Life comes at us in a flow, but we remember it in snippets. What doesn’t wind up on the cutting-room floor of our brain is what remains in memory.
July 27, 1969: Fifty years ago today. And I rummage through the snippets of my memory.
July 27, 1969, was another brutally hot summer day in Northeastern New Jersey. We had recently gotten air conditioning in our house, which tempered the heat indoors, but it malingered, glaring and humid, just beyond the windows.
July 27, 1969, was a Sunday. It was my 19th year, my 19th summer, and I had other things on my mind than what my father had on his mind for me. Home for the summer between sophomore and junior years at Rutgers, I was in the midst of my first, for want of a better word, affair, and that played large in my mind that day.
July 27, 1969, and my father was in bed. In retrospect, through the lens of a half-century of distance, he must have been more ill than I recognized at the time. He hadn’t been well that summer – his condition is what led us to have air conditioning in the house at a time when that was relatively rare – and he had my mother summon me to their bedroom.
A teacher during the school year, my father ran a real estate business on the side. He had an appointment with a client the next day, Monday, and he asked me to keep it for him since he didn’t think he’d be able to. I hemmed and hawed, standing at his bedside. My girlfriend, Sheila, and I had planned to attend some reading or other in The City that Monday. Fifty years later, I can’t say with certainty who was giving the reading, but Allen Ginsberg, the beatnik poet, is the name that appears as a latent image on the brain cell entrusted with that particular memory.
July 27, 1969, and I was doing my best to turn my father away from what he was asking me to do. It was an uncomfortable moment, that I remember, for both of us. And then, in the middle of those moments of disagreement, of negotiation, of argument, I looked up at my father’s face and his eyes were cast up, in his head, and he wasn’t breathing. Something terrible was happening, he was having a heart attack, right there in front of me.
The snippet of memory of that moment is clear, if the snippets of what followed are less so. My mother was on the phone, on the other side of the bed, to call an ambulance. Or was it me? At various times, it was both of us, taking turns. There was no 911 at that time, so who did we call? Was it the police? My father’s doctor? And then, as one called, the other was giving my father CPR. Or what we thought was CPR. Mouth-to-mouth. My mother, and then me, alternating between that and being on the phone.
I had never given CPR before, was not trained in it, and didn’t realize how the air I was breathing into my father’s mouth was escaping through his nose, since I neglected to pinch it off. I still hear, in the snippets of those moments, the sound of the air escape, still feel my mouth on his. All this was happening in instants. It was about ten minutes past 1 in the afternoon.
July 27, 1969, and finally the doctor appeared. This was a time when doctors in this country still made house calls. He came into my parents bedroom, where my father lay in that bed, but it was too late. There was no reviving him. There, in the snippets, was the word thrombosis. Word that my father’s heart condition was worse than he had let us know. That no matter whether my attempt at mouth-to-mouth resuscitation was correct or not, there was no heart pumping to get the oxygen where it was needed. Years later I made a point of obtaining training in CPR. But to this day – perhaps even more now – I am haunted by whether I could have saved him if I did perform proper CPR on my dying father.
July 27, 1969, is marked with the wailing of my mother, who was inconsolable. In their bedroom. In the kitchen. In my room, where she later took refuge. Everywhere through the house. I don’t think I was very effective in comforting her, don’t know that anyone or anything could. All I could think to tell her was, “He’s inside us now.” In retrospect, I realize how foolish that was. He was already inside us, not just then, but the image or the metaphor wasn’t enough to bring him back to life, or to provide solace to my mother. Later, I was the one who had to convey the news by telephone to my sister, living then in Illinois, near Chicago, and to hear as well her cries of shock and sorrow. She would rush to fly in to join us, but meanwhile matters at home, and my mother’s inconsolable state, fell to me to deal with. I don’t think my mother was ever the same after that day, the day my father died. They had been inseparable in life.
July 27, 1969, night finally came, and I slept fitfully on the floor at the top of the stairs, just outside my bedroom where my mother had taken refuge. There were big thunderstorms that night, and as the thunder rumbled and lightning flashed through the windows and onto the walls around where I slept, or, more accurately, lie awake, I felt I was in some sort of movie, some scene in some house, some antebellum mansion, maybe in New Orleans, haunted by a spirit. It was a long night.
Other snippets come to me, too. Relatives arriving at the house. My friends coming over from New York, from elsewhere in the area, coming to comfort me in the days that followed, to do what friends do. I remember us sitting in the Arlington Diner and talking, just to get away from the house. Of Sheila hugging me, to offer me solace, out in front of our house. And my mother picking on that as something that would scandalize the neighbors, as if anyone actually gave a damn. Days later, returning to work, my summer job cutting grass on the New Jersey Turnpike, and the words of sympathy my co-workers offered me when I did. And there was the wake and the funeral and the burial.
One snippet is of a dream I had the month previous to my father’s death. I don’t recall exactly when the memory of the dream came to me, it might have been later that summer, but what I realized after the fact was that every detail of that dream came to pass in real life. The funeral home. My aunts. The street where the funeral home was located. I don’t know that I believe in prophetic dreams, but that dream foretold my father’s death and the events that would surround it. Later, my mother would tell of how, in the days preceding his death, my father told her he was having dreams of his own deceased mother, and he cried talking about her.
More snippets. Of painting rooms in our house in the weeks following my father’s death. I don’t know why this took on such importance, but repainting the dining room somehow became a priority. And then, in all the tumult, plans that Sheila and I had to attend the Woodstock Festival in August fell by the wayside, and when it finally happened, on August 15, 16, 17 and 18, I was driving with my family to bring my sister back to Illinois. I heard about the festival, with feelings of regret for having missed being there, on the car radio, and then later saw images of it on television as that historic gathering, for those days, became the second largest city in New York State.
Now it’s getting light out, fifty years later, on July 27, 2019. My father would be 106 had he lived, but of course, given his condition, even if he survived that day he probably would not be here today. My mother died 14 years ago this summer, 10 days before her 90th birthday. And today I review the snippets of a day, an event, a time that marked the beginning of the rest of my life.
Dad, I miss you. And more, I miss the times you never got to live.
The featured image is a photo of my father and mother on their honeymoon to Bermuda in 1939. I found it somewhere among family memorabilia.