Knotted Laces

Radical in politics, traditional in family life, Dad had worked hard to be the parent he had never enjoyed. And he had succeeded: I had grown up strong and passionate beside him, basking in his love.
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I was not a rebellious teenager. Why bother? My parents were radicals in Republican San Diego. We remained close until my twenties, when I married a Dartmouth libertarian. I moved 3,000 miles east, and stopped the weekly calls, shutting out the hum of their disapproval. Then came the call: my father had a brain tumor. The doctors would start with a biopsy, and then see.

I never pictured our last walk together would be across a hospital parking lot.

Thirty years before, Dad had carried me in his arms across the Kaiser Permanente parking lot on Sunset Boulevard. In the Jewish tradition, he had named me Thelma, after his late mother. It was a tough old-fashioned name for a kid in sunny California, a name asking for schoolyard shoves, and snubs at junior high dances. The boys on the block nick-named me Thud-ma; but that's the thing about local boys: they'll find your weakness, whatever your name.

Dad, an eternal optimist, dealt with his weaknesses by denying them, by romanticizing a hard-luck Brooklyn childhood into one long twilit game of stickball. His father had died while Dad was a baby, possibly a suicide. His mother, Thelma, never remarried. She became a single mom who'd rather dance at the Roseland Ballroom and drink than tend her only son; she was wild and beloved, but absent and unavailable.

And my father suffered, though he rarely complained. He stayed with friends and strangers in Brooklyn, eating Karo Syrup sandwiches, so malnourished his legs looked skeletal beneath his short pants, and hungry for maternal love. But, like the mother he loved with a blind passion (and hated, too, for abandoning him) he was funny and fierce. And he was streetwise, because he had to be. He transformed his rage at being left alone so much as a child into an intense union activism that inspired him and those around him to the very end. The people, united, can never be defeated.

Dad proudly wore the Brooklyn T-shirt I'd given him on the morning of the brain biopsy. Mom drove and Dad curled up in the passenger seat. At the deserted hospital, Dad exited the car, still boyish at 62 in Bermudas and Converse hi-tops. His calves were athletic, but his head buckled on his neck, his bifocals pointed down. I slipped my arm around his waist; his arm arched over my shoulder. He pulled me close and leaned. We followed Mom, her bag crossing her shoulder as if she carried important dispatches.

We were unaware that this was the last time we'd be walking together, the three of us, who had shaped each other's lives. We would continue to walk together in dreams at night. We would remain like we were years before. Dad tall and lean and aggressive, gesturing authoritatively with his right hand at the Taj Majal or the Roman Coliseum for an imaginary camera; Mom's smile, like her mother's, trimmed to cover the gap between her front teeth.

For that moment, in the parking lot, I felt like there was only Dad and me. We had once been so physically close, so affectionate, so warm. We had understood each other without speaking. Surely, all our arguments since my marriage to a man Dad despised had exiled me from this intimacy. My father who had joked pointedly all the way up the aisle at my wedding ceremony was silent now. There were no attempts to pierce the tension with teasing.

I supported Dad's arm across my shoulder, my arm wrapped around his long waist, and remembered when we used to walk up and down the beach with petitions trying to recall Reagan when he was governor. Boy, we were before our time! I can't believe we did that. In San Diego! It was hot and everyone just wanted to relax and beer out and there we were, Dad in plaid Bermudas and black socks, me in a two-piece with a red bandanna on my head, going up to every wet and sandy surfer and tourist with those green sheets of paper on a clipboard, angling for signatures.

I loved bobbing by Dad's side, watching his pitch, how he wouldn't let anybody go, wouldn't back off, every time it was different depending on who he was talking to. He knew the issues and he never wavered in his beliefs, even though in San Diego hardly anybody shared them. And I was never embarrassed. I never wanted to be like the other kids or with them. I couldn't handle the little-kid politics of who liked who and who was the better skate boarder. I was like Dad. But I didn't have his balls. Ever. I lacked his optimism. I lacked his fight. But he showed the locals it was possible to be an anti-war activist even in that navy town. He was a force of nature. He kicked butt. He organized his AFT union and he made it happen, became its president.

But most of his union buddies didn't know about Thelma, his mother. With them, he discussed eating Karo Syrup sandwiches and growing up poor on the streets of East New York like they were badges of honor. They were his street creds, distilled into stories, painted like anti-war placards in block letters and waved with pride. He rarely shared the pain of his upbringing, the loss, the desperation, the tawdriness of the occasional nights spent in Thelma's one-room walk-up, where she screwed unfamiliar "uncles" while her son pretended to sleep on a cot nearby.

Dad named me Thelma, perhaps to give his mother a second chance to be a mensch. He leaned on me that morning before dawn as we crossed the hospital parking lot. We inhaled the last smell of night, of damp, of eucalyptus and yucca, of summer salt. I looked down and noticed his knotted shoelaces. Because of the tumor, he no longer remembered how to tie bows. I kneeled down on the asphalt to fix the laces, becoming that mother who paid attention to a child's needs before her own, that protective Thelma he desired as a boy.

And then Dad was gone. It wasn't the first medical test of many; it was the only test.

Radical in politics, traditional in family life, Dad had worked hard to be the parent he had never enjoyed. And he had succeeded: I had grown up strong and passionate beside him, basking in his love and pride in my abilities. I hope I had become, in part, the nurturing maternal figure he so desperately craved, the mother I would turn out to be for my own children, as yet unborn.