And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
(Dylan Thomas, “Do not go gentle into that good night,” stanza 6)
If you’re assuming this story is about a poem and a poet, you are correct. About fathers and sons, exactly. Living and dying, bingo. Still, you might be missing something. I was too. Like many stories, it begins as a couple holds hands on a sunny spring day.
It was the first real spring day of 2014, seventy delightful degrees as my wife, Ronee, and I strolled around my old stomping grounds at New York University (NYU). Tree buds unfurled before my eyes, and two birds seemed to follow as we veered west. We wandered past the Stonewall Inn and the improbable corner where West 4th meets West 10th before arriving at the White Horse Tavern. Inside it was dark with black tin ceilings reflecting off the mirrored bar. Dust specks floated through the air as they might have the final night Dylan Thomas drank here. A night when rows of whiskey bottles waited their turn below a “Cash Only” sign.
As I savored my Guinness, I told Ronee that my parents named me after Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. We’d been married 26 years and had two sons. She knew my every thought, everything about me, except the origin of my name.
“Thomas drank eighteen shots of whiskey before he collapsed right here on this street.”
“Your father named you after someone who drank themselves to death?” Her voice peaked; eyes squinted as she asked.
“I’m pretty sure it was due to his poetry, but I guess Dylan Thomas wasn’t the best role model.” I tried to soften the blow, “it was probably no more than nine shots, and some say he died of pneumonia.” Thomas’s legendary night intrigued me the way horrific crashes do. Was it eighteen or only nine? What does a human being look like after eighteen shots? But that’s where interest in my namesake stopped.
From our sidewalk table, we marveled at New York City on display: bikers peeling north on Hudson, and two cabbies screaming at each other in languages that lacked vowels. A couple walked by with matching poodles, the man wearing a Yankees hat, the woman, Mets. Those were the usual allegiances with interteam couples.
“They must have an interesting sex life,” I commented.
“Hon, stop, get your mind out of the gutter.”
“No, really, Mets, Yankees, they must fight all the time.”
“We were all Mets fans growing up. Who did your father root for?”
“I don’t even know. He never wore a baseball hat, at least not with a team on it.”
“That’s odd, in New York City all the dads rooted for someone. Mets, Yankees, even the old Brooklyn Dodgers.”
She was right. We grew up in Queens, only a mile apart. We discussed my mother and father’s deaths, both within the past fifteen months. I didn’t know what killed my father, a Christian Scientist, he had never gone to the doctor. He, too, didn’t know why his hip crumbled more every time I saw him, why he became paler and thinner by the visit. Whatever it was, I suspected the liquor hadn’t helped. I knew it fueled his creative juices to forget his day job so he could write or work on intricate pencil art late into the night. Knew it ravaged his body and personality for decades.
I told Ronee about the time he stormed into my room after a night at La Stella on Queens Boulevard. It was a restaurant that time forgot: red velvet curtains, buttons bursting on the maître d’s tux, and a corner bar for five. It was my father’s weeknight spot, communing with people who didn’t have children and a spouse at home. People not like him and yet so much like him, mourning lost dreams, seeking something else. He must have had a couple extra that night as I heard our steel apartment door slam shut, pots clank on the stove, and his throat clear as he walked towards my room. I took a deep breath as he opened the door.
“Turn that off.”
“But dad, it’s the ninth inning, two men—”
“I said, turn it off, you should read a book or study acting.”
“Dad, I’ll have my MBA in three weeks, and I’m only 22.”
“Everything can’t be business and sports. You need to be more well-rounded, or else nobody is going to care.” I inhaled the sharp layers of rum as he stuck his face in mine.
“Get the hell out of my room,” I barked as I leaned my forearm across his chest.
He backed off.
I was in the NYU cafeteria when I called home the next afternoon. My dad told me he had just returned from his first AA meeting. I moved out a month later. He never drank again.
I first met Ronee later that month at Spanky’s, an Upper East Side bar. Over the next two decades, we built a life together with a condo, then a home, a first son Brandon, followed by Justin, five years later.
I took Justin to his first Yankees game on his second birthday. I paid $10 for the scoreboard to display, “Happy Birthday, Justin,” in the middle of the fifth inning and “Yankees welcome, Justin, 1st Yankee Game” in the middle of the seventh. He wore a Yankees hat that day and I hoped he would become a Yankee fan like his older brother. My dreams were simple back then.
Justin was five when he asked if I also liked the Mets. Since I grew up in Queens, I told him I rooted for the Mets when they weren’t playing the Yankees. He responded that he was going to be a Mets fan. It hurt worse than getting cut from the junior high basketball team, but I told him it was fine anyway.
Nine months after our spring afternoon at The White Horse, we were watching the Super Bowl at home. Our family had just moved to a new town. Brandon and Justin sat on the couch as a platter of wings grew a shiny glaze on the table. I had just pulled a bubbling pizza from the oven when Justin, then eleven, let out a blood-curdling scream and grabbed his neck. The pain must have shot up his hands, then arms and shoulders as it looked for a place to go. Ten seconds later, it was over.
“Are you OK, honey?” Ronee asked.
“Yessss,” Justin responded, driving his head down as he answered. I didn’t know if it was the pain or the fact the Super Bowl had been interrupted.
I looked at my wife and mouthed, “What was that?”
“I don’t know,” she whispered back and squeezed my hand, “let’s keep an eye on it.” I sensed concern in her voice, but minutes later, I returned to the couch and the last drive of the game. I put my arm around his shoulder, felt him pull away, and in that moment I understood his pain. “Dad,” he said annoyed. I remember it now, as I did the instant I saw the second plane crash into the South Tower from eight blocks away. Moments when life changed for reasons I couldn’t yet comprehend.
Justin’s pain went away and then returned with a vengeance. Six months and many tests later, we told our son he had Osteosarcoma in his cervical spine. His build was slight, and voice just above a whisper. Three months after his diagnosis, a technician rolled him into the largest operating room at Massachusetts General Hospital. It reminded me of a Vanderbilt mansion kitchen; shelves climbing to the ceiling, filled with supplies, and a flurry of activity around the center island. I held his hand as three nurses talked to him under the stadium-strength lights. He responded softly, thanked each of them, and asked if his stuffed Minion, Bob, could stay for the surgery.
We returned to his room, where wires and tubes hung, searching for a body. The dirt outline from where the bed had been was like tape at a murder scene, all were reminders that Justin might not return. We went to the cafeteria, ate breakfast, lunch, dinner, and rushed to the room right after each, jerking to attention every time a nurse opened the door, hoping for news that wasn’t yet there. They returned Justin to us after dark that night. Doctors removed his right vertebral artery, half of his tumor, and erected a titanium train track in his neck that day. Five days later, a second surgery, his raspy voice just above a whisper, he thanked the nurses and asked for his Minion to be there with him.
Three weeks later, I sat in his hospital bed and watched the Mets in World Series Game 1. We wore brand new Mets hats with a World Series patch. We didn’t talk much, just watched, smiled at each other before he fell asleep in the sixth inning. Tears filled my eyes as I watched the rest of the game.
Weeks later, he was back on chemotherapy, throwing it up, then clenching his teeth ready for more. Screams in the night, two, three o’clock in the morning as the pain poked its way through the morphine, like a pitchfork. Then it was on to radiation, and I watched as his head was placed in a mask and screwed to a gurney like Hannibal Lecter. For six straight weeks, I sat in the next room and prayed the radiation wouldn’t miss. It was all I could do. Still, he sucked it up like the batter trotting to first base after a ninety-five mile an hour fastball in the ribs. His was a quiet rage, but he raged against it all.
On a Wednesday evening, four months later, I glanced back and forth at a monitor as Justin’s heart rate surged, then plummeted. I held his hand and watched his chest rise and fall. I motioned, raising my eyebrows, for Brandon to come to the bed. Ronee sat on the couch, looked up at her husband and two sons.
“I’ll call for the doctor,” I told her.
The nurse came first, then the doctor, moments later. The doctor was a resident, young, looked like someone you might sit next to at a Buffalo Wild Wings watching college football. He checked Justin’s pulse, his wrist, his neck, then his wrist again. The resident tipped his head towards the nurse, and she turned the vitals screen towards the wall.
As if in meditation, I followed his labored breath. The same breath that had once given him the wind to run effortless 5k’s and yell for a Mets home run, now slowed to a handful a minute. Slow, I watched, wondering if each exhale would be followed by an inhale. I kissed Justin’s forehead, not wanting my lips to release. “I will love you always and forever. Always and forever.” And then he was gone.
It was 10:30 PM. He battled for fifteen months, but he went gently with no last gasps or cries in the end. There was no suffering in my son’s final moments. He had suffered so much already. We sat with Justin for the next several hours, comforting one another the best we could. The nurse said we could stay the night, but we decided to drive home at two in the morning. I wasn’t sure if once I got home if I could ever leave the house again.
Over the next year, family and friends shed like trees preparing for winter. Several weeks after the first anniversary of Justin’s death, Brandon went off for his freshman year of college. We became premature empty nesters with three vacant bedrooms and two acres with no one to play on them. During those nights, in the white house with the peeling paint, Ronee and I ate what we could and watched as a jar filled with corks, reminders of the night before, what was and what should have been. “Valium is like having wine,” my doctor said. So, I opted for a glass, which became two some nights, then three. At night, I’d wake with my head throbbing, my mouth dried like sand, choking for a sip of water. When I couldn’t go back to sleep, I would pull up the shades and read in the moonlight. Thirty minutes on the Pacific Crest Trail with Cheryl Strayed or fly fishing in Montana with Norman Maclean. My mind was looking to go anywhere, but a hospital with machines lighting up like it was the Fourth of July.
Then one morning, I wrote my first sentences. Wine pounding my head, pain in my heart pushed onto the page. The words hard, clinical as they relived the surgeries, screams, and scans, yet they flowed from my fingers to the screen. All pain I needed to endure again for my son. I read and studied the craft, then wrote and wrote some more. Still, I struggled, words meant for the trash, sentences not worthy of Strayed or Maclean, most of all, not deserving of my son.
I felt like my father probably had. He worked on his play for twenty years, never finishing it other than having a scene read in a small theater. I realized why that play meant so much to him, why he called everyone he knew and wore a sports jacket for the first time in years. He lived for those hours when he sat in front of his Olivetti typewriter, a highball glass sweating on his left, and a smoldering cigarette on his right. Pain billowing in the smoke as it floated to the ceiling. Had he and Dylan Thomas used those hours at La Stella or The White Horse to numb the torture of the word that wouldn’t come, the sentence that wouldn’t be, the story never read?
Still, I read and wrote, and a year later, I found a low-residency MFA program where I could focus on my writing. I took a week off and drove to Newport, RI. I returned to school at 53, with funds from Justin’s 529 plan. During my first residency, I marveled at poets. Major Jackson, who slapped his hand on the podium, like he was Kanye West. Charles Coe who wrote poems named “Bowling with the Pope” and “Picnic on the Moon.” I would not have been surprised if Charles had done those things. A half century after my parents named me, poets were suddenly hip, like baseball players were before they bought Ferraris and refused to sign autographs. But none was cooler than Edgar Kunz, who wore sneaker brands I’d never heard of, and formed his hair in a wavy, controlled mess. He wrote about his father’s last days in a ramshackle house, poems that were gritty and approachable. He recited Dylan Thomas’s “Do not go gentle into that good night,” and then he paused, said, “Wow,” pausing again for full effect. It sucked the air out of me. The rhythm of the words caught in my chest, not yet knowing what the poem meant.
Late that night, I set out to learn everything about Dylan Thomas. I scrutinized the pictures, studied the eyes of the man who wrote that poem, drank too much, let it all slip away. I returned again and again to one photo. One that reminded me of a picture of my father with a cigarette dangling from his mouth. Both men posed like James Dean, pores in their faces open, creases that held pain, photos meant for black and white. They were images from a time before the sharpness dulled in their eyes, before my father’s hair grayed and receded, and before Thomas’s face became bloated and weathered. Times in their lives before they longed for the next word and the bars that aged them both. I had never known those times or that father.
Laptop casting a blue hue on my face, I read “Do not go gentle into that good night” for the first time. I pieced it together like a movie I’d never seen in its entirety. I picked it apart, word by word, line by line, discovering it was a deeply personal poem about fathers and sons, living and dying. Perhaps, in writing, I found what my father and even Dylan Thomas could not. Both wanted to be writers, be artistic, had a disdain for anything else. I never thought of writing, but it became a welcome respite from the next glass of wine and the next day without my son.
Sometimes, when a plane strikes a building or a healthy child gets cancer, we try to explain what maybe can’t be explained. Often, we don’t understand those close to us and never will. A name, bar, and poem, in perfect sequence, required to understand a man who lived in New York but didn’t like baseball. A man who wanted a different life for his son, just as I had for mine. I gave my all to save my son’s body and soul, and possibly my father had struggled not to lose my soul, too. Maybe that weighed on him, as his body failed, and he waged a battle he did not know or care to fight.
My name, my father.
My darkest teacher, my poet.
His struggles, now my struggles.
His son, now my son.
For him, I write into the night