Courtesy of TheNewYorkTimes.com | By Josh Max | Illustration by Carson Ellis | Originally Published 06.14.2014 | Posted 04.11.2018
IT’S been eight years since I last saw my father, lying in his reclining chair in his living room, as perfectly still as the half-filled coffee cups on the side table.
I was driving about 40 miles from Dad’s place when I got a call from one of my brothers, who told me to pull over, then delivered the news: Dad was gone. The super of his apartment complex had noticed mail piling up on the front steps, looked through the window, saw what he saw, then called the cops and my brother.
My brother told me to go there right away. I pulled myself together and numbly drove to Dad’s apartment, where a lone, hard detective stood in a full suit and tie in the blistering July heat. “You might not want to go in,” the detective said. “He’s been there awhile.” My dad would have liked this guy.
“I don’t care,” I said. “He’s my father.” I went in and I instantly knew why the cop had suggested otherwise. He’d been lying there three days with no air-conditioning. I couldn’t look directly at the figure in the chair. Instead, I looked at his swollen feet. When a bluebottle fly landed on his big toe, I turned away and wandered around the rest of the apartment.
Dad’s sudden death at 81 — not long after he’d announced he’d live another 10 years — was a devastating surprise. His mother had lived to 93, so his prediction wasn’t such a stretch. It was just impossible to think that a guy who’d made it through 36 missions over Europe as a bombardier in the Air Corps by the time he was 20 could be here one day, gone the next, without some kind of fierce fight.
Dad was a dramatic, powerful man, only about 5 feet 8 inches at his tallest, 5 feet 6 inches when he died, but he had a huge head, size 13 feet and a deep bass voice that boomed like a Jewish Ralph Kramden when he was angry. He professed not to care about Father’s Day, but I always sent him a card or a gift and called him if I couldn’t see him. Most of the time the conversation would end with his asking “How much do I love you?” “How much?” I’d answer. “From here to the moon and beyond.” If he was in a bad mood or something I’d done had displeased him, he might tell me to do the anatomically impossible then hang up. I didn’t take it personally. Every member of the family had heard that phrase directed at them more than a few times, especially in his later years.
He had moved from Seattle to New York after the war, then graduated from college with an English degree. He published three books and hundreds of articles during the next three decades while selling photos at United Press International. As he advanced into old age and both careers were finished, he informed me that he would rather die than live stroke-paralyzed or in the throes of dementia or Alzheimer’s, and that he had a plan in the event of a disabling illness. It turned out he didn’t need it.
I checked the apartment for signs of self-harm, but mostly I looked for a note. There was nothing. Satisfied, I put my hand on the doorknob, ready to leave, then turned back and glanced at my father’s face for the last time as quickly as you snap a photo. His face was purple and his features had collapsed onto themselves. It was clear that whatever that was in the chair, it was not the man responsible for bringing me into the world.
It was both a blessing and a curse to see his body like that — raw, unarranged, not prettied up. The curse, of course, was losing my pops, the guy who had carried me on his shoulders when I was 3 and taught me to drive sitting on his lap, who got huge joy from each of his three boys and often said, “Christ, what would my life have been without you guys?” The guy who had sent me, in the last months of his life, cartons of used books by Chekhov and Updike and Hemingway with notes reading, “I think you’re ready for these.” The guy who stood up to boneheaded bureaucrats his entire life, including my junior high school principal who had called him in for a parent-teacher conference after finding me with a copy — Dad’s own copy — of Abbie Hoffman’s “Steal This Book.”
“Do you know your son is reading this?” the principal demanded.
“This is America,” he replied. “He can read anything he wants to.”
The blessing, as I see it now that enough time has passed, was seeing death up close in all its gruesome reality, burning into my consciousness. No hospital, no nurses, no embalming, nothing cleaned up. Growing up in a rural town in the woods (we had moved from Manhattan in my youth), I saw death all the time — a deer or a raccoon or a dog or cat on the highway, or someone I didn’t know very well laid out at a wake. Everyone also sees, of course, thousands of phony deaths in the movies and on television. But it’s not the same when it’s right in front of you. And it’s your father.
In that last split-second glance, I was able to truly see the body as a shell, a vessel that must give out, releasing the spirit to wherever its next journey is — if you buy that sort of thing. It’s either that or all those thoughts you have, your name, your sex, your age, your religion, your address, the songs you know, the sights you’ve seen and the war you fought stop existing right there and it’s eternal oblivion.
Maybe it was oblivion for him. For me and my two brothers, he lives on in many ways, and is still the single greatest influence of my life. He wasn’t just my father — he was World War II. He was also the Hermes and Underwood typewriter companies. He was United Press International on 42nd and Lex, telephone number MUrray Hill 2-0400. He was snuff and pipe tobacco and Hai Karate after-shave and Korvette’s department store, where he bought his entire wardrobe. He was Tab soda and “The MacNeil/Lehrer Report,” “The Dick Cavett Show” and “The Great American Dream Machine.” He was “Mairzy Doats” and El Producto cigars and a 1960 Willys Jeep and a 1968 Ford Fairlane 500. He was a cloth necktie and mismatched socks and boxer shorts and B-17s. He was Jackson Pollock and jazz and anyone who stamps up and down a flight of wooden stairs or sends an all-caps email.
He had asked to be laid out on the dining room table for a wake when his time came, but obviously we couldn’t accommodate him. Instead, we laid the old bombardier in the ground, at his request, with a cigar, a cup of coffee and a New York Times in the box, along with mismatched socks. His footstone reads “Fifty Years On The Writer’s Rockpile.”
Seeing my father’s lifeless body that day was the biggest shock of my life, but it was also his last lesson to me, and it didn’t come from a book or a lecture: “This is what death looks like, son. It doesn’t come with your hands pre-folded, wearing your best suit and your hair combed.”