This story was originally published in the September 9, 1991, issue of the Boston Phoenix.
My father stared out across the room, a pained expression on his face.
"I guess what I want to hear from you," he said, his eyes not meeting mine, "is that you think I'm a decent person."
I wanted to cry. My father, who I've idolized all my life, is terminally ill. His condition, which developed quite aggressively and with little warning, was diagnosed in early May, and I have spent the better part of the months since then watching him confront the end of his life, and doing what I can to help him.
"You are far more than a decent person," I answered. "You are my father."
The exchange was brief but important: a small testimony to the kind of unconditional love that can exist between parents and children, a small lesson in what it means to be an adult child.
It is an extremely strange and painful experience, watching a parent move from strength to vulnerability. My father has been one of the most active, driven people I've ever known, a man who put in 18-hour days his entire career, spent untold weekends obsessing about his tennis game, even tended the lawn with a fervor that bordered on the religious. He traveled a lot on business, worked nights and weekends, rarely relaxed.
These days, his once frenetic schedule has been reduced to a series of slow rituals: resting and waking, eating meals, getting to the bathroom. He sleeps a lot. He spends most of his waking time in a wheelchair, sitting at the dining room table at our home, in Cambridge. Moored there, he stares out across the room and contemplates the 75 years that have comprised his life: his accomplishments and failures, his memories and unrealized dreams, his regrets. He sighs a lot; often, his eyes brim with tears.
As painful as it is, I've almost gotten used to this sight, my father shedding tears at the table. Except for once, at a close relative's funeral three summers ago, I had never seen my father cry before last May. Nor had I ever seen him physically limited, unable to react to stress and depression by doing something: scheduling another appointment at work, signing up for another game of double. The day his condition was diagnosed, my mother, sister, and I, who had heard the news separately, filed into his hospital room to see him. He looked up from his bed and made some sort of joke, about this looking like the deathbed scene from some movie or other. Then his eyes welled up; he started to sob. It was an anguishing sight: my father, a vision of omnipotence all my life, so sick and so frightened.
He is all too aware of this. "Losing a parent taught you the extent to which you really are all on your own," he said to me several days later. "It is a life-altering event." By the same token, it is a myth-shattering event, something that forces you to re-order your vision of the world: parents will not always be there to take care of you, to help guide you. Parents are fragile. The strength you get from them must, at some point, come from within instead. "That's all you can do," he says. "Keep me inside."