This past weekend marked two anniversaries. Cherisse’s birthday on February 14; and the day my father died of cancer, February 16. Twenty-three years have now passed since then, and yet I remember that final night with perfect clarity. My mother, sister and I had watched while he fought for days, hanging on longer than the doctors expected. Finally I said to my mother, “Maybe we should tell him it is okay to let go.” We did, and he died peacefully in the wee hours. When we realized the end had come, my mother said “At least it isn’t Cherisse’s birthday.” Separating the happy day from the sad. So typical of my mother that even in grief she’d think of that.
I note the date each year, but my mind dwells on the happy memories. My father had an exceptional way with words, and he was a wonderful teacher. Growing up, he’d read through something I’d written—a paper for school, or an essay. I’d get the pages back covered with his nearly illegible scrawl, arrows pointing to questions, comments or rewrites. I’d rework the piece, often going through additional rounds with my father, until we ended up with something I could be proud of.
Despite the extensive notes, my father never failed to be positive and encouraging—and I never minded because he treated me like a real writer. That confidence gave me the heart and drive to keep working. HBO aired a great documentary called “Six by Sondheim.” In it, the composer Stephen Sondheim talked about showing Oscar Hammerstein (a surrogate father and mentor) a musical he’d written. With the hubris of youth (he was 15), Sondheim expected glowing praise. Instead, Hammerstein dissected it completely…in the process providing Sondheim with what he deemed one of the most valuable lessons of his career. Hammerstein did it kindly, and credited Sondheim with having talent that simply needed honing. This was how my father taught me, and so many others.
The two dates did collide this year—we ended up having a birthday cake for Cherisse when friends came to dinner on the 16th. We also raised a glass to toast my father’s memory. To happy times.