Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Junior

Today, July 6, 2014, would have been my father’s 89th birthday. He died in 1997. He had cancer, then chemo, then a heart attack. He was getting out of the tub at my parents’ home when it happened. Aesthete that I am, I imagine the scene as Jacques-Louis David’s “The Death of Marat.” Doctor that I am, I know the scene was much more chaotic, my mom calling 911, the paramedics arriving and hustling him out to the ambulance. Son that I am… Well, there are no words.

I had gone back to Long Island, to the house in Hicksville where I grew up, to visit him and my mom, but mostly him, a few weeks before that. He had actually been doing a little better, and so I wanted to spend some time with him. So we did what he and I always did. We watched TV, we talked briefly about the rest of the family, we went out to the local diner for dinner, we watched TV some more, we hung out, him on his computer, me on mine.

At one point, I did take him out one evening after his AA meeting, just him and me. We sat at a booth in the Mid-Island Diner, and I ordered a piece of pie off the huge, laminated menu. He just had coffee. We talked about life and death, about love and work, as we had never done before and never would again. I told him I loved him, even though for many years that had been hard to do. And he, after 23 years in AA, made his amends to me and asked for my forgiveness, and told me, without hesitation, that he loved me.

It hadn’t always been that way. The only time before that when I really remember telling my father that I loved him was when I was just starting my pediatric residency at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. I had decided to leave my car, a ’78 Toyota Corolla, out on Long Island because there was no point in having a car in the city. I had done an internship at a hospital in Mineola, Long Island, and my dad drove into Manhattan with me with some boxes of my stuff in the back seat and in the trunk. After bringing all my belongings up to my third floor walkup on Second Avenue at 80th, I gave him the keys, and he got in the driver’s seat. I got in for a second on the passenger side and said, “Dad…” He looked at me. “I love you.”

He looked startled. “I…” he said, “Well, I love you too, Kenny,” sounding like he knew that this is what he should say at a time like this. We leaned awkwardly over the stickshift and hugged briefly. After a moment, he sat back, nodded, turned the key, and said, “Good luck.”

“Thanks,” I said, as I stepped out onto the street. “Take care of my car!” He smiled, and I stood there for a while, watching him drive south on Second towards the 59th Street Bridge and home before turning to walk up the two flights to my new home.

That day, though, watching my canary yellow Corolla evaporate into Manhattan traffic, I did wonder about his love for me. His response had been so stiff, so mechanical. Was I pushing too much? Should I ever bring this up again? Did he really love me? And could I really love?

This was a pertinent question for me because that apartment, at 1553 Second Avenue, was more than a place where I would be living while I was a pediatric resident. It would also be where I would be moving in with my lover, Bob. We had been together for over a year, but now, in 1981, I would actually be living with someone I loved for the first time in my life. As I climbed the stairs, I wondered how this was ever going to work. How much like my father would I be? Bob and I had been happy so far, but were there things about me that I might have inherited from my dad that would make living together with an “other half” impossible? My name is, after all, Kenneth Arthur Haller, Junior. My father was the first Ken Haller. I was his namesake, his heir. How much of him was in me?

It would be many years before I would learn and appreciate all the horrific things that my father and his family went through during the Depression, events and situations that would lead anyone to doubt love and make it seem dangerous to express. I would mourn his own lack of a real childhood and recognize the heroism that led him to faithfully go to work every day and provide for a family, even when they sometimes seemed like strangers to him. I would forgive him for being an imperfect human being who nevertheless did find the courage finally to grow and relax into receiving and giving love as a grandfather to an amazing bunch of kids.

And I did learn from and with Bob that I did know how to love, and even though we split up as lovers after four years, we remained best friends from then on.

I finally did feel the need to tell my father about the fact that I was gay when I was thirty. I was living in South Carolina at the time, working in a small town called Loris as a National Health Service Corps pediatrician, and I was visiting the family on Long Island for a few days. My dad and I were in the living room, and he would be taking me to Kennedy Airport for my flight to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, within the next half hour. (I had found, even at this age, that it was best to drop startling news on my parents just as I was heading out of town.) Dad was sitting upright in his barcalounger, eating a bowl of cereal off a TV tray, watching CNN, and reading Newsday. I was sitting on the couch, and we had been talking off and on about the family and what my siblings and cousins were up to. “Well,” he said, summing up the conversation without looking at me as he toggled between CNN and the newspaper, “I gotta say, I’m really proud of you. You’ve really made something of yourself.”

I needed a moment to take this in. I could not remember ever hearing him say this. It was wonderful, of course, but I was a man with a mission, and he had given me the perfect opening. I took a deep breath and said, “I’m glad you feel that way because I have something to share with you.” He put down the paper and turned to me, looking over his reading glasses, his expression saying, “Go on.”

“When Bob and I were together, we weren’t just friends, we weren’t just roommates. Our relationship was a love relationship, and if I have another one, it will be with a man.”

He continued to look at me silently, not staring, not glaring, just… considering. Finally, he said, “Well, I’m not surprised.”

I nodded. “I didn’t think you would be.”

A pause. Still considering. “And I’m not shocked.”

Again, I nodded. “I didn’t think you would be.”

A longer pause, his eyes narrowing. “So, are you happy?”

I paused. I could not remember him ever asking me this. His asking alone was enough for me to answer quite truthfully, “Yes, I am. I am happy.”

“Good,” he said, nodding and folding his paper. “Are you sure you wouldn't like some breakfast?”

“Uh, what have you got?” I asked. This was not the response I had expected. We went into the kitchen and toasted some Eggo waffles.

And that was it. We never really discussed it again, and on the occasions when I would introduce him and my mom to a man I was seeing, he always welcomed them. One, in fact, an aerospace engineer like my father, came to New York with me, spent hours talking to my father on their first meeting and told me on the train ride back into the city that my dad was the most brilliant guy he had ever met on the topic of computer languages. I did not know that.

After my father died, I went back to Long Island to be with the family. At the wake, I met scores of people that my dad had gotten to know through AA. In the nearly two dozen years he had been in AA, he had been there for countless people in need at meetings and as a sponsor. These are the two things I heard from his AA friends over and over at the funeral home.

- “Your father changed my life. Any time, day or night, he was always there when I needed him.”
- “You’re Kenny, the doctor? Oh, he loved you so much. He was so proud of you.”

To be honest, it was not always easy to hear. When were you there for me? I wondered. You couldn’t tell me this yourself? I accused.

And then I heard his voice, his request for forgiveness of just a few weeks before, his declaration 17 years earlier that I had made something of myself, his tortured “I love you too, Kenny” four years before that. And I realized then that his difficulty saying I love you came, not from a lack of love for me, but from his own doubts, indeed his surprise, that anyone could love him.

And so today, on his birthday, I’m proud to say that, yes, there is so much of him in me, that his growth from fear to love, from desolation to generosity, has shown me how to thrive as a man. Being who we are, my father, Kenneth Arthur Haller, and I went as far as we could during his lifetime, and he challenges me every day to go even further as a man serving others in this world.


I am proud to be Kenneth Arthur Haller, Junior.

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