We are on our way to a party – my wife, my daughter, my mother, me and the babysitter, who is going to take my daughter home after an hour or so at the party. My daughter likes parties. She’s two. This one is at the National Arts Club on Gramercy Park. My wife lived nearby when we met. After our second date she took me, with her key, to the park to sit on a bench in the dark. Another life. Except that both then and now it was May, the air newly soft.
I have taken an unusual route. A gamble. There is traffic. This is a party for which I am a host and I don’t want to be late. I’m wearing a jacket and tie. The tie is, I am pretty sure, an old tie of my father’s. I do everything I can to suppress the anxiety and free-floating exasperation that come with being stuck in traffic on the way to a party. Then the traffic lets up. We arrive and, like magic, find a parking space right on the park. We get out of the car, all of us dressed up, and I start to hurry to the party with my daughter in my arms.
“How do I look?” I say to her. I am trying to be lighthearted and chatty, but it sounds needy. A father shouldn’t be needy of a two-year-old. I don’t know at what age you can start being needy of your own child, or showing it. Not two.
“Concerned,” she says.
“I do?” I say and laugh, amazed. “Really? Wow! Where did you learn that word?” I take a few more steps with her bobbing on my hip. “And how are you?”
“Confused!” she said, and now it’s her turn to laugh.
We live part of the year in New Orleans, where our front yard is adorned by a small but productive rosebush. My daughter, a toddler with rosy cheeks, always marches straight over to it and reaches for the petals.
The flowers found on a rosebush are so different from the coy, coiled, secretive stems in flower stores. On the bush the rose opens and expands and then expands farther, effusive and fragrant. Like a baby’s emotions, it holds nothing back.
My daughter moves to it with her customary urgency and reaches for the lush flowers, and I stand above her, bent over, like a house enclosing her, and tell her to be gentle with the beautiful flower. I love these kinds of moments, when I am an unseen structure to my daughter. Of course, I love it when I fill her eyes. But then there are moments like this when I am not the subject of her gaze but provide, somehow, the context.
Her fingers move from the petals to the thorns. I tell her to be careful of the sharp thorns. I can see her breathing and contemplating these opposing forces as she stands before the rosebush, sorting out the ecology of beauty and danger.
In the process of selling a story or essay for publication in a magazine or book, contracts are drawn up that touch on matters beyond what sum of money will be paid. The fine print of these contracts involves rights, such as TV and film rights. These rights are often negotiated in advance, so before there is a single word on a blank page, there is haggling over who owns the rights to make a movie about whatever ends up on that page.
My daughter is not a blank page. Quite the opposite. I have found that various tidbits, phrases, remarks she has made find their way into my writing. If I am selling movie rights to something that includes tidbits by or about my daughter, what exactly does that mean?
And why should I even mention the fine print in an essay about my two-year-old daughter? Maybe because there is fine print in that relationship, too, written in invisible ink that, over time, becomes visible: The fine print that delineates what is mine from what is hers, that separates her from me. I hear the primal need for this distinction every time I hear her say the word “Mine!” It’s so rude, so naked in its aggression, so total and totalitarian. In her current contractual arrangements with the world this word is applied to just about every toy in the sandbox, every piece of food on every plate.
Who gets to tell the story? Who is allowed to? Who is obliged to? Who wishes not to but cannot help themselves? Who wishes to but cannot bring themselves to do it? Who is lost and spinning around, looking to the heavens, asking, “What is the story I should be telling?” A question for which there is no answer, unless maybe a two-year-old blurts it out.
My father resides, or perhaps I should say is buried, atop a gorgeously landscaped hill in Westchester in the company of many other gravestones. Some of them have recognizable names like Guggenheim and Gershwin. My mother and I visit his grave once a year, in spring. There are dogwoods and azalea bushes, flora of incredible variety and delicacy, huge looming oak and pine and a perfectly manicured lawn. I like to joke, on our annual visit on the anniversary of my father’s death, that this is the most prestigious address with which I am affiliated.
Ever since he died, or ever since he started dying in a visible way, which was around three or four months before he actually did die of cancer, just when I was about to turn ten, there has been this tension in me between plain, unadorned feelings of sadness and fear, on one hand, and wanting to make jokes. In the dark, sad months leading up to his death, when he was alive, but shaky, I was willfully buoyant and jokey with him, as though cancer was a mood I could cheer him out of.
It’s no joke to be perched on the side of a very steep hill, at the age of nine, watching your mother crouched down beside an open hole in the ground into which everyone has just thrown a flower. A kind of halo of grief surrounds her and shimmers above her in the unseasonable heat, and your father’s best friend bends down on one knee and holds her shoulder patiently, patting it and holding it. In hindsight I see this gesture of Arnie’s as both consoling and, perhaps, given the odd kind of crouch my mom is in, and her grief, a precaution against her falling into the grave.
There was a dogwood tree planted next to my father’s grave but it died a few years after he did, and an azalea bush, which still lives. My mother always asks the people who maintain the cemetery – who keep it manicured and in a state of gorgeous-ness – not to trim this bush. She wants it wild. Every year we arrive and, halfway up that hill from the road, she looks up, catching her breath, and says, “They trimmed the azalea.” She is both disappointed and also faintly amused. It’s become part of the ritual of our attendance.
We are always laden with picnic supplies. My mother is a champion picnicker. She brings a basket, a blanket, strawberries and cherries and grapes and peaches, cold cuts from Zabar’s, baguettes, bread, mustard, orange juice, water, chocolate and many white flowers. This last visit my mother looked up halfway up the hill and said, “Oh, look at that.”
The azalea bush had not been trimmed. It sat there resplendently bushy and unkempt, crowding the simple granite stone with my father’s name on it – Alexander Beller – and beneath it the austere, familiar numbers 1922-1975.
Why, having started off thinking about my daughter, am I going on about my father’s grave? I’m not talking about my father, his pensive humor, the feeling of his arm dangling around my shoulders, pulling me close, his blue socks tipped with gold thread pointed upward during one of his mysterious naps, but rather referring to a piece of ground where, if you think about it literally, which sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t, there is a box within which is a badly decomposed body. Why should I be thinking about that?
In becoming parents, we meet our parents again. In some way, we meet them for the first time. And if you didn’t really know one of your parents that well, then the dialog that springs up – What were you like when I was the kid? Oh, here is what it’s like to stand in the place you once stood! – becomes not so much a reunion on different terms, but a whole new acquaintance.
This last visit to the cemetery – a few days before the party at the National Arts Club – was unusual. It was just my mother and I walking up the hill, which is how it always had been for decades, until I started bringing my wife. When I first brought her along, I couldn’t suppress the feeling that this was a slightly macabre version of introducing your spouse to your parent and vice versa. Part of the mythology of my marriage is that my mother and I are the chaotic disorganized ones, and my wife and my father are more organized and like things being in place. She was meeting her ally.
And then we had a baby. Did we bring our tiny infant to the top of that hill? Yes. The following year, when she was a year and a few months, we brought her, too, and I posed her balanced on top of the headstone and made her hand trace the name carved into the granite.
But this year, the year of the bushy azalea, we had a live wire on our hands, a person who spoke and remembered and asked questions. A person who could see, hear, talk, think. What to tell her about why we were taking her to the top of a steep hill to have a picnic next to a stone with a name and numbers on it? Was I in such a rush to introduce my daughter to the concept, and the fact, that fathers die?
For the first time I saw how being religious could be helpful in raising a kid. We could roll out the heaven concept, say he was up there somewhere, looking down and eat sandwiches while she frolicked and we – my wife in particular – worried that she would tumble down the steep hill, perhaps smacking into one of the new mausoleums at the bottom. But we are not religious – though it is a Jewish cemetery, which brings up all kinds of thorny questions about my wife and daughter. Can they be buried there? No? An outrage! But then do I want to be making plans for this argument now? When there are so many arguments to have in the meantime? – and so this option was not available.
Should we bring my daughter to have this lovely picnic, to see the lovely view? Should I bring my little inquisitive girl to my father’s grave?
Whatever benefits there would be from the nice picnic could not compete with the negative possibilities of opening up in my daughter the cavern of horror and dread associated with death. But death is too easy a way of putting it. Beyond the concept was the physical fact that my father was under the ground beneath that stone. Down there unable to see or breathe. Dead. But then the physical fact wasn’t it, either, as I contemplated it further. She is consciously aware that her mother has two parents and her father only one, but now she will have met, or located, the other one. The person in the ground was the father of me, who is the father of her. And if my father could be dead and underground in the dark with no air to breathe and no one to talk to, then her father could also be there. Which was not a thought I wanted to rush into existence for her. Even if it had rushed into existence for me.
Up on the hill in the year of the bushy bush I had drifted into one of those meandering ruminations that I allow myself in the company of my mother. When my father was diagnosed with cancer, he was told he could live anywhere from two to twenty-five years.
“If he lived a few more years, it would have been so different,” I said.
“Yes, very different,” said my mother.
“But you know, even two more years, I would have been twelve. It’s not like it would have all been nice and good. He would have had the money I wanted for things. He would have been the one to say no to things. He would have been my problem!”
“And your strength,” said my mom.
The last time I saw him, I was about to turn ten and he was in a hospital room. I had been summoned by my mother to the hospital and I went with a terrible sadness. Not because my father was in the hospital but because I was going to miss a boxing match. What I remember from this moment was the night ride in the taxi, the sight of my father lying, asleep or unconscious, in bed, his friend Ray Raskin standing on the other side of the bed. Ray was a figure of comedy and lightness for me. All through my youth he always gave me a piece of gum whenever I saw him. I called him my “Gum Uncle.” He was mostly bald and what little hair he had was always a bit unkempt. He wore bifocals that hung low on his nose, and he peered down through them to look at my father gravely, but when he looked across the bed at me, his eyes looked over the rims, and his eyebrows rose, and he scrunched up his mouth as though to acknowledge that this situation was not too hot, but it was still somehow within the realm of the good humor that always accompanied my Gum Uncle. At the funeral I still recall the sound of Ray breaking into sobs in the silence of the chapel, or whatever it was, and this signaling to me that the situation was indeed serious.
I had done everything in my power to keep it from being serious in those last months. I had kept an almost manically light tone, jumping around and calling my father “Pops,” when I had previously only called him “Papa.” My mother had bought him an electric razor, an act of optimism or denial, depending on how you look at it. Though if your husband is dying of cancer, is there really a difference? I took it out to the hall to plug it in and try to use it.
One other memory from that night – an image pertaining to the boxing match. It was a promo image from the network, featuring Muhammad Ali. I wasn’t a huge boxing fan or Ali fan, but I absorbed the sense of drama surrounding Ali and was swept up in it. I wanted to see the fight. And now I could not, and it was torture to tear myself away from my neighbor’s TV just an hour or so before it began. Looking into it now, I see that Ali had a fight on May 16, 1975, and that must have been the night in question, because my father died early in the morning of May 18.
It was Ali against Jerry Quarry. Ali, needless to say, won. I spent the weekend with family friends on Fire Island. When I returned, my mother, ashen faced, came to their door and summoned me to our apartment, where I did not want to go. We were watching the Mets. Rusty Staub was at the plate. I insisted on staying to see what happened. He struck out. Then my mother and I sat together in the kitchen and she told me the news. “Oh, but I prayed!” I said and banged my fist on the table.
Recently, while playing with my daughter, I had the most striking sensation while she looked at me, laughing. She was on the bed and I was above her and she was stalling for time before I put her diaper on, and I was doing something to make her laugh, I forget what. At some point she started demanding that I “make a house.” She wanted to go “in Daddy’s house,” which meant I was to arrange myself on my hands and knees with my arms on either side of her. If she was standing, I was to bend at the waist and make a kind of A-frame above her, an exaggerated version of what I had done while she stared at the rose bush.
After I made the house, she would scamper out from under me and say, “Close the door!” Then she demanded, “Open the door!” and she went back in.
Somehow in the midst of this she kicked me in the nose. I retaliated by shoving my nose into her chest and ribs. I am always roughhousing with her, throwing her around. She was laughing uproariously. I sat up.
Her eyes flashed as she was looking up at me and laughing. There is something in a child’s laughter that opens you up to the universe in its totality, shooting you into its mysterious depths. Sometimes you can go along for the ride. And sometimes you can’t. And sometimes you think you are on that ride up and into the unbridled laughter and then, at a certain altitude, consciousness returns, and it’s like a dream – how did I get all the way up here? And what is all this I see!
A spear of pain moved through me, which was also kind of delicious. She needs me, I thought. Obvious, simple, it goes without saying, but this was an understanding that bypassed the intellectual, even the emotional. It was a flash of perception that I felt in my chest, and it encompassed a fantasy of my absence. What my absence would do to her, how it would hurt her. How the absence hurts even more than the departure, as my father’s absence had hurt me.
Looking down at her looking at me looking at her. The spear in my chest said, “She would be hurt! That laughter would be hurt!” The laughter, and the person, would evolve and reappear but it would be different, its shape changed, her shape changed, as mine had been. And then I imagined, or felt, my father grappling with that same thought, though not of the hypothetical variety, but rather the cold facts of the blood test, the cancer, the absurd and arbitrary spectrum of two to twenty-five years to live. It turns out he had eight.
In parenthood you meet your parents all over again. I saw myself at two, laughing and looking up at my own laughing father. And I saw myself at two through the eyes of my father, at forty-two, having already begun rounds of chemo and radiation, keeping it a secret from his colleagues, his friends, his son.
In that moment I had a recognition of what my father must have been going through as he enjoyed playing and laughing with me, and how I must surely have seen this, seen something, picked up on something, however subliminally or unconsciously. That something now registered somewhere in my eyes as they looked at my daughter laughing at me, looking up at me, picking up the faint echo.
My daughter has invented a new game in the elevator of my mother’s building, where I grew up. The building has become somewhat fancy but it’s more or less the same. I used to get into the elevator and turn to say goodbye to my mom, who would stand on the landing, and then the door would close and I would descend. Every now and then, when I was a kid, I would shout, “Bye!” really loud and my mother would say “Bye!” which would come down to me very faintly. I remembered this when my daughter found herself in my arms, in the same descending elevator, having just watched the door close on my mother. Her face lit up with mischievous delight and she yelled, “Nana!”
And I heard my mother’s voice call out her name.
“Nana!” she yelled again. And again the voice came to us, fainter now.
She yelled out “Nana” at every floor on the way down. Long after we stopped hearing the response, she was still yelling the name. When we got to the lobby, just before the door opened, she yelled her name one more time. This is always the moment she squirms free from me and bolts out into the lobby and then the street, screaming “Hello!” to whoever is there. Now she turned to me pensively.
“I don’t think she can hear us anymore,” she said.
She redeems everything. Just running toward me, she redeems everything, snaps my attention to where it ought to be, to life, its pleasures, the immediacy of the moment. Divine comedy tumbles effortlessly from her. One day recently, while eating a cookie after dinner, she looked at me and brought the half-eaten cookie to her brow.
“Daddy,” she said matter of factly. “There’s a cookie stuck to my eyebrow.”
I pulled her hand away, and with it the cookie.
“I fixed it,” I said.
She looked at the cookie for a moment, then brought it to her nose. “Daddy,” she said. “There’s a cookie stuck to my nose.”
Recently, in the playground, she watched a very fit guy do acrobatics on a tetherball pole, holding himself out perpendicular to the pole, his body very straight.
“Daddy, you do that!” she said.
I broke it to her, as gently as I could, that I could not do that.
“You’re a big guy,” she said. “You can do it!”
Her sense of faith was sweet, but it was the encouragement that really struck me like a blow. Because somewhere down deep I often wonder – I am sure every father does if they are honest – whether I can really do it. Be a father. Make a house. Keep that which needs to be separate, separate, and that which needs to be together, together. And part of that will mean saying no to her, fighting with her, this willful force of nature. I will have to be her problem in order to be her strength.
Excerpted from “The Rights” by Thomas Beller, from the anthology What I Would Tell Her: 28 Devoted Dads on Bringing Up, Holding On To and Letting Go of Their Daughters, edited by Andrea N. Richesin. Copyright (c) Thomas Beller, used by arrangement with Mary Evans Inc. All rights reserved.