On the second day, a sail drew near, nearer, and picked me up at last. It was the devious-cruising Rachel, that in her retracing search after her missing children, only found another orphan.
On April 1, 1957, my father took my mother to see a film called The Barretts of Wimpole Street. My dad, Donald, was a grad student studying American literature at Cornell University, and my mom, Leslie, was an English major at Hood. They were still unmarried, and stayed at the Hotel Ithaca that night to avoid the prying eyes of roommates and dorm mothers. After the movie, they visited a drugstore to buy condoms, but it was closed. My mother assured my father that it was the wrong time of the month for her to become pregnant. They got married in June. I was born in December.
I was named after Stephen Dedalus, the hero of James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was in my father’s voice. He taught me to love the sounds of language before I could speak by carrying me on his shoulders while reading Ulysses aloud.
My father became an activist in the era of civil rights protests, “Ban the Bomb,” and the blacklisting of suspected Communists. I have a photograph of my family taken at a demonstration four years after I was born. My parents look like the hero and heroine of a movie about a young Jewish couple who devote their lives to saving the world. I’m holding up a sign in my stroller that says PEACE.
My dad would put on a navy-blue blazer and tie to go to a march. He believed that the hippies were undermining his long-awaited revolution with their free love, psychedelics, and other decadent nonsense. The uprising of the proletariat was expected to break out any day, spreading from college campuses, to factories, to the streets. My father kept a copy of Mao’s little red book on his night table beside The Godfather and Portnoy’s Complaint. At a march against the Vietnam War in Washington, I saw my parents beaten by riot police who charged down the steps of the Department of Justice. FBI agents came to our apartment building in New York City to interrogate the superintendent and my parents’ friends from the PTA.
When I was 12, my father was fired from a teaching job for saying he was against the war. His students took over the administration building for two weeks in protest. I saw my parents led away in handcuffs, and my father served 11 days in the Queens House of Detention.
At the same time, he was still my dad, the English professor. When I stayed home from school with a cold, he would tell me to read Moby-Dick. The title of Melville’s epic became shorthand in my mind for everything that seemed overbearingly pedantic and tedious about my father. I started getting crushes on guys in 7th grade, but I couldn’t talk about it with my dad for years. He would deflect those conversations by saying in his most rabbinical voice, “When you meet the right girl…”
Every summer for 40 years, my family rented a beach house in Provincetown, at the tip of Cape Cod. On one of those vacations in the 70s, I convinced my dad to smoke a joint. At first the drug didn’t seem to have much of an effect on him, but as we were walking downstairs he blurted out, “My sneakers feel like marshmallows.” Marijuana did wonders for my father, or he had become open to wonder by the time he started smoking it. He told me that smoking pot had reinvigorated my parents’ sex life, which was a little too much information.
By then, the revolution they had fought so hard for seemed even further away. My father was fired from several jobs because of his politics, ending up at a state college in Jersey City where he taught inner-city kids to see their own struggles in the travails of Dickens’ textile workers. My parents invested their passion for organizing in the American Federation of Teachers, and my father was elected president of the state council. At the same time, he secretly joined the Communist Party, stashing his red card in a copy of King Lear.
My father and I would take an annual walk on the sandbars in Provincetown to take stock of our lives together. After feeling that he was my nemesis for years, I began to appreciate how similar we were. He became more affectionate and emotionally expressive. By the late ’80s, his own mother and father were dead, and sometimes he would burst into tears, crying that he had become “an orphan.” He began talking about mortality, predicting that he would die at the same age as his father, 69. He told me that he didn’t believe in an afterlife and would be “annihilated” after his death, which seemed like an oddly vivid choice of words, as if he was describing the obliteration of atomic particles or an entire city. But his worst fear was becoming an invalid. If I’m ever a vegetable, he would say, just pull the plug.
By finding a life-partner and getting married, I felt like my father and I had finally become peers.
I proposed to my boyfriend, a soft-spoken science teacher from the Midwest named Keith, on the breakwater in front of the house in Provincetown in 2001. Gay marriage was still illegal, but we decided we would celebrate our love with our friends and families anyway. My parents loved Keith, and my father had become a vocal critic of discrimination against gay people in his union. He resigned from the Communist Party because his comrades refused to support gay rights.
My dad made the only political speech at our wedding, a rousing toast to marriage equality that made even Keith’s church-going Republican relatives applaud. By finding a life-partner and getting married, I felt like my father and I had finally become peers.
Three weeks before my father’s 70th birthday, my parents attended a union meeting. My dad took a sip of apple juice that my mother had poured for him and said to one of his colleagues, “I think I drank that too fast.” Suddenly he jerked back and slumped toward the floor. The EMTs arrived 20 minutes later and restarted his heart. With shouts and sirens wailing in the background, my mother called me and told me to get on a plane to New Jersey.
My sister Hillary and brother-in-law Andrew flew in from Los Angeles, and we all met up in Newark Airport, like a fated rendezvous in a dream. My father had been taken to Greenville Hospital, a dreary three-story facility with one working elevator and a sign on the wall that said respect the privacy of the patients. this is no place for a conversation. We rode up to intensive care beside trays of green and orange mush. My father was in a private room, hooked up to a rack of squawking machines. He looked like he was sleeping, but didn’t react even when my mother cried out, "Please don’t leave me!" It was as if he had been turned to stone.
We visited him a couple of times a day, eating our meals in a diner nearby, and feeling like aliens who had been abruptly transported to a planet with an atmosphere barely capable of sustaining life. I marveled at all the people still moving around purposefully in the Day World, oblivious to what is never far away. My sister was five months pregnant, so at night, she and my brother-in- law shared the only guest bed in my parents’ apartment, while I slept in my mother’s bed. Taking my father’s place like that was psychologically fraught, but my mother’s need to talk trumped my need for boundaries. After playing Catherine to my father’s Heathcliff for 51 years, she looked like she had been struck by lightning. She could barely navigate across the room.
Waves of shit smell washed periodically over the ICU, as if the ward was barely keeping itself afloat in a sea of decay. One day a nurse handed me a biohazard bag containing my father’s wedding ring. “Your father’s finger was so swollen, we almost had to call in a plumber to cut it off,” she explained. I quickly slipped the ring out of the bag and warmed it in my palm before giving it to my mother, sitting desolate in the hallway.
In the valley of the shadow of death, I decided to meditate at my father’s bedside. I sat down in a chair and started counting my breaths: one, two, three… At that moment, my father’s arms shot out to the sides of his bed, his lips curled up in an uncharacteristic sneer, and his feet began thrashing under the sheets. The rawest expression of terror I have seen in any creature, human or animal, took possession of his face. He arched his back and rose from the mattress, shaking, as if he was trying to climb out of his body. I ran to the nurses’ station and called out, “My father is having a seizure!” One of the nurses said “He does that sometimes,” as if she was discussing his bowel habits or meal preferences.
I felt like we were fighting a revolution in Greenville Hospital to free my father from the tyranny of being trapped in his body.
I stroked my father’s forehead and tried to soothe him. His eyes were open, but when I put my face inches from his and called his name, there was no flicker of recognition. He ground his teeth like a barnyard animal as his beautiful brown eyes rolled in different directions. I was terrified of the possibility that he was fighting to reconstitute his soul in a broken vessel so that he wouldn’t leave his beloved Leslie alone on Earth. I pledged that I would take care of her, and told him that it would be all right to leave his body if it was time. It’s okay, Dad. Let go. I promise to take care of Mom. Thank you for everything. We love you. You lived a beautiful life. Let go.
I felt that if my mother saw him in this condition, she might drop dead of grief on the spot. But I needed someone else in my family to know what was going on so we could make informed decisions. I asked my sister to go into our father’s room. After a few minutes she came out, pale and trembling, and said, “Dad is in agony. We’re betraying him. We’ve got to get him out of there.”
When I told the doctor that I was certain that my father didn’t want any heroic measures to save his life that would leave him significantly impaired, he snapped back, “Do you have power of attorney? How do I know you don’t have some axe to grind against your father?” We renamed the doctors Faustus and Ahab — after the German alchemist who sold his soul to the devil and the captain of the Pequod in Moby-Dick — to weave the ragged thread of my father’s fate back into the story of his life as a teacher. My sister and I begged Dr. Faustus to give him morphine, but the next morning, he was in the same tormented state. A nurse told us that the staff would not give my father drugs because “he does not have enough brain tissue to feel pain.” I felt like we were fighting a revolution in Greenville Hospital to free my father from the tyranny of being trapped in his body.
Then we found out that my father’s kidneys were failing. When Dr. Faustus asked me to sign a paper authorizing dialysis, I declined, sentencing my father to death. The next day, Dr. Ahab’s EEG confirmed that he had no hope of recovery. The two halves of what was left of the brain of Donald Silberman were firing asynchronously. After I conveyed this news to my mom, a young doctor ran over to a family praying on the other side of the hallway. “I have great news!” he said. “Your grandmother is going to be absolutely fine. It’s a miracle.” I asked Dr. Faustus to take my dad off his respirator.
My father survived four more days. This was awkward, though it seems terrible to say so, because we had already scheduled a celebration of his life at his college for the following Monday. But my dad was always a punctual man. I was falling asleep beside my mother on Sunday night when I had a strange dream: a crystal lattice, glittering in the dark, geometrical and inhuman. Then the phone rang on my mother’s night table. A nurse’s voice said, “Mr. Silberman has expired.”
When we got to the hospital, my father’s body was still warm. But he looked utterly dead, with a slack expression he never wore in life. My mother said farewell to her prince and protector for the last time. When we got back to the apartment, she gave letters to me and my sister that he’d written years earlier, before a prostate operation, to be opened by us in case he didn’t survive. “I lived the life I chose. (Sometimes, these days I think that it might have chosen me.) I have been very happy,” he wrote to me. “I did the right thing. I dedicated my life to human progress — to bringing about changes that would improve the conditions of life and the quality of life of the common people. My belief as I depart this world is that I have been an instrument of historical change — that the forces of change worked through me. For this reason, I led a life of meaning and purpose.”
I expected a small group of tweed-jacketed professors to attend the tribute to my father, but instead, the auditorium was packed with his students and colleagues from the union. Hearing them praise him was like discovering that my dad had lived a double life as a superhero. The man I knew was a guy who loved salt bagels, Casablanca, college basketball games, and Walt Whitman; insisted on not being disturbed as he read the Sunday Times in the bathroom; and enjoyed drifting in an inflatable raft with my mother each August, reading a novel while curling his hair with his index finger. When the eulogies were over, a student in a wheelchair came up to me and introduced himself. He told me that he didn't really know my father, but a few weeks earlier, he'd been crossing the campus when he dropped his books on the sidewalk. My dad, who happened to be walking past, got down on his hands and knees, picked up the books, and handed them back to him. He thought I might want to know that.
A year later, my mother, husband, and I returned to Provincetown, while my sister stayed home in California with Andrew to raise their son. In an uncanny symmetry of loss, our beloved house had been torn down the previous winter by the current owners. With my mother leaning on Keith’s arm, I read aloud from Moby-Dick before scattering my father’s ashes in the water.