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’s—the height of seventies chic.)
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.
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.”