A Letter to My Father, Long After He’s Gone
Gabe Stutman and the Story of a Death in the Family
A not-so-young man, a runner, started to feel tired on just his second mile. It was the fall, red and amber foliage lilted around his feet as families strolled and cycled in Rock Creek Park in Washington, DC. He wore an Outward Bound t-shirt, a gift from his outdoorsy son-in-law, which was soaked through. He had long eyelashes and sported a tan. His legs were thin. He was 54-years-old.
The not-so-young man was concerned, though his not-so-young wife was not. She insisted upon a healthier diet—kale and quinoa and other natural foods. He liked to eat fried chicken. The not-so-young woman was also 54-years-old. She had a kind smile that belied an unflappable will. She was a psychotherapist with a full schedule.
The not-so-young couple had three children; a 26-year-old Rabbinical student—the newlywed, a 21-year-old college student at Carleton, and a 12-year-old middle-schooler. The family was spread across the country, and the not-so-young couple enjoyed a comfortable and intellectually satisfying life in DC. They were planning a kitchen renovation. As for their middle-schooler, he had recently made the middle school basketball team, was tentatively exploring the world of girls, and was beginning to write a bit. Some months later, when told that his father was sick, his first response was, “Let me know when something happens.”
The middle-schooler—who had his father’s eyelashes but not his punctiliousness—would pick up information in bits and pieces. “Dad is traveling to Houston to see Doctor X”; “Dad is staying in New York City for four weeks”; “Dad is undergoing chemo at Georgetown”; “Dad is receiving a stem cell transplant from an anonymous donor.” Much of what the middle-schooler knew about his father’s illness would be reconstructed in young adulthood, in bursts, during which he studied medical literature as if it were a sacred text. “Non-Hodgkin, mantle cell lymphoma,” he read. “An overexpression of the protein cyclin D1, causing uncontrolled growth of B-cell lymphocytes.” The name cyclin D1 struck the young man as utterly obscure—the name of a distant star or planet. A name that traveled billions of light years to reach his family.
As the youngest by nine years, the middle-schooler felt, at times, as though his father’s illness were not his province. His older siblings dutifully assumed their roles. He believed that this arrangement served a function both for him, and for the rest of his family; they preserved their innocence in him, and he was able to maintain his own, for a cause.
And the middle-schooler was, by nature and by dint of the fact that he was a teenager, predisposed to skepticism of all sorts. He was primed to read hysteria in his mother’s every word. Sometimes he thought it best to tune out.
So he didn’t belabor the twists and turns in the medical file. The platelet counts, the red blood cells, the T cells. He didn’t ask for the radiation schedule, whether surgery was recommended, the mortality figures. He wanted to go through middle school, and high school. He wanted to act as if.
Whether this was right or wrong is very difficult to say. It was, admittedly, a powerful form of denial, one that was “accessible,” as the therapists say, to him at age 13.
When my mom told me that dad was sick, we were in the kitchen of our semi-detached row house in Northwest DC, getting ready to head out the door. It was dusk and the lights were off, the room was uncharacteristically dark. Our frantic Springer Spaniel, Scout, was carving up the floor in anticipation of a walk.
“I have some bad news,” she said, looking stern. Scout was wagging his tail furiously. “Your father is sick. They don’t know what it is, they think it’s an infectious disease.” An infectious disease. That sounds bad, I thought, but why the darkened room? The stern face?
“Will he be ok?” I asked.
“They don’t know,” she said, shaking her head.
For some reason at that age, when my mom told me bad news I tended to think she was doing it on purpose. To get me to go to synagogue, or write a thank-you note. And the worse the news, the more I thought this. She would have, in her back pocket, the “your father has an infectious disease” face, and it would trump everything. I would have to go to family dinner, go visit grandmother, and so on. So my natural response—“Let me know when something happens”—which was taken as a gesture of optimism, would more accurately be described as an act of rebellion.
If there was optimism in it, it was the optimism of a 13-year-old. The optimism of someone for whom death is an entirely foreign concept, something only faintly real like Ancient Egypt or the North Pole.
The idea that dad would die was, of course, bogus. There were other kids in class whose dads died, and they were made strange in my mind. They would be absent from school for a week and a card would be signed for them. Or their ill dads would show up using a cane or a wheelchair, and everyone would comment upon how nice it was to see them at the baseball game. When the unfortunate classmate returned to school they would have changed—a forcefield would have formed around them. You would have to say something like, I’m sorry about your dad. That would have been the right thing to say. But usually you just stayed quiet, and felt the air change around them. Of course the worst thing for a teenager to feel is different, strange in some way.
The things you can recall at once, no matter their distance in time; the images that bob on the surface of consciousness like buoys on a lake. I remember being five, and how his medium-starch oxford shirts felt. We walked five blocks to the video store, it was a balmy summer evening, fireflies blinked in the gray-blue, humid air. I rented a VHS cassette, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and he rented something for him and my mom. We got home and I asked him to watch with me, which he did. We shared a twin-sized couch in the cool basement and he chewed on ice and I asked him for ice to chew on too. The cubes were too big and too cold so he cracked them with his teeth and gave me a piece. I remember the crunching sound and the pen in his breast pocket and how comfortable I felt.
The not-so-young man was a Philadelphia Eagles fan, an amateur photographer, and a congenial mentor to the summer law interns at his office. When he fell ill, the community—the striving, bookish synagogue members who would be seated around the dinner table on Friday nights—were shocked, and then quickly spurred to action. They were confronted with their own mortality, their own not-so-youngness. He received leave donations in clumps from colleagues to allow him to travel to out-of-state cancer centers that administered cutting edge treatments. Distant relatives offered to accompany him during extended hospital stays. Wealthy friends jumped to lend support.
The not-so-young man was in and out of remission for five years. During this span, he cultivated an allergy to passivity. He recorded his days in emails, in photographs, in sketches. He had a macabre artist’s sensibility toward the truth of experience. He took selfies before they were a thing (he asked other people to take them), even as the effects of his disease showed. A quirky exhibitionism flowered when he got sick.
He liked to pose for photographs wearing his surgical mask. In one, he’s leaning an elbow against a street pole, affecting a friendly nonchalance. His elbow is cocked. He’s wearing a baseball cap with the sanskrit letters spelling out “Om,” a gift from a new-agey cousin. His expression is intent—confrontational, even. There is something faintly seductive about it. He is addressing the viewer. He demands to be seen.
With a comic eye, the not-so-young man depicted his surroundings; a foreign country with its own topography, and its own parlance. In an email, he compared M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, in Houston, to a “kind of theme park,” offering as it did yoga instruction, nutritional consultations, meditation rooms, and even ornate saltwater fish tanks in waiting areas. He sought human connection like a vine climbs toward the sun. He noticed that among cancer patients, “nods communicated a lot,” as they wheeled their IV’s on reflective vinyl floors. He sketched pencil drawings in waiting rooms, hospital still lifes.
The not-so-young man referred to his IV as his “chrome schlepper.” He referred to his confrontational 23-year-old son as “the muscle.” One time “the muscle,” testing out a new hospital room, raised the hospital bed as his father lay in it so high that “his nose almost touched the ceiling,” the not-so-young man wrote in an email. He found this annoying, and amusing.
The not-so-young man, who was dismayed when his eyelashes fell out, tried everything—Reiki, Tai-Chi, Macrobiotic foods, meditation. He stopped short of shamanism, and any form of “idol worship,” he joked, something his daughter, the Rabbinical student, made sure of. He maintained his character. “The staff is incredibly well organized and each morning I receive a list of my appointments for that day,” he said of the nurses and medical staff at M.D. Anderson. The middle-schooler learned to, like his father, respect other people’s labor. He would be drawn to socialism. The not-so-young man related biopsy results and blood tests to friends and family in terms of school grades.
I was ten years old when my mom brought me to the federal courthouse in New York City to observe my dad. He was representing the US government in a denaturalization trial of an alleged Nazi turned American citizen, Jakob Reimer. When I walked into the courtroom, I saw a grandfatherly man perched on the witness stand who looked spotlit, as if performing a drama. The atmosphere was tightly controlled; you could hear his footsteps as he paced in front of the bench, drawing out beats or perhaps engaging in some mental calculus. Among the observers in the packed gallery were elderly Holocaust survivors who wore yellow stars pinned to their jackets.
For most of his career, my dad went after Nazis with the Justice Department. He used to say with a mix of pride and characteristic silliness, affecting an accent whose origins were not entirely clear to me, “the Holocaust iz my life.” The levity was probably a defense mechanism, or perhaps an example of what’s been called the “emancipatory humor” of Ashkenazi Jews, or most likely a combination of both.
During this trial it would emerge that Reimer, who spent 40 years as a potato chip salesman and bartender in New York, had, during the war, served in the Wachmannschaften, a German security force that oversaw, among other operations, the liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto in 1943 following its famous uprising. It also emerged that Reimer had been present during a 1941 mass murder at a forest in Czechoslovakia, where dozens of Jews were shot by SS soldiers while standing in their own graves. According to some reports, Reimer corralled prisoners into the pit with the butt of his rifle. As shots rang out, Reimer said he noticed one doomed man pointing to his head, pleading to be shot.
To my dad’s questioning, Reimer most frequently responded, “I don’t recall, Mr. Stutman.” He repeated it like an intonation, one that he hoped would get dad to desist or at least tire. “I don’t recall.”
I was proud of the way the court illustrator took care to render the lines on my dad’s face, the aggressive look that his otherwise soft, rounded features took on. But listening in the courtroom, I felt somewhat estranged from him. I found an automatic quality in his demeanor, like he wasn’t really thinking. To my ten-year-old self, there was something unsettling about his insensitivity to the old man.
Maybe I simply didn’t have all the relevant facts, or maybe this is how most kids feel when they see their parent at work. That their parent’s own subjecthood—their complex moral interiority—gets subsumed. Their authority is revealed to be situational.
But history had left scars on my dad, and his response was to develop an acute sense of right and wrong. History’s wounds wouldn’t heal, but they could be exposed to the air. He was drawn, almost tragically, to the sisyphean task of righting the past.
At a party recently, I introduced myself to a writer I respect, who had written an important book on Holocaust literature. I brought up some of the history of the Office of Special Investigations, and mentioned my dad’s involvement in it. I tried to avoid sounding too single-minded on the subject, too taken with it. “Some argue these old guys should be left alone,” I said. Without hesitation she looked me directly in the eyes and said, “I disagree.”
“You just live your life,” Dad said when I visited him at Georgetown Hospital. Everything in hospitals is wide, oversized, and sterile, physically and metaphysically. The doors and the hallways seem to expand as you walk through them; it makes one feel unencumbered, alone in space.
He asked about the minutiae of my baseball games. We were the only two people on earth who cared, and we cared a lot.
“You get any chances?”
“Yeah, made two plays at shortstop.”
Stuff like that.
Or, frequently, “Be nice to your mother.”
I brought my math homework and sat next to him. Machines beeped, nurses came and went, stuck him with needles and checked his vitals. It was difficult to talk to him in that setting. It’s hard for teenagers to worry about their parents; it felt like an intrusion into his privacy to do so. To flaunt my relative health. Maybe the therapists would say that I “identified.” That I was sick too. That I wanted to be.
Later he wrote in an email, “My family prospers despite what we call the situation.”
When a parent gets sick, a teenager learns how improvisational real life is. The rules mercifully constructed by parents, teachers and social expectations, can so suddenly drop out. They reveal themselves to be flimsy. Porous. You find yourself in a darkened room, listening to ominous information you can’t grasp. You find yourself acting in ways that are familiar, even when they feel wrong.
One summer I went to visit dad in New York City, at Sloan-Kettering. He was receiving chemo in preparation for a transplant—a platelet transfusion. They were killing his T cells to make way for a foreign donor (he named her “Perfect Stranger”). His vulnerability to the world was existential.
Though weakened, he was allowed out of the hospital and wanted fresh air desperately, so we went for a walk. It was a white-hot July day, and we navigated around a construction site on First Avenue—orange tape stretched around a rectangular, crumbly hole in the asphalt. Hard-hats jackhammered, ripping the air. Dad wore a surgical mask to guard from dust and germs.
I walked slowly, trying to gauge his discomfort level. His brown eyes betrayed little over the mask that stretched across his nose and mouth, though every once in awhile, he’d look back at me—as I looked at him—as if to say, “So what?”
To escape the heat and the noise, we ducked into a Banana Republic. It was air conditioned, with an antiseptic quality to it; even the shirt patterns are quiet. I needed a pair of shorts for the summer. If it was hot in New York, it was even hotter, and muggier, in DC.
My dad went over to rest on a chair. It was one of the few times that he admitted to feeling weak. The air smelled like mediocre cologne, and the stylish clerks whisked about. He gave me his credit card. I bought the shorts.
This moment exists in my mind clouded by shame. It is one of those moments that seems so little to understand its place in a broader narrative. The profanity of it.
But it gets imbued. In an email, he wrote: “It’s good to shop. Shopping is an optimistic activity, and I feel optimistic.”
There is no right way to be a cancer patient, but one might think there were; the afflicted tend to have qualities projected onto them. Running through our culture is the trope of the noble cancer patient; self-effacing, downplaying notions of heroism, eschewing all forms of pity, including self-pity. Shunning any mention of pain (at least in public).
But what is this tendency, when confronted with illness, to strive for perfection? Why not wail, stomp, cry, lament, and curse one’s miserable fate? Why not rage at the gods, at the doctors? My dad wrote that he bore no resentment against any of the doctors, that “each one has been very competent,” only that “this is a nasty kind of cancer.” Yes, his doctors were undoubtedly well-trained and competent. But why is the cancer patient responsible for such equanimity?
Maybe the ideal cancer patient is equanimical, and maybe my dad did achieve this effect, and maybe it was, at least in part, a testament to his character. But to remember him as mostly equanimical would be to describe someone unrecognizable to his friends. My dad was impatient, quirky, raunchy, and sometimes crossed the line. He would order multiple super-size McDonald’s fries from drive-thrus on family road trips.
My father could be vain. Boyish. He flirted with his close female friends. He discovered running in his 40s. He used to wear polyester running shorts and ergonomic Asics and even carried weights in his hands.
He said he “never had a chest” until he started working out as an adult. It broadened him.
In 1990, he entered a stand-up comedy contest for “funniest lawyer in Washington,” and won. He said that while much of his life was a blur, he remembered those nine minutes with crystalline clarity—“every gesture, every laugh, every hiss (just a few).” He said they were the happiest nine minutes of his life. He had a boldness and a nervousness. He had shpilkas, a Yiddish term for “sitting on pins and needles.” He was reluctantly self-confident.
He used to rag on the way my teenage friends and I made evening plans. We’d be at someone’s house, clustered around a kitchen table, or spread out on couches, in our socks. As my dad tells it, the conversation would go like this:
“What do you wanna do tonight?”
“I dunno, what do you wanna do?”
“I dunno, what do you wanna do?”
“Whatever,” I’d say.
It was uncomplicated friendship, and I think behind my dad’s ribbing was a type of quiet admiration.
The disease progressed, the not-so-young man aged rapidly, and on a warm Saturday afternoon in the fall, he died. The not-so-young woman grieved tenaciously and, eventually, remarried. The Rabbinical student made a family of her own. The college student covered his upper body in tattoos and found an intellectually satisfying profession; he became a psychotherapist. The middle-schooler-turned high-schooler graduated from college with a major in literature, and on a pristine spring day at a tiny northeastern college, tried to make his way across the stage without tripping.
“Commencement” is a beginning, an initiation, and a leaving behind. The college arboretum fluttered, and the young man, hungover, was needled by an anxiety that was new.
He recalled his father’s last words to him, which were “I’m not worried about you.” The words hung like an old raincoat in his mind, and worried him immensely. Worry can mean to fret about, but it can also mean to worry over—to bother with, to consider. I’m not worried about you. The young man had worried only so much as he could bear, and often his father wondered whether he worried about him at all. Could “I’m not worried about you” have been an act of aggression? Subtle retaliation for the hurt felt by the not-so-young-man?
Most likely the not-so-young man found the middle-schooler, turned high-schooler, to have possessed something of his own rudder.
Most likely the middle-schooler, turned high-schooler, had affected a stoic demeanor because it was what he knew. Most likely he was improvising. Most likely he and the not-so-young man had done the best they could.
The young man heard his name called. His family whooped too loudly, he thought. It called to mind loss. He took his diploma from the college president, a stranger, wanting desperately to get off the stage.
I remember the eagerness with which I used to await dad’s return from work. The days lengthened in springtime and afforded precious multi-colored light, yellow and blue and red, and the verdant municipal oaks framed our street and the streetlamps helped. If he worked late, I’d toss a baseball against a stone wall in the alley behind our house, fielding scuffed grounders as the light waned.
But if he came home with light to spare he’d pour himself a couple fingers of vodka on the rocks—he’d be wearing an oxford shirt, powder blue or sometimes pink—and roll up his sleeves. “Where’s my glove?” he’d ask. We’d head out to the street and toss, moving aside when cars came through.
Occasionally I’d make an errant throw and the baseball would skip off the asphalt. He’d hasten down the street to catch up with it before it fell into the sewer, and as I watched him I thought it strange to see a fully grown man wearing a catcher’s mitt, loafers and an oxford shirt, my father, jog.