I am the oldest of five siblings, one sister and three brothers. My parents are divorced; my dad remarried over twenty-years ago. My mother has been with her hubbyish for seven-years. My brothers grew up with my father and my step-mother while my mother raised the goils.
We are the type of family that genuinely wants to listen and be there for each other. Content is secondary, especially if it hurts. Talking over each other and fighting for the punch line with the frequency of published images of celebutard antics wins.
We’re drowning in old school-why-change-therapy-is-for-pussies, coping mechanisms and superlative dysfunction, what family isn’t… right? Rampant misunderstandings, guilt, selective listening and denial are thematic aphrodisiacs that inform our communication and crisis management skills or lack thereof.
To love my family is as euphoric as it is catastrophic. As heart-crippling as it is heart-salvaging. And every morsel of it is nauseatingly addictive.
When I hit my thirties, I started seeing pieces of myself within each family member in a way I didn’t before. I saw each person objectively and understood how their histories and memories differed from my own. Imagine that? Some discussions connected new dots, and revised my interpretation of history and our family dynamics as I thought I understood them.
I became so intrigued by the complexities of how we love each other and how unconventional and non-linear it truly was. Each person was cast in a role based on somebody else’s perception, resulting in a skewed central plot that tirelessly called each person’s “character” into question. Still, I came back for more and wouldn’t dream of doing otherwise.
My dad is a funny, loud, boisterous, intelligent man who leads a full and rich life. When I call him, I don’t say hi. I never have. I say, “Daahd.” He responds with, “Dawwwt.” It’s a trivial little thing but I love the continuity of it. He says things like, “I’m going wherever the schmooze takes me.” And, “If you want good service, shmear em’ right.”
He affectionately nicknamed all of his five kids Dick, Prick, Putz, Schmuck and Asshole. He always calls in a schmoozey mood, except on one particular day when my dog had marathon diarrhea. I had the dog’s leash on my wrist, a phone in my hand and I was trying to catch his explosions in a bag before they smacked the grass or my shoes. It was all so eerily apropos. My dad said, “I’m at the newsstand grabbing the Times. I think I’m gonna treat myself to an afternoon cup of coffee. I can’t decide if I should have a cappuccino or a drip. I have to stop and pick up tampons for Kath and cleats for Nick. I’m having open heart surgery on Friday. Don’t worry. It’s no big deal—it’s just a triple bypass. Don’t bother coming. I’ll be fine, home by Monday. Ya know what; Putz can pick up his own fuckin’ cleats.”
Isn’t that a guilt-laden statement wrapped in a heart palpitating latke? His mother, my beloved grandmother Helen, committed suicide. The running joke for said suicide was that she was experiencing short-term memory loss. God forbid she get Alzheimer’s and forget to feel guilty for putting anyone out. Her suicide was a triumphant overdose precipitated by paralyzing depression and three previous failed attempts, facts easier to digest than the truth.
When my dad told me about his bypass, I thought he was kidding, and said, “ I’m denouncing Judaism for Breatharianism and joining the Tea Party. I’m also dating a lovely horticulturist named Hugh Jass.” He was supposed to laugh and say, “Fuuuuuck you.” Instead he said, “No big deal, just a little procedure. Tampons come in sizes? Oh, man, I’m fucked.”
That was Wednesday. I was stunned, shaken and went numb. It was the first time in my life I didn’t have time to fixate on whether I had heartapalooza, too. I just kept saying, “I’ll be there tomorrow,” over and over again, like the repetition was somehow going to change the feared outcome.
In a crisis, my sister doesn’t talk, she sings and gets cottonmouth. Me, I write eulogies and change outfits every five minutes. During our five hour drive to my dad’s house, I used her songs to inspire eulogies. She’d sing, “Grease is the word is the word that they heard. It’s got groove, it’s got meaning.” I’d eulogize. “Joel Schwartz was a groovy native of Brooklyn. Word on the street was, he was a fierce stickballer and felt up girls named Corrine.”
She rasped, “Corrine? Dad would never cop a feel on a Corrine. That’s the fourth outfit you’ve changed into. Pace yourself or you’re going to run out of clothes.”
Of course I had a comment, “Strap that water bottle to your tongue, bitch. You look like the Mount Saint Helen’s of addicts erupting from an overdose.”
When we got to my dad’s, five outfits and a dozen bottles of Fiji water later, we sat down at the kitchen table. My sister was humming through chafed lips. I sat, distraught for a new outfit, and a pad and pen to eulogize anyone or thing, with uncontrollably sweaty palms.
He took out the angiogram pics for the show and tell portion of “Oh My God, I Can’t Fucking Breathe, Please Let This Be A Nightmare That I Wake Up From”. My dad, looking healthy as ever, began with, “I should be dead. I have 3 arteries that are 80% clogged and one that’s 100% blocked. See! My heart is a time bomb waiting to blow. Tic-tock tic-tock.” As my dad continued to sell us on his triple bypass, calling it the “Rolls Royce” of surgeries, I kept thinking, if his heart is gonna blow at any minute, shouldn’t he be horizontal or in the hospital. My sister just stared at him, searing him into her memory, and humming “Edelweiss”.
The pictures weren’t descriptive enough on their own. They needed that terrorist aplomb-oomph to drive his point home. “Without this surgery, I have a 2% chance of survival. So, I gotta do it. No big deal.”
It was the deathiest of moments. The wind was sucked right out of my lungs. I was faced with the reality that my parents weren’t going to live forever. Until this moment in my life, my parents had enjoyed perfect health. I spiraled faster than tea baggers chop a civil right.
The night before his operation, in need of a distraction and having nothing left to change into, I Googled my first blowjob for no particular reason. I found his email address and emailed him the following:
How are you? I’m pretty good, no complaints, really. You probably don’t remember me. About 14-years ago, I gave you my first blowjob.
Anyway…Hope all is well,
I still berate myself for having sexual relations with a Barrington. Barrington?!?
At 4 AM we were caravanning to Good Samaritan Hospital. Nothing screams out of place quite like six loud Jews in a Catholic hospital. To prevent the off chance I might offend a Jesuit doctor, instead of wearing my “Moses Walks on Water” T-shirt, I decided to blend and wore my, “Jesus Loves Hollywood Hell House” T-shirt, a nice touch, I thought.
For six hours we waited. My three brothers. My sister, my stepmother and I; waited and waited. We gave new meaning to waiting:
Ben, I’m sleeping, leave me alone. Nick, let me play with your Game Boy. No cell phones, please. I wonder if Barrington emailed me back. Kerri, do I have another pair of shoes in the car? Shut up, that woman is crying. Come with me to the cafeteria to get water. What is the last name of the first guy who felt me up? I want to Google him. Fuck. How much longer? I don’t think I could date a prisoner. Mike, I was reading that first. My pants are crawling so far up my snatch. I can’t take a shit in public. Could that priest be any more “Dead Man Walking?” Why haven’t we heard anything? I’m executor of the will. Ben, that’s creepy and I’m older. Too bad dad’s not gay– he looks great with a shaved chest. Why didn’t you fully charge your iPod? Do you think the word breakfast means breaking the first fast of the day? You’re weird. You’re weirder. It’s been five hours. We should’ve heard something by now. Why did Bo Duke have such pervasive dick lips? Was it an actor’s choice? The creator’s choice or a network decision? Do you think Lana Turner has a giant pussy? Would it kill this hospital to have a fucking TV in the waiting room?
Eight hours later, fretted to the point of delirium, we were traipsing into the cardiac ICU, the irony of death wrapped in a riddle. Nurses were gorging themselves on Cheetos and cheese dip as they asked other nurses to cover for them while they ran out for a cigarette break. Meanwhile, before reaching my father’s room, we had to witness four post surgical studs embellished by cardiac battle wounds, each plugged into at least a dozen life preserving machines.
There was nowhere else I wanted to be then beside my dad before and after his surgery. I will never forget seeing him lying in a hospital bed under a soft grey blanket post surgery. The sound of tranquil, monotonous bubbles sucking the excess blood through the hoses in his chest sparked a feeling of hope and helplessness. He drifted in and out of consciousness, fighting the intabation tube, vigilantly being attended to by one of the nurses and surrounded by his family. Hearing the sound of the ubiquitous rhythmic ventilator was life affirming and terrifying. My thoughts fixated on “What if it stopped? What then?” I wasn’t emotionally prepared for a code red or code blue or whatever the fuck. Dozens of clear bags dangled from their silver nests and penetrated his veins, all filled with antibiotics, pain medication and nutrients, proof of life united with my anxiety that he wouldn’t survive. It was exquisitely nauseating in that this-isn’t-really-happening kind of way.
My brother, Ben, said Dad was living in twilight, the space between life and death. When he was awake, he was closest to death. When he was asleep he was closest to life.
I knew my dad was going to be fine when I called him two-weeks post surgery for my daily check in (after staying with him for almost a week, I checked in with him daily). He answered the phone when I called. I said, “Daahd” and he said, “Dawwt—I got a fuckin’ pulse, you can stop calling… schmuck.”.
One of my Dad’s concerns was having zipper scars on his legs and arms, and was relieved that he did not have them. He was also afraid of being treated like an invalid. Being a dominating, strong-willed person who needs to be in charge of himself, that was his biggest fear. He doesn’t submit to care gracefully; perhaps it invokes a fear of surrendering to someone else. I know for me it would, being self-reliant to the point of unhealthy obsession.
Our fear of losing my father won. We fell apart, completely. Over indulgence in drinking, eating, or whatever vice was at arm’s length, accessible enough to latch onto for a glimpse of solace.
My dad did more than survive his surgery. He went on to live as he always had, with gumption, passion and unrelenting zeal for his life. So, yeah, we put ourselves back together again because he put himself back together.
A year after his surgery, he called me and said, “Ya know, it just hit me that I had open heart surgery last year.” I wondered if that realization would be too overwhelming to cope with. It wasn’t. He was finally ready to digest the magnitude of what happened. Pre-surgery, my dad kept saying, “This is great. I’m pumped. I’m ready to go. Let’s get this done. Out in a week. Rolls Royce of surgeries. They’re treating me like a king. Best hospital in the world.”
After I got off the phone with my dad, it occurred to me, our familial vices, including denial is a blueprint for self-preservation. I digress, family—my family, is as heart-crippling as heart-salvaging.
As for Barrington, he had no recollection of me or my blowjob. However, he did email me back. He’s a cowboy now living off of his trust fund in Oklahoma. He became a crack addict. We still keep in touch. Sort of.
*Image courtesy of Etsy