I have brought my wife and two daughters to visit my mother and father at the Jersey Shore—back to the same house where my father and I stormed and battled and mostly ignored each other. But now he is an old man, no longer powerful, no longer filled with rage. I'm not sure what he is filled with now.
He has been diagnosed with early-stage Alzheimer's. He walks around in his pajamas, when all his life we rarely saw him without a white shirt and bow tie. "Such a tragedy for a man like him," my sister tells me. "To lose all his dignity like this."
I don't agree, though I don't tell her so. My father's silence never seemed to me dignified—only threatening. My brother and I were always scared of him, never knowing when his rage would explode, when we would be hit again. As a kid, and even as a grown man, the thing that most puzzled me about my father was how he was a different person with people outside of our immediate family. When I first discovered this, I was amazed, then resentful, then angry.
I had glimpses of this other man at extended family gatherings. There I would see him talk to my aunts and uncles and cousins. He was friendly to them all. I didn't even recognize him. He didn't smile at home. My mother even told me that I wasn't allowed to talk to my father before he'd had his breakfast. Not that I ever would have anyway, but I asked her why. She said, "Because he's in a bad mood when he wakes up." From what I could tell he was always in a bad mood. Until he was out in public. Then this man I knew as my father—threatening, angry, sullen—became Mr. Joviality. The son of a bitch even told jokes. I hated him for it.
My mother told me that as a child, my father was a very talented violinist, a prodigy. He even made a guest appearance with the Philadelphia Orchestra. He was promised a full music scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania, but somehow at the last minute, the scholarship was pulled out from under him. There were hints of anti-Semitism. The story gets fuzzy.
Disappointed and angry, Dad threw his violin into a closet and never took it out again. NEVER. I don't remember him even listening to music. He went to the university anyway, but as a pre-med student. The whole family was very proud of him. His parents were immigrants from Poland: his father, a tailor; his mother couldn't even read or write English. He was their contribution, their destiny: a doctor!
When we walk into the summer house, Dad smiles emptily from his chair. It is unclear whether he recognizes any of us. He still has his newspaper, but I suspect he no longer reads it. It's a prop, like the cigar which he holds but is no longer allowed to light. My 10-year-old daughter, Jessica, has brought her violin along on this vacation. She loves to play—and oddly, until right now, I have not made the connection. My father's gaze goes directly to the violin case.
When we get settled in, parent that I am, I tell my daughter to play something for her grandparents. She opens the case, takes out the fiddle and rosins up the bow, but then, instead of playing, she walks over to my father and offers him the violin. Without a word, he takes the three-quarter-size instrument from her and tucks it under his chin. He draws the bow across the strings, tentatively at first, a screech. I think he's going to stop and give it back to her. But then he closes his eyes and begins to play: beautifully, faultlessly, hauntingly. The music fills every corner of the room, every empty space in my heart.
When he finishes, my father opens his eyes and smiles again. He gives the violin back to Jessica, who is smiling also. I get up and leave the room. I stand out in the hallway, crying. Still, at this age, I do not want my father to see. I have to be strong and silent in front of him. Isn't that our deal? And now I find out he had all this music in him.
I choke back my tears and walk into the room. I know there is something I need to say to him. My mother begins to bustle about, to try and get in the way of what she senses is about to happen. "Who wants cake?" she says. My father has picked up his cigar and Jessica is putting her violin back into its case. I stand in the middle of the room, like an idiot child, like I'm too big for the space. "Dad," I say. "Dad, Dad, Dad, Dad." He looks up at me innocently.
But I no longer have the words I want to say to him. He is finally at peace. Maybe someday I will be, too. I sit down on the couch and accept my mother's cake.