Essay: A Partita for My Father
By Esther Lupescu
Please, Tell Me Something I Don’t Know
“Darling, there’s something I need to tell you,” my father said one evening when lockdown was young. A few weeks earlier, we’d celebrated his ninety-fifth birthday in the hospital (melting scoops of Chubby Hubby plus blood oranges). Those minor things that are major when you’re in your nineties—the mini-strokes, the pneumonia, the intestinal bleeding, the pacemaker malfunction—had been dealt with, and now he was in rehab. Lockdown being lockdown, no visitors were allowed.
He has a flip phone (his dumbphone, he calls it plaintively, but he’s unable now to operate anything more complex), so FaceTime is not an option. I cannot see his familiar mustache, high cheekbones, curly gray hair, and olive skin. I have only his voice to go on, and his voice is thick with emotion.
He’s always had these sentimental, tearful moments. I imagine he’s going to say he loves me or thank me for taking care of him, which I do as well as I can now while unable to visit, spending hours each day on the phone and texting with doctors, nurses, physical therapists, occupational therapists, aides, drivers, taxi companies, paratransit dispatchers, social workers, the pharmacy, and the company that supplies the catheter bags.
“What is it, Dad?”
“Well,” he says with uncharacteristic hesitation, “your mother…”
“Your mother was a difficult woman…”
Oh Dad, I think. I loved her, truly I did, but please, tell me something I don’t know.
“… a difficult woman,” he repeats, “to remain faithful to.”
“Dad! Were you unfaithful to Mom?”
“Well—” he says, “a few times.”
Things I Was Too Young to Know
I am thunderstruck. My parents were pillars of stability and dignity, bound by intense loyalty, married for upward of six decades by the time my mother died. When the sexual revolution imploded into marital and familial chaos in their little world, which was the world of the professoriat, they stood strong as acquaintances’ marriages collapsed around them in myriad ways. There were the run-of-the-mill infidelities; the professor-student liaisons that fell all along the consent-coercion continuum; the open marriages that slammed shut; and a range of triangles, acute, obtuse, and other.
All of this spawned a rash of what my mother termed “monkey gland marriages.” This referred, she would explain with gusto, for she knew in advance that her listeners would draw a blank, to a surgery popular in the 1920s that had wealthy men lining up to have monkey testicles, sliced thin, transplanted into their scrota. The operation promised “rejuvenation,” and indeed, stitches removed, transplant recipients would cast a wide net, dragging in a cohort of women far younger than their previous targets. The old May-December story if you will, but with a twist.
Here are some of the things I remember from those years when I was too young to know about such things:
A Hellenist and a medieval historian walk into a maternity ward—this is not a joke—to welcome a new baby into the world—the same baby. Voices are raised, punches thrown. Three burly orderlies pull them apart and usher out the one who lacks legal claim. Not long after, the husband loses his title, and the mother and the other man raise their child together.
“She has a disorganized personal life,” was my mother’s acid commentary.
A woman down the street left her husband and moved halfway up the block, displacing another wife. A succession of graduate students in hot pants and halter tops filled the slot vacated by the first woman. Where the wife went, the displaced one, I don’t know.
A different neighbor was seen around town in the company of a man not her husband. She was in an open marriage. Her companion was not. Cut to the quick, his cuckolded wife—yes, a woman can be cuckolded—fled back home, across the ocean.
Two women within a block of us left their husbands for women. One of the men shot himself.
I grew up with the children of all these houses. We played Mother May I together, and Red Rover Come Over. We played kickball and dodgeball together. We walked to school together and played hooky together.
A Seraglio of Two
The casualties came to our back door and wept at the oaken table that dominated our kitchen. My parents gave stern yet sympathetic counsel. No, they said to yet another neighbor woman whose husband, a psychology professor, was good friends with my father and remained so until his death, decades after the incident I’m recounting, you tell him that he may not move his graduate assistant into the house with you and the boys and have them call her Mother (to distinguish her from their actual mother, the one now seated at our table, who they called Mom). And no, they continued, spending four nights a week with you and only three with her does not make it okay.
“A seraglio of two,” my mother called this arrangement, when she and my father debriefed afterward. My father tried weakly to defend his friend.
“Balderdash,” she said, only half in jest. “That gasbag psychologist pal of yours is trying to arrange a micro-harem for himself,” she declared, shutting the conversation down.
* * *
Distraught, the psychologist’s wife returned the following week to run another scenario by my parents.
“What?!” they said in shock, quickly closing ranks.
“The three of you? In a king-sized bed? Not big enough by half,” said my mother.
“The mattress? Cancel delivery,” said my father.
“The deposit? Good God, forget about it,” said my mother.
“Would you like us to call the mattress store right now? Babe, where did I put the Yellow Pages?” That was my father.
Don’t ask me how I came to know of these exchanges, which surely took place in undertones, behind closed doors. It’s not what you think.
The Falafel Revelation
Through it all and up until the end, my father retained a touching innocence. One lazy afternoon we engaged in a friendly sparring match over #MeToo.
“Well, that kind of thing never happened in my department,” he observed placidly.
“Wrong, Dad,” I said. “Remember your buddy, what was his name? The one with the office right across from yours. He had a long affair with one of his thesis advisees.”
“He did?” He was astonished. “How do you know?”
“Mom told me. His wife invited her to lunch one day at that falafel joint near campus and poured her heart out. Mom told me years later. She said everybody knew.”
“I didn’t know.” He was ashen.
A moment passed.
He smacked his forehead with his hand.
“I know who it was!” he exclaimed. “They used to spend hours in his office with the door shut. I wondered what they were doing in there.”
I piled on. Did he really think that the advisee could have rejected her director’s advances without ruining her professional prospects? Did grievance procedures in the ’70s even recognize such situations? And what else was transpiring in offices, secluded library carrels, and janitorial closets university-wide, and in those cheap one-night motels on the half-deserted streets beneath the highway overpass on the far side of campus? Faculty and students were probably spread out like patients etherized upon a table all over the damn place.
My words pelted him like hailstones.
* * *
When my mother told me about the falafel revelation (to this scene my imagination adds tabouli and tahini, extra-salty with tears), I could see that she found the faithless husband contemptible, the wife pitiable, the situation alien. Yet if what my father had just revealed was not a figment of his nonagenarian imagination, my mother had in fact been as embroiled in the turmoil of the era as anyone in their turbulent little world, whether or not she knew consciously what he was up to. Betrayer and betrayed, my parents had both lived the mess. And they’d stood apart all dignified and incredulous while doing so, asking each other, “How could anyone have such a disorganized personal life?” and “Did he (or less often, she) really do that?”
* * *
“A few times,” my father says again, as if he barely believes it himself.
“Were they long relationsh—”
Next, the thing that worries me the most:
“Did Mom know?”
“How did you keep it from her?”
“One manages,” he says, “to do such things.”
How Not to Get Tenure
As we continue talking, I learn that in fact there was one time when my mother found out.
“Someone called the house,” he says.
I’m pretty sure he intended to stop there, leaving the impression that the caller was some meddlesome onlooker, but he barrels on, unable to stop.
It was the woman herself who called, he says, and then fills in the backstory. She was a junior professor who approached him for advice regarding the tenure process, inviting him over to her house one evening to discuss matters.
“So I went,” he says. “I was a naif.”
“And she seduced you?”
“That’s not the word I would use.”
I do not have to wonder long what he means.
“She tore off her clothes and flung herself on me,” he says dramatically. “I felt raped!”
As someone who has experienced sexual violence myself—I’ll write about that another time, maybe; it was a garden-variety assault—and a strong believer in “Believe the survivors!” I ought to be more open minded and take this seriously. But my father tips the scale at upward of two hundred pounds and has the big personality to match. In his prime, which lasted well into his eighties, he always owned the room; how did he lose his advantage this one time?
But yegads, if something even remotely resembling this really happened (I’m downplaying his victimhood, as I suspect he downplayed his agency), I have to conclude that there is not one single trustworthy man in the entire goddam world. Not one. Well—my brother. For all the good that does me.
Not long after that encounter, my father continues, he returned from his morning New York Times run to learn that a call had just come in from The Woman. She and my father were in love, she told my mother, and, she added, they wanted to marry.
“It was a damn lie,” says my father, still bitter. “After just one—” I can almost see him grimace as he struggles to spit out the next words— “sexual encounter.”
He’s always had trouble uttering any variant of the word “sex,” in my presence at least, straining awkwardly to find some workaround, but this time none of the usual euphemisms will do.
“How did Mom react?”
“Oh, she was quite upset for a few weeks.”
A few weeks?
My mother was a faculty wife. Long ago, she’d had an identity of her own: adventurous, artistic, with attitude to spare, but despite her fierce struggles to keep it alive, that identity had atrophied (well, all but the attitude). She was dependent on my father—financially, socially, emotionally. The two of them were way too intertwined to call things off; she had to swallow whatever he served up. Oh, and vice versa; they were equally put-upon, which is—I’ve got it! — the secret to a lasting marriage: reciprocity! (Note to self: develop this in a separate file.)
For months, the woman kept showing up at his office, or as he sometimes jokingly calls it—though not in this context—his “orifice.” (Yes, he’s a perplexing brew of ribaldry and prudery; despite his difficulty with the word “sex,” he’s always been oddly partial to suggestive wordplay that turns on phonetic resemblance. Single entendres I call these, because as puns they are failures, any meaningful spark leaping between similar-sounding words fizzling like embers in the rain. For example, a strategically inserted vowel adds to the twentieth-century canon a Henry James novel entitled The Golden Bowel, whose prototype, incidentally, he’s never read.)
At last, the woman—never a serious academic, he notes; she had family money—married somebody and moved to Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. But the chronology doesn’t line up; he places these events just after he retired and before he and my mother moved downstate to New York City. He was in his late seventies by then, and he no longer had an orifice—sorry, office—for the woman to show up to. Does that mean that none of this happened? I don’t think so. Like many men, he’s lousy at dates.
I’m at pains to withhold judgment. It’s early to touch on the other occurrences he glancingly alluded to, but surely they’ll come up in our next conversation or two. When the moment comes, I hope he’ll feel free to let it rip, if he’s so inclined.
“I’ve never told anyone about this,” he says over and over.
Would you like me to tell the others?
“Would you like me to tell the others?”
An odd question, I know. I ask because a year or two earlier he made a different intimate confession, and that time, for reasons I cannot fathom, he asked me to pass it on to the sibs and even, for crying out loud, to the grandchildren. (Spoiler: We spared the grands.)
I genuinely want to know his wishes, I tell myself: that’s why I’m asking. What I’m really thinking is: no way can I keep this bombshell to myself!
“I leave that up to you,” he says grandly.
“No Dad, it’s your decision.”
“Well, I guess I owe it to them as much as to you.”
“You don’t owe anything to anybody,” I say, just as grandly.
Now that Mom is dead, I think.
We leave it at that.
I’ll wait six months from the time he dies, I decide, whenever that may be, and then I’ll drop the bomb. That’s a respectful interval, yet not too long to wait. Part of me, that not insignificant part of me that stalled out at the awestruck child phase, thinks he’s too big to die.
Bareback in Wartime
Around this same time (we’re talking deep dotage now), my father regaled my sister and me with a tale from his World War II navy service. (This part is only loosely connected to the rest, but I feel like sticking it in here.) What led up to this? I never remember how stories rise out of oblivion’s mists; the salient bits sway in my memory like tatters of bright fabric in the breeze, encircled by void.
Now to my poor recall add my father’s habit of making flying leaps between topics, context be damned, and it becomes even clearer why I cannot explain at this remove exactly which left field this story came out of. When he glimpsed from afar an opportunity to slip in one of his stories, polished smooth from decades of repetition, he would guide the conversation into a series of quick turns, as if working the steering wheel to squeeze into a tight parking space. I learned very early to recognize this maneuvering almost before it began, and could predict with near-perfect accuracy which of his stories he was aiming to insert. I knew them all already, knew them all, so well that it seemed that there’d never been a first time, his stories always already retellings. Now I give thanks for those innumerable recountings, for they serve as a fixative.
Then, when the moment was right, or kind of almost right (he wasn’t fussy), out came the story, so entertaining, for those hearing it for the first time, that they didn’t think to ask: How did we get from there to here? And so it was that he now brought things around to the one about the mare grazing in the field next to the base where he’d served in New Guinea.
“One evening after dinner,” he tells us with a chuckle, having set the scene, “some of the guys took a footstool from the mess hall and placed it behind the horse’s hindquarters. Then they stood on it, one by one, and…penetrated her.”
“Oh my God, Dad, are you serious? That’s so gross!” I play my role, which is to act as if I’ve never heard this one before, to the hilt. My sister reacts similarly. Later I’ll learn—I still find this hard to credit, but she’s never lied to me, except, of course, when we were very young—that in fact she was hearing it for the first time.
“Oh, yes. Some of those guys,” he muses, “were very close to their instincts.”
“I wonder how the horse reacted,” I say pensively.
My sister’s face takes on a gleeful look.
“The horse said, ‘N-e-i-g-h!’” she brays, stretching out the last word to five syllables.
The three of us shout with laughter.
I have wondered since then: did she mean “neigh” or “nay”? Are we talking equine whinny of excitement here? Or a skittish horse fighting to withhold consent and maintain bodily integrity as the servicemen mount a footstool and take turns breaking her in?
Now I understand that this was a case of the apple falling far from the tree. My sister’s wordplay went beyond mere sound. It had meaning. It was a double-entendre.
Like a Prairie Fire
It’s early April now, serious COVID-time, and I’ve become one of those people who’s ditched New York City. I have lung disease and immunosuppression, I remind myself, partially suppressing thereby my sense of guilt and disloyalty as well. I’m seated at the great oaken table, that same table that was in the family kitchen in upstate New York long ago. It’s been moved up to my brother’s riverine fastness in rural New Hampshire, and so have I.
Surrounded by papers and books, computer open before me, I’m lost in reverie when the phone rings. I pick up absently, expecting my brother to say that he’s heading home soon, and do I need anything from the store?
“I’m so sorry to bother you,” says a soft-spoken nurse from rehab. “Your father has COVID.”
In a few words she sketches a picture of a place where COVID is tearing through like a prairie fire.
“Most of my patients are dying,” she adds sorrowfully.
His oxygen saturation is hovering around 80 percent, dipping at times into the mid-seventies, she says, and this despite the fact that he’s been put on supplemental oxygen. I’m on oxygen too (long-term for a chronic illness, not for COVID), so I know enough to be shocked.
The house swathed in silence, the river glinting up at me, I write all afternoon, stopping occasionally to stretch out a hand and look something up in one of the books lying nearby. I call my failing father, letting the phone ring and ring, then put it down and plunge back into the work.
I can’t do a thing from up here, I think. And if I were at home, it would be the same.
This sense of uselessness and hopelessness comforts me in some strange way.
The hours flow past, and I continue working. At some point my brother comes in. We exchange a few words, and in retrospect, I’m hard put to explain this next part— Can I chalk it up to COVID brain? Writing trance? The hypnotic effect of the river glimmering down below?—I forget to tell him that our father was just diagnosed with COVID.
With a few minutes remaining before dinner, I decide that an hors-d’oeuvre of poetry is in order. My hand lands on a slim volume of Hebrew poetry, newly arrived (not from amazon, which I boycott with a fervor out of all proportion to the modest impact of this renunciation).
The book falls open to these words:
Only the dead remain.
Death can no longer kill them.
The only things I possess forever are those I have lost.
Yes! I send up a silent cry. This poet—so beloved in Israel that she goes by the mononym Rahel—has it right. My mother and the others in her line—all the dead I’ve been close to are on her side, so far—dwell within me, safe from the pandemic and from all other scourges that may descend. I address them; they speak to me and through me. They live within me.
* * *
In the evening, we see our father on FaceTime, half-reclining in a white institutional nightshirt with blue pinstripes. It reminds me of the elegant seersucker he used to bring out from the back of his closet for solemn occasions. He’s just spoken with our sister, he tells us in a strange, hoarse voice, as well as all the grandchildren. Off-screen, a social worker holds the phone.
“I feel absolutely fine!” my father declares, apropos of nothing, suddenly his robust and optimistic self.
Next he murmurs something about my mother.
My brother and I exchange glances.
Did he just say she’s in the next room?
It’s on the tip of our tongues to set him straight, but why pain him by pointing out that
a) he’s confused and b) she’s dead? He’ll forget these facts instantly, and each time he hears them again, he’ll be wounded again as if for the first time. With our mother we faced this question daily for years, and eventually we learned from it.
His voice fades. A vacant look falls across his face. He stops responding. The social worker’s voice says goodbye. The screen goes dark.
The Laws of Nature
The next evening when the phone rings, I remember to check Caller ID.
“Dad!” I say happily. I bet he’s all better.
“No, not Dad,” echoes that same nurse, the sorrowful note in her voice familiar now. She sounds more than a day older than she did the day before, and by exclaiming “Dad!” as I just did, I’ve made her hard job harder, for as she speaks, I remember that I stored all the rehab numbers under “Dad” in my contacts, including not only his room phone, but also those of the central switchboard, various physicians, and the nursing station she’s probably calling from.
“Your father just passed. I went in to check his vitals ten minutes ago and he was gone.”
The current that hums and runs invisibly through words and sentences goes dead. The links binding units of language together to create meaning are broken.
As we hang up, I remember something she said the day before:
“Most of my patients are dying.”
If by this she’d intended a gentle heads-up, it sailed right past; I did not doubt, when she said it, that in the case of my father the laws of nature could and would be suspended.
And even as she informs me of his death, some part of me believes that this is a temporary condition, that very soon, beaming broadly that way he did whenever he got some lucky break, which he invariably attributed to his own outstanding gifts (his soaring investments in the ’90s, for example, were all thanks to his astute financial decisions, the bull market an irrelevant detail), he will rise from the grave and walk toward me.
* * *
I come face to face with my brother on the stairs.
“Dad—” a whisper comes out—“Dad is dead.”
My sister’s face swims zoomily into focus, and we dive into the death admin. We do this partly because it’s a rite that makes death real, enabling us to experience and then stanch the feeling of loss, but mainly we do it because it must be done.
Who will close the checking account? Cancel the cable, Internet, Scientific American, and the Times? We take turns volunteering. Who will call the few surviving friends? The woman he kept company with at the end of his life? We make lists. Who will draft the obituary and who will revise it? Someone opens a task spreadsheet and turns on screen share.
Who will call the dentist, the eye doctor, the primary, the dermatologist, the orthopedist, the cardiologist, the pharmacy, the home health agency, the funeral home?
Who will place the death notice in the University of Chicago alumni magazine? He’d spent the best years of his life at Chicago, and for the next six decades he would read the alumni magazine cover to cover as soon as it arrived, in recent decades paying special attention to the death announcements. Of course he has to have one.
He’d studied under five Nobel laureates at Chicago, he was fond of saying, adding proudly that right-winger Milton Friedman had once tossed him out of class for an “impertinent” question. (He didn’t remember the question.) Alas, he always added, repeated contact with eminence hadn’t rubbed off. There were too many things that he loved more than economics—sailing; tennis; skiing; the piano; Isaac Asimov novels (this latter a rabbit hole of epic proportions; by some counts Asimov wrote dozens of books, by others, over five hundred)—to buckle down to anything much in the way of scholarship, let alone something groundbreaking. Procrastination appeared in everchanging guises, like a society heroine in a Victorian novel who never wears the same dress twice.
And speaking of procrastination, there was that philosopher of science at Duke. They’d met in person only two times, but since the man had praised my father’s book, he loomed large.
Yes, my father had written a book of just over hundred pages, plus extensive scholarly apparatus. A Formal Lexicon for the Social Sciences, it was called, its prose so abstruse and futuristic that in places it was marked by a kind of 1950s science-fiction-style grooviness. He’d worked at it, intermittently I have to assume, for some forty years. Two collaborators had fallen by the wayside during that time, leaving my father the last man standing.
The man at Duke had read an early draft and pronounced it the continuation of the work done by… David Hume, I think? Hume—if it was Hume—was one of my father’s heroes—an empiricist, a materialist, a skeptic, and of course, a thinker for the ages. The assessment from the man at Duke counted, therefore, for a great deal, its importance only growing as book sales tapered off somewhat shy of three figures.
* * *
Next, the cardiologist. The recorded voice of the receptionist, a vinegary Irishwoman, reminded me of how I used to call after each appointment to get an update.
“How’s my father?” I would ask the doctor after I got past the fierce gatekeeper with the dense brogue.
Before launching into reports on cholesterol levels, arrhythmia, or the pros and cons of changing the pacemaker battery, he would riff playfully on my question:
“How’s your papa?” he’d say. “Your papa is just wonderful. You are lucky he’s your father.”
This fell somewhat short of accurate on both counts, I felt, and I sensed in his words a subtle suggestion that I was unworthy. Yet amidst the anxiety and sorrow that are part and parcel of elder care, and with legions of foolish geriatric specialists seemingly convinced that my father’s name was “Dad” (as in, “I’m calling about Dad,” or “Dad’s doing great!”), without even the possessive pronoun to bestow a shred of dignity, this doctor’s “your papa,” Old-World, intimate, yet charming in its formality, stood out and provided solace.
The two words afforded a glimpse into the deeper realms of the doctor’s work. It transcended the ailments and symptoms of the cardiac muscle and surrounding tissue. His work was heartfelt, and heartwarming. It left patients and family with hearts full.
As I left a message for the cardiologist, my voice caught. I shed my first tears for my father.
The Woman with the Mid-Century Flip
My sister thinks of somebody else. None of us remembers exactly how my father knew this woman, only that she was on the faculty at one of the big Midwestern universities. I’d met her once when I was a teenager, back in the ’80s: a heavyset, ruddy bottle-blonde with a sturdy mid-century flip. She came to our town for some reason, and into our house.
And sometime after that—it must have been around the time my parents switched the checks for the electric and water bills, the thought being that the utility companies would file this under “honest mistake” and waive the late fee (an effective stratagem to make it to the end of the month, but only, as my parents would learn, the first time)—the bottle-blonde suggested what would now be called a side hustle.
Through her husband’s art world connections, my parents purchased—on credit, I imagine—several lithographs for resale at a markup. My father read up about the medium, and at dinners and cocktail parties and to acquaintances he ran into at the grocery store, he expounded tirelessly on the stone (lithos, in ancient Greek), the oil, the acid, the transfer of image onto paper, and the added value of the signature.
He had a talent for presenting a few random factoids as if they were a mere slice, thinly carved as from a side of ham, of some vast corpus of information he wielded, the bulk of it modestly concealed, when in fact those tidbits represented the sum total of his knowledge on a given subject. Indeed, both of my parents had only scant interest in the visual arts, their familiarity with them scanter still. This stab at solvency made only slightly more sense than an illiterate person handselling signed first editions at the Strand.
The plan was to unload these works of art, clear the credit card balances, top up the bank account, lay in some more product, and repeat. Months passed as pricey ads for our home gallery were placed and placed again in the program booklets of the local symphony, where the town culture vultures were supposed to see them and flock to us. But the works by Vasarely, Calder, and Miró continued to stare down from our living room walls, more and more balefully as the concert season slipped past, trailing sweet melodies but not the sweeter, unheard “ka-ching.”
At last, a professional gambler materialized—was he a symphony-goer? I have no idea—and bought up the lot at cost, minus shipping; although college basketball had been very, very good to him (laying bets on sports was, we learned, a field rich in subspecialties), he drove a hard bargain. Then we stood in a semicircle around him in the living room as he produced a roll of banknotes and peeled off hundred-dollar bills so rapidly that I lost count, then handed the stack to my dumbfounded father.
The indescribable relief that then swept through our house, which had also served as gallery headquarters and showroom, was, in the end, more precious than profit. The buy-and-sell cycle did not repeat. My father, who numbered probability theory among his specialties as an econometrician, must have understood better than most that while somewhere out there, there might be another gambler, pockets bulging from lucky bets—on beach volleyball, say, or bobsledding, or cockfighting, it didn’t matter—the likelihood that such a person, or anyone with wads of cash, would find their way to our doorstep another day and bail us out again was vanishingly slim. I would learn, though, that this in no way loosened the mysterious ties binding my father to his colleague.
As the only one who’s ever met her, I volunteer to write to her. My brother, holder of passwords, finds my father’s last email to her, dated nine years previous. It’s a catchup letter: the grandchildren’s academic and athletic triumphs, plus professional and other news about us three children. It includes mention of my lung condition.
“She’s so damned stoic,” he wrote. “Just carries on as if nothing’s wrong. I don’t think about it much.”
Ha! I had long suspected that my impairment and decline barely dented his awareness. The closest I’d come before now to confirming my hunch was when he asked me (I was, by this time, on oxygen) to go down on all fours and retrieve the TV remote from under his recliner. And dammit, dutiful daughter that I am—I mean, was—I got down there, tube in nose, and I did it, did it without question or hesitation.
But here was written proof. I don’t think about it much. He hadn’t noticed when I gave up two careers, one after the other: first as a simultaneous and consecutive interpreter engaging in high-stakes appearances around the globe before groups of movers and shakers, relaying nuance and terminology across languages with barely a stumble; and next, a desk job translating so-called parliamentary documentation, until even that became too much. He hadn’t registered the fact that I gave him no grandchildren.
I don’t think about it much.
The final sentence of his email stood out plaintively on the screen, a one-line paragraph bobbing in a sea of white:
“I miss you, Elaine.”
He missed her? Why, they had never even lived in the same city! Who was this dame?
“Dear Professor X,” I wrote. “We met back in 1981, when you visited our home in upstate New York. I write to you now with sad news about my father…”
There would be no reply. She felt embarrassed, perhaps, or guilty. Or maybe she had dementia and, like my mother in her last years, could no longer read and write. On the other hand, it could be that she’d forgotten all about my father. Or she might be dead.
I’ll never know what this woman was to him. And because I didn’t want to pry (I’d hoped he would revisit the subject unprompted), I never learned about the other indiscretions he mentioned in passing that day early in lockdown. And the unknown unknowns are probably as numerous as the stars in the sky.
Is his death for real? Even those people who I know for sure are gone, long gone—maybe, it flickers through my mind sometimes, maybe they staged their deaths somehow and continue to live among us under new names and guises. Or they’ve stepped out for a stroll. They’ll be back. They will be back. Soon. They’ve simply lost track of time. So have I.
* * *
But no, this is it: never again will I hear the story about the five Nobel laureates with their non-transferable fairy dust. The one about the servicemen who brought the footstool and set it at the mare’s hind end? I’m left to tell it now; never again will I hear it from the horse’s orifice. All those stories my father maneuvered over and over into tight spaces now stand parked for all eternity.
When an elder dies, a library burns, says the African proverb.
I remember how he used to tuck me in at night when I was small. He was the only person in the family who could carry a tune. I always asked for “Red River Valley”:
“From this valley they say you are going,
I will miss your bright eyes and sweet smile
For they say you are taking the sunshine
That has brightened our pathway a while.”
“Daddy, hug me as hard as you can!” I’d demand as he stood to go downstairs.
“I can’t do that, sweetie,” he’d say, laughing softly. “I’d break all your bones.”
“Do it anyway, Daddy!”
He would hug me gently, that is, hard enough to satisfy my demand, but gently enough to cause no harm. Then he’d leave, quietly closing the door behind him.
The Partitas He Played
When the pandemic lifts, as someday it must, we’ll hold a memorial service. The program will include some of the music he used to play. With this in mind, I turn now to Bach’s Partitas for Keyboard. A partita is a suite of pieces that partake of shared themes or motifs. It is composed of sarabandes, minuets, fantasias, and other musical forms with enchanting names. (I’ve been hearing these terms all my life, but I’m not sure what they are, and that’s okay; this is not a story about music appreciation.) He played some of the partitas, we know that, because for years the music lay on the piano near the top of the stack, but which ones?
Because even as I recognized in his playing the soundtrack of the meandering, plotless movie that was our home life, I never knew what exactly I was hearing. There were no programs or album covers. He didn’t stand with a hand on the curve of the piano and give the name of each piece before he sat down to play. If he had, he would have been addressing an empty room, as usually we were all somewhere else.
I learned to identify the composers early on—not too tricky, since apart from a mystifying, late-in-life foray into the twentieth century (Ludus Tonalis by Hindemith), he limited himself to Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart. But I didn’t know the names of works, and of opus and Köchel numbers I was likewise ignorant. And musical forms? Sonata? Bagatelle? Etude? Fugue? To me it was just music, bolts and bolts of music, unfurling unscheduled and unannounced, flowing through the rooms and out into the yard.
Now as I listen to all six of the partitas, I step outside myself to observe the memories that surface, and note which pieces call them forth.
Upstairs in my bed I am lulled by night music rising through the floor like smoke; seated on the rug in a patch of sun a few feet from the piano, I play with my doll amidst swirls of counterpoint; as I pass through the kitchen on my way to the swing set, my mother rushes to close the door so she can make dinner undistracted by the surround sound issuing from my father’s fingertips; stretched out fully clothed in the dry bathtub at the top of the house, I luxuriate in my fifth reading of Anne’s House of Dreams (Anne of Green Gables, now a deliriously happy married lady with a carroty updo, no doubt, pigtails long gone), almost oblivious to the distant strains coming from below.
On my way back downstairs, I’m waylaid by a book of my mother’s on the landing shelf. Days With Ulanova consists mainly of photos of the great dancer at the barre, in rehearsals, and on the Bolshoi stage. I never tire of this book. As I step into it, the music follows, entering me by stealth. In the introduction, the photographer recalls standing in the wings as he attempts to capture Ulanova doing Giselle. The image is mysteriously and persistently blurry, despite repeated lens-wiping. The problem, he will discover, is not in his lens but in himself. The heartbreak unfolding onstage has him weeping unawares, his tears interfering with his work.
The music rubs its back against my ankles, licks the corners of the bookshelf, then curls itself around the house and falls asleep.
* * *
Every component piece of every partita evokes memories; he must have played them all. And not only the partitas; Pandora heaps it on, and I recognize the English Suites, the French Suites, the Goldberg Variations, the Italian Concerto, toccatas, fugues, and inventions as part of that same soundtrack. Listening to Bach works for piano will bring my father briefly back, now and forever, provided I don’t rub the music threadbare with too much listening.
He was an amateur in the original sense; he played out of pure love. While in most areas of his life he jockeyed for domination or to impress (albeit in a way that not a few people found charming), his love of music was unadulterated by considerations of ego.
When the windows and the porch doors were flung open in summer, neighbors would drift past, lingering as the music mingled with the sweet, heavy fragrance of the cherry trees and mock orange that lined the driveway just outside. If he took note of the gathering audience, he gave no sign.
He wasn’t playing to be heard. Watching him at the piano, you might have thought that he was enacting some private rite solely for his own pleasure and exaltation, with melody, harmony, and counterpoint ancillary to something inaudible. Bach was the language of his intimacies with the unseen. He said his prayers in Bach.
He would hate what I wrote just above. Music is a series of sounds, he would say, that are a function of the laws of physics and the movement of air in the ear canal, and the aural nervous response thereto. The pleasure and the joy, he would have said, arise from purely objective physical stimuli.
Yet playing transfigured him, even as he strongly believed—no, he knew—that he and all living things are nothing but chemical elements and compounds, and that all feelings and thoughts arise from movements and recombinations of these elements and compounds in the brain. Proudly he told me, when I was very young, that he was a materialist. He explained that “materialist” refers not only to someone who loves to accumulate stuff, but also to a believer in the doctrine that stuff is all there is, and that the stuff you cannot see does not in fact exist and is therefore not really stuff.
Throw My Body to the Wild Dogs, Sir
My father was an avid believer in cremation. If people persisted in being buried, he told me (again, this was when I was credulous and small), the day would come when cemeteries would cover the entire surface of the earth, and no land would remain for the living. I imagine, therefore, that he would be dismayed if he knew that during that infamous spring of 2020, when the crematoria in New York City were operating around the clock with a backlog of two to three weeks, and corpses stacked in morgue trucks parked for days on residential streets insistently made their presence known, his unincinerated remains, like those of so many others, were dispatched to a cemetery in New Jersey and buried intact.
On the other hand, his belief in cremation was premised precisely on an utter lack of concern regarding the disposal of dead bodies. When he joined the Navy, the inducting officer asked how he wanted his body handled, should he die or be killed while serving.
“I couldn’t care less, sir.”
The officer was nonplussed.
“You can throw my body to the wild dogs, sir,” my father explained helpfully, “and let them drag it through the streets if you like.”
This story didn’t come up as often as many of the others, though still more times than I can count. I am nearly certain that it barely occurred to him as he was telling it, or at any other time, that someday he would die.
Now there will be no more of the jaunts to the ER that were so frequent during my parents’ last years. There will be no more bedside advocacy. Never again will either of them murmur weak thanks for my presence and succor; never again will I fumble amidst twisted sheets damp with sweat and piss until I find a chilly, phthisic hand, take it in mine, and respond: But you—you gave me life.
Instructors Don’t Get Tenure
It was midsummer now, and on the eve of my departure from New Hampshire, the three of us gathered for a last Zoom to tie up the loose ends. These weekly elder care calls had been a fixture in our lives for so many years now that none of us could remember when they began.
“I guess this will be our last conference call,” said my brother as we were winding down. There was a hint of sadness in his voice.
“Just a moment!” I cut in as the goodbyes began. In an instant, I jettisoned my plan to wait six months.
“I have something to say. Dad told me something a month before he died.”
“What is it?” said one of the sibs.
“He said…” I began.
“What?” said the other.
“He said…”—keep going, I urged myself, push those words out—“…that he was unfaithful to Mom.”
Silence greeted my revelation.
“On multiple occasions,” I added.
“That’s ridiculous!” declared one.
“Not possible,” said the other.
“Wait! I’m not finished.”
They went quiet. Show us, said their silence.
Rapidly, as if by tarrying I would lose them, as if I had not already lost them (Why did I bring this up? I was already asking myself), I recounted the tale of the junior professor who’d asked for advice about the tenure process—for some reason I referred to her as an ‘instructor’—and her invitation, and what ensued, and her phone conversation with my mother.
“Instructors don’t get tenure,” said my brother.
I knew this, of course; for all that I’d strayed into another profession, academia was our family business. It was just that the details of how the scraps of meat tossed through the bars of academe are distributed, of who in the hierarchy gets to feast on well-marbled steak so tender it falls off the bone, and who is left to gnaw at greasy scraps of indigestible gristle, had momentarily slipped my mind.
“Well, maybe she wasn’t an instructor, exactly. I don’t know what she was.”
I’d used the wrong word. There was no correcting it now. Had the woman in fact crossed paths with my father? Had she even existed? Or was the story some sort of fever dream? Whatever the case, she had already gone down for all time as an instructor, and the story had already been dismissed as unreal, absurd.
“He would never have done that,” said my sister. “Cheated on Mom? Are you kidding me?”
“This is what he told me.” I stood firm.
“He had dementia,” she insisted.
She’d maintained this for years. We’d agreed about our mother’s dementia, but I’d detected none of the signs in him; like many people, he’d only become more himself as he aged, the mesh of his filters enlarged, enabling bigger and bigger chunks of himself to slip through.
“Remember that time in 2005,” my brother chimed in now, “when he was delirious in the hospital? He thought he was in southern Ontario, mustering troops to lead an uprising against the George W. Bush administration.”
“That was fifteen years ago,” I managed to insert. “And he was dehydrated, and having a seizure and a urinary tract infection, and he was on the wrong dose of heart meds. Don’t you remember? As soon as they dealt with all of those issues, he was himself again.”
Before he could reply, my sister launched a new narrative.
“He was isolated under lockdown,” she began. “He fell out of touch with reality.” She warmed to her subject. “His mind wandered to strange places. He convinced himself he’d been unfaithful because he regretted the missed opportunities.”
She paused a moment, lost in thought.
“Remember the woman on the dunes at Cape Cod who stepped naked out of a tent and smiled seductively as he walked past? It was the summer of ’68.”
I did remember hearing that. Poor Dad. The Summer of Love. Another story from that summer: someone at the compound where we were staying found a No Nudity sign on the beach and hung it on the bathroom door.
“He told us about that last year or the year before,” she continued. “He said that he thought to himself, ‘I could step into that tent right now, and no one would ever know.’ But he kept walking, and he got back in time to cook the lobster because Mom didn’t want to drop them into the boiling water and watch them die. He felt guilty toward Mom, but not because he cheated on her. He felt guilty because at the end of her life, he couldn’t do enough to help her.”
“Oh, come on. He didn’t have dementia,” I said. “He was perfectly lucid.”
“No. He said a lot of strange things.”
“I knew you’d ask for examples.”
“He was very sharp, right up until the end.”
My brother didn’t address this; he had always left it to us, the daughters, to be sensitive to our parents’ mental and emotional states. He did say, “I cannot believe he’d ever do such a thing. It wouldn’t be like him to cheat.”
These words carried weight; it was rare for him to speak well of our father.
I took a breath and opened my mouth to speak.
I had no idea whether my father’s confession was true. No one would ever know.
I closed my mouth.
What is my stake in convincing them? I wondered. Is it a childish desire for attention, do I just want to create a sensation? I had pulled the pin, and the bomb had failed to detonate. My tidbit was of no particular interest; mildly peculiar, nothing more.
It was not important to convince them. It was not important to believe or to disbelieve. What mattered was to accept not-knowing, and to accept that for myself alone; I couldn’t force the others to see things as I did.
I was happy for my brother and my sister, both long-married and with children, my brother now the grandfather of three, that infidelity was beyond their ken. It would always be that way for them, and that was good.
Not for the first time, I asked myself: How it is that some people manage to arrange their lives like that? It had been given to me to know that infidelity happened to and was committed by regular people. It had been given to me to know that almost anyone was capable of it, given the right circumstances. To be our generation’s sole bearer of this wisdom did not gladden my heart, but I now saw that I couldn’t force the others to entertain a possibility that ran counter to their own experience. Moreover, there was no reason to try.
Esther Lupescu is the pseudonym of an author whose work has been honored with the Iowa Prize for Literary Nonfiction, the Notting Hill Essay Prize and ‘notable’ mentions in five editions of Best American Essays. She lives in the northeastern United States.
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