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My Father the Heartbreaker - The New York Times


He could be impossible to deal with. His anger at us, and the world, often escalated into rage. Depression and suicidal ideation ran in his family. My father’s father, Grandpa Nat, had been hospitalized for depression and also received ECT. He was a short balding man in a gray suit, who sold fur coats at Macy’s. When my Grandma Lee was still alive and we visited them in their apartment in White Plains, he would take me down to the corner store and buy me Juicy Fruit gum. I thought he was glum but not unkind.

After my grandmother died of colon cancer, Grandpa Nat would come to our house in New Jersey and spend a night on the couch in the den. Even though my parents owned a five-bedroom house, my father never wanted to turn any of the bedrooms into a guest room for fear his father would stay too long or move in. I knew that Grandpa had a mean streak; it didn’t surprise me. My father did too.

Anger and fury ran like thick, prickly threads through the rough blanket that covered my father’s side of the family. His father hurled insults at him, my father hurled insults at us. During the last year of Dad’s life, when he knew he was dying from complications of leukemia, Dad wrote us letters, trying to reconcile his past behavior. In one, he confided, “My searing ambition & rage led to certain self destructive impulses later which it has taken years for me to understand … All my life I have been almost uncontrollably driven by rage & ambition — not often feeling safe.”

Both of my father’s parents had been suicidal, though I learned of my grandmother’s depression only after she died. She was tiny and solicitous, a soft, sweet lady in a dress. In another letter, Dad wrote: “My dearest mother tried to put her head in our gas oven when I was 8 mos. old — my stupid depressed childlike despicable father made many references to ‘stick your head in oven & take gas’ when we were very young.”

This was my father’s childhood, dark and scary. He survived it, and went on to be the first person in his family to go to medical school. While he was in his third year, he met my mother in London in the summer of 1961. My mother was recovering from her own first, brief, failed marriage to another doctor. Both my parents were prolific letter writers, and in a letter home to her parents that summer, my mother wrote: “What a marvelous boy — a mind so sharp, so perceptive, so bright — really unusual. He’s also compassionate, sweet, considerate, a joy to be with, interesting, stimulating, well-read, cultured, very outgoing, a marvelous tennis player, what more can I say?” They married a year later.

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