Two days ago, as I do every Saturday afternoon, I called my father in Oregon. This is a ritual that goes back to my freshman year in college, when I would telephone my parents from my dorm room to hear their news, and tell them mine, and most of all—though this was never stated—so they could be sure I was all right. I went to college in Corvallis, Oregon, only about ninety minutes from where I grew up, yet back in the late 1970s, when the world really was much bigger than it is now, that seemed like some considerable distance.
I had no way of knowing, of course, the far greater distances I would travel. Only five years after I entered college, I would leave for New York City, which would become my home. Still, I always talked to my parents on Saturdays. Every now and then, I would think about how Saturday would feel when the time inevitably came when I wouldn’t be able to talk to them. But I was busy leading a packed-in life, so truth be told, I didn’t dwell on the matter much. Whenever I would go off to Europe, as I often did during my years as an editor and writer at Opera News Magazine, the first thing I would do when I returned to New York was to call on Saturday. My breathless accounts of my adventures in Italy, France, England, Sweden, Turkey, and especially Ireland, where I still go every year, were politely received by my parents. Then they would tell me the local news: what my twin nephews were up to, what kind of damage the latest winter storms had done along the Oregon coast, who they had gone out to dinner with the previous week, and—more and more as time went on—which old friends had died.
My mother died in May of 2016, just three weeks after I was unexpectedly job-eliminated from Opera News, where I had been employed for twenty-eight years. It was a spring of great changes—“The Book of Changes,” as my friend Marjorie Sandor titled my favorite essay in her collection The Night Gardener, which I urge all of you to read. In fact, my mother was now absent only in the most literal way; she had been more painfully absent for some time, having suffered from dementia for close to a decade. Since around 2008, I would guess, the Saturday calls had been between my father and me.
My father is the most upbeat and optimistic person I have ever known—sometimes challengingly so. My partner Scott made the shrewdest observation about my father I have heard: “Jack is not going to allow anyone or anything to intrude on his sense of well being.” It’s a perfect comment on a man who was in some very tough situations in his life—extreme poverty and near-homelessness during the depths of the Depression, combat during World War II. (He fought in the Battle of the Bulge.) Once he came home after the war, he lived an overwhelmingly happy and productive life. He seemed to think that most of us make our own problems, or at least make them worse. There were times, as the years went by, when I would complain to him about something or other in my life that hadn’t fallen into place as I would have liked—jobs I hadn’t gotten, or the fact that I hadn’t made the financial gains I had hoped for (and how many writers do?) His answer was inevitably some variation on just-settle-down-you-have-nothing-to-worry-about. Sometimes I would feel myself going on the defensive. So I learned not to say much about what I felt was wrong in my life, because he didn’t seem too interested in hearing it.
As a result, I didn’t mention to him much about the mix of feelings I had about losing my longtime job, or about my anxieties that, at fifty-seven, the job market wasn’t exactly wide open to me. I knew he would tell me that everything would be fine. And I wasn’t sure that everything would be fine. I wasn’t sure at all. In June of 2016, I left New York to spend the summer with him in Oregon and finish writing the novel I had been working on for several years. It was a lovely summer, one of the best of my life, but the subject of my future hardly ever came up between us. My father continues to lead what seems to be his imperturbable life. He is ninety-five, works outside as much as he can, still drives, takes no medication, and enjoys a martini.
I returned to New York in the fall, and by December I had a job offer to become the Public Relations Manager of Florida Grand Opera in Miami. After some consideration, I accepted it, even though it meant being separated from my partner and friends in New York—from a life I love very much.
Moving to Miami turned out to be a very good thing. I love the job. I have terrific, supportive, welcoming colleagues. It’s stimulating to pitch stories to the press, and it’s fun and exciting to be part of an opera company, to feel a production coming together from the first days in the rehearsal room, to the sitzprobe, to final dress rehearsal, to opening night. I like everything about it—breezing through the stage door with my press badge around my neck, sitting through multiple performances, feeling the warmth of the audience response, one night after another.
But I have had to make this move on my own, and at times it has felt very daunting, in my late fifties, to be building a new life solo. There is the endless work of furnishing the apartment from scratch, figuring out the geography of the city, and the feeling of solitude in a new place.
This Saturday, when I called my father, I was dead tired. It had been an intense week of work, and my apartment was still not quite pulled together after a month of living here. When I heard my father’s voice on the other end of the phone, I suddenly felt extremely fragile—and doubtful about whether or not I could really pull off this challenging new chapter in my life.
For some reason, I suddenly flashed on an episode from my childhood. I was about eight, and my father had taken me to the beach to go clam digging on the mud flats. My boots had gotten stuck in the mud, and I’d had to pull them out as I went, falling down several times. I didn’t dig a single clam. I wound up sitting in the pickup waiting for him to finish his dig, and crying because I felt I’d disappointed him. Even then, I had some sense that he had planned this as a major father-and-son outing—and I had blown it.
All of that was flying through my head as my father got on the phone yesterday.
“Well—how’s it going in Miami?” he asked.
“It’s going fine,” I said. I was going to open with everything positive, everything reassuring, everything I thought he wanted to hear. Then maybe I would tell him the rest. Maybe.
“The job is great. The colleagues are great. And it’s nice to be working for an organization that produces opera, instead of just writing about it.”
“And you must love the weather.”
“I do. The weather is fantastic. And I love my apartment.”
“Well, that all sounds good.”
“It is.” I hesitated. “The only problem is … I miss Scott. And the animals. And my friends.” I felt my throat close, and the tears started to run down my face. My father is hearing-impaired, so I was hoping that he wouldn’t notice, but no such luck. HIs silence told me as much.
“This was absolutely the right thing to do,” I said. “And I know it’s all just going to get better. It’s just that … I never imagined I’d have to start over at my age. And I feel really … alone.”
There was another long silence on the other end.
“Well, you know something?” he finally said, quietly. “I’m all alone here, too.”
“I know you are, Dad. I’ve thought about that.”
“The main thing is you like your job. You’ll be fine. You’ll get used to the rest, I know you will. Do you need any money?”
The tears built into a strangled sob. Then I pulled myself together. Because I had fixed on the most important thing at that moment. The span of years that I have had my father, fully himself and intact, is perhaps the greatest gift I have been given. And at fifty-seven, I feel very lucky, very privileged, to be able to cry in front of him, just as I did when I was eight.