I woke up thinking about how between mid-January and mid-February, it sure feels like the veil between life and death is thinner. No surprise then that many of the deaths of my loved ones happened during this time. Then it occurred to me that today — January 18 — is the 8th anniversary of my father’s death.
My dad — Hugh Melvyn Goldberg, but everyone called him Mel — was an impossibly difficult person to know, let alone be related to, so much so that I’m sure my siblings would say “impossibly difficult” is an understatement. We eventually understood that he had Asperger’s syndrome, a mishmash collection of behaviors on the functional edge of the autism spectrum. He couldn’t read social cues to save his life, and so, operating like someone blind-folded walking through new territory, he would easily crash into the metaphoric furniture and ill-placed people of life. No wonder that because of his general disposition, fierce intelligence and silver-quick mind, and crazy family dynamics and time/place (Brooklyn, 1939) he was born into, he became an expert in the strong offense.
A mostly successful businessman, he knew how to control situations, workplaces and, to whatever extent he could, people he was in charge of, and that’s where — as you might expect — his fathering went all to hell. It’s a messy story punctuated by physical abuse that was eventually funneled into verbal abuse, and one I’ve already filled journals over and therapy sessions with for decades.
It’s also a story of being his first child, the one born on his birthday, and as I grew up, sometimes dazzled by how smart, articulate, innovative, and daring he was when it came to making a living. He devoured books and harbored quiet ambitions to one day write a mystery. When I was very little, he would drive through the streets of Brooklyn, windows open on spring nights, and scream out, “Calling all dogs! Calling all cats!” to make me laugh. He also developed pastry-shop radar, particularly for the well-made eclair, and his beverage of choice was ice water.
When my father was diagnosed with late stage pancreatic cancer on 9/11/02, my first thought — always trying to look on the bright side of things — was “no new injuries.” Although we had become distant and polite over the years, both of us were a little wary of the other: me of him because of his explosive nature, and him of me because I made a life so different and far away. In fact, I thought I had crafted a sense of self, community and work that was the opposite of him.
When he went into a coma, he wasn’t supposed to live more than a day or two, but he held out for ten days. I wasn’t surprised. I would have flown to be with him immediately but having just had cancer-related surgery myself, my doctor grounded me until she said, “Go!” and I did. Turns out that despite all else about his life, my life, how we did and didn’t relate, he waited for me. My siblings already largely there along with other family, Dad didn’t finally let go until 15 minutes after I walked in the door. At the moment he died, I had my hand on his right knee, feeling the pulse until there wasn’t one.
Being my father’s daughter was impossible at times, yet my father, along with my mother, were the ones who gave me life. The way my father died was a different kind of birthday for me: knowing that despite all, he would wait for me to be beside him when he died turned out to be the great spiritual gift of my life. In that moment, I realized how much he loved me, and the tightly-wound knot in me started to unfurl. He left me with the gift of being able to pretty much completely forgive him, forgive myself, and embrace being his daughter despite and because of who we are beneath whatever we thought.
Pictures: Dad, on right, with his older brother sometime in the 1940s in Brooklyn; Dad making the blessing on the challah at our wedding (and behind me, Arden Booth, who also shared our Dec. 4th birthday); Dad with Forest.