100 stories about my dead father

BY Alek Lev


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TWENTY-FIVE

25 years ago today, I came home from my perspective-student visit to Wesleyan to learn that my dad, Alan, had not-unexpectedly passed away. That it's been 25 years is somehow less surprising than the fact that it's already been 5 years since it had been 20 years. 

Memories flood, as they do. Taking me to Yankees bat day. Yes, there was a time when 50,000 New Yorkers arrived in The Bronx and were handed 50,000 full-size wooden baseball bats. Armed and closed into a gladiatorial arena. Good times, New York City in the 1980s. 

Buying me a John Lennon biography. He had been sneaky... it was a big, expensive book, and he had said that we couldn't get it. And then, at Barnes and Noble (before it had become a toy store) we were about to leave and he said, "Oh, we forgot one thing." "What?" "That." He pointed and behind me was a display table with the book. (Terrible book, but that's not finally the point...)  

And the time this mild-mannered accountant stopped one kid in a playground from hitting another kid with a baseball bat. (Oh, let's just hope he hadn't gotten it on Bat Day.) Watching him break up their fight, which included the bat terrifyingly hit with all force against the playground wall, was upsetting. I was young and confused. And then very, very proud. 

Said over and over at his funeral was that he was a mensch. If you don’t know the term, it’s defined as “Everything Donald Trump is not.” And I know he was. He was definitely menschier that I am. But the big mystery I carry with me now is: What did he want? What were the big dreams? Were there big dreams? Was he content to be an accountant, or was he more like me? You know, living in a constant delusional fantasy.  

My guess is that he was a part of the Solid Generation. Work 9 to 5, do your work well, then come home. Be Solid. And he did that. But this was a long-haired, pot-partaking, no-nukes, The-Moral-Majority-Is-Neither hippie, and I wish I knew where he traveled to on his flights of fancy. 

As Sara and I watch Field of Dreams this week with Zack and Chaplin, in memory of Alan, I think I’ll tell them not only about my dad, but about my own fancy flights.  

We have a rule around here. We forbid talk of Time Flying. Or They Grow Up So Fast. It Was Only Yesterday. None of that. Time always wins, there no point in complimenting it on its agility, too. But to indulge for just a moment: When we blink I’ll be writing about the time, 30 years ago, when I learned the heartbreaking news. And by then, (knock on wooden bat), I will have outlived him. (Pause, as we digest that one...) Time doesn’t have to fly to be invaluable. I’ll see if I can find it in me to tell my kids, as soon as possible, what it is that I really want.  

Now, if only I can figure that out…


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LIVE IN THE PAST

I have more to say.

There is a part of me, however, that worries that these posts threaten to dissolve into self-indulgence. But I guess worrying about being self-indulgent on Facebook is like worrying about getting wet in the shower. 

In the car today, I told my son Zack that I really don’t know what my dad dreamed about for himself. I asked if Zack knew what I wished for, what I wanted to do with my life. “Yeah,” he said. “Write movies and act and direct and stuff.”

So... THAT wasn’t too hard.

But never fear, the emotional challenge of the day was yet to come. We watched Field of Dreams. I can begin by reporting that my two boys loved it. So I’ve decided to keep them. I can also report that it has gotten to the point that I start crying long before the crying moments happen, because I know that they are GOING to happen. Two cries for the price of one. No surprise, but “Oh my god, that’s my father,” and “Dad, do you want to have a catch?” are both still just this side of too much to handle. Oh. Spoiler alert. 

But in following up with what I wrote about on October 17th, and with what my son and I talked about for 20 seconds in the car, the line that resonated as it rarely had before was Ray’s lament, in reference to his father: “He must have a had dreams. But he never did anything about them.” To be clear, I believe that my father was a happy man. He had my mom and he had me. What else do you need? Still though, this question of his dreams weighs heavily. 

What all of this writing has led to is this notion of Memory. Memories. I start out upset that all I have are the memories. These retina-display clear memories of the small moments that are so present but so lost. He hurts his hand climbing a fence to catch a ball. He takes me to see Godfather 3 and has a seizure at the end. (He had a kind of epilepsy brought on by a childhood injury.) I was terrified. And not just by Sofia Coppola’s performance! He kisses me on the lips as he puts me onto the school bus. He teaches me Roman numerals. 

Good, bad, terrifying or beautiful, these aren’t “moments” when they are happening. They’re just life. And who the hell can pay attention to life? There were no Mindfulness t-shirts in the 1980s, so I didn’t even know I was supposed to pay attention to life. But over this last week, I think I’ve found the answer:

Live in the past.

Not always. Not while you’re eating chocolate or watching Game of Thrones or driving. Not while you’re in what you might suspect may be a moment of its own. But, sometimes. Maybe often. That’s my plan. And not just on Facebook. (But yes, on Facebook.) I’m gonna journey through my days of yore, on 16th and 18th streets, at Hunter, at the Bon Jovi concert with Samantha and Carlo, at Wesleyan and NTD and right up until that time... hey, remember that time at 3:30 yesterday when I watched Field of Dreams with my wife and sons? Yes. Shhhh.... shhhh... I’m living in the past.

I’ve got a Hunter reunion coming up (what up, peeps?) and I have this about-to-not-be-a-secret dream that instead of talking about what I’ve been doing since last we all met (I’m the Hunter/Wesleyan grad who DIDN’T reinvent the Broadway musical... that’s what I haven’t been doing since last we all met), instead of that, maybe, maybe we can do some living in the past. Remember Ms. C? Remember that time Desiree found four other students' workbooks in her desk? Anyone still get the chills remembering the sound of the fire bell? What was YOUR gym spot? 

The past is right there, out in the Iowa cornfield, and if we build it...

(Attached photo is the click-bait-iest thing I could find. And among my favorite photos I own. The cat's name, for those who might remember her, was Pussycat.)


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THURSDAY PIZZA

Thank you all so much. Sometimes I feel a little strange, using Facebook just to talk about my love for my dad and for Buster Keaton, and about my disdain for Donald Trump.

Then I stop feeling strange, and I start feeling quite good about it.

Again, it's amazing to hear from everyone, and to hear your thoughts about Alan. It never ceases to amaze that the very same memories that still cause so much pain, can simultaneously give so much joy. I’ll remember us playing paddle tennis or Chess, watching Star Wars or The Godfather, eating Chinese food or more Chinese food, and I rediscover a hole in my being that daily life requires me to ignore, and yet at the same time, I want to luxuriate in the memory, finding some new old detail I hadn't remembered before. 

Every Thursday, we would to go a pizza place (90 cents for a slice, 45 cents for a soda), stopping first at the corner magazine place to get an Archie comic. As Norman Rockwellian as we ever got. That was the first place I ever told him I liked a girl. (Hello, Cine.) That was also the place that he told me - in what context eludes me - that he would live to be 100. 

And so, that wrecks me. But then also, I’m there with my invincible dad, $1.35 into culinary perfection, surprised that Archie would invite both Betty AND Veronica to the very same school dance, looking forward to a night of Cheers, and blissfully not knowing... anything else. Still a good day.

Hey kids: don’t smoke.

Love to all.

(Spend a few extra seconds on this photo. Mind-blowing in more than one way.)


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NOT YET

I want to write how it ended. His life.

But I can't, not yet. You deserve more preparation than that. You came here for babies and Trump (and other redundancies). So consider this a preview for a coming attraction. The rather dark kind that you wonder why is playing before Trolls.

And I can't, not yet, because I can haven't found the hand holds in the side of this unwieldy box. I know they must be there; someone delivered this damn thing a few decades ago. But it's been sitting, untouched in the basement, along with unexamined regrets and a C3PO collectors case. And I can’t quite get a grip.

And I can't, not yet, because of something I only just realized as I began thinking about this today: If I do it, then I've done it. And I might not be ready to give that away.

For so many years, the details of that final year, the final month, and that final day have been Mine, and I've know I would one day write about them. But that, the Knowing, it has also been Mine. And once I actually write about it, then I've given that away. And giving things away is difficult. That's why I still have Lionel Ritchie’s Greatest Hits. On cassette.  

So I can't give it away, not yet. I don't want it, never wanted it, but it's mine. Quoth Cobain: "I miss the comfort in being sad."

But this thing, this memory and the potential energy stored within its future writing... I've finally taken it out of storage and left it on the counter. It's waiting for me. Now it's looking at me. That's weird, stop looking at me. I'll say this: Not writing about it is the closest I've ever come to writing about it. 

There’s yet another, yet similarly disconcerting reason why this post is little more that digital throat clearing. I hoped to present a full scene from the Life of Alan.  

INT. LIVING ROOM. He enters from the hallway, carrying… carrying… 

But I’m having trouble. I’m having trouble remember a full scene. I’ve got moments. I’ve got flashes. I can throw together a montage, maybe jam “Always Something There to Remind Me” behind it, and we can all have a good cry. I can do that. I will do that. But I’m thrown by the fact that I can’t find a full scene in my playlist. I want to find something there to remind me of the boring stuff. How he walked and talked and sat and sang. I crave the boring.

So, instead of moments, big or small, I present this photo. It reveals both his photographer’s eye, his love for New York, and the sense of humor that so many of you remember. (And if anyone is seeking cover image for their book on New York in the 70s, please contact my agent.)

More to come.


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GRAVEL CRUNCH

(Today is the 26th anniversary of the day that my father, Alan Friedman, passed away. Last year I began a series of posts about him. It turned out that I could only take such reminiscing in small doses, like jalapeños or Sarah Huckabee Sanders. It’s time now to continue the story…)

My father, Alan, had a father, Murray, but not for long. Murray died in 1948, when he was only 38, and when Alan was only 2. Alan also had a mother, Ruth, and she hung around for quite a while, passing away at the age of 92 in 2007. And in between all that, Ruth had a second husband, and Alan had a second father, Abe. He was, to me, Grandpa Abe, and his ancient-ness defined grandfather-ness for me until that image was shattered the day that my son's grandfather beat me in straight sets.

Abe was old. He was, it seemed, always old. It's as if they ran out of money after shooting the first scene of Benjamin Button. He moved slowly, he spoke slowly, and he hocked up the most devastating loogies into the kitchen garbage can. (Danny, Kathy, can I get an a-men?) He had strokes. Many strokes. (Says Dennis Miller, "The guy had more strokes than Van Gogh painting a harem of zebras on a Persian knotted-pile area throw.") Each stroke affected him differently, and so the varying degrees of slurred speech and limited movement were, to a small child, both terrifying and confusing. Still, I loved the two-hour drive up to Ellenville to see Ruth and Abe, and few sounds have stuck with me like the crunching gravel beneath the car as we pulled into their driveway.

On April 29, 1983, I was up watching TV in Ruth and Abe's second-floor bedroom. (Separate beds, if you are interested. Could be related to the fact that they got married, divorced, and then married again. Another story for another social media platform.) And then, coming from down below their window, I heard that gravel crunch; someone had just gotten home. I looked down and saw Ruth and Alan coming out of the car. (I say it was Alan. The figure emerging from the driver's seat is actually a blur in my memory, but it seems plausible… Anyone else here a bit jittery on our reliance of witness testimony?) If my memory squints hard enough, it can catch a glimpse of Ruth being a bit off balance. Maybe, maybe.

My brain then cuts to what must have been just a few minutes later. That gravel crunch had held such promise; a night with the family, maybe scrabble, maybe boggle. Instead, it was the musical introduction to The First Rehearsal. Rehearsal as a lower-stakes run-through of the actual performance. In this case, we were rehearsing for a time, 9 years later, that my mother would have to tell me that my father had died. Here, my father would have to tell me that his second father was gone. 

And here’s what my dad did: He put his hand just above my right knee. It was a gesture that said, “I have to tell you something.” In the 5 seconds between the hand and The Something, I had no idea what I was in for, but I knew it wasn’t good. It wasn’t. “Your grandpa Abe died tonight.” 

I remember the gravel. I remember the hand on my knee. And I remember the words. 35 years ago. 

I also remember words that came 26 years ago. I got home from a visit to the university I would eventually call home. I didn't yet know what had happened that afternoon. 

I dialed 1-3-9 on the intercom and my aunt picked up. She said hello. I said it’s me. 

And I remember she then said: “Are you ready?”


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TWO BUS RIDES

TWO BUS RIDES

After four years of college, you take a certain pride in knowing the best way to get from the dining hall to the library. By the time you graduate, you own the place. But on October 16th, 1992, I knew nothing. It was my first time visiting Wesleyan University, months before I would apply and be accepted early decision, months before they needed to accept me, since I hadn’t filled out a single other application, and years before I would know that I could make it to and from the student center’s restroom during an intermission at the ’92 Theater, thereby avoiding the inevitable line for the theater bathroom. It was just the beginning. And all I knew was that based on what Cassie Feldman told me and based on the Fisk Guide, I wanted to go to Wesleyan and I hoped this visit would cement the decision.

I also knew that my father was dying.

When you plan a college visit, you rarely take the family oncologist’s advise on scheduling. And so, white blood cell count be damned, I took the bus to Middletown. And it’s here that The Memories begin. Prior to this, there are certainly landmarks along the path: They call me into the bedroom, and he says, “I have cancer.” Months later he awakens me from a nap, after remission, complaining of a pain near his eye. It’s back. Months later, the shaved head. Mothers later, the hospital, smelling of impatience and tasting of the Ensure I drank with dad in solidarity. Weeks later, his mother, Ruth, swoons after a visit, “He’s fighting, he’s fighting” she says, meaning that he’s losing, he’s losing. And my last words to him. But let’s save those for last. For next time.

On the bus began a mantra. I want to say that it was “Just be okay, just be okay” but it might not have been that exactly. This is a good time to mention that I’m specifically writing this - all of this - without double checking anyone else’s memory, because part of my interest is in testing my own. At this point what I remember is more important than what happened, and there’s probably some magic to be had at the place where memory and truth conflict. So the mantra went something like that. It wasn’t a prayer in the classic sense. I don’t pray, not to anyone or anything. I’m the atheist in the foxhole. For fear that “mantra” has the sheen of spirituality (and though the word expresses the musicality of the repetition) let me back away and suggest rather that I was just talking to Alan, and whether or not my temporal lobe can retrieve the actual text, of the subtext I am quite sure: “Dad, don’t fucking do this.”

I remember dinner at Mocon, the dining hall. (Once the venue of a Janis Joplin concert, and now, mercifully, leveled.) Pasta. Cookies. As Many Cookies As I Wanted. College was gonna rock. I remember telling Cassie about my dad, but since now, 26 years later, I can barely bring myself to say the words, I assume that at the time, my description was equal parts throat-clearing and circumlocution. What I remember most, though, is stepping onto campus. It was drizzling (that it to say, it was a day of the week in Middletown that ended in “Y”), and I stepped off the bus, walked from Main Street, and found myself on a large field. I have no idea which field that was. But if I were storyboarding the scene for the Jeanine Basinger classes I stupidly never took, I probably couldn’t do much better than “WIDE SHOT: Open field. Raining. He’s lost.” Have no fear, Memory Alek, you’ll own the place soon enough. But now, lost. Oh, so lost.

Then came the next morning, October 17th, 1992, and I had to go home. The visit was over. A success. Yes, I will apply early decision. No, I won’t apply anywhere else. No, that’s not “a plan,” but, nonetheless, that was the plan. And so, another bus ride. Back to New York City, where I could long since claim that certain pride. Where I knew the best way to get from Hunter to Tower Records. Where I could navigate the byzantine Stuyvesant town with my eyes tied behind my back. The City. A place I owned. And yet. And yet.

And yet with every step closer to my apartment building’s front door, with the mantra rising, I remember clearly feeling that there was no ground. Nothing solid, nothing I knew, nothing I owned. A silent film without piano accompaniment. Something is missing while everything is there. 

“Are you ready?” came the voice on the intercom. No. But time to go upstairs.


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The Desert

I love storage. Boxes. Instant and satisfying organization. Heartburn dissolves into clarifying breath when a stack of ill-sized receipts, a stringy yo-yo collection, or a drawer of loose plums get boxed, labeled, and shelved. As Peter O'Toole's Lawrence of Arabia says when asked why he loves the desert:

"It's... clean."

Storage is clean. Storage is a crate, a drawer, a basket. And storage is a coffin.

A coffin cleans it all away. Stores not just the life and the death, but the swirl of pain and chaos that surrounds death. You take the doctor's visits, the rides to the hospital, the acid reflux, the medical updates cattle-branded onto your psyche, the last words, the midnight phone calls, the eulogies, and you box them up into coffin storage. Seal them up. Bury them.

You bury it all, deeply.

This year, a friend of mine, Naomi Rabkin, died. Fuck, I hate writing that. We were roommates after college and shared the same (unrelated, though probably not totally) last name prior to our marriages. We were both Friedmans. An extra bond, though we didn't need one. She had a husband, she had two girls, and then she had cancer. It came, it went, and it returned and stayed, then it got put into storage, along with everything else. Along with Naomi.

However amazing Naomi was I never knew how amazing she was. Not until the funeral, the speeches, the talks, the memories. She was a center and a maker. And darn it, a mover and a shaker. I'm not going to even try here. But she was extraordinary. And then I got to the funeral, and she was in a box.

I know I keep sneaking in those awful words: cancer, box, coffin. But I'm only that brave because of this forcefield of time and space between me and you. I'm not really saying it to you, and I don't ever say it to anyone. I'm saying it to myself. But that's progress, because I never say it to myself, either. And no one was saying anything about it the day of her funeral, either. Beautiful speeches detailed this important life, and there, in the front of the room, was my friend in a box. I don’t like it. And remember, I like boxes.

Here’s the thing: Non-atheists (see how it feel to have your beliefs defined in the negative? We a-theists gotta deal with it all the time) often say that the body that’s in the coffin is not “really them. They are (fill in your belief).” Which, if you believe it, if you really believe it, is quite lovely. But while non-non-atheism has voluminous benefits (sleeping in on Sunday comes to mind), there is a distinct drawback; to me, when Naomi was in that coffin, Naomi was in that coffin. The chemo and the barber took her hair, and the doctors took other parts as the disease spread, but all that was left was there, in there, in front of that room, in front of us all. And I don’t like it.

My sister-in-law, Yael, was the rabbi that day, and she led the burial service. The coffin was lowered into the ground... Pause. See what I did? I said “the coffin was lowered into the ground.” That is the kind of distancing that I’ve been doing with death for years, that language allows me to do, but that I’m trying to confront here. So I’ll try again... Unpause. Naomi, inside a coffin, was lowered into the ground. A large pile of dirt was there - obnoxious, that dirt, just sitting waiting for us - and Yael directed us to do the following: Take the shovel (got a mental picture of a cartoon shovel? Too big, too metal, too funeral-y? That’s it) and turn it upside-down, and shove (that’s the word, right?) it into the pile of "earth," (the better, less jarring word she uses) take some earth, and dump the earth onto the coffin . That’s not easy to do, and that, Yael explained, was the point. It shouldn’t be easy, and more, it shouldn’t be like anything else you do in life. Then, you can turn the shovel back around, take more dirt, and dump it onto the coffin. Which, to be fair, is also not like anything else this city boy does in life. (Also, when you’re done, you don’t hand the shovel to the next person. You put it back in the pile so they need to do the hard work of pulling it out themselves. Tricky Yael.)

Whump. Whump. Whump. Dirt landing. Onto the coffin. It is awful. It fills up, and it fills up slowly. It fills so slowly that after a time, the gravity of the situation dissipates a bit. Some people, previously rapt, previously broken, begin to step away. Why? Because it’s awful. It’s too much. And that, Yael tells us, is also the point. It should be awful. It should be painful. But we should do it. It is, she says, the least we can do.

I didn’t step away. I didn’t look away. For 25 years, I’ve looked away from death. For years after my father died, I couldn’t go to cemeteries. And I didn’t talk about death, not really anyway. I have memories of talking to some people at Wesleyan about him, new friends becoming good friends, who I felt needed to know. And talking to Sara. But it was at a distance, always. Cleaned up. No dirt. No shovels. No boxes. So now, I didn’t step away. Now I watched.

I met Naomi when I moved into a four-bedroom apartment in New York City with her and two other roommates (hi, Jesse), when a friend of hers, Deb, moved out. Now I’m here, at a cemetery in San Diego, whump... whump... and on the other side of the now-quickly-filling hole, is Deb. We’re looking at each other, and over Naomi together. Burying her, together. It’s awful. But it’s the least we can do. And we’re there when a hole that had become a hole-with-a-coffin, and then become a hole-with-a-coffin-filling-with-dirt was now, in the space between Deb, and me, and Sara by my side, becoming a grave site. Her grave site. Clean, like the desert.

And then maybe the worst of all. For all the horror of being there, of doing that, the worst part of all: We left. We got to leave. The storage was complete. The cancer into her, she into the coffin, the coffin into the ground, the dirt onto the coffin. Stored. And then we had lunch. Survivor's Guilt Tacos.

I’m telling you about Naomi because I want to tell you about Naomi, though in fairness, I haven’t told you anything about Naomi. Because what Naomi is, is her girls, and her husband, and the work she did and the people she inspired from coast to coast and beyond. Look her up. Naomi (Friedman) Rabkin. I love her.

But I’m also telling you about Naomi because I can’t tell you about Alan. Because I can’t remember.

I don’t remember any of this about my own father. Here’s what I do remember: I drove to the funeral home with my grandma Hazel, walked inside, and found myself in a room. And in that room was a box. A plain, pine coffin. And that scared me out of the room immediately. I wasn’t sure if that was my father’s coffin. Maybe it was empty. Maybe it was the next guy. I still don’t know.

Coffin? A COFFIN? I mean, I knew he had died, but he’s in a coffin? That seemed pretty final.

I gave a eulogy, and have no memory if a coffin was there. I don’t think so. And at the cemetery, exploding in tears, held up by Mora and my mother and my uncle (maybe, who remembers?), I think I said a few words, maybe two sentences that were put in front of me. There was a hole, I have to assume, and I have a flash in my mind of seeing it beyond the paper (book?) I was reading from. And I think there was a shovel. And I think I did something with it, but maybe not. And then I left. Before it was over? Maybe.

And that’s it.

I was seventeen years old. Not seven. Not four. I could have stayed. I could have watched. It was, as my sister-in-law would explain decades later, the least I could have done. As it turns out, I could do even less than that.

The problem I have now with the problem I had that day is that I didn’t get to see just how awful it was. Seeing the awful, as it turns out, is important. It has a way of taking the cancerous months and summing them up, finishing them off, ending them. One last bit of awful. And something else. That dirt pile beside the grave... you shovel it, you whump it down, and you cry, and you watch your friend or your father and all their pain and blood and disease be covered and covered and covered and the dirt pile gets smaller and smaller until the moment comes when it’s over and finally

“It’s... clean.”