My father and I looked into each other’s eyes

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It took a while for him to awaken from the anesthesia. Earlier the surgeons had come out to speak with me. The surgery had involved two separate teams of surgeons – throat and esophageal – and took 16 hours in the OR. The surgery was a “success” – they had gotten all the malignancy out. Given that it was over 30 years ago, if my memory serves me on this, they also showed me proof of what they had taken out. I would have preferred to have simply taken their word for it!

Our eyes met. I’m sure both of us were amazed he’d come through the surgery. Besides the known risky possible outcomes of the surgery, one was certain: he would need to learn to use an electrolarynx in order to speak again.

Our eyes met. Love in both directions. It was just the two of us now. We were both displaced from our homes, several hundred miles away – his in South Florida, mine in New York City.

Our eyes met. Gratitude from both of us – towards each other, the surgeons and to my sister who had flown in from Israel to care for our mother and organize his homecoming – home care, rehab, etc.

The meeting of each other’s eyes was not new for us. Some 10 or more years before that, after many years of strife, distancing, tension and awkwardness, we’d had our moment of healing.

The setting for our healing was the stairwell of a funeral home at my Aunt Mollie’s funeral. I don’t remember why we happened to be on those stairs, but I remember stopping and asking him what I could do to make it easier for him to have relationship with me – a kind of question and stance that was totally out of my repertoire at the time. Having been steeped in the human potential movement at the time, my style of “healing” was usually confrontational. My normal opening to him would have been more like, “Why can’t we have the kind of relationship that ____and _____have?” The not-so-subtle subtext was, “Why can’t you be the father I want and need you to be for me?” Sound extremely self-righteous? Or, more dramatically, I might have said “I don’t want us to have to have a deathbed conversation.” I have no idea what was different this time in causing me to ask what I could do to open things up between us.

His response was immediate: “Ask my advice when it still has a chance to be of benefit to you.” My internal reaction was: “I don’t need your advice….you’re always coming out of fear and I don’t need that.” Instead, I said: “I hear you have something valuable you would like to share with me. That is beautiful!” I then told him I never heard him affirm me as a person and only heard about his pride in me from other people. He was surprised and said he was proud of me. We then looked in each other’s eyes and stayed with that for a few – eternal – moments. To ride the wave of awkwardness we both felt, we joked about describing the color of each other’s eyes. The love just flowed. We then resumed climbing the stairs to the chapel where we gave back-to-back eulogies for my aunt. In my mind’s eye, it looked like a completion of a dramatic scene in a movie.

Later expressions of our love included learning how to hug each other. I’d love to choreograph what it must have looked like over time. Maybe my daughter, Marika Brussel, an exciting choreographer in San Francisco, could mentor me on this. I can imagine that It would start with me moving towards him and beginning to touch. He’d either move back, or lightly push me away. Then he’d begin to let in an arm’s length “hug.” Over time we played with this and it was funny. I used my height and strength to my advantage in these encounters. Ultimately, as we approached each other, he actually initiated the hugs. Once, while picking him up at Kennedy Airport, I hugged him – and lifted him up – before he had a chance to put his luggage down!
Our hugging became embracing.

Back to the ICU. Our eyes met. He couldn’t speak now. We didn’t need to. He knew I was there and was doing my best to protect him and ensure he got what he needed. While I was distraught at the suffering he was going through, I felt so good about being able to be there with him and his accepting my love and support.

My dad died some months later and I delivered his eulogy. The theme of what I said was Don’t call too late. He had said that when I’d called into his hospice room later in the evening than I should have. He was concerned that the ringing of the phone might disturb his hospice roommate. That concern was so reflective of his sensibilities about how to treat other people. In my eulogy I used his words in a different way: Don’t wait till it’s too late to reach out to someone you love and care about. And that was the message that I offered to the several hundred people gathered there.

So, why am I writing this now? If your father is still alive, there’s still time. Precious time.

A few thoughts on finding/making/seizing these moments.

  • They don’t need to be epiphanies. We don’t need to see a burning bush.
  • They can be windows – a peek into possibilities.
  • Like my hugging story, they can be incremental steps, initially meeting resistance.
  • The story of you and your father is still being written.
  • It’s a dance.
    o Keep your eyes on the person you love and care about, not what your feet are doing.
    o There’s no telling how many steps it will take.
  • Regardless of your father’s responses, the important thing is to step onto the dance floor.

Given how crazy and uncertain these days are, and how we have become increasingly aware of the importance of our relationships with the people we love, if not now, when?