(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.