Long read but worth it by Steve Martin:
The Death of My Father
By Steve Martin
In his death, my father, Glenn Vernon Martin, did something he could not do in life. He brought our family together.
After he died, at the age of eighty- three, many of his friends told me how much they loved him--how generous he was, how outgoing, how funny, how caring. I was surprised at these descriptions. I remember him as angry. There was little said to me, that I recall, that was not criticism. During my teen-age years, we hardly spoke except in one-way arguments--from him to me. I am sure that the number of words that passed between us could be counted. At some point in my preteens, I decided to officially "hate" him. When he came into a room, I would wait five minutes, then leave.
But now, when I think of him, five years after his death, I recall events that seem to contradict my memory of him. When I was sixteen, he handed down to me the family's 1957 Chevy. Neither one of us knew at the time that it was the coolest car anyone my age could have. When I was seven or eight, I discovered on Christmas morning a brand-new three-speed bike illuminated by the red, green, and blue of the tree lights in the predawn blackness of Christmas Day. When I was in the third grade, he proudly accompanied me to the school tumbling contest, where I won first prize. One day, while I was in the single digits, he suggested we play catch in the front yard. The offer to spend time together was so anomalous that I didn't quite understand what I was supposed to do.
When I graduated from high school, my father offered to buy me a tuxedo. I refused; he had raised me to reject all aid and assistance, and he detested extravagance. Because my father always shunned gifts, I felt that, in my refusal, I was somehow, in a convoluted, perverse way, being a good son. I wish now that I had let him buy me a tuxedo.
My father sold real estate, but he wanted to be in show business. I must have been five years old when I saw him in a bit part at the Call Board Theatre, on Melrose Place in Hollywood. He came on in the second act and served a drink. Somewhere in our memorabilia is a publicity photo of him staged with the entire family: he is a criminal being taken away by the police, and his five-year-old son, me, surrounded by my mother and sister, is tugging at his shirtsleeve, pleading with him to stay. There was no way to explain to a five-year-old that this was not actually happening. During the war, he was in a U.S.O. performance of "Our Town" in England with Raymond Massey. Later, when I was probably nineteen, he wrote Raymond Massey a letter, reminding Mr. Massey who he was and promoting his son who wanted to be in show business. He never heard back.
Generally, however, my father was critical of my show-business accomplishments. Even after I won an Emmy at twenty-three as a writer for "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour," he advised me to finish college so that I'd have something to fall back on. Years later, my friends and I took him to the premiere of my first movie, "The Jerk," and afterward we went to dinner. For a long time, he said nothing. My friends noted his silence and were horrified. Finally, one friend said, "What did you think of Steve in the movie?" And my father said, "Well, he's no Charlie Chaplin."
My father did not believe that he was hurting me. He was just being honest. After my first appearance on "Saturday Night Live," in 1976, he wrote a bad review of me in the newsletter of the Newport Board of Realtors, of which he was the president. Later, he related this news to me slightly shamefacedly, and said that after it appeared his best friend came into his office holding the paper, placed it on his desk, and shook his head sternly, indicating a wordless "No." My father did not understand what I was doing in my work and was slightly embarrassed by it. Perhaps he believed that his friends would be embarrassed by it, too, and the review was his way of refusing to sanction this new comedy.
In the early eighties, a close friend of mine, whose own father was killed crossing a street, and whose mother committed suicide on Mother's Day, told me that if I had anything to work out with my parents I should do it now, because one day they wouldn't be there anymore. I had no idea that there was anything to work out. But after the remark had stewed in my brain for years, I decided to try to get to know my parents. I took them to lunch every Sunday that I could, and goaded them into talking. My father was cantankerous, and usually, when my mother said anything, he would contradict her; then she would contradict him; and soon the conversation would disintegrate into silence, with my mother afraid to speak and my father angry. This went on for years, until finally I struck upon the idea of taking them out separately. This resulted in the telling of wonderful histories, of interest only to me and my sister Melinda. My mother's recollections could finally be aired without fear of an explosion from my father, and my father could remain calm in the telling of his stories without the presence of my mother, who seemed mostly to annoy him.
Around this time, my sister told me she wanted to make a determined effort to "get to know my brother." I accepted this casually, but found, as we began swapping stories, that we were united by our view of a peculiar family portrait. Until then, we had seldom seen each other. My sister was four years older, which meant that we had always been in separate schools when we were children and never saw each other during the day. In the early eighties, my father began having heart attacks (three) and strokes (many), and my sister and I began to see more and more of each other. It took me thirty-five years to understand that all siblings separated by four years are not necessarily uncommunicative.
My father then had a quadruple-bypass operation. I remember the two of us together, during one of my Sunday lunches at a restaurant, as he held the menu in one hand and his newly prescribed list of dietary restrictions in the other. He glanced back and forth between the standard restaurant fare on his left and the healthy suggestions on his right, looked up at the waiter, and said resignedly, "Oh, I'll just have the fettuccine Alfredo."
It was our routine that after our lunches my mother and father, now in their eighties, would walk me to the car. I would kiss my mother on the cheek, and my father and I would wave or awkwardly say goodbye. But one time we hugged each other and he whispered, "I love you," with a voice that was barely audible. This was the first time these words were ever spoken between us. I returned the phrase with the same awkward, broken delivery. Several days later, I wrote him a letter that began, "I heard what you said . . ."
But as my father ailed he grew even more irritable. He made unreasonable demands, such as waking his twenty-four-hour nurse at three in the morning and insisting that she take him for a drive. He also became heartrendingly emotional. He might be in the middle of a story and begin to laugh, which then provoked sudden tears, and he would be unable to continue. These poignant moments became more frequent. Sometimes his eyes filled for no reason at all, and he would look down to hide his face.
We convinced him that he should visit a shrink, even though therapy did not fit his definition of manhood--fashioned in Texas, during the Depression. The therapist was a callow young man, a recent graduate. My father and I went together on one visit and talked out a few things in an emotionally charged hour, and I still regret how much we said in front of this stranger. My mother, also Texas born, and raised by a strict Baptist mother--no dancing, no card playing--was enlisted to visit the shrink, too, in the hope of shedding some light on their relationship. I waited outside, and when she came out I said, "How was it?" She said, "Well, I didn't say anything bad."
In my youth, my father stubbornly resisted and criticized anything new, from rock and roll to flower power (how right he was!), but as he aged I sensed in him a willingness to try new things, even though he indignantly rejected egg-white omelettes and green salads to the very end. Once, a male nurse produced a bag of pot, and I, having heard of its analgesic qualities for cancer patients, suggested that my father try some--which he did, willingly. He took several hits. Eventually, his eyes glazed over and his leg stopped shaking. He looked around the room with dilated pupils and said, "I don't feel anything."
There must be an instinct about when the end is near, and one day in May, 1997, we all found ourselves gathered at my parents' home, in Orange County, California. I walked into the house they had lived in for thirty-five years, and my weeping sister said, "He's saying goodbye to everyone." A hospice nurse said to me, "This is when it all happens." I didn't know what she meant, but I soon would.
I walked into the bedroom where he lay, his mind alert but his body failing. He said, almost buoyantly, "I'm ready now." I understood that his intensifying rage of the last few years had been against death, and now his resistance was abating. I stood at the end of the bed, and we looked into each other's eyes for a long, unbroken time. At last he said, "You did everything I wanted to do."
I said, "I did it because of you." It was the truth. Looking back, I'm sure that we both had different interpretations of what I meant.
I sat on the edge of the bed. Another silence fell over us. Then he said, "I wish I could cry, I wish I could cry."
At first, I took this as a comment on his plight but am forever thankful that I pushed on. "What do you want to cry about?" I finally said.
"For all the love I received and couldn't return."
He had kept this secret, his desire to love his family, from me and from my mother his whole life. It was as though an early misstep had kept us forever out of stride. Now, two days from his death, our pace was aligning, and we were able to speak.
I sometimes think of our relationship graphically, as a bell curve. In my infancy, we were perfectly close. Then the gap widened to accommodate our differences and indifference. In the final days of his life, we again became perfectly close.
My father's death has a thousand endings. I continue to absorb its messages and meanings. He stripped death of its spooky morbidity and made it tangible and passionate. He prepared me in some way for my own death. He showed me the responsibility of the living to the dying. But the most enduring thought was expressed by my sister. Afterward, she told me she had learned something from all this. I asked her what it was. She said, "Nobody should have to die alone."
* From The New Yorker, June 17, 2002
Last edited: 10-Apr-08 12:01 AM