Posted March 4, 2001 (1804 W.)
I don’t know what I’m going to do when my father dies. I’m fifty-one years old, fifty-two in a month. I have published three books and I’m broke. With no actual prospects. I am not connected to any institution, company or organization. If I didn’t phone, send out letters, hustle, it would be as if I didn’t exist.
I used to be a radio freelancer. Two weeks ago, I went back to the CBC, suggested some "stories," commentaries, work that would pay a few hundred bucks. Everyone was nice and I still haven’t heard.
My Dad asked me what was wrong when we were sitting in the YMCA cafeteria after our swim. I was listening to him, about his friends, the get togethers, the moral and philosophical questions he likes to get his teeth into. I might even have been trying to entertain him, talking about Amitav Ghosh and his personalized way of writing social anthropology, the kind of writing I aspire to, that I enjoy so much. I know I didn’t complain. I am, after all, almost fifty-two years old. I am not an unduly proud person but I think I should be able to take care of myself.
I wasn’t depressed. There is too much of a hard core of knowing myself, of what I still have in me to do. It was not depression that was taking away my body and sex so I had no nipples, no lips, no vagina except the one I wiped mechanically after I voided, like I flossed my teeth, to keep it all going.
I was worried and scared. I hadn’t earned money in months. I called a college classmate, now Dean of Education, to see if I could retrain to teach movement to older people. Last year, at our class reunion, he reminded everyone, laughing, that however hard he studied, he always came second and "she," his arm around me, came first. I called his office and assured his secretary that, yes, I knew he was busy, but he’d call me back. He never called. I sent an outline of a proposed column to a newspaper editor who knew me and received a cursory form letter saying the column did not fit their requirements. I tried the juvenile delinquent institution where I had worked twenty years ago and they had a waiting list.
I was worried, scared. And angry. That I couldn’t find work. I couldn’t write. I couldn’t find a way to live, let alone earn the money to buy the time to write. I wasn’t depressed but I was knotted. Despite myself, I felt embarrassed, socially inferior. I was fighting with all my reserves.
I don’t know what my father saw. I thought I was doing a good job but he says if I am considering a new career, it shouldn’t be acting. He says he can always tell with his kids and sometimes he says something and sometimes he doesn’t. "With you, on a scale of one to ten, it was a ten." He asked, "What’s wrong?" He asked me with a view to helping whatever it was. He has never shied away from knowing what’s wrong. At whatever level he can, he tries to fix it.
I told him I was broke and looking for work. And my various plans for earning money. I still thought I could teach movement to older people. I said how great it would be, I’d have the exercise that writing curtails, and I’d be paid for it.
"Do you need anything now?"
"No. I don’t need anything."
"You don’t have to wait until you need it. I can give you some money. I’ll take it off your inheritance," he laughed. Why, I don’t know.
My inheritance will be $50,000. It is what I will have to replace the loss of financial backup that will accompany the more catastrophic loss of the emotional backup my father has provided all my life. I laughed in response to his laugh, taking the curse off. I was okay, I assured him, something would come up.
"Don’t worry," he said, "You have three wonderful children and a man who loves you."
I agreed heartily because those are his values and, as far as it goes, he is right. Also, I didn’t want him to know how worried I was. How glad I was he was there. That I dreaded his death because in all ways he made things less scary.
I rented my house in the country for $500 a month and moved to my companion Bobby’s city house during the week. On the weekends we stayed in the country with my father and his wife, Phyllis. We ate well and talked. I had been reading brilliant Michael Ondaatje, glorious Grace Paley, an article on Taslima Nashrin, the Bangladeshi writer/doctor under fatwah and in exile in Sweden. I clipped articles for them, including one warning about electromagnetic waves from electric blankets. We had animated discussions about transcultural humour and multiculturalism. I helped in the kitchen. Bobby brought good wine, but we drank most of it. To contextualize my situation, I left my father the New Yorker article on the writer who earns less and less with each critically acclaimed book.
It was time out — ease mixed with beholdeness. I did my best to be entertaining.
My feet rest on the footstool my Dad made to raise my knees to a ninety degree optimum typing angle. I type on a pine desk he built for me, low, to measure. Bobby says he would give me money if he had it. He asks if he can hire me to write a novel. He says he will put me on contract to write copy for his advertising company when he can afford it. He bought the keyboard I have plugged into the Powerbook so I won’t get more carpel tunnel syndrome. Three days ago he asked if we could make love. He said he had made approaches but didn’t feel encouraged. I had been waiting for him to break through my reserve, distaste, disassociation. I called him to it when we got my rented-out house back.
"Did you feel me come?" he asked, "It was a strange come."
"We are out of practice," I said.
I can’t count on him now, for money or work. He raises my expectations. Makes promises he is unable to keep. I seesaw from expectation to disappointment. It makes me wary of him. I get cold and forget the senses that come alive with our love.
Yesterday, my Dad came over to my house carrying a stack of my framed high school scholarships, one for every year. We commented on the good condition of the lovely gilt frames and Dad grinned, "Hey, here’s the Commissioner’s Silver Medal. What happened to the gold?"
He was already out the door when he asked if I had anything going and I had to say, "No, not yet."
"What are you doing about it?"
"I can give you some money?"
"I don’t like to take money from you."
"Then I can lend it to you. How much do you need? $1000? "
"I need $3000." I felt a failure having this discussion with my father. No matter what I had written, I had no other resources but him. I was surprised to be on the verge of tears. "I can’t borrow money from you. I won’t be able to pay it back." But I couldn’t see how else to buy the time to get myself out of the mess.
He came back into the house and sat down on the entrance bench.
"I have money, you know."
"I know, but you are careful, you don’t spend money carelessly, you aren’t going back to Zihauteneho because it is too expensive."
"I don’t go to Zihuateneho because the smuck’s raised the price 30% in two years and he pisses me off. Arthur Ruby is a millionaire and he isn’t going back. I have $200,000 in the bank. If I give lend you two, I’ll have two less."
"Will it make any difference to your standard of living?"
"None at all. I have good pensions. I couldn’t live on the interest of the money in the bank."
I told my Dad that I was in this state because a promised film contract had fallen through. That’s what I had expected to support me. I told him what projects I had — a young people’s travel book, a layman’s guide to dentistry, a joint book with Kamala Das, possible grants — all of which needed researched, well-written proposals before they would be considered. The money he lent me would buy me time to bid for these bigger projects, not scurry futility for freelance droppings.
"I haven’t gotten caught, haven’t needed money for a long time. Have I?" I said in my own defense.
Dad nodded but he had already kissed the money good-bye. He had read the article on the writer who earned less and less as he got better and better. He shook his head in sympathy. He said I could repay the money when I got a windfall but I knew his credo — when you lend money, don’t expect it back. He was giving it to me, as he always had, in the most gracious way possible.
"It’ ll take a few days to get it to you. Will you be all right?"
That afternoon he returned to my house and gave me a small, rectangular piece of paper, folded in two, "I found a blank check."
I was happy and enormously relieved. I walked him out, along the driveway. I told him he wouldn’t see me looking worried anymore. I said I would pay him back if I got a grant, but I knew I would need every cent of the grant money to write.
"Don’t worry about it," he said, "think of all the money we saved on those scholarships of yours. A fortune. With interest — maybe millions."
I watched him walk jauntily down the road, in his too-short jeans and his faded gray fedora and his Kodiac leather workboots. He was as happy as I was. Not that I was in bad straits, but that he could help.
I ate with him and Phyllis that night because Bobby was working late. I entered their civilized oasis and sat down to Phyllis-food that sits sweetly on the sleeping stomach. Bobby came late and they set a plate for him and cajoled him out of his exhaustion. I helped too. I had my Dad’s energy, their energy. And money for two months. My Dad is eighty-two and he’s carrying me still. Except for that shocking reality, I am in good spirits.