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Saturdays with Jack

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.

I hesitated.

“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.

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21 Comments

  1. That’s beautiful and very resonant, Brian. I think all of us who have been in this world for a while and seem still to be struggling with the vicissitudes life throws our way, sometimes have an overwhelming sense of being alone. You are right. Your Dad’s continued presence in your life is indeed a great gift. And your Dad is right too. It will all be OK. You are loved by good people who will be there for you. You are not alone xxx

  2. This is so beautiful, Brian!!
    xx
    Maria

  3. Very moving column, Brian. It’s difficult to make wrenching decisions about jobs and change of cities because we lose jobs in our 50s and wonder if that’s it. The job market is terrible for mature people. Employers worry that we’re too expensive, or will make their insurance rates go up, or won’t be able to work for younger bosses, etc. It’s a dirty little secret of corporate life. I too made the decision to leave New York in late 2008 and moved to your home state (I now live in Portland). But it was the right decision. And it sounds like you made the right decision. Miami has a thriving musical culture and your interviews of artists singing there are as strong as ever. My old pal, Joy Davidson (a NYCO, Met and elsewhere, mezzo) is living in happy retirement there. Best of all, writing about your great relationship with your father is inspiring. Keep up with your blog. It’s fun to read.

  4. Dear Brian
    A beautiful article or rather , a beautiful sharing. I envy you all those years with your Dad.

    Miss you too. Love Laurie

  5. Nino &Judy Pantano

    February 6, 2017 at 8:52 pm

    DEAR BRIAN,

    I WAS DEEPLY TOUCHED TO READ YOUR STORY O F THE SPECIAL SATURDAY PHONE CALLS TO YOUR MOM AND DAD. WHAT A BLESSING TO STILL HAVE YOUR DAD, STILL VITAL IN HIS 95TH YEAR! MY FATHER SANTO (SAM) DIED IN 1993 AGE 84 AND MY MOTHER MARIE AGE 96 IN 2011. I MISS THEM BOTH AND THE SPECIAL LOVE THEY OFFERED . WHAT A BEAUTIFUL “WORD PORTRAIT” YOU PAINTED FOR ALL TO SEE AND ABSORB. IF YOU LIVE AS LONG AS YOUR DAD, THERE’S A LOT MORE TO COME. YOUR MEMORIES OF NEW YORK AND OREGON ARE A BIG PART OF WHO YOU ARE.

    I HOPE YOU AND SCOTT WILL FIND A WAY TO SHARE MANY YET TO COME SPECIAL MOMENTS. JUST FOLLOW THE YELLOW BRICK ROAD!THERE IS A RAINBOW AHEAD!! JUDY AND I LEAVE YOU WITH ONE MORE THOUGHT FROM THE FANTASTICKS — “DEEP IN DECEMBER, IT’S NICE TO REMEMBER AND FOLLOW, FOLLOW, FOLLOW” .…KELLOW!!

  6. You express so well the feeling of the bottom falling away from our own particular, blithely secure world under duress of some alienating event. The world outside, within which we are required to be a part, seems like a place we didn’t know, friendly enough, but foreign. We know we will get used to it, but a part of us wishes passionately not to. How comforting for your father to hear from you so often. It’s melancholy to outlive every friend, or know that they are living but unreachable in the distant silence of some old-age home. I called my mother every Sunday until she died at 87. It was one of the most precious times of my week.

  7. Beautiful testament to your Dad, your relationship with him and the humbling realization that our lives are never our own. You’ll be alright, Brian.

  8. Brian, you made me cry. This is a poignant moment to share, and what a well drawn parallel with your clamdigging misadventure! I have to keep reminding myself that the only certainty in life is change. Jack seems to have accepted that fact more readily than most, even though his life seems to be one of the most “settled” and balanced I am aware of. He’s clearly your touchstone throughout all the changes in your life–a reminder that what matters most really doesn’t change. Only the details around it change.

    • Thank you, Angie. I can’t stop thinking about the fact that he was gone two weeks after I wrote this. But you’re right. He is my touchstone–present tense–and always will be.

  9. Brian, that was such a touching story. Bringing tears to my eyes remembering many occasions of myself calling home to my mom, and never really knowing if I should tell her what was REALLY on my mind …my true thoughts.. But in the end, many years later, when we broke the ice together, I know she knew the truth each time. Just like your dad, I am sure. The same goes with my own children…they would call home from college.. and somehow the ear just knew what the voice sounded like…I always could pick up something… The one thing I lacked that you were so lucky to have all these years… the weekly call, the closeness I can sense in your writing about your parents. It means alot to us parents… if only children knew that today and understood.…I can sense how you miss Scott, and I pray that the two of you can come to some type of resolution so you can be back together… Not being with the one you love truly does hurt.
    Take care my friend.. enjoy reading / following.. Sending you a hug…

    ~Jan

    • Dear Jan–Thanks for this. Your thoughtful comments ring so true with me. The question of how much to tell your parents is such a complicated dance, isn’t it?

  10. Thanks for sharing this, Brian. You have beautifully expressed the mixed emotions that so many of us in our late-50s and 60s are feeling. I feel like I know your father (though in fact I’ve never met him!), and I’m taking his wise advice to heart. We miss you in New York, but admire your gutsiness in embarking on a new and exciting career…

  11. I love your writing Brian and your dad is a very special guy, still willing to share his apples with me! I look at him and I see Vieva ! its like they are siblings instead of cousins!

  12. Such a treat to see this in a Facebook feed. Knowing, and serving and loving your parents… And loving you for sharing yourself when you came to visit them on the coast. I forgot how well you write as well as how talented you are on the piano. You story finds me in my own mid-life transition far from home and the people and things I love. Makes me feel less alone. Flying back to South county… I want to stop by Jack’s house to sip a martini and talk about the weather… And you. Be well.

    • Dear Joyful, So nice to hear from you, and forgive the delay in responding. It’s been quite a month. As you may have heard, we lost Dad on President’s Day. My brother and I are both so happy that he could have such a painless leave-taking, but we both miss him terribly, of course. No more hearing him laugh on our Saturday phone calls. Thank you so much for everything you did for both of our parents; they adored you, and so do I. I hope all is going wonderfully with you.

  13. Thanks for posting this, Brian. You beautifully expressed the feelings of so many of us in our late 50s and 60s who are experiencing “downsizing” or “twists and turns” at our longtime jobs. Though I have never met your father, I feel like I know him from your writing–and I am taking his words to heart. We miss you terribly in New York–but marvel at your gutsiness to start a new career in a new town.

  14. I am reading this while wearing my Mary’s Kountry Kitchen sweatshirt. As always, love the Jack stories. Hope you are using your sunscreen!

  15. Cristi (Lane) Shirk

    March 13, 2017 at 8:50 pm

    Brian, I am so sorry for your and Barry’s loss. Jack was a wonderful man. I always loved seeing him and he always have a smile. When I drive by his house on my way to my mom’s house, it makes me sad when the garage door is closed or the car isn’t out. I hope you are doing well!

    • Thank you, Cristi. I appreciate your kind words. We were so lucky to have him for so long, and in such wonderful shape.

  16. Brian,
    We just received a note from your brother, Berry, about Jacks passing. I can’t tell you how hard I cried. I know that he and Dad (Bob Gilbert) are fishing, drinking martinis, and generally having a good time giving the rest of their old friends and teachers a hard time. They were born ten days apart. It doesn’t surprise me that they passed just 6 weeks apart. I know Dad was waiting for Jack. If they had spent their senior years together more as they did their youth, the world may not have survived. I’m glad you were able to spend the summer with your Dad. Things always happen for a reason. Many blessings to you, your brother, and your family.
    The Gilbert Family

    • Dear Katie,
      Thank you so much for your comforting words. It was quite a jolt, simply because he was in such terrific shape. I know that he and Bob kept in close touch over the years; Dad always thought so highly of him. Amazing that they passed away at practically the same time. He was the most remarkable man I’ve ever known, and the memories of him will sustain me, always. I’m sure the same is true for you and Bob. Please accept my condolences, and thanks again for writing to me.

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