Thursday, March 13, 2003

How To Become An Alpha Male -- Lesson 13: The Real Alpha Male

Lucky 13. Great. Let's talk about death.

When I write these essays about Alpha Males, I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t know where I’m going. I don’t know why I’m writing. I don’t know where I’ll end up. I don’t know anything. I just know I have to write them.

I know my dad was an Alpha Male, the classic 1960’s Madison Avenue slick handsome ad man type Alpha Male.

I know I grew up wanting to be him, have his exciting life and not be my mom, the stuck-at-home babymaker. Maybe a weird thing for a woman to say, but yes, in my family I was my dad’s number one son in some ways. You could rename these essays Confessions of an Alpha Male Wannabe.

I know today I’m about two weeks out from the one-year anniversary of my dad’s death. And I know I had to be by his bedside those torturous months last year, his last six months alive, I had to be there to watch the death of a salesman. The death of an Alpha Male. I had to watch, so I could report back and tell you it was not a pretty thing to see.

For whatever reasons and in his generation of men, there were many good reasons, my dad had a lot of trouble connecting emotionally with us. The result was feeling abandoned by him, even in his presence. Worse still, it was a charming, seductive presence, loved and adored by clients and other women and strangers, but not fertile ground for roots to grow between him, my mom, my other three sisters and god forbid, he have any connection to his real only son, my brother.

One time on a dreadfully cold night in New York up on that windy canyon Riverside Drive, my older sister, in her twenties at the time, slipped on an icy street corner, fell down and cut her knee and instead of soothing her or asking her is she was okay, he whipped out a $20 bill and put it on her knee like a bandaid and said, “Buy yourself a new pair of stockings.”

Money was the coin of the realm. If you had money, you were the big guy. You were safe, people had to do what you said. People had to listen. People could be told what to do if you were the guy with the money. The guy with the expense account. The guy who picked up the check at the fancy business lunch in town, the day before Thanksgiving when the wives were home making the big family meal for the next day. Wednesday afternoon before Thanksgiving, you had time to fuck your girlfriend and take the late train to Greenwich for the lovely family weekend.

Where did that come from? Well, wherever. I told you I don’t know where any of it comes from. I just write it down.

He did have girl friends – we all knew and all pretended it wasn’t happening – the delightful double whammy of childhood abandonment and simultaneously having your head fucked over with all the lies, all the pretending, having your pristine core knowledge, your gut feelings contradicted by adult words. Your innocent knowing and intuition betrayed. Everyone pretending they can’t hear the deafening noise of my mother’s anger and frustration, completely silent but louder than murderous thunder. She’s making stuffing.

So you pick. You want to be the guy downtown with the fancy car and the fun life and the pretty babe? Or do you want to be home at the stove burning stuffing? Stuffing it. And that’s all we got to see up close, all of us kids figuring these two parents knew something we didn’t know. Surely they must know how to live a life. What were they doing there otherwise? Weren’t they trying to show us something. Something about how the world worked? Something about how we would live in the world when we were their age?

But really they were so young and they didn’t know what the hell they were doing. And even now, I’m NOT that young and I don’t know what the hell I’m doing. So let me get back to it. What I saw at my father’s deathbed. I saw a guy who FINALLY at the end of his life nearly “got it” and realized the only people still there for him were not some guys he wined and dined at the 21 Club. And not some babe he was fucking at his pied-a-terre in Greenwich Village. Those folks were nowhere to be found at the nursing home when his urine bag filled with piss and blood and an infection loomed large – one of the early disasters he endured on the long, slow painful six month road out of life.

We were there. My sisters, my brother, my brothers-in-law, my husband, my son. We were there remembering silently at times all the times he WASN’T there for us, or if physically present, often wasn’t able to be there emotionally for us. We were there. I was there to see who this man had become, without an expense account, without receipts (“Always get your receipts, kids for those bastards at the IRS.”) without expensive loafers. He was a wreck, he was a pile of bones, no more glad-handing as his hand lay flat on the hospital bed, purple and bruised with IV’s taped down onto his wilting skin. He was still flirting with the nurses. They are taking his shit away in a silver bedpan or diaper and he’s still flirting with them.

But it wasn’t that dark. He finally was getting it. He finally realized all there is love – not Catwoman in her cat suit sharing cocktails with him – but real love. A family’s faithful love and endurance in the face of painful illness and hopeless and inevitable death. No one missed the REAL ALPHA MALE IN THE ROOM. The Grim Reaper. Oh, yes, he was the big guy in that hospital room and we fought him off every god-damned day, day after day.

And my dad really finally got it – so damned late – but better late than never – that he was nothing. Just a “nothing ball” as he used to call people he considered inferior to him, what most would call “losers”. He was nothing except for the love and connection he had to his family and to my mom, though she was now gone and spared the final scenes of his life. He got that you can’t do anything but love one another. You can’t walk through this life without caring for other people and that care and love will eventually come back your direction. And of course, there were times when he did care and love us in the only ways he could. He worked hard for us. He sweated the money part. He put us through college and helped us move into dorms. He drove us and our friends places. He told us stories. He was there in the ways that he could be there. And in the end, we found, surprisingly, there was enough love and forgiveness to go around. Even for him. And that’s why we were there for him, even though he was not always there for us. That’s what he finally figured out. And I guess we learned that it’s never over til it’s over.