By Amy Yelin.
My father listened. That was his job. He was a psychiatrist, like Bob Newhart on TV, and as a child I thought this made him an important man. A celebrity even. Why else would he have his own parking spot? Two spots, actually, both with signs that read: Reserved for Gershon Yelin, MD. Violaters Towed at Their Own Expense.
Sometimes we’d visit his office after a shopping trip or picking up books at the library in Port Chester, New York. My mother would park in one of those special spots, right next to his car, and then I’d feel important, too, like a regular Amy Carter.
My father’s office was in a typical 1970’s brick office building, with a dark hallway that smelled like menthol. I noted the numbers as we walked down the hall until we reached the door labeled 2G. Then, despite my mother’s insistence to only ring it once, I’d push the buzzer repeatedly,
My father opened the door just a tiny bit, the chain still on. “Who is it?” He’d say, pretending to be suspicious.
“And me,” my mother said, playing along.
After I rang the buzzer a few more times, the door flew open and my father greeted us with a happy but subdued, “Well hellooooo’
No one was ever there when we visited. No patients in the giant waiting room. No receptionist at the reception desk. My father’s actual office, with nothing more than a desk light on, was a stark contrast to the fluorescently lit waiting room. The window blinds were always drawn almost to the bottom, resembling two sleepy eyelids, letting in only the tiniest slivers of light. Several pipes waited in an ashtray on his desk, and a standing globe, possibly the only fun thing in the room, beckoned me every time. I’d make myself at home in my father’s black leather chair, close my eyes and then spin that globe hard and see where my finger would land.
“Here’s where I’m going to move,” I’d announce upon opening my eyes. “New Zealand!”
“Bon voyage,” my father would say.
My father is 86 now. We talk on the phone at least once a week, but only see each other around Thanksgiving, when my dad and his second wife Terri fly up to New York from North Carolina for their annual medical appointments. We drive down from Boston and meet them at their favorite hotel, The Renaissance, not far from where I grew up. It’s a bizarre sort of family reunion, but it’s ours.
On the day after Thanksgiving last year, my husband takes our two boys to swim while I join my dad and Terri for lunch in the hotel restaurant.
When I arrive at the table, nobody’s talking. My dad wears a baseball cap, as usual, and he’s pulled the brim down so it’s almost covering his eyes.
It comes out overly cheery when I say, “Hey, have you guys ordered yet?”
My dad grumbles. He’s always been a moody guy, but with age, it’s gotten worse. He sighs loudly, and Terri and I look at each other.
“Where are the boys?” she asks me.
Before I can even answer, my dad picks up his spoon and slams it against his coffee cup three or four times.
“Can you please just try to be pleasant?” I snap. “We only have a short time together.”
He stares down at his plate and I feel badly. I don’t usually scold my father when he’s cranky, but this year is different. This year I am 45. This year I have just finished treatment for breast cancer. I don’t want us to waste precious time in negative places.
After an awkward silence, we appear to move on. Terri asks if I can drive my dad to the optometrist to get his eyeglasses tightened while she goes to visit her godson. I say sure, and wait for my father to complain. He doesn’t like it when Terri leaves him. But to my surprise, he agrees to go with me.
“We’re going an adventure,” I joke when we get in my car.
“I don’t need any more adventures,” he half-jokes in return. “I’ve had enough in my life.”
I notice the pipe in his pocket and gently remind him, “No smoking in the car.” He agrees, but I suspect he’s disappointed. Growing up, when he was the driver, he’d always crack his window and light his pipe. He’d take a dollop of Three Nuns tobacco from its tin can before driving and pack it in the pipe’s bowl and then, when he was ready, he’d light a match while steering with his elbows—a feat that always impressed me as a child in the backseat.
“So where exactly are we going?” I ask now.
“Dr. Copeland’s office,” he tells me and although the name sounds familiar, I can’t quite remember the man. “It’s at The Rye Ridge Shopping Center.”
The shopping center I remember well, however, as I spent most of my youth there, hanging out at the movie theater with my friends, or perusing Finch’s drugs for candy cigarettes or useless knick knacks my mother might buy me. The bakery was my favorite place to visit. All those the birthday cakes and the green and pink leaf cookies and those big black and white ones that my sister Jacqui loved and that wonderful bakery smell. They’d hand us our treats in a white cardboard box wrapped tight with a piece of red and white striped string. “Enjoy your day Mrs. Yelin,” someone always called out as we exited.
But that was a long time ago, when I was still a child. And my mother was still alive.
When I pull into the parking lot this time, both the movie theater and Finch’s drugs are gone. The cycle of shopping center life, I suppose.
The last time I’d been to Finches was also with my father during another one of his annual November visits, He needed to buy some shampoo and other items, and when it was time to pay, he was telling the young pharmacist who he was: “Dr. Yelin.” When he was met with a blank stare, he added, “I used to be a psychiatrist around here. I used to get prescriptions filled here all the time.” He pulled a professional ID card of some sort out of his wallet, something from the American Psychiatric Association and as the guy glanced at the card I noticed my father needed a haircut; I could see the thin grey strands of hair sticking out from beneath his baseball cap. In his face I could see that he wanted to be acknowledged; Remembered. He had been a respected doctor here once, not just an old man whose hair had grown too long.
But the young pharmacist only nodded politely and said, “Oh.”
We find Dr. Copeland’s office on the backside of the shopping center, a new section of shops and offices that didn’t exist when I was a child, and pull into a parking spot.
“Do you know if Dr. Copeland will be there today?” I ask my dad.
“Nah, he’s retired,” my father tells me, an admission I find interesting as I thought a big part of the reason we came here was for my father to actually see Dr. Copeland.
When we get out of the car my father asks for my arm, to help him walk. I give it. Were I to see him more, I imagine this would be the norm. But this is the first time he has ever asked for my help to walk, and it surprises me. This is the first time my father has leaned on me.
As we walk arm in arm toward the doctor’s office, I notice that he shuffles now; his feet moving more slowly, carefully.
“I don’t mean to be grouchy,” he says. “And it’s not that I’m mad at you. It’s just that I’m not feeling well. My body doesn’t work so well any more, not like it used to.”
“I understand,” I say, shocked at his very rare and unprovoked admission.
And I do understand. After the year I’ve had. After not feeling well. But my body bounced back. And his, most likely, will not.
When my husband’s grandmother turned 100 the previous summer and we went to her birthday party, I asked her, “How does it feel to be 100 years old?” She took my wrist with her bony hand and in the high pitched voiced she now possesses due to her aging voice box she said, “I feel the same inside as I did when I was a little girl.” I nod. I understand.
The eye doctor’s office is brightly lit and busy. No one can tend to my father immediately, so we talk to the receptionist, a friendly woman who I immediately categorize as middle aged. Then I remember that I, too, could now be considered middle aged.
“How is Dr. Copeland?” my father asks her. “Is he OK?”
“Oh yes,” the receptionist says. “He just retired a year ago. But he’s fine.”
I see the relief in my father’s face. So this is partly why we came here I surmise: My father feared something awful had happened to his peer. A heart attack. Or stroke. Or cancer. Had the man died? My father is terrified of death. I don’t need glasses to see that.
“Why don’t you sit at that open table until someone is available to help you Dr. Yelin,” the woman says.
She has called him “Dr. Yelin.” I like this woman.
My father sits in the chair and I begin to try on glasses frames. I pick the brightest and boldest ones I can find, something to offset my short, dark locks that are just growing back after treatment.
“What do you think of these,” I ask my father, modeling frame after frame. All of them are “good.” I look at one price tag: $400, and decide to stop.
A man wearing a suit walks by. Perhaps the new doctor? He says a quick hello to my father and my father takes that as an invitation to talk. He takes off his glasses and shows the man where they’re wiggly.
“It’s got a screw loose,” my father jokes.
He starts to tell this stranger a story about Jerusalem, when he was doing his medical residency there; he does this often now, finding anyone who will listen to him talk about his history. He does not pick up on the social cues of others, I decide. Or perhaps I’m just oversensitive to them. Or both.
I ’m certain everyone who works at the hotel has heard at least one of my father’s stories by now, whether they wanted to or not.
But this man in the suit is not available. He cuts my father off.
“I’m with another customer now,” he says. No smile. He walks away.
I immediately dislike him. But I understand. Some people have the time and patience to listen, others don’t. If the old man waiting for his glasses was a stranger and not my father, would I listen?
I already tune out sometimes during our phone conversations. I read Facebook posts as my dad tells the same story for the hundredth time. When I catch myself, I feel guilty. I know I should be fully listening and not reading the latest Upworthy shocker or a friend’s post about her latest published story. I feel awful when he finally addresses me directly and I have no idea what he’s been talking about.
Yet why is it so hard sometimes?
I was once better at listening. During my short stint in a Master’s in Counseling Psychology program, I received training in how to listen empathically. Make eye contact. Repeat back what someone has said: so what you’re saying is…” Nod. Smile.
Am I making up these details now? Who can remember. That was when I was in my late twenties. My second semester I did an internship at a college counseling center outside of Boston. I did my best to listen well as a kind freshman shared about his struggle to make new friends. Then there was the girl who was terribly homesick, who cried while I nodded and offered her tissues. It was hard—all of it—and sitting alone in my office one day, I had my first panic attack, a dizzying, out of body experience that would continue to haunt me unexpectedly for several months. The attacks eventually stopped—medication helped—but to this day I don’t understand exactly what triggered them. Was it the intimacy of this kind of listening? Of having to be “on” all the time? Whatever it was, I decided counseling was not for me.
The receptionist at the eyeglass store is a saint. I don’t know if she witnessed the way her colleague spoke to my dad, but she comes over and asks him for his glasses. “I can probably fix these for you,” she says. Moments later she returns and hands my father his glasses. He puts them on and announces, “All better. Thank you!” Then he launches into a story about his time in medical school in Vienna, and the teacher, a former Nazi, who made the students stand at attention when they spoke.
The receptionist listens intently as he talks. I want to hug her. The place is busy now so I know she has to stop, but she keeps smiling and nodding.
“I think we need to go now, dad,” I say. And he agrees. He gets up from his chair.
Just like that, he’s happy; His spirit renewed.
During my illness, Terri told me that my father spoke to a psychiatric nurse. I was shocked. He was a psychiatrist who didn’t go to psychiatrists, except as part of his required training. Even after my mother passed away in 2002 and he was alone. He’d never asked anyone for help.
When I asked him about the psychiatric nurse he said, “Well I didn’t want to bother you all the time with my worries.”
“I think it’s great that you had someone to talk to, to listen,” I said.
I sometimes wonder if my father was a good listener to his patients. As a child, I’d decided that they all adored him as much I did because they baked treats for him and gave him gifts: a poem. A knit scarf. A painting. For years, he collected food in a large brown cardboard box for his neediest patients to take. They always got our used furniture.
But maybe their adoration had nothing to do with this. Maybe it was about being heard.
And yet to do that every day: to listen to other people’s problems without thinking about your own. Or without jotting down a to-do list in your head or fantasizing about the person sitting across from you. That’s hard work. Imperfect work, I imagine. But worthy.
Before heading back to the hotel, I tell my father I’d like to get a few things from the CVS around the corner.
“You can wait in the car if you don’t want to go,” I say. But he wants to come with me. This time he doesn’t lean on my arm, but I slow down to walk at his speed.
In CVS, when we go to pay for my items, my father pulls out his wallet and says, “Let me be the father again, just for today” and I want to cry. I almost do.
He misses his youngest daughter, now a grown woman. And I miss the man whose feet I used to dance upon in our kitchen decades ago; the man who taught me to ride a bike by holding the back of it and patiently watching as I turned repeatedly into the same tree in the driveway over and over and over again. Until that one time, when I didn’t.
We walk out of the store and he takes my arm again.
“Did I ever tell you about the time my parents left the stove on in Warsaw—nearly killed me before the Nazi’s could?”
“No,” I lie. I listen.
Amy is a Boston-area writer with an MFA from Lesley University and essays published in The Gettysburg Review, New Plains Review, Literary Mama, Boston Globe and elsewhere. “Torn” (Baltimore Review) received a notable essay mention in the Best American Essays 2007. Work anthologized in Mamas and Papas: On the Sublime and Heartbreaking Art of Parenting and in Tarnished: True Tales of Innocence Lost. Recipient of awards from the Sustainable Arts Foundation, Norman Mailers Writers Colony and Prague Summer Writing program. Instructor at Grub Street and mentor for Lesley creative writing students. Managing Editor at Solstice: A Magazine of Diverse Voices. Thanks for your consideration! Website: www.yelinwords.com Twitter: @yelinwords.