I don’t believe my father’s heart ever functioned properly. It pumped to a strange beat. This is not an attempt at diagnosis, not a medical opinion. I’m sure the right amount of blood flowed in and out, that his aortas, arteries and veins were healthy and normal, but the heart as the headquarters of one’s soul and emotion, the organ that feels guilt, that experiences the caress or pain of intangible sentiment, it was there that his complications began.
In a small, quiet apartment in Brooklyn, cell phone pressed against my ear, at some midway point of our conversation, I said, “You know, Avie’s coming to stay with me for a week.”
“That’s good John. When he comes up I’ll take him for a couple of days.”
“I wouldn’t mind, but I haven’t seen him in seven months. I really miss him.” It was my own gentle and diplomatic way of saying ‘No.’
“He’s going to be here for, what, a week? I’ll take him for three days and you’ll have him the other four.” It was more a statement than a question, as if I had already agreed to let my son stay with him for a few days.
“It’s gonna be difficult for me to part with him for any amount of time,” I said, “especially after not having seen him for seven months.” I thought restating the length of time spent apart from my son was enough, an unambiguous answer.
“Yeah, tell you what, I’m going to keep him for just three days.”
Avie was six years old and had only met my father once, not at the hospital when he was born, and not on his first birthday, but when he was two years old, when I graduated from the University of South Florida. My dad flew in from New York for the ceremony. Their meeting was circumstantial, nothing to do with warm-heartedness or any interest in his grandson.
I changed direction, began talking about a Lego exhibit at a place called Discovery Times Square. Avie and I were equally excited about it. I invited my dad and Jonas, his youngest son, who was about ten years old at the time.
Jonas was my dad’s fifth child, fourth son, from three different women, my dad’s main paternal focus. Maybe he felt that the fifth time was a charm, so he decided to contribute towards the raising and nurturing of number five.
“It’s really something, the love a parent feels for his child,” he said during one of our many long distance conversations, he in New York, I in Florida.
“Yeah, I know what you mean,” I said, sitting on an old and stained couch in a pre-furnished efficiency apartment. It was located just five minutes away from the house where Avie and his mom lived. It had been a month since I moved out, and it was the maximum distance from my son that I could handle.
“I would die for him,” He said, speaking of Jonas, in a low tone, maybe for effect, maybe trying too hard to display emotion, but I thought he was fishing for a response like “Wow, really,” as if he were the only father on earth who would sacrifice his own life for that of his son’s. Paternal love was new to him, a revelation.
I rose from the couch, took three or four steps and was at the front window of the efficiency, tugging softly on the blinds, peering outside at the neighboring property, a rusted trailer park. “Of course.”
“I would die for him,” he repeated.
Two small steps and I stood before the scarred wooden kitchen counter, left ear and shoulder clamping the phone as I readied the coffee maker. I said, “That’s a natural feeling for a parent,” but I wanted to say, Oh, you do have a heart. You do have at least half a strand of parenthood in your genes. I would have continued by saying, I never thought you had it in you, not after you left when I was one year old, left my mom, twenty-three years old with two kids to raise, and, you know what, some years ago I found a greeting card, faded and yellowed from age, 1980’s date in the upper left-hand corner, that you once gave my mom, blank inside except for your handwriting that read ‘This should help with some of the kids expenses,’ and then you disappeared for 4 years, do you remember that Pops?
Something with buttons and a collar, presentable enough for court, was what I needed. I was at Burlington Coat Factory off of Orange Blossom Trail in Orlando, peering through racks of clothing, occasionally scanning a possible purchase held high at arm’s length. It was the setting for another scene of my tumultuous, seesaw, beautifully dysfunctional relationship with dad. I was in legal trouble-again, so I stretched my arm into the left pocket of ridiculously baggy jeans, fishing a cell phone out of the denim abyss.
“What do you want John?” His voice on the other end was frigid, all business.
I told him all about how I thought it was illegal for a cop to sit outside of a bar or club in the downtown section and pull people over randomly because he knows for a fact that any car, any car, leaving a downtown parking lot at 2:30 in the morning is going to be driven by someone with a blood-alcohol level that reads like a Mensa member’s IQ.
“That’s entrapment! It’s unconstitutional,” I demanded.
“Again,” he asked, as if I was in the habit of requesting money for lawyers. The one time he helped me purchase legal representation, four years earlier, was the only time he ever assisted me in dodging the slap of a judge’s gavel, which likely did more to sooth his own conscience than allay my fear of returning to prison, you see, he acted out of selfishness and guilt, but mostly guilt, because so many years before that, in1993, when I was sixteen years old, arrested for Armed Robbery, being tried as an adult, he turned his back on me, afforded me no help except for a book he sent in the mail entitled “So You’re Going to Prison.”
He was riled up. “So I’m supposed to shell out money for lawyers every time you get arrested?”
“This will be the last time,” I pleaded. “I need help.”
In a slow, deliberate, and calm voice, he said, “Fuck. You.”
I stepped from the rental car at JFK Airport, scanning the crowd, heart leaping when I noticed my mom in an orange shirt with orange stripes (yeah, that’s right, somehow the manufacturers made that happen). My son was two feet to her left which, in my opinion, is twenty four inches too far in that flowing river of moving bodies, his little rectangular, black luggage in tow. His tanned face serious, probably thinking of the week ahead and all the places I promised to take him. He wore a white t-shirt and khaki shorts and took confident, purposeful steps, as if he knew where he was going, what he was doing. I moved in, needing to unload a hug that was seven months in the making.
“Hey Little Man,” I said before pecking his cheek and squeezing him.
“Hi daddy.” He released his luggage and hugged me back.
I told him about the Lego exhibit and other places we could visit. He listened with wide eyes, tossing in a sporadic “wow” whenever he felt the need. He appeared to be people-watching, swinging his gaze and refocusing each time a honking horn pierced his concentration. I tossed their luggage in the trunk, buckled his safety belt, slid in the rear seat next to him and soon the airport was behind us. My girlfriend drove and mom rode passenger.
“Look! That’s New York art,” he said, pointing out the window at a wall plastered with graffiti.
I laughed. “Yes, that is New York art.”
My phone rang. I didn’t have to check the screen to know it was my dad, but I pulled it from my pocket anyway. And I didn’t need to answer it to know what he wanted, a few days with my son, but that was more than I could give.
“Who’s that?” Melanie and mom spoke in sync.
“It’s Pops, but I’ll call him back,” I said.
It rang again.
Should I answer it? No, I thought, it’ll only make matters worse when I tell him no. And I don’t really know how good a parent he can be. I would love to say ‘Yeah, dad, come pick him up,’ but I can’t, I won’t, because this week is my week and if he really wanted to see his grandson then he should take a trip to Florida but, as usual, his actions were for show, that’s what I believed, that Pops thought he needed to show some semblance of affection for his grandson, or maybe he really did want to see Avie, maybe he was excited at the thought of having him for a few days, but unfortunately he just didn’t have enough experience in the parenting department and I would never forgive myself, I thought, if I allowed a sense of familial obligation to trump my parental responsibilities, and there is no way for me to know if he can be a good father, a watchful guardian. When I ponder his role in my own childhood, his contribution to my own upbringing, he took a silent back seat, and from that very seat he watched me, his own son, sixteen at the time, shipped off to an adult prison.
I slid the phone back in my pocket. The answer was an unwavering ‘No.’
I turned to my son with a beaming smile, clapped my hands. “Okay Avie, what are we doing first?”