I wrote this on October 23, 2011, and am just now able to share it.
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His mother was a Victorian.
I watched my father take his last breath today. Actually, I didn’t have the courage to watch him take the very last breath, it felt like an invasion of his privacy. But maybe I watched him take some of the last few breaths, then I went over to a pale peach vinyl chair with scuffed wooden arms and wept until the nurse came in and told us he was gone. And then he really was just gone. And it was over. And we all stood there for a few minutes, and said good bye. And walked out. And it was totally like a Japanese play (or what I imagine a Japanese play to be like, since I’ve never really been to Japan and seen a Japanese play, but I use that metaphor a lot and it seems to resonate). Anyway, the ICU is made up of ten or twelve rooms that open onto a central nursing station so the nurses can see all the different patients. There’s a curtain on a metal track at the ceiling that can be drawn across the entrance to the room and it was closed during the last few minutes of his life. Then when the curtain was pulled back and we all filed out—mother, sister, brother, brother, me, sister—the curtain felt like a theatrical curtain. Like a Japanese theater curtain, and we were like little Kabuki players leaving for the day. Disoriented, sad, grateful, tired. A little troupe.
My earliest memories of my father are of gripping his neck as he swam through the cold, sea weedy, horseshoe crab rife waters of Long Island Sound. The beach was filled with sharp shells. The water was filled with predators. I still do not enjoy the prospect of swimming in Long Island Sound. But he always loved it. I think it must have represented the passage between his childhood and his adulthood, in a way that much of his real life had bifurcated. As Tom grew up—the only child of a protective mother—I imagine that his summers in the idyllic enclave of Shoreham were spent swimming in Long Island Sound, that it offered some rebellious freedom from his elderly parents. He described hanging out with the older boys when he was a teenager and listening to Frank Sinatra and Count Basie and how his mother thought Sinatra was the devil and the end of civilization. How their house in Shoreham used to be a a hotel and that there were murals by Ludwig Bemelmans on the walls. Dad’s anecdotes were always punctuated with these sorts of famous apostrophes. “That time I was at Loretta Young’s house and I picked up the telephone and it was Joe Cotton on the other end of the line…” What? What was he doing at Loretta Young’s house? There were vague stories of taking army cargo planes from Biloxi, Mississippi to Los Angeles for these forays, but I never really got the full story. That was all pre-Peg, after all.
Then the Peg stories…meeting her at a tea dance at Duchesne, meeting parental resistance, the stormy night at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral with Patty and a maiden aunt as witnesses. There were a few years in there when the small family absolutely did not live in Brooklyn. And then within three years there were three babies and the little pack moved out to Glen Head. I think Sean’s first bed was the lower drawer of a dresser. And then it was all Mad Men, as far as family lore goes. Moving to the big house in Lattingtown, becoming the president of Stone & Webster Securities at the age of 39. I think I was born somewhere in the midst of all that plenty. Unbeknownst to my five- or seven- or eleven-year-old self, world events were coming into play. Being the president of a company that had hoped to spearhead the construction of nuclear power plants in the 1970s turned out to be one of life’s untenables. Stone & Webster shut down its securities division.
It was batten-down-the-hatches time. A move to a more modest house, a move to a job as a vice-president in corporate finance at PaineWebber. (I think he was unemployed for that one day of his life between the ages of 21 and 70). And the truth of it was I barely remember my dad at all during any of that. He came home from work, we had dinner. The usual. And that’s the rip-off for really good parents who provide a steady stream of clean laundry, a nice house, a hot meal every night at a nicely set table: your children think, well, of course, that’s how life is. The usual. As if such a life requires no planning or foresight or sacrifice. As a passable parent and dismal homemaker myself, I can only marvel at how Peg even got five children out of the house every day, much less how she fed and clothed us and always managed to look pretty in her brightly colored tops from La Shack and her Pucci miniskirts. Those years are filled with so many joyful memories, of crazy days with Liz and Dick and Patty and Louis and Betsy and Larry and all those cousins everywhere, and Thanksgiving dinners for forty people in Laurel Hollow. And then, in my own mind at least, everything kind of stopped, then sputtered, then started again when Muffie died on the last day of 1980. It just felt like the end of everything. The end of childhood for us. The end of a certain type of parenthood for them. The end of the belief that our parents were invincible and could fix everything and that everything would be okay. Because, as we all know today of all days, sometimes things just are not okay. Sometimes they are all wrong. And filled with long silences that confound our souls.
And then my memories of Dad started to become more pronounced. During high school he wrote me a constant stream of weekly letters, usually just a sentence or two or a clip from the New York Times accompanying my $25-dollar allowance check. It seems so silly now, that weekly check, but I love everything about those memories, of finding the PaineWebber envelope in the pile of mail at the front table of the dorm, seeing what little quote or witticism would be included with the check (the check that I would probably use for all sorts of mischief). He was wise to keep me connected on a weekly basis. A week is a long time when you are fourteen. I remember one week I got the check with a blank piece of paper and I ran upstairs and down the hall to the pay phone on the second floor of New Place and called Janice, his secretary of twenty years, and actually cried. I remember standing there crying and feeling like such an idiot. And she said he was away on business, but he knew I would want the check. And I realized then I didn’t really care about the check.
For better or worse, I think Tom parented in a way that made each of us feel very unique. There was not as much emphasis on the family as an entire group, but on the characteristics that made each of us who we are (Fecia the artist and free thinker; Tucker the rebellious one who ended up being the most down to earth of us all; Sean the kind, patient, giving, thoughtful father; Brooke the creative, wild spirit). But even as he fostered all of that uniqueness, there were certain core beliefs that he instilled in all of us. In certain ways, he was very much the child of his Victorian mother. There were very clear lines that dictated his behavior and, to an extent, ours. For example, once you started something, you simply finished it. No two ways about it. I remember four years at Miss Porter’s felt like an eternity and I called home during my junior year begging to transfer or quit or SOMETHING and I remember him telling me that I had made that decision and I had to stick with it. His answer was simply NO. Of course I railed against that but the reality is, it has been one of the greatest gifts he could have possibly given me: The ability to stick and hold. Whether he meant to or not, he created a very tenacious lot with the five of us. I’m not sure if that was his intention, but there it is.
I suppose Tom would prefer to be eulogized for his accomplishments out there in the world. The charities that he quietly and continually supported. The churches he attended daily. The respect of his peers in the world of finance. But I didn’t really know him in that way. To me, he was trustworthy, humble, dedicated. He was a good friend. He was reliable. He was conservative in the old-fashioned sense of the word: he hated waste. He appreciated every single day of his life. He loved his wife. He loved his children. I think his favorite place in the world was at the head of the table, about to cut into a beautiful meal that Peg had prepared, surrounded by family and friends, and about to launch into a great story.