My 97-year-old father died on Sunday, May 21, we buried him the following Saturday, and this is what I read at the reception:
John Peter Illo never learned to swim in water, yet he swam at odds with the cultural flow, cross grain to the tide. “My little brother was either born 100 years too early, or 100 years too late,” my Uncle Frank said, hoping to soothe my teenaged exasperation with my father.
Dad thumbed his nose at authority when it was not fashionable for his generation to do so. We picketed against the Vietnam war, he with his students and me with my school mates.
One time he stood with me on the curb outside our house on Hollywood Avenue as I waited for a ride to Washington DC for a massive anti-war rally, and I thought, I hoped, that Professor Illo would add dignity to our pimpled high school gang. But he shied away at the last minute and I watched him recede in the side mirror.
He was coddled from infancy by the woman who later coddled me. Nana cherished every one of his breaths, getting up before he woke to remove dust that might aggravate his asthmatic wheeze.
She liked to tell me, “Johnny was so clean that his teacher told me she always knew when he was coming without turning to look. ‘He smells like soap,’ she told me.”
As a child, my father read the dictionary and liked to blow things up. He set the hill behind his mother’s house on fire more than once, and watched the fire engines roar up Mountainside Avenue in a fit of dust.
He was dapper, even after developing a taste for second-hand clothes. I remember complimenting him on his suit one time. He eyed a sleeve and said, “25 cents. I paid 25 cents for this.”
Dad had a great, roaring sense of humor in the early days, laughing with his older brother on Nana’s back porch, beer sloshing perilously in their frosty mugs. He drew cartoons at the dining room table, The New York Times precisely folded to his left while Mom assembled the evening meal. He sometimes saw his own letters there and found recipes—his reenactment of their Chicken Tandoori an act of genius.
He carried me and Johnny around on his shoulders and piled us into his 1954 Ford sedan for picnic lunches at a place we called “The Boulders.” At dinner, he’d point to the window and say, “Look!” then top off our milk glass. “Whaaa?” we would say when we turned back to the table and found our glass full again. “It’s a magic glass!” he’d say.
John’s father, Frank, was beloved by many, unhampered by his illiteracy, a kind man with an inventor’s brain who ran all eleven Shubert Theaters in New York City. Nana didn’t think much of Grandpa’s inability to read, so my father became hyper-literate. He taught his Polish mother to read English and later went on to become a PhD-ed English professor.
By the time I came into the picture, he had begun collecting books. I watched in awe as he constructed book cases in the back yard. He filled aluminum pie pans with water and set them on the hissing radiators in winter to keep the leather bindings from cracking. I watched him use rubber cement to fix loose pages and torn covers. I stood in the eerie red glow of his dark room watching him tong black and white glossies from one pan of chemicals to another.
As I reached double digits my father was drowning in a tide of bills, kids, and politics. Our moments of connection grew sparse, sparks flew, and my attempts at connection were met with anger, or worse, silence, until he disappeared completely.
My father, a man who lived in his mind—a scholar, a reader, a writer—struggled to stay on the shoals of the spectrum and eventually let the cool water pull him under.
His longtime habit of lurking in doorways became more pronounced. In an old photograph, Nana and Uncle Frank are looking at something on the dining room table while he stands in the doorway, hands clasped at his naval, his right foot in the living room.
I remember looking at family photos with his cousin Tommy. Tom pointed to a photograph and said, “See how he is the only one not looking at the camera? He’s like this in all the photos. Your father was a ghost. He’s telling us, ‘I’m not here,’ He was always somewhere else.”
We often stood, each in our own doorway, the room between us tumbling with stacks of books and photographs, shared ideologies, arguments, and accusations, he thinking, “Where did she go?” Me thinking, “You were never really here.”
If you only have time for one defining memory, what will it be? What if, in a flash, you realize you’ve reached the end and it’s not like in the movies, that your whole life is not going to do a replay behind your closed eyelids? For me, that one defining memory might be this:
Thirty-four years ago, I drove to New Jersey for my Nana’s funeral, walked in, and spotted my father across the room. His eyes met mine, our feet already moving, our arms coming loose. We held each other and drew a long, deep breath.