Twenty years ago last month, I was in the daze of my first weeks without my mother. I had been attending San Francisco Lesbian Avenger meetings during the summer, and then dropped off during the weeks before and after her early September death.
Finally I called fellow Avenger Masha Gessen. I had to acknowledge what had become evident: that I wasn’t going to be able to come through with whatever commitment I had made at the last meeting I attended – back when I knew my mother was mysteriously ailing, but didn’t know it was a terminal metastasis of her breast cancer, in its final stages.
I told Masha what had just happened – that my mother had died a week or two back, and that all I could do was struggle each day to remember how to breathe and sip and swallow and walk. Masha said: “Come over. My mother died less than a year ago. Breast cancer. Come over right now.” I was staying at my parents’ place in the East Bay, and Masha was in San Francisco. It was late in the evening already, but something in her tone told me I needed to go. I was spinning in an abyss, and her voice was the first thing I had encountered that sounded like it might arrest the spinning, maybe even establish a marker by which I could begin to navigate deep space.
Dad died a week ago today, at 92. What follows is more hagiography than exposé; forgive me. Many factoids are wobbly around the edges. This is just my own vision. If you knew him, you may find much familiar, but I’m sure your mileage will vary. Also many of these are more anecdote than “thing.” As a result, this is the longest post I’ve ever published here, so it’s divided into five discrete pages. For the rest of the month, if and when I post, I may just publish Pops stories from the LD archives. Ninety-two years here, with a generous surplus in the “love” column: it’s the least I can do.
92. Dad was born in 1921 in Seattle, Washington to Jessie Harsha and Edwin Pagenhart. His mother hailed from the Ohio River Valley (her people were Scottish and English), his father from the South Dakota prairie (his people were German immigrants). They each skipped the small towns they grew up in for thrills far afield.
91. His family was in Seattle because his father was captain of the U.S.S. Lydonia, a survey vessel for the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, and he was charting the Alaskan coastline in the region of Ketchikan. Not long after he was born, Dad’s family relocated for a short while to Berkeley, about a dozen blocks north from where I live now. Thereafter they returned to Washington, D.C. and Chesapeake Bay, MD, places Dad would as likely consider home as any.90. Either the greatest number of years or the most memorable ones of his childhood were spent in Manila, where his father directed the mapping of the waterways around the Philippine Islands for the Coast Survey. Here is his earliest memory, as he jotted it down in one of a multitude of unfinished wisps of autobiography:
The only thing I can remember on my own during those Manila days before I was three: looking eye-to-eye into the face of a Filipino girl or boy from the back seat of our car as we passed the big open front window of her house (nipa), must have been stopped for a moment because we looked straight at each other. She was resting on her arms and we only stared in casual close glance about three or four feet from each other as the car moved onward. That’s all I recall of my first memory of the living world. But it took place just at the end of Dewey Boulevard [ed note: since renamed Roxas Blvd] as Manila turned into the Filipine suburb of Pasay and the road became dirt instead of pavement… auto traffic continuing south had to make its way along a winding street between houses of Filipine nipa and bamboo construction so it would explain a sudden slowdown in driving, allowing me, held in someone’s arms and looking out, to gaze into the calm face of a little girl returning the gaze.
His family returned to D.C. for a number of years, but were back to Manila again in the mid-1930s.
89. He has outlived his younger and his older sister, each of whom were very dear to him, in very different ways. Younger sister first: cancer. Older sister only just last year.
88. Every day when he returned home from his younger sister’s bedside during her short, intense cancer decline, he would walk in the door, put down his things, sit down at the piano, and play song after song, as if he were Scheherazade’s accompanist, each new tune somehow keeping his sister alive another day. He steadfastly held out for a miracle (literally: a “miracle”) up until the 11th hour. “Hope springs eternal” being his operable motto. Duly noting: this was the first family cancer death of three, each as close as possible to him.
Pops: son, brother, friend, student, naval officer, professor, uncle, husband, father, grandfather.
And now, blithe spirit.
The greatest thing you’ll ever learn
Is just to love and be loved in return
Honestly, here’s what I remember. I remember us driving along the freeway, heading into San Francisco, around about the point where Interstate 80, the Bayshore Freeway, branches off due west and into central San Francisco. I remember us thinking somehow that this sign was hilarious, and then actually stopping the car along the freeway (was there some lane blocked off for road work that made this less insane, and actually plausible? one can only hope), hopping out, the both of us, him going to pose next to the sign (oh, yes, that is a four-plus story drop behind him), and me pulling out my trusty Olympus OM-1 SLR film camera, and taking this picture. Circa sometime in the late 1970s, maybe 1980.
What, exactly, about the sign we found hilarious, I can’t remember now. The thought that: DUH! If you are reading this right now of course you are going the wrong way. Maybe the lack of the article “the,” due, one must imagine, to the exigencies of getting the urgent message across: STOP, FERCHRISSAKES! Maybe also just the stark Puritanism of the statement, generally speaking.
Heaven only knows.
But I know that I have kept this photograph through the decades, a badge of his willingness to pretty much go along with anything that smacked of adventure with his daughters. A sign of his inextinguishable sense of humor. A reminder to try very hard never to take anything, even what seems like the gravest calamity, without a hint of mirth.
A month’s daily output here has been dramatically interceded upon by a marked jolt to my Pops’ biographical timeline, in the form of another stroke. He has surprised us by being the proverbial Eveready bunny after past setbacks.
Not so, this time.
This afternoon, my daughter took his hand in hers (first holding it alongside my hand, and then taking it into both her own). For minutes upon minutes on end, she stroked the back of his hand, and then his forearm. Put her soft-soft nine-year-old girl cheek against his hand. All the while, smiling at him radiantly, deeply. As if she knew something he and I didn’t quite. We both looked on in wonder.
(By way of explanation to the children: “Think of DadDad as a magnificent castle, and room by room – sometimes a whole wing at a time –the lights are going out.”)
Tomorrow will be the twenty-year anniversary of my mother’s death. Breast cancer metastasis. Hers was the second in a three-part string of family cancer deaths, the oldest to go (my dad’s younger sister died not very many years before).
My dad had only just retired from his position as a Geography professor just a few years earlier, and had been teaching classes at the local community college, primarily for the enjoyment of it, and because he’d been asked. The two of them were going to write a textbook together, a long-discussed and long-delayed project. Hydrology of California? Something in the field of physical geography. He had met my mom when they were both graduate students in Geography, and hydrology was her area of concentration. She helped draw the maps for his doctoral dissertation, later helped him craft syllabi, grade papers, and, when he was away, guest-taught his classes. She was always a hit.
“Still here” meaning both the author of this blog (quieter of late), and my pops (even more quiet of late). The photo above was taken a year ago today. My pops has aged a lot over this past year, more so in the past six months. Still more so, it seems, in the past six weeks. During this, his 92nd year here, time is speeding up all around him, and taking its toll.
But today, I am grateful to be able to say, we can still thank him directly for his loving presence, his affection for people, his inherent generosity, his sincere desire to make those around him smile. So after breakfast and home-made kid gifts in bed, we’re off to see him, whether or not he sees much of us.
LesbianDad is a personal essay/photography blog. It began as a document of my parenthood but, like life, its ambit has stretched to include much more than I expected. My kids call me "Baba," and together we work toward a world in which amor really does vincit omnia.