Why Do The Good Die Young?

Why ask why?

Why ask why?


Chapter 3

The phone rang at 11:00 PM. I was on the phone with a friend telling her how horrible it was to walk into my bedroom the night before last where for some reason my father chose to lay down to take a nap, only to find him gasping for air, clutching his heart, pleading for help. My mother, who was finishing a Columbia University teaching program, was doing homework in the kitchen and I didn’t want to alarm her. So, I called 9-1-1 from the pink princess phone in their bedroom across the hall from my room and ran back to my father with a cold compress. He was suffering a massive heart attack. I hadn’t felt this helpless, ever, and still haven’t to this day. Nothing prepared me for this moment, especially if it was going to be his last. The ambulance came lickety-split and I ushered the paramedics into my bedroom having closed off the kitchen door, still shielding my mother from the tragedy that was unfolding. As they wheeled him out the front door on that cumbersome stretcher, my mother heard the banging noise, appeared from the sliding door to the kitchen and began screaming. I grabbed her hand, told her everything was going to be all right and that we needed to go to the hospital. That was how her Mother’s Day came to an end.

Driving through the quiet, suburban town like a madman, I couldn’t shake the image of my father laying there, gasping for air. He was only fifty years old. Tears streamed down my face, poured like rain, blurring my vision. I’d never developed a close relationship with my father as he was always working, struggling to keep our family in a lifestyle he’d grown us accustomed to. Sure, there was love between us, our family was very touchy-feely. But there were few, if any, father and son bonding moments that came to mind. Something to hold onto. There was so much to say. We had a terrible fight that afternoon after returning from our Mother’s Day lunch about something I’d discovered about him that I’d been keeping a secret. Secrets are so toxic. They weigh on you; chained to the lies you must tell to protect someone you love from the hurt that the truth will undoubtedly cause. I’d discovered that my father was having an affair for months. His secret was now something we shared and if felt wrong. I wouldn’t dare tell my mother. But I couldn’t hold back the anger that had been building since I’d stumbled upon the illicit fact that the man we revered so deeply had betrayed us. Watching him lie throughout the meal was becoming unbearable and like a time bomb, I almost exploded at the restaurant but held back. For her. When we came home, I pulled him aside in the garage as my mother entered the house and blurted out that I knew everything and that I hated him for it. He naturally began denying everything that I knew to be true. Staring him in the eyes, I told him when and how his dirty little secret began to unravel and said terrible things in a tirade, not letting him speak. The last words I said to him before storming off to be with friends were, “I hope you drop dead”. Dear God, what had I done? I didn’t hope for that at all. Not now. Not then. Not ever. This couldn’t possibly be the end.

My dad was a war hero...joined the underground...saved lives...

My dad was a war hero…joined the underground…saved lives…

I passed every red streetlight until a police car came zooming up behind flashing his headlights to pull me over. Ignoring the cops, I passed yet another red light leaving the police car no choice but to jump ahead in front forcing me to stop. With my mother sobbing, uncontrollably to my right, red lights flickering to my front, even before the cop could get out of his vehicle to swagger over and demand driver’s license, registration, and an insurance card I hurled out of the car and ran to the driver’s side of the cop car screaming with tears rolling down my face. “My father just had a heart attack, see that ambulance up ahead, he’s in there, we gotta get to Englewood Hospital!”. The rugged faced policeman immediately understood, turned on his siren and said, “Get back in your car and follow me. We’ll get you there even faster.”

The chaos that ensued over the next few hours seemed like days suspended in midair. Waiting for something, anything from the on-call doctor felt like we were nothing but a burden to the overweight staff. We asked for Dr. Goldstein, who had taken care of my father a few years prior when he was stricken with Phlebitis. He agreed even after midnight to be jostled from his bed and attend to my dad. For some reason, this gave us hope. Within the hour, the big, round-faced, burly Dr. Goldstein, my friend Mindy’s dad, pushed through the swinging doors in a black overcoat, smoking a cigarette. Yes, a cigarette.

By then a few relatives had joined us in the dreary waiting room. After an endless while, Dr. Goldstein came out of the emergency room, and we learned that my father was “not out of the woods”—an expression to this day that makes no sense to me. What about the woods is reminiscent of a catastrophic health scare? Woods were beautiful and even if you got lost in them, give me the scare of that over coronary artery disease any day of the week. The fat smoking (again) doctor told us that my dad would be in intensive care for seventy-two hours after which he would know more about his chances. “Chances?” I didn’t like the sound of that phrase one bit.

We returned home, drank coffee as the sun rose and moped around the house all day until it was time to go back and visit my dad in the hospital that afternoon. He was still unconscious. I looked at him sleeping peacefully and prayed that he would open his eyes so I could say, “I’m sorry, please forgive me”. We sat with him for hours, talked to him, hoped he could hear us tell him how much we loved him and that we wanted to see him smile with those big, black, kind eyes. I began to lose hope that he would survive. It was that moment that I began to consider the afterlife. Perhaps there I could resolve this insurmountable unresolved issue for what I had said to him. If not in the here and now, surely in the there and then. Another day went by and he became barely cognizant of our presence. This gave us hope that by hour seventy-two he would be alert and “out of those fucking woods” once and for all. My mother and I went home and in silence shared a pot of tea, and sighed a lot.

I thought back to the summer when I was eleven years old, after my father had discovered making money and had moved us “on up” from the dregs of Weehawken, New Jersey, situated on the ass end of the Lincoln Tunnel to the posh suburb, Englewood Cliffs just north of the George Washington Bridge. I remember cornering him and asking that he tell me about the facts of life. Mind you, I knew all about the birds and the bees since I was five years old. I just wanted to test him on his parenting skills. He told me, “We’ll get a rowboat and go fishing on Swan Lake sometime this summer and I’ll tell you”. He handed me a wad of twenties and went back to playing poker with his buddies. It’s a good thing I knew all too well everything you wanted to know about sex already because the summer came and went with no rowboat, no fishing, no sex-planation. Truth is, in hindsight, I’d have been much happier just to be able to spend some private with him, a rarity, if ever, and skip the sordid conversation.

My mother, older sister and I decided not to call my middle sister who was away at college finishing up her final exams. That’s how confident we were that “this too shall pass”. Only it didn’t pass. My father did. And his passing was the passing one doesn’t ever want to believe must ever come to pass. I would never live down the guilt of not telling my sister, who also happened to be my father’s favorite, to come home as opposed to not summoning her to be at his side, or in this case, his deathbed. And for what? Some meaningless final exams for some meaningless degree in Sociology?

The worst moment of my life was seeing this.

The worst moment of my life was seeing this.

So as soon as that phone rang at 11:00 PM when I was on the phone with my friend, forty-eight hours after this nightmare began, I just knew that it was bad news. The worst-case scenario was happening. The nurse suggested we come back to the hospital. Another hysterical ride to Englewood Hospital ensued, I ran to the room where I had last seen my father and watched Dr. Goldstein working to massage my father’s heart, pounding his chest, and finally, giving up. He was gone. I stood over my father, seeing him taking his last breath and broke out in tears, again. Dr. Goldstein handed me my father’s wedding ring that he’d slipped off his finger and said he was sorry. He was not alone.

Sobbing, I went to the waiting room where the news had just been shared with the rest of my family, a scene that’s hard to relive to this day. I looked out the window, up to the sky and swore off God and all of his bullshit. The Holocaust, good people dying young, cancer, what’s to believe in? That night, I finally fell into a deep sleep after taking three sleeping pills and drifted off into a beautiful dream.

A big, green dragonfly was leading us down a narrow, wooded path to the edge of a calm, unspoiled lake, buzzing, ricocheting, intimidating. The once burgundy, now weathered grey, paint chipping rowboat was anchored along the rocks. We lifted the nose of the boat; I hopped in as he gently eased it into the water, joining me creating delicate, rippling waves, which shattered the shimmering reflection of the scorching summer sky. As we rowed slowly towards the center of the lake, a majestic Golden Eagle soared overhead with stunning, overpowering grace, calling, screeching, wanting to know who dared enter her lair. Finally, we got to where I always wanted to be…alone…with him. No sisters, no mothers, no histrionics, no customers, no poker buddies, no one. Just my father and me.

Perhaps the greatest moment of my life.

The greatest moment of my life was being there.

Eleven years, waiting for my turn. We cast our rods and in doing so, cast a shadow on the lives of the unsuspecting innocent, creatures swimming below. In silence, we took in the splendor of the day and the grandeur of the dinosaur-shaped, purple mountains in the distance. The sun beat down bronzing our arms, reddening our noses, while the steam from the water wafted a clean, crisp, fresh, intoxicating aroma. I cupped my fingertips along the surface of the lake, dabbed the back of my neck as I felt it reddening from the sun and was stopped by my father’s disapproving eye. “Don’t, you’ll scare away the fish,” he said, the first words uttered that morning. There was so much to talk about and yet nothing much to say. I was never able to make idol chit chat with my father, unlike the ease in which it took to prattle on and on with my mother and sisters about everything and nothing. He was my gentle giant. Hard-working, generous, kind, who made brilliantly heroic choices during World War II. Sent to a work camp in Siberia as a teenager from Warsaw, Poland, he managed to escape and found his way back to Germany to join the underground. He wasn’t one to talk about his war experience and I wondered if those days were distant memories now. Perhaps they still haunted him. Horrific memories, thoughts, and visions, right there on the surface of the water. What do we say to our heroes anyway? Thank you? Is magnificence a choice? Give me your strength. Help me to be more like you. Tell me what happened.

The flapping tail of a large striped perch woke me from me. My hero reeled in the doomed, flailing fish with ease and dexterity, unhooking and passing it to me. I froze, swallowed, and then gently placed the dying fish in the cooler. We smiled, he winked, I laughed. The rest of the afternoon was spent in the peaceful embrace of the delicious silence, all the while knowing that we were total opposites yet somewhat very much alike. The sun was almost gone now, time to call it a day, dock the boat, say goodbye to the calm, unspoiled lake and what would have been the best thing on Earth to have done at least one time before he died.


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