Passages, Passings, and the Last Sight of Fathers

Farther and Sons
Farther and Sons | Photo: D. J. Waldie

Roz Chast -- the jittery cartoonist of middle-class urban anxiety -- lay down next to her dying father in his nursing home bed trying, she wrote in the Los Angeles Times, to "telepath to him how much I loved him, and that I knew how much he loved me, and that we were 'good' and it was o.k. to let go." It was her last conversation with her father.

Josh Max was called to his father's apartment where, he said, "a lone, hard detective stood in a full suit and tie in the blistering July heat. 'You might not want to go in,' the detective said. 'He's been there awhile.' My dad would have liked this guy." And when Max did look at his father for the last time, he saw that "his features had collapsed onto themselves. It was clear that whatever that was in the chair, it was not the man responsible for bringing me into the world."

My father died behind a well-made wooden bathroom door late on the evening of August 15, 1982 (the feast day of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary).

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The bathroom door in my house has a cheap replacement lock, the kind that dads pick up at the hardware store and install themselves. It's a lock with a small hole in the outside knob so the door can be opened with a narrow-blade screwdriver if a four year old locks himself in. That night, I didn't have a narrow-blade screwdriver.

The door didn't break when I hit it with my shoulder. The cheap catch did not spring from the lock plate in the doorjamb. My father's legs braced the door shut as he sat on the floor, his back against the bathtub.

An ambulance -- a contract service of the county of Los Angeles -- arrived at my father's death about half an hour after a fire engine had answered my call to the county dispatch center.

By then the fire fighters had delivered my father from the bathroom and had laid him out on the living room carpet. I sat on the edge of my bed in the middle room as they tried to restore the rhythm of my father's heart. The fire fighters bent over my father, looking awkward, adjusting the electrocardiograph and receiving radioed instructions from the hospital emergency room.

My father's heart was unruly. The beats flickered through the monitor. The defibrillator gave his heart another spasm, a shudder he did not feel.

When the fire fighters were done, I rode with my father in the ambulance, its siren shouting.

There are ugly deaths. And then, there are the dead. Those of us who grew up in the decade after World War II saw enough reasons for dying. We saw the movie versions of stormtroopers, kamikaze pilots, quislings, and the cowards who would not face them.

Our parents' war, in programs like "Victory At Sea", lapped over us in shadows from television sets in darkened living rooms. That lunar gray was the emotional color of violence.

When I was called to the table on which my father was laid at the hospital, after his dying had moved throughout his body, he was the color of television's black-and-white dead.

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