Facing Death

You just want me dead!” My father screamed into the phone.

If I’d want­ed you dead, you’d be dead.”  I responded.

I felt out­raged by his com­ment.  I didn’t want to have this con­ver­sa­tion with my dad– not now — not this way.  I could feel my anger building.

Remem­ber when you called with pain down your left arm and I told you to get off the phone and call 911 because you were hav­ing a heart attack?”

How about the time I drove you to Cedars Sinai, and six hours lat­er you had emer­gency surgery on your carotid artery?”  You wouldn’t be in the hos­pi­tal right now if I hadn’t called your doc­tor!”  Now I was yelling back.

I hate this god­damn hos­pi­tal.” I could hear sur­ren­der beneath the rage in his voice.

I’d want­ed to have this talk with my father face-to-face, the way I’d rehearsed it in my head.  I want­ed to be calm, lov­ing and ten­der.  I want­ed to offer him com­fort and sup­port so he could die with dig­ni­ty.  But I had to say it now, even though I was angry and reactive.

Look Dad, I’ve been help­ing you dodge bul­lets for the last nine years.  I know you think I can do it again, but I can’t, not this time.  I’m sorry.”

I don’t want to die,” he said.

I don’t want you to die either.  But, you’re not spe­cial, we all die.”

I know.”

My father had been diag­nosed with lung and pan­cre­at­ic can­cer.  The doc­tors gave him a year with chemo, six months with­out.  At sev­en­ty-six, he’d already lived almost twice as long as my moth­er.   She was only 35, when a rou­tine spinal x‑ray diag­nosed her con­di­tion, after she walked into the doctor’s office com­plain­ing of back pain.  The can­cer was rid­dled through­out her spine.  It was Feb­ru­ary, and her doc­tor didn’t expect her to make it through Decem­ber.  My mother’s strong will, and the needs of her three small chil­dren, kept her alive for five more years.

Death, I’d learned ear­ly on, could sneak up on you.  My father nev­er had the courage to tell his chil­dren that our moth­er was dying of can­cer.  He was dev­as­tat­ed, so bro­ken he could bare­ly even tell me after the fact.  My mem­o­ry of that day is still so vivid, it could’ve hap­pened yesterday.

I remem­ber the phone woke me, even though it seemed too ear­ly for it to ring.  Was my prob­lem­at­ic root canal flar­ing up, from a tem­po­rary fill­ing, or had I just decid­ed not to go to school?  The echo of the phone ring­ing vibrat­ed through the wood­en floors of the hall­way to my room, alarm­ing me.  The house shook as I lay in bed won­der­ing whether to run and answer the near­est exten­sion even though it was down­stairs.  My father’s door was closed shut. Why hadn’t he answered it?  I walked to the end of the hall ready to knock, when I heard him answer the phone. “Okay,” he said.  I knocked gen­tly, opened the door, and watched as he hung up the phone.

Turn on the lights, “ he said.

Who was that?” I asked

Dr. Argy­ros.  What kind of clothes do you have?

What?”  I didn’t under­stand why he was ask­ing me such a stu­pid question.

Do you have any­thing dark?” he asked.

No, why?”

Look, I don’t want a lot of cry­ing now.  Your mother’s dead.”

I swal­lowed my breath and ran from his room down the wood­en hall­way to the bed­room in the front of the house that I’d shared with my moth­er for six months, until she could­n’t make it up the stairs any­more.  I explod­ed.  My insides came up my throat.  I was gone, dis­ap­peared into my tears, drown­ing with my head in my pil­low.  I did­n’t want him to hear me.  Noth­ing would be worse at this moment.  I heard him walk down the hall with his flat foot­steps, a heavy-set man, full of him­self.  “Get dressed.  We have to pick up Joel and Myles, and go to the hos­pi­tal to pick up her per­son­al belong­ings.  Then we have to get some clothes for the funeral.”

With my moth­er gone, my life had become a night­mare and the fear of los­ing my father so con­sumed me that I couldn’t sleep through the night with­out wak­ing to see if he was still breath­ing.  Even with his smoker’s cough, he con­tin­ued to inhale mar­i­jua­na and cig­a­rettes.  I was terrified.

I start­ed my first semes­ter of Chi­ro­prac­tic Col­lege sev­en years lat­er and walked into a dis­sec­tion room filled with cadav­ers.  By becom­ing a chi­ro­prac­tor, I thought I could save my remain­ing par­ent, from what was sure to be his pre­ma­ture end.  In ret­ro­spect, I was sim­ply try­ing to face death; to make sense of it.  Unfor­tu­nate­ly, dis­sect­ing human flesh only trau­ma­tized me more, and I learned just enough to help my dad cir­cum­vent the grim reaper for the next twen­ty-two years.

It was now two days since my father had accused me of want­i­ng him dead.  I called him back.  This time, in a calm voice, he said, “Bring the head­phones, I want you to play me music while I’m dying.”

When I arrived sev­er­al days lat­er, I found my father lying in a jaun­diced fog with bare­ly enough ener­gy to say hel­lo.  I pulled out the head­phones and played him Stuck Inside a Cloud from Brain­washed; the last album George Har­ri­son com­posed and pro­duced while dying from brain can­cer.  Over the years, George Har­ri­son had sent prayers, in the form of flow­ers, each and every time my father was in the hos­pi­tal.  This time there would be no flow­ers, only music.

I’d been lis­ten­ing to Brain­washed a lot since my dad’s diag­no­sis.  I thought play­ing these songs for him might imbue strength and wis­dom while remind­ing him of George’s pre­cious sense of humor.  George’s insight would more pro­found­ly affect my father than any­thing I could ever say.  When the song fin­ished, my dad took off the head­phones and said, “That was very nice.  Was that coun­try music?” I knew he was in bad shape. He didn’t rec­og­nize George’s sig­na­ture, the sound of his guitar.

George had been a great friend and bene­fac­tor to my father, repeat­ed­ly res­cu­ing our fam­i­ly with kind­ness over many years.  He even extend­ed his gen­eros­i­ty to me, on a tough birth­day, when I least expect­ed it.

My moth­er had been in and out of Lennox Hill Hos­pi­tal so many times dur­ing her ill­ness, that her stay on my four­teenth birth­day felt like a pun­ish­ment.  When we arrived, I was sur­prised to see an unopened present perched on her night table.

Who’s that for?”  I asked

Who do you think it’s for?” she respond­ed.  I could always count on the humil­i­at­ing sting of her sharp-wit.  I didn’t know if it was a get-well-gift for my moth­er, or a birth­day present for me.  But if I’d just grabbed it, she would have giv­en me a much hard­er time.  That was the way it was with my mom, you couldn’t win.

The gift was from Liz, a co-work­er from the law firm where my moth­er worked before her ill­ness forced her to quit.  I shook the box.  I could tell it was clothes.

My moth­er had been sick for so long, I’d for­got­ten how to make a wish for myself on my own birth­day can­dles.  I’d used up the last four years wish­ing she would get bet­ter. Though I felt super­fi­cial and guilty about this gift before me,  it did­n’t stop me from tear­ing off the wrap­ping paper in a con­trolled fren­zy.  Inside the box was a short-sleeved nylon shirt, with a col­lar, and six-inch zip­per that opened in front.  The navy blue shirt had white pip­ing as well as a bor­der of red around the edges of the sleeves.  The vivid details of this shirt are locked in my mem­o­ry for three rea­sons.  I didn’t like dress­ing like the flag, it was a thin sum­mer shirt in the dead of win­ter, and it was ugly.

Yet, I felt so grate­ful that I changed in the hos­pi­tal bath­room, and felt win­ter run up my arms, rais­ing goose bumps all the way to my ado­les­cent nip­ples.  It was clear­ly not the sea­son to wear such a shirt, though I’d nev­er let my dis­ap­point­ment show.  After all, it was my only birth­day present.

Time to go,” my dad said, as he hand­ed me my over­sized par­ka.  The huge jack­et was filled with pock­ets of win­ter air, requir­ing extra ener­gy for me to warm.  For a few moments, I felt even more chilled wear­ing it.

I have to make a stop before we can go home,” he said.  His com­ment wor­ried me. My dad would often dou­ble park and leave us in the car, so it wouldn’t get towed away.  Some­times we wait­ed for hours.  I was instant­ly relieved when he added, “We have to stop in and see George.”  We meant he wasn’t going to leave us in the car.

George Harrison’s Hotel on Cen­tral Park South was far less osten­ta­tious than I ‘d expect­ed for a Bea­t­le.  A door­man guard­ed the entrance from the icy winds.  Dark, wood mold­ing which accen­tu­at­ed the toasty, warm lob­by ran around the floor, ceil­ing, and doors as well as around the two elevators.

The details of his hotel suite, how­ev­er ele­gant, were insignif­i­cant com­pared to George’s pres­ence.  He was so kind that his warmth radi­at­ed out­ward like the sun.  No oth­er celebri­ty ever took the time to make me feel so spe­cial, as if he felt the same hon­or being with me, as I felt shar­ing his com­pa­ny.  It was my four­teenth birth­day, and I was spend­ing part of my day with the one and only,George Har­ri­son, and it changed every­thing.  Just by sit­ting on the lit­tle sofa in his suite, I had for­got­ten how painful it was to see my moth­er in the hos­pi­tal, or how cold I was from the ugly blue birth­day shirt I’d insist­ed on wear­ing.  In that moment, I didn’t need any­thing else.

That’s when George lift­ed a brown par­cel tied with hemp twine, onto the glass cof­fee table in front of me.  He’d lift­ed it by a han­dle, made from a wood­en cylin­der with thick cop­per wire thread­ed through the core.  The wire looped at each end of the cylin­der, to form hooks, which attached to the twine.

I heard it’s your birth­day,” he said.

The words, “To Brett, Hap­py Birth­day.  Love, George,” had been writ­ten on the han­dle with a black, felt tip pen.

I was shocked.  The detail of that note, writ­ten by his own hand, was enough.  The con­tents of this mys­te­ri­ous box didn’t mat­ter as much as the sim­ple fact, that George Har­ri­son cared enough to per­form the pre­med­i­tat­ed act of pur­chas­ing a birth­day gift for me, a four­teen-year-old.  His gift meant I mattered.

Care­ful­ly, I opened the pack­age in a state of dis­be­lief, and was aston­ished to find a brand new Bolex 280 Super 8 mm movie cam­era with a macro zoom.  To this day, the over­whelm­ing love I felt from him lingers in my cells.  George Har­ri­son had become an angel, my angel, and think­ing of him would always make me feel better.


Years lat­er, on the heels of George’s diag­no­sis of can­cer, my dev­as­tat­ed father declared, “Smok­ing is anti-life!” and began adding mar­i­jua­na to his Pills­bury peanut cook­ie bat­ter.  He had been smok­ing pot behind closed doors, since his intro­duc­tion to the Beat Gen­er­a­tion in 1959, when he wrote a twelve part series for the New York Post.  I remem­ber sit­ting on my parent’s bed, no more than four years old at the time, with my moth­er, father, and their friends, as they passed a pipe burn­ing what would become a famil­iar sweet smell, around the cir­cle.  I’d grown up wit­ness­ing the per­va­sive con­sump­tion of mar­i­jua­na and even­tu­al­ly became com­plete­ly intol­er­ant to its use.  Now the doc­tors were pre­scrib­ing mari­nol, and encour­ag­ing my father’s mar­i­jua­na con­sump­tion.  It was a chal­lenge for me to put my per­son­al views aside, but I could see his cook­ies were help­ing since he nev­er seemed to com­plain about any side effects from the chemo.

Until my last Christ­mas vis­it with him.  That’s when he began com­plain­ing of vague GI symp­toms and con­sti­pa­tion.  We sat in his dumpy lit­tle apart­ment in Eliz­a­beth, New Jer­sey, with the heat cranked up, read­ing each other’s writ­ing.  I gave him a draft of my nov­el, still in des­per­ate need of revi­sion, and he gave me a copy of the open­ing to Mick and Miles, the next book he want­ed to pub­lish, about the meet­ing he’d arranged between Mick Jag­ger and Miles Davis.  I’d want­ed him to read my book.  I knew that by read­ing a person’s words you could get into their head, and I want­ed my father to know me before he died.  He in turn, want­ed to know if Mick’s cock­ney dia­logue was real­is­tic and under­stand­able.  I could see he was run­ning out of steam.

I noticed a per­cep­ti­ble dif­fer­ence in the way I ingest­ed his writ­ing — pay­ing atten­tion to the jux­ta­po­si­tion of words, the place­ment of com­mas, and the rhythm of each sen­tence.  Read­ing my dad’s work now, remind­ed me of how awed I was as a kid, when I would sneak into his room while he sat typ­ing at his portable Her­mes type­writer.  I’d grab the stack of com­plet­ed pages, placed face down in a neat pile amid the con­fu­sion of papers strewn every which way, along­side an ash­tray over-filled with cig­a­rette butts.  I’d prop my tush on the edge of his bed, and read his work, cap­ti­vat­ed.  When I was done with his man­u­script pages, I’d qui­et­ly return them to their place on his desk, and stand behind his left shoul­der watch­ing, as he con­tin­ued to sum­mon words to the page.  My father wrote about rock super­heroes like they were his next-door neigh­bors.  He made them real.

As I read, I saw that by recy­cling a sto­ry writ­ten years ago, my dad was able to bring Miles Davis’ sen­si­tiv­i­ty as an artist back to life. My dad had called his piece, Bird’s Christ­mas, and Miles had called it the weird­est set he’d ever played.  It was Christ­mas Eve, 1948, in Chica­go, with Max Roach on drums, Tom­my Pot­ter on bass, and the famous Char­lie Park­er, so stoned on sec­onal he’d passed out, stand­ing with his sax­o­phone in his mouth.

My father wrote, “At one point, Miles let Max go on for thir­ty-two bars as loud as he could in an effort to rouse Bird. At anoth­er point, Miles blew eight bars of trum­pet right into Bird’s ear. But it was­n’t the loud­ness that suc­ceed­ed in rous­ing Char­lie.  It was the silences.”

Good writ­ing does the same thing, I thought.  Con­tem­plat­ing how my dad had always taught me that writ­ing was all rhythm.  I looked up at him, and wished things had been dif­fer­ent between us, but knew our silent, shared moments, were bet­ter than his rage.

I like your ren­di­tion of Mick’s dia­logue,” I told him, break­ing the silence.

He looked up from my nov­el, “Yeah?” he asked.  He looked very com­fort­able sit­ting in his beat-up recliner.

It was the same as if I was lis­ten­ing to him.  I felt like I was there.”

Good.  A few peo­ple told me it was too hard to under­stand.”  Then he point­ed to my book in his lap and said, “I’m going to read more.  I want to see what happens.”

I smiled.  I had found great courage when I gave him my nov­el, and it turned out to be a gift for both of us.

It was now July, and my father had sur­vived ten months since his ini­tial diag­no­sis.  He was so weak, he could no longer walk to the bath­room unaid­ed.  I could see he didn’t have the will to con­tin­ue much longer.  His three small chil­dren were grown with lives and fam­i­lies of our own.  His oth­er chil­dren were his books: Bob Dylan and the Bea­t­les & Bob­by Darin Was A Friend Of Mine, and they had found their place in homes and on bookshelves.

Every­one kept bring­ing him food, even though his doc­tor said it was futile to get an advanced can­cer patient to eat.  My aunt brought a sponge cake and chick­en soup; my broth­er went to my dad’s favorite Ital­ian restau­rant and returned with a salmon din­ner and tiramisu for dessert; my sis­ter-in-law brought rugalah.

My dad had no appetite, and after smelling the hos­pi­tal food, nei­ther did I.  I sat watch­ing him sleep for six hours, and felt my emp­ty stom­ach growl­ing like a lion for food.  I wasn’t going to vis­it the hos­pi­tal cafe­te­ria.  I knew my dad loved lentil soup, it had been the one thing he was will­ing to eat with­out an argu­ment, and though he was turn­ing increas­ing­ly yel­low, I left only after ask­ing if I could make him a batch.  Like every­one else who brought him food, I had to do some­thing, to over­come this hor­ri­ble feel­ing of help­less­ness. Plus, I had to eat too.  Three hours lat­er, I returned with home­made lentil soup with car­rots and pota­toes and he barked. “Leave me alone; I don’t want any.”

I knew he didn’t have much moti­va­tion to talk because he was so sick, but we were run­ning out of time. When I next walked into my father’s hos­pi­tal room, I said,  “Dad, you’ve been telling me for three months that you’d talk to me when I got here.”


Yeah and I’ve been here for a week already and you haven’t told me shit… what did you want to tell me?”

I wrote 32 columns about the Alta­mont Inci­dent for the N.Y. Post, Go to either the NY Post library or the pub­lic library, and put them togeth­er.  With a lit­tle edit­ing, it will make a nice lit­tle book, by me and you.  I nev­er got around to it,” he said.

He start­ed to cry.  His tears made me cry, too.

You would trust me?” I asked.

Of course I would trust you!”  He became sud­den­ly enraged, “Why do you think I’m telling you this?”

Dad, you know when you sit at the key­board and the words seem to come from nowhere?  Will you help me when I’m sit­ting there?”

I’m help­ing you NOW!”

That was as close to sen­ti­ment as we got.  He nev­er believed there was any­thing after death.

The doc­tors dis­cov­ered the tumor on his pan­creas had grown, pre­vent­ing his liv­er from drain­ing.  A shunt would cor­rect his prob­lem.  We’d dodged yet anoth­er ”bul­let,“ but the wound would still kill him.  I was glad I’d made it back in time to say goodbye.

I’d moved away from home in 1979, but by then there was no “home.”  We’d changed our address so often I felt like a pro­fes­sion­al mover.  Final­ly, I’d giv­en up and moved in with my boyfriend and his fam­i­ly.  My dad drove a Mer­cedes Benz paid for with his drug deal­ing mon­ey.  He com­mut­ed from Wash­ing­ton, D.C., where he lived with a girl­friend work­ing in the Carter White House, to Allen­dale, New Jer­sey, where he’d rent­ed a tiny crack­er­jack house but nev­er both­ered to unpack his box­es.  They end­ed up in stor­age after the sheriff’s depart­ment seized his prop­er­ty, and evict­ed him for non-pay­ment of rent.

My dad had once been charis­mat­ic, suc­cess­ful and con­nect­ed.  He knew every­body.  I grew up tag­ging along with him, and meet­ing some of the most cre­ative peo­ple of the six­ties and sev­en­ties.  I’d nev­er bought a tick­et for a con­cert, nev­er pur­chased a sin­gle record album.  But, things had changed after my moth­er died and I knew my father was lead­ing a dan­ger­ous life.  I was Al’s only daugh­ter, and very tempt­ed to stick around and help him, until a car pulled up in front of my boyfriend’s house around mid­night and a few guys got out with flash­lights, and start­ed bang­ing on the door.

Is Al Aronowitz there?”  I heard them yell from the street.  I hoped who­ev­er answered the door had the com­mon sense not to men­tion that I lived there.

No,” I heard some­one say.

The men got back in their car and disappeared.

Short­ly after this inci­dent, I was accept­ed to West­ern States Chi­ro­prac­tic Col­lege in Port­land, Ore­gon.  It wasn’t far enough away.

I’d come back to Eliz­a­beth to say good­bye to my dad.  I’d been there a lit­tle over a week, the shunt pro­ce­dure had been suc­cess­ful, and my dad’s col­or had returned to nor­mal.  I brought him his sec­ond favorite soup, mine­strone, and tried to feed it to him.

Too hot!” he yelled.

I’ll blow on it.” I said, apologetically.

Too fast!  He screamed.  I was feed­ing him the spoon­fuls of most­ly broth too quickly.

I want it pureed!”

I put the soup down, left his hos­pi­tal room and broke down in tears.  He was back to his old self.

In the end, I didn’t real­ly know what was in his head.  I tried to ask him what he felt and what he was think­ing about, but I think he was too tired to answer.   I want­ed to believe he’d been so busy liv­ing and writ­ing all his life, that now he was final­ly reflect­ing on all of it.

I sat on his bed first look­ing at him, and then glanc­ing at the wall where we’d hung a pho­to­copy of a fea­ture arti­cle, which had appeared in the Newark Star Ledger about a year before.  There were pic­tures of him with Bob Dylan, Sly Stone, George Har­ri­son and John and Yoko.

What are you think­ing about?“ he asked me.  It was maybe the first time in years that I’d felt like he real­ly want­ed to know.  I paused a long silence, sur­prised by his inter­est, not exact­ly sure what I want­ed to say.

Writ­ing.”  I answered.

He sat pen­sive before he answered.


I felt very sat­is­fied in that moment.   I felt the silence between the words roused more mean­ing than the words them­selves.  I knew we real­ly under­stood each oth­er.  When I said good­bye to my father, I knew it was the last time I would see him alive.

My dad reject­ed hos­pice, refus­ing to embrace his own death as a part of life.  “They’re wait­ing with shov­els at the door.”  He’d said.  He couldn’t stand emo­tion­al farewells.  He suf­fered a mas­sive stroke leav­ing him in a veg­e­ta­tive state.  Upon learn­ing the specifics of his med­ical con­di­tion I chose to stay away.  I’d already cried too many tears over him dur­ing his life.  My inge­nious broth­er, Joel, called me, and our old­er broth­er, Myles, at 1:30 am on August 1st.  Our father was slip­ping away.  Joel spoke to us on a speak­er­phone, just in case my dad could hear our voic­es. We all joked, told sto­ries, and told him we loved him, while Joel nar­rat­ed the end of our father’s life.  Two hours lat­er, he died in my brother’s arms while Blue in Green by Miles Davis played in the background.

This is the hard part,” I said, sit­ting with my two broth­ers in the car after fol­low­ing the hearse to the ceme­tery.   I’d nev­er for­got­ten the pain of wit­ness­ing my mother’s cas­ket being low­ered into the ground.  She’d been ripped away from me with­out warn­ing.  Peo­ple shov­eled dirt on her cas­ket, while I sobbed uncon­trol­lably, filled with rage that I would nev­er be able to see her again.  A stranger stepped in front of me to shield me from my night­mare.  Now, I was pre­pared to face that pain again.

On per­haps the hottest day of the year, peo­ple who loved and respect­ed my father, gath­ered to pay their last respects and form a makeshift com­mu­ni­ty to bury him.  My dad had lived a long, col­or­ful life on his own terms, and it had come to a pre­dictable end.  There had been no sur­pris­es.  We said Kad­dish and while the Rab­bi shov­eled dirt on my father’s plain pine cas­ket, I was struck with a feel­ing of love, not pain.  As I took the shov­el from the Rab­bi and filled it with dark, moist earth and emp­tied it into my father’s grave, the words, “As it should be,” ran through my mind.  We grow up, our par­ents grow old, and die, and we bury them.  I did not feel the same agony as the day we buried my moth­er.  I final­ly under­stood that my father, by liv­ing a full life, and allow­ing me to grow up and have my own child, had helped me heal the deep­est wound of my life, the loss of my moth­er.  I left the ceme­tery at peace, with both my moth­er and father buried in the same row.