“Let’s not hang-up until you are home.”
Updated: Jun 28
I’m in New Jersey right now with my mom. I was anxious about how it would feel to be back again in the house where I have spent so much time with my father, and also where he died. But I am finding it comforting. It feels healing to talk with Mom about him, and there is a way in which being surrounded by visual reminders of him is validating of my grief. Every day I see the photographs he took on the walls, his favorite chair, his extensive collection of Apple products around my mother as she works through his estate, etc etc. And as I reflect back on 2021, I have started thinking about it not only as the year he died, but also as a year where there was so much loved shared between us.
My father sent me a box of marzipan for Easter 2021. He ordered it on Amazon, he didn’t include a note, but he knew that it is my favorite candy. My father was an extraordinary gift giver. I don’t think he ever read or heard about “Love Languages,” but “Gift Giving” was definitely one of his. My brother and I were absolutely showered with Christmas and birthday presents. At moments it felt excessive, but the gifts were thoughtful, and they were almost always on the mark. I was in middle school and high school during the awful early aughts (00s) period when Abercrombie & Fitch, Hollister, and America Eagle were very much “in” in suburban New Jersey. My father would dutifully buy me clothes from these stores for Christmas, AND THEN spend an early evening in January going back to the mall with me to return what didn’t fit/I didn’t like and try on other things. The whole experience was rather painful for both of us, but reflecting back, it was such an expression of his love.
In the years where he was more and more effected by his illness, his contribution to the gift giving efforts decreased. It was sad, not because my mother didn’t do a good job, but it was just such a clear manifestation of him being sick. I remember for Christmas 2020 he gave me two books that were complete misses. He had been home from the hospital after his stem cell transplant (which included a multiple-week stay in the ICU) for only two months. That he hadn’t done much research to find out about recently released books that I might like was totally reasonable. But his off choices were another piece of evidence that he wasn’t doing well. Then in April he sent me the marzipan. I thought "there is my father.”
Let’s not hang-up until you are home
Near the end of a really rough January 2021, when I was about to head back to Boston, my mother declared that she was going to call me every day until my PhD was over. I had had a “call once a week and talk to both my parents at the same time” routine for a long time, so this every day plan was a change. And moreover, the idea that I would talk to my mom alone, and not talk to both at the same time was a big change. My dad has always been jealous and hovering whenever I was only talking to my mom. In February, my mom would call in the mid-afternoon, but slowly the timing shifted later. By March, she was calling in the late afternoon when my dad was taking his daily nap. By the middle of March, I had also started walking around my Brookline, MA neighborhood while we talked on the phone. At some point she would say “I have to hang-up now; I need to start making dinner for your father.”
Then, in early May, my father decided he wanted to wean himself off his nap. He was always groggy when he woke up from them, and the grogginess would linger for the rest of the day. This was a real act of defiance, as it was clear at this point that his condition was terminal. And he achieved this goal, and so now he was awake, in his usual chair, when I called my mother. At some point she started passing the phone over to him. She would say: “Your father had a hard day, why don’t you talk to him and cheer him up.” We would talk about how he was feeling, what his recent platelet and red blood counts were, the email exchange with his sisters that aggravated him, the calls from his sisters that made him feel loved, and of course my progress with my PhD. Often, I talked to my parents the entirety of my walk, but a few times I attempted to end my conversation with my dad before I got all the way home. He would ask: “Are you already home? Did you turn the key and walk upstairs?” And I would reply: “No, but I am a block from my apartment.” And he would say: “Let’s not hang-up until you are all the way home.”
Golf on TV
TV did not play an oversized role in my childhood. When I was young, and we lived in New York City, my parents would tell me that we didn’t watch TV very often because I had thrown the remote control out the window (really parents?!). Over the years the TV watching increased, mainly my brother and me watching football on Sundays, and eventually, when I started high school, we got cable. But there was one type of television watching that was present for as long as I can remember: golf, and more specifically my dad watching men’s golf. There was sufficient “golf on TV” in my life that I knew exactly who Payne Stewart was when he died tragically in the fall of 1999. There was sufficient “golf on TV” in my life that when I read Ocean Vuong’s “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous,” the references to Tiger Woods made me momentarily feel like he was writing about my adolescence. And so, over the years, I had spent plenty of time on the couch in the TV room watching golf next to my father, and often my brother.
Last June I came home for two weeks after defending my PhD. Both weekends I spent the second half of Sunday afternoon next to my Dad, in front of the TV, watching first the “U.S. Open,” and then the next weekend the “Travelers Championship.” We watched a come-from-behind win in the U.S. Open; we watched an eight (!) hole playoff in the Travelers Championship. I still had my aggravations with the experience - all the cis straight men, even the commercials are about golf - and I couldn’t help but make these comments to my father, but I did not get up from the couch. It felt so nice to spending time with him doing something he loved. And I was just aware enough that the moments were precious, that I did make him take a selfie with me.