Sunday, December 18, 2005

Sunday Brunch

Me and my dad.
Thanks to everyone who commented on my previous post, Family Ties. It seems that post struck a nerve with many people, as family relationships often do. I certainly do not mean to seem pollyannish about hoping that relatives can get along. It's just that I have seen the damage that can happen to people over time if they do not. Many of my young patients have grown up without fathers, have had mothers who are abusive or neglectful and extended family who see them as trouble. They often are, of course, but there is a loss you can see in a youth's eyes when his family has fallen apart. It is not an excuse to do damage or harm others, but family discord can set the stage for a life time of pain and depression.

I learned a lot about forgiveness from my father. I was very lucky to have a great dad, although he had his share of problems in life. Besides being saddled with five kids, he fought schizophrenia since the age of eighteen. That year, he lost his memory and ended up riding a subway car from one end of the Bronx to Brooklyn. The story I heard from family is that my grandfather was called and found him on the subway; my dad spent the next year of his life in a mental hospital receiving electroshock therapy. Despite his problems, my father went on to graduate from NYU and then the University of California at Berkeley with a PHD in mathematics. He was, and still is, my inspiration.

Sometimes, during the years I was in my teens and twenties, we lost touch and I felt very far away from him. He had remarried after my parents divorced and had another five kids to support with his new wife. Needless to say, he was very preoccupied, as was I while in graduate school. He visited me once in New York and I still have a lovely picture of us together. But at that point in my life, I felt isolated and alone. I felt at that time that I had no support from family at all when I needed it the most. But loneliness and sorrow have a way of changing over time. I realized that I had made the decision to move to New York and when I got the chance to finish my PhD. in Tennessee where my family lived, I took it. It was the best decision I ever made.

In addition to hooking back up with my later-to-be husband, I had the luxury of time with my father after I moved back. For the last six years of his life, he watched my daughter and talked with me endlessly every Sunday about the goings on of his life. By this time, he and his second wife had been divorced. In our Sunday Brunch conversations, he taught me about relationships, mathematics and forgiveness. We would sometimes chat about other family members and I would comment to him why I felt upset with one or another of them. My father never became ruffled about his family and had what seemed to me an endless supply of love for us. If someone in the family had hurt him in some way, he would often shrug and say, that is how he or she is, that's just her/him. I could tell he loved each of his kids unconditionally, while overlooking all of our flaws--and I know we had some!

In the end, this is all I remember about my father--his love for us despite the differences and the pain we might have caused him. A bit over four years ago he was diagnosed with a rare form of duodenal cancer. He had never been physically sick a day of his life so it was quite a shock to me. He died three weeks to the day of being diagnosed at 68. I remember the day before he died--my family and I sat with him in his apartment and he was sitting up reading the very last book he would ever read--it dropped from his fingers onto the floor and after he went to lay back down, I picked it up. My father died the next night and I carefully picked up some pictures and the book he had been holding before he died: A First Course in Stochastic Processes. It sits on my shelf as I write this as a reminder that despite our differences, that the only thing I remember most clearly about my father is how he loved me despite my flaws. I am very lucky.

This beautiful poem by Charles Black, who was my husband's law professor at Yale, captures for me the essence of my father's life and the love that, despite imperfection, is there in abundance:

It is called "Letting Go," from his book The Waking Passenger.

In the process of letting go the breath
Moment for relieving your eyes' ache,
You see bark patterns, a child's hand
Catching and throwing, next to the tree.

You have to relive all your days
To receive the gift of surprise
At words you didn't quite hear, once riding.
Do what you can; everything will come

In memory if never in experience.
Revisit, retell. Love sounds deeper
Out of time than in time. Act love imperfectly;
You will remember love itself.


Anonymous Jeff said...

My father and I were never particularly close – he was raised hard by hard people. The night before he died, I held a pillow for him to rest his head on through the night – he was sitting up in his chair, a symbol of his unwillingness to leave. In the morning, exhausted by my vigil, I left him for two hours to go to church and pray. I told him if he had to leave I would understand, but he was still with us when I returned. I sat with him again, and by midday, I was so drained I had to sleep. My mother took over my vigil, and as she sat next to him I told him I was going to lie down – I told him I was so very tired and I had to rest.

I lay down at his feet, and my mother asked if his incontinence was a sign he was passing. I told her it was, and she remarked that he was “so cold”. She leaned in close and said, “He’s not breathing – Jeff, he’s not breathing.” He passed away as I lay down at his feet – I like to believe he heard me say how tired I was, and he realized how very tired his fight had made him as well.

This was the blessing of a god I cannot fathom – that is as far as my faith can take me.

I have a photo sent by a friend, of my father when he was my age. In the photo he appears benevolent – pleased. I look at that photo, and I can feel the approval my father was never able to give me while he was alive. I keep it on my desk.

11:32 AM, December 18, 2005  
Blogger Helen said...


Thanks for sharing your story about your father. I think a lot about how disapointed my own father was when I decided to get a PHD and become a psychologist. I spent much of my time in school struggling to keep my chin up, despite the lack of support. I don't see that when I look at my father's photo now. All I remember is how my dad wanted me to be happy in life--and now I am and that is what I think about when I see my dad's picture on my desk.

11:54 AM, December 18, 2005  
Blogger RebeccaH said...

Lovely stories. I have pictures of my parents, and I never get over seeing how young and hopeful they looked. I wish their lives had been easier, as I know they wanted my life to be easy. I will always miss them, as I hope my children will miss me when I'm gone.

12:31 PM, December 18, 2005  
Blogger DRJ said...

Dr. Helen and Jeff - Thanks for sharing these great stories of forgiveness, reconciliation, hope, and love. The holidays are a good time to think about how much family means in our lives.

1:19 PM, December 18, 2005  
Blogger jw said...

My father was one of the most likeable people anyone could meet. Few ever saw him sober .. that had little effect on it though. He was just one of those people people like. I doubt if he could be electable anymore. We tend to be harder on things like booze these days. My mother is a better genealogist than I: I'll leave it at that.

Mind you, three of my four grandparents were BIG TIME trouble and the fourth was too ill to do anything. The two men were both in trouble with the law in a great many different ways. My mother does not remember ever seeing her mother sober.

Both of my parents had a harder childhood than I. That is why I tend to give my mother a break. My sons do not and I will not force the issue.

We've got to try. At least that's how I see it. Sometimes we need to do some translation as well. I had the translation problem rubbed in my nose a few hours ago.

I told my wife the other day that we're a bit broke. To me, that meant "there's no money in checking." To her, that meant "there's no money for food." I discovered her hunting through the house to find a razor, really rather angry about it too. Well, it turns out she thought we were out of money and was mad at me for going to Timmies (coffee, Canada's national food). I sat her down and explained that I take household out of checking at the start of the month: I put it in the cash box, the one I gave her a key for when we were married. Translation problem! There's a couple hundred dollars in that cash box ... I ran to the store and got a package of razzors. (I'm now disabled and cannot work. So I've taken over all of the household duties as I can cook, shop and clean and such. Well, I can't do heavy cleaning, but ...).

It's funny how different people hear different things. I remember about ten years ago a childhood friend lamenting having to borrow 40 or 50 thousands to buy a new Cessna airplane. He was a bit short of the 1.5 million purchase price. A COMPLETELY different meaning to a bit broke. (Yes he's single, but it won't do you any good. The man's as asexual as they come: Always has been. Simply not interested in men or women in that way.)

I'll never get the love or kindness or support I needed from my mother. Yet, there is humour and a certain pathos in the situation. At least my wife and I can laugh about mistranslation.

1:38 PM, December 18, 2005  
Blogger Greg Kuperberg said...

Anyone who gets a PhD in mathematics from Berkeley can't be all bad. :-)

Also, that's a very nice family photo.

2:32 PM, December 18, 2005  
Blogger Helen said...


Thanks! It is one of my favorites.

3:02 PM, December 18, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I found that you described your father in what might be contradictory ways. On the one hand, he is wise and loving and nothing bothers him too much. On the other, he was twice-divorced with two large families (although the second might have been mainly step-children). You also say that he was "saddled" with five kids as if he had nothing to do with that. I enjoyed your story but it sounds like something was left out.

3:33 PM, December 18, 2005  
Blogger sarah said...

Beautiful post and comment thread, thanks, all.

For a few years after my dad died, I kept finding his notes and letters. A beautiful gift.

I was at lunch with colleagues right after one of these finds, and told its story. We were a group of about seven women.

This found note was quite old, from when I was 17 years old and damaged my mom's car in a minor accident.

My dad's note said:

Dear Old Sal,

Don't worry about the accident, I'll take care of it.

A few such incidents are to be expected, and can even be helpful in averting worse ones in the future.

And he signed it with his love, and the note is such a great example of support that I believed I was telling a really heartening story.

But when I looked up, I saw glowering anger on the faces of every single one of my colleagues. None of these women, apparently, had had any support from their dads. One by one they told versions of the same terrible story, the pounding fist on the table, the exercising of one will against another, the expectation of subordination.

My dad was certain that he had a better idea. He nurtured us.

I had always known I was fortunate in this, but until that episode with my colleagues, I hadn't realized my experience was so rare.

That made me sad, but also more grateful for what I have been given. I try to remember to shine this light for all!

And that's how I see what you are doing here, Dr. Helen. There's a lot of love and support in your words. Very heartening.

4:04 PM, December 18, 2005  
Blogger Helen said...


Thanks for your post and your wonderful story about your father. It amazes me how many women see their fathers as some type of tyrant. Sometimes I wonder if the fathers were that bad or if the women just see them that way. You can talk with two sisters from the same family--one who sees the father as honest but firm and another who claims the father was an abuser.

I am glad your father was kind and supportive. It is quite a gift.

4:21 PM, December 18, 2005  
Blogger Helen said...

Anonymous (3:33)

That is very astute of you to notice that subtle use of the word saddled--I think with my father's illness and the fact that the five of us were born close together was hard on both my parents. I did feel like a burden at times and was reluctant to bother or be close to others for a long time--but sitting with my father over the six years and talking with him mended that pain and I learned that despite his problems, he ultimately held his kids to be his greatest triumph.

6:35 PM, December 18, 2005  
Blogger Gina said...

Helen ,

I loved your story about your father , I also have fond memories of my dad , I was closer to him than I was with my mother , I think it was his gentle ways and he was very supportive of us kids , there were 4 of us , I would remember when the holidays were here , they always had dinner early , he would call us and say , hurry up I am hungry , why arent you here yet ... I miss his calls ... I also remember when my younger sister would get jealous when I would sit next to dad , she would come right over and sit inbetween us and push me over , meanwhile asking dad , if she was his favorite , Dad and I would be in stitches laughing , because we knew she would do this , of course my father would never claim a favorite , he would always say " all my girls are my favorites "
well anyway my father was diagonzed with lung cancer , he died 6 months later ... I miss him still .

7:42 PM, December 18, 2005  
Blogger Sissy Willis said...

As Goomp is forever reminding me, getting older is not for the faint of heart, or something like that:

"That is how he or she is, that's just her/him"

6:48 PM, December 19, 2005  
Blogger a psychiatrist who learned from veterans said...

In the shock of facing death, Theodore Lidz says that a person's "honor" is called on typically. Your father's story is lovely. That book on stochastic processes appears not at all to be for the faint of heart. Mathematics involves activity in more brain regions than using language. Your father adapted to life from a very intellectually vigorous professsion. In looking back on his life, he also reexperienced effort and whatever satisfactions including honor might come of it.

8:32 PM, December 19, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing your story. I disagreed with you somewhat earlier, but you are absolutely right. Many Americans do take their families for granted and let little things (such as politics) bring divisiveness. When I was in college , too many of us would say "my friends are my family". Really? Are they really going to stick around for 20 plus years? Most of them won't. Family will.


8:57 PM, December 19, 2005  
Blogger Helen said...


It always intrigued me that my father spend his last day reading that book--I felt that it meant something significant to him, which is why I have it with me, as a reminder of his intellect until the end.

8:58 PM, December 19, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


What a wonderful story, truly. What is the John Lennon quote? "Life is what happens to you while you are making plans." I might have the source of the quote incorrect, but the sentiment is still there.

As I grow older, I am increasingly chagrined by my behavior when I was younger. I was married before, but fortunately did not have children. I cannot imagine the pain of being separated from my own children by divorce, though it happens so often it doesn't merit mention. How nice that your father continued to value you, and you him.

The story of your father and his and your perceptions remind me of my own father. He is tough, opinionated, and dogmatic about everything. A "Roman judge," I used to call him, and I did not intend that as a compliment.

One thing that I used to battle with my father about was language. His language was routinely racist. He used to tell me that he was NOT a racist, but only hated (fill in the blank with a deeply offensive racial slur), not (fill in this blank with a marginally more acceptable racial slur).

When I was in my teens and twenties, I had no respect for my father, on this basis. I held him in contempt, I am ashamed to admit.

But like Mark Twain, I have learned a lot about my father as the years have passed. And as one grows older, things besides one's hair become grayer---things are not so simple and clear cut as when one is 18 or nineteen.

As the years passed, I came to realize how tired my father was all the time, saving as much money as he could so that my brother and I could go to college---something he couldn't afford to do as a boy (though he did get his B.S. in his late 50s, to my great pride).

My father is a retired firefighter. In that job, he saved many, many lives, and delivered dozens of babies (before paramedics were common, all firefighters did first aid and such while the ambulances were coming).

I started to put the pieces together. My father, the supposed racist, had saved the lives of dozens of minorities, and delivered many babies from such groups. And I never heard a word about it from him, except as part of the job. He never mentioned the race of people he saved. Not once.

It was only in conversation with other firefighters I started to put it all together. It was a combination of dedication to the ideals of his job, and his own sense of personal honor.

In my late 30s, the penny finally dropped. What did the world need more: sanctimonious types like myself who do not use racial epithets....or real (if coarse-speaking) heroes like my father, who never paused a moment before running into a burning building, or delivering a baby, or holding a bleeding wound shut?

But we live in a world where what you say seems to be more important that what you do.

I'm not fooled. My father was, and is, a hero.

I tell him that, and he laughs at me and uses more coarse language in response. Even though I would never use the language he does, I remain honored and lucky to be his son.

"Eric Blair"

8:22 PM, December 20, 2005  
Blogger Helen said...

Hi Mr. Blair,

Glad to see you back. Thanks for sharing your father's story and for clarifying for me through your father's story how important it is to pay attention to what people do and not so much to what they say. We really need more guys like your dad--they are the real heroes. I often hear people talk about all the "compassion" for others they have--but it is all talk much of the time. Your father's actions were much more important than his words.

9:54 PM, December 20, 2005  
Anonymous Eric Blair said...

KInd of you, ma'am.

I have forgotten the source of the quote, but it is about the most true thing in life:

"You are what you do, not what you say you'll do."

I try to live up to my convictions, not always successfully. But I try.

My father did more than try.

"Eric Blair"

10:44 AM, December 21, 2005  
Anonymous Eric Blair said...

KInd of you, ma'am.

I have forgotten the source of the quote, but it is about the most true thing in life:

"You are what you do, not what you say you'll do."

I try to live up to my convictions, not always successfully. But I try.

My father did more than try.

"Eric Blair"

10:45 AM, December 21, 2005  
Blogger serket said...

My father works very hard to provide for our family. Because of this I think he loves me. We are not a very close family as far as touch and saying "I love you." He can be firm at times, but I think it is important for a father to do that occasionally.

greg: "Anyone who gets a PhD in mathematics from Berkeley can't be all bad. :-)" I checked your profile and it looks like you graduated from there in 1991.

3:53 PM, January 22, 2007  

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