
to see him lean away like that from this shrunken, brittle man, my father,
who not all that long ago, I couldn’t help thinking, would have been the
doctor’s equal over martinis or a game of tennis. I pictured him telling
his wife, over a big dinner, “Guess who I saw on the AIDS ward today .
. . .”
As his physical condition improved,
so did his spirits. He joked with the nurses, remarked wryly on the six-pound
box of chocolates Tony had bought him (“with my money”). A visit by a social
worker who counseled AIDS patients left him more upbeat about living with
One afternoon shortly before I
left, I pushed his wheelchair through the sharp April sunlight, past the
diamond glitter of a fountain. An airplane buzzed overhead. It was his
first time out of doors. I wheeled him to a hospital annex, where an AIDS
support group was being held. An hour later, when I came to fetch him,
the meeting was still going on. I sat in his wheelchair in the hallway,
trying not to listen.
“. . .kicked me out of the house, said
she never wanted to see me again. She hasn’t. . . .”
“I still can’t talk to my brother
about it. After a while, I got sick of the whole thing. . . .”
“I mean, I couldn’t hide it. I
tried. Pumping iron, Levi jackets, leather. I had to be tougher than the
“I just wanted to beat him up.
I could have killed him. . . .”
I couldn’t pick out my dad’s voice.
Then I heard him, saying good-bye––his son was waiting outside. I recognized
the self-assurance I’d always envied. When he appeared at the door in his
bathrobe, he looked small, fragile.
He was lucky. His regular doctor had
been slow to diagnose pneumocystis pneumonia, and it had nearly cost my
dad his life. But the attending physician at the hospital was personally
involved in AIDS research and up on the latest developments. Immediately,
he started my dad on pentamidine inhalation therapy, a new treatment for
preventing recurrence of the pneumonia. After leaving the hospital, he
went back for weekly inhalation sessions. The doctor also got him into
an AZT test program at UCLA. His strength gradually returned, his weight
crept up. After a couple of months, the future looked brighter.
I tried to keep in touch from Boston.
I learned what questions to ask: How’s your energy-level? What’s your weight?
How’s the red blood cell count, the T-cell count? Some of these became,
over time, questions not to ask.
His mood fluctuated with his health.
I called him on his birthday: “I wish I could spend it out there with you,”
I said a little mawkishly. “I’ll survive,” he snapped. I called him on
Fathers’ Day. “I’m sorry,” he told me, “I don’t recognize Fathers’ Day.”
On my trip out the following Christmas,
we had another one of our lunches. It was more deliberate, in greater earnest,
than its predecessors. I asked him to tell me about his life before he
and mom met, which had always been a muddle to me.
His father never acknowledged
him. He was born after the breakup and saw his mother’s ex only once, from
a distance. My grandmother had once described Mr. McKinsey as a violent
man (“He had a temper,” as they said back then). It was my uncle’s father,
Dixie, who took them for rides on his motorcycle. But Dixie shipped out
on a boat for Australia and was never heard from again. I knew my grandmother’s
third and final husband as a corpulent John Bircher with a weakness for
string ties and flag pins. A gruff Air Force careerist, he had held surprise
inspections of his stepsons’ footlockers, and fined away their allowance
for imaginary infractions. The family moved around a lot, too; by the time
my dad graduated, he had changed schools thirty-one times.
After high school he worked in
Los Angeles, and took night classes in stenography and typing. Then came
Pearl Harbor, and he enlisted. He ended up a Navy flight instructor. “It
was crazy,” he told me. “They had us taking off and landing four at a time.
I hated it.”
During the war, he married a woman
named June. “All my friends were doing it. . . . I felt left out.” It lasted
a couple of months. “We’d always fought like cats and dogs. We thought
marriage would change that.”
He was thirty, in law school,
when he married my mother.
One day, I went over to his condo
and sat with him through his morning routine of self-medication. He gave
me the tour: drawers and cabinets stocked with bottles, syringes, I.V.
bags. “Almost as bad as having a job,” he chortled grimly.
As with many AIDS patients at
that time (this was in the early nineties) his medication history was complicated.
He started out with what has become the standard treatment, AZT. At four-hour
intervals, around the clock, his watch beeped to remind him to take his
capsules. But he developed anemia, one of the drug’s numerous side-effects,
so the dose was reduced by half, then three-quarters. Once or twice, he
went off it altogether. Blood transfusions helped, but only for a while.
The fatigue had been the worst: not taking his daily walks on the beach,
barely making it up the stairs. Finally, he was bumped into another test
program, also at UCLA. This time, lower doses of AZT were administered
in combination with a new drug, alpha interferon.
Alpha interferon was self-injected.
I winced when I heard this, knowing my dad’s lifelong phobia about needles.
The hypodermic was small, but he still had to search to find a spot that
wasn’t already painfully tender. He showed me the scars and bruises between
his fingers and toes.
At some point, a problem had developed
with his vision. A blind spot, a sort of cloud, formed in his right eye.
It was diagnosed as CMV retinitis, another AIDS-related disease. The ganciclovir
he took to combat it meant going off of AZT altogether: the two drugs were
incompatible. It was a scary several months. His T-cell count dropped,
along with his weight. But there was one unexpected benefit.
To administer the ganciclovir,
a rubber tube was surgically inserted into his chest, which he kept taped
down under his shirt. Every morning before coffee, and every evening before
drinks and dinner, he had to go through a precise sterilization procedure.
He would then hook the tube to a hanging I.V. bag, and sit for an hour
while the drug dripped into his bloodstream. That’s how he took up reading
For years, my father had not had
the patience for books. I remembered him in the den, after work or between
chores on weekends, rustling the thin pages of Newsweek, The
L.A. Times. Sometimes he whistled to himself, like someone waiting
to see the dentist.
Now he had no choice: an hour
in the morning, and an hour at night, seated in one place. Maybe having
his eyesight threatened was part of it: it made him value his ability to
read all the more. And he read voraciously, as if making up for lost time,
or perhaps his loss of physical appetite. He quickly worked through the
scanty collection––old Christmas presents, mostly––in his one bookcase.
He became a regular at the public library. His tastes were broad: history
(antiquity, the civil war), novels (Thomas Pynchon to Tom Clancy), biographies
of public figures. My wife, herself a prodigious reader and hoarder of
books, sent him a steady stream. Brainstorm as best we could, we couldn’t
keep up with him.
What touched me most was his interest
in Greece––ancient Greece, primarily. He began by reading, or rereading,
the novels of Mary Renault, especially her Alexander cycle. Then there
was I.F. Stone’s book on Socrates, plus a few general histories. Then he
turned to the originals: Homer, Herodotus, the Greek tragedies. We even
discussed them over the phone, as if they were movies: what he liked, what
he didn’t like. I’d try to sense the direction of his interest, then suggest
new books. There was something gratifying in this for both of us, I think.
It made up in some small way for that trip to Greece we never took.
My last lunch with my father wasn’t
The previous spring I’d learned
that I had been given a grant that would let me spend the year in Greece
with my wife, working on one of my translation projects. We were delighted
at the news, but troubled. It meant leaving my father at a precarious time.
This had been on my mind when I applied, of course, but finally it had
seemed absurd to plan our life around a hypothetical death. My father was
That summer, before leaving for
Europe, my wife and I quit our jobs and drove cross-country visiting friends,
national parks, states we’d never seen. Then we spent a week in Long Beach.
Over the past year, my father’s
condition had been up and down. His T-cell count, a standard gauge of the
virus’s progress, had been discouragingly low since he went off AZT. My
sister Kate, who had always been closest to him, reported late-night telephone
calls. “Your old father’s dying,” he’d tell her in a maudlin slur. She
had a spooky sense of him falling apart. During my Christmas visit, he’d
smoked one cigarette after another. And he’d switched back to gin.
Then he entered yet another pilot
study, this time for ddI, an AZT-alternative with great promise. His condition
stabilized somewhat, which gave his spirits a boost. “Now as long as I
feel good,” he told me over the phone, meaning more or less healthy, “I’m
happy.” He continued to have trouble with his appetite––he went on shrinking,
shriveling––but it was still possible to feel optimistic about the future.
Our lunch that day was a side-event.
I had gone with him to the AIDS clinic out at the County Hospital, where
he made weekly trips for blood tests and checkups as part of the new study.
The clinic was a wide, U-shaped
corridor furnished with benches and old school desks. It was busy. Most
patients were alone, but some were with family, lovers, friends. Some were
in wheelchairs; a few simply lay on the benches along the wall––I wasn’t
sure how they’d gotten there. There were open sores, conspicuous tumors.
One young man lay with his eyes closed, muttering to himself. “See him?”
my dad whispered. “He used to be quite a character. Very nice, very funny.”
I knew the one thing my dad feared more than losing his sight was losing
The doctors, nurses, and aides
staffing the clinic were there by choice, and it showed. For all the reminders
of death, the atmosphere was abundantly warm and alive. There was plenty
of physical contact. My dad’s schedule had been jiggled around, so he hadn’t
visited during that shift in a while. Maybe they’d assumed he’d died, or
gone back into the hospital. They seemed delighted to see him. Two or three
took the time to sit down and chat, to joke and catch up on news. He seemed
proud to introduce me as his son.
Afterwards, we had lunch in the
hospital cafeteria across the way. As we undid our shrink-wrapped sandwiches,
I told him how impressed I’d been with the clinic. Then I told him how
impressed I was with him, with his ability to create a meaningful life
in the face of so much uncertainty. I said how brave I thought he’d been,
heroic even. I told him how much it meant to me that we’d gotten closer.
He said that if he died while
I was away, I shouldn’t feel obliged to come rushing back. “I won’t know
the difference,” he laughed. I said he was doing too well for me to worry
A few days later, he gave us a
lift to the airport. Outside the terminal, my wife snapped a picture: my
arm encircling his stooped shoulders, his deep-set eyes blinking into the
I should have guessed when I got the
message to call. Karen was at her Greek class, on the other side of Athens.
I was thinking about a movie, but at the last minute changed my mind. I
went down to use the phone at the newsstand across the street. It was night-time,
raining, the tail-end of October. There it would be early morning and sunny.
My mother answered. From the first
word, I knew.
“. . . He just felt he was going
down so fast. He was worried about his eyes . . . he’d gotten so weak.
So he decided. . . . He left you kids a short note. Would you like me to
read it? ‘Dear Lauren, Kate, and Martin: By the time you see this, I will
be happily gone. . . .’“
On my way out, the shopkeeper
looked up from his soccer bulletin, and froze when he saw my face.
A few days later, we flew back
for the funeral.
We all sat around my mother’s living
room, glum and exhausted. He must have realized, my mother was saying,
that there was no coming back. His eyes––all but peripheral vision in the
right eye gone, and the other one starting to go. There was also the tuberculosis,
the thrush, the undiagnosed intestinal pains. He weighed next to nothing.
He’d seemed agitated for a couple
of weeks, she said, then he was calm. Over lunch, he told her he’d made
up his mind. He wanted to do it on Sunday. He would follow the Hemlock
Society procedure: pills, then a plastic bag over his head.
She came over in the morning and
sat with him on the sofa. She told him how glad she was they had met, how
much fun she’d had. What a good father he’d been. Then she left.
Tony couldn’t handle much more
himself. He took their shi-tzu for a long walk in the oil fields. When
he came back, my father was dead.
Months later, I found out that
my sister Kate had talked to him on the phone that morning. I felt a twinge
of jealousy, regret. Knocked out by the ordeal of settling into Athens
amid general strikes and heat waves, I had forgotten his seventieth birthday.
I asked my sister to write me about their last conversation:
The chartered sailboat bumped against
the end of the dock. One by one we stepped aboard: Tony with the bouquets,
my mother, my older sister Lauren (Kate would be down the next day for
the service), my wife, myself, and the mortician. The mortician carried
a clear plastic bag filled with what looked like cement mix, only grainier.
I had sensed the week before that it was coming.
The night before I went to a party and drank some tequila (very unusual
for me) because I felt so anxious about it. I woke up Sunday a.m. and just
knew. I called Dad––the machine was on––and left a message. About 11:30,
Dad called. He told me right off that today was the day, how he planned
to do it. Mom and Tony were there with him to “get him started.” He told
me he felt very calm and peaceful and was looking forward to being gone.
He sounded very reconciled and at peace––and also very distant. He told
me he would miss me––that he loved me––he asked me to wish him luck––I
did––and said I hoped it was good “on the other side.” My heart was pounding
and I felt really scared. I told him I loved him and I held together because
I know he needed me to––and then we were off the phone. I put on Beethoven’s
Ninth and lay on the floor through it, crying.
I hadn’t seen Lauren in some years.
She had been the least forgiving of my family and its dysfunctions, especially
of my father’s unwillingness to confront “certain facts,” to admit his
role in her unhappiness. Her feelings toward the whole family were affected.
One by one, she cut herself adrift from us. I never knew what I did––or
if it was something I did. Like a blip on a radar screen, her presence
grew fainter and fainter, until it vanished altogether into the great unknown
of the Midwest. But she’d learned of my father’s sickness, and had mended
things with him somewhat before the end.
Even under the circumstances,
it was wonderful to see her now. She and my wife had never met, and they
seemed to hit it off. It looked promising.
It was a gorgeous November day:
bright, sunny, with a crisp breeze on the water. My mother made small talk
with the boat’s owner, Matthew, a lawyer like my father. “The deceased
liked to sail, too,” she told him. Terns hung on the wind, watching and
waiting. The breakwater safely behind us, Matthew cut the engine, and we
drifted. The mortician handed me the plastic bag. I was surprised by how
heavy it was.
We sat in a semicircle at the
prow, and I undid the twisty. Some of us said a few words. Tony was quiet,
red-eyed. We began taking handfuls of ash and dropping them over the side.
It felt gritty, clammy. I wasn’t sure my dad, a private man for all his
sociability, would have approved. He had been clear about one thing: we
were not to keep his ashes. At some point my sister’s emotions got the
better of her. Tears streaming down her face, she shoveled handful after
handful into the pockets of her windbreaker. (“I got greedy,” she said
The ashes sank quickly. Once,
when the boat turned into the wind, they blew over the deck. I pictured
Matthew hosing them off afterwards.
In the end, I just shook the bag
out over the side, and stuffed it in my pocket. Then we scattered what
was left of the bouquets and turned the boat. When I looked back, the flowers
When my wife and I flew back to Athens,
tucked away in a suitcase was a small plastic bag of ashes––the ones my
sister had pocketed on the ocean. I had convinced her, later that day,
to let me carry them with me and scatter them in the Aegean, in memory
of the trip he’d never taken. Fistful by fistful, she poured them back
into the bag.
They sat in a drawer in our Athens
apartment until the following summer. It was strange coming upon them while
rummaging for something else. In the ten months since he died, I’d barely
been able to spare my father a thought. Once or twice I took out the bag,
and eyed the ashes with the same uneasiness I had felt that day on the
sailboat. I’d heard somewhere they have to grind down the bones.
A week before I returned to the
States (my wife was already back), I borrowed a friend’s motorbike and
sleeping bag and grabbed a ferryboat for the islands. I picked Milos, one
of the southermost Cyclades, far from the pollution around Athens. I would
spend the night on the beach, and devote the whole next day to thinking
and writing about my father.
Mid-August is peak tourist season
on the islands. Milos was mobbed. But I staked out a spot on the sandy
bay south of the harbor and unloaded my things.
That night, I went to a noisy paniyiri
celebrating the Dormition of the Virgin, a major Orthodox holiday. I sat
on a ledge in the church courtyard and watched people mill. A fiddler and
mandolinist ran through their repertoire of island songs, while locals
danced in a cramped circle nearby: little girls and their grandfathers,
middle-aged brothers and sisters, a great-grandmother or two. People wandered
in and out of the church, where the Virgin’s ornate bier was on display,
lavishly decked with flowers.
I spent the next day on the beach
by myself. That evening, en route to the harbor to catch the last boat,
I stopped at a roadside chapel and lit a candle. It was a habit I’d picked
up from my wife, a lapsed Catholic who’d immediately taken to this Orthodox
custom. The small, simple church was dedicated to “St. Alexios, man of
God”––a local saint I’d never heard of. His large icon stood before the
sanctuary, its gold leaf gleaming in the light of the oil-candles. He wore
a rough animal skin and leaned on a staff, like another John the Baptist.
His free hand held a scroll. I went up close and deciphered its Byzantine
script: “Stammering tongues shall utter peace.”
Before leaving Greece, I sent my
sister Lauren a post card:
I’m still waiting for an answer.
the ashes from aboard the F/B Salamina on its overnight run from Milos
to Athens. Not much to it––my main concern was making sure not to hit people
farther back in the face. Given Dad’s doubts about the afterlife, it seemed
right to be doing it at night: all that blackness churning past. . . .
Back in Athens, the streets were wet. It’d rained––unheard of for August.
I headed into town at dawn. Over Mt. Pendelis, the clouds were starting
to break up. . . .
Copyright © 2000 by Martin McKinsey.
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