It’s been months since my last entry here and a lot has happened in that time. I finished my novel, for one thing. But the other thing is that my dad died.
He took a fall back in July and broke his hip, which is what precipitated his eventual demise. But the truth is that he actually recovered enough to be discharged from the hospital. I think it’s only when he realized that he was going to be forced to use a bedpan going forward that he decided that he’d had enough. I’m pretty sure that’s what I would have been thinking, at any rate. Up until then, despite suffering from dementia, he was still finding enough pleasure in living to keep him going.
This past Sunday, we had a memorial celebration of his life, and what follows are the words that I chose to honor him with:
It’s obviously impossible to convey the richness and fullness of the man I called my father in a few sentences, or paragraphs or even pages. All I know is that I was lucky to have a father like him for as long as I did, which, since he was almost 96, was a fair stretch of time, even if it wasn’t enough. I also have to say that these last few years, when his dementia made it difficult for us to have the kind of meaningful dialogue that we’d always had, were tough for me. I really missed our conversations. I’d always counted on his feedback, his pushback, his opinions about everything. He still lit up whenever he saw me. He still had the same sweetness he’d always had. His essence was there, and I was grateful to still be able to get him to laugh. But I missed the back and forth, being able to deep dive into things and analyze and discuss them.
Now that he’s gone, I miss that even more, but I’m also noticing the absence of his smile, that great and contagious laugh. I admit that I sometimes poked fun at him just to hear that laugh, because he was almost always able to laugh at himself, at his foibles. In fact, in the hospital during the last week of his life, I was trying to explain something to him, and he said, “You know, Pete, I used to be a lot smarter than people understood, and now I’m a lot dumber than they know.”
The other quality Dad kept until the very end was his underlying optimism. I don’t mean that in a Pollyanna way. Far from it. Before complex conversations became too challenging for him to process, we could sometimes get pretty gloomy talking about things both trivial and large, from the state of the Mets to the state of the world, but Dad was an eternal optimist in the sense that his spirit was unsinkable. He liked living, and he liked to express his opinion both about life’s bounty and life’s dreck, often with a thumbs-up or thumbs-down (long before Siskel and Ebert, by the way). Even at the end, as long as there was a lobster roll or piece of good chocolate to be consumed and appreciated, then whatever else might be wrong didn’t matter.
Dad had a phrase that he often uttered, “La vie est dure,” which literally translates to “Life is hard.” And his life, especially the latter part of it, wasn’t always easy. Twenty years ago, I wrote about the deteriorating conditions of the house on Spring Valley Road that he and my beloved stepmother Libby lived in for so many years. I wrote about the many jobs that he was forced to take during his 70s and into his 80s, jobs that I know he would have preferred not to do at an age when most men would have been enjoying their retirement. Later on, there were health problems. With him, and then of course with Libby. But through all of it, even up to the very end, he remained cheerful and upbeat.
That, more than anything, is his legacy to me, to my sister Kate, to his grandchildren, to all of us here, the idea that life can be hard but is without doubt worth living.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but Dad was multifarious. His mind had many twists and turns, hidden corridors, trap doors. I would sometimes get frustrated with him, because in conversation he invariably and sometimes maddeningly took turns here and turns there, rarely going in a straight line from point A to point B. He liked to detour, to go off on tangents. He was not a linear thinker. I once kidded him that he should write a book of short stories and call it Stories Without a Point.
But even if I sometimes got frustrated with him, I always wanted to understand him. In my late teens and early 20s, we took to having regular lunches. It was something I always looked forward to. When he was working at Bantam Books, he took me to the Japanese restaurants on 47th street and introduced me to sushi, pleased to be able to explain how it all worked and what things were called and what were his favorite kinds of fish. He had a favorite sushi chef, who at Dad’s urging elaborated on what he was doing and how he’d been taught. Dad loved being an aficionado.
Another place we often went was Alfredo’s restaurant on Hudson Street. We were among the first customers there when it opened, and we had many lunches there over the years. There was one dish, Tortellini della Nonna, that was my favorite. I came to think of it as Tortellini della Poppa. It was at Alfredo’s that I conducted a number of interviews with Dad for a biographical portrait that I was writing about him for a psychology class at Harvard.
One of the things I learned in the course of interviewing him was that when he didn’t get into Harvard, himself, his father Jack Alson said to him “I paid for champagne and I got beer.” It was a remark that Dad took to heart and really never got over. But when I dug deeper and tried to contextualize it, I discovered that Jack had taken Dad out of Boys High and sent him to Brooklyn Poly Prep for a year because he knew that the headmaster at Poly Prep had a relationship with someone in admissions at Harvard. Unfortunately, it turned out that the headmaster’s contact was on sabbatical that year, so the guy wasn’t able to pull the necessary strings to get Dad in. It wasn’t until I got around to writing the biography that I realized that Jack wasn’t talking about Dad when he made the beer remark, but was actually talking about Poly Prep.
All of which is to say, relationships between fathers and sons can be tricky. Dad and I were alike in many ways and the fact of that sometimes proved problematical. I was lucky enough, for example, to inherit some of his athletic prowess, his hand-eye coordination, his competitive fire. This played out with us in all things athletic, especially on the tennis court.
Dad was a great tennis player, a huge fan of the game. He’d played in high school and with his brother, Ernie, and he liked to tell the story of how he once beat a highly ranked player on a wooden indoor court because the ball skidded and his opponent couldn’t get used to the bounce. He took me to my first U.S. Open in 1966 when it was still played on the grass at Forest Hills. As with the sushi, he derived immense satisfaction in sharing his knowledge, expertise and love of the game.
But when he played tennis with me, there was no coddling or going easy. He simply refused to lose to me, even years after I’d actually surpassed him in ability. I’d throw tantrums and he’d laugh and critique my game, and tell me what I was doing wrong. I remember well the first time I ever beat him. He was miffed but proud of me at the same time.
Years later, when I was in my forties and he was in his late seventies, we beat a couple of top-flight players in a club match. That was one of our best days together ever. He never got tired of talking about it.
Our father-son rivalry was even more charged around writing than it was around tennis. As close as we were, the writing—his and mine—caused us difficulties, starting around the time I was 20, until I was 38 and sold my first book. We talked about craft all the time, debating the best way to tell a story, the importance of a good opening. He was a fount of advice and wisdom and often sent me letters with ideas for novels that I should write. He encouraged me to push the envelope in my writing, to go big, to not be afraid to say “fuck you” to the reader.
Much of his advice was good. It was just when we got down to actual cases that we ran into difficulties.
Part of the problem was that he was caught up in writing a novel himself that he spent decades on and was never able to finish. The book had begun as an instructional manual that he was co-authoring with a tennis teaching pro named George Edis. Scribner’s was supposed to publish the book, but something went wrong, I can’t remember what, and the book was killed at the eleventh hour. Dad decided to make lemonade out of his lemon by turning the instructional book into a novel. It gradually evolved into a story about the invention of tennis, and somewhere in writing it, he got lost.
One thing Dad was never at a loss for, though, was an opinion. Because he was my El Exigente on just about everything—you remember that coffee commercial, “I choose only the best beans?”—and because I desperately wanted his approval, his thumbs up, I could be easily devastated by his criticism.
I don’t think he ever consciously intended to discourage me, but too often that was the effect of his words. I abandoned numerous projects, including a couple of novels, after he said things to me indicating that he thought I could do better. No doubt, he was right. But I didn’t find it helpful. And so there came a time—as I say, this was the only real rift or difficulty we ever had—when I told him that I would never again show him any of my writing until it was published. It was painful to tell him that. I think he was hurt. But he said he understood. Incredibly, the gambit worked! He never said another critical thing to me about my writing. Not until near the very end of his life—which I’ll tell you about in a second.
No, the fact is, he read all of my articles and books after they were published, and he was as proud and as full of praise for them as could be. And our relationship improved after that and was never strained or rocky again.
The one time I did go back on my vow never to show him anything came in the hospital, near the end. Dad had defied all the doctors’ predictions and come back from the brink. I was with him in ICU late one night, and we were having a lively conversation, and he was asking me about my novel, a draft of which I’d just completed. Moved by his interest and just the fact that at that point he was able to express it, I said, “I can show you the opening to the book.” It so happened I had my computer with me, and I flipped it open and began reading the first chapter to him.
He actually lifted the computer out of my hands at that point and held it up in front of him and silently read what I’d written, nodding in approval and smiling. But the next morning when I came back to visit, he said, “You know, I’ve been thinking about the beginning to your novel, Pete. I think it needs work.”
I laughed out loud. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Understanding that with his dementia it wasn’t even possible that he’d remembered, I said, “Dad, do you even remember what you read?”
He smiled and shrugged helplessly and amiably.
“Here,” I said, and opened my computer and read him the first few sentences again.
He listened, and then said, “You’re right. It’s good.”
And I had to laugh again. The old leopard wasn’t going to change his spots.
Though Dad never finished his own novel, and I’m sure judged himself harshly for that, and yes there was a time when I might have too, I don’t any more. I look at his life, and I think about the pleasure he found in things small and large, in the way he could name a certain bird in a faraway tree that he could see but almost no one else could, in that wonderful suspended moment when a tennis ball is in the air about to be struck, in the sublime garlicky taste of escargot, or the way an image in a poem grabs your imagination and won’t let go, in the pleasure of being able to explain to your son, when he asks, that an Objective Correlative is “that which best illustrates through action the thesis or premise of something.”
Above all, I think about the great pleasure he took in loving—my sister Kate, me, and especially his lovely Libby. I was lucky enough to have had a ringside seat for the early days of their great romance, sitting in the back of a convertible Austin Healey 3000, at the age of seven with two Welsh Corgis, as we ate, drank and drove our way through Europe in the summer of 1962. We even had a soundtrack, the title song from Melina Mercouri’s Never on Sunday. We whistled it all through the cobbled streets of Rome and along the coast roads of the Mediterranean.
The life that followed might have had its twists and turns; it might not have always been as fabulous and romantic as that magical time. But Dad’s love for Libby and her love for him endured, through thick and thin, over many, many years. And wherever they are now, on their continuing journey, I just want to picture them, riding in a blue Austin Healey with the top down toward a horizon that never ends.