Steel and Stone
My father has been a fearsome man for as long as I can remember, more than his six feet and 180 pounds would otherwise suggest.
In a courtroom, he’d become a god, bringing wrath to whomever had the misfortune of being on the opposite side of the courtroom. “A good lawyer knows the law — a great lawyer knows the judge,” said one of the decorative pillows in his office: a reminder to clients that this was a man who, after decades in practice, knew the judges all over town. He was as much a Soprano as a middle-aged Jewish lawyer could become in Northern New Jersey in the 80s and 90s: to disagree with him was to cross him. If you chose to argue with the man, even if you were ‘right’ about something, he’d bludgeon you with words until you believed that you were the one who was wrong. At the end of the argument you’d somehow find yourself begging him for forgiveness for your own foolishness in contradicting the man. It didn’t matter if he was actually wrong. He was always right, and he would fight you for it. And he would win.
At home, he was still something larger than life, though as peculiar as he was fearsome. More than three nights a week he’d pound back Grey Goose martinis (always “straight up, with a twist”) while watching ‘Access Hollywood’ and browsing wholesale meat catalogs. He spent Sundays reading three or more newspapers cover to cover and purchasing appliances on QVC that none of us would use. His closets were full of designer clothes that could outfit a vintage fashion exhibit at The Met, but he chose to wear jeans, sneakers, a baseball cap and a fisherman’s-style vest to the office nearly every day (sometimes wearing the same thing for consecutive days — at least the same underwear, for which my mother constantly chided him). Meanwhile, at home, he had no trouble walking around the house in front of me and my mother in nothing else but said underwear, his enormous, solid, ‘basketball belly’ hovering above the waistband in a perfect, gravity-defying arc. White briefs, free hotel slippers, and maybe a cheap plaid robe draped over his gout-afflicted body: this was his signature apparel after midnight (alone in the kitchen, for eating vanilla Haagen Dazs and chocolate chip cookies) and in the daytime on weekends (for meeting with accountants or answering the door for maintenance workers coming to fix yet another broken thing in the house).
As I walked through that same door on my latest visit to my parents’ house, the usual welcoming party was there: two yippy, black miniature poodles barking and clawing at my jeans and my mom calling them away to the kitchen for a snack of “people food” she shouldn’t be feeding them. But there was something different about the house. “He’s in there,” my mom said as she pointed to the guest room on the first floor that never had a single guest — it was just the room where she would put the dogs when company came over to visit, since she’d never successfully disciplined them and they were uncommonly hyper.
I didn’t have any sense of foreboding or expect to be transformed by the sight of what lay beyond that door. There was no suspenseful crescendo of music as I turned the handle and entered the room, just the soft noise of some public access programming on the TV. My body was exhausted from the six hours of travel to reach the New Jersey suburbs and my mind fatigued from the long week, but otherwise blank.
No one really knows what happened to my dad, except for maybe the surgeon, who knows better than to admit fault in front of a man who sued countless doctors for malpractice in his career. All we know is that what landed him in his current state was the fallout of a heart surgery. Meanwhile, I was the one feeling like I was about to have a heart attack.
He had become a whisper of his former self. The deep baritone that would frequently yell at people on the phone, or, on more pleasant days, belt out Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra hits all the way down the Garden State Parkway on car rides to the Jersey Shore was a weak croak, at best. His body, characteristically fatted by Porterhouse steaks, heavy Sicilian-style Italian food, and deli sandwiches, had withered. The basketball belly, which prompted so many joking comments from friends of “When’s the baby due?” had vanished. He wasn’t the god in the courtroom anymore, but had become something equivalently unearthly. In the glow of the television and two yellow-bulbed lamps, my dad’s body resembled E.T.’s in the movie’s final scenes: a pale alien, ribs protruding, eyes bulging in the sunken sockets, IV needle in his arm, oxygen tubes in his nose.
My mom makes him aware of my presence and it takes him a moment to recognize who I am and realize that I am there. I turn my back and choke back sobs. No phone call, no picture over iMessage, no warning has prepared me for this. I sit at his side on the bed and hold his frail hand, he asks how long I’m here for. I tell him only for the day because I start a new job next week and need to be back in Boston. Gripping me with all his strength, fingernails digging into my palm as if it’s his only anchor to reality, he pleads, “Is there anything we can do to get you to stay longer?”
I’ve never heard this tone from him before. My father has been many things: beaten up, knocked down, put through the wringer. He has never been desperate.
We continue his slow conversation, words trickling out of him slowly as molasses, and amid the gloom, there’s a hint of hope. “You know,” he says as he pauses to catch his breath and manages a small wry smile, “you can’t pull any tricks with your mother.” It was the first true glimmer of the man who raised me, this joke about being horribly uncooperative with my mother, not eating when she wants him to, only reluctantly getting out of bed, and generally misbehaving. For the man who made a living finding faults and loopholes in cases and in his daughter, the only critical word he has to offer in our conversation is this: “Your only screw up is you didn’t have enough time to stay here.”
The rest of the visit is spent escorting him on his walker between his bed and the kitchen table, where I make small talk with my dad and my mom serves him small meals that he barely finishes. Before I leave, my mother pulls me aside and tells me that she’d like to send me away with a piece of my dad and goes to his secret little safe of jewelry, next to the toilet, of all places. In it, we find a motley assortment of trinkets: rings shaped like cigar bands, golden watches, jasper cufflinks, and mafioso-style gold chains. Then there’s this steel bracelet that my dad probably thought was cool and bought on impulse.
It’s a strange bracelet. It isn’t exactly beautiful or elegant in any conventional sense. It looks like someone cut a piece of a bike chain, smoothed the geared edges down with sandpaper, and threw a bracelet clasp on it. Save for one link in the chain that has a few very small, barely noticeable black diamonds, I’d hardly call it jewelry. I’m not much of a jewelry person to begin with, but it’s the thing in the safe that chooses me and my mom helps me put it on my wrist. I go downstairs to kiss my father goodbye and leave for my train back to Boston.
Before all of this, my father was a man of steel and stone: roughly hewn by the grimy streets of Paterson, New Jersey, the only son of Polish immigrant shoemaking parents, a fervent Ohio State alumnus, and self-made, manic but brilliant attorney.
It remains to be seen if he’ll recover from all of this and go back to being the forceful, eccentric, and irreverent man I’d describe to friends as “77 going on 17.” Until then, I keep him and that legacy of his legacy locked around my wrist.