Shortly before Claudia’s arrival — after three or more years of “waiting” for a baby — this baby, that baby — from here, from there — I stopped pretending that I could go along as normal and simply live my life until a baby arrived. In fact, I renounced my real life until a baby arrived. I started playing The Sims — or, to be more specific, never really stopping playing The Sims.

I had believed that I was signaling my surrender. My friend Lisa thought I was brilliant. After living for years being poked and prodded and assessed, and told where we were “on the waiting list” and whooops, you’ve been waiting so long your FBI clearance has gone out of date, can you go do that again — I had finally found an environment in which I could control EVERYTHING.

Every moment that I did not have to deal with the unpredictable and frequently unresponsive real world, I would play The Sims. (Where, coincidentally, adopting a baby happens through the exact same process as ordering a pizza.) Making babies, rearranging furniture, rearranging furniture in pathological arrays so that Sims with poor cooking skills would end up burning their mac and cheese and die in a kitchen fire because I’d blocked the only exit with a couch… it was nice to have some control.

Ben has detailed how he saw me sliding deeper and deeper into depression (I was not far, at that point, from the first of my four diagnoses for Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder), and about his last conversation with my dad. In this sinking period, the same friend who had applauded me taking control of my life by playing Sims instant-messaged me on February 28th, to tell me her brother’s wife had, early that morning, had her baby. Weight, length, time and name.

It was more than I could take and I told her so. It did not matter if it was reasonable or unreasonable, right or wrong; it was more than I could take. I didn’t want to see her or talk to her. And she was, at that point in my life, basically my “wife” — the friend you don’t go four hours without communicating with in the course of a day. But that week, I knew I couldn’t hear another word about a baby, and frankly, didn’t think she should be in the position of having to hold her tongue. I just wanted away from her.

While she and Ben had some back-and-forth to try to figure out how to mend this fissure, it was unbeknownst to me that my friend’s nephew and Claudia had been born on the same day.

The day we got the call about Claudia a few days later — the day after my father’s last phone call with Ben — Lisa was not on my mind. But in the first hour that Claudia was home, Lisa e-mailed Ben, still trying to figure out what to do that would satisfy both parties and get us back on track. He responded, “You both might want to jump a few squares ahead on the board; we got a baby.”

My phone rang immediately. I told Lisa the baby was not that cute.

By the next morning (as we were coming back from the pediatrician), a handknit (in less than 24 hours) hat was hanging on our door.


And we left messages for my father, which went unanswered. Sad and hurt, we called his girlfriend, who wanted to know if the baby was in “N” (newborn”) size, or was big enough to be in the 0-3 months size. She seemed not at all surprised that my father was engaging in unusual and unacceptable behavior; the last words she said to me were “I’ll call you back in thirty minutes.”

We called, we e-mailed. We never heard from her again. There was a day we saw her and my father walking down the street in Center City together. We pulled the car over and called her, leaving a voicemail saying we were parked nearby and they could come see the baby. No one returned the call.

My father’s sister did the same thing; she e-mailed me, expressing her familiarity with my father’s odd behavior, and said she would talk to him. She may have, but she never got back to us about it. No response or reason was ever provided. (She had also mentioned something to Ben about us not knowing what kind of childhood my father had experienced, which I suppose was some attempt at an excuse, but my guess is that I got a pretty good revival production of my dad’s childhood.)

She attempted to play her part of great-aunt by sending a book for Claudia here and there for the first year or so. What Claudia really needed to add to her library, which contained both “That’s Not My Kitten” and “That’s Not My Train”, was “That’s Not My Cognitive Dissonance”. Ben and I shortly decided that no one this unreliable needed to be part of our child’s life — particularly not anyone who refused to drop their own grudges or anger to celebrate her entry into the world and into our family — and we closed the door.


When we heard that my dad’s care was now “hospice care”, the end seemed very immediate, even though we knew it might not be. While waiting to hear whether my dad’s “active dying” would begin in two days or six months, I coped, with ramen. And popcorn. And cleaning my ears with peroxide. Anything I could think of that felt good for ten minutes, was good enough to get through ten minutes.

I thought about using what we call Tucker’s “blue Aspie bag” — a spandex/lycra bag that provides (for Tucker) a soothing sensation by pushing against it (you intentionally buy a size slightly shorter than the user’s height). I’ve been in that bag before and it’s not that exciting (and I’m also too short for it). But I do like Tuck’s weighted blanket very much, and I made some use of that. Even as I would drag all 24 pounds of it over myself, I would sometimes outright say “AAAAaaaaaaaaaahhhhhh.” We had read about weighted blankets being good for people on the spectrum, and got one for Tuck’s birthday, custom made for his own body weight. Within months, articles were popping up about how weighted blankets were good for people with PTSD. Shortly after that, weighted blankets were just good for anyone who needed to feel better. That’s a progression that should be taken into account when thinking about autism. (No, we are not “all a little bit autistic”. But autistic needs are not alien needs, and they are real, visceral, needs.)

When no news came about any change in my dad’s status, after a month and a half or so, I stopped keeping it in the forefront of my mind.

Which was, of course, when we got word.


For someone else in the household, their biological family’s dysfunction is a lot like Wallyworld. You can say it’s closed, you can say the whole park’s CLOSED, that the rides are not operating, but someone always shows up and demands that the power be turned on again — for the love of it all. For the good of it all.

My family really doesn’t look to stir things up. Primarily, because they are old people. If we are talking about my dad and his sibling set — which is what I would consider the “front line” (it certainly seemed so when I was younger) — they are just kind of a tired-out bunch with diminishing numbers. (And an unusually high number of adult children who have No Contact, as did I. They’ve never seemed capable of finding the common denominator there.)

My family’s dysfunction had lain entirely dormant until my father’s decline began, but the process of his death brought it up hard, with a significant speed wobble. These are specific stories for another time.

When we received notification that my dad would die in the next 24 hours, I was… amped. I was home alone at the time, and wanted contact, to not be “alone” — but I declined friends’ offers to come visit, or to “come get me”.

I thought picking the kids up at school would be grounding.

It wasn’t. I told them what was happening, and while Béla was collected and patient, Claudia was a bit freaked. Her response to the news was to sing-song, “Okay!” and immediately change the subject, and then to began singing “Space Oddity”, the one song she knows makes me cry without fail. She was not trying to be mean, or baiting. It was just a Claudia thing.

By that evening, I had found something that helped me immensely when it came to coping from moment to moment; cockatoo videos on YouTube. Cockatoos knocking over stacks of cups. I watched so many of them.

The next day, definitely still cockatoo videos. Friends sending cockatoo videos. The endless breadcrumb trail of cockatoo videos. I was pouring sweat from laughing so hard.

Ben and Tuck got home. We had gone past the “24 hour” mark, and came to the conclusion that my father was probably dead, and we were not on anyone’s list to inform first. We were right.

Ben had the kids at jiujitsu when he texted me. The watershed moments in one’s life never really come out the way you think they might.


Note that I am tweaked enough to not be able to stand the lag time between my question and Ben’s reply. Note as well that my response to Ben is… well you can’t see it from here. That too is for another post. It’s a cartoon, though, by the same friend who drew the panel cartoon of my dad beating me with the rake for looking at the baby raccoons, so many years ago.

Then there were a few days of ironing out some details. More like panning for the actual details in what Ben has referred to as others’ “slipstream of self-delusion”. And there was a weekend in there, too.

On Sunday, I realized that we had been told that the cremation would be on Monday or Tuesday, and that I was very nervous about that process. I had a lot of creeping imagery, and needed to know more about when that was going to happen. Ben found out the exact time the cremation was scheduled. That was probably not what I needed to know (and, in hindsight, was useless, as they got it wrong), and it was not enjoyable.

I thought my father was being cremated at five pm, and posted this photo on Facebook.


Ben had the kids at dance and Tucker was at class during the two hour period in which we were told the cremation would happen. I lay in the dark on my bed, playing with my phone.

At the time I was sure that it was all over (it hadn’t started yet, actually), I posted this photo.


This is the last photo I have of my father. It is Christmas Day 2007, and certainly by March we knew we would never likely see him again. But I don’t know if this is the last time I ever saw him or not.

He’s holding a découpaged wooden box covered with images from David Lynch’s Wild at Heart.* My dad had really, really liked this movie, and I believe he saw it a few times in the theater. During the time the film was in theaters, he had bought candy necklaces for my friend and me. He told us that when we wore them, he had to call us “Peanut”, like Nicolas Cage did Laura Dern in the movie.

In recalling this yesterday — just that “Peanut” part — I was able to come up with a literally endless list of other scenarios in which my father attached strongly to dialogue in a film or television show, and enjoyed repeating it. This was yesterday. The day he was being cremated. My dad knew he had Asperger’s, he talked regularly and openly about it. I knew my dad had Asperger’s. It was not until he was waiting in line in the crematorium that I realized he had been utilizing classic autistic scripting to help him communicate, through my entire life.


Today Ben and I drove all over Bucks County, meeting up with his dad as well. We came home with death certificates and an unusually heavy plastic box containing my father. I was sworn in as administrator of his estate at the courthouse in Doylestown. We also had eggplant fries. I left the house this morning in full Warrior Queen mode (lipstick!!) wearing a small Virgin Mary charm that had been Tuck’s mother’s, and a scythe made by a member of the heathen community to which we are close.


While surprised at the weight of the cremains, carrying them out of the funeral home in a tote back on my shoulder was an enormously freeing moment.

Ben had, earlier in the week, picked up the cremains of our recently euthanized pet rat. When they got home from school, the kids compared the cremains of everything we had in the house; rats, a cat, and my father.

Claudia asked if the hardest parts of this were over. For the last five or six days, what the kids seem to have learned about “a death in the family” is that either nobody makes dinner, or the same dinner gets made multiple nights in a row, or we order out things like nachos and fried chicken skins and those are their meals.

I told her that there were things that were still going to go on for a long time, and days that Dad and I would have to drive out somewhere outside of town, but maybe, yeah, this had been the day with the most hard things in it.

And we did it.



*The box in the photo was made by actress Grace Zabriskie. I was on a “Big Love” kick and had been looking to read more about her online, and found the page where I saw that she made artwork, often related to films she had acted in. I e-mailed her and asked to buy a “Wild at Heart”-themed box on her site; she replied and said it was not for sale, it was hers, and she wasn’t really making the boxes anymore.

I told her the story of my father and the candy necklaces for me and my friend, and she said well — since HBO writers were on strike and she was not currently filming “Big Love” — she’d make me a “Wild at Heart” box for my dad. And indeed she did.

My dad and Tucker have similar responses to being given gifts. You have to take their word for what they say they think of it, because the “reaction” is not going to tell you anything — they might be out of their minds with joy, they might be ready to throw it away as soon as you turn your back. The photo of my dad with the box was, at that point in his life, a pretty happy looking guy — at least, the honest version of what he looked like happy. He was capable of some masking, but I think he tended to save that energy up for the girlfriend’s house.











A little over 8 years ago – March 3rd, 2008 to be exact – I was driving home from work, which at the time was about 45 minutes outside of Philadelphia, not far from where Amber’s father lived.

Things had not been going well. Three-plus years of waiting, pausing, possibly-it’s-never-happening, oh-wait-it’s-happening adoption process had taken its toll. Amber was carrying the weight of this ongoing drama as bravely as possible, but we needed help.

At the time, even though I’d known him for about four years, I had not known too much about what Amber’s father was like throughout her childhood. I had known it wasn’t great, and I had certainly cone to know Drew as someone with some… odd habits. A tendency to perseverate about relatively straight-forward decisions. Dietary choices that were so consistent, one might have presumed they were imposed on him by some unseen overlord: the same two basic meals, to which he referred as “doses”, consumed 20+ times/week. Once or twice a week he went to Bob Evans – where he ordered precisely the same meal each time, noting with glee in his recollections later whether the price had changed since his last visit, or differed slightly from the other Bob Evans he occasionally frequented.

The insistence that he would eventually “get to” the growing pile of issues of the Sunday Philadelphia Inquirer that were accumulating in his kitchen. “When I retire.” The last I remembered seeing them, there were three piles of newspapers, each several feet high.

These were tolerable, if progressively somewhat overbearing, character traits. And perhaps, somewhere in the back of my mind, it reminded me of my own grandfather, who’s love of telling stories about his past would eventually wear thin on even the most patient of listeners, as the stories he remembered grew fewer and fewer. It could be tiring, but you could hardly begrudge a man his simple pleasures.

That consistency of behavior and thought was also something on which we could occasionally depend in times of need. Given a task, and fairly unambiguous directions, Drew could perform admirably well in emotionally difficult situations. Two years earlier, when our dog Flannery was nearing the end of her life, I had given Drew a call to let him know that I would probably, in a few days, need his help getting Flannery to the vet to be euthanized. Amber and I had agreed that, when the time came, she would leave the house and meet up with a friend, while I came home with Drew and retrieved Flannery. And when Amber called to let me know it was time, I left work and raced down I-95. I called Drew on the way.

I stammered into the phone: “Flannery… it’s time.. I’m heading home… and I need…. help.”

“I’ll meet you there in an hour.”

And he did, and he helped, and when it was done he went back home and picked up, I presume, precisely where he had left off. But I don’t think I had to explain anything about what the process was going to involve, where the vet was, what was going to happen afterward. I knew I was a wreck inside, and I knew I was worried sick about Amber. But if Drew had any particular reaction, he didn’t reveal it. And that didn’t seem strange. Actually, it was helpful. I didn’t need to be handling anyone else’s emotional turmoil, and he presented none.

And so, racing down that same stretch of I-95 a few years later, I called Drew again. Amber was buckling under the weight of our adoption “journey”, which had by that point transformed from an exciting adventure into a guided tour of hell. Amber had stopped getting out of bed in the mornings. She had been writing and publishing about our experiences in Korean Quarterly, and anyone who’d read those columns would have known that, three years on, we were pretty sure we weren’t going to end up with a baby at all.

Each time Amber had asked Drew whether he’d read her column, he seemed to almost enjoy saying, “No, I didn’t get to it yet.”

Yet. This was becoming a theme. The water-damaged ceiling of his kitchen, at which he’d been chipping away with a spoon for years, had not been repaired “yet.” What was he waiting for?

At least the leak from the bathroom which precipitated the ceiling damage had been fixed, though that took over a year before it was attended to. We had discussed the leak in detail the prior Christmas morning at his home where, for the third year running, he had meticulously laid out precisely one bowl-full of green and red peanut M&Ms. Weeks, if not months, of planning and discussion had preceded the purchase of that bag of candy.

Drew’s behavior had, even in just three years, grown progressively more regimented, to the point of obsession. On the second floor of his home he kept a rowing machine, which he used daily. And with it, a log of his performance – how long it had taken him to row a certain distance, perhaps 10,000 meters.

“One second faster, each week,” he announced. To the extent that I could detect it, there was a note of pride in his voice.

“Until what?” I had asked. Not to be dismissive, mind you: I wondered whether or not he had a specific goal in mind.

But I had also begun to wonder how a person could possibly survive the boredom of eating the same meals, visiting the same bookstore, driving to the same restaurant, doing the same exercise, month after month, year after year. And though I assumed that Drew felt some reassurance in these habits, I wondered what would become of this rut, which seemed to grow deeper and deeper each time we spoke. Amber and I had begun to talk of how the sclerosis of Drew’s habits were disabling him, his ability to cope with his environment seemed to be on a downslope, however slight. The backlog of his work – which he did from home – seemed to pile up higher each visit, along with the Sunday papers.

We could see, even then, where this was leading, even if it seemed to elude Drew. He would comment on the increasing frequency with which he would “lose a word”, and struggle for hours to remember it. In isolation, this didn’t seem too terribly troubling. “Do more crossword puzzles” seemed, as much as anything, a viable prescription.

As helpful as that might actually have been, I can imagine clearly his response: “When am I going to find the time to do that?” Drew was increasingly consumed with the endlessness of his responsibilities. But they, and his habits, seemed to be getting the better of him. They were snowballing, and would eventually consume him.

I had promised Amber that, when the time came, Drew would have the care he needed. Maybe that time would ultimately come sooner than we would have expected or wanted. But at that point, it still seemed comfortably far off.

“Amber is just so overwhelmed. This has been so hard, it has taken so long, things keep changing, and she needs help. I’m heading home now, and I need you to help too.”

“What am I supposed to do?” Drew asked, sounding rather irritated. This was new to me.

Assuming I’d interrupted him during something, I struggled to explain, and to avoid as many of the other vehicles on the highway as possible. “I don’t really know, but she needs your help. Talk to her, maybe. Help her through this.”

“Amber doesn’t need a cheerleader.”

In fact, that was precisely what she might have needed, and appreciated: someone to offer some reassurance, some optimism, some understanding or acceptance that though things were hard now they would likely turn around sometime soon. It didn’t need to be true, it just needed to be said. And by someone other than me, because I was fairly sure that after three years of making those reassurances, I was losing credibility.

“I don’t know that that’s really true, but she does need to hear from you, and needs your support right now,” was all I could offer.

“I’ve done enough.”

Somewhere between Woodhaven Rd. and Girard Ave., something dropped out of the bottom of the car. It might have been my jaw. I was not yet a father… evidence seemed to be piling up that I was moving further and further away from it… but I could not conceive of a situation where I would throw in the towel like that on my own child.

But this had quickly gone from “I don’t know what you want me to do,” to “I don’t want to do anything.”

I think the conversation circled around those points a few more times. At some point I said, “You really need to decide if this is something you can do, because if you’re not, there’s a fairly good chance that Amber isn’t going to speak to you again. And I’m certainly not going to have someone with that attitude be a grandparent to my child.”

“You probably don’t know this, but there was a point where Amber didn’t talk to me for three years. And then she came crawling back.”

“Actually,” I replied, “I do know about that.”

By which point I’d managed to navigate the exit from the highway and two dozen intersections before arriving on our block and parking. I hadn’t yet hung up the phone, but I was about to go into our house.

But the last thing I heard Drew say was, “I’m really sorry you have to be the one to deal with her.”

“Yeah,” I trailed off. And hung up.

When I went inside, Amber was waiting. I’m not sure if I punched the wall first, or told her that I’d just gotten off the phone with her father, who was being so fucking unbelievably stubborn.

And I looked in her eyes, and I told her the conversation we’d had.

And Amber smiled, and shook her head, and I didn’t have to tell her anything at all about what he’d said, but I did anyway. And she was completely unsurprised.

The next day, I was back at work. And when my phone rang, and it was Amber, I was panicked and worried and went into my office and closed the door.

“OK,” she said, “I am calling you with something that is for once not bad news.”


“Would you like to go get your daughter tomorrow?”




a footstool i made for my father. i made a cyanotype print on fabric, of himself, two of his sisters and a neighbor girl. the blue yarn is handspun soy silk that i dyed with indigo; the fawn yarn is the undercoat of our family dog, coby.
a footstool i made for my father. i made a cyanotype print on fabric, of himself, two of his sisters and a neighbor girl. the blue yarn is handspun soy silk that i dyed with indigo; the fawn yarn is the undercoat of our family dog, coby.

It was the winter of what I’m going to guess was 1978. We were circling the parking lot of the Oxford Valley Mall, which was nearly full and covered with chunks of slush and ice, darkened by car drippings and exhaust. Silvered snow, blackened snow, compressed by treads and hardened like old gravestones. The passenger seat was empty; I do not remember where my mother was, or if her unusual absence was a factor in my father’s mood.

“Unlock her knees,” he said to me, with a hard turn of the wheel, as we crawled up another aisle of parked cars with no spaces for us.

My sister was two. She wore large, heavy, metal-and-leather orthopedic braces on her legs. She practiced walking with tiny wooden crutches at home, but still used a stroller at the mall, and that was in the truck of our Volkswagen Dasher. The knee joints and the hip joints of my sister’s leg braces locked via a small metal hood that closed over the join itself, often easier to slide into place than back out. Locking her knees was part of the process of getting into the car, like getting our seatbelts on and turning on the radio. Unlocking her knees was part of the process of getting out, but we were not getting out yet, although my father seemed impatient to get there.

I reached as far as my lap belt would allow. I was eight. I tried to slide the little metal hood up, but it was shoved down hard; my father had done the locking. I tried a few times, and when I could not do it, I retracted to my own seat again. My father looked back in open annoyance.

“Unlock her knees,” he said, and he continued to drive through the slippery and unwelcoming parking lot.

We had been near the JC Penney’s. Now we were on the other side of the mall near the Gimbel’s. We were circling back around to where we had started, and a sense that we were not going to be able to get to the mall — where everything was, the only destination outside of our own house, particularly on a bitter Saturday afternoon — was frightening to me. The idea of having to turn around and go home seemed a dreadful failure. We had never failed at going to the mall before.

I took my seatbelt off and slid across the seat towards my sister. I tugged at the lock on the knee closest to me until my fingers, cold even inside the car, began to hurt. I tried the knee further away from me, and was unable to lock that one.

My father turned around and glared, and swung the car up another aisle. I began to hope it took as long as possible to find a parking spot, because I saw now that my father had changed, and everything was dependent on me unlocking those metal joints.


There was nothing unusual about finding myself in this position; unable to do something that my father felt so sure I should that it drove him into a rage. I had understood, inside, for a long time already, that I deserved none of the punishment I got in these circumstances. I also knew there was no one to whom I could express this. These situations would always arise out of mild conditions, but never abated until something terrible had happened.

Seen scooping cantelope out of the rind in a way he thought was an uneconomical and illogical use of a spoon, my father twisted my wrist repeatedly into the shape he thought best. When the shape would not take, he told me, “I hope you have a rotten day, because you’ve ruined mine.” I was four then.

Unable to work out what my father considered to be a very simple subtraction problem in my head, I was left in the car alone while my parents ate dinner in a nearby Italian restaurant. I had been told I was allowed to come in when I had the correct answer to the problem, which caused vapor lock in my brain, and I never got dinner.

Now at eight, the vapor lock when I was asked to think, and the weakness in my arms when I was asked to do something by my father, were part of my every day life. He rendered me helpless, even with things I knew I could do. But I couldn’t undo the locks on my sister’s knees. The locks were larger than my fingers were. I had seen both of my parents struggle with them on their own.

My head was down and I was watching the lividity in my fingers change — red redder white — trying to be as fully engaged, as tunnel-visioned as possible, so he would at least credit me with trying.

I did not see the moment when my father lost his patience entirely, but I saw his long arm snake around the back of what was usually my mother’s seat — the passenger’s seat — and he grabbed both my hair and the hood of my coat, and, holding them, beat my head three times into the metal surrounding my sister’s legs.

He found a parking spot. Things were going better now. He got my sister out of the car and into her stroller, and I stood waiting. But as my dad stood up from buckling my sister into her stroller, and looked at me, I saw his face change to an expression I had never seen before.

“What did you do to your head?” he asked me.

I reached up to touch the pain, and made contact with it far sooner than I expected to. My forehead stuck out further than it should have. It was numbly warm, and the pain spread back to my scalp and into my eye. My father reached down and put his warm fingers on my forehead, ringing the area that stuck out.

“You must have bumped into the baby’s braces,” he said, “when the car stopped so suddenly.”

Really, I thought. At eight, I did not have a lot of experience with feeling morally superior, but I had never felt less afraid of my father before.

I watched him crouch and begin to gather dirty slush with his bare hands, making an ice pack for me.

“Hold this on your head,” he said, handing me a wad of exhaust-grey snow. “It’s got a bump on it. You must have hit the baby’s legs. When the car jerked to a stop.”

I knew I could open my mouth and say, No, that’s not what happened at all. And he knew it too. And seeing him know it was satisfying.


Why were we even at the mall to begin with? There must have been something someone needed, or maybe we were just going to look in the bookstore, something my father and I liked to do together, or to pick up something for my sister; I couldn’t remember. But we went up the large, spiral ramp located in the middle of the mall, past the Piercing Pagoda where my ears had been pierced on my seventh birthday, and to the McDonald’s. My father asked me what I wanted. I told him something.

The filthy snow I was told to hold to my head had melted and streaks ran down the bright yellow of my vinyl down-filled coat sleeve. I sat with my sister at an empty table while my father stood in line. He turned to look at me. He turned back to the line. He turned to look at me again. I understood that he was worried that I would lose consciousness, or that someone else would notice my injury and draw attention to it. I had never seen him worry about anything the way he was worrying about this. I had never seen my father feel shame. I had never seen my father afraid. It was happening all at once.

We ate our lunch, me without fear of repercussion for any small infraction I might commit. I chewed my ice, I made noise with my straw, I chewed with my mouth open. I took an accordion-crumpled straw paper and with eyedropper accuracy dropped a tiny bit of Pepsi onto it so that it would magically unfurl, like a snake. This delighted my sister. My father said nothing, did nothing.

Then we were in the sporting goods store and my head hurt terribly. This is why we had come to the mall. Running shoes for my father. The adrenaline I’d been flying on was draining away and the pain in my head was dulling me, making me tired. When we left the mall, the sun had begun to set, and the cold was biting. I slid on the slush, without falling, and my hands were too slow and stupid to zipper my coat up.

My father locked my sister’s knees for the ride home. I had no idea what difference it made, locked or unlocked, or who had told them to follow this protocol, or who had told them any of the rules that come with a baby who wears large metal braces, and uses tiny crutches, and has surgeries and physical therapy appointments. Most of the injuries I had experienced at my father’s hand had come after the birth of my sister, and yet, I was sure that it would have happened this way if she’d never been born, or been born without her disability. My father had come before either of us, and there was clearly no stopping what he was, nor was there a way to go back and undo what had made him like this.


When we returned home the sun was already mostly down and the smell of chicken filled the house. My mother was there. I do not know that she had ever been anywhere else. We had had the car. There was nowhere she could have gone.

I have no memory of hearing my dad explain what had happened to my head. I could have followed, avid to listen to the lie, watching his face to see if I was ready to correct and expose him, but I didn’t. I knew he’d lie to her. I knew that having him have to hold onto his secret would exhaust him – make him older – than telling the truth would. So I let him wear himself down that little bit more.

My mother looked at my head. It was now too late to put clean ice on it. The bruise on my head rose no further, but darkened by the next day to a deep, bloody black, and I was crowned.

In subsequent days, people saw me; friends, neighbors, teachers. There were those who exclaimed in surprise, and there were those who didn’t. The latter were the ones I began to watch carefully, because I saw now that they had long suspected something I was only just realizing. In a week, the bruise was turning green and yellow and no longer looked dangerous, just dirty and ugly, and seemed now more a reflection on me than it did on my father. I began to wish it would just go away. In a few weeks, it did.


My greatest fear in life when I became a parent, was that I would not be able to stop myself from turning into a parent like my father was. I worried that it could come upon me as unintentionally as it had him. He had not created a ritual dance and offering to turn himself into what he was. He did not beg for it from a genie. It had just happened to him, and so it could just happen to me.

But my mistake was in presuming that every subsequent minute wherein my father was not beating my head into the metal of my sister’s leg braces was one in which he was sorry for ever having done it at all.

It would be almost eleven thousand and five hundred days before I came to terms with that mistake and officially removed my father from my life. It would be almost nine years before he died. He was not sorry for the things he had done to me. He was never even going to admit that he had done them. And by the time I realized that, I had more to worry about than whether or not I would ever receive an apology. I had a baby daughter.

My father refused to ever see our baby. After a few months of our regular pleading for him to do so, we realized that we were doing the wrong thing in asking him to, and he was doing the right thing in staying away. My father beat me until I was seventeen or eighteen, but it stopped then. He was weird and he was difficult, but he kept his hands off me.

The depths of what my father was capable of would be roused by the sight of my infant. I was sure of it. And I knew he knew it. He did not trust himself to be near her, and he stayed away from us on purpose.

That period of refusal on his part gave me time to think. When I pictured my baby daughter’s childhood ahead, and all the moments similar to my own that it might bring, we made the decision to excise my father completely. It is without a doubt one of the best parenting decisions I ever made. I do not know how I would live from day to day with the guilt of having Claudia or Béla ever having been witness to or target of one of my father’s bizarre, grandiose, punitive rages — or the days when he would show up (for a trip to a museum or a birthday dinner) and be completely expressionless and silent the entire time — or to listen to his bizarre fantasy plans of the house he was going to design and build someday, which were about as realistic as a five-year-old’s marker drawing of their own dream house.

I did not want to ever make excuses to my own children about why their grandfather did the things that he did or reassure them that it had nothing to do with them. That would be more than any adult in my family had ever done for me, but still, it’s not enough.

Ben and I knew something was really, really wrong when my father refused to call or e-mail us when Claudia arrived. We have no idea how he presented it to other people, but obviously, they believed him. Ben has more to say on the last conversation he had with my father, 24 hours before we got the call that we had a daughter. The years between that and the dementia diagnosis gave us the sense that things were continuing to slide downward. We spared our children so much pain and confusion. I am so grateful. I am so grateful that he is gone.


My father died on September 22, 2016 at the age of 71. I did not see him, nor did I wish to, and nor do I think he suffered unduly. He died the death he deserved. He forged it link by link, like Jacob Marley’s chain.

My dad had told me a long time ago, while we were hanging out on a Saturday, that if he were to die on that very day, he would regret only two things; not clearing out the attic, and never having beaten the shit out of someone significantly younger than himself. He said this with total candor and not a bit of irony, guilt, or self-awareness.

I believe they’ve gotten someone else to clean out most of the attic, but what’s left in it is mine.