Conversations I Can’t Talk About

In the spring of 2007, my father and I are discussing something important when the guy in the car behind us at the green light raps his horn. In the passenger seat, my father, a polite man of eighty years does not flinch, just glances in the rearview mirror and says, ‟Hold your horses, buddy. Life is short.” I want to say something to my father, but when I look again, he is gone.

Of course he is. He had been dead by then for about six months.

I did not have any telephone conversations with my father in the fall of 2006, between the time I last visited him in the hospital, 2,700 miles from my home, and the time he died there seven weeks later. I told myself it would be better not to call. Since I could not visit in person, I did not want to confuse him on the telephone with my voice. If my voice meant nothing to him, he might get upset—or more likely, I would. Or he might ask me to come. I did not want to have to remind him that I was, in fact, back at my own home in New Jersey and not still in Las Vegas, taking care of my mother in the house they had shared there for twenty-five years.

Take care of your mother, he had said. And the house, and the garden and the pool. It had been a shock to hear my father, for the first time in my life, ask a girl to do these things. He was half out of his head by then, I knew. I also knew I liked the sound of it, his asking, his asking me. He gestured with his good, unstroked right arm, pointing to his arthritic knees and atrophied hip, and said, ‟I can’t do any damned thing anymore. I’m a sad sack. You’ll have to take care of everything now.” I lied and said I would, that I would stay with Mommy, that I would make sure everything was all right. But I didn’t. I flew home a few days later.

The truth is, I did not call him because it was easier for me not to. It was easier if I remembered our last conversation at the hospital, the one where he reminded me to always tip generously and to lock my doors, as the last conversation, though it wasn’t.

The conversations, it turns out, go on.

*     *     *

During the winter directly following my father’s death, I work at my desk in my well-equipped home office while my sons are at school, the way I have for 17 years. Only now, nearly every day, I wear one of my father’s sweaters: a cable-stitched cotton V-neck in blue or gray, an itchy-scratchy wool crewneck in brown or black, or the one that is my favorite—a zip-front tan cashmere cardigan so warm it sometimes makes me groggy. Wearing his clothes is maudlin, I know, but it makes me happy, in a sad way. These days I’ll take happy any way.

My father was a slim man and a sharp dresser and I don’t recall him ever wearing baggy sweaters, but these fit me and I am a large woman: I am fat. Maybe he did not in fact wear them much, or at all, now that I think about it. Maybe they were gifts and too big to begin with. His armoire was always stacked with new-looking clothes. He had his favorites from years and decades past, and he tended to wear them over and over. These sweaters are not attractive on me, and when I walk past the hall mirror on the way to the bathroom, I startle myself.

And yet, before I start work each morning that winter, I reach for one of these sweaters. I remember a time when he was wearing one of them, the blue V-neck with the white stripe, when he was visiting us here, about two years before he died, and I was telling him that I had decided to change some things, to change my life.

‟I’m going back to school, Dad.” I was 44.

‟Good for you,” he’d said. ‟Hey, that’s going to cost a pretty penny.”

‟Not so bad,” I lied, and waited to see if he’d offer one of his low-interest loans, but by then the Alzheimer’s had taken a tenuous hold and he demanded, ‟Why? I think you went to college already. And you don’t need a new car. You drove that blue car back then. Remember?”

I remember.

*     *     *

In the mornings before I open my laptop with one hand, I find my other arm hugging my father’s sweater to my torso.

My father was not a hugger. He was not a satisfying hugger. He hugged me and my brother and my sister and my mother, but always with just one arm. We all gave up trying to puzzle out why. Sometimes I figured it was because he often had a lit cigarette in the other hand. Once, when she was in college and prone to spouting psychobabble, my sister speculated it was a passive-aggressive gesture—that he didn’t want to be lashed to us, that he was too smart and worldly and needed a wider life. My mother, who quit school in the eighth grade, just shrugged and said, ‟He’s hugged that way since we were both sixteen.”

My father’s half-hearted hugging did not stop him from being my protector, though the truth is, I rarely found myself in need of his protection. I was a wiseass, know-it-all child, a fourteen-going-on-twenty sort of teenager who, for a few years, treated her father badly, mocking and alienating him with her petulant attitude and snotty rejoinders.

I find myself apologizing to him for this in a conversation we have in those first few months after his death, when he appeared next to my desk while I was shredding another draft of a too-predictable story.

‟Forget it kiddo,” he said quietly, cuffing my shoulder. I could almost feel it through the soft thickness of his sweater.

*     *     *

For the first six months after he died, I have trouble thinking in the past tense. No, that isn’t it exactly. I have trouble thinking about the entire year that has just passed—illness, resignation, all of it. It’s during this time that I notice my arm getting tingly, or falling asleep whenever I am writing in longhand. One day I make a mental note to ask my father if that is how his arthritis started; I curse. I circle an item in The New Yorker about a new book I think my father might like. I even scribble in the margin, ‟Birthday for D—” and before even lifting my pen, I feel idiotic. On the Internet I see a report of a merger of two multi-national corporations and wonder if my father, the uber biznews consumer, has heard about it yet. Then a wash of stupidity and anger sluices over me. He’s dead, you silly girl.

When he was alive, my father and I butted our stubborn heads, yelled across holiday dinner tables, and looked at one another as if the other were not only wrong but also stupid.

When he was alive, my father and I butted our stubborn heads, yelled across holiday dinner tables, and looked at one another as if the other were not only wrong but also stupid. If you ask me today what sorts of important issues we saw differently, I could not think of one thing. I know that this is sentimental of me, and maybe smacks of revisionist history. I know that I am protecting myself as well as the dead we should always speak well of. I can’t help it. He’s here, and here, and something about his being gone keeps him present all of that winter.

*     *     *

My two sons called their grandfather PopPop, and for the six weeks each year when my parents stayed at our house, my boys followed him like ducklings. I have pictures of them, at ages two and six, crawling on top of my father like lapdogs, just after he’d awoken on the sleeper couch in our family room; and at six and ten, sprawled on the bed alongside him; and at eight and twelve, sitting on the floor at night beside the bed’s grey metal framework. Those pictures tell me I did not just imagine it: my sons loved their PopPop. This is important to me, that my father meant something to the generation of men in our family who will come of age at a time when no grandfathers are likely to be around.

As soon as I get back to New Jersey after my father’s wake, I think about my father-in-law, who lives nearby and is eighty-seven. He has a Pacemaker that acts up. He has high blood pressure, an enlarged prostate and congestive heart failure. He and my mother-in-law, who is eighty-nine, live two miles away and they both still work, still drive, and together they put in twenty-seven tomato plants that June. My husband and his father are best friends. My husband does not understand how precious and unusual this is, or maybe he does, but he does not understand what awaits, does not want to think about it, and he never wants to talk about it. That’s fine except I remind him (don’t I have to?) that he and his father have things they should discuss: jointly owned property, a business partnership, how the old man feels about life support. My husband waves me off. He thinks there will be time to talk about all of that. Let’s not and say we did.

For months after my own father’s death, I ashamedly nurse a seething, petty anger and when my husband says anything about my father—like how my father could never understand the rules of any board game (which he couldn’t)—I think, Shut up. My father is dead and yours is alive. This is a terrible thing to want to say to the husband you still love after twenty-one years of marriage, even if you know you will never say it out loud, though I do say, ‟You have no idea what it’s like to lose a parent.”

*     *     *

My father’s 84-year-old brother Nunzio gets married for the second time less than two months after my father dies. Some people used to mistake Nunzio for my father, whose name was Anthony, but everyone called him Tony. I couldn’t see it then. Tony was tall, elegant; he had 1940s movie-star looks and a 1920s gentility. He was polite, well-spoken, well-read. Nunzio was shifty, shorter. And he swore. Yet as they aged, my father’s humped back made him appear shorter, and they both had heads of grey hair. Widowed at eighty, Nunzio called his brother every week, sometimes every day. My father sent him money, folds of cash in plain white envelopes. When the invitation comes for the wedding, I see it at as a healing opportunity. Weddings and funerals and all that.

But sitting in the church, I cannot look up to the altar, and I can hardly look away. It seems as if my father is standing there, marrying a stooped woman with red hair. Later, at the reception, I have a hard time hugging my uncle with both arms. I have always liked this uncle, but I look away when he clutches my freezing hands and tries to tell me how much he misses my father and how he wishes his brother could be there. A nasty loop starts in my head: So if you loved him so much, why didn’t you fly out there to see him, one last time? All that money he gave you, and you couldn’t buy a damned airline ticket? I dismiss my uncle’s health issues, his claim that his doctor had warned him not to fly. I dismiss him. Why are you still here?

I came to the wedding because I thought Nunzio was the closest I could get to my father. For a time, I said that I would give anything to have my father back. Then I stopped saying it, because really, would I? It’s a ridiculous notion, a stupid expression. We wouldn’t give anything; we would only give something.

The next time I see my father, one night at about 2 a.m. as a hot flash pulls me awake and I go to the bathroom to fling off my sweaty nightgown, he doesn’t want to talk about Nunzio, or weddings, or anything much.

‟Feeling okay, Dad?” I ask.

‟Very funny, kiddo,” he laughs.

*     *     *

My father was part of the last generation for whom it was possible to be a self-made man. With a tenth-grade education, he started businesses and employed dozens. He earned a million dollars, sent three kids to private colleges. He read his entire life, and he passed on to me this great love of words and books when I was so young I can’t even remember.

I knew he wrote too because occasionally he’d show us one of his short stories. In my teenage intellectual superiority, I dismissed them all as so much pap: the underdog naturally prevailed, justice and order was always restored, the dejected doubter always in the end engaged joyfully with life.

None of his writing was ever published; his life dream, forever deferred, was to be a doctor, not a writer. But he was a son of Italian immigrants who needed his wage-earning hustle, not his cerebral muscle, to help feed seven siblings.

None of his writing was ever published; his life dream, forever deferred, was to be a doctor, not a writer. But he was a son of Italian immigrants who needed his wage-earning hustle, not his cerebral muscle, to help feed seven siblings. And so he ran a gritty junkyard with his father in the 1940s and 1950s. He built polyester factories in the 1960s and opened a recycling center in the 1970s. He retired early in 1981 at age fifty-five, to read three newspapers a day on the patio inside the cement walls of his Las Vegas backyard, to lose badly at craps and then quit gambling.

I thought he had stopped writing years before, but after he died, I found dozens of stories in his slanted printing. Some were on the stationery of hotels in cities he traveled to on business. These and more of his writings were in a brittle-paged scrapbook on the highest shelf of the closet in his den in the sprawling custom-designed house he and my mother had built on sand and a polyester fortune.

There were awful, lovesick poems dating back to meeting my mother in 1942; nimble, light verse about each of us kids; and sing-song Valentine’s Day dribble. But there, too, were artful prose poems about fatherhood and time, and a few sophisticated short stories about searchers and sinners with equivocal endings. Two imaginative lyrical essays made me shudder and say ‟shit” through my tears, as every cruel thing I had ever said to him came back to me, along with every encouraging, exaggerated piece of praise he had ever heaped upon even my worst high school newspaper drivel.

‟Dad, how come you never showed me any of this?” I asked him once in a post-mortem meeting on my living room couch. ‟I never knew you were a real writer,” I said and immediately regretted the tone, my indecorous literary guise. He simply smiled.

Eight months after he dies, when one of my essays is published in the New York Times, my father sits on my patio, newspaper folded back just so, a glass of lemonade at hand. But when I try to talk to him about it, he waves me away. “I’m reading.”

*     *     *

For that entire winter, my dead father and I have long, fatty conversations, devoid of the angling and defensiveness that once drove my mother crazy when he was alive. There isn’t time for all that. I never know when these unplanned, haphazard meetups will end. I know, it reads like a Lifetime TV movie script—grief-stricken daughter talks to her dead father. But that is all right, that is allowed, even for smart, supposedly sophisticated daughters who agreed philosophically that cremation was sensible, but then sobbed like a sick sow when her father’s eyeglasses were accidentally incinerated along with the body.

I want to know why, in his big house with a large den of his own, why did he keep his easel, pastels, and paper—everything he asked for as retirement gifts—in the closet?

“Why didn’t you go back to art, Daddy?”

He doesn’t answer, just wrinkles his lined forehead and holds up his arthritic hands. My stupidity astounds me. I ask about the gifts still in boxes, lined up in rows along two deep closet shelves, given to him by me, by my sister and brother, over decades of birthdays, Christmases and Father’s Days.

“Dad, why didn’t you ever take them out of boxes and use them? Didn’t you like any of it?” I ask.

‟Oh, I appreciated all of it honey. But there was so much stuff.”

‟But you must have used some of them once in a while because I used to check, every summer when I came to visit. And the last five years or so, there was less, and things were moved around,” I say.

‟Oh, I was giving things away. The Mexican gardeners, they have nothing.”

*     *     *

Sometimes I can’t think of any questions. But he has questions for me, questions he might have asked in life, and which I would have heard then as criticism, as judgment.

‟What are you going to do about your lack of retirement savings?” my father wants to know. I tell my husband that my father asked me this in a dream, and suddenly it is something the two of us can talk about without my screaming that he’s a lousy provider or his yelling that I’m too controlling. I tell my husband I saw my father in a dream because who knows, maybe it was a dream—and anyway, if I said that my father and I were talking on Tuesday afternoon while I was waiting for the kids in the carpool line, well, that might sound absurd and then we’d have to talk about how I’m coping instead of about the retirement account.

When my father was alive, most of our conversations were limited to phone pleasantries, truncated by, ‟I’ll get your mother.” This made sense, didn’t it? Weren’t my mother and I more alike? Now I see it clearly: it was my father I took after. I was the child who must have reminded him most of himself. The one who, during his lifetime, acted as if we couldn’t possibly have anything in common.

*     *     *

My friend Dee, who believes death is not an end, tells me that my father’s visits make sense. ‟You have unfinished business. Pay attention,” she says.

So I pay attention, but sometimes I can’t tease out what unfinished business we could be completing when we sit silently on the patio together watching my sons shoot baskets in the driveway. Or when we gesture at the TV and huff about ‟damned politicians” while watching CNN. But I pay attention. Maybe that’s the point. Maybe, I decide one day, the point, the message from my father who refuses to reside in any part of my consciousness that holds dead people, if there is any message at all, is this: pay attention. Period.

And I do. When my sons come in from school, I hug them tighter, and I notice how much darker the hairs lining my older son’s upper lip have gotten, and I register that I can rest my head on the top of my younger son’s head and that when he hugs me, tight, both of his arms clasp neatly behind my back.

*     *     *

For all his engagement with the world, my father wore an enigmatic separateness. My father enjoyed his colleagues—but rarely invited them home. He took care of his aging parents—but made it clear they would never live with us. He loved my mother, my sister, my brother, and me—but kept us at one arm’s length.

Deeply compassionate but always a little detached and world-weary, my father supported with pure, pragmatic gestures. He said, ‟I’ll take care of it,” and wrote checks and rented apartments for struggling relatives, underwrote school fundraisers and mayoral campaigns, cosigned loans and dispatched hired hands, called in favors for jobs or theater tickets.

‟I gave my word,” my father explained once when I questioned him, twenty-five years ago, why he was paying my cousin’s college tuition. Yes, I wanted to say, but you gave that word ten years ago, when his mother couldn’t pay her phone bill, and now they live on the beach. But since my own tuition at Syracuse University was paid in advance every semester, and the account holding my horse’s monthly board and horse show fees was always full, I couldn’t think of a reasonable way to argue. He said he had once promised that he would put his nephew through college and now he was doing it. Period. This boy was a favorite cousin of mine when we were kids, but when my father died, he did not take the morning off from the medical center he directs to come to the wake or the funeral, or to the repast lunch, and he did not call or even send a card.

My father and I discuss this one dreary winter day. ‟He didn’t come, can you imagine?” Of course, I must script his answer, but not out of nothing.

‟He’s busy,” my father says.

‟But after all you did for him!”

‟Forget it, kiddo. There’s no time for that.”

*     *     *

I am not naïve. I know that once dead, a parent’s memory gets to slough off the legitimate, grating flaws that once accompanied its corporeal form. My father was a frustratingly rigid man who did not think it impolite once to ask a new boyfriend of mine how much he earned and to tell him it wasn’t enough. He thought he knew everything and when he didn’t, he made up something that sounded plausible and let everyone believe it was true. If what you were saying did not interest him, he would click on the TV or walk out of the room. His college-dropout son could do no wrong, and his two high-achieving daughters, for all their accomplishments, were still just girls.

Once, years ago, when he called me in New Jersey to be sure my husband could pick him and my mother up at the airport when the red-eye landed, I said I would be there instead. My father rattled off alternatives—a car service, taxi, Uncle Nunzio. Finally, I yelled into the phone, ‟Dad, believe it or not, I can pick you up at the airport even though I don’t have a penis.”

He must have blushed, deeply. I knew his chivalric nerve would sustain damage, which is why I aimed for it. I was in my thirties, old enough to know better, young enough to still want to land that arrow deep enough to be noticed, not so deep to draw blood.

*     *     *

Over time, our conversations grow more one-sided, for the most part, unless I am dreaming. But that seems okay, right even. Neither of us is exactly who we were when he died, or even who we were in the hospital a few months before that, talking at cross-purposes about loans and tipping and who could or should take care of what. We are not even anymore, today, who we were the last time we talked, or maybe I should say the last time I imagined we talked. I have to remember this, that this father I talk to who is dead is also someone other than the one who would not let me drive his car when I visited. He is someone other than the person who once insisted that antibiotics could cure a virus, even after I showed him the truth on WebMD.

I know that, for reasons I don’t completely understand yet and maybe never will, I’ve constructed this father to fill in for the one I could not talk to before. Was it Emily Dickenson who said, ‟Absence is presence compressed?”

I know that this is not even the same father who, decades ago, handed me lit sparklers on the Fourth of July and stayed close by with a pitcher of water, or the one whose trusted hands held me in the hashing ocean of Miami Beach when I was scared that a riptide or a jelly fish, or my brother, would hurt me.

This father lives not in the real world, and likely never did, but in my imagination, dwelling in the interstitial byways between memory and hope, standing beneath the connecting gambrels of grief and gratitude. This father is gone, never was, and he is sitting right next to me.

Lisa RomeoLisa Romeo teaches at Rutgers University and The Writers Circle. Her nonfiction has appeared in the New York Times; O, The Oprah Magazine; literary journals and collections. She holds an MFA from the Stonecoast Program. Lisa lives in New Jersey with her husband and sons, and she blogs at http://LisaRomeo.blogspot.com.