He had still been a sailor when he met my mother, but he took to her right away, and she, desperate for the security of a stable relationship after my father Phil’s long absence and years of unfaithfulness, succumbed to this young, vigorous and enthusiastic he-man. Indeed, Ray Ring was a muscled, tattooed bull of a man, still in his mid-twenties and full of life. To me, however, it was as if an alien creature had suddenly burst into our house with a kind of demonic energy and taken over the lives of my mother and me. I had, without any warning, acquired a stepfather and lost my own father forever at the same time.
Before Ray’s entrance into our lives, my mother and I had continued to live with my aunt, uncle and cousin in a fairly roomy house in Oakland where I had in fact grown up. I didn’t understand then that it was my uncle George who must have been supporting us since my mother never worked, and that it must have been something of a financial burden to him to have to provide for two families, especially since he was the only breadwinner. Years afterward, my aunt told me that she had seen that it was necessary to induce my still-shy mother to go to service clubs in order to meet eligible men looking to get married, and that’s how Ray had met her and where he began to court her in what must have been an ardent fashion for he certainly did love her with great passion in those early years.
In any event, as soon as my mother and stepfather were married in July of 1946—I was now ten—the three of us moved into a very tiny down-at-the-heels dwelling in a depilated court in the same general area where I had grown up near Mills College in Oakland. Another life was beginning for all of us, and the deep bond that had grown up between my mother and me during the war years was sundered at this time by this strange intruder, my stepfather, who was so unlike all the other members of my own family.
Ray was the son of a Jewish mother, Lillian, and an Italian man named Buono, but the marriage didn’t last, and Lillian eventually married a man named Ring who became Ray’s stepfather. He was essentially a working-class kid when he enlisted in the Seabees during the Depression. He happened to be at Pearl Harbor when it was bombed by the Japanese and had served in the Pacific Theater during the war. Now that he was out of the service, he had to find himself a job and make a life for his suddenly acquired new family. At first, he had a miscellany of jobs—he drove a laundry truck for a while, he became a bus driver, and then he worked as the credit manager in a clothing store. But he had plenty of drive and ambition and was a good provider.
Ray was basically a good man, and was always kind to me— or tried to be—but he also had some characteristics I found it difficult to tolerate. He was very bellicose, dictatorial and full of opinions, which he would bray at us, brooking no opposition. My mother quickly became very submissive to him. I tried my best to accommodate to him, but I had already become somewhat resentful and rebellious. I didn’t like the atmosphere in the house, and once my aunt and uncle had moved to another location in the Oakland hills, I spent a great deal of time at their house, particularly with my aunt who had always treated me like her own son. And once I had become interested in classical music, a few years later on, I spent even more time over there since my aunt and uncle had a piano, which, though I never really learned how to play, provided many hours of pleasure for me.
My stepfather was very talented when it came to mechanical matters—he was always fixing things. I thought I should try to learn some of these skills from him, as a way to connect with him, but I was as inept in these areas as he was gifted, and he could see that I wasn’t cut out to be his apprentice. I drifted away, probably to his relief. By then—I was now a young teen-ager—I was becoming interested in music and soon developed a passion for it, beginning with opera. But Ray found my singing painful to his ears -– “stop that caterwauling,” he would bellow -- which increased the tension between us. And he insisted that I go to bed at an absurdly early hour—probably to get rid of me—which I bitterly resented. I did not take well to his ordering me about and did not appreciate how much the giving and taking of orders had been a part of the military discipline that had helped to form his character. I’m sure Ray found me to be an irritating kid, as alien to him as his spirit was to me. He was never cruel, but he could be harsh and overbearing, so in the end, I just tried to avoid him whenever I could and accommodate to him when I couldn’t.
Meanwhile, I could see that something was happening to my mother. She had gradually become more withdrawn and seemingly troubled. Of course, my suspicions immediately centered on my stepfather, and eventually, when he was out of the house, my mother started confiding in me, telling me of her unhappiness with him. Although she was not specific, she intimated that her sex life with Ray was deeply unsatisfying. (I later learned from my uncle George that it was virtually non-existent.) She had made a mistake in marrying him, she said, but she could see no way out now. From what my mother had indicated to me, however, although she was always oblique about this too, I knew she had— even then—other suitors and that one of them, a furrier, wanted her to leave her marriage so that they could be together. Naturally, by this time, I encouraged my mother to do exactly that. I wasn’t any happier than she in this new family constellation, and I urged her to find a way to break free. But she never had the courage to do it, and this is when I began to lose respect for my mother. She would only complain, but she would never take any action. She was defeated, a captive in a marriage that she thought would save her, but had only confined her to a prison run by a benevolent but completely controlling warden. It was at that point that my mother started her descent into mental illness, which was her only escape.
In time, I made my own escape, as best I could, spending as much time as possible with my friends and other family members, especially my maternal grandfather Bert who lived up in California’s historic Mother Lode country in a then small town called Sonora. I would spend the summers with him there and, for a while, also reconnected with my uncle Bill who had moved up there after leaving the Bay Area. With these relatives of my mother, I felt especially at home and could be myself.
In December, 1991, as I was preparing to take a trip to Venezuela with my then current lover, Maude, I received an urgent call from California. My stepfather, Ray, had just been discovered to have an advanced and fatal form of cancer and had already been hospitalized. Because my mother was by then old and demented, and because I was her only child, there was no other choice but to cancel my holiday plans with Maude and leave for California as soon as I could purchase my tickets for the flight.
A day after Christmas, I was on my way to the Bay Area to help take care of my mother but chiefly to do whatever my stepfather needed. At that point, it was mainly a matter of filial duty; in the end, it turned out to be a journey of love.
What follows is an edited version of the diary I kept of that visit.
I try to reach my father’s physician to find out the latest news concerning his condition.
“Your number, please.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t have a number, only a name.”
“But we need your number.”
“Miss, my father is dying in your hospital, and I’m trying to find out if he is still alive.”
“What is his number?”
Eventually, human contact is made, and his physician calls me back. He is pleasant, but his news is grim. My father’s condition is hopeless; he will die soon.
However, he goes on to say that after all, there may be a glimmer of good news, too. On his last visit, he found that my father was lucid – and full of concern, not for himself but for my mother. Indeed, he further tells me that my father’s condition had improved sufficiently that he has now been transferred out of CCU and situated in a regular hospital room.
The traffic is terrible, but I get to the hospital a little before 3 p.m.
My father is alone is his room, asleep. He has lost a great of weight and looks old (he is in his early 70s) and haggard. His once muscular biceps are flabby, his tattoos now faded and grayish. His eyes blink open at my touch, but quickly close again.
He is out of it.
I try again a few minutes later. Again a flicker, but no sign of recognition. I leave him a note, telling him I will be back in the morning….
My father is again sleeping when I enter his room at 11 a.m. the next day, but this time he opens his eyes with understanding. He knows that I am there. I hold his hand and with the other rub his arm gently.
“How are you, Pop?”
“Dyin’,” he rasps.
“Are you in pain.”
“No, no pain.”
He has an oxygen tube in his nose and his arms have tiny markings on them, injection wounds and little tubes sticking out of them. He is exhausted, but he can talk. He often coughs, but he will be coherent throughout that day.
Almost immediately he tells me that he loves me, and that he very much loves my mother. Not a day went by, he says, that he didn’t tell her that he loves her. He is very concerned about her welfare, and intent on making sure that she will be provided for after his death. He is determined, he tells me with emphasis, to “hang on” until everything has been arranged to his satisfaction. Indeed, he has thought things out very clearly: Who would be paying the bills, what bills need to be paid, arranging for the sale of the house (he still maintains he owns it and had been making regular mortgage payments), the disposition of his other property, the setting up of a trust fund with the proceeds, and where his wife will live after his death – The Jewish Home for the Aged in Oakland.
Through all this discussion, he makes it clear that he is still “the man in charge,” and that things will have to be done his way. (My father is dying in character, all right, I think.) In any case, he is throughout all this initial conversation rational, clear-thinking and focused in intent. At the same time, he is emotional and full of feeling, but that seems only to add to the sense of clarity he projects; it does not detract from it. He is still a military man, and he is giving orders. His impending death has changed nothing in his habitual manner apart from strengthening his will still further that he must live until his will is done.
Ray is also very clear about what he wants for himself: To be transferred to a VA hospital for which he has performed a great deal of service and where his friends are. This is his “real home,” he tells me, and where he wants to be when he dies.
I am impressed with the strength of my father’s will and with the clarity with which he expresses it and his plans for himself and my mother. Because he clearly knows what he wants and what needs to be done, I assure him that I will carry out his “orders” and honor his wishes. When I ask him what else I can do for him, he says there was nothing he needs from me apart from seeing to my mother’s care. He doesn’t need to have me make any phone calls for him or any special arrangements and there is nothing he needs to “delegate” to me – he will manage his affairs to the end.
But I already know, without asking, what I will be doing for my father. I will be there to hold his hand – he often reaches for mine – and to listen to his confession. His son, the professor, has become his priest. He is sharing from the heart – his grief at his own father’s death, his tormented love for my mother and other painful subjects. He cries several times – I have never seen my father cry – and fights back tears at other times during that first visit.
Some deaths need an audience because an audience is crucial for a cathartic expression for the person who is dying and whose drama will end in death. The management of my father’s affairs he will leave to others (though he promises to keep me informed and to send me copies of all relevant documents), but for the enactment of my father’s drama of dying, I feel I need to be both audience and interlocutor. My father does need me, but there is no need to discuss that; it is silently understood between us. If I can provide any comfort to him, it will be simply to play my self-assigned role in helping him to release as many of his emotional burdens as possible before he can speak no more.
When I return to the hospital the next day, I find my father sitting in a recliner next to his bed. He looks better than the day before though he appears to be in more pain. Most of my two hours with him is devoted to my taking notes in a little pad concerning how he wants his affairs and effects handled – what is to be sold off, given away, what items need repairs, etc. He is also very concerned about my mother and wants me to be sure to note some special things that she needs but that now he will not be able to procure for her – her pills, some shoes she badly needs, and so on. I dutifully notate them all.
Apart from these “business” items, there are some emotional moments. Soon after I arrive, my father breaks down and says that one thing that particularly grieves him, the hardest thing about dying, is that my mother has not visited him in the hospital – not once. I take his hand, sympathize with him, and tell him that I will make sure that she will be there the following day. His gratitude is obvious. It clearly means so much to him to see her again. His love for her is profound and is very moving to me. Despite everything, his devotion to his sick, decrepit and demented wife is immense.
He also takes out his wallet and gives me some photographs that has always kept there – one of me as a youth, another of my daughter, Kathryn, one of my mother, of course, but oddly enough, as I think about it now, none of himself.
He also wants me to have a list of all the organizations to which he belonged and to know of his life of good works. He proudly shows me all his membership cards. This work has been his life. I really had known almost nothing about it – I was never that interested, really – except in general terms, which makes it clear to me that I know so little about this man, and who he really has been all these years. Selfless and giving to his friends and their families, however much he seems to have neglected his own home, which, believe me, he has left in an unholy mess.
The last couple of days he has seemed weaker, his voice barely able to rise above a whisper, and even then, he can only rasp. He continues to give me lists (is there no end to them?) and orders he wants me to carry out, but is also very emotional at times and very loving toward me, an attitude that he only rarely demonstrated during our life together when I was growing up or even after I had become an adult. I kiss his forehead; he reaches for my hand. He tells me every day that he loves me, and I can tell his sentiments are sincere. His feelings all come to the surface.
But he is bored lying in bed and wants to do his paperwork. Meanwhile, he lives for his phone calls and visitors – and he has had plenty of both.
He says today that his doctor has hinted that he might be released on Friday. (But there is no such indication in his doctor’s notes. I checked.) But released to where? He is far too weak, so if he is discharged, he is simply going to be sent to die elsewhere. He does not want to go back home despite the fact that I have worked to make sure his bedroom is now completely clean, neat, dusted and polished – probably for the first time ever – and demurs about going to the VA at this time (though later it turns out that arrangements have been made for him to go there….
The next day, he continues to fret about my mother who refused to come after all when I expected her to, claiming to have the flu. She doesn’t. It’s a patent excuse and she’s simply malingering. I intend to bring her here tomorrow, New Year’s Day, even I have to drag her screaming.
I don’t think Pop will last more than a couple of weeks.
I have been meeting with and/or talking to more of his vet buddies. In their eyes, Ray is clearly a great man. Several of them have told me “They love the guy.” One of them, apparently my father’s best friend, has advised me that in recognition of my father’s outstanding work, he will posthumously receive a Congressional medal of honor, which will be read into the Congressional Record. In his social service work, my father has without question really distinguished himself and has clearly earned a great deal of gratitude from many people. This work has been of prime importance to my father – apart from the mother it has been his whole life – and I’m glad he knows it will be duly recognized.
When I was cleaning up his room today, I couldn’t help noticing that his walls were covered with plaques and citations and various other awards – there must be forty or fifty of them. And there are about a half dozen more that haven’t been hung but rest on a table.
I take pride in these accomplishments of my father, which I hadn’t truly appreciated – I am seeing a new side of him or at least one that I hadn’t seen properly previously. I actually love cleaning his room and feel as though I am paying a kind of homage to my father in doing so. In his own world, he is indeed regarded as an exemplary man, loved by many of his comrades, and he has certainly grown in stature in the eyes of his son.
How ironic, then, that he who is loved by so many only really cares about receiving love from the one person who has always withheld it – my mother. They have been married for 45 years and, according to what Ray tells me, never once in all that time has my mother ever explicitly said that she loved him. My father, on the other hand, claims that not a day has passed when he hasn’t avowed his love for my mother. Probably an exaggeration, but still, I suspect, a substantially true statement. I don’t think I have ever known a man who has for so long and so passionately loved a woman with so little to show for it – 45 years of a tormented unrequited love. What could be sadder – and for both – but my sympathies lie largely with my father. I wonder whether my mother will make one last gesture and come to see him before he dies so he can tell her once more how much he loves her, and perhaps finally hear the words from her that he has waited in vain to be spoken all these years.
1-3-1992. On the first day of the new year there is an extraordinary and entirely unexpected development: My father has rallied and has begun to regain his vigor. He no longer talks of dying or of what is to be done after his death, but of getting out of the hospital and living. He shows no interest in dying whatever or any knack for it; he is now planning to live – for months, possibly for as long as another year.
What has brought about this apparent complete cessation in his progress toward a seemingly fast approaching death?
Probably several factors contributed, but I think the principal one is my mother’s visit earlier that day. I have to browbeat her a bit before I succeed in getting her to go in the first place – and I don’t tell her in advance this time – but she consents without too much objection and manages to stay with Ray for about ten minutes. I escort her to his room and remain only long enough to see my father extend his arms to embrace his wife.
That visit seems to have buoyed Ray’s spirits inestimably, and when I see him later that evening, he is a new man. Or, more accurately, he is more his old self, speaking more strongly and confidently, and starting to plan his future. He thanks me immediately, and with great ardor, for bringing my mother to the hospital and confirms how much it has meant to him.
I spend a long time with him that evening, giving him some of the information he has requested and continuing to take down his requests, mostly concerned with my mother’s welfare. His love and seemingly boundless concern for her impresses me once again; for all its dysfuntionality, his is a great and true love, and more poignantly so because so little of it, if any at all, has been reciprocated by my mother.
The next day – my last – with my chores all done, except for seeing the social worker at the hospital, I arrive at my father’s room at about 12:30 to find him sitting in a chair eating his lunch with obvious gusto. His voice is loud and strong, even if still a bit raspy.
Sitting in his chair, he is the commander again, the man in charge, both of his own life and that of my mother’s. As his lieutenant, I tell him I will see to it that the social worker speaks to him directly about my mother relieving me, at least temporarily, of the responsibility.
My father has obviously always attempted to do good, but his good works have not been accomplished without leaving a mess all around him, literally and figuratively. The disorder of his home, and especially in his work area, is indeed metaphoric of this. Evidence of his good will and service is abundant, but all of his papers and documents are strewn about, littered with dirt, dust and discarded mail. He has lived his last years in massive, almost inconceivable, physical sloppiness, caring only for what he could accomplish, but not at all for trying to maintain even the appearance of any kind of order. As a result, my father, like an unruly but energetic child, has left a big pile of paper shit on the floor for others to clean up.
Are his expectations of living more than a month realistic or mere fantasy? It is impossible for me to say. He has very low blood pressure now (it tends to be about 85/55) and in addition to his cancer, is suffering from congestive heart failure. I have learned – and he knows, too – that his cancer is terminal and has already metastasized from his colon to his liver, clearly a death sentence. He also has had diabetes for years.
None of this seems to matter to him, however, or to deter him from wanting to live as long as possible as well as he can. He says that they are only “nuisances,” not obstacles. (Denial can do wonders for the mind.) To buttress his point, he reminds me of previous times when he survived life-threatening illnesses against all expectation, as, for example, when he recovered from a massive heart attack or when he endured the tremendous pain of a kidney stone because of his indomitable will. He also feels he has to stay alive in order to take care of my mother. His will to live is of Beethovenian proportions (Beethoven in his middle period, I mean; think of his 5th symphony). He is simply convinced that he can and will live for a while more. What man, indeed even what physician, would dare to gainsay him?
When I take leave of my father, I leave a man utterly different from the one I had encountered only a week earlier. When I first saw him, he could only open his eyes for an instant and without recognizing me. His first word to me, when I asked him how he was doing was simply, “dyin’.” But the man I am leaving now is the man I have always known – obstinate, dominating, in control.
Nevertheless, he is different in some ways, too. For one thing, he is full of expressions of love for me. I kiss him often (which I can’t remember ever having done before), and there is a great deal of affection between us. Before I leave I say – and I mean it – that despite everything I have enjoyed being with him. He replies that “it was our best time together” – and he is right.
During that week, I came to love my father and to see him with new eyes. Thanks to my conversations with him and with his vet buddies I saw with complete clarity that my father’s love for my mother was deeper than I had ever imagined and was at the core of his being, and apart from his veterans’ work, his personal raison d’être. I also realized, fortunately not too late, that his love for me was equally genuine and that despite our radical temperamental differences and my longstanding feeling that he was essentially an alien creature to me with his crude and unsophisticated ways, with his belligerence and volatile temper, that he still had tried to express the only kind of love he was capable of giving. I just never had perceived it that way before.
He had been, I guess, my real father all along, but I had been blind to it, and to him.
But during this week of his seeming impending death and then his improbable if still temporary rebirth, I saw, with increasing wonder, just who Ray Ring was, and my love for him, which for decades had been frozen because of my inability to see him for who he was, was able to thaw and then pour into him – waters of life.
He felt it – I know he did – acknowledged it and drank it in.
How much love I now felt for my father.
Yes, he was right – it was truly our best time together.
And, as it turned out, our last.
My father did live for another couple of months. I had seen him during my Christmas break from the university, and the next time I could travel to California was during our spring break, which came in early March. With two good friends of mine, I went out there to see him since he had been readmitted to the hospital and to help see to my mother’s care. We arrived on the 6th of March and stayed that evening with a friend at her home in Montclair.
That morning, I awoke at about 4:30.
A few hours later, I learned that my father had died at just about that time.
I had arrived too late.
I saw him a day or two later when he was laid out in his casket. His face looked noble. I spent some minutes alone talking to him. You can imagine what I told him.
Later I gave a eulogy at a quickly organized memorial service for him. Many of his vet friends were there, and naturally they expressed not only their appreciation to me, but their love and respect for my father. He was just 72 when he died. But at least he died knowing that his son truly loved him, and, for my part, I now cherish his memory after finally getting to know that the man whom I had regarded as an alien for so many years was truly a real father to me all along.