It’s been 41 years since the day my father dropped my sister and me at school. Neither of us knew that would be the last time we saw him. Debby was in eighth grade and got dropped first. I was a freshman in high school, so got an extra six minutes of one-on-one time.
What would I have done differently if I had known what my dad was going to do after he deposited me at that corner? Any number of things, probably. None of which really matters.
What I did was walk right, one short block to school. He turned the car left and left again, drove past the synagogue where he was the rabbi, and headed north, out of town.
Five minutes in any direction past the city limits puts you square into the middle of a postcard view of bucolica (if that wasn’t a word before, it is now, says I). That’s where my father headed. He went to North Bucolica.
It’s where the police found his car the next day, parked on a country road. On a bridge. Over a lovely little lake. When I’d gotten out the day before, I’d managed to grab my backpack, my lunch and my cello. I’d left a paper bag, though, which the police brought to my mother and about which I’d totally forgotten, understandable given what was going on. The police brought the bag to Mom and asked her if she had any idea about why it had been in the car. Maybe it would provide information they could use to lead them to Dad.
The bag did contain information. The Utica Police Department now knew that the missing rabbi’s oldest daughter a) had her period and b) didn’t wear tampons. Mom called me into the living room and handed me the paper bag. The look on her face was pure disgust. I tried to make myself invisible as I rushed upstairs to take refuge in my room.
Debby was in her room, reading “The Boys of Summer,” by Roger Kahn, a book Dad had given her for Hanukkah the year before. I lay down on my bed and tried to read, but I was too unsettled.
I went over to the record player, rifled my collection and put on “James Taylor and the Original Flying Machine.” Then, I picked up my guitar and played along.
“What good is that happy life/when all you wanted from the start was to cry….”
I didn’t think about the lyrics. I just played along, from tune to tune. Over the course of the next seven weeks, I did a lot of playing along to records, a lot of reading, a lot of talking to people and wrote in my journal. I went to school, to rehearsals for the school musical and to synagogue for services and youth group meetings.
I knew my father wasn’t coming back, that he was probably dead. But I had no sense of what that would mean, or how it would play out. I lived in a futureless present.
I kept flashing back though, to that moment at the corner. The moment of getting out of the car, juggling my backpack, cello and lunch, knowing Dad needed to get somewhere and not wanting to hold him up even as I wanted to hold on. He was the person I loved most and because of that, he was the person I most wanted to spend time with and the one I most wanted to please.
So I got out as quickly as I could, but not before I kissed him. I held the car door open while I organized myself. Before shutting it, I stuck my head inside, looked at him, and said what I didn’t know at the time would be the last words he’d ever hear another person say.
“I love you.”