My father stands in the pool and watches me swim. California Redwoods cast blue shadows over the deep end. He holds his hands out for me to swim to, standing with his back to the dimensions of the deeper water behind him. And just before I reach his thick fingertips, he pulls them back and says, “A little further.”
“Dad, stop!” I say.
My body is tired from treading water, my arms yearn to cling to his sturdy neck; my lungs ready to stop taking in gulps of chlorine. He is always pushing me just a little bit further towards the brink of panic, bodily revolt.
I thumb through DVDs, looking. I know it by sight: The Godfather has Marlon Brando’s face on it, not Pacino’s as on II and III, or Coppola’s on bonus features. Brando’s face: my sixteenth year, sitting cross-legged on the couch at my dad’s house.
I turn up the volume to hear the mandolins in the opening scene, strumming like the old country over my own loud eating and the buzz of the air conditioner. I watch caricatures of Italians on screen: people who could very well be related to my father, or me, as far as I know. The curse of a childhood with an absent parent is that you learn about them in small, desperate increments. I search for him even in fictional films.
My dad giving me the box set is a gesture. But to teenaged me, it is so much more. The anger I feel about the power logistics of being a child between my parents’ uncoupling and re-coupling is quenched when I see the violence on screen. My heritage could do these things. I am powerless, but look at where at least fifty percent of me comes from. There’s something in that instant that blurs the lines between film and reality. It is in Bonasera’s voice when he says, “I ask you for justice.”
Francis Ford Coppola was twenty-nine years old when he signed on to direct The Godfather. I am about that age when I sign on to take care of my father. Rugged Mike is diagnosed with a rare squamous cell buccal sarcoma not long after I settle in New York to work on my writing.
People call my father “rugged Mike.” He is a brown-skinned Italian man who grew up in a New England ghetto created by WASPs to keep their translucent daughters far from men that might pollute their bloodlines. He brought himself up out of nothing. He turned into something.
Of my parents, I look the most like him. Our eyes are dark, large, and wide set. My mother calls them “big brown cow eyes.” I picture her like Kay Adams, milky white skin shielded from the sun, holding the brim of her sunbonnet just so. My father drawn as to her, as Michael Corleone is to Kay: the shock of blonde hair and freckles a strange territory amongst the chestnut-haired neighborhood beauties. I picture my father explaining his abusive mother and cowardly father, saying, “That’s my family Kay, that’s not me.”
“I was young and had no power,” Coppola says. My experience is not wholly dissimilar. Coppola fights to have the movie set relocated from St. Louis to New York. I leave my new life to return to California to fight for my father. This type of cancer has a recurrence rate of more than fifty percent, and a higher death toll, but this is not the hardest part.
The tumor is the size of a navel orange, situated just behind his left wisdom teeth, filling empty space between jawbones. My mother tries to prepare the Stanford doctors for what they can expect from rugged Mike, mentally, as they keep reviewing what will happen to him physically. All we want is for him to live, she insists, but all he wants to do is die.
My father’s mother is responsible for the crumpled man we’re working hard to save. She died when I was six, and my mother could not have been more relieved. My father didn’t know how to feel. There are some words you can never un-hear.
I wish you’d never been born.
I never loved you.
I imagine his illness makes him wonder where he is in time. Is he a small boy again, with his mother? Maybe it’s dinnertime and she’s frying sausage for the sauce. No, he is just an elderly man with his only daughter: a physical reincarnation of the high-cheekboned and auburn-haired mother who could not be kind to him. A ghoul sent to haunt him. He’s not a religious man, but he prays for this second coming, this mother who is not a mother, to leave him. While I had been afraid to leave him as a child, he as a child had been too afraid to stay. “He’s always run away from his problems,” my dad’s sister, Linda, says. “I used to be standing in the middle of our parents, trying to stop them from killing each other. And your father would be hiding in the closet.”
When I was born, my father refused to hold me in the hospital. This alarmed my mother, who kept insisting he hold me. “I’m afraid I’ll drop her,” he said. My mother assured him that he wouldn’t. “I’m afraid I will crush her,” he said. My mother assured him that he couldn’t. He said it was the image of his large hands in comparison to my small body that he couldn’t reconcile. He did not trust himself.
I grew up to be an accident-prone child, and this did not scare my father. It was something he understood, because he had it, too. By the time I was born he’d broken all of his phalanges in karate, his nose in too many street fights, and torn his Achilles tendon three separate times, the resulting finality a disfigurement. The physicality of such a life became a relief, a distraction from the capacities that didn’t immediately involve what was needed for survival. Francis Ford Coppola said that, in his opinion, Italian Americans from the Five Families are not human beings who act beyond behaving like animals.
On Thanksgiving, I sit for ten consecutive hours so that my mother can go sleep off the effects of her nightshift. She only makes it to the backseat of our car in the Stanford Hospital parking garage. Every five minutes or so, my father opens his eyes, shifting them back and forth, panicked, murmuring. He looks at my face. He is a netted walrus under all the drains, tubing, and wires.
His surgery takes place the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. The removal of his tumor from behind his molars leaves a hole the size of a navel orange in his left cheek and jawbone, which the surgeons repair with tissue, arteries, and veins transplanted from his left forearm.
Post-operatively, his face is unmarred except for the long incision just above his clavicle, neatly tucked into his neck wrinkles. His throat is stretched to accommodate the swelling, pores illuminated with blood. His left cheek is puffed up and outward from the patched flesh on its interior.
It is important that the transplant site be checked for blood flow, because if the tissue dies, my father will have to be rushed back to surgery so they can take flesh from his remaining forearm and do the whole thing all over again. A nurse comes into the room every hour with a Doppler radar and places the metal tube into my father’s mouth, only nodding when we both hear the swirling, whooshing sound of his blood moving through the patch.
My father needs to stay put to heal, but he can’t. He pulls two IVs—one feeding tube, and one neck drain—out for the third time on the Tuesday after his surgery.
Each time he wakes, he tries to leave. His nurse doesn’t believe me until she hears him throw the IV stand across the room. She turns on the bed alarm and pumps up the morphine. I hover my face directly over his and remind him of who I am and where we are. I coax his large frame back into the concave of eight pillows in the hospital bed. I adjust his oxygen mask loosely at the bottom of his chin. I prop his bandaged left arm up above heart level. It is well-covered in gauze and ace wrap, but with his escape attempts, it is now red with seepage. Every few hours, a nurse comes in and draws a concerned circle in blue Sharpie. His eyelids droop, his face falls and begins to twitch, like a large dog in sleep. Then it starts all over again.
When I am seven, I take a tour of the Mystery Spot with my father, near Santa Cruz. We stand in the spot where gravity doesn’t exist. You can stand sideways for a moment, though you are perfectly vertical in your own reality. The tour ends in a bedroom with small square windows. Disproportionately tiny, like I draw with crayons, paper houses of my own design.
I touch the walls and feel the roughness of small, red, pearlescent scales. As soon as I do, they mutate in front of my eyes. They become the reddened ends of matchsticks. No gravity, no safety. I turn to announce this to my father. I see a spark ignite. Flames domino row after row of the matchstick wallpaper.
My father walks out the door, and closes it behind him. This door, too, has a small, impractical, square window. It is just big enough for me to watch him turn and watch me scream.
I scream myself awake. I run down two flights of stairs into my parents’ room, still screaming. My mother bolts upright.
“He died!” I say. “I couldn’t get to him! He just stood there and died! He left me there to watch!” I collapse.
My father is bleary-eyed, awake now. My mother instructs him to tell me that he is all right. She instructs him to tell me that it is all just a dream. I equate my pain of not being able to reach him with his being no longer alive. The confusion of responsibility: the child thinks it is the parent who is dying, and it is she who must save him.
Now, my father stands not far from that same bedroom in my Northern California childhood home—that same room from which he told me, once, that it was all just a dream. This time, adult me screams and then pleads with him: he should wake up. He should want to keep living. Olive skin still resplendent in his post-operative swell, he sets his jaw and gives me a different disoriented stare, drifting through another type of sleep. My father tells me that he is not okay; he has never ever been okay.
“I’ve always lived on a different dimensional plane of reality than you or anyone else does. And unless you live on that plane, you’ll never understand,” he says.
I inherited something besides those big brown cow eyes.
“Are you fucking kidding me?” I say. “We are here, on this physical plane, right this second.” His bulldog jowls twitch and big rubbery eyelids start to droop again. He fiddles with the edge of his terry cloth robe.
He looks me in the eye with his wandering one: “If you want to believe it or not, that’s on you.”
My palms are pressing into the sharp corners of kitchen countertop. “That girlfriend of yours, she’s not in another goddamned dimension,” I say and he stops fidgeting.
“I—there is none,” he says.
“Check the phone. You’re trying very hard to kill yourself. When Mom can just do it for you.”
My first word was “no.” As in, I don’t think so.
When my father tells me, “I won’t come out of surgery,” what he really means is “I don’t think so.” My father tells me that he knows what I’m up to, that our lawyer needing him to sign a power of attorney is me trying to trick him. “I know what you’re up to, you little bitch,” my father says.
In the weeks before he was hospitalized, I stand barefoot in the garage where my father used to chase me in during epic games of tag. He would be leaving to catch a flight, and we would struggle, cornering around cars and juking back and forth, fingertips outstretched, hands pushing away: no, I’m not it, you are. He would inevitably tag me last, running from the house and into the waiting car. He would call me later to say, “Hey guess what? You’re still it.”
Now I am chasing him around. “Dad, I am not trying to trick you. Do you think I’m ready to decide how to keep you alive?”
He shakes his head, agitated, pacing, tossing coats and bungee cords around. They’re for some journey, back to that dimension he’s really from. “No, you’re full of shit. You’re a liar,” he says.
“I am standing here. This is real,” I slap the cement with my bare foot.
He hates me. He’s another man entirely. “Fuck you,” he says. He marches out into the backyard, down the winding pebbled paths of my childhood. Something inside me cracks and begins to smolder in the dank and dark of my gullet. Our dog, Benny, intercepts Dad and trots at his heels. Benny glances back at me; he’s known something’s been wrong for months. He smelled it when it was the size of a walnut, white and brainy at the back of the mouth. The times Dad shoved him off the couch too hard. Nights turned to 4 a.m. mornings of Cognac, head bobbing to the side, sleep apnea killing brain cells. Benny knew before I did. And now, there’s the voice my father never uses with me.
“So you’re fucking ready to go blast off into the afterlife?” I scream across our backyard. The man who lives in the yellow house next door is throwing lemons from our wayward tree over our fence. They are landing around me like bombs, scaring the dog. I gather the fruit and hurl it as hard as I can back over the fence at the man. I hear explosion of internal segments, citrus on siding, scurrying.
“Dad, will you stop?”
“I’m done with you,” he says over his shoulder.
For decades, we live minutes from the Francis Ford Coppola Winery. We wander around the museum that makes up the majority of the attraction: Coppola’s movie trophies. The car from Tucker, Dracula’s robes, the desk from The Godfather. “That’s one hell of a desk,” my dad always says.
Now that he’s lost his taste buds but not his life, my father doesn’t want to eat. No Don Giovanni’s for beef carpaccio. No Bistro Jeanty for puff pastry tomato soup. No In-N-Out Burger for extra-crispy fries can lure him out of this post-radiation-induced hunger strike. He doesn’t even want to go to the places he once lugged me to for endless monotonous Saturdays. The winery that has the swing perched on the hill: where I pump my legs and lurch out over the cavern between the top and the bottom of the valley where the vines grow. The winery that has the dogs: Sequoias dwarfing red barns, black and white fluffy tails that lie in the sun with me. The winery that has the food: rectangular trays and my greasy fingers with foie gras, pickled remoulades, fried squids. He wants none of it. No, better yet, he wants to pretend it all never existed. If he can’t have the taste buds of 1995, he doesn’t want anything.
I’m losing my patience.
“What about gnocchi?” I ask. Silence. “Soup?” He won’t stop listening to Dave Mason and it’s killing me. He’s that same cocksucker who sings, “You are every woman in the world to me,” as if that’s a compliment.
My mom keeps pouring me glasses of wine filled to the brim, so heavy I can’t even lift the goddamn glass with one hand. “Jesus, mother,” I say. She shrugs, goes to the ice maker, and takes the vodka from the freezer. She knows how to get through this life with him. I’m not entirely ready to let this situation allow my duplicitous back-sliding into self-flagellation.
I return with groceries and mother is asleep on the couch with her mouth agape. My father is awake in the leather armchair with a snifter of cognac in between his forefinger and thumb. “Are you fucking kidding me?” I shout. No, he is not kidding me. “What?” he says. My mom startles herself awake with murmurs of what, what is it. “It’s totally fine. You have a gaping fucking wound in your mouth, that’s all. The nurse told you that alcohol wouldn’t help it heal. But I mean, it’s fine,”I shout.
Separate dimensions, right?
I take out a package of raw lamb meat. I put a pan on the stove and crank up the flame. I dump the meat onto the nonstick surface. I pull out a spatula. I use both hands to maneuver my jack and the beanstalk-sized wine glass, still full. My mom is now fully awake and comes into the kitchen. “Are you really going to do this?”
She shakes her head, and puts both hands in the pockets of her robe. “Just make sure you can sleep on this.” I stab the meat with the spatula, “I’m not sleeping anyways. And he’s going to have to get over it.” A smirk, and she can’t stop her laughter. She leaves the room.
My father won’t look at me. His head is facing the television and those goddamn fingers are still looped around that cognac glass, that smug son of a bitch. The aroma of roasted lamb fills the kitchen. I know it must be getting to him. He can’t have it because it’s too crumbly. It could get trapped in the freshly repaired pouch of flesh inside his mouth that he’s already popped two stitches on because he wants it to fail. He should have taken me up on the gnocchi, what can I say. He refuses to turn and look at me, and I keep staring intently at the back of his head, jabbing the meat occasionally.
If he doesn’t want to eat the goddamn gnocchi, I will. If he doesn’t want to live, I will. I pour in the red sauce, and mix it with the meat. It finally hits me, and I can’t keep it up. I go to the sliding glass door and open it, waving my hand back and forth as if that can undo the last eight months of our lives.
My mom comes back in and catches me. “Feeling guilty, are we?” She laughs, and starts to cry, beet juice vodka in the other hand. Sipping, she laughs again, cries some more, and slaps her knee. “It’s fucking hot in here,” I say. “Right, hot,” she says. All my hand waving doesn’t do anything because there is no wind. The stench sits heavy on my cheekbones, in each sip of his cognac, on the rim of her vodka.
“Fuck him,” I say.
“I know,” she says.
I am too young to be the parent. But the truth is, I’ve been the parent this entire time. I am that anchor, the thing holding them from being dragged downstream with the current. It’s fucking exhausting.
Two decades ago Saturdays began with the sounds of Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, and NPR blasting from the Quattro living room hi-fi set. Always the same smells: chicken apple, roasted onions, and peppers, stone ground mustard, and bread for breakfast. They woke me by turning my stomach over like an engine unwilling to start. It was better than my mother’s weekday hard-boiled eggs or frozen pancake Hungry Man breakfasts. “Come on, just eat something, one thing,” my dad would say. And I would tell him no.
It is only possible for me to access how I feel in a dream state.
It’s the place where my father spends most of his time, where I’ve locked away my feelings. You know where it is: that awkward, warm space in between drifting off into a deep sleep and full sentient being, where the mind is an engine idling but the body can no longer keep up. This is where the truth lies: in moments where my body is heavy and I know if I left this earth in five minutes, still I would have told too much of the disgusting truth. And there in resides the problem: if I’m scratching out spaces for the truth to live and dwell, then what has everyone else been doing? “The best we can,” comes the reply. I can’t acknowledge this half-sleep dimension without saying that my father was right. We do live in different dimensions. But let me clarify; it’s entirely by choice.
I’m stuck in the doorway to my past, trying to reclaim moments that take up so much space in my consciousness. Our bare feet slapping cold concrete, his large hands hoisting and heaving my body out and away, into the deep end of so much water. The grounding laugh that I thought was just for me.
My father says nothing of substance to me anymore. My criticisms are too much for him. And as my eyelids begin to droop I can see that he is there waiting. “Welcome,” he says.
A memory becomes a bubble, and leaks to the surface from my prefrontal cortex. I watch it rise, and burst. I try to collect it before it disappears. It absorbs back into my brain and forms a question: do I love my father for the right reasons?
When people talk about what they’ve seen before fainting, they say “all the color drained from the world” and “I saw a white light.” As in, all those white lights at the end of all those tunnels the rest of us never see but can’t stop hearing about.
Why is it then, as I faint outside my father’s hospital room, I have only distortion, a perspective gone fuzzy? I am waist deep in snow from the edge of my father’s hospital bed to the doorway.
But I don’t have time to go on some transcendental journey to the in between worlds. I have to stay here, sentient, to guide my father out of this alive. I would rather keep my eyes peeled open and slide down the wall, like some drunk at La Guardia, than lose control of this situation. Is it too much to ask: a girl to want her father to keep his feet firmly in the soil of the living?
Maybe I love him for the wrong reasons.
Out of the ICU and inside that house of my childhood, I stay awake listening. I listen for my mother’s voice to prod, “Mike let’s take your sleeping pills,” and for him to say “I don’t want to,” and for her to say, “It’s 11 p.m.” And for many more me-no-wannas before he takes the things and then refuses, like the child he is, to get in bed. He doesn’t want to go to bed; he just wants to watch one more episode okay? Still, he is asleep, two seconds later.
And then the process begins again, this time with my mother trying to get my father up off the couch and over the shiny white tiles and into bed without falling. We have nightmares of his face hitting the polished tile, red on white, precious new jawline detached and bloodied to the side.
Once this is completed, my mother finally sits on her end of the couch. “I just need a minute,” she says to the dog and me. She sips her vodka, her eyelids flutter, her chin lolling around her clavicle. I turn down the volume low enough, and leave her. I listen some more from the next room with the door open. Waiting, for someone to groan, one more disinter, paternal suicide vigilante.
You can love someone so deeply you lose sight of yourself.
My mother saw the warning signs; she worried that this might not be a safe investment. But then, she fell into the abyss. “We were in love, your father and I. We knew what we were doing,” she says of when I was conceived. My father’s time line is different, he was “dating several women” and she was “hard to pin down.” He called her to say, “Do you want to date me or should I stop calling?” She agreed to date him. And he still dated the others. He tore that Achilles tendon one last time, and the rest of the women stopped calling. Except my mother, the nurse. That’s when he knew, he said, because she’d stuck around. I call these two dimensions of the truth. It’s Kay Adams being granted the one time to ask Michael Corleone about his business, and him answering with a lie. The actual truth has to be somewhere in the middle. This is the dimension I come from.
Francis Ford Coppola’s Fresh Air interview begins with a clip from the start of The Godfather, where Salvatore Corsitto’s Bonasera is asking Brando’s Don Corleone for justice. It’s a scene I’ve watched over and over. Corleone says, “You don’t come here in friendship.” Bonasera says, “Please, I was afraid.” How the Don takes pleasure that now, after all this time, Bonasera wants in. He laughs at Bonasera’s frittering, as my father laughs at mine.
Francis Ford Coppola says that the original opening of The Godfather, focusing on the wedding of Connie Corleone, just didn’t sit right. “So, I had the idea to begin in this way, with this very, very close shot of the supplicant undertaker, Bonasera, and then slowly reveal out of the darkness…”
Supplicant. I am a child again, looking up a word. It reminds me of all the extended words my father and his friends say in their New England accents, expensive educations that show they are more than just first generation children of immigrants. “A supplicant can be a fervently religious person who prays to God for help with a problem, and it can also be someone who begs earnestly for something he or she wants.” And here I am, not religious, yet somehow both of these.
“I believe in America,” Bonasera’s voice is already pleading when he says it. Now, I relate to it. I believe in my father more than he believes in anything. The very root of my supplication: erstwhile pledges of loyalty followed by my honest betrayals for his own good. Once you see a man does not believe in himself, does not want to see anymore of himself in the mirror every day, it changes you. If you’re me, something inside begins to crumble, melt down, and fuel some larger fire. Francis Ford Coppola says of Michael Corleone’s transformation: “We like him a lot in the beginning of the film, and we are continually asking ourselves: who is he becoming, and how do we feel about it?”
I have to go back to my life in New York: those streets that Coppola and Brando traversed trying to capture that one percent of Italian American families. It’s already been a month of us living in and outside of memories. I wouldn’t care about my father living a day longer if he hadn’t spent those hours in the mall, shopping for my first homecoming dress, patiently asking, “So how do you feel in it?”
I am a small girl, trapped in this grown body. My father holds his hands out for me to swim to, standing with his back to the deep end of a memory. I keep reaching and pulling, gasping for air, up and down under the chop of his wake. He’s exhausting me and knows it, but he also knows I can take it. I can swim just a little further because I always have. He knows that the feeling I live for is that glancing touch of the tips of our fingers, the warm skin in the cold Pacific water. I tread water, and hold my face above the chop of my own struggle, blinking back chlorinated tears. I look into his large eyes that are my own. I plead with him, I beg him, I worship at his alter. Please, Dad, stop. His arms extended, palms upward and exalting, he walks backwards from me into that deeper dimension. “I know you can do it. Just a little further.”
Rumpus original art by Clare Nauman.