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June 2019 Issue [Memoir]

What it Means to Be Alive

Decoding a father’s farewell

My father decided that he would end his life by throwing himself from the top of the parking garage at the Nashville airport, which he later told me had seemed like the best combination of convenience—that is, he could get there easily and unnoticed—and sufficiency—that is, he was pretty sure it was tall enough to do the job. I never asked him which other venues he considered and rejected before settling on this plan. He probably did not actually use the word “best.” It was Mother’s Day, 2013.

The date was not chosen for its symbolism. If anything, it was a rare instance of inattentiveness, strikingly out of character for a man who, generally speaking, had always been acutely sensitive—if not always appropriately responsive—to the feelings of others. Even now I cannot quite believe that he would neglect to consider the shadow his action would cast over future Mother’s Days for his mother, children, and ex-wife, with whom by this point he was no longer actively acrimonious, though certain wounds of course had not yet healed (and still haven’t, and won’t). It is impossible for me to imagine how he failed to grasp all this; how, as a matter of courtesy abetted by a desire to avoid further rebuke for his action, he didn’t choose the day prior or the day after.

But then it is not quite correct to say that he chose the day.

My father had been unemployed for a long time—my sister, six years my junior, has no memories of him as a working man—and lately he had been sick with tremors since revealed, we think, to have been heralds of Parkinson’s. All this plus, naturally, the depression that had come with the divorce, which my parents had each done their share to precipitate, but which my father had not sought and did not accept.

He got a bit of money from the sale of the house, and everyone thought he would move back near his parents, to the part of Florida where I grew up. When I say everyone thought that he would do this, what I mean is that we all wanted him to do this and thought that he would, because we wanted him to, and because we felt it was the inevitable next step and expected him to join us in this view, though we knew that such a move was without question the very last thing that he himself would ever want.

“Forms & Records No. 5,” by Doug Fogelson © The artist. Courtesy Klompching Gallery, Brooklyn, New York

“Forms & Records No. 5,” by Doug Fogelson © The artist. Courtesy Klompching Gallery, Brooklyn, New York

Instead of doing what we thought he would, he moved into a modest extended-stay hotel in Nashville, joined its rewards program, and sought to make his money last as long as he could. He had no other aim in mind, so far as I know, besides forestalling the inevitable, which my sister and I each understood to be his move back to Florida but which, at a certain point, we now understand, had come to mean, to him, his suicide.

He grew accustomed to eating no more than twice a day, often less. Smaller portions, cheaper restaurants. Takeout and hot bar. Burger King. Two bananas and a pear. He liked saving the money, wasn’t hungry anyway.

It was unsettling, to say the very least, but who was going to lecture a grown man over the phone about how to eat?

He rarely saw my mother during this period, and though at times when they did interact—usually on the phone or via email—they bickered or rehashed old points of contention, it can be fairly said that she was not what kept him in that city. Certainly, he caused her no more trouble. I seem to recall that on one occasion she had to go to a doctor’s appointment and be put under brief sedation there, and that he went with her and drove her home to the apartment she had, by this time, bought for herself.

She got some promotions at her job—the job that had brought the family to Nashville in the first place—and looked for better jobs with other companies, some in far-flung states, but didn’t find one. Eventually, she got a boyfriend, sold her apartment, and moved in with him.

My father must have begun to hatch his plan when he realized he was coming to the end of his savings, though he’s always had a head for numbers, and so it may not be correct to say that he “realized” where he stood, vis-à-vis the time frame, since that suggests a gradual or dawning understanding, and he probably recognized from the very beginning, immediately and completely, the story the numbers told, the timeline that they set—though he likely had to adjust the schedule to account for having joined the hotel’s rewards program, the free nights he was accruing quite literally adding days to his life.

In any case, he decided, with what I’m sure was wrenching anguish but which I prefer to think of as a kind of icy calm—either because giving imaginative life to his misery is beyond me, or else because it would be the easiest thing in the world—that when all his money and rewards points were spent and gone, he would check out of the hotel, wait for night to fall, drive to the airport, park the car, and throw himself off the parking garage.

He had kept his phone off all day and so had not called his mother for the holiday, which was unusual enough in itself that it was cause for family discussion by early afternoon. Then my sister, who was in law school in Washington, D.C., checked her email and saw a note from him suggesting that his record collection—at this point still in storage at my mother’s apartment, which she had not yet sold—might be worth some real money if she, my sister, ever cared to sell it. He was not perhaps as obscure as he meant to be, but then, for obvious reasons, he was in an agitated state and not paying his typically rigorous attention to language. My sister alerted the rest of the family, and they all spent the day calling him, leaving increasingly urgent voicemails, sending him emails, doing anything they could, which wasn’t much. My sister called the Nashville police and filed a missing person report.

I say that “they” did these things because even though my sister called me immediately, and I called my father immediately after that, leaving a message the contents of which I cannot recall and which, in fact, I can barely remember leaving—though I can see myself standing in the sunny home office in my old apartment, in Brooklyn, phone in hand, lips moving, like watching myself in a movie—I did not email him or call a second time. An enormous choking silence rose up in me, and there was ice around my heart, which was filled with mourning, and there was ice too in my throat, so that to speak would have been to choke on ice. Or I was choking on ice already and so could not speak. I went about my day more or less normally—my girlfriend and I were looking, as it happened, for a new apartment—believing, in my icebound heart, that my father was already gone, and trying to make sense of this and failing to do so and telling myself that it would become intelligible to me when the call of confirmation came. I thought of the last song on Bright Flight, my favorite Silver Jews record, and the line that goes, “When I was summoned to the phone / I knew in my bones that you had died alone.” I thought, I know what this means now.

But that wasn’t true.

My father sat in his parked car—my sister’s old silver Nissan, which she gave him when she went to law school—on the top level of the parking garage at the airport, in the orange bath of a sodium lamp—or so I imagine—and for some reason turned his phone on for a moment before opening the driver’s-side door. I don’t know what he meant to see or who he meant to contact, or whether he meant to do something else entirely, but the profusion of missed calls and text messages that barraged him when his home screen loaded all had their intended effect—though not by virtue of their content, which he mostly never read or heard. The sheer number of them made him think that something bad must have happened to a member of the family, so he immediately called my sister to find out what it was. She kept him on the phone for several hours. I have no idea how she did that, or what they said to each other, beyond that he confessed his intention and she talked him out of it, slowly and with unswerving persistence.

He ended up checking into a hotel by the airport, on a credit card supplied by his nephew, whom he had at times helped his elder sister raise.

Fastidious, disciplined, and already unaccustomed to taking meals, my father had had little trouble fasting, he later told me, for the twenty-four hours prior to his attempt. He had done this in order to avoid leaving a mess when he died. He seemed proud to have thought of this exigency. He had his own dignity in mind, of course, but also quite earnestly meant to make easier the experience of the various police and emergency and janitorial workers upon whose evening his plan could not help but intrude. But after he checked into the hotel he found himself, for the first time in months if not years, hungry.

Everything was closed, even room service. He went to bed starving. At three-thirty in the morning the hotel room’s alarm clock, which had been left set by the previous guest, probably someone with a predawn flight to catch, went off. He woke up screaming and could not get back to sleep. Still starving, he sat in the chair by the window, waiting for the sunrise he never expected to witness, while his hands were racked by tremors intensified by his hunger and the other stresses to which he had been—and was still being—subjected. This, I imagine him thinking, with a resignation beyond disgust, beyond horror, is what it means to be alive.

Hunger and aloneness and pain and shame. And yet he chose it. He chose, under these conditions, to stay alive. A few days later, relocated from the airport hotel back to the modest extended-stay where he had been living (which our cousin was now paying for indefinitely), he sent an email to everyone apologizing for the trouble and worry that he had caused. My sister, noticing that I was not on the list of recipients, forwarded this message to me. She was sure, she said, that I hadn’t been left off the list on purpose. Our father had just endured the worst days of his life, indeed was still in the midst of them, and such a lapse ought to be both explicable and forgivable. That was true. Still, I asked him about it a while later, when things were calmer and he felt comfortable enough to have offered, without being prompted, some of the particulars relayed above, which of course I would have no other way of knowing, and would not have thought to ask him to share. But now we were talking about it and he was telling me things, and so I asked him about the letter. His answer made sense in its way. He said that everyone else had flooded him with communiqués, whereas I had only called him once. Since he hadn’t, in the thick of things, listened to any of the voicemails, he thought it stood to reason that I had, obliviously and coincidentally, just called to say hello. It wasn’t, he said, that I hadn’t earned the apology—though, as you can see by my own account, I clearly hadn’t, and “earn” is a fraught word; he did not owe anyone an apology—it was only that I was better off for having been spared the ordeal. And so, he thought, having been spared and better off for it, he didn’t see the point in undoing that stroke of luck and breaking my presumptive peace of mind by including me in what he’d meant, at that time, to be the final word on the terrible subject, though of course this, too, proved not to be the case, since now he wanted to talk about it.

We talked about it and talked about it, on this and other occasions, until his death, from complications from his illness, in 2017. Over time, he narrativized his experience—that is, made the story tellable, to himself and others, precisely by making it into a story—and as he did so it developed, as every story must, a shape, an arc. Small but vivid details, like the alarm clock in the hotel room, for instance, were deployed adroitly and exploited for narrative effect.

There was just one hole in my father’s story, a small plot-level inconsistency that was there from the beginning and never got resolved. It’s about the note. Not the second note, but the first one. The one he sent my sister.

I am, as I’ve said, six years older than my sister, and I am the son. My father’s son. His only son, who by the way knows a hell of a lot more about records than my sister does. When we were growing up I used to play them whenever he would let me, which wasn’t often. He had a mint-condition first pressing of Sticky Fingers, with the real zipper, worth a few hundred bucks to the right buyer. Frank Zappa’s Freak Out. Six or eight Beatles albums, nothing rare but all pristine. Shakedown Street, the Grateful Dead’s bad foray into disco. The Eric Burdon and the Animals record with a little scratch on the track after “House of the Rising Sun” that he said I made and I said he did. Band on the Run. A Night at the Opera. Leftover Wine, the Melanie Safka live album. Countdown to Ecstasy. Strange Days. In the Court of the Crimson King.

He knew I might have sold a few of the collector’s items, but no more than that. He knew I would have kept the collection and treasured it, whereas my sister, whatever else she might treasure, would tell you herself that when it comes to these old records, she could give a shit. He knew that too.

So why didn’t he send the note to me? But of course I understand this. There is no hole, or there is, but it’s not in the story. He knew that if he sent the note to me, I would not have deciphered it. If he had sent the note to me I would have been overmatched by its obscurity, imperfect as it was. Indeed when my sister first shared it and her concerns with me that day, I told her she was making a big deal out of nothing. Some cryptic note about selling records. She had to convince me. And so if it had been left to me, my father’s plan would have gone off without a hitch, and my sister would be telling me now and for the rest of our lives, dishonestly, that there was no way anyone could have read that note and known. I should be proud of him, or at least thankful, that he knew me well enough, that he had enough desire for life left in him, even then, to know not to trust me to save his.

What I said to my sister when we spoke on the phone that afternoon I still remember: “Oh, you know Dad,” I said. “Dad’s fine.”

 is the author of the story collections Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever and Flings, and the novel The Gospel of Anarchy.

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