I could practically hear her shudder on the other end. “I don’t know what he said to you,” she said, “but it must have been awful.”
I proved my own estimable capacity for awfulness over the course of the next month, refusing to acknowledge any effort my father made to apologize or explain his behavior—the calls to every phone number of mine that he knew; the frantic, incoherent e-mails that read like ransom notes, littered with jagged, staccato punctuation and randomly capitalized words. Just once, I accidentally answered one of his calls and he broke down in tears. “David,” he asked, “are you going to stop loving me?” I hung up on him.
Before the situation could get any bleaker, my mother suggested my father and I go into therapy, together. At first I thought she was joking: Having spent a sizable portion of her own life shuttling my father to hospitals, private shrinks, and group sessions, because he was too synthetically oblivious to realize for himself how his addiction was harming his family, was she now suggesting that I commit myself to the same hopeless path? Or perhaps she was paying me a subtle insult: All those self-destructive personality flaws that my family knew me best for—my short temper, my narcissism, those moments when I’m so overwhelmed with anxiety that I want to leap off a fire escape—were not just the results of my father’s drug habit, but potentially devastating problems in their own right that needed to be treated alongside it.
Then I realized that she was putting an incredible opportunity in front of me. It was a chance to take charge of my life, and to finally do something—anything—to help a man who’d repeatedly proved that he could not help himself. And if that barely articulated accolade my wasted father had bestowed on me in the back of that cab were to have any meaning at all—and if I was really worthy of being called a good son—I’d at least have to allow him the same shot at redemption.
A few days later, he and I were civilly shaking hands in the midtown high-rise office of a $600-an-hour psychiatrist whom my father had consulted years earlier, in a failed attempted to kick his habit. Within minutes, we were back at each other’s throats: I accused my father of being high, even at that very moment, and he demanded to take a drug test immediately—he’d piss in his own hands if he had to—to prove his innocence. The $600-an-hour shrink just sat there. My father and I left the session feeling worse than ever; I went back to my apartment to contemplate changing my name and getting an unlisted phone number, and he totaled his car on his long drive back to the Catskills.
Still, we decided to try again—with a different therapist. On a Saturday morning a few weeks later, my father and I convened in the Upper East Side townhouse of an institute that specializes in family conflict. With the help of a postgrad student, a woman too small and soft-spoken to hold any authority over me, let alone my father, we were made to sit down on a couch next to each other and actually hear what the other person was saying. I explained to my father that all along, I’d been paying attention to the things he told me when he got high—the sexual hang-ups he could never really protect me from, the age-old family squabbles I might not want to know about—but that he didn’t need to be high to talk to me about them, and, by the way, I was still deathly afraid that he was going to suffer a final, fatal overdose. My father told me that I was the one person in his life whose trust he couldn’t afford to lose.
For nearly a year, we continued this routine of meeting every Saturday morning to engage in an hour of what the psychiatric industry calls “active listening” and then eat lunch at Odessa. We had a few breakthroughs, suffered a couple of setbacks, and learned that despite the divergent paths our lives had taken, my father and I had ended up as strikingly similar men. Behind the resentment (mine) and the illicit substances (his), we were just two people desperate to connect with each other, who didn’t need drugs or even therapy to find excuses to be together. That spring, my father and I installed a ceiling fan in my apartment, and in the summer, we made our first pilgrimage to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Then our sessions took a turn for the worse. With the issue of drugs reduced to background noise, my father and I could only seem to pick at each other’s old scabs until they drew fresh blood; every argument, over my father’s tendency to dominate conversations or the way I used to reprogram the stations on his car radio when I was a kid, became an outrage, and everything outraged us to the fullest possible degree. I’d leave some meetings in tears, and storm out of others after just five or ten minutes. Without ever really discussing it between us, we stopped attending the therapy all together. We weren’t cured, but we were done.