Fathers & Sons

My father could be a tender man: He loved to comb my thick black hair into a pompadour before I went to school. But my grades were a constant disappointment, and as punishment he gave me the “silent treatment.”

When our sweet, embraceable son, Theo, was born last fall, my wife and I received many practical presents. But it was the gag gift – a vintage 45 single of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” – that truly symbolized my long, eventful passage from a tumultuous adolescence to fatherhood at the age of 52.

I first saw Bruce on a summer’s night at Madison Square Garden in 1973. I was an overly sensitive 16-year-old with thick Coke-bottle glasses and a Buddha belly, desperate to crawl out of my own skin. Bruce let me become a character in one of his songs then: someone charming, like Chaplin’s tramp; street smart, like De Niro’s taxi driver; even a lover, like Valentino’s Romeo. Bruce’s searing soliloquies resonated for another reason: We both craved the love and validation that our fathers could not give us.

My father was a clinical psychologist who saw his patients in our home on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Like his father, a Russian émigré who had a grocery store, my father built his practice on the principles of old world hospitality. I would meet his patients at the front door and serve them snacks when I came home from elementary school. They would bring my father exotic personal gifts such as wooden owls and handmade angels to show their esteem. I could never seem to compete with them for his affection. Instead, I settled for working in his candy store.

Imagine a Dali dreamscape envisioned by M.C. Escher: Life was entertaining and utterly inscrutable. The patients were like my father’s bow ties; they came in every pattern and color. Naturally, I had my favorites. There was the parish priest whose romantic feelings for his secretary gave him heart palpitations, so he put himself under the care of a cardiologist; the Holocaust survivor who couldn’t stop his compulsive eating; the scion of a construction company who turned his back on the family business rather than tell his father that he was gay.

But this intimate involvement with my family’s business left me vulnerable, even terrified. Who was the patient knocking on my bedroom door, asking me for a fresh roll of toilet paper? And the patient who had threatened my father’s life – did he want to kill me, too? Was I supposed to know that he was delusional because he carried a silver flute in a shopping bag?

The terror was just as palpable whenever I answered the almighty telephone. The phone held a sacred place in my father’s practice. It rang with the force of a thunderclap, and there was always lightning on the line.

“Hello Leo, is your father in?”

I recognized the smoky voice of the woman who traveled all the way from Sheepshead Bay to see my father on Tuesdays and Saturdays.

“No, I’m sorry,” I said in the gentle, rhythmic way I had practiced with my father. “He’s out for the evening. May I take a message?”

“Tell your father that my son is on the roof, and he wants to jump.”

What could I possibly say? I was eight years old.

“Don’t worry, dear.” Now she was reassuring me. “He’s done this before.”

I hung up and recalled what my father had said about her at dinnertime. “She’s a very nice lady, you’re right,” he said, “but she also thinks that a stranger has the keys to her house, and is secretly changing her clothes, because she’s gained a lot of weight recently, and her clothes don’t fit her anymore. This is what we call a paranoid person.”

When my parents came home that night, my father promised to return her call in the morning. But my sister, who was five years old, had obliterated the phone number with innocent doodles of delicate flowers.

“Please God,” she whispered in her prayers that night, “take me instead.”

I had a vague understanding that my father was helping people; that something transformative was happening to them in his office. Something profound was also happening to me behind that forbidding mahogany door: My father was testing my IQ.
Enveloped by the gauzy haze of his pipe smoke, I struggled with each multiple-choice question. The sound of his antique stopwatch was unforgiving; every passing tick made me feel more inadequate.

My father could be a tender man: He loved to comb my thick black hair into a pompadour before I went to school. But my grades were a constant disappointment, and as punishment he gave me the “silent treatment.”

“I’m your father,” he said, “not your friend.”

My mother was a strong and independent woman who enjoyed her own career as a medical copywriter, yet she seemed powerless to protect me.

I found a way to protect myself: I started smoking marijuana in my bedroom. The pot was so pungent that some patients arrived early just to smoke with me.

“Why do you hate your father so much?” my mother asked. “Don’t you know he could lose his license? Sometimes he cries himself to sleep, wondering what he did wrong.”

Insanity is when you take poison and expect the other person to die. That’s what I did for almost 20 years, until I summoned the courage to lead a different life. My father and I remained old adversaries, like Ali and Frazier, but I stayed close to my mother. I’ll never forget the day she called to say, in her usual understated way, that she was depressed.

“I have cancer,” she said.

That night, as my father as I sat on either side of the woman we adored, he bluntly challenged me: “Wouldn’t you like to know who I really am?”

The emotional floodgates opened. I realized that my father had loved me as best he could; it just wasn’t the way I had wanted him to love me. Over Scrabble and coffee ice cream, we started a new life as father and son. I would cook my special shrimp Creole for him; I would take him backstage to meet my favorite musicians; I remembered to thank him for buying me the albums which ignited my passion for pop music – “Meet The Beatles” and “Whipped Cream & Other Delights” by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass.

But the true healing between us came when a tumor on his foot was misdiagnosed, and doctors amputated his leg below the knee. When the cancer metastasized to his brain, I cradled him on his deathbed like a mountain hugging a marshmallow.

“I’m not afraid of death,” he said, “but I’m terrified of dying.”

I wondered how I could make my father more comfortable. Gently, he gestured towards my wife. The blue eyes that once cut through me like high beams were twinkling now.

“Make her pregnant!”

A sweet tobacco smell lingered in his office after the funeral. I found a letter that made me realize how much I had missed.

“Dear Leo,” it began. “On any number of occasions I’ve told you that you were the best son a father could ever ask for. Then you began your turbulent adolescence. Nothing happens in a vacuum, so I will take a major share of responsibility. I now reach out my hand and heart to say I’m sorry. Perhaps we can pick up some of the pieces for a better tomorrow.”

Last year my wife and I fulfilled my father’s final wish. And as a brand new father, I saw Bruce Springsteen strutting across that same Madison Square Garden stage, galvanizing the rock-and-roll faithful once again. I still imagined myself as a character in one his songs.

After the concert, my wife and son were at the front door, waiting for me. A metaphorical door had opened as well. Thanks to lessons my father and I had to learn the hard way, I believe Theo and I, as father and son, will pass any test that life has waiting for us.


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