Bonus Episode: A PREFACE TO REVELATION
Audio & Transcript
Jessica H: I'm Jessica Harper, and this is WINNETKA.
There was the night before Thanksgiving, 2013. I was visiting my parents in Connecticut before heading down to Baltimore to join my family and the in-laws. Mom and dad were at the Essex Meadows, which was a senior community where they'd been living for five or six years. The Meadows had a strictly colonial vibe, very Winnetka actually. All antiques and floral wallpaper. But in the privacy of their apartment, my parents had as usual, surrounded themselves with Danish modern furniture, the color scheme being orange and olive. And while they were supposed to be long retired, there was ample evidence that my parents had been plenty busy.
Dad's landscape paintings decked the walls, and the yellow binders of mom's self-published memoirs popped on the bookshelves. Also on those bookshelves, there were playbills dating back to the '30s, CDs ranging from Bob Marley to La traviata, some antique kachina dolls they had picked up in Santa Fe, a clock from the Hermes store in Paris. And the photo albums and journals that tracked the best years of their lives.
We started the evening as Harpers always do, with cocktail hour. Dad sipped his wine cautiously. This was because he had a wicked cough. So deep and wicked, it was like the cough of Satan himself. But dad was determined to carry on. So, we discussed Matisse, the fact that three of their friends had died that week, discrimination against women in the workplace, Annie Baker's new off-Broadway play, and our favorite cookie recipes.
My parents were way ahead of me on most of these subjects, except maybe the cookie thing. But while their mighty brains had not yet failed them, other body parts were less sturdy. Dad's cough kicked up again and it just wouldn't stop.
I rode shotgun in the ambulance that rocketed us to Middlesex Hospital. I was honored to be his escort. But as we rode, I thought that honor would have been better bestowed on my sister Lindsay. Dad was so comfortable with her. Or with Sam, with whom he communicated so well. My father and I had had a difficult history before I moved to California in the '80s. Now on a good day, our relations were sort of like the state that I now hailed from. Warm, but distant.
When dad was settled in his hospital room, he noticed that he'd forgotten to bring the book that he was reading. It was titled, “Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence.” I thought that was kind of a lofty choice for a man in crisis. But dad was never content with an idle brain, even when he was at the mercy of congestive heart failure.
Our dear family friend Sal went to fetch dad's book at the apartment. And then was dispatched again, this time to get dad a vanilla milkshake at McDonald's. It wasn't lost on me that my father, this weak old man lying in a hospital bed, had once been a superstar in the mad men advertising world, running an agency that oversaw the invention of Ronald McDonald.
Waiting for the doctor, dad grew restless, irritable, and this made me uneasy, as it always had since my childhood, when his irritation could escalate fast, and morph into something truly terrifying. And as I sat with my 92 year old father, I felt that old fear of him and I thought, "Huh, after all these years, I'm still carrying that around."
Maybe it was his vulnerability that made dad start talking then, his sense of death's imminence, I don't know, but he opened up, which was something he almost never did. And he told me about his college years, showing me a side of himself that I'd never seen before. He'd been the fourth generation Harper to go to Yale University. But he said he felt like an anomaly there, as he put it, a meatball. A man from an unremarkable Midwestern family, thrown in with the best and the brightest and richest.
Even though he went on to be a Captain in the Marines, and he had that amazing career and he had the six kids, the Yale memories still saddened him after all these years. He still carried that around. What else, I wondered.
Sal returned from McDonald's just seconds before the doctor appeared and said that dad could not have a milkshake due to digestive issues, and that while he didn't think there was real cause for alarm, he thought it would be better if dad spent the night for observation. It was hard to know which of these directives was more dispiriting for my father. He looked longingly at the milkshake, as the nurse, adding insult to injury, instructed him to get up and pee in a cup. As he rose to obey, his hospital gown flapped open in the back, revealing another side of my father that I had not seen before. It saddened me to see his body so diminished.
Although when I was a child, his physical power had been a mixed blessing. When he lifted me in his strong hands I felt light as a cat. But those hands could sometimes be put to less friendly use.
Dad wanted me to get back to the apartment to be with mom. She was anxious and concerned. So, I left him with is book, and with a tepid hospital hamburger. In the morning, he seemed okay, and my little sister Lindsay was on her way to take over. To get down to Baltimore, I had to catch a train in New Haven, the town where Yale University is, where dad had spent four not so happy years. I was feeling emotional on a few levels.
On level one, the absolute surface, I was just feeling that kind of travel anxiety I always get when I have to get from point A to point B. Slightly deeper on level two. I was pretty sure dad was gonna be okay. I mean he'd beaten pneumonia the year before, and the medical team seemed pretty relaxed that day. Plus, I basically believed he was immortal. On level three, so deep it was almost out of reach, I was scared shitless. Could this be it? The it my sisters and brothers and I had talked about for years? We had tried to imagine what it would feel like to lose a parent, but we just didn't have the power.
It was like after childbirth, when I was so surprised by how deep my feelings were, I was pretty sure that I could not know what grief was like until a death occurred. I tried to lock into level two, where optimism ruled. And in that spirit, I bought a lottery ticket.
I had never bought one before. But when I saw the lottery display at the kiosk in the station, I felt very strongly that if I were buy a ticket right at that exact moment, I would certainly win. I had always been lucky. In the fifth grade I correctly guessed the number of jelly beans in the jar at Nancy Brady's birthday party, and I won a teddy bear. At the local community house raffle, I'd won a toilet seat. And twice I had taken home homemade quilts from school fairs. Given my track record, you'd think I'd be a lottery regular. But the thing about luck is, you have to feel it.
On each of the occasions when I won, I'd felt a good luck buzz, a call to take action and win. Even with all the bodegas and the train stations and the drug stores and other lottery vendors I'd visited, I'd never felt the call to buy a lottery ticket until this Thanksgiving Day. The kiosk lady explained, that the outcome would be posted online 48 hours later. So, all through the train ride and then the roast turkey dinner, and the, you know, the pumpkin cheesecake and all that good stuff Tom's sister had made, through all that I, I felt, I just felt jittery, and I slept restlessly later. I felt my certainty slipping. I was now only kind of sure of two things. One, that dad would be up and running by his 93rd birthday on December 16th, and two, that I was going to win the lottery.
When I called dad, he said he was feeling kinda lousy and he really didn't care for the hospital food. He still had that Satanic cough and, but he was otherwise stable. I felt I could re-enter the comfort zone of optimism. Nobody was dying anytime soon. Things would go on as they had before that wild ride in the ambulance on Thanksgiving Eve.
My heart was speedy when I went to the lottery website on the designated morning. I clicked slowly through the website's pages, noting that these were my last moments before over wealth, I saw my numbers. The first number was one. My first number was one. The second number was three. My second number was also three. Uh, at this point I had to put my ticket down for a second just to catch my breath. I was imagining dining with Warren Buffett and texting with Melinda Gates. The third number was seven. My third number was four. Okay, well I had, I had one actually. I did win. And with my winnings, I could probably go to Starbucks four times. So, so, so I'd been, I'd been right to be optimistic.
But not about everything. Dad died December 7th, 2013.
I'd been right about grief. I had no idea what it would feel like until it slammed into me and a whole flock of emotions took flight like startled birds. There is heartbreak of course, but also agitation, regret, relief, guilt about the relief, anger, elation, and depression. And all mixed up in that, there was the primary driver, love.
(singing) Love a little bit, cry a little bit, watch your children grow. Married in satin, buried in snow. Love a little bit, cry a little bit, watch your children grow. Married in satin, buried in snow.
In the days following his death, dad seemed just so missing. And yet he was not. Not even remotely. And his presence would be felt more keenly, with the revelations that followed his funeral. You'll here about that next week in the final episode of WINNETKA.