Warning: Tbis is a L O N G post. Do yourself a favor and make a cup of coffee before reading it.....and maybe a snack!
If my dad had lived he would have turned 76 today. Like many other poeple, this time of year always makes me nostalgic, although maybe not for the same reason as other people. November to March are emotional months for me in terms of some of the big people in my life, well at least those who raised me and probably had the most profound influence on me. Therefore while my parents and my grandparents are never far from my heart or mind, I do think about them and miss them an awful lot during this time of year.
My grandfather died in November. My dad's birthday is on December 18. My grandmother's birthday is also in December but I forget exactly which day (13th maybe). My mom died on December 30th, this year marking 4 years since she died (and she was the last of them to pass) so this is also my official anniversary of being an orphan so to speak. In February comes my grandfather's birthday and in March the anniversary of my dad's death. So between all that candle lighting, donating in their memories to the synagogue, observing Yarzheits (that's the Hebrew anniversary of a loved one's death in the Jewish religion) and though I try not to dwell on it, there is always an undercurrent of sadness in this 4 month period for me. At times it is more acute then at other times.
Today I really want to write something about my Dad. None of the people who are currently a part of my daily life really ever ask me about him, they didn't know him so it never occurs to them. Correct that. Leo did meet him over a one week period just before we got married but my dad did not attend my wedding and that ended up being the last time we saw him before he died. My friends who did know him, when he was certainly more of a fixture in my life don't really ask me about him anymore, first off the time we have to talk is taken up by other things and I think even some of my very close friends probably are afraid that talking about him might upset me because my dad committed suicide.
My dad and I were very close when I was growing up. Being the youngest child and the only girl pretty much made that happen. Between my brothers and myself there is a 6 and 7 year age difference so I was the cute little toddler when they were not listening and in trouble for throwing spitballs or whatever.
I definitely was daddy's girl and I basked in the light of that. My dad, when I was a little girl was the handsomest, smartest, kindest daddy ever. I can still remember what my little hand felt like in his big hand, what his fingers and fingernails looked and felt like and how the hair rested on his palms and knuckles. I can still feel my dad tickling my face to wake me up in the mornings for school, it is the same way I wake Maya up now. I can still hear the way he said my name, or what he called me, Danale (it is actually a common Hebrew diminutive, adding "le" on the end of a name means little. So Danale, little Dana.
My dad wasn't honestly around all that much when I was little. When I was very little he was working in our family furniture business so I saw him only at dinner time and on the weekends. When I was 5, he went back to university to study for a Ph.D., the majority of his classes were in the evening and then he would stay in the library all night to study, come home in the morning and sleep during the day. So, when we came home from school we mostly had to be super quiet so as not to wake him up.
He'd get up, we'd eat dinner and then he would go to school. On Saturdays he worked at the store so really the only day we saw him was on Sunday afternoons, after Sunday school when we, my brothers, cousins and I would go over to our grandparents house to spend the afternoon and then our parents would come and we would all eat dinner together there. Between the time I was 5-10, that was pretty much the only time I would spend with him.
As I got a little bit older, and he was working on his Dissertation, sometimes he would write, not at the library, but at home in his den and he would let me come in and read quietly, look through his stamps or coin collections, let me draw with his engineering stencils and mechanical pencils or do homework in there with him. I loved just being near him. He was sweet and affectionate with me. He would often reach over from his drafting table where he worked to the recliner, where I had perched myself and would just hold my hand, saying nothing. Those moments of quiet there with nothing but the sound of our grandfather clock distantly bonging from the living room were wonderful.
We spoke volumes without saying a single word.
When I was 9 my dad got his Ph.D. and began looking for a teaching job. He was not able to find anything locally so he agreed to take a position in Miami at FIU. This meant that he was living in Miami while we were still in Pennsylvania. Originally he had only gotten a 1 year contract so he didn't feel it was right to pack up and leave everything and move to Miami when he might just well be out of a job after the school year was up. He rented a furnished apartment. I still remember it, 70's modern, white vinyl couches with chrome, glass tables, wavy blue and silver wallpaper on the walls and violet shag carpeting. Yeah, man! At the time I thought it was the most beautiful place I ever saw, so different from our own house in Washington, PA with our early American furniture and formica tables a la Gross Furniture.
I loved visiting him there. Some of my mom's family was in Miami too so it didn't seem so strange. He lived there and would come home every second weekend. I don't remember it being very difficult without him, like I said, I was used to him not being around a lot. Plus whenever he came home, he always brought me little presents and I could spend loads of time with him in his den while he caught up on bills, graded papers and prepared lectures. I have often wondered as an adult what the state of my parents' marriage was in this time? Was there another reason for this separation? It wasn't great (it never was) but it also wasn't the end. They still spent time together then as a couple. It was hard to tell with them and as a kid I didn't think about it at all or pay attention to it.
After the first year, they offered my dad another contract, and since he still could not find a job around the greater Pittsburgh area he and my mom agreed to move to Miami. My dad's Ph.D. was in computer science which was a new field and didn't have a lot of interest by the non-ground breaking universities.
So, in August 1975 we packed up our house, got in the car and trekked to Miami, like we had done for many summers already to visit my mom's parents as well as her other relatives that lived in Florida, only this time we wouldn't come back after 2 weeks. My parents had gone house hunting a couple of months before and had bought a just built townhouse in the Kendall section of South Miami, not far from my mom's aunt and uncle, with whom she was always close, as well as their oldest son and his wife. My mom's parents lived an hour away in Ft. Lauderdale. My Uncle Buddy was still in the Air Force and lived with his family at the Homestead Air Force Base about 40 minutes away from us.
So this was really the first time we lived close to a lot of my mom's relatives. Before then we mostly saw them only on vacations and we hardly saw the cousins. It was fun to be around them but a bit strange to have them around. We had always lived close to my dad's parents, his sister and her family and we grew up extremely close to our grandparents and cousins, so it was definitely strange to not have them around and to have them be replaced by a family that we loved, but didn't know very well.
My mom and dad's families were very different. My dad's was smaller, they were immigrants, but also pushed us toward education. We were Jews and a part of the Jewish community. My mom was the only one in her family that hung onto her Jewish heritage, the others celebrated Christmas and although were not religious at all, just had some different traditions. My mom's family was more blue collar and you could see the difference in how they lived compared with us. They were warmer and more openly affectionate than my dad's family and they were just a helluva lot of fun to be around (still are).
This was also the first time I really remember my dad being around quite a bit. He went to work, sure, but often he was home when we got home from school. My mom started to work part time when we moved to Miami. We were getting older and I don't think my dad was earning that much as an assistant professor. My dad was still a partner in the furniture business and I know he collected some kind of salary from that, but Miami was definitely a more expensive lifestyle. We lived in a very expensive house in what was at the time an exclusive neighborhood. For the first time my parents didn't take care of the landscaping but we had someone do it, my brother Jeff went to college almost right away and I just think life was generally more expensive in Miami than in Washington, PA.
I missed Washington a lot but I liked Miami, I made friends easily for the first time in my life and I got involved in a lot of activities too. I swam, played tennis regularly, would go to the movies or shopping at the mall with girlfriends.
I do think though within the first year there were signs that my parents' marriage was starting to unravel. They still went out to movies or to restaurants but never any more alone, they always doubled with my mom's cousins or other friends and I started to notice that they never joked around anymore and actually barely talked to each other. They still did hobbies together (puzzles, making throw rugs, playing cards or board games) but less and less and while earlier there was always a light atmosphere around those things and they were a lot of fun, after a short while in Miami the air got really thick and quiet. Also my parents, both of them, got increasingly more distracted and did their own thing much more.
Still, I loved the moments I had with my dad. I always loved to hear him talk with other adults, I didn't understand so much of what they talked about, computers, history, politics, but I loved how my dad could draw people in and keep them hanging on his every word. My dad was highly intelligent, he knew a lot about a lot of things and he knew how to explain it very well to people and they were just magnetized by him (it probably didn't hurt that he was so handsome, he did have a way with the ladies). A lot of people we knew would seek out his opinion on a lot of things and they did. I remember so many sentences beginning with "Michael, what do you think about..." He was always that way, he mesmerized me too.
He was the magnetic force field and I was the magnet and I stuck to him like glue.
When my parents'marriage finally unraveled in 1978 and they decided to separate (at first apparently temporarily), my dad wanted to leave Miami and try to get a job around Pittsburgh.
I think my mom was torn. She was falling apart because my dad wanted out of the marriage and she (I think) desperately wanted him back but at the same time but Miami was more her turf. It was her family that was there, she was the one that made the friends and I think for the first time she had a sliver of her own identity separate from my dad. She definitely didn't want to give up being Mrs. Michael Gross though.
In the end they agreed to sell our house in Miami and did so at a huge loss just to get it off the books, my dad returned to PA and rented a small apartment not far from my grandparents.
I felt I needed to stay with my mom (kids stay with the mom, it was the 70's after all) and so we went from Miami when the house sold, to York, Pennsylvania, where my mom's sister and her girlfriend lived who we loved. I was very excited to move there to be close especially to my aunt's girlfriend and her kids who I loved to pieces.
My mom and I moved in with some friend of theirs and my fantasy of living in York was blown.
I was isolated there, my mom was miserable and most of the time walked around in a fog. And I missed my dad horribly. We were living in this woman's house way on the other side from my aunt and her girlfriend and what I loved about the idea of living in York. The woman's name was was Peach, so that tells you something. My mom had the second bedroom and I slept either in the basement or attic, I don't quite remember where my room was (although most nights I slept in my mom's bed).
My mom worked....someplace and I spent the summer mostly alone in Peach's house feeling miserable, crying and just telling my mom I wanted to go to Washington and be with my dad.
Finally, miracle of miracles we decided to leave and we went back to Washington. My mom went back to being a nurse but could only work the 3-11 shift and we rented an apartment in a beautiful old house which had been converted. The best part was that it was only 5 minutes from my dad's place and I probably slept over there 3 nights a week, at my grandmother's 2 nights and at home with my mom 2 nights. When they decided to make it official and divorce a few months later, my mom, feeling she had nothing left but humiliation if she stayed around Washington, planned to return with me to Miami, to her life, her friends, her family.
I didn't want to be away from my dad and far enough that I wouldn't be able to see him whenever I wanted. My mom had also become completely unglued. So I told my mom I wanted to live with my dad and moved in with him. By this time he did find a teaching job and was working and we started looking to buy a new house. It took a while but we found one and moved in that summer.
I loved being with my dad every day. He lost that tension that had been there over the last years and we just spent the next four years living together. He was great. I was growing up so he enjoyed talking to me about more and more subjects. We would read books together and discuss them. Most evenings we spent in his den, me doing homework, him preparing his lectures and grading papers and later we would watch tv and play backgammon until it was time for me to go to sleep.
I loved those years with him. He was easy going and relaxed most of the time. He enjoyed his work immensely and often had students over at the house which was fun. I didn't cook much then but I enjoyed putting out the food he had bought out on the dining room table (pizza or spaghetti or chicken from down the road) and listening to him and his students. I made a really great group of friends and they also loved hanging out at our house and talking with him. He was absolutely at his best in those years and he was a wonderful, caring father. He encouraged me always and told me that I could be anything I wanted to be, that it only takes the desire.
My dad had a lot of abilities. He was an intellectual, but was also into sports, but he was also great with his hands. He had a wood shop and built all manner of things there, a shoe rack for my aunt, dollhouse furniture for me, storage closets for our basement.
At various times when I was growing up he painted our houses, both inside and out, he wallpapered, he laid carpet. He taught himself how to draw and did pencil and charcoal sketches. I still treasure the charcoal drawing he did of me. He took good photographs. He could fix radios and televisions and hook up anything. At one point I even remember him turning his wood shop into a dark room so that he could develop his own photos. At the same time he was very well read, although he always preferred non-fiction to fiction. He was into studying the animal kingdom, space, geography, life under the sea.
He was really some kind of human Google search engine.
But he was smart in an non-threatening way. He didn't lord his knowledge over people's heads or give off an air of superiority. He was funny. He could be cynical and he knew how to tell a story. I can remember as a girl going with him to our furniture store often and how everyone just wanted to sit and talk to him for a while. And, okay, he was one of the bosses, so there was that. My grandfather who ran the store, was a kind, but somewhat intimidating creature toward the employees, they talked to him only about business and mostly very demurely. With my dad it was different, they wanted to talk about what the Steelers did last night, and they often asked him questions on subjects they wanted to know more about or about what life was like being a college professor. They liked him, they liked it when he was around. Our main store had a long aisle and the salespeople would congregate at the end of the aisle and sit and talk when it wasn't busy. I so often remember my dad holding court there talking about how one day we would all have computers at home, or about local politics, or the unions or life in the Mon Valley.
He had his demons of course even back then, I knew it but didn't really understand them. There was a darkness to him. As much as he could be kind, sweet, funny and generous (which he absolutely was), he could also be menacing when he was in the middle of what one of my cousins termed "his black moods."
There were times when he would, and I can't explain it well, just go dark.
My dad always had problems sleeping his entire life. He was often up in the middle of the night and lots of times he tried to work through it, preparing his lectures, working on a project or when he couldn't, he would pace back and forth through the house for hours, turning something over and over in his mind. I remember sometimes the lights on would wake me up and I would go and watch him pacing down the hall at the other side of the house. So sometimes if I couldn't sleep I would sit on stairs in the dark and watch him pacing up and down the lighted hallway, sometimes he paced silently, other times he would mutter softly to himself and move his arms in conversation with some unknown person. The floor would creak slightly under him as he walked and there was a kind of pattern to it, I knew where he was in the house based on the sounds I heard. Sometimes he would jut out from the hall into the living room or kitchen and if he saw me, he would snap out of his reverie and sometimes we would sit and talk for a while, sometimes not where he would tell me just to go back to bed. Then I would listen to the creaks in the floor going rhythmically while he continued to pace until they put me back to sleep.
His routine was that he usually went to sleep pretty early, by 10 or so, but then was up at 1 or 2, stayed up all night mostly and had his classes early in the day and was usually home by 2 or 3 in the afternoon. He would usually then take a nap, wake up around 6 and we would have dinner together and hang out.
When he was in a black mood he hardly talked to me at all, and gone was the jovial, charming man who liked to tell stories and answer questions. He would be distracted, often not answering the first time and then just giving extremely short perfunctory answers. He wouldn't start any conversation at all, just pacing or sitting in his den. This could go on for days at a time and there was no warning when it might come, it could come on pretty suddenly, from one day to the next or sometimes even one hour to the next.
I always felt scared and nervous when this happened. I hated to see my dad like this, I loved him so much and he was just everything to me and it shook me to my very core when he would do this.
I would try to get him back to himself by trying to share something funny with him or tell him something that would make him happy or ask him a question on a topic that he normally loved to speak about. Once in a while that worked a little, but mostly not, he would brush me off and go back to his pacing and muttering.
I would try to spend time at friends' houses to be out of his way, hoping he would come out of it faster if I wasn't there. Sometimes he just came out of it with no warning or explanation, but sometimes he would get angrier and at some point there could be an explosion. He could get set off by my not putting something away or when he was just fed up with my attempts to pull him back to himself.
In these times he would explode.
He would scream and yell for hours while he paced and I was completely frozen. He would come to whereever I was cowered (often the steps), scream and yell and walk away, pace some more and come back and yell and walk away. He never hit me and often it was not about me, he was just exploding, like a severe thunderstorm, the sky is all black, the rain is pelting from the sky and the wind is blowing so hard that the rain stings you.
It was like being in a hurricane.
There was an eye of the storm, when he would be calm and things would seem quasi normal but around that eye was the worst of the storm.
Once it was so bad that he wouldn't let me go to school, it started on a Sunday, he had been brewing already for 2 or 3 days and seemed to come out of it a little. We went to my grandparents' house as usual on Sunday, he was quiet but I knew my grandparents knew about his black moods and they worried a lot about him when he was like this, because he was totally unreachable.
When we left my grandfather told me to call them if I needed them. He didn't explain why but just told me. But by the end of the afternoon he had come out of it a little bit and was talking politics with my grandfather before we left, so I felt a little better. In the car he was quiet but kind of okay and I had the feeling he might be coming out of it, and if I could just be quiet and not do anything to make him angry, it might be over and then I could have my dad back.
I went quietly to the family room to watch tv after we got home, determined to just leave him alone and when I was getting ready to go to bed, he just came out from his den screaming and told me to get downstairs, where he just went on for hours and hours, screaming about work, the store, my grandparents, me, my mother, my brothers. When he would stop and go back to pacing, I would try to stop crying and when I felt strong enough to stand up and make my way quietly to my bed, he would come and start again. I think this went on until I was just sobbing uncontrollably and he finally told me to go to bed.
Then when I got up to get ready for school in the morning, trying to be so quiet and sneak out of the house and escape him, he started again (he had not slept the entire night) and I had to sit on the steps and listen to it all over again.
As a 15 year old this was hard for me to process, even now in my forties it is tough to process, but as a kid, I took it all to be my fault. I was the one he was yelling at, it must be me.
When he stopped, I asked him if I could please go to school and he said that he would tell me when I could to school and that I shouldn't ask anymore. He didn't go to work, I have no idea if he was on semester break, had classes that day or was supposed to work and just didn't go.
It went on all day. Finally around 2.00 in the afternoon he slowed down, he was getting tired. I asked him again if I could please go to school (even though it was almost the end of the school day).
I thought of calling my grandfather at the store but I couldn't do that to my dad. Even though I hated what he was doing, I loved him dearly and I didn't want anyone to know he was like this, plus of course I thought the whole thing was my fault and that I had somehow brought this on.
Finally when my dad exhausted himself and retreated to his room, I went to my own room to lay down but I was just crying and crying. The phone rang. I hopped on it because I didn't want anything to wake up my dad. It was my grandmother, when I heard her voice I just broke down sobbing and through my sobs I told her what was happening. She asked me if this happened when I came home from school and I told her that he didn't let me go to school and it had been going on pretty much since we left their house the Sunday before.
She talked to me in a quiet voice for a long time and calmed me down, told me when I insisted that it was all my fault, that it wasn't anyone's fault and that I just had to try to collect myself and listen to what she was saying and do as she told me.
She told me to pack some clothes and my school stuff very quietly and put it on the floor of my closet. I asked her why and she told me just to do it and just wait very quietly in my room, and if I felt sad to go and get a book that I loved and just start reading it and try as much as I could to get lost in the story. I asked her again why she wanted me to pack, I told her that I couldn't leave, I had no where to go and besides if he wouldn't let me go to school he wouldn't let me go anywhere else either.
She asked if I had eaten anything since we left her house (the Jewish mother never leaves, even in times of crisis), I told her I had taken some fruit out of the fridge and had it in my room but was afraid to go into the kitchen and make anything, since I was afraid the noise would wake up my dad.
She told me to sit on the bed, eat some fruit and try to relax. I asked her what was going to happen and she didn't say, just told me not to worry and to try to be calm and stay in my room. I knew she couldn't come and get me, she didn't drive and that my grandfather was still at the store and he never left early.
About an hour and a half later, my dad was still sleeping, a car pulled into the driveway and I could see it was my grandparents. They got out of the car. I wanted to run to the door, but was afraid of what my dad would say, so I just stayed in the corner of the family room out of sight and waited. They rang the bell, one time, two times, three times. I was frozen and couldn't move.
Finally my dad opened the door and asked them what they were doing there. My grandfather said very quietly, "let us inside". My dad let them in and my grandfather asked in French, "où est Dana (where is Dana)?" And then they saw me looking down from the family room.
My father asked again why they were there and my grandfather held up his hand in front of him to tell my father to stop talking. My grandfather said very quietly, "Dana, go and wait for us in the car."
I stood there, and then Meme said in her broken English, "Dana, everything vill be okay. You vill come to our house and in one or two days everything vill be okay again, just go to the car now, Pepe and I vill be there in a minute."
My dad started to protest in French, telling them that everything was okay and would be fine, and they should go home. Meme turned to me and said, "Dana come here by us".
I went to her, she took my hand and stroked it, and said "Meidele (her Yiddush moniker for my cousin Alison and me), everything is going to be okay, just listen to me and go the car, I will bring some things for you." I looked up at Pepe and he nodded his head at me, I looked at my dad and started to cry and turned around and walked out the door and into the car.
About 10 minutes later my grandparents came out, my grandmother was carrying the stuff I had packed and put in my closet and my schoolbooks and my grandfather had my coat. They got into the car and I asked what happened, they said nothing, only "it is going to be okay, you vill stay with us tonight, and we vill bring you to school tomorrow and when you come home from school, everything will be okay again."
When we drove away from the house, I turned around to see if my dad was outside watching, he wasn't, the door was closed, but then behind us I saw one of our furniture store's delivery trucks with two of our delivery guys inside. When we got to the end of our neighborhood, we turned toward the direction of my grandparents house and they turned opposite, heading back to the store. I said, "are we delivering here today?" My grandfather said very shortly, "yes." and went back to driving. I never asked them why they felt they needed to bring 2 guys from the store and they never discussed it with me. But obviously they knew what they were facing and weren't fooling around.
The next day my grandparents let me sleep in a little bit and I arrived to school late, they gave me a note that had said I had been sick and went to the doctor in the morning. My grandmother was also with us, she sometimes spent the day at the store. When I got home from school, she was there, she had done our laundry changed my bed with clean sheets and was busy making dinner for us (steak with homemade french fries, a family tradition).
We ate early and my dad was quiet but he seemed fine. My grandfather picked up my grandmother on his way home from the store. They quickly left and it was just dad and me. I was calm, not afraid because when my grandparents told me it would be okay, I believed them completely, but a bit nervous and my dad just flippantly asked me if I wanted to play backgammon. I said yes, he told me to rack 'em up and we just went back to our usual routine like nothing happened. He was happy and engaged again and I was so relieved and happy that I didn't dare question him on it for fear that it would trigger another black mood.
He had other black moods but this was probably one of the worst and the one I remember the most clearly, the rest are some kind of amalgam of several episodes.
Still, although the black moods were terrible and frightening, they didn't happen very often. Mostly he was a charming, engaging almost magnetic personality and he meant everything to me, particularly in my teenage years, a difficult time for anyone, but I was reeling from my parents divorce, my relationship with my mother was not on solid ground and mostly he was wonderful.
We remained close throughout my college years, which were extended since I decided in my third year to drop out and didn't go back for three years and then decided to go to graduate school. When I lived in Pittsburgh we usually met up for dinner at least once or twice a week and we would often go to movies together and he took me to the Pittsburgh symphony often, since he was a subscriber. I think in some way when I was studying and living in Pittsburgh, it was some kind of reliving of his own years as a student in Pittsburgh, first at Carnegie Tech where he earned his BS in Mechanical Engineering in 1956 and later as a Ph.D. student at the University of Pittsburgh. We hung out a lot, he was great to talk to, he understood the pressures of graduate school and was always full of advice and wisdom.
Still, in the early 1990's I noticed he was beginning to unravel ever so slightly at first. Later it took on a momentum of it's own. My grandfather died in '87 and a family battle between my dad and his sister had begun a couple of years before.
It centered first around the business and eventually my grandfather brokered a deal which allowed my dad to buy out both his and my aunt's share and become the sole owner of the store. After my grandfather died it became about everything else.
Watching it from the sidelines was like watching a tornado rip through my family. After my grandfather died my grandmother declined a lot and her dementia, which had shown itself in slight but largely unrealized ways a few years before, had grown significantly. My dad appointed himself her caretaker and the only one who cared about her and looking back on it now used my grandmother's worst fears to bring her onto 'his side'.
We had been a very close family before that. My brothers, cousins and I were more like brothers and sisters and this fight just ripped us apart. We each had no choice but to support our own parents which put us having a continued relationship with each other in extremely awkward territory. For me, I was still financially dependent on my dad, which meant I had to listen to him go on and on about my aunt and her injustices ad naseum. On the surface we still had this close, engaging and lovely relationship but over the years his black moods took over, and where they were once out there on the edges of town, they slowly but surely set up camp right in the town square, until everything was black.
By the time I was finishing my master's degree, I had flirted with the idea of getting a Ph.D. but knew that I wasn't cut out for academia. I still completely relied on my dad's financial support, too much so, and I must admit I did take advantage of the situation. Not only did I let him support me, but lived a pretty sweet lifestyle for a student. Sure, I worked, but most of my money went into partying and buying clothes and shoes while I let my dad pay for school, pay for me to live and give me extra money for vacations, going out to fancy restaurants or ordering expensive take out, travel, more clothes and shoes and makeup, etc.
I also was increasingly stressed over how my dad was behaving and wanted to get away from him but was really paralyzed to do anything. In 1991 after the first Gulf War, my Zionism was reawakened and I went on a trip to Israel. It was your typical Jewish tour of the country. In 1992 I convinced my dad and brother Jeff to go with me back there and we had a great time.
Since then I had this desire to live in Israel and when I was finishing my Master's, I decided to move there and see how it would be. I felt like it was something I had to try but also subconsciously I think it was the only way I could think of to be out of my dad's reach and where I could get the great parts of him but leave the black moods behind. My dad, a long time supporter of Israel liked the idea as well and promised to support me for 1 more year until I got on my feet.
So, I made my preparations, got rid of most of my stuff and went. I found a program to enroll in during the first six months which was geared for English speaking professionals. You lived there, studied Hebrew for six months and then they would help you make your step into Israel. He took me to the airport and encouraged me that I could do it and that he was proud of me. I remember asking him not to come in with me and walk me to the gate (you could still walk people to the gate then) but just to drop me off at the curb. I was sad, scared and excited at the same time. I remember looking back at him from the curb while the skycap checked in my luggage (you could still do that then too), I waved at him, he winked at me and stuck his thumb up in the air. His face telling me, "I am proud of you, you can do this, you can do anything as long as you have the ambition for it."
It was only maybe a week after I landed in Israel and had called him to check in when I knew I had called during a black mood. He went off on me on the phone. He had seen the full extent of my financial shenanigans after I left and had seen I had bills up the wazoo and freaked out because he had always given me more than enough to live on and couldn't figure out how I could have debts. He told me he didn't want to talk to me, and not to call him, he would call me when he was ready to talk to me again. I was devastated but it was really my own fault for taking advantage of his generosity. The next week he stopped my credit cards, closed our joint bank account where the majority of my money was and we didn't speak to each other for nearly 2 years.
It was a rough time but necessity being the mother of invention and all that, I did manage to pull myself up by my own boot straps.
We started speaking again, when I decided to just take the risk of him slamming the phone down and called him. We did talk and it was very nice and we just picked up again like nothing happened. We would talk every week or two and it was nice, although I could hear that he was continuing to disintegrate.
He had retired by then. Teaching, which he truly loved had become a nuisance for him in his last five years. He retired suddenly and packed his stuff and left, and didn't even give his colleagues who he worked for the past 20 years, some of whom he mentored as young professors the chance to say goodbye. He had sold our house a few years before, wanting no permanence and just rented various townhouses and apartments and eventually moved to Kentucky with his girlfriend.
knew things were really unraveling when in 1998, my nephew had his Bar Mitzvah in Israel and my dad and his girlfriend came too. We had a nice time until there was some incident between my dad's girlfriend and some other family on the trip (I don't remember what anymore). After that my dad basically stopped talking to my brother, who was the golden boy. I might have abused my financial situation with him so I see myself as partially responsible for the break, there was absolutely nothing like that with my brother. They had also been extremely close.
My dad and I continued our facade of a relationship. At this stage it was only possible to have a relationship with him as long as you never questioned him or disagreed with him. He still railed on a regular basis about my aunt and her injustices. They had been to court several times over various issues, one was guardianship of my grandmother, who by this time was in full blown Alzheimers living in a nursing home, where my dad made me testify on his behalf. I didn't want to do it, but I still just desperately wanted his approval so I did. I told the truth but still I felt crappy afterward. My grandparents would have never wanted the family to break apart like this, and this was the first time that I really saw clearly that my father caused it all and we just let him do it.
My fear of him, my one brother's anger toward him and my other brother's desire to stay as far away from it all as possible allowed him all the freedom he needed to wreak havoc and to tear apart what my grandparents built so lovingly.
In the end, I know we couldn't have done anything to stop him, you can't stop anyone from doing something they are determined to do.
By this time I just maintained a distant but superficial relationship with him. I still longed for the dad I had loved and who had loved me so well, but as much as I didn't want to face it, he was just a shell of that person.
When I met Leo and we decided to get married he was happy for me and very engaged in the wedding. About 2 months before, after I had been talking to him on nearly a daily basis about what kind of suit should he wear, hotel details, financial details as he wanted to pay for the wedding and told me to get whatever I wanted and not worry about the cost, he suddenly grew cold and even from Amsterdam I could see the clouds forming in his eyes and knew a storm was about to hit.
Six weeks before our wedding, my brother's youngest son had his Bar Mitzvah and Leo and I went there, it was Leo's first trip to the US and he was bombarded with meeting a ton of our extended family. My dad was a no-show and I knew this meant that he would be a no show at my wedding as well, so I just had this feeling of dread the last month before. He stopped calling me, I only got voicemail when I called and he didn't answer my emails.
I told Leo of course but asked him not to mention it to his family in case everything would still turn out okay. My messages were always out of concern, was he okay, had something happened, just let me know he is okay. Nothing of his blowing off the Bar Mitzvah of my nephew or about the wedding.
Finally a week before the wedding I sent him an email telling him he couldn't leave me hanging like this. I needed to know if he was coming or not. He finally answered me and told me he was having problems with his bladder and prostate and couldn't take such a long flight.
I knew that even if this was true, if he was not unglued, it wouldn't have stopped him from coming. My oldest brother and my nephew and my cousin Judy were the only people in my family to have attended my wedding. I was of course sad about it, especially thinking about my older cousins and both my brother's weddings when the entire Gross clan had been out in droves and had a wonderful time.
The years on my own and the struggle for independence, and also what my dad did teach me served me very well. I refused to let my dad have the power to ruin that day for me. I put my head up high and was just grateful that my brother, nephew and cousin Judy came for me and that so many of my friends traveled from as far away as Israel, the US and Australia be with me on our wedding day.
I continued to have some sporadic contact with my dad and hoped that I would just be lucky enough to catch him when the clouds had parted a little and a bit of blue sky was shining through him. Sometimes I did and sometimes I didn't. I told myself that I really had my own life now and that I didn't need the sun to rise and fall anymore on where he was. I was very grateful for the times when we could just bs, talk about the news or politics and laugh a little. For the other times, I would just not listen, and uh-huh him and try to get off the phone as soon as possible.
The truth of the matter was that he was, for me already gone. The father that I had loved more than anything, the man who could do anything, build anything, know anything, the smartest, clearest thinker I have ever known, was gone. There was nothing left but this shell of what there once was, it was a life of black moods and I was in a very happy place in my life, and call it selfishness if you will, I just wasn't going to allow his black moods to touch me. Sure I was sad and wistful for the dad he had been.
There was a time about 6 months or so before he died, I was pregnant with Maya and we talked a lot then, I think because I had been so sick in the early part of my pregnancy so that made him want closer contact with me. He had decided to enroll in some classes at the University of Kentucky, they had some kind of program where seniors could audit classes in variety of topics and I thought this was a great idea for him. He always had such a passion for learning. When I was studying, he read my textbooks when I was done with him, always wanting to expand his knowledge on topics that interested him. He had already been through one semester by this time, which he adored and he was more himself than he had been in a very long time.
A few weeks into the second semester he had told me he stopped going. He was taking some classes on religion and had some kind of disagreement with one of the professors and decided not to go back. I tried, very quietly to encourage him, reminding of what he had told me so many times, academia is about disagreement and learning from different points of view. He was just done and had told me he had moved onto a new project.
One of the classes he had taken was a Biblical Hebrew class which he found fascinating. Hebrew has an amazing logic to it and a whole numerology which of course appealed greatly to my dad's mathematical nature. He spent hours on the phone gushing excitedly about it and I was just happy that there was something that could still do that for him, so I gratefully listened and basked in the glow of his excitement and fantasized on some level that my dad could again become the man he once was.
So after telling me about his decision to stop classes he brought up the Biblical Hebrew and I suggested maybe he take another class because he clearly loved it so much. He told me he had something else in mind. He decided to write a textbook to teach people Biblical Hebrew.
Now, I lived in Israel for 5 years and speak Hebrew (albeit modern Hebrew) so I knew how preposterous it was for someone who had audited one class on a complex language to be able to write a textbook on it. After five years of being submerged in Hebrew speaking society, I could do every day conversation but not more.
How could he think he could write a textbook on it?
I went over in my mind very quickly what I could say, should I just play along even though he was completely off his rocker or do I dare to disagree with him and risk that we move from the calm blue of the eye of the storm to the worst part of the storm?
I thought, you know what, I don't need anything from him anymore so I will just gently say the truth. I asked him if he was sure he could write a textbook on this? He assured me that he could, that he understood everything about the language and it was so fascinating and was sure he could write it in such a way that it would appeal to people who were not interested in mastering the language, but learning it and understanding how fascinating it was.
I said very softly, "ummm, Dad, that would be great but aren't you forgetting something? Uh, you don't know Hebrew." He told me it didn't matter, and I gently told him that I was a Hebrew speaker and I didn't want to crap on his idea but that it was just not possible to write a book teaching people a language, when you don't know the language."
He then said that I obviously didn't understand what he was getting at. Not wishing to push it any further, I told him he must be right about that, good luck with the book and that I had to go and start making dinner. He did send me a few samples of his chapters and I subsequently threw them in the garbage but told him they were indeed fascinating.
Later Maya's arrival took our few conversations in another direction, I was obsessed with my baby and he pretended to listen, being distracted wanting to talk about politics or his book and after she was about a 2 months old he didn't call me anymore. I found out later that he told his wife that all I wanted to talk about was Maya, which of course was true, my mind was full of nothing else, but it was also a good way not to talk about his book.
I didn't talk to him for a couple of months after that. Maya started to settle into a routine, I had just gone back to work and while we were still learning to juggle, things were a bit easier, I was sleeping a little, not cooped up at home all day and I missed Maya terribly while I was at work so the evenings, even when she was fussy or up all night were easier to take because I just wanted to be with her and make the most of the time we had together.
One evening in early March 2004, I had been back to work for about a month, Maya was settling nicely into a 8.30-9.00 bedtime with only one short night feeding and Leo and I had just finished watching something on tv. Leo asked about my dad and I told him I hadn't talked to him recently and he encouraged me to call him.
I sighed but agreed and picked up the phone. It was about 9.30 which meant it was 3.30 in the afternoon at his place, which was a good time to call him. I dialed and his wife picked up the phone. She said something like that it was so strange, because she was just looking for my number to call me.
She then told me that my dad had committed suicide a few hours before. I was shocked and she told us that she had gone out to do some grocery shopping. My dad had seemed fine, nothing out of the ordinary, he had told her he was going to stay at home and work on his book. When she came home she found him sitting in his chair in his study and she called his name and he didn't answer and she thought he had fallen asleep.
She then went and brought in the groceries but left some cases of water in the car for my dad to bring in.
After putting the groceries away she walked past his study to see if he was stirring but he wasn't. His eyes were closed and he seemed to be resting comfortably. She said she found that unusual because my dad was a quite a fitful sleeper and snored terribly and today he was perfectly still and quiet.
She walked a bit closer and then saw just a trickle of blood coming out of his mouth, the gun on his leg and folded on the table next to him was a book on suicide, the page open to how you can shoot yourself and leave as little blood mess as possible. When I was speaking to her the coroner had taken my dad already for an autopsy and the police were still there finishing up their investigation.
I was shocked and wrecked of course and I agreed that I would call my brothers to tell them. They were also shocked and sad. My dad left instructions for no funeral of any kind and his wife quietly obeyed his wishes and cremated him without consulting us. My brothers and I struggled about what to do, should we come together to do something for us, even if he didn't allow us to mourn him?
We went back and forth and in the end agreed to obey his wishes as much as it was hurtful. My brothers thought about their kids, who did know him and that it might be better for us to have a memorial so that they could process their own feelings. (Maya never met him so we didn't have that issue). In the end we didn't do anything, we just each dealt with it on our own. I was grateful though when my mom was dying that she did let us come to her and be with her, even for a little while and that although she also was not so inclined to have a funeral, she did ask us to have one, and I do think she did that largely because my dad wouldn't let us. My mom is a story in herself and she was not always there for us as a mother but in this, her final act, she tried to think of her children and to decide on this purely from what she thought would be best for us. I will always be grateful to her for that.
Friends and family were absolutely shocked that a man like my dad would commit suicide. Many of his friends and even family had not seen him or had contact with him for a long time and only saw the charming, witty, intelligent confident man he was.
That man would have never committed suicide.
For me though, even then in the wake of the news of my dad's suicide I wasn't all that surprised. My dad had once been a vibrant, vital, charming man but the last decade saw him cutting off from those closest to him and losing more and more touch with reality. He had also done some pretty awful things in the name of his crusade against my aunt and we, and our relationship with our aunt and cousins, who we loved dearly was a casualty. Dad absolutely convinced himself that his only intention was to protect my grandmother from being the recipient of my aunt's cruelty and injustices and therefore that justified absolutely everything he did. My grandmother died 1 and a half years before his suicide.
My brother and I sometimes talk about why he took his own life.
We have often speculated that perhaps his madness took over or maybe even he saw himself in the mirror and couldn't stand what he did. Maybe he couldn't live in the world where he was not crusading for my grandmother, maybe without her living and breathing he couldn't any longer convince himself that his reasons were purely altruistic and were not about hate, anger or greed.
I don't know the answer to that question. Many friends have asked me if that is something hard to live with, the not knowing? I tell them that it really isn't. I can accept that I will never know for sure, so for me there is not much reason to plague myself trying to find out. It's a question without an answer and I will not let it have the power over me and my life.
Maybe I am a crusader too?
I actually don't think that much about my dad's suicide, it's just the way he died. He had his demons, more than most people maybe and like many other people he had a hard time coping with them. I am sorry that he felt so isolated and couldn't reach out those around him for help.
Not anyone of us are all good or all bad.
We have it both within us, some of us act more on one than the other. It is shades of grey.
The truth of the matter is that I lost him many years before, maybe even when my grandfather died in 1987 and his demons started to really take center stage, or maybe it was when I waved goodbye to him at the airport as I headed off to Israel, to a new life. He blew me that kiss and gave me the thumbs up. Maybe that was really the moment, when he drove off, he really drove off.
Maybe what came after was just the process of him dying, him being sick, trying treatment and giving up when nothing worked and he was ready to die? I do hope that if he is himself somewhere though, that at least the demons have gone.
When I think of my dad my thoughts nearly always go to not his last years, but to the years when he was bigger than life, when he was just my daddy. The man that I loved more than anything and who really did, for all his demons and even for the damage he inflicted, loved me completely and raised me to be a better person than he was.
He was at his core, in the clear light of day a teacher, enthralled in the learning process, of learning and educating. It was certainly a rough ride at times, but he raised me and got me to adulthood and living with his demons, while sometimes painful still, helps me to live a truer life.
A life where I will not permit any demons to rule over me.
One of the strongest convictions I have, and have always had was that he gave me, his daughter, the very best of himself. I have the very best of him me, humor, drive, determination, a love of learning and now Maya has that in her too.
My grandparents were right, everything is okay.