Sunday, September 29, 2013

Letters to Dad by Michael Golding

My parents live in New York, and to this day they are still convinced that I moved three thousand miles just to get away from them.  Granted, I spent the first eighteen years of my life yearning for the day that I could move out of their house, but I always make sure that I call them at least once a week, twice, if I need money.  Despite my age, I am still the baby of the family and treated accordingly.  Normally, that doesn’t bother me, unless there is a family crisis where it takes a combination of information from my brothers, uncles, aunts and cousins to get the “real picture.”

A recent sonogram detected tumors in my father’s bladder, and a procedure was quickly scheduled.  Frustrated that I couldn’t make the trip back east for emotional support, I spent an uneasy three weeks downing enough coffee to wake the dead and reading volumes of information on bladder cancer.  According to my father, the procedure involves “an instrument going up the ying-yang for a reconnaissance mission.”  Translation:  A cystoscope is inserted into the bladder through the urethra to cut out the tumors and burn away the remaining cancer cells.  Regardless of where you get the information from, if you’re a man, your legs reflexively cross.

One day while grinding coffee beans (or was that my teeth?) the realization came to me that my father, a captain in the fire department for 28 years, is an integral part of my creative output.  I once wrote a TV pilot on the adjustment his house had to make when women were allowed on the force.  My father was an investor in my first off-Broadway play. A border-line homophobe, he was the inspiration for a screenplay based on his reaction when his gay older brother broke up with his long-term companion.

Financed by my father.

Staged reading of my screenplay, based on my father.

Unfortunately, inspiration sometimes comes with a heavy price, and throughout the years my father has casually undermined the majority of progress I’ve made in therapy.  He is fascinated by my occupation, and once queried “What will you do when you eventually run out of ideas?”  If any one else in the world posed that question to me, I would have responded with something lofty like “How can anyone run out of ideas in this ever-changing evolving world where every day is a new adventure?  I embrace life.  I am like a sponge.”

But, since this question came from my father I fixated on “eventually” (his tone suggested he was confident that the day would come).  Instead, I spent many sleepless nights wondering “What if he’s right? Did I peak when I was 22? Could this be why I haven’t come up with anything fresh recently?”  I turn to my wife for reassurance, but she’s gotten so good at feigning REM sleep it’s difficult to tell if she’s asleep or not. Pinching her nostrils shut doesn’t work anymore.

As a rule, I shield my father from most of my work. A stickler for proper grammar, he’s been known to rewrite my dialogue in the margins (“Dad, it’s a story about inner-city teenage drug addicts. They don’t speak the king’s English.”) and replace obscenities (“Michael, four letter words are the result of a poor imagination.”).  He assumes that any inappropriate behavior stems directly from my own life-experience.  Then, I get a reprimanding phone call from my mother: “What’s this I hear about you killing a childhood friend and covering it up to look like an accident?”

Lately, my self-discipline has waned.  Admittedly, part of it stems from being concerned over my father’s health, which makes it hard to crank out comedy.  The Golding family is not a demonstrative lot (a caustic comment goes a lot further than a compliment in my family) and I’ve been tormenting myself after each phone conversation for not saying “I love you” to him.

My mother and brothers do not get my humor, probably because it’s usually at their expense, but my father does.  So, after an extended period of procrastination, I started writing again – in a series of long letters to him.  Each epistle filled my day with creativity.  When I wasn’t working on the computer, I was formulating the letters in my head.  In restaurants, I jotted ideas down on napkins.  Hey, Dad – I’m a writer again!

The first letter came with information about his condition from the National Cancer Institute.  It opened with: “Dad, after reading through this information thoroughly three times, I am convinced that your condition is not heredity.”  The letter ended with a suggestion that he bring several cartons of cigarettes with him to the hospital for bribing nurses, orderlies and fellow patients.

The day before he was admitted to the hospital, I opened up my heart in a letter that expressed my profound remorse at not being able to be at his side when he regained consciousness after the procedure (and to remind him how he reneged on letting me borrow his car on the night of my high school prom.  No, no – I’m not bitter.  We made a very fetching couple in the back of the bus.)  As a special bonus, I wrote a monologue for him – to be performed if a sudden six-figure sale puts me on the red-eye to New York.

            FATHER:  Michael?  Is that you, my son?  Come closer.  It is you. I knew
            you would come.  Your loyalty is most gratifying.  You’ve always been my
            favorite son.  I’ll tell you a secret. I’ve lived vicariously through you your
            entire adult life. (beat)  It’s getting dark in here. Did you lower the lights?
            (beat)  I can’t feel my legs.  I’m not ready.  I have so much more to accomplish!
            (Realizing it’s time for Jeopardy, Michael turns on the TV and raises the
            volume to drown out his father’s cries.)

Fortunately, the procedure was successful, and the biopsy revealed the tumors to be benign.  On the phone with my father the next day, I was horrified to learn that he brought my letters to the hospital with him; they lifted his spirits and gave him a kick.  Surprisingly, the relatives and friends who came to visit did not feel the same way.  One aunt couldn’t finish the letter that began “Dad, it might be a good idea to send me a Christmas gift early this year.”

I’d been in a funk lately because I had no passion for what I was writing. Two weeks of writing a letter every day to my father has re-energized me more than therapy, a writer’s retreat or even a startling epiphany could accomplish.

On the downside, I suppose my mother will be calling me any day now with some choice words about my recent missives.  She shouldn’t be so cocky. I wonder how her health is holding up?

My father, Captain Gerard Golding NYFD.  Born August 30, 1924. Died October 7, 2013.

Originally published in Written By (the magazine of the Writers Guild of America, West) August 1999 Vol. 3 Issue 7 

Michael Golding is a writer, director and improv teacher.  He can be contacted for workshops, festivals and private consultations at Michael participated in the evolution of the Improv Olympics & Canadian Improv Games.  Artistic director of the Comic Strip Improv Group in N.Y. & created the Insight Theatre Company for Planned Parenthood, Ottawa.  He is a faculty member at El Camino College in Los Angeles, working with at-risk teens and traditional students. Michael holds a BFA degree in Drama from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts & an MA degree in Educational Theatre from NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education & Human Development.


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