I returned to Plainview, Long Island, my hometown, for the funeral of my friend’s mother. I used to go to my old house often, to visit my mother, before she moved to a retirement community with a clubhouse and a social schedule. It was my childhood home, the only one I lived in growing up, but it was a relief when my mother sold ten years after my father was gone; the house, with his chair sitting empty, the cigar smell still in the air, just made me sad.
When I left the service for Jill’s mother at Gutterman’s, I drove to my old block. I turned off Washington Avenue, onto Millford Drive and saw the regal old oak trees. People always commented about the trees, unusual compared to the other neighborhoods where the builders took them all down. I parked across the street from my house, and just near the corner where I’d meet my best friend Steven more times than I could count. We often met right after dinner, the light posts just turning on as the sun went down.
As I turned the car off, I noticed that my ranch style house wasn’t the same. The white painted cedar shingles were changed to beige siding, and the boxwoods and yews replaced with plants pruned into spirals. The large pine tree that I sat under as my father planted bulbs in the fall, was gone. My son Sam and I spent many afternoons with my Dad in the yard; a picture he took of us cradling a bunch of live forevers rests in a bookshelf in my own living room. When Sam couldn’t see a stone frog in the garden from my parent’s bedroom window, my father got up, said “watch this” and spray painted it neon green to make it easier to spot. That frog now sits in my backyard.
I thought about the kitchen, how my mother, brother and I listened nightly to my father talk about his business, the orders he might not fill or other worries he had about his small electrical engineering company, which was right down our basement stairs. Employees and clients entered through the garage and heavy basement door, maneuvering alongside the car, bicycles and the garden hose rolled up on the wall. “You guys better be quiet tomorrow. I’ve got reps from Westinghouse coming “ my father said one night. The next afternoon, my brother and I ran through the house, ignoring his warning and then heard my father’s footsteps coming up the stairs. We got to the big hall bathroom, the one with the lock, as quickly as we could, and slammed the door shut. We were afraid we’d get in trouble, but we still laughed as hard as I could remember.
The bedrooms were down a hallway, my parents’ with a master bath. It had a pale yellow sink and square white tiles with flowers lining the shower, some faded by water and soap hitting them day after day. When my father was sick, Sam and I used to go see him often, leaving the City right after Sam finished nursery school. During one of those visits, the toilet in that bathroom kept running. It started to overflow but my father was too weak to do anything about it, unable to move from his bed. I wanted to make the problem disappear, to curtail the water damage, but mostly, to erase anything that reminded him of what he could no longer do. He watched as I ran to get towels and a bucket, and I told him “I got it Dad” even though the water was already creeping into the bedroom carpet.
He tried to get up, to swing his long thin legs over from the bed to the floor, but his pain stopped him midway. He was exasperated, not with me, but with his own inability to do what he had always taken for granted. My stomach sank as I thought about not being able to help him in even that one tiny moment.
When he was diagnosed with a cancer that took him from us in just over a year, none of us acknowledged that he was dying. The doctors told us he was acutely ill, but it was as if we put our hands over our ears and refused to listen. “You’re doing great” I said any time he ate a quarter of a bagel, walked from his bedroom to the kitchen, or had a short outing. I was a cheerleader for a game where the outcome was already decided. There were so many nights I kissed him goodbye on his forehead before I returned home to Manhattan, so many times I could have asked him how he felt or what he was thinking, as he lay in his bed.
I was with my mother in that bedroom, when the phone rang in the middle of the night. The room was dark, the only light, a green tint from the clock radio, allowing me to find the phone.
We had left my father a few hours earlier after spending a long day in the hospital. We were exhausted, and the doctor assured us he was stable. “Hello?” I said, startled by the phone. My mother sat up next to me. “With whom am I speaking?” “This is Robin Bidner, Harvey’s daughter.” “Harvey Bidner expired at 4 am “ someone said.
I couldn’t remember telling my mother, or changing from pajamas to clothes, but I recalled dialing my brother, then my husband, from the yellow wall phone with the long coiled cord in the kitchen, telling them that he was gone. My mother wailed “my husband, my husband” as we drove back to Central General, the same hospital I had been born in, the one we had left only hours before when we thought my father was holding his own and would return home in just a few days.
I took a few breaths and looked around the block, and then remembered that I needed to get home and walk our dog. I sat there a little while longer, then started the car and headed home.
Robin Bidner writes personal essays about family relationships, good, bad and in between. She is an attorney who worked in social services, with a focus on child welfare and homelessness.Robin"s work has been published in Kveller https://www.kveller.com/how-the-margin-notes-in-my-family-haggadahs-tell-our-story/ and she has appeared in Writes and Bites in Rye. She lives with her husband Andy and their dog Dusty in New York. Robin and Andy have two adult children.