My mother holds me in her arms under a tree – or so the story goes, I am too young to remember on my own – and explains that daddy is broken and has to go to heaven. In heaven he’ll be fixed, she says. If he comes back here, he’ll still be broken, that would be bad, and we wouldn’t want that, right? I guess I agree to keep daddy in heaven because that’s where he stays. I really wouldn’t want him to be broken. I mean, I don’t think I would. At least he’d be here though. No, I’m sure I wouldn’t. Not really.
He is buried. I don’t know where. Then he is gone. We leave town, move to New York City and soon everything is different.
I grow up and go to school. I go to camp and take dance lessons. I read books and play in the park. My mother remarries and we have a new family. Somewhere in between she writes a book about our loss called Rachel and the Upside Down Heart. It allows people to ask us questions and it allows us to give advice. We’ve moved on quite nicely, we are told. We agree. We are fine.
I don’t know when I realize there might be a tangible access to him, a grave. He is in New Jersey I learn, B’nai Jeshurun Cemetery, to be exact, just over the river, near Newark. I wonder if I can see him from my balcony.
Visiting him never seems like an easy option. My mother is always full of excuses. The roads are confusing. We don’t have a car. Next year. Maybe.
Somehow, when I am old enough to drive, I round up a car and rally my mother and we are off. We may float over the Hudson for all I know. I have no memory of that day before standing in the rain in front of his grave.
It is very odd, almost creepy, to see your own name on a headstone. ZIENTS. There it is. I am not used to sharing my name with others. I am the only Zients in my immediate family since my mother remarried. It is one of the reasons I love going to dinner with my grandfather. “Ah, Mr. Zients, right this way. Your table is ready.” I love the sound of it. It makes me feel special to share his name, our special bond. But seeing our name like this makes me pause. I know that my father died, obviously. But there it is on a tombstone above some grass with his casket and remains of a suit below. He is all alone too. No one by his side. My grandmother is there, true, but she is just a little too far, a little too out of reach. To his left and to his right are empty plots. At least I know my grandfather will fill the space next to my grandmother. I do not know if I, or my remarried mother, will do the same for my father.
My mother has brought a candle that she and my father purchased together many years ago. My mother is the overly-sentimental-keeper-of-unnecessary-nostalgia type. I usually find this irksome, but right now I love her for it. We light the candle at the base of his grave, and my mother strolls away so I can meet my father.
“Hello,” I begin. “I just graduated college. A real big girl. I’m doing great.” I lie.
“Stanley, my stepfather, you know Mommie’s husband, well, he adopted me,” I explain, half expecting lightning and thunder to strike me down as I do. “Grandpa said it was okay. It’s a good thing, actually, but still, if it bothers you, I’m sorry.”
It begins to rain a little bit harder. I begin my goodbye, imagining, as I am prone to do, that I am not just talking to some wet grass off the New Jersey Turnpike and that he can actually hear me. As I do, the candle goes out. Damn rain I think to myself, ruining my moment. I turn to my mother and complain, “the candle went out.” She walks over to join me and it goes back on. Hand to God, it goes back on.
For a brief moment I am jealous that he chose to show himself as my mother approached. Was he talking to me or to her? Why couldn’t he have been clearer? I want to think it was to me, or even to us, but what if it was just to her. It did go back on when she walked over. Nothing changed as I stood there, except that it went out. He hates me. It’s quite clear. I am not important enough to overcome the rain. It’s true.
This is stupid. The candle went back on. It is magical actually. He was talking to us. Yes, he was talking to us. That is tremendous, really quite spectacular, a sign from above, if you think about it.
My mother and I hug and cry and declare it lovely. Lovely indeed. This is what we call beautiful we discuss, and we decide it is the most beautiful day ever in the history of ever. We leave the cemetery and head back to New York, and I feel worthy of being alive.
We drive, maybe in silence. I’m sure there are no words that would be right. No words to express what I now know, that my father up on the slant of the hill above my grandmother and the other to-be-filled spots is king of the cemetery. He reigns there, all powerful. And he’s watching out for me. I love that. I smile and feel comfortable (or at least as comfortable as I can) leaving him behind.
I drop my mother off, loving her just a little bit more and race to the East Side to pick up my friend Jennie. I had it perfectly planned before the day even started. I was going to spend the morning in New Jersey with my mother and would still have enough time to make it out to Long Island in the afternoon for Sam’s funeral. When I planned it, it almost seemed appropriate to do them both on the same day.
Jennie had called a couple of days earlier to tell me Sam had died.
Sam Mazlow was one of three brothers who owned Mazlow’s, the restaurant where Jennie and I had worked for several summers out on Fire Island. We’d started as busgirls and worked our way up, all the way to waitresses. Mazlow’s was our life for four months out of the year and now one of them had died.
“Of course, I’ll be there,” I explained as she told me about the service. I thought about our summers and the trouble we got into and the safe haven that Mazlow’s and their whole family served for us. I knew them well, even though I hadn’t worked there for a while. Paying my respects all the way out in Long Island, it was the least I could do. What a shame, really. He was too young. It’s really quite a shame. I made a note to bring my mother’s book.
I pick up Jennie and all her curly hair and head out of town for the second time that day. I want to tell her about the brush with the other side that I have just miraculously experienced in New Jersey. But it is a somber day and so is she, so I soften the story and just present the facts, leaving out all the grandness and glory. She is supportive and interested, but only as far as she can go. She could never fully understand. It was just between the three of us, a mother, a father and their daughter.
We drive, again in silence and my mind wanders, loving the concept of just the three of us – a mother, a father and their daughter. Mommie, Daddy and Me. I bathe in it for awhile because it is so foreign.
I don’t think anyone meant to dismiss me as a full-fledged family member, on either side. But that’s how it feels. I was too strong of a memory to be fully embraced by my father’s family and too weak of a presence at nine, when I met my new one, to demand my own niche. Even my grandfather, whom I adore, drunkenly referred to me in a toast at his 75th birthday party as a walking reminder of his dead son. It is not pleasant to think you trail grief from room to room at family functions. So I smile and mind my place and don’t make waves and hope it will adjust itself. But when the candle relit, I knew I was worth more than that. He was telling me he hadn’t dismissed me.
He should know I’ve never dismissed him. I wonder about him all the time. I picture him wooing my mother through the streets of Florence, Italy and finally proposing on the Ponte Vechio. I watch and rewatch his broadcasting videos and think about what else he could have accomplished. I know he would have been a huge, huge star. I check behind doors when I am home alone convinced there is someone there, a constant presence, a watchful eye that always makes me question my behavior before I am about to do something naughty.
I have imagined he hadn’t really died. It was all a ruse. He’d been wandering the streets with amnesia actually. And only, when the gods intervened, convinced I could handle it, and it was time for us to know each other properly, he’d walk back into my life and all would be explained. I’d take him by the hand and say, “It’s okay. I’m here.”
Or he’d pick me up from ballet one day before my mother had arrived and explain he was really a secret agent and the world had needed him and that was that and I needed to understand. I’d tell him I did. He’d say, “Good girl” and we’d grab my leg warmers and off through the back door on some adventures together.
I still see him in strangers on the street. I am constantly told people see him in me.
My head spins at the cosmic importance placed on the day, but as we head out of Queens I suddenly decide my father is an asshole, a real prick. Good riddance. Then I scramble for forgiveness and cry out to erase those thoughts from my stupid, stupid head.
What could he have possibly been thinking that day? Was it a hit on the head, a chemical imbalance or, waiting for me as well, an all encompassing “crazy” gene? Did my then four-year-old self flash before his eyes as he placed the noose around his neck? Did that image make him pause from what he was about to do for a moment, even just a second?
I spin recklessly out of control in my head as Jennie studies the map. Then the goddamn car begins to spittle and fiddle, and soon we are on the shoulder of the Long Island Expressway. The car is smoking and it is still raining, and this isn’t how I planned it at all. And how the hell did the candle relight? And now, above everything else, we’re going to be late.
A nice man stops and helps us. He brings us to a mechanic who says he can fix it, easy. We wait and get donuts as he does. Jennie is silly. She must think something’s wrong. She reminds me to breathe.
We finally arrive at the memorial drenched and stressed, but otherwise intact. The Mazlows, Carl, Renny, little Renny, they all just keep coming. More family from all nooks and crannies, from everywhere. I spot Erica, Sam’s widow, who smiles as she greets everyone who comes her way. I stop my approach and quietly judge her. How can she possibly be smiling at a time like this? That isn’t proper. We mingle and make our hellos and then there’s Ryann, Sam’s daughter, who is beautiful, all brown big eyes who embodies all that’s wonderful about being seventeen. I offer her my years of survivor wisdom and take her address to send her my mother’s book, which I have stupidly forgotten.
“It’s hard,“ I tell her. “But it will pass. Really, I swear. Look at me. I turned out just fine.“ I smile all knowingly.
We hug and she says thank you like I have just whispered a secret in her ear that her father is really just outside.
When I get home I am all too aware that I have lied to Ryann. Why would I lie to her? She’s so pretty. Did I even know I’d lied? No. I meant it. I did. But because of me, she now expects an easy road ahead. What a dreadful, awful person I am. But I didn’t know what to say. I had to say something. I had to. That’s my job. I’m good at it. Or at least I was. What will I do now? Will I run away? Keep crying? Call her up and tell her it really sucks, like a film that wraps around your entire being or a stench that never washes away? Will I pretend? Pretend I even know what’s wrong?
I am jealous of Ryann with her big sprawling family. At least she knew her father. Like those whiny girls in gym class who complained about their parents’ divorces and only getting to see their dads on weekends. I wanted to punch them in the face and scream, “At least you have a father, you stupid little things.“
I want to tell myself to shut up, but only crazy people do that. And then I get it. I’m right on schedule. Today’s the day, the day I’ve been dreading, but secretly knew would arrive. The day I become broken. Well isn’t that perfect. It is my destiny, obviously. My father went crazy, and, according to my mother did not show signs until his early twenties. Well, here we go. Dammit.
The wind rattles the cheap windows in my fourth floor walk up and the pink paint continues to peel. I light a cigarette, my new dreadful habit, and put on my overly appropriate new favorite song, Joan Osbourne’s Crazy Baby and collapse on my bed.
My bed, which I just shared with Alex, the bartender from work, whom I don’t even like. He’s kind of an asshole. But I was bored and declared it French night and he could keep up when I ordered en francais and that’s all it took and then we were here. There are studies that say girls without fathers tend to be either prudish or promiscuous. I had always leaned towards prudish, but recently, I don’t know why, with the likes of Alex, Steve, Barney, Robert, I am single-handedly trying to prove the prosmiscuous studies right. I’m disgusting.
I am a failure, a fraud from the “put together” life I’ve led.
I call my mother and quietly tell her I need help. I am grateful she does not judge and we agree to call a therapist in the morning. Anticipating my next worry, she assures me that she and Stanley will pay for it. And so it is done. I’ve staved it off for today anyway.