by Tina Portelli
Growing up, I never had much to say to him. We hardly talked; “Hey kid, you ok? Do your homework? Wash up, go eat.” Four mindless questions requiring short mindless answers. He was too busy with his business, always distracted. No time for real connecting. My mother tried doing it for both of them.
As I got older, my resentment grew. My friends had fathers who were around to take them to Coney Island, to the park, to the beach where they had fun. Most Saturdays my father took me to a new address, a multi dwelling building. To the basement, to the roof, out the back neglected yard, through he vacant apartments that would make us rich. I got to know every pipe, every knob, every meter in those basements. I got to know Joe. And his business.
Thinking I was being rebellious at nineteen, I started arrogantly calling him Joe. Not Dad, not Pop, not Father. Thinking it would annoy him, to my amazement, the effect was the opposite of what I expected. It was then, when we were on a first name basis, man to man, that we became friends, started to connect. Things started to change, they got better. I learned, I earned, I started to love tools, and Joe.
My brother wasn’t as lucky. He was older and on his own career path. He had no interest in nuts and bolts, screws or saws. Just the money part. While he did well in earning, he did poor in learning about his father. He missed out.
It is thirty years later, I still call him Joe. He is not the same man, Joe is gone, I could be calling him Alberto right now, and it wouldn’t matter.
He lives in another State, another world. Six months ago I made a trip from NY to Florida to see him. He did not remember me. As he sat in his living room I overheard my father ask his nurse, “Who’s in my kitchen?" She replied, “Your son Ken, he is fixing your faucet,” to which he replied, “Do I have to pay him?”
As a boy growing up in Long Island, money was always an important issue in our household. We never seemed to have enough and were trained to spend it wisely. This he remembers.
When my father was a boy, he could speak Yiddish. He had to, my grandparents understood nothing else. If his needs were going to be met, he’d have to express himself their way, the Yiddish way. Yet, as I was growing up, I’d never heard him utter a word of it. He denied ever speaking anything other than English, yet rumors from my uncle tell me a different story. I cannot figure out why he denies this, or perhaps he just doesn’t remember.
On my daily calls to him, I sometimes check with his live in nurse to see how he’s doing. This one particular day, the nurse commented to me that she never knew my father could speak Yiddish so well. That he was having a fluent conversation with the Rabbi, laughing, really enjoying himself. My suspicions are confirmed; he can speak his native language! So, on my next call to him, I say: “Hey Joe, how about some Yiddish today.” He claims he has no idea what I am talking about. I say, “Come on, yesterday you had an entire conversation with the Rabbi, I know you can speak Yiddish”. His reply, “Rabbi, what Rabbi? I don’t know any Rabbi.” That on one of his better days.
He is not physically sick, but can’t be left alone. He has escaped terminal illness, his only discomfort rest in his nuts and bolts. And while his memory is gone mine isn’t. I remember that he is still my father.
We have settled into a routine. I call him every day. I ask four questions, and on most days get the same four answers.
“How do you feel today?” “Fine”. “How is the weather? “Good”. Did you eat yet?”
"Did you go out today?“
”No.” So, for the past ten years, every single day, I have heard, Fine, Good, Yes and No. Four questions requiring short answers. Fine, good, yes, no.
I’ve always doubted he knows who holds the receiver on the other end, but I call anyway. My Jewish guilt mocks me when I think he’d be better off dead. What kind of existence is this anyway, this man, once vibrant, who eats and walks and sleeps, but does not really live.
On some days, he does not respond to my questions at all. I know he hears me, I can hear him breathe, I know that he is holding to phone to his ear, but he is off somewhere. It pains me to hang up on his breathing.
Last month, as I prepared to leave the country for a three week trip, I called upon my brother to step in. I had asked him to please call Joe every day, ask him the questions he is used to. Just make sure he is OK. “Will you do that for me? He said yes, but I doubted he would. I had to trust him.
When I got home from my trip, the first thing I did was call my brother. "How’s Joe, did you call him every day like I asked? How is he doing?"
“Yes, I did, but I called every other day. Every day was just too much, and I didn’t think he’d know the difference. He barely responded to my voice, I tried to fool him, make him believe I was you, since he is used to YOU calling him. I didn’t want to confuse him, get him upset. I did not want to remind him he had another son, that would be pointless. I doubted he’d remember me anyway. But last night, for the first time in three weeks he did respond to me, in a forceful voice and a determined manner. He said, 'Where’s Kenny? Where is my son Kenny?'”
So, who am I to say what memories live in dark balcony of his mind. If he should stay or leave.
Tina says: "I am 54, single and live in Brooklyn, NY. I work in Manhattan as a full time office manager. My writing is a newly found passionate hobby. I get my ideas from personal experiences and the adventures of family and friends. I have never taken a writing class, but three years ago I started practicing meditation. I attribute my newfound passion of writing to that practice, meditation gave me a clear and open mind. No better friend than the soul of my pen." Contact Tina.