It is Sunday June 17, 2001, Father’s Day, and I am standing with my father and a group of people on the pebbled beach of Skilak Lake, Alaska. The weather is cool with a silky breeze, sunny skies with only a few puffy white clouds transiting above us as if they were late for an appointment. The lake is a mirror, flat and unbroken with only a large inflatable motor boat maring its pristene surface. Just beyond where we are standing a brook bounces overs rocks on its way into the lake. Off in the distance I can see the terminal moraine of the Skilak glacier and beyond it the snow covered peaks of the Chugach Range.
A postcard perfect day…in a perfect postcard setting: The type of day that I had thought of when I had told my father that I wanted to go with him to Alaska nearly nine months before.
We were all listening to our guide. He looks to me the same way Grizzly Adams would have looked if he had been outfitted by the Cabela catalogue. He is bearded, broad, and has a gentle nature about him. And like many of the folks who work at this camp we are staying at this is not his full time work. He spends most of the year teaching biology to high school students in Washington State and he is addressing us as if we are his students and an exam is looming. In fact, what we are doing is preparing for a day long hike up the south side of the lake to the foot of the Harding Ice Shelf
The trail, he tells us, extends throught a national wilderness area. What this means is that the trail is cut once a year and that all the flora and fauna are protected. You are not allowed to pick things, collect samples or even move a tree limb if it falls across a trail. The fines, he states, for breaking the rules are extreme and strongly suggests that we do not break them. He pauses for emphasis and then begins to describe the trip.
“We will be traveling through three distinct climate zones…” His tone and cadence produced in me much the same reaction that my high school science teacher had generated when he lectured on thermodynamics. My mind drifted.
The summer of 2000 had been a busy one for me. I had new responsibilities at work which had kept my Executive Platinum Status at American Airlines safe for another year. I had an active social life and spent weekends on Cape Cod and the Hamptons. Combine the above, with the fact that while I lived in NYC, my parents lived 20 miles away in the Jersey suburbs. It meant that even though I talked to my parents nearly every day, I had not seen them in months.
It was with a great deal of anticipation that I pulled into my parent’s driveway early in August. I had missed them, and as for many people, the feeling of coming home to the house you grew up is a singular one. The diverse thoughts and emotions that define your everyday adult life seem to fade. Memories of childhood….street baseball, first kisses, and long summer nights….remind you of times when happiness and contentment were easier to define. Fears of an uncertain world are replaced with the certainty and absoluteness of a parents love. You suspend your need to be an adult and, at least for a short while, can enjoy the feeling of being a child a little longer.
And it was with the enthusiasm of a child that I bounded up the stairs to the deck in my parents backyard. The deck is directly adjacent to my parent’s kitchen and I had hoped to surprise them at the kitchen table. As luck would have it my father was on the back deck asleep. He was wearing his summer uniform of a dark blue LaCoste shirt, khaki camp shorts that are several inches short of being instyle and only inch or so shorter than being imodest, a slouch hat, and gold Ray Ban Aviators. My father, always the good host, would normally rise to greet any guests especially his children, even if he was asleep. Today was different. He did not bother to get up. Instead, he just pulled himself up on the handles of the chez and said hello.
The father I saw there was not the father I remembered from even just a few months previous. My father is a big man 6’ 2. He is a man who has a robust appetite that is only kept in check by the vanity of wanting to look his best. The father I remembered was strong, active and vibrant.
The man in the chez lounge was only a shell of that man. He was gaunt and thin having lost at least 25 lbs since I had seen him last. His face was pulled tight and he looked uncomfortable in his skin…as if he could never find a position that made his body feel comfortable. And he looked tired, as if were effort just to stay up for the few seconds it took to greet us.
I said: “Hey Pops.”
“Pablo…hey how are you.” He managed to blurt out with the froggy voice of just awakening.
We gave each other kisses and hugs and he didn’t feel as strong as I remember. Those broad shoulders seemed some how frail. And he smelled different…not badly…just different. And I can remember thinking “What the fuck is going on here.” Clearly my father was ill and just as clearly this had been going on for a while and yet no one had bothered to let me know….WTF.
My father could clearly tell what I was thinking. He, much to my chagrin, has been able to read my mind for as long as I could remember. So he said “What do you think of my new diet?”
I replied “You look great old man. What is your secret?”
He explained, in the clipped voice he used to lecture his students at Columbia, that for the past few months something odd had been happening to him that whenever he ate his body became very umcomfortable and when he explained this to his physician he prescribed an anti GERD medication and while it helped a bit, the symptoms had not gone away. He told me that the lack of eating had caused him to be tired all the time.
When I asked him what he was planning on doing about this he told me that I sounded just like my mother and that he was going to go to the Dr. in a few weeks so there was nothing to worry about now.
When I suggested that perhaps seeing a Dr. a little sooner would be a good idea. He just laughed and changed the subject. It was not that my father was not concerned about his health. He was. It was written all over his face. Instead, it was his way of taking the burden of worrying and concern away from me. It was his way of trying to protect me and yet at this moment my most precious wish was to protect him.
The guide was talking about bears and it was enough to snap me back to the present. Only the night before I was reading a book in which their was a description describing in great detail how a man in Homer Alaska had been attacked by a bear even after he put five .44 caliber slugs into him. It reminded me that humans are not neccessairly the top of the food chain here and that I should probably pay attention to this part of the lecture. Our guide was telling us that there was a small but real chance that would run into bears on our hike as the trail was like a bear superhighway through the woods and that if we did that he would do his best to shoo the bear away.
A woman, who appeared to be more Neiman Marcus than Orvis, raised her hands and asked “What if he doesn’t shoo away.”
“Then we will wait until he does.”
“But what if he becomes aggressive?”
“The chances of that are small but if he does make aggressive moves then I will try to draw him off while the rest of you would be well advised to find a tree nearby to climb it.” He paused a second for emphasis, he then added “Folks, there is really nothing to worry about it if we follow the basic rules. Stay on the trail. Place any trash you have in the ziplock bags we have given you as bear’s have an extremely acute sense of smell, and bears are very aggressive when it comes to food….any more questions before we get on the way?”
There were none so he yelled “We leave in five minutes. Don’t forget to Deet up!”
I turned to my Dad and said “Are you sure you don’t want me to stay here with you?”
“No” he grumphed “You should go…One of us should go it sounds like a great hike.”
I could not help but hear the deep dissapointment in his voice. My whole life with my father has been one of walks in the woods. In fact, my favorite picture of us, and one that I keep atop my bureau, is of my brother at about age 2 and me at about 1 at a pebbled stream near Troy New York. I am sitting on my father’s shoulders as my brothers wanders nearby. I love the photograph because it reminds me of all the walks in the woods I went on with my father. Whether it was just for a walk, or building minnow traps in streams, or looking for ferns he wanted to plant in our garden, it was time that he loved to spend with his children and that we love to spend with him. As I grew older, and probably read too much, I began to think of these woodland jaunts we would take as wonderful metaphors for fatherhood…how a parent is always trying to help child find the right path, give him survival skills to live in an untamed world…
Beyond the metaphor, these walks always described my father the best. He was active, curious, and engaged. When you were with my Dad, you never felt that any harm could come to you. The walks were also a great mystery to me. I always wondered, but never asked, how does a boy from the inner city of Vienna get to love the woods and the outdoors as much as he did?
Had it been any other time in my father’s life there would have been no question about him climbing to the top of this mountain with me. He would have done it with joy and likely beat me to the top of the mountain much to my chagrin. However it was equally without any doubt that he could not make the trip today. If I had any question about that it had been resolved the night before.
The camp we were staying in is best described as luxury rustic. It was run by a travel outfit called Alaksa Adventure Outfitters who made a living selling adventure travel to the Orvis adventurer. The folks like my father and me who want to see the wilderness but don’t neccessairly want to pitch a tent or build our own slit trenches. Our encampment consisted of a combination of cabins, small log rooms with small porches with rocking chairs, half tents: that is canvas tents that were built on concrete platforms with a partial wood wall; a concrete bath house and a lodge house where meetings and surprising good gourmet meals were served.
More surprising than the epicure being served was that the owners of the camp had built a wood fired sauna. Our guides had told us after dinner on the first night that they usually heated up the sauna after the evening meal and that it, combined with quick dips in the glacier fed lake were an excellent remedy for mosquito’s bites. My father and I both had fed these insects amply on our way down river and were more than willing to try any remedy that would relieve the discomfort and itching that the bites had caused us. So, shortly after dinner we changed into our bathing suits and headed down to the sauna.
Once in side the hot box we both found benches on which to lie. It was extremely warm and before too long I had worked up an excellent sweat. My original intent had been to tough it out with my father and see if I could stay in the sauna as long as he did but when I looked over at him he looked as if he could have spent the night there so I decided to take a dip in the lake to cool myself down. The water was as frigid as the sauna had been hot…it could not have been much above 40 degrees and the bottom was not sandy but lined with irregularly shaped rocks so wading in gracefully was not an option. Intsead I sort of hip hopped into the deeper water until I could dive into the water without scraping my chest.
I returned to the sauna shivering and anxious for its heat. My father on the other hand was on his way out the door. He asked how the water was I responded by saying that I had glasses of ice water that were warmer and then I warned him about the rocks at the bottom of the lake. Instead of sitting down after he left, I watched his progress into the water through a porthole in the sauna’s door. I wanted to see his reaction as his feet hit the water… What I saw through the glass was an older man, who seemed to have trouble with his feet shuffle into the water, loose his balance, fall and then struggle to get up.
And while I knew from personal experience that the footing was difficult I did not expect my strong father to falter and fall, nor to see him struggle to get up. Even though he had been through an awful lot over the past year, and demonstrated in no uncertain terms his fragility if not his mortality, his renewed health had somehow convinced me that my strong father of old had returned. His struggles in the water had demonstrated to me vividly that the man my father had once been was no longer. That he had been replaced by a different man. One that I needed to get to know.
What is more I knew I had changed too. Instead of rushing to my father’s aid, I just stood there and watched. Not because I did not want to help him, I did, but I also knew that by going to him and trying to help would have embarassed and humilated him. He still had the need to be the strong Dad that he had always been and I had no desire to rob him of that. It made me realize most of all that our relationship had changed. That now I would begin taking care of him just as he had taken care of me all my life.
So it was with that knowledge that I went into woods that Father’s Day. Just before I dissapeared into the trees, I turned and saw him stading there watching us. He waved and I sensed, more than saw, his sadness but as he had taught me to all of my life I put on a brave face, waved energetically and trekked into the Alaskan forest.
Two things hit you almost immediately upon entering those woods. One is that it is quite a bit warmer than open ground. So much so in fact that you are tempted to remove your jacket which may or may not be a mistake as the second thing you notice is mosquitos. No matter the amount of Deet you apply they swarm you the minute you hit the woods with a ferocity that is reminiscent of Pirahna. But they warn you not to apply Deet to your face as it may cause an allergic reaction so within seconds of entering the woods those vicious insects had turned my head into a pin cushion. Luckily, I had come prepared and reached into my bag and pulled out a mosquito head net that I secured with my baseball cap. Now while the world would look as if I was sitting behind the screen at Fenway, at least I would not need a transfusion at the end of the hike.
The canopy of the forest was beautiful. High above our head, its few open areas allowed streams of light to illuminate our surroundings as if we were walking through a Renisance painting depicting divine providence. The trail was clearly marked and our pace reasonable enough so that it was quite easy to keep up. This combined with the heat, and my pixalated view of my surroundings allowed me to slip back into my thoughts quite easily.
It is a miserably hot afternoon in August in a way that only New York City can produce them. That is, in addition to the hazy, hot and humid you might find anywhere there is an element of grit that burrows into your clothing and skin like a parasite. I am in the back of cab heading through the west village on my way to visit my parents and while the air conditioning in the cab is working none of it seems to making it through the pexiglass and metal partition that separates me from the driver. As a consequence, I am drenched as I emerge from the back of the cab and head into the building my parents maintain a pied e terre.
I had received a phone call from my sister about a half hour earlier letting me know that they she and my parents were heading here after my father’s afternoon of tests at Columbia Presbatirian Hospital. My father had finally seen a doctor the previous week and while preliminary tests had shown nothing his physician had palpited a large mass deep in his abdomen. He had ordered further tests. The studies that they had done today were supposed to give us some answers as to what might be happening to him. And while none of us said anything to each other about the possible diagnosis, the presence of the mass and the tests all drew us to one conclusion: my father had cancer.
Our unspoken fears and the tenision of not knowing what bomb would blow up next had turned us grim face and determined. It also provoked the desire in my mother, sister and me to do anything to help my father lick whatever it was he was suffering from in the way that suited our little family best : equal parts humor, nostalgia, and growling at each other.
The air conditioning was blessedly on when I entered the apartment. It was a studio that my sister had rented for years. When the simultaneous blessings of my sister getting married and moving to a new apartment had coincided with the building going condo my parents had bought the place so that my father would not have to commute home every night from Columbia and my mother could have a base of operations when she was doing work in New York City.
As I entered I could see that my Dad had parked himself on the day bed that doubled as a couch. He was sprawled across it diagnoly his head resting on cushions and pillows that my sister and mother had no doubt propped him up on.
I walked across the room and sat in a chair directly opposite him. As I sat down, my sister decided to crack wise on me, and said something to the effect that it looked like I had run through a sprinkler before I got here. Normally, I would have come up with some clever witty reparte such as “Well at least it doesn’t look like I just french kissed an electrical outlet” but today I was too focused on my father and his illness to bother. Instead, I looked at my Dad and asked him how his tests went.
He proceeded to give me a very scientific explanation of the tests he had undergone that afternoon. I understood. Long before this day I had come to the understanding that one of the reasons that my father had become a scientist was to help explain an irrational world in a logical way. Considering what he had been through in his life it is something that I could completely understand. However, there were times like these that I wished that he would forego the scientific and provide me with the emotional.
Perhaps it was his long unemotional, emotional response to my question. Or perhaps it was the worried looks and frenetic behavior of my mother and my sister. Maybe it was the oppressive heat and grit of New York in August or my own roller coaster of emotions that had begun three weeks earlier when I realized that my father was sick. Whatever it was , I suddenly was struck with the realization that my father may not survive this illness no one had yet defined. It was as if someone had stuck an icicle down my trachea. I was chilled to the core and choking on my own emotions. I had only one thought running through my consciousness: “ I am not ready to lose my father right now…I am just not ready.”
I could feel a sob ready to come gagging out of throat and tears welling up. I didn’t want to impose my emotions on anyone else in the room, least of all my father, so for reasons that are still not entirely clear to me, I got up and walked across the room , sat down by father’s feet and began to massage them. He looked down at me and we both exchanged a glance, and then quickly averted our eyes, both afraid of what might come up if we held the glance any longer. Instead, he just put his hand on my head and said “You’re a good son.” And since no one could see my face I cried.
As I rubbed his feet and tried to hide my tears, I also tried to hide my panic. It felt as if my father had given up…that this was one battle that he felt he could not win. That he was willing to slip silently into the good night. And it scared me but it also motivated me. I racked my brain about what I could say to him to help him get over this hump of not knowing what he was battling and the exhaustion that the disease had delivered to him.
I said him “Dad, you have to get better. Who else will get to Alaska with me.” While my father and I had talked of going to Alaska many times for all the reaons Harry Chapin had sung about we had never managed to plan the trip.
I said “When you get better, the minute you get back on your feet, we will go to Alaska. Planning the trip is something that you can do while you are recouping.” I looked up at him, and while he said nothing I saw him smile and I took it as a sign that he heard me and perhaps, just perhaps, it was the carrot that would help him keeping pushing on.
Emboldened by his response, I continued “Do you remember Dad all those walks in the woods you took with David and I? Do you remember how after a while he and I would get tired and start to whine about not be able to make it back. Do you remember what you used to say to us….”
I looked up at him and said “You used to tell us “Rothkopfs never give up.” So Dad, remember, Rothkopfs never give up…..
After several hours of hiking the trail emerges from the woods onto the tundra. Despite it being the middle of June there are still large deep patches of snow that we need to climb through. Some are quite deep and climbing through them is a four limb operation. Beyond the snow, on a small plateau, is a rock field no doubt left there by now retreated glaciers. They are our final destination on the uphill part of this hike and climbing towards them I become fascinated by the way walking on tundra feels which is similar to walking on partially dried sponges. There is a crunch followed by a light spring. I know it is something that would delight my father and I make a mental note to tell him all about it.
When we reach the rocks many of my fellow hikers cast off their day packs and use them as a pillow. They are exhausted from the two hour climb and need to catch their breath. I don’t feel that way because for the last two months I have been training to run a marathon. I break out my box lunch and greedily wolf down its contents of a sandwhich, apple, and super delicious chocolate chip cookie.
As I eat I stare out at my surroundings which are as beautiful as any place I have ever seen. Below me is Skilak Lake, the size of Manhattan, its waters grey blue color and opalascent from its glacier origins. To my left the Chugach range raw and jagged, its snow covered peaks scraping the sky like a primitive comb. To my right, is the densly forested coastal plain that leads to Anchorage and the ocean beyond. In front of me, on the cusp of the horizon, is a snow capped peak that I can not identify so I ask my guide. He stares for a while, checks his compass heading and says “It is Denali.”
“How far away is that?”
“Has to be over 200 miles as the crows flies.” And laughingly adds, “You can see a lot farther with out any pollution.”
Involuntary, his comments makes me inhale and the air smells sweet and clean like sheets do after washing and hanging on line to dry. At this point, the hike, the food, and my surroundings all conspire against me and suddenly I am very tired and decide I need a nap before we begin our descent. I pull a fleece out of my pack, put it on, tuck the pack under my neck, pull the baseball cap over my face and close my eyes. And just like that I am asleep.
I am on the Eastern Spur of the New Jersey Turnpike. It is early September, and very hot. The sun is pouring through the windows of my parents Jeep Grand Cherokee and is making the air conditioning work extra hard. Traffic has come to a stand still, a fuel truck has caught fire somewhere and the radio has told us that we are caught up in one of the largest traffic jams of the year. Next to me, on the passenger side, my father is sleeping fitfully…he keeps moving and adjusting himself so that he can find a comfortable position. My mother is in the back seat. She is silent and deep within her own thoughts as am I. It had been that sort of a day.
I had met my parents a few hours earlier at Columbia Presbtyrian. We were there to check my father in as his surgeon had scheduled a surgery for the next day. We had still not received a diagnosis but he wanted to perform exploratory surgery. When asked what the prognosis was the Dr. had coldly asked my father whether or not he had his affairs in order. Things looked very grim and all of us had mastered putting on a happy face while internally we fought back the twin demons of fear and despair.
We took my father to the registration desk. There, much to our surprise and somewhat to our chagrin, we were told that my father’s surgery had been cancelled for the next day and instead we needed to head up to his surgeon’s office. He needed to speak to us.
He kept us waiting in his office for a long time and none of us had very much to say to each other. None of us knew what was happening and while the surgery he was scheduled to have was scary…it included the likely removal of one of his kidney’s and massive blood loss…to me the fear of not doing anything and not knowing anything was far worse. So I busied myself by examing back issues of Time Magazine and silently fuming that the Dr. had the audacity to keep us waiting so long. Didn’t they know how sick my father was? Didn’t he know how difficult it was for us to sit and wait when all we really wanted was some forward movement….some action that would move us to the known from the unknown…some action that would allow us to move to healing from watching my Dad seemingly slip away.
When the nurse called my father and mother into the Drs exam room I was left by myself so I tried to busy myself with my new Blackberry but couldn’t concentrate on the emails that made up so much of my daily life. Somehow they seemed far less meanifull and consequential that they had just a few weeks earlier. I had already had flipped through all the magazines worth reading so I just sat there and did the only thing I could think to do. I prayed
A few minutes later, my parents emerged from the Dr’s office looking ashen face and shaken. When I asked my mother what was up, she explained that the surgeon had cancelled the surgery. They had discovered the cause of the mass in my father’s gut and that it was inoperable. That my father had lymphoma and that another physician needed to be contacted so that they could examine him and prescribe a course of treatment. Worse, the earliest appointment we could make with his oncologist was nearly two weeks away. We had left the hospital confused and upset. None of us knew what Lymphoma meant. We just knew that instead of moving forward we are again at a standstill and that it would be weeks before my father would get any help with his struggle.
Traffic had just begun to inch forward again when my father began to mutter in his sleep. I thought I had turned the radio’s volume up too loud so I turned down the sound only to hear my father say “I don’t want to die” as I leaned over the dial. I looked in the rear view mirror to see if my mother had heard him speak and it was clear from the stricken expression on her face that she had.
I squared myself so that I was staring directly ahead at the road. I didn’t know what to say or for that matter how to feel. Both my mother and I had heard the fear and despair in my father’s voice. This coming from a man who I had only heard cry once….at his mother funeral…this coming from the man who I never known to be fearful of anything…for christ sakes he had survived Krsytalnacht and the Nazi’s before immigrating to the States and then he had gone back and fought them as an artillery officer with the Blue Devils in northern Italy. My pops was scared and I had nothing to give to him. Nothing to say that would make him feel better. And it made me feel like a failure that this man who had given me everything he could and yet I did not have a clue on how to comfort him now that he needed me.
We drove in complete silence for a while neither my mother or me knowing what to say to each other. Instead my father’s words just hung over us like smoke at a bar. Eventually, traffic began to move again and before too long we were driving through Summit. While we were passing the Junior High School, I heard my mother begin to cry in the back seat. She blurted out “ Paul, I have never been alone. I went from my father’s house to your father’s house. I don’t know what I will do if he dies….I don’t know what I will do…”
I reached back and grabbed her hand and said “Mom, he’s not going to die….we won’t let that happen…..but no matter what happens I promise you I will never let you be alone. Not on my watch…you will always have a place with me. Always.”
When we arrived at my parent’s house, we had an hour or so before my mother needed to drive me to the train station for the ride back into the city. So we scraped together some soup and sandwiches and ate and made small talk until it was time to go. As I walking out the door, I went to my father who was sitting in his chair at the head of the kitchen table, and kissed him on top of his head and whispered into his ear “Dad, don’t forget. Rothkopf’s never give up.”
And he didn’t.
We had almost made it all the way down the mountain to the trail head when our guide called for us to stop. I was standing right behind him and I saw him looking all around as if he was trying to spot something. There was a look of deep concern on his face so I whispered “What is up.”
He pointed to the middle of the trail and replied “You see that” pointing to a large steaming brown mound in the middle of the trail, “That was not there we went up the trail this morning and it is bear scat and its very fresh. But don’t worry, he doesn’t seem to be around. I just wanted to make sure.”
I paused for a second and then asked “Do you think the Ranger’s will mind if I took a sample of it?”
He looked at me with a puzzled expression on his face and said “Sure…..but why.”
I replied “Well it is Father’s Day and I haven’t gotten my father a father’s day present….”
He laughed and said go for it. So I went over to the pile and using some card board from our box lunch as a tool and a zip lock bag as a receptical, proceeded to collect a large sample of bear scat.
When we got back to the camp, I found my father sitting on an Adirondack chair on a bit of lawn overlooking the lake reading. He looked up as I approached and asked how the trip was. I replied “It was great. You would have loved it but more importantly I answered a question that has plagued mankind for generations.”
“Really” he said with surprise “What is that?”
So, I reached into my backpack and pulled out my carefully collected sample of bear poo and handed it to him. He looked at, held the baggie up to the sunlight, smiled with the recognition of what it was, and began to laugh and said. “So bears really do shit in the woods.”
That sample of bear scat, now esconced in a glass jar, sat on my fathers desk until his death 11 years later. Now it sits on mine. A permanent reminder of my much missed Dad and the best Father’s Day present I ever gave him.