Tuesday, August 2, 2011

My Father: Lost, then Found

June 17, 2011, 10:10 am

The e-mail from Miami reported: Dad has been missing for hours.

Instantly, there flashed a most terrifying image− my father’s 82 year-old sun-spotted face boldly imprinted on a quart of skim. When I called for details, my brother attempted to pacify me by reciting some of Dad’s prior extended escapes.

“Don’t you remember that daytrip he took to the Sawgrass Supermall, and what about all his secret jaunts to watch Jai Alai? Knowing Dad, he’s probably in the E.R., as we speak, having another mole checked.” Yet, when Dad failed to return home for the Monday night movie, we were forced to make dozens of calls, all futile, pursuing his whereabouts. I’ll admit that I purposely held off speaking to my mother, knowing I would hear that we, his children, should once and for all, insist that Dad hand over his car keys. But I’d sooner nap inside a lion’s den, than strip the once very independent man of all driving privileges — his one last bastion of virility.

This time, my mother surprised me.

“I hope he’s not headed up North to you,” she said.

My right eyelid immediately started to twitch. “Why, in God’s name would you think that?”

With the authority of a cardiologist, she reported how Dad counted out a 30-day supply of his Dilantin, Lasix, and Cumadin.

“And not to mention your new Buick,” I added.

“That’s not funny, young lady!”

Funny, yes, because the flipside of all this is wrought with pain and anguish.
The brushstrokes of this family painting might have been softer had my father not suffered severe brain damage during elective surgery over a decade ago. Although he walked within days, he would never again be able to state his own name or the names of his children. His diagnosis, global Aphasia. Dad’s emotions went to work overtime substituting for the innumerable thoughts and words now trapped inside his head. This former Navy man, lover of Kerouac and Baldwin, had to now rely on a woman to perform the tasks he had easily taken for granted: managing money, dealing with handymen, social engagements, and most importantly communicating with all those he cherished.

Mom mentioned Dad had hung some slacks in the backseat of the Buick before driving off into the blinding sun. When asked if she inquired about his destination, she answered: “No, I didn’t want to provoke him.”

I tried to imagine the menu of irritants that could have sent my father packing. Was it my mother taking hours to dress while, bored, Dad paced their narrow driveway, or her scolding him over the egg yolks he consumed at breakfast? Maybe she’d bought another “unnecessary” tchotchke for their home; one of those faux Lladros or another doomed bonsai plant — small rewards she bestowed upon herself for putting up with the guy for nearly 60 years.

My brothers and I suggested she call their credit card company to have them conduct a trace. And within an hour, we learned Dad had plopped down $250 at a Florida HoJo. But until the receipt is processed, we wouldn’t know exactly where. We began to breathe a bit easier picturing him dozing on a vinyl recliner, the remote control clutched in his hand.

The next day we divvied up a list of motels. Some managers cooperated, hearing that Dad takes medication. Others refused to share information, but suggest the $250 is probably a deposit for a four-night stay, including the AARP discount. Frugality always defined him.

By Wednesday, we considered calling the police. But we feared that if they find Dad, they might revoke his license on the spot. He might be judged too hastily on his inability to speak, rather than his skill behind the wheel, which was pretty damn fine considering the circumstances.

Thursday carried stark feelings of irresponsibility. Blame flew through the long-distance wires perching nowhere in particular. We were worried about our father and furious he hadn’t called. He carried a notepad with our numbers; surely someone could have helped him phone.

A collage of freeze frames flashed before me. Maybe Dad was mugged, the Buick stolen. Could he have been planning his suicide? Maybe he ran off with his favorite waitress from Wolfie’s — a chesty blonde who always gave him extra onion pockets and called him “Toots.”

Finally, my brother called the police. They needed a description: “He has silver gray hair and brown eyes. Last seen, he was wearing green plaid pants, white Docksiders, and an expression of tightlipped rage. And look for a spotless, white, Buick, Park Avenue.”

“You just described half the state of Florida,” an officer chuckled. Without us signing an affidavit, they can’t arrest him, but they’ll definitely keep their eyes open.

Mine opened Friday morning expecting my NYC doorman to buzz and say an elderly, unshaven gentleman was in the lobby pointing to a photo of me from his wallet. In that fuzzy moment before waking, I saw myself running to him, crying then scolding.

That same afternoon, four days from when he’d stormed out of his condo, my father strolled back in whistling “Moon River.” My mother was on the phone with us planning our next strategy. She said that Dad allowed her to kiss him lightly on the forehead and to make him a cup of tea and some Bumble Bee.

“He wore this grin,” she said, a sudden lilt to her voice. And I imagined him looking as if he’d mastered some terrific feat — his version of climbing Everest or knocking out Ali in the fifth.

I’m certain that what my father was trying to say, without saying anything at all, was, with all that had happened to him, he was still very much a man — a man who sometimes longed for the freedom of the open road.

Sande Boritz Berger

Friday, June 3, 2011

Last Glance on MYDAILY posted by AOL

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

On The Brink

{Excerpt from a Split-Level Life} c.2011

When Donny walks in and greets me an hour later, I make a point of not looking at him. I sit at the table buffing my nails, hoping to hide the deep fuchsia tie dye stains. A sidelong glance tells me he’s wearing his usual ridiculous smirk that only half admits to being a fool. It’s hard not to fold when I see that look. This is how we’ve always shown our love-- it’s our native dance, the one we have choreographed into the intricate pattern that has become our marriage. Usually, I find comfort knowing I can expect this, but a sudden change, like a rip tide, warns that isn’t enough.

"Donny, I've got something to tell you. You better sit down." He pulls out the captain chair and glances out the window. He needs some time to settle down. It’s challenging, this game we play, but I don't dare laugh when I'm about to tell him something so horrible, even though I’m fighting off a nervous grin.

"Rob Woodman had a heart attack last night"

"Was it bad?"

"Bad enough— he's dead." I sneak a peek at Donny’s reflection in the table’s veneer. He runs his fingers through his hair, then grips my hand.

"Holy shit!" Donny says. "Holy, fucking shit." I bet it was drugs; the guy was always coked up you know."

"Maybe it was strenuous sex. My mother said he was with their nanny when it happened. Sophie was away with the kids visiting her parents.” My new contralto voice reverberates throughout the kitchen. Warning, warning: This is what happens to selfish-indulgent men who fool around.

Donny looks at me, his head cocked to one side. There is fear in his eyes, the purest look I’ve seen him wear, in years.

“I know it’s hard to believe, we just watched him blow out his birthday candles.” Donny sits staring into space. “Oh, by the way, you might want to freshen up soon, we may be having company. I’ve invited Paula and Charlie over.”

“Tonight? Why tonight?”

“Especially tonight, with Rob gone and all. Donny, if it weren’t for Rob, we might never have met Charlie and Paula.” I thought you'd be happy. Don’t you like them? Aren’t they the perfect couple Don, you know, as couples go?”

Donny pushes his chair back, stands then sits back down. He lets me continue, get it all out, but there is a trace of loathing in the way he looks at me. It hurts to see that kind of disgust, but it only makes me persist. Why worry about limits now? I’m playing whether I understand the rules or not. That’s what he wants. That’s what he’ll get.

Donny glances out the window. A light crystal rain streak diagonally across the panes. “Alex, I know you have always despised games. I respect that about you.” I feel myself weakening, starting to back down, here comes my about face. Is it a perpetual rash?

“So why do I feel you’re toying with your own stupid version of follow the leader?”

“No one is making you do anything, it’s all in that pretty little head of yours.” Donny gives the top of my skull a gentle knock, knock as he leaves the table.

I think of saying, “Who’s there, or who are you: my husband or adolescent son concocting a noxious potion with your chemistry set—something to blow us all into smithereens?

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

A Split-Level Life { Excerpt} Sleepwalking

It is noon before I realize the phone receiver spent the night trapped in the kitchen drawer. As always, Rona manages to be the first to get through to me.

“Well, aren’t you the little chatterbox today,” she says, with an acidic hint of possessiveness that signals: it is time for me to make new friends.

“No, I completely forgot I took the phone off the hook. I’ve been in the bathroom all morning. It must’ve been the chopped meat. The girls and Donny ate pasta and they’re fine.”

“Are you saying it was the chopped chuck from Fernando’s?”

“Ah-huh, probably that order we split of frozen patties.”

“Oh crap, Alex, I just read in Family Circle that you can die from bacteria in spoiled meat.”

I hear doors opening and closing, a frantic shuffle coming through the phone wires as Rona begins emptying her freezer. Like a seasoned cashier, she tabulates aloud: “that’s six filet mignons for $48 bucks, eight shoulder chops equals $ 25, two prime ribs $ 35 and a five pound package of hamburger patties for $15… in zee gar-bage.”

“But it might only be a little virus,” I say. I don’t know whether to laugh, cry or come clean, telling her I’d eaten some scrambled eggs, coffee, had a toke and pretty good sex against the bathroom wall.

“I’m not taking any chances,” Rona says. “Hey, do you feel well enough to come over? I’ll fix you something light to eat…tea, toast, and some scrambled eggs. I’d pick you up, but Hy brought the car in this morning for the 5000 mile check-up. So, I really need you to drive me there later so I can get the car. That’s if you’re up to it.”

It serves me right. I’m full up on eggs, but agree to lunch in half an hour. Without going into details, over the telephone, I mention the lovely babysitter, Colleen Byrnes, saying she is no longer under my employment. Rona gasps with the identical intensity she demonstrated over the possibility of food poisoning.


The Karl’s home is an immaculate split-level, on the north side of town, "done" in muted tones of beige and mocha— reminiscent of a Danish modern furniture showroom or what is best described as dentist sterile. I often picture Rona and Hy sitting down to a Pillsbury-perfect dinner with their young son Ethan, a sweet nervous boy forbidden to tumble and soil his clothes. As their forks and spoons lift in unison, they appear futuristic and comically robotic. As part of her vows, I bet, Rona has included a policy promising no crumbs, spilled milk, or indelible stains. Yet secretly I envy her strict dedication to order. She would have been the model daughter for my mother the one she would have chosen had she been able to foretell the future. “Oh, Alex, how’s that darling friend of yours?” My mother never fails to ask when she calls weekly from Florida, her question reminding me that I, too, was raised in a home where the pursuit for perfection was revered.

"I thought you and Donny loved your babysitter," Rona says, wiping the tuna salad from the corners of her mouth. I’d love a bite of her tuna, but I’m stuck with the dry rye toast and eggs. She stares me down with her thick, mascara-ed brown lashes. Here in Rona’s spotless Formica kitchen, there is no place to hide. I pretend to look for an old dry cleaning receipt in my bag, stalling to collect my thoughts.

"Yes, we both liked her a lot (my voice breaks on both) and she was great with the girls, but there’s this new boyfriend… someone she met this summer. She's just not as dependable as she was, so"

"Hmm, I'm not surprised she has boyfriends. That kid is drop-dead gorgeous."

"You really think so? Personally, I think she's too damn skinny." Heat wraps around my collarbone. My teeth rip through a piece of dry toast.

"Well, maybe she is a bit too thin, but I'd kill for her hair."

"But it's red, Rona! How would you, of all people, manage all that wild, red hair?"

"Relax, take a breath. I can see you’re upset. You'll find another sitter soon. There are zillions of homely teenage girls hanging out at the new mall with nothing to do on Saturday night."

"That’s depressing." I drain the tea-cup. “I hate having to look for someone all over again.” Tears spring to my eyes. I’m on the brink of spilling the beans.

“Hey, we are talking about a few hours on a Saturday night, and an afternoon here and there. Not a big deal.”

“You know, you’re probably right. I’ll find someone new, maybe more competent and reliable.” I sit up straight and finish my slice of rye. The soggy scrambled eggs are buried underneath my napkin.

“So you’re feeling better already, right?” Rona asks, picking at her molars with a wooden toothpick.

“Yes, I think so. Thanks. Thanks for lunch.”

Rona glances at the chrome clock above her stove. “Come on, we’ve still got some time. Let’s get some shopping done while our little monsters are still in camp, and then you can drop me at the car dealer.”

She stands, and in seconds, loads the dishwasher, freshens her lipstick, grabs her handbag, and is ready to go. I stare at her amazed, at how easily she analyzes any crisis, minor or major, produces a solution, and then ties it up like a bundle of old, worn-out clothes to dump in the Goodwill bin. There is not a trace of sentimentality in deciding to let go. Finished. Done. Next. Rona and I live, not only, on the opposite sides of town; we live on opposite poles of the earth. Still, since moving to Wheatley Heights, I am drawn to her like a piglet to teats, searching for any semblance of nourishment.

Truth is; it’s less lonely to sleepwalk alongside her.

Later that afternoon at her suggestion, I place an ad in the North Shore Tattler. By the following week, I have ten teenage girls scheduled for interviews. One of them is a fourteen-year-old named Agnes who lives half a mile away. She is ebullient in spite of severe acne and the silver fences imprisoning her teeth. I hire her on the spot.