A Requiem for a "Last Angry Man"
My father died on Father's Day. I'm not sure his timing was meant to be so fitting, but I have no doubt that he had finally decided to stop fighting, not an easy task for a classic "Type A is for Aggressive" man who for much of his life felt compelled to fight for his survival. I could talk about dad being raised by a mother who went in and out of clinical and sometimes near-psychotic depressions; or his short, bull-like immigrant father who won strong man contests, while also being a gifted carpenter (his artfully crafted inlaid chess table remains a family treasure); dad's father, too, an often absent parent and a weekend alcoholic; or being overshadowed by his athletically gifted older brother who eventually joined the Navy and left dad to care for his increasingly ill mother after his father left the roost; or a man who volunteered to join the Army during WW II despite having a "family exemption" because of his mother's health; or a romantic who chose to elope with my mother because of her family's objection to this guy from the "wrong side of the tracks"; or of dad's mental breakdown and hospitalization for "manic depression" (in hindsight, a questionable label) when I was one-and-a-half years old; not questionable back then, though, was the start of over fifteen years of electro-shock therapy (ECT) as my parents were afraid to question the medical establishment's treatment of choice for depression. (By the way, he finally stopped the shock, during my parent's short-lived marital separation when a woman with whom he was casually involved told him, "You're nuts, you don't need shock therapy, get some psychotherapy!" He did… eventually staying in group therapy for a dozen years, never needing another electrical jolt to keep him "functioning.")
Or should I talk about his existential crisis at work as the Mafia increasingly infiltrated the New York City garment center (this was the early '60s version of "downsizing"; I call it frightsizing!): would he leave his successful, twenty years sales position, tear up his security fabric, or agree to report to "el Capo" Tommy D? (I still recall his anguished hours and days wrestling on the couch, not sure if dad was going to kill himself or someone else for having his world violently turned upside down. Eventually he jumped from the rat-infested ship; yet after anxiously taking a job with another controlling big company, dad realized he had to be on his own. He forged a position as a sales rep for a small business owner with his own fabric warehouse. Eli was a "goniff" or small crook in his own right, but at least not of the "organized" variety.
And his world flourished - making more money than he ever had, reuniting with my mom, continuing with therapy, taking up tennis as a new mid-life passion (his crowning moment when he defeated his athletically gifted brother in a match). Of course, living at home was like living in a family encounter laboratory. As I once penned:
What made him break from our mistake, perhaps we'll never know.
But in the wake of psychic quake, a formula to grow.
The silence cracks, each spouse attacks, the couple hardly known.
But on these tracks of broken backs, emancipation sown!
Cries of a Lifetime, a Lifeline, and the Unraveling
And for me, the start of my emotional emancipation - of transcending a childhood riddled with fears and unrecognized talents and gifts, of being overly aligned with a brilliant yet anxiously controlling mother while emotionally distant from/ashamed of my "irrational," sometimes problem-drinking father - began at age twenty-one: I followed my dad's footsteps into psychotherapy. And five years after learning about his bouts with depression and shock treatment, I finally had the courage to ask, "Dad, why did you need the shock?" And then crawled onto his lap, put my arms around him, holding on for dear safety, burying my head in his neck for forgiveness, and cried uncontrollably, pure unadulterated emotion pouring out, as he recounted his fears of being like his sick mother, his desperation of not knowing whether he could both support a family and fight his inner demons…And finally my admitting and understanding that I had so many similar fears and feelings of shame. (Dad later shared that he had never experienced such an outpouring of emotion and love in his life.)
A decade later, wanting to understand the difficulty in recalling so much of my childhood, I began asking my parents pointed questions which triggered an explosion that, after much physical posturing and verbal battling between father and son, (my mother had left the room), reversed the roles: backed into a corner, dad finally let go of his defensive yelling and tearfully relived and acknowledged a young father's shame (surrounding his shock regimen), guilt and helplessness ("breadwinner" survival fears), thereby dissolving his defensive rage…and now, allowing me to take him in my arms, he cried uncontrollably. (And this man never cried, except at poignant theatre or movies.)
I was going to talk about how the vascular strokes in his early 70s began to change the hard-edged but honest communication he and I had evolved over the decades, despite my living out of town in New Orleans and DC. He no longer wanted, nor felt strong enough to handle, that real give and take battle, the staple of our rebuilding a father-son bond and a unique level of trust. My dad's recent death evokes multi-layered sadness, not just for the immediate loss but also for the steady dissolution these past fifteen years of our once uncommonly open and authentic interaction. Still, I can't resist recalling one trust-building vignette:
My younger brother, Larry, and I were visiting my folks in Florida. To give the story some context, as a child, Larry, was the sibling who bonded more with my father. There definitely were sibling rivalry issues. Larry was also in the psychology field, receiving his doctorate in Clinical Psychology; by comparison I burnt out working on my social work thesis and was ABD. Unlike his older brother, Larry was a researcher; he had studiously avoided psychotherapy. To continue…during the visit I noticed how if my brother said something critical of my dad, my dad seemed to ignore it, while if I questioned or challenged him, there was definite aggressive push back. At some point, the frustration building within, I finally said to him, "Dad what's going on? Are we reliving the old days of you and Larry as allies? Larry says something smart you ignore it, me…you're all over me."
Fortunately, my father was way ahead of me. His succinct reply: "Nah, Larry can get defensive; you… I know you can take it!" (Perhaps not surprising, as my dad and I moved away from more intense and genuine relationship communication, or as he more passive-aggressively criticized my at times financially-challenged "word artist" life style - partly because of not understanding my motivation, partly because of his "fear for my security" which, naturally, overlapped with his own fears - he and my financially successful brother regained their comfort zone.)
But despite selective retrenchment, the person who could really both take it and fight, truly, was my dad. Four years ago, at eighty-four, he was diagnosed with lung cancer. As my doctor explained, even though he had stopped smoking forty years before, the two-packs-a-day damage was done. The amazing thing now was his ability to handle three and a half years of chemo with an uncomplaining acceptance yet "determined to keep on fighting" spirit. For a man his age, Dad totally defied the chemo treatment life expectancy tables. When my father once tried to tell his oncologist of his admiration, the doctor immediately reversed the tables: "On the contrary, Mr. Gorkin, it is I who admire you."
So this is the eulogy that I never gave at the placing of the flag alongside his urn-filled ashes, with "Taps" being played in the background, at the quietly comforting, tree-, grassy knolls- and lagoon-covered grounds of the military national cemetery near Boynton Beach, FL. Beside the three soldiers in dress greens, it was only my mother, brother and me. Despite his success as a salesman, my father was basically a loner and this simple unadorned ceremony captured his wishes and much of his Spartan essence.
As was written on his head stone: Abraham Gorkin - A Courageous Mensch, Loving Husband & Father.
Amen and women to that!