Tag Archives: Cancer

Soul Food Shiva (reposted)

The Defenders Online Website does not seem to be functioning, which means that there is no way to access my article, Soulfood Shiva.  For that reason, I am placing it below as a regular post.  The following was originally published in The Defenders Online as part of the Father’s Day Edition in 2010.

When my father laughed, he’d show his wide, white teeth, wrinkle his broad nose and let loose.  I remember the sound of it, rich and soulful, with music in the background: Motown and jazz that he’d play when my parents threw parties.  I remember the colors of those big nineteen-seventies bashes: bold red and turquoise plaids leaping from scratchy synthetics; paisleys in dizzying shades of orange, pink and purple.  I can smell the smoke in the air, mingling with the aroma of my father’s fried chicken or my mother’s latkes.   I remember dashikis, bell-bottoms and blazers with suede elbow patches.  I remember afros, which abounded amongst our friends, regardless of whether they were black, like Dad or Jewish, like Mom (everyone was one or the other).  Dad’s afro was short but not too short to play with.  I’d poke his hair down in one spot just to see how long the finger holes would stay.

“Don’t mess up the ’do,” he’d grin at me, reaching for his pick.   (My mother wouldn’t let me play with her hair either, though I longed to.  It was shoulder-length, straight and flipped like Mary Tyler Moore’sthe height of seventies chic.)

Williamsons 1970

But it’s the laughter I remember most.  The humor was adult, usually political, and therefore, miles over my head, but the sound of it thrilled me.  Laughter, I understood from an early age, was courage in the face of pain, hope in hard times: the ultimate measure of survival.  Any time my parents laughed together—which was often—I felt safe and warm; things were good and would stay that way.

My parents’ parties were loud and boisterous, but always wrapped up at a reasonable hour.  My father was an early riser with no patience for late night carousing.  When it was time, he’d turn off the music, turn up the lights and clap his hands.

“It’s that time, folks,” he’d boom, in his rich, good-natured bass, “That’s all she wrote.”

I was the lone kid at the parties, in my parents’ world in general.  By the time I reached kindergarten, all the little friends I’d had in our building had moved to the suburbs.  Their families hadn’t wanted to pay for private schools, my mother explained.  She and I were alone a lot after that, since Dad worked in publishing and was away at the office all day.  My mother taught, but was home whenever I was.  When Dad made his nightly entrance, we were complete.  We’d eat dinner together most nights, breakfast most mornings.  I wasn’t lonely; I had friends at school; I had my parents.

Besides, I could while away endless hours alone, just exploring our apartment.  Dark wood cabinets held leather photo albums, my father’s sketch books, and old things from before I was born.  There were trinkets on shelves, matryoshka dolls and other artifacts that friends had brought back from the Soviet Union.  There were African masks, African sculpture, and a giant stone head of a man, which sat on the edge of my father’s desk.  The sculptor was semi-famous, a friend of my parents.  “The Head” would be worth a lot one day.

On our walls hung original paintings by my father and his friends.  The people in the paintings were black except for a few of my father’s nudes who were white.  (I always assumed the nudes were my mother.  I’ve been told otherwise, but I still think they’re her.)  My dad painted people with posture and facial expressions so vivid, you could feel their emotions.  I knew these paintings by heart; the people in them were family.  I didn’t like it when my parents changed the display; someone was always missing, replaced by something new.

Constant, however, were Dad’s cigarettes—burning away in his hand.  I remember watching them circle and dive, punctuating his arguments as he talked on the phone—about the Vietnam War, race relations, or the city’s economy.   Then he’d inhale fiercely, gathering new words.

For the record, cigarettes weren’t what killed him. There’s no known link between smoking and prostate cancer.  Instead it’s more about being male and black—as if that weren’t enough.   No one but Cancer really knows why it starts, whom it will choose.

I was twenty-three when he got the diagnosis.

“I just want to hip you,” he said, coming into my room, red wine in hand.  I was home visiting from Boston, where I lived at the time.   He explained that his brand of cancer was the best kind a guy his age could get.  It would move slowly; we’d barely notice it.  He looked the same as he’d always looked—neither concerned nor the least bit sad.  He made it so easy for us both to remain in denial for the next few years.  We had my mother to do the worrying, to handle reality for us.

Two weeks before my father died, his blood pressure fell dramatically; we were told “it could be any time now.”  My mother and I took our leaves from work and The Wait began.  We left the apartment only to run errands, to go to therapy, or for short walks to get air.  We’d hurry back, afraid he’d go while we were out—a notion I couldn’t bear.

Dad withered to about seventy-eight pounds, consuming nothing but the few ounces of apple cider into which they mixed his morphine.  There was nothing keeping him alive and yet he lived.  He began to do strange things, like clap his hands over and over again; I never knew why, maybe to reassure himself that he was still there.  The nurse explained that he was “checking out, bit by bit.”  He struggled with words, with names.  He seemed to see people who were not there, but whom he knew, yet I was a stranger to him.

The night before my father died, my mother suddenly announced that she couldn’t take it anymore: the waiting, holding, swabbing, wiping and listening, alternately to Dad’s cries of agony and, in calmer moments, his labored breathing.  We fled to the living room where we had a tiny television set, leaving my father in the care of the Visiting Nurse.  We had no cable out there; all we could get was Batman Returns.  We didn’t care that we were picking up the thread in the middle.  Tim Burton’s Gotham City was just the escape we needed: this dark, surreal, uber-NewYork.  Most freakish of all was Danny DeVito’s Penguin.  They’d whitened his face, darkened his eyes, lips and teeth, given him wild, silver hair, and a long pointy nose.  With the evil umbrella, monocle, and demonic laugh, he was just about as sinister as a guy standing five feet tall can be.  But he also looked so thoroughly ridiculous, that his image sent my mother into a fit of giggles.

My mother snickers when amused, chin buried in one shoulder.  Her laughter is usually at someone’s expense; it’s sometimes rude, but always contagious to me.  All along, I’d had this selfish fear that when my father died, my sense of humor would go with him.  My boyfriend, my friends would tire of my moroseness and desert me one by one.   Now the bitter end was upon us, my father breathing his last, occasionally crying out in pain in another room.  Yet here we were, in stitches, laughing harder still at our own guilt.

My father died at home, on the day before Valentine’s Day in 1995.   We were both at his side.  My mother said, “Goodbye, Mel,” and kissed him for the last time, after forty-five years of marriage.  When I touched my lips to his broad, brown forehead, it had already begun turning cold.

Once he’d been taken out, my mother began making phone calls. I went back into their bedroom, which still looked and smelled like the hospice room it had been for the last few weeks.  I steeled myself and went about transforming it, so my mother wouldn’t have to.  I changed the sheets on their bed, first removing the pads from my father’s side.  I got rid of the bedpans and swabs and blue plastic covers and everything else that had enabled him to stay at home.  Next, I dressed myself entirely in his clothing—a pair of yellow sweatpants with the legs cuffed and waist cinched in, a black sweatshirt, his rag-wool socks.  When I came out into the hall, my mother was still on the phone.

“Mel died this morning,” she was saying to whomever was on the line, and that made it real.

For three days after that, people who had loved him and who loved us poured into the apartment bearing food, memories and their company.  During the day, mostly neighbors came, along with my mother’s colleagues from the school where she taught.  In the evening, friends of the family arrived—the ones I’d known since childhood, who used to show up in dashikis, bell-bottoms and afros, many of whom I hadn’t seen for years.  The first night, their faces were grief-stricken as they hugged and clung to us.  My friends came by later, adding their youth to the mix.

Our shiva was not a real shiva.  There were no boxes, no covered mirrors or quiet.  While most people did bring roast chicken, matzo ball soup, and boxes of rugelah from Fine and Shapiro, others bore ribs and plates of collard greens.  I played Bach at first, then jazz, blues, rock and also gospel, because my father had loved it all.  We set out the food and wound up throwing a party he would have been proud to host.  There were tears, but more so, the sharing of memories and laughter.

On the second day, Valentine’s Day itself, one of Mom’s colleagues brought over a stack of condolence messages from the children in her third grade class.  The substitute teacher had made time that day, not only for this project, but also for the creation of Valentine’s Day cards.   Several of the children had conflated the tasks, decorating my mother’s notes with elaborate hearts and rainbows.  The stand out in the bunch came from a boy who had written in a small, awkward cursive:

Dear Mrs. Williamson,  I’m sorry your husband is dead.

By Sam 

Then, in a cheerfully swirling red:

 P.S.  Happy Valentine’s Day!

Something about the juxtaposition of sentiments: Mom and I were instantly consumed by laughter once more.  We proceeded to clutch each other, new tears streaming down our faces, joining the sea already cried that day.   It went on a while; we’d stop, look at each other, look back at the card, and lose it again, residual chuckles erupting for several hours.  Two nights before, Danny deVito had given us respite from the waiting game.  Little Sam had reignited the pilot light of our family’s spirit.

After three days of our alternative shiva, it was suddenly enough.  I was tired of the crowds reminiscing, tired of the limbo.  I remembered the parties of the seventies and heard my father’s voice:

“That’s all she wrote.”

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What are you Waiting For? Limbo vs. the Meantime.

“I’m waiting to hear.”

“I’m waiting to find out.”

“We were hoping to close before the end of the month but the buyers are stalling.”

“The doctor thinks it’s benign but we won’t have the results for another day or two.”

“My son applied to sixteen colleges.  We won’t hear until February.”

What are you waiting for?  In my case, there’s the writing-related waiting: for my teenage beta readers to finish with my YA novel so I can fix it and submit it; to hear from the couple of agents I’ve sent query letters to.  Then, there’s the family waiting:  to learn what my husband’s next job will be, to find out my daughter’s schedule, my son’s teacher—so I can get on with the back to school shopping already.  And of course, as it is for so many free-lance moms, though we’re loathe to admit it (sometimes), I’m waiting for school to start so I can get something done.  (Of course, back in June, I was waiting for summer to start so we could all relax a little!)

For review: I can’t shop until I know their schedules.  I can’t revise until I’ve gotten feedback.  Hear that message?   I can’t do X until another person does Y.   I’m in Limbo.  You’ve probably saidthat to someone recently.  If not, I’m sure you’ve heard it.

Webster’s defines Limbo (the secular definition) as “… an intermediate or transitional place or state of uncertainty.”

Limbo is a hard place to be.  Your life has been hijacked; everything is on hold, your eyes fixed on the uncertain future.  You’re a prisoner to the whims of others.  Checking your voicemail, the mailbox, the email, again, and again.  It can be a recipe for anxiety, irritability, and depression.  But guess what?  Limbo doesn’t own you.  You can choose to be free.

I know a woman who has survived cancer, bravely enduring the diagnosis and the painful, sickening rigors of treatment.  Then more treatment to make sure the first treatment really worked.    Then more tests and continued monitoring.  The waiting is never over for her, but somehow she refuses to see it that way.   “I can’t live my life in fear of the future.”  She has children who need her now; she has a husband, and a job, now.   She takes pleasure in her family and her garden, in beautiful weather and in rain, in cooking and in reading.  She gets scared sometimes, sad sometimes, and frustrated with people who try to make her dwell on illness when she’s focused on health.  But mostly she lives now, surrounded by people who love her, who appreciate her joie de vivre and who join her in the seizing of each day.  She’s grown strong on the love of life, exchanging hats for headbands, losing the headbands as hair grows back in.   Maybe one day it will be gone again, but now is what matters, her children and husband and friends.  The little things, like a phone call or an email that hasn’t come yet, some editor’s elusive approval—these wouldn’t faze her.  She may yet have all the time in the world, but she won’t waste a minute of it in Limbo.

I try my best to learn from this and I’m getting better.   When I start to get anxious and hyper-focused on the future—on the parts I have no control over (whether an agent will fall in love with my protagonist, whether I can make a feuding couple hear one another, whether my daughter will make friends in middle school)—I do a few things:

  • I sing.  In the shower, in the car, with my kids:   show tunes, the Beatles, Queen, Journey, Katie Perry, Taylor Swift, The Little Mermaid … anything.  Just sing.  It feels good, and I actually read a      study once that found singing enhances your mood.
  • I treat myself as if I were my own client.  I nurture myself, reality check, point out my own strengths or the strengths of my kids if it’s their uncertain futures I’m worrying about.
  • I breathe—like a yogi.  Full disclosure: I don’t do yoga, (the only reason being the time; if I have it to spare I’ll dance, which I never get to do enough).  However, a yogi friend of my husband’s taught him a series of deep breathing exercises, which he taught me.       And though this is third hand stuff, the deep breathing really does      help get me out of future-panic mode and back into the moment, the      present.
  • I read.
  • I connect with people I love and miss.  You know—the ones you’re too busy and angst-ridden to see?  Hearing about their lives takes you out of your own.   Cheer them on, console them if they need it, share yourself, laugh together.  Be in the moment together.
  • I think  about my mom, how she worries about me and my family just because we’re her children—how silly I think she is for doing it.  Everything is going to be fine, Mom, it really is.  And saying it to      her, I believe it.
  • I play with my kids.  Because they are the moment.
  • I hang out with my husband (oh yeah—him!)

These things are the opposite of Limbo:  they are how I make the most of the meantime.

When my father was dying, when my mother and I knew it would be soon, we were in a very trying kind of limbo.

“It’ll be any day now,” said the visiting nurse.  Any day now seemed like a pretty big margin of error.   In any case, we were in a holding pattern, as my mother described it.  We didn’t want to go too far or commit to anything.  We were determined to be with Dad when he passed.  The waiting went on for two whole weeks.

Then, the night before he died, my mother and I watched a movie together on the small TV set in the living room.  Though it wasn’t a comedy, the relief of doing something besides wait got the better of us and soon, we were both in stitches, enjoying each other, enjoying this small piece of life, though my father was leaving us gradually in the other room.*

We hadn’t abandoned him; he was in the care of a nurse who’d get us as soon as we were needed.  But during those two hours, we were free from Limbo, making the most of something beautiful in the meantime … life.

What about you?  When you find yourself in a holding pattern, what do you do to celebrate “the meantime?”

Taking Time to Relish the Moment

A proud moment; Zoe’s 5th Grade Graduation

Sometimes the best moments in parenting come when you’re not actively parenting at all.  I was sitting by the pool, reading Wild,the best-selling memoir by Cheryl Strayed, occasionally glancing up from my book to watch the antics of my eleven year-old daughter and her two friends.  I was at the beginning of the book, where Strayed is losing her mother to cancer, living in two time periods at once.  First: the past, where her mother was healthy and vivacious, telling Strayed and her siblings stories, singing them songs, teaching them about nature and using all her creativity to make them feel loved and grounded no matter how shaky their circumstances.  Second, the present, where illness was ravaging Strayed’s mother’s body, taking her far more quickly than doctors had initially predicted.  As I’m reading this frank, raw description of losing a beloved mother, of being consumed with the need to hold onto her, my own mother was thousands of miles away visiting Russia, the land of her father’s birth.Now I always worry a little when my mother travels.  I’m not specifically thinking that she’ll fall and break a limb on all these walking tours she takes, or that she’ll get sick and need medical attention in a country where she doesn’t speak the language.  I’m not imagining her plane will go down, or that her boat will hit an iceberg and sink.  Of course, all these fears go through my mind, as I’m sure something like them goes through hers when I take a trip.  But I always see my mother as resilient, able to handle more than most women half her age.  I see her as solid.  I see her as permanent, which—as I know too well from having lost my father—is a fallacy.  In any case, reading about Strayed’s pain, about her wish to have her mother longer, just to have a chance to hear her voice again, I wished my mother were around so I could hug her, have her tell mea story.

Of course, I’m closer to the age of Strayed’s mother when she died, than I am to the age of the daughter losing her.  And unlike Cheryl Strayed when she lost her mother, I am a mother.  So, as I sat there, reading by the pool watching my long-legged girl doing flips off the diving board, I found myself identifying more with Strayed’s mother,  than with Strayed herself.  Not in an entirely morose way.   Naturally, it went through my mind how devastating it would be to have to say good-bye to your daughter prematurely.  But that wasn’t where my mind dwelled.  Instead, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the brevity of life in a seize-the-day good way.  I felt urgent about the need to appreciate each moment that I am here with my children, to make the most of them, of myself, of our lives together however long that is.  I don’t think that way enough.

Between writing, household chores, arranging for home-repairs, dealing with the car, getting people ready for their Next Big Thing, be it camp, school or a family trip, re-starting my therapy practice after nearly three years, preparing talks—I am so caught up with the minutiae of my life that I am often at risk of missing all the good stuff.  The moments that matter most, those where I get to enjoy the people I love.

My kids during a great poolside moment last summer.

So I closed my book and just watched my daughter in the simple act of being her smart, silly, inventive self.  The girls had stopped their game of Marco Polo by now, because a younger girl, hoping to get ingratiate herself to the big girls—had lent them her enormous, inflatable seal.  Zoe and her two friends took turns trying get on its slippery back for a ride, more often than not, causing the seal to slip out from under them, pop up into the air, knocking them back into the water to the tune of their own hysterical giggles.  Finally, when each of them had mastered it and taken a turn riding around the section of the pool where inflatable toys are allowed, a new challenge arose.   From where I sat, I couldn’t tell what they were up to at first.  One of Zoe’s friends took hold of the seal’s head, the other its tail, trying to hold it steady as Zoe climbed aboard.   Now she crouched with her feet planted shakily on its back.  Her goal, it seemed, was to stand.  A few attempts ended with Zoe sliding off one side or another, but finally she got her balance—albeit in a bit of a squat—let go and, arms outstretched, shrieked that she was surfing!  Her friends cheered as Zoe toppled off the seal once again, creating a surprisingly big splash for a sixty-five pounder.

It was just a split second of victory, but the delight on her face brought tears to my eyes.  It is a snapshot of Zoe’s childhood that I’ll remember always, a moment I was around to appreciate, silently cheering her on.

Wishing for (Medical) Weed in Retrospect

One thing I like about blogging is that topics tend to spill into one another, leading you places you might not have intended to explore, but that you’re glad you did.  This blog is about identity and body image, two broad enough topics, which allow me to travel from the darkest corners of Anorexia Nervosa to the funniest, sweetest moments of parenting.  Writing about my parents interracial marriage led me to post about same sex marriage, a topic about which I feel passionate, even if it is not specifically “my” issue (though I would argue that equality is everyone’s issue).  All my life I’ve known couples—loving, committed couples who’d been together for decades, bought homes together, raised children, cared for one another in time of illness.  It always seemed absurd and cruel to me that these couples weren’t legally permitted to marry.  (Meanwhile, those with the power to allow those couples to legally wed were having affairs and racking up divorces right and left.)   This brings me to another topic that is not my issue (not yet, anyway): the legalizing of Medical Marijuana.

I have a confession to make: I don’t smoke pot.  I tried it in college, yes I inhaled, I’ve sampled it a few times since, but for me, it never quite took.  (Partly what I didn’t like was that it made me talk even more and even faster than I already do–hence not fun for those around me.)  In any case, I didn’t like it; my friends were never into it so it was never around me very much.  When I was in college, alcohol played a bigger role, though when you weigh less than one hundred pounds as I did then, it doesn’t take much to put you over the edge.  Also, as I’ll probably get to in another identity related post, plain old cigarettes were just fine thank you.   In fact more than fine.  In fact heavenly.  But more on my old ex, Benson and Hedges, another time.  (Yes, I quit about twenty years ago.)

So, the legalizing of pot, medical or otherwise was never my issue, though I always thought it made sense.  If something is legal, it can be regulated, and—in theory—be kept out of the hands of kids … or something.  But personally I had no passion about this.

Until last week. I happened to be reading the op-ed page of the New York Times last Thursday and came across this piece: A Judge’s Plea for Pot  

By Gustin L. Reichbach, a Justice of the State Supreme Court in Brooklyn.  Reichbach has pancreatic cancer.  He lives with and suffers from, not only the illness itself but its monstrous treatment.   Though he has already lived far beyond his physician’s initial prediction, between his chemotherapy drugs and radiation treatment, then some drugs that combat the side effects of other drugs, he lives with constant pain and nausea which make it near impossible for him to eat or sleep.

The only thing that seems to make Reichbach’s his life at all tolerable is pot, surreptitiously acquired for him by brave and resourceful friends.   As he explains:

“Inhaled marijuana is the only medicine that gives me some relief from nausea, stimulates my appetite, and makes it easier to fall asleep. The oral synthetic substitute, Marinol, prescribed by my doctors, was useless. Rather than watch the agony of my suffering, friends have chosen, at some personal risk, to provide the substance. I find a few puffs of marijuana before dinner gives me ammunition in the battle to eat. A few more puffs at bedtime permits desperately needed sleep.”   

Reichbach’s article is essentially a plea to Governor Cuomo and the New York State Legislature—now debating a bill to recognize marijuana as an effective and legitimate medicinal substance and establish a lawful framework for its use.   (Sixteen other states have done this.)  Two things stand out about this article: one being Reichbach’s status as a judge—with a public legal voice, unlike many of his fellow cancer sufferers—and two, his amazing candor in describing his personal plight.  The latter touched me on a deeply personal level because of what I saw my father go through seventeen years ago. [1]

I somehow had not associated cancer with pain.  I don’t know why.  I think I’d listened to the old (incorrect) advice that if you found a lump in your breast and it hurt, that was a good sign.  If it didn’t hurt—then you were in trouble.  It was an old wive’s tale, but maybe that was why my father’s physical pain came as such a shock.  For the first three and a half years after his diagnosis—metastatic prostate cancer—he was comfortable and relatively symptom free.  Then the back pain began.  For the last year and a half, he was mostly in bed, almost exclusively for the last six months.  There was chemo (an oral cocktail taken at home, nowhere near as invasive—or, I’ll wager, as effective— as Reichbach’s treatment) and radiation.  There was the loss of appetite, to the point where the most my father could stomach was a few ounces of apple cider into which his morphine was dissolved.  There was insomnia, due to the impossibility of finding a comfortable position now that his body had diminished to almost nothing but bone.  But overall, the dominant feature was pain.  Day and night he would cry out:  Oh, God, no! or  Please!  No one deserves this! almost as if he were pleading with God.  There was more, but I won’t print it to preserve his dignity.  All I could do was sit there and hold his hand.  Cancer was eating him by then; I could see it.  And I understood: cancer, when it is determined to win, is pain.

After Dad died, it took some time to collect old memories and gradually replace the image of the sick, bedridden man with the strong, laughing, vivacious man he was before his illness.  Not that his struggle with cancer wasn’t part of his and, on some level, part of my own identity.  But the healthy, funny, brilliant and sociable Dad is how he would want to be remembered.  Nevertheless, his cries of pain will never leave me.

I believe regrets are pointless and emotionally destructive.  I hate looking back and saying, if only.  But in this case I can’t help it.  I wish it had occurred to me that something could have made him more comfortable than morphine when the medication had done all it could possibly do.  Maybe if I’d been more of a recreational user of weed I might have thought of it.  But if medical marijuana had been legal, I wouldn’t have to have come up with it because his doctors would have prescribed it in a heartbeat.  And, as Reichbach eloquently points out:

doctors cannot be expected to do what the law prohibits, even when they know it is in the best interests of their patients.”

If only, Dad.  If only.


[1] My article, Soul Food Shiva, is the story of losing my father to cancer.

When Cancer Chose Him

(This is the second of two short excerpts I’m including in this blog from my essay First to Go: A Nice Jewish Girl Survives the Love of Her Life, about my parent’s marriage.  For the first excerpt, “A Mixed Marriage in 1950,” click here.)

About 25 years before his diagnosis

I must have been a junior in high school the night my dad got mugged, because he had yet to give up smoking.  They followed him into the elevator—two young black guys—with a hey man and a what’s going on? to which my dad responded in kind.

“You got a light?”  One of them asked (a lot of people ignored the rule against smoking in the elevators—understandable, since they all still had ashtrays in them.)  My father reached into his pocket and pulled out his lighter, only to discover that it was dead.

“Too bad …” the one sighed.  “Maybe this will work …” and produced a long switchblade which he proceeded to press against my father’s neck.

While the unarmed one stopped the elevator, the one with the knife turned my dad around and shoved him face first into the corner.  He held him fast, keeping the knife to his neck, shouting, Come on, come on!  at his partner–who frantically stripped my dad of everything he had on him except for his keys (still in his hand), his wedding ring (on the same hand), and the defunct lighter.

When the men were done, they started the elevator again and got out at the next floor, leaving my father physically unharmed.

I know I woke up when he got inside our apartment on the seventeenth floor.  I heard the anxious voices of both my parents, as my father told my mother what had happened.  I don’t remember if I got out of bed then and joined them, or fell back asleep and heard the story the next morning.  In any case, my father was still badly shaken.  He kept repeating the part about the knife against his neck and how, if the mugger’s hand had been any less steady, he would have been dead.

It was the first time my father had ever seemed vulnerable to me.  My whole life, no matter what was going on, he’d always seemed in command of every situation.  Now some stranger had robbed him of all his authority in a matter of five awful minutes.  He never fully recovered it.

Dad spent a good part of the next day at the police station, going over volume after volume of mug-shot books.  Endless photographs of young, black men on the wrong side of the law. What did it mean to him, I’ve always wondered, that the muggers were black?  What did he have to grapple with as a result?  My father’s brother, Herman—one of my least bright uncles, whom I never met because he’d died long before my birth—had frequently prefaced statements with the phrase:  “If niggas would just learn to act right …” directly attributing the persistence of racism to the bad behavior of black people.   This had outraged my father.  Still—all those photographs.

Nothing had changed outwardly after the mugging, yet my father was never quite the same again.  He suddenly seemed older, smaller, more fragile.  He got sick more frequently.  It felt like he was living—writing—on borrowed time.

I’ve never been able to shake the notion that the mugging was when Cancer chose him.  I know my theory is totally unscientific, but it’s possible that the emotional trauma was extreme enough to affect his body chemistry.  My father’s doctors initially gave him just three years.  The cancer had already metastasized, so removing the prostate would have been pointless.  The best they could do was keep things in check, slow down the progress of an already slow-moving cancer.  They tried him on a new experimental treatment—a form of oral chemo—a set of pills to be taken three times a day for the rest of his life.  There were some side effects, including some weight gain and moodiness.  But for the most part, the drugs were effective and did what they were supposed to do.  He survived more than five years, remaining mostly symptom-free for the first three and a half.

Once my father died, my mother made a very conscious decision not to.   She poured herself back into life with a vengeance.  It would be another four years before she retired, but she began to travel almost immediately.  We went to London together the summer after he died, though we were both still part-numb, part-reeling from the loss.  We made ourselves to go; we had to do something to mark a new stage, where we would celebrate life the way Dad would want us to.   We had a great time in his honor.   By day we’d split up and take in different sights—museums and shoppes and parks and streets and squares whose names I recognized from so many books I’d read over the years.   In the late afternoons we’d come together again and wind around the city until we found a restaurant for dinner.  Sometimes we took the Tube, but more often we walked, talking the whole time, and all through the meal, mostly about my father.  The memories of him as he’d been in his prime—strong and whole and laughing and free of disease—began flooding back on that trip, replacing those of the last year and a half he’d spent in bed.

For my mother, the London trip had sparked a new passion for adventure.  Or maybe it wasn’t so new (she’d married my father, after all) but simply dormant.  In any case, the first thing she did when we got home was begin writing a grant for a new curriculum for her school on the journeys of Columbus and his fellow European explorers.  She got the grant, which meant a month-long, research-filled European tour for her—Spain, Portugal, Italy.   She devised the trip and booked everything on her own; she went alone.  She speaks only English, so it was a daring endeavor which basically showed everyone in her life—herself included—just what sort of stuff Lorraine Williamson was made of.   I believe it impressed everyone just how well she stood up on her own after nearly half a century of marriage.

Since her retirement, she’s taken traveling to the next level.  She’s been back to Europe several times, China twice, visited Viet Nam, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar, Ecuador, and Africa three times—North, South, and Central.  She’s ridden camels and elephants, hiked the Himalayas, and snorkeled off the Galapagos Islands.

My mother has been busy at home, too.  She tutors; she’s a docent at the Jewish Heritage Museum, and the most loving, involved grandmother my two children could ask for.  She’s part of a book group; she goes to plays, concerts museums—everything the city has to offer.  On some level, I think she’s afraid that if she’s still for a moment—or has too quiet a weekend—age will find her and get the best of her.

When my father was dying, my mother had been part of a support group for women whose husbands were battling cancer.   Seventeen years later, a handful of the widows, my mother included, continues to meet for monthly dinners out.   They still discuss their late spouses—who brought them together after all—but these days talk centers primarily on the here and now: whose daughter is getting married, whose grandson’s bar mitzvah is coming up, and who’s finally moving to Florida.  Some of the younger ones have remarried; others, like my mom, are busy with the grandchildren their late husbands never got to meet.  The discourse flows, I imagine, from past to present and back again.

At one point during the most recent of these dinners, the conversation turned, as it frequently does, to fond reminiscences of the departed.  One of the women sighed, lamenting:  “I wish I’d been first to go.”

As the others took in the statement and gravely nodded their assent, my mother cleared her throat.   “No you don’t.” she said.

Chasing the Dream: A Lesson From Dad

Two beautiful members of my father's legacy

It wasn’t until after his cancer diagnosis in 1989 that my dad began to focus most of his efforts on his memoir.  The writing process was different from previous works.  It was good for the family—for my parents’ marriage—because it involved less research, less travel.  He was home more, though by that time, I was living in Boston.  Fortunately, Pan Am had this great New York to Boston Shuttle which cost fifty bucks for a round-trip ticket, so I came home on weekends whenever I could.  My mother would park the car and my dad would wait for me at the gate. 

That’s one of my clearest visual memories of him, actually.  Dad’s eyesight was so bad that he couldn’t see me until I was right up close.  But I could see him.  He wasn’t a tall guy, so the first thing I always picked out of the crowd was his wide, brown dome of a forehead.   He’d be waiting there, hands on hips, face full of anticipation as I came down the ramp.  His embrace felt like home.

Of course, once we got home, the time I spent with my parents was limited.  I’d be lying if I implied that seeing them was my main reason for flying to New York those weekends.  I was in my twenties with lots of friends from high school, college and my old ballet school swarming the city.   The social scene was what drew me back each weekend.  I might have dinner with my parents or spend a few hours with them in the afternoons, but at night I went out, stayed out late and slept until eleven the next morning.  Like many very young people, I believed time was limitless.  When I woke up, my father would have already put in a good five hours at the typewriter.  He’d get up before dawn—as he did all his life until he got really sick—put up the coffee, pour himself a mug (black with loads of sugar) and begin his work. 

By then had become clear that the memoir was the thing he should have been working on all along.  This was going to be his triumph.  Dad believed—because this was the way the publishing world had worked when he was at Viking*—that he could get his “four chapters” done and would then be given a big advance to do the rest. 

My father remained idealistic about his work to the very end.  He could always imagine success waiting just beyond the horizon.  “When my ship comes in …” was the phrase I heard him use over and over again.  

Though the ship never came in, I am proud of my father nevertheless.  He left me a gift that most daughters never get: the first ten chapters of a richly detailed memoir, ten more chapters outlined.  Some people have suggested that my mother and I try to finish the book, so his legacy lives on.   It is a beautiful thought, but I know, lacking my father’s experience and perspective, we’re incapable of doing that.   Besides, I believe that his legacy lives on anyway—in me and in my children.

Of all the lessons I’ve learned from my father, the most important is: set your goals high, but don’t squander the present.  No matter how my father chased his dreams, he always had time for me.

Enjoy the love of your family, your children’s joys and wonderings.  Strive for the future, but don’t let NOW pass you by.    

*My father was an art director at Viking Press from 1959-1981

Valentine’s Eve Remembrance

My father and me in 1993

When you lose someone you love, the loss becomes part of you.  As time passes the loss changes shape, weight, texture, but you carry it everywhere.  It’s experience that changes you, wisdom to share in measured doses, depending on how willing another is to receive.

My father died of cancer seventeen years ago today:  February 13th, 1995, the day before Valentine’s Day.  We sat shiva for just three days before we felt him urging us to get back out into the world and live—on his behalf, on our own.  I remember walking outside on February 17th and thinking what a lonely place it was without Mel Williamson.  Lonelier still for those who’d never known him.  And then something happened—I don’t remember what—I saw some interaction between strangers on the street: something Dad would have made a comment about or laughed at, and I remember smiling.  A private smile, between me and Dad’s memory.

Since the day he’d died, I’d been getting back memories of the real him—not the fragile man who’d been in his bed for the past year and a half—but the hearty, brilliant, loving and funny guy my Dad was before.   But that day, walking, thinking of him, imagining his smile, hearing his rich bass laugh in my head, it was suddenly clear: I’d be okay.

In the beginning, I cried every day—many times a day—missing him, longing for him, saying angrily, he should still be here!  But mindful of his pain, I’d add: not like that.  The first year was hardest; there was still so much I wanted to ask him and tell him.  The next four years were the next hardest.  With every milestone, including my wedding in 1999, I’d think it: you should be here, Dad.

Once I met a woman who lost her father before I lost mine.  She told me: the first ten years are the worst.  Then it gets easier.  And it’s true.  Sometime after the tenth anniversary of my father’s death, I stopped feeling angry that he was missing so much of my life—and by then my children were born.  I actually started enjoying the wistful moments: what would Dad have thought of this?  What would he have said to that?   My children enjoy hearing about him; I enjoy seeing traces of him in them.  It is easier now.

As I gain distance from my father’s death, I want to share the balm of time that’s made my loss easier to bear.  But when I meet others who have recently lost parents, or who are losing them, I hold myself back from saying things like “you’ll get through it,” or  “it’s hard, but it will be okay.” Everyone’s loss is their own, as is their pace of recovery.  I can’t tell you how it’s going to turn out for you and your loss.  I can only say, you’re not alone, and if you need to talk, I’ve been someplace similar.

*

In June 2010, I published Soul Food Shiva, a more detailed essay about losing my father to cancer, in the Defenders Online.  You can read it by clicking here.