Number Four, Hold the Onions

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One of the small, unsung joys in working with people as I do, is that, maybe a few times a year, patients will get a little gleam in their eye and describe a moment in their life, perhaps from decades earlier, that was special, memorable in some way, or even just representative of a certain place, era, or quality of feeling. These moments don’t have to be big and brassy, or even significant in any traditional way – in fact they often aren’t – but nevertheless, for some reason they resonate with the person, down through the years; they persist in memory, fixed in the amber of emotion, despite all the new and maybe more flashy incidents that flood the river of experience.

And I listen carefully, feeling honored and privileged to be allowed ‘orchestra seats’ to these little-known playlets of memory, lit by the heart from within. There is something remarkable about a mere moment in time that, a lifetime later, can still glow with a quiet, eternal fire.

They’re usually not the ‘main topic’ of a session – far from it. When they arise at all, it’s only incidentally, and spontaneously, as the person is trying to make some other point, or discussing a particular time of life. They’re talking along, and then, suddenly, a change comes over their face – like I say, a warm, suffusing, faraway glow, followed by a little, inward smile, that makes me say to myself, “Hush – here comes something that matters.”

It can be a person:

I was standing on the subway platform in the Bronx, in 1965, I think it was, on the way to my cousin’s house in Brooklyn. It was cold – cold as hell – and I’m stamping my feet to stay warm, and bang, suddenly, out of the blue, I saw this girl – well, not really even a girl, more of a vision. She was so . . . well, there’s no real way to describe her, just that she was the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen, but even that isn’t really the point. It was more than that – more like a familiarity, if you know what I mean. Like when people say, “I felt like I’d known her all my life?” Well, it was like that – like she was an angel sent to earth, sent to me, for me to see once, and once was enough. Like a possibility, kind of. Something to shoot for, to aspire to, or to inspire me to believe in things, no matter if it’s cold, or life is hard, or I’m discouraged. And it’s funny, but there are times, when I’ve been really down in the dumps, or feeling like a loser, that I remember her, and it keeps me going, because if she could exist, then it’s like everything’s worthwhile, after all. I know all this doesn’t make any sense, but I wanted you to know.

It can be the mental snapshot of a time and place, like this woman in her fifties remembered:

I was sitting in my third-grade classroom – just a regular day in class. As always, I was sitting in the far-right side of the classroom, in the back, at one of those desks that curves around, and is hinged, so you can fold it up when you don’t need to write?

Well, I told myself, “Notice this exact moment. You’re going to get older, and lots of things are going to happen to you, and you’ll forget all this stuff, so that it’ll seem like it happened in another lifetime. But I’m going to make an agreement with myself: I’m going to look around carefully, and notice this exact moment, at this exact place, at this exact age in my life, and I’m never going to forget it, as long as I live.”

So this is what I remember: we had those blinds that you pull down, over the long, tall windows. And the blinds were pulled down about three-quarters of the way, and the windows were open in the uncovered parts. It was late afternoon, probably close to three o’clock, when school would be out, and you could see the afternoon sun behind the blinds, kind of glowing through the fabric. I was sitting next to Marilyn Brodsky, and she was wearing a green plaid dress with a white, Peter Pan collar. And on the other side was Robert Helling, this boy I always had a little crush on – in fact, I think he’s the reason I decided to memorize that moment, you know, to memorialize him, and how I felt about him. So Robert was there, in his t-shirt and blue jeans and these black grown-up-looking shoes he always wore, which to me, made him a ‘man,’ because none of the other boys ever wore shoes like that – almost like wing-tips or something, and he wasn’t embarrassed to wear something different; it almost made him cool to wear something different and not care. And the teacher was writing on the blackboard, something like maybe an addition problem – I know I wasn’t interested in it, but I memorized the feeling I had, that I still had to pay attention, because if she asked questions about it, and I didn’t know what she was talking about, I would be horribly embarrassed! 

And I also memorized the way it felt being my age – you know, like a little scared all the time, because the world seemed so big, and yet also more excited than I am now, because there was so much possibility in life still to come? So, the fear of the unknown, but also the excitement of the unknown, at the same time – and that’s about what it felt like for me to be an eight-year-old girl, that day in class.

I also memorized the smell: that classroom always had a special smell, composed of chalk dust, and the smell of the cloakroom, kind of a nice, musty smell, and the girl next to me had on maybe some kind of little-girl perfume, or toilet water, the kind of thing a girl would put on, thinking she was being mature, maybe something she got from an older sister or something.

Well, that’s it – that’s the moment I was going to remember for the rest of my life, and so far, I have!

As I listen, I tuck these moments away in my own personal psychotherapy hall of fame, so that they can glow for me, too. Sometimes, they help me, too, just like they helped the original person. And sometimes I can even use them to help that patient, like when Joe was very despondent one day, and I said,”Joe, don’t forget the girl on the subway platform,” and something seemed to shift inside of him, and he simply nodded quietly and said, “Thank you.”

Do you have moments from your life, that are fixed in your mind forever, like still photographs? Moments that maybe don’t ‘make sense,’ but are still there, forever and ever?

Well I do, and I’ll tell you about one of them, but first a little back-story.

Where I grew up, in North Hollywood, a suburb of L.A., everyone lived in tract houses that had been built after the War, on quiet, perfectly-laid-out little streets – nice little streets, row upon row of them, only distinguishable by the kind of tree that was planted next to the curb. We had liquid ambars, that had lots of bristly ‘cones,’ and leaves that turned spectacular colors with the seasons, so that you could almost imagine that we had real seasons.

Well, this particular day – it must have been Fall, because I remember the leaves on the ground – my Mom decided to take us on a little outing. I was a pre-schooler, probably three or so, that magical age when you’re old enough to know a few things, but not old enough to have to know anything. It was unusual to actually be ‘doing’ anything with my mother; most days I spent playing with the guys down the street, all day, and that was the pattern my whole childhood: get up, take off, and come home in time for dinner. But for some reason, today Mom had made plans: we were going to have a picnic at Victory-Vanowen Park – me, my Mom, my older sister, and Libby, the woman next door who had just adopted a baby.

Libby was different than Mom – it’s hard to say how, exactly, through the eyes of a three-year old, but she was somehow softer, more feminine, more girlish, maybe more wounded. Nowadays, I would say, “vulnerable,” but I didn’t know that word then, or need to.

Libby was younger than Mom (almost all the other mothers were, my Mom having had babies ‘late,’ hatching me at 35). But she wasn’t just younger chronologically: the story, as it was passed on to me in dribs and drabs over the years, was that Libby had been an only child, a quiet, sensitive girl who grew up alone. Her parents, whom I met on a few occasions when they came to visit next door, seemed like nice folks, straightforward country folks, no-nonsense and plain, maybe the kind of folks who wouldn’t exactly know what to do with a soft, forlorn little girl.

I remember her Mom, Theresa, a perfectly nice woman, but a woman who would tie a rag on her head, then barrel through Libby’s house, cleaning, mopping and vacuuming with a vengeance: definitely not the ‘woe is me,’ ‘meaning of life’ type, more the ‘please get out of my way, I have things to do’ type. Of course, I could be wrong, but even at my young age, I already had a primitive version of my ‘this is a bad child/parent personality match’ thesis, that would later be the explanation of so many visits to my office. Like I say, I could be wrong, but I felt strongly that Libby had had a rough childhood.

Well, Libby grew up and eventually met and married a guy, Dan, who was also an only child. But Dan was a big, bluff, outgoing guy, a typical salesman type, who traveled, selling, for a national paper bag company, as I remember. He was gone a lot, and when he was there, he expected it to be his castle, his big personality dwarfing Libby’s, as she bustled about to keep him happy, probably wondering, with silent dread, what he really ‘did’ on the road all that time.

So, the most obvious answer for Libby, the lonely, only child in a lonely marriage with a guy who was on the road all the time, was to have a child of her own. And she tried, and tried, and tried. But, as it turned out, she couldn’t have children. So she tried adopting, and it was a long haul, but finally, she got a child to have for her very own: a little boy, Rory. And Rory was a holy terror from the start, a kid we would probably recognize as AHDH today (with an emphasis on the ‘H’), maybe even bipolar, an “all-boy” type who ran Libby ragged, morn to night. Libby would have been an amazing mother to a sweet little girl, but with this kid, she was outgunned and outmanned, her home a battle zone, not the love nest she had hoped for.

I knew, from hearing little thises and thats, that Libby kind of idolized Mom, and our family: I’m sure to her it looked like exactly what she had always longed for, with two sweet kids and a nice husband who was home for dinner every night. I think Libby saw Mom as the perfect mother, an older woman she could look up to, and confide in, someone who knew the score and could understand her troubles.

Little did she know that Mom had a few troubles of her own – not that Mom would talk about them, even with Libby, of course: ‘we’ didn’t talk about our problems with anyone, ever. That was low-class, weak and common – a breach of the privacy that we maintained at all times, with all people.

But to be on the receiving end of Libby’s talking – well, that was alright.

Well, I have a feeling that the picnic might have been the result of one of those talks, an antidote to the humdrum of Libby’s life, an anodyne outing that could lift everyone’s spirits and ‘change the slide’, for one afternoon.

But it wasn’t going to be a ‘pack the potato salad’ kind of picnic: nope, we were going to the Orange Suzy, near Sears.

Ah bliss!

Ah joy!

If you’re old enough to remember those ubiquitous Orange Julius stands, well, the Orange Suzy was something like that, with those whipped-orange drinks, made maybe with eggs, that you could get all over the country at the time. But the drinks were the least of it, because they also had these wonderful, fantastic, amazing hot dogs, and hot pastrami sandwiches that would make the angels (the Jewish ones, at least) weep with envy.

And the secret?

Steam!

Everything was steamed in a special contraption that locked in the flavor and gave everything a moistness and density that couldn’t be matched by ‘conventional’ heating methods.

Now, that was something I was willing to forgo an afternoon with the guys for!

Well, I threw on my uniform – striped t-shirt, jeans and Keds, and we were off. Of course we drove – you always drive in L.A.: if I’m not mistaken, it’s a felony, there, to be caught walking further than the distance to your car.

First stop: the Orange Suzy. Though I was always torn, momentarily, between their great steamed hot dogs and the hot pastrami, I, of course, ordered the pastrami. I mean, put it this way: how could you possibly forgive yourself if you were killed later that day in an accident, and like a damn fool, you’d passed up your last chance to have a Suzy pastrami? You’d have no one but yourself to blame, as you died slowly, in shame, with chili dog on your breath.

If you ate there, everything came in those brightly-colored plastic baskets, but if you were taking out, as we were, the guy just wrapped it up in wax paper and put it in a paper bag (maybe sold to him by Dan?).

I don’t remember what everyone else ordered, but Mom always got “Number Four, hold the onions,” which was a chili dog with shredded cheddar cheese, on a bun, which ran a very respectable second-place on the Suzy sandwich menu to you-know-what.

Laden with our feast, we made our way to the park, which was just across the Sears parking lot from the Suzy. We finally settled down on the grass amid a copse of sycamores, their mottled trunks rising high over the park. Squirrels gamboled in the trees, going about their business with an admirable intensity of spirit.

I reached for my sandwich, wrapped in that yellow-orange wax paper that I don’t think they even make anymore. Then I opened up the paper and just took a moment of devotional grace, inhaling the glorious aroma of the bread, the meat, the pickle, even the mustard.

Like the girl who ‘memorized the moment’ in elementary school, I consciously fixed the scene in my memory: off to my left there was my mother and sister, setting out their food in preparation for our picnic; to my right there was Libby and her young son. I remember Libby’s face to this day, the skin creamy and soft, almost lustrous, like the girls in the Breck ads. And right in the middle of that creamy skin, for once, a small, contented smile.

And I saw, through my child’s eyes, the grass, the squirrels, and most of all, the stately sycamores.

The same sycamores that, five years later, would be the subject of one of my father’s Cub Scout ‘Nature’ merit badge talks, which would earn him the nickname Nature Boy, which would lead to his love of birds, which would lead to a lifetime of birding, and writing about birding. The same sycamores that, ten years later, would witness me running home, my arm a bloody mess, when I tried to sled down the paved ‘wash’ of the L.A. River on a piece of cardboard and ended up shredding my skin on the asphalt all the way down. The same sycamores that, fifteen years later, would be there as I sobbed my heart out to my sister, in shocked disbelief, when my first ‘real’ girlfriend dumped me.

But the day of the picnic, the day I memorized, all was magical: good company, good food, the woods, the squirrels, the rustle of the leaves on the trees, the crackle of the leaves on the grass, and the kindness that my mother had shown to Libby, to get her out of her house, and into that beatific smile, for a few precious moments.

And, looking back, I think that maybe, in my own little-boy way, I was proud of Mom that day. I think that maybe, because of her thoughtfulness, and her love for Libby – well, maybe I kind of felt loved-by-association, and proud-by-association, too.

All I know is that, for that one magic moment, time stood still, and life was good.

I hope that you, like my patients and I, have some magic moments squirreled away, too – some inner pictures that are there when you need to ‘go to the well’ and draw sustenance from it.

And I hope that, like those sycamores I treasure in memory, they stand eternal watch over you.

 

 

 

 

 

Note: All clinical vignettes herein are significantly altered to protect patient confidentiality and privacy.

A Week With The Old Man

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The Big Day had arrived: the day my mother and sister were off to Camp Osito for the week, a Girl Scout camp where god knows what was supposed to happen: Mother-daughter bonding? Being steeped in Girl Scout lore? A week of someone else cooking for you? Some kind of proto-Girl Power? I didn’t know then, or now, and honestly, didn’t really care.

Why?

Because what it meant for me was only one thing:

A Week With The Old Man – just me and him.

Yeah, yeah, I wasn’t kidding myself: the part of the deal that involved me was the lop-end of all the planning, not the point of it. The point was for my mother and sister to go off and do their Girl Scout thing. The part that involved me was a left-over – a left-over that, if he thought about it at all, probably had the Old Man muttering to himself late at night, “Son of a bitch – what the hell am I supposed to do with a damn kid for a whole week?”

You see, we didn’t do things ‘together,’ he and I. We did things as a family, mostly impelled by my mother, and mostly ‘educational’ outings: The County Arboretum, Descanso Gardens, maybe a Mission or two, Griffith Park Observatory, and like that.

The Zoo?

Declassé.

Disneyland?

Horrors – mindless idiocy, for the great unwashed.

Education: that was her big thing. One day, an oval metal trashcan suddenly appeared in my room, with the pennants of Ivy League universities plastered all over it. Uh yeah, I got the hint. We watched Omnibus on Sundays (yep, the one with Alistair Cookie); the Leonard Bernstein specials for children (“This is an oboe, kid”); College Bowl (“For twenty points, what color is the Dartmouth pennant on Gregg Bernstein’s trashcan?”); The Twentieth Century, with Walter Cronkite; You Are There (“Hurry – they’re doing a recreation of the Dred Scott case!”).

Well, you get the idea.

I know I did.

And where was my Dad in all this? Going along, mostly. My mother was “in charge of the kids.” Once, years later, I asked the Old Man why he wasn’t more involved in raising us – in knowing us. His answer:

“All that was your mother’s department.” (Pause) “She used to be a teacher, ya know.”

Gee, how flattering to be called “all that.” And as for my mom, the teacher, I’m not sure she ever really made a distinction between home-schooling and raising kids. They were pretty much one and the same in her book.

Anyway, back to The Big Day, and The Big Week. Wow, I thought to myself – a whole week, alone with the Old Man, maybe seeing the parts of him that he had to keep under wraps around Mom, maybe learning a few tricks of the trade of being a guy, maybe getting a few risque stories out of him, some inside stuff about old girlfriends, a wild tale or two – you know, finding out what he would do if he wasn’t in Family Man mode all the time. I mean, what did I know? Maybe he’d always wanted to be an acrobat, or an electrician, or a traveling salesman. I mean, who was this guy, my Dad?

I did know a few stories about the ‘old’ Old Man: I knew that he used to be a reporter for a news service, assigned to the sheriff’s office (that would be Sheriff Biscaluiz, if you’re an L.A. type), that he used to hang around City Hall a lot with other reporters, presumably waiting in a scrum for murder cases to break – and that was in the days when being a reporter was a cool and romantic thing (just watch movies from the 30’s or 40’s). I knew the one self-deprecating ‘reporter’ story he often repeated, usually after a few drinks: when he was at the courthouse, covering the infamous Sleepy Lagoon trial, he spied Anthony Quinn (who was there to support the Mexican-American defendants’ rights), then confidently walked up to him and said, “Hello, Mr. Romero.” Of course, being the Old Man, he also said that he and ‘Tony’ ended up having a few pops in a local bar together, and laughing the afternoon away.

Hmm, let’s see, what else? I did know that he used to work in a factory that made freeway signs. I did know that he bused tables at a sorority house to put himself through UCLA (wow – major possibilities for stories there!), and that he saw Jackie Robinson play UCLA football (“That son of a gun would take the damn ball from the quarterback, then go back, back, back, until he had the whole defense back there chasing him, then he would take off like a shot and circle around ’em and race for the goal line all alone!”). And I knew that he used to bus tables at a fancy beach club in Santa Monica, and at the Cocoanut Grove, too, where one day Jack Teagarden heard him fooling around, singing, and told him he could ‘make it’ if he was willing to do a few things, like move to Chicago and change his name. Neither happened, so there went his chance to be “the next Tony Martin,” who, the Old Man informed me, was actually a Jewish kid from “Frisco” named Al Morris, who was married to Cyd Charisse, who Dad always thought was a hottie. Gee, to think I could have had Cyd Charisse for a Mom! I bet she wouldn’t have insisted that we watch Omnibus! Oh well . . .

So, I kind of knew Dad 101, but how much more there must have been to learn!

Now, maybe, I was going to find out.

My Mom and sister drove off, to their wonderful adventure. But I was sure it wasn’t going to compare to my adventure, right here at home. Father-son stuff. Man stuff. Grown-up stuff. Cool stuff. It was all there waiting for me. Here, away from Mom’s pernicious educational influences, we’d be ‘batching’ it, just the two of us, turned loose to fend for ourselves and strut the high life.

Look out world, here we come!

So, what’s the first thing that happens, bright and early the very next morning? I get a “son-of-a-bitchin'” (direct quote) eye infection. Oh my god, here we were all set to kick over the traces and set the world on its ear, and I, like a damn punk kid, have to come down with a son-of-a-bitchin’ eye infection! I awoke with my eyelids stuck together, green crud all over the place. It was the first time I’d ever even heard the word ‘pus,’ and wouldn’t you know, on its maiden voyage it picks my eyeballs! Man, I was a mess. It took a couple minutes of warm compresses just to get my eyes open, and even then this miserable green crap was running out of ’em like crazy. Okay – off to the doctor we went, Dad muttering “What the hell?” (his favorite expression) under his breath the whole way. The first act of Life as a Man, with Dad, and here I go all hors de combat on him.

Not a very auspicious beginning to Hell Week!

We picked up some kind of prescription goop at Edwin’s Pharmacy, and came home so I could smear it on my face, and lie in state on the living room couch. The Old Man had a way of making even martyrdom sound macho: he took one of his famous white handkerchiefs out of his pocket, dipped it in warm water, and handed it to me with a gruff, “Here, you can go ahead and use this, dammit.”

As I lay there like a beached whale, trying not to use my eyes for anything in particular, trying not to groan too much, he paced the room like a caged panther. He didn’t need to say, “God damn it to hell – here I am stuck with this kid for a whole week, and now he comes up with this!” for me to know he was thinking it.

I tried to think fast: how could I salvage this thing before it went completely south? I had an idea – something that he would like:

“How about a Mike’s pizza?” (Mike’s Pizza being where our going-out-for-dinner expeditions fixated for all time, after we had finished our Bob’s Big Boy phase. For some reason, I always ordered tamales at Bob’s Big Boy, famous for their great hamburgers. What the hell!)

The Old Man turned his face to me, lost in contemplation. “Ah, hell, I don’t know – I don’t want to drive all the way down there.” He had done it: he had successfully transformed my suggestion from something for him, into a favor to me. But ah, I wasn’t done yet, because, living so close to the ground, kids pick up a lot of stuff that grown-ups don’t have time to notice, such as:

“But Dad, I found out they deliver!”

I had him on the ropes now. There was no way he could get out of this one, without going full-on martyr and either making fried matzoh or opening a can of chili, the only two things he knew how to put on the table. Neither of which could compare to pizza. He cast about for a way out, but he was cooked. All he could manage was a feeble, “You think so?”

“Yeah – I know so.” And now the clincher. “We could get those rolls, too – you know, the ones that you like?”

Checkmate!

“Fine – what’s the goddam number?”

I quickly got up, found the yellow pages, and pried an eyelid open long enough to blearily make out the digits of my salvation. I played his own game, tottering to the phone and blinking dramatically as I tried to focus on the dial, while croaking, “Want me to call for you?”

He bit. “Nah – nah, I can do it. Gimme that thing.”

We were home free. He dialed and waited, skeptically, ready to have them say they didn’t deliver, proving that,”What does a kid know anyway?” It didn’t happen. He ordered, they delivered, and it was delicious. We were sitting dutifully at the kitchen table, where Mom always insisted we eat, when I played my last card.

“Hey, Dad, I think The Untouchables are on now.” (It was his favorite TV show, as a Chicago Prohibition-era boy, especially now that The Honeymooners was off the air.) Haha – butter wouldn’t melt in my mouth!

I waited, while he grabbed another roll and chewed on the roll and the idea. Suddenly, he grabbed his plate and his Brew 102 and barked, “Hell – why not? We’re on our own, right?”

I grinned, “Right!”

Hell Week had begun!  We had broken free of Mom’s orbit. Could buttered popcorn be far behind?

The next few days came as close as I ever came to bonding with the Old Man. As was his wont, he was still playing the martyrdom game, and never quite admitting that he was actually having any fun, but we at least established a companionable ‘household’ of sorts. He was the kind of guy who had to be the Alpha Male, and that kind of guy, while being a good sport and all, and great company, always remains on some level aloof from, and wary of, other males. I knew he had always considered me a rival for Mom, something which she, in her own weird way, kind of encouraged – much to my regret. The resulting family dynamic was something akin to how a male lion tolerates his own sons for a while, knowing that eventually, they either have to leave or be driven out. So I knew my ultimate ‘fate’ (i.e. exile) was sealed, no matter what I did, anyway, but the great thing about Hell Week was, Mom wasn’t there, so at least for the moment, it was safe for him to hang out with me.

And I think that, at least for those few days, he let down his guard enough to see, maybe for the first and last time, that I was a ‘regular guy’. He still kept things moving, though – leery of finding himself stuck in the house and actually having to relate to me, person to person: that was asking too much!

It helped, too, that day by day, my eyes responded to the goop and I could be more of a running mate and less of a caretaken liability. Praise the Lord, we could now develop our own ‘family values’ and drop the ‘education’ crap that always hovered over the house like a tornado warning. I think we went to Traveltown, a place for kids in Griffith Park where they had old railroad passenger cars, locomotives you could crawl around in, pulling levers and turning wheels, a fire truck, and even a “Jap Zero” fighter plane from World War II – the kind that made mincemeat of Pearl Harbor. What a wonderful place for a boy to dream, and best of all, you got to touch things! Now, that was my idea of education!

One night we went to see The African Lion, a Disney movie with amazing (for then) and intimate close-ups of lions in the wild, incredible vistas of Africa, and buttered popcorn!

Finally, we were down to our last evening. It had been great, but I think we were both ready to be done with canned spaghetti and fried eggs. After all, even the Darling children could only live with the Lost Boys for so long: eventually, you want your regular life back. But I still had one more item to spring on the Old Man – the one I had been saving for a special time like this. My friends down the street were always going out for dinner to a Polynesian joint down on Ventura Boulevard, called The Luau Lounge. For some reason, I had become obsessed with getting there, somehow, before I died. I pictured a tiki hut, hula girls, spears and shields, luscious ribs smothered in special sauces, roast pig steaming in a deep pit covered with palm leaves, pineapple slices all over the place, and those fancy drinks with the toothpicks stuck in ’em. Wow – heaven!

But getting the Old Man there? A place that was unfamiliar, with ‘crazy’ food? I mean, shit, it wasn’t Bob’s Big Boy or Mike’s Pizza.

What the hell!

I knew I would only have one shot at it: if I muffed it, well, there would go my chance to do something ‘wild and crazy’ – it was a cinch my mother would never go for it. Nope, it had to be Dad, and it had to be Now. I don’t know what we did that afternoon, but I could tell he was getting impatient about this whole routine, and wanted his wife back. How could I appeal to him? Wait – I had it:

“Dad, what’s a Mai Tai?”

“What the hell – you mean those crazy drinks they have in the Islands?”

“Yeah – what is it anyway?”

“Ah hell, I don’t know. What’re you asking about that stuff for?”

“Oh, I don’t know. I just heard the guys saying they had a taste of one at this restaurant – and it was great.”

“What the hell – where?”

“Ah, you know – that place down on Ventura. The tropical place. They said their Dad said the drinks are the best thing on the menu.”

“Oh yeah?”

I had started the wheels turning: hmm, he could throw back a few under cover of doing something for me. Yeah – that works.

“What – you wanna go there, or what?”

“Sure, Dad – I wanna go there. Would you take me? It is our last night . . .”

He nodded, thoughtfully. “Aw, what the hell. Sure, kid.”

Yes! Tropical maidens wouldn’t be the only ones being sacrificed tonight: the Old Man was going to sacrifice himself on the altar of Being a Good Father, and it would only be fair to compensate himself with a few strong ones – all in the name of good parenting, of course. However, it wouldn’t be any of that “sissy shit” – it would more likely be a 7 and 7 – or three.

Well, we did go to the Luau Lounge – and there were spears and shields, pineapple slices, and ribs dripping with sweet and sour sauce. No hula girls or pigs in pits, but then you can’t have everything. I don’t even remember what we ordered, but I know it was good. I do remember that we ate with our hands, and that no matter how we wiped them with our white linen napkins, they were still sticky. But I’m not sure the Old Man noticed or cared, as three 7 and 7’s had loosened him up to the point where I was half-shushing his story-telling, so that he didn’t bother the neighboring diners. I won’t say he was three sheets to the wind, but he definitely had a good bit of sail up, and a brisk following breeze.

Finally, a cute tropical waitress brought us some little finger bowls and rolled-up towelettes for our hands, and the check, in a brown leather folder with palm trees embossed all over it. I was just reaching down for my much-needed finger towel with the soap powder sprinkled on it, as the native girl bowed and prepared to leave, when . . .

No, Dad!

The Old Man picked up the little rolled towel and stuck it in his mouth, with a big chomp.

“What the hell!!”

His booming voice bellowed out over the whole restaurant. A little old lady next to us jumped out of her skin, her mouth a frozen ‘O’, her eyes wide as saucers.

The native serving girl cupped her hand to her mouth and whispered to Dad, “Is towel – use for finger.”

You remember the part in Christmas Story, when little Ralphie goes into an other-worldly state of aggression, gets the big bully Scott Farkas on the ground, and beats the hell out of him? And it’s fun until Ralphie finally snaps out of it, and everyone looks at Scott Farkas’s eyes and starts backing away because they know there’s gonna be hell to pay?

Well, that’s the way the Old Man’s eyes looked.

You don’t humiliate the Alpha Male and get away with it.

But I couldn’t help myself: I started smiling, then giggling, then laughing out loud. If I was going to get killed, I might as well die happy. Then the Old Man started to smile, and pretty soon he, too, was laughing, “God damn it – I thought it was a blintz or something!”

We laughed and giggled all the way home. Something had happened that could never be taken away from me: for one instant, we were just two guys, hanging out. For one instant, I wasn’t a ‘rival’ for Mom. For one instant, I wasn’t the kid who had all the advantages he never had. For one instant, I wasn’t the ‘over-sensitive’ brain that intimidated him. For one instant, I wasn’t the kid he never had any idea what to do with.

For one instant, we were just regular guys together.

Of course, by the next morning it was all gone – for good, pretty much. Even when I got older, he never could really hang out with me, because there was always that ‘thing’ there – that maintenance of Mom’s upright world that he felt obligated to, the need to be the guy in charge, the need to be one-up, the need to give and never receive, to be strong and never weak.

Many years later, they drove up from L.A. to visit us in the Bay Area, and he and I ended up going out to eat together. After we finished, the waitress brought the check, and he, as always, reached for it.

I said, “Dad, let me pay this time – you’re my guest.”

He shook his head and reached. “Nah – I got it.”

I said, “Dad – did it ever occur to you that sometimes, by accepting something from me, you could be giving me something – something more important than the dinner tab?”

He seemed startled, flustered.

I went on. “Like that time you tried to eat the finger towel?”

He went blank for a minute, then kind of nodded slowly, confused.

“Dad – you were human, then. Just a regular guy. I was proud of you – and proud to be with you.”

He dropped his eyes for a moment. I could see it was too far back to reach, too far from where he was now, all these years later. But something shifted. With a grunt he pushed the little tray with the check on it over to me. “Okay, then – go ahead and pay, if it’s important to you.”

Was he hurt? Embarrassed? Lost? Or just frustrated? I’ll never know – we never talked about ‘stuff’ with each other. We never really connected. Like he said, Mom was in charge of “all that,” though, in truth, she was less connected than him, more remote, more fragile.

I paid the check that night and thought to myself, why can’t people just talk to each other?

Why couldn’t he ever just say to me, “I never knew what the hell to do with you.”

Why couldn’t I ever just say to him, “I love you, you big lug – just be yourself.”

But for one night, so many years ago, we broke through all that. For one night, I had a Dad. For one night, I was a son. And for one week, we had a good time, and we laughed and laughed.

Why can’t we all go out to the Luau Lounge together, make fools of ourselves, then laugh our heads off on the way home?

What the hell.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Note: All clinical vignettes herein are significantly altered to protect patient confidentiality and privacy.

Please Remember Me

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Today, I heard another one of those “Where have you been all my life?” songs on the radio. I tracked it down and found it’s called Dante’s Prayer, by Loreena McKennitt, who has apparently been around forever, with me being shamefully ignorant of her amazing voice, her soul and her talent. So, now that I know, I want you to, too. I know it’s annoying when you’re trying to skim along through someone’s writing (mine, in this case), and they (me, in this case) insist you stop and do something, but this gal has major soul, and I really encourage you to follow the link below and actually listen to the song first before going on. Furthermore, listening to the song will be good ‘practice’ for you, in slowing down and actually being PRESENT for a few moments. Being where you are, when you are: what a concept! (Aren’t therapists obnoxious?) Okay, so here is the link, and I’ll see you on the other side.

{{This space reserved for you, the beautiful, conscious and conscientious reader, to slow down and make room for what Ms. McKennitt went to all that trouble to do for you.}}

This song was apparently inspired by Dante’s The Divine Comedy, which McKennitt was reading while on the Trans-Siberian Railroad (yeah, I’m a regular passenger on it, too – I just don’t brag about it. Not!). While it’s above my pay grade to do an in-depth exegesis of how the song relates to The Divine Comedy, I fortunately found a personal story that somebody posted about attending a concert by McKennitt that will do just as nicely. Apparently she told this story at the concert, by way of introduction to the song. While transiting Siberia, the train stopped regularly so the passengers could get out and purchase food from local vendors along the line, the train not having a dining car or food service available. They had exactly twenty minutes to get their food and get back on the train. There was an attendant on the train who looked particularly glum throughout the day, as the train stopped, and passengers got off and did their thing, then back on. At first, McKennitt assumed that maybe her demeanor was just a reflection of Russian culture.

But one time, as McKennitt got back on the train and saw the attendant, she gave the glum lady some of the food she had bought, and was rewarded with a sudden smile of surprise and gratitude. Loreena wondered if anyone else had ever taken the time and care to consider the woman, as she traveled back and forth across the vastness of Siberia, mile after mile, year after year. McKennitt was struck by the smile, and hoped that during the woman’s dark moments, she would stop to remember McKennitt’s act of kindness, and it would return the smile to her face. And in that moment of connection, the song was born, and the plaintive refrain, Please remember me.

And, in your dark moments, whom do you ‘remember’? And do you ever wonder who remembers you? As a therapist, I get to hear the real story (not the one for public consumption) about who really mattered, who made a difference, in the lives of my patients. And some of the answers would surprise friends and family members: a remembered pat on the butt from a coach, a nod from a teacher, a fishing lesson from a neighbor man, a kind act by a stranger, can literally make the difference between life and death. And sometimes I even get unexpected ‘appreciations’ of me that are kind of stunning in their way. For instance, one day a young man I had worked with for years, and had never particularly voiced his feelings about me, suddenly said,

Gregg, I’m going to see you till you die, and after you die, I’m going to find a medium who can contact you, and then I’m going to see you through her, for as long as I can. 

No, I don’t intend to see him till I die, and no, he doesn’t literally mean that – he’s just expressing a feeling – but how many people are able to do work where they get to hear something so moving and beautiful, to have the gift of working with people at that depth, to be a team with someone who would say that to them? I mean, “How sweet it is” to work with people, walk beside them, and believe in them.

But back to Please Remember Me: I know the song stayed with me, because a couple of days after hearing it, I was taking a walk with my ear buds in my ears, trudging blithely along, and a song by Van Morrison came on: Have I Told You Lately That I Love You? Suddenly, it all came together and hit me like a ton of bricks: I should be saying ‘I love you’ to God, or whatever force made us all, who has given me, and all of us, so very much. I actually teared up, right there on the street, and felt ashamed for having taken so much for granted, without giving any thanks in return. I tilted my head up (He is ‘up’, right?) and said,

 Oh my God (like, literally – not OMG!) – I haven’t even spoken to you for months, maybe years – I’m so sorry and ashamed for having ignored and neglected you, and taken you for granted. Thank you so, so much for all you have given me – and all of us. I promise not to forget that fact, and you, for so long again. I love you.

And I wondered how many times, how many years of my life, have gone by with my not even thinking to give thanks and appreciation, to the Creator, to Creation, to Life, for everything. All the times I partook of glory, both the little and the big, but didn’t give back: a beautiful song, a sunset, the rain (my all-time favorite weather), people that do and say amazing, surprising things, the people I love and who love me. How many times did I take these things for granted, instead of stopping and letting them sink in, good and proper, then offering my thanks for all that is given?

Well, back to my walk. I thought my ‘prayer’ (or whatever you want to call it) was over, but I discovered it wasn’t. I went on, addressing Whoever’s In Charge:

And now that I actually think of it, I also wanted to say thank you for ‘letting it go’ that I never gave you back even a word of thanks, and for understanding, for being patient, and for not making a ‘big thing’ of it, even though, now that I give it a second’s notice, it IS a big thing. So thank you for that, too.

Oh, I know there are infinite ways to give thanks to you, and I guess my way has been trying to be a good person, mostly – busting my ass to be the good parent I never had, to be a good husband, a good friend, and a good therapist to my patients. But now, somehow, those don’t seem enough – like they are just the regular ways of being, stuff we all do routinely, and damn, you must have noticed all along that I was skating.

Well for what it’s worth, I’m going to try to make a habit of noticing and giving thanks to you whenever I can – no, not going to church or tithing or reading the Bible – those are all fine, but they’re not for me, and I know you know that, so you’ll understand I have to do it my way. I’m no Holy Joe, god knows, but then I’m no heathen, either – just an oddball who can feel things deeply without all the window dressing of choirs and sermons and stained glass. For me, it’s enough that when I say I’ll try, you know I ‘mean it’, because you know All.

And I’ll also work on not hating you anymore for taking away my son, which I still maintain is one of your all-time screw-ups, and no, I’m not one of those Pollyannas who says “God works in mysterious ways” and lets it go; nope, I don’t let it go that you did that – not to me, but to Brett (my son), of all people – the most joyous person I ever met. You were wrong there – real wrong.

I remember very well when I saw the movie Open Range, there was a scene where the ‘bad guys’ kill Mose, one of Robert Duvall’s cowboy traveling partners, a very lovable guy, who was ‘family’ to Duvall, and kill their trail dog, too, whom they all loved dearly. After the gravesite is prepared, and both are in the ground, it’s time for someone to speak over the grave. Duvall’s second-in-command says to him, “You wanna say some words?” (i.e., as boss of the outfit). Surprisingly, Duvall says, “You wanna speak to the Man Upstairs, go on and do it – I’ll stand right here and listen, hat in hand. But I ain’t talkin’ to that son of a bitch. And I’ll be holdin’ a grudge to Him for lettin’ this befall a sweet kid like Mose.”

Well, God, since this was the first movie I had seen since the death of my son, that scene hit me like an atomic blast, and to say I ‘understood’ would be small potatoes indeed: I more than understood – I’d LIVED it, and that is exactly the way I felt about You, God – or Allah, or Yahweh, or whatever you’re calling yourself this year. I hated you, and I wasn’t nice about it either.

So, God, if that’s way off base to you, I am sorry about that, but I can’t be honest with you and not tell you about it: I guess that’s about the closest I can come to ‘confession’, but then as a lapsed half-Jew, maybe I get a pass on that one too. 

But you do so much more than kill people: for example, you were the one who gave Brett life – so how can I hate someone who gave me my son, even though he took him away? Sure, that is ‘mysterious’, and even a little crazy-making, as we say in the psychology racket (but of course you know that, having created everything, including the psychology racket). So maybe when you screw up (like killing Brett), you’re trying to teach us acceptance, and forgiveness, and big-heartedness, by us having to learn to forgive you, to notice, and admit, that you do so many wonderful things that aren’t screw-ups: could it be that you do these things on purpose, to give us a chance to learn, and expand our hearts? I don’t know – I suppose people who study the Bible or the Koran or the Upanishads have already thought up this concept and talked it to death, but for me, it’s the first time it’s occurred to me, so there’s a minor miracle for ya, that, maybe, I finally gave back to you, after you handed me so many miracles over the years, including the years themselves. And, if you didn’t do it on purpose to teach me forgiveness and acceptance – why, I’m just going to go ahead and use it that way, anyway: so there!

Again, sorry if I’m insulting you – or confusing you. Well, as Doyle Lonnegan said in The Sting, “Ya folla?”

Ah hell, I know you do. (sorry about the ‘hell’)

Oh boy – I can see you sitting up there saying “God damn – that guy can talk”, and you’d be right. I know that, in the Bible somewhere, you said, “Be still, and know that I am God,” so I am actually going to shut up now and just say,

Thank you. Thanks for sending me Please Remember Me, and that Van Morrison song, too – sorry it took me two tries to get it. So, even though I reserve the right to hate your guts sometimes, for you-know-damn-well-what (you’re just gonna have to work with me on that one), I want to stop right now and say, I’ll remember You.

Thank You, from the bottom of my heart, and I’ll be back – often.

Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

Note: All clinical vignettes herein are significantly altered to protect patient confidentiality and privacy.