From The New York Times, I’m Anna Martin. This is Modern Love. This week’s essay begins in a space of clarity. A man at the end of his life knows exactly who he wants to spend his remaining time with, but it’s not up to him.
His ex-wife needs to decide if she’ll let him. Honestly, this essay, it broke my heart, and it filled it right back up at the exact same time. It’s called, “Could I Forgive Him One Last Time?” written by Victoria Rosner and read by Frankie Corzo.
A year earlier, Judah’s father had gone to the doctor for what he thought was sciatica but turned out to be cancer that had metastasized to his bones.
He was 51 at the time. Judah was two, but that’s only part of the story. Until the time of the diagnosis, Judah and his father hadn’t seen much of each other.
Sometime between Judah’s conception and delivery, his father decided that he couldn’t be married anymore — not to me, he said, and probably not to anyone.
In Texas, where we were living, it turned out to be illegal to divorce your wife while she was pregnant.
So, although he filed for divorce during my seventh month, we were still legally married on the day Judah was born. He was there for the birth and dropped in on us for visits, but a few months later, I moved back to New York City where my family lived.
Two years later, Judah’s father was still in Texas, and I was still in New York. When he found out about the cancer, though, he called me. I hadn’t heard his voice in a while, and it sounded strained. I expressed sympathy about his illness, but that wasn’t what he wanted to talk about.
“I need to ask you something,” he said. “I had always planned to have a relationship with Judah when he was a little older. But now I don’t know if that can happen. I want to start seeing him more, as much as I can, right away. During chemo, I might not be able to travel, but I’d like to talk to Judah on the phone every night and maybe have you bring him to visit me.”
In some ways, this was what I’d longed to hear since Judah’s birth. Maybe now Judah and his father could have a relationship, and I could have a partner in parenthood. That was my first thought. I also had to consider that the worst might come to pass — in which case, I would have exposed Judah to significant and avoidable pain.
Right now, he didn’t know his father. Any loss would be abstract, rather than personal. But what if he came to love his father, only to lose him? This had the makings of either a miracle or a tragedy. It was hard to predict which.
I found myself thinking about what I would say to an older Judah, long after his father had died. That Judah would have a lot of questions about a man and a relationship he couldn’t fully remember. I suspected that the grown-up Judah would want to have known all he could about his father.
I said yes, and so their meetings began. He would fly east and stay with my mother for three or four days. The chemotherapy was immunosuppressive, so he and Judah mostly stayed in the apartment, doing two-year-old stuff — singing, smacking, tickling.
Two sandy-haired, stocky, brown-eyed guys rolling around on the floor. He called me from the airport after the first visit and said: “He is the most incredible child that has ever lived. Do you realize that?” I said I did.
I hung up feeling as if I’d been handed a gift. For the first time, I felt he was speaking unequivocally as Judah’s father and that we were joined in our love of our amazing son.
Initially, Judah wasn’t sure who this guy was. He started out calling him by his first name but willingly made the switch to Daddy.
Eventually, he took delight in the word and would spring to the phone yelling, “hi, Daddy!” into the receiver. Over the next few months, we watched as Daddy lost his hair and grew weaker. He was taking large doses of morphine but still frequently winced in pain.
Judah was solicitous. Once, I heard him ask, “Daddy, are you sick?”
“I’m fine, and I’m going to get better.” I squirmed. I knew it was what he needed to say, but I wasn’t sure it was what Judah needed to hear.
10 months after the diagnosis, the hospital called, telling me that it didn’t look good. I sat down with Judah. “Sweetheart, Daddy’s very sick, and I’m afraid he might die.”
Distress filled his eyes. “I don’t want Daddy to die. I want to see him.”
“I don’t want him to die either. I’m going to go to the hospital now, and I’ll tell him what you said.”
He was in a coma when I arrived. But I held his hand and did tell him. I sat there and talked to him as Judah’s fellow parent, about plans for our son’s future, though I knew he probably couldn’t hear me and certainly couldn’t answer. He died two days later.
Judah was angry and sad at the news, but mostly uncomprehending. He kept asking when Daddy would stop dying and come back to us. And it was my miserable task to tell him “never” and witness his disappointment.
I felt as if his grief was my fault. And in a way, it was. I had opened the door.
Now three, Judah still doesn’t believe in forever and keeps trying to find a workaround for death.
Maybe Daddy is at that hotel where I saw him once. Maybe he’s in California. He’s frustrated that he can’t see his father, though one night when he was lying in bed, I told him he could talk to him whenever he likes. He was quiet for a moment and then called upward, “Daddy, how are you? Is it dark where you are?”
Judah’s memories of his father may fade, but for now he enjoys them. Every time he passes a McDonald’s, he says, “I went there with my Daddy, right?” Or when he plays with a favorite toy, “My Daddy gave that to me, right?”
Judah often talks philosophy. He says casually to a friend of my mother’s, “You know, we’re all going to die.” He wants to know the feasibility of the two of us dying together. “I’m going to come see you when I die,” he tells me.
I assure him that he and I won’t die for a very long time. Once, he heard me on the phone to a girlfriend, exclaiming, “I could have died then and there,” and he went white.
“Mommy, don’t say that,” he shrieked. “Don’t say that.”
I wondered how Judah would react when he heard about Swimmy’s death at preschool and asked John to let me know. He reported that when he told the children what had happened, one volunteered that her grandmother had died. Another said he had a fish that died, a very old fish.
The class agreed that Swimmy had been an old fish too. And Judah said, “My daddy died.” Later, another child approached Judah and asked in a worried voice, “Your daddy died?” Judah nodded. “Does that mean he’s not coming back?”
Judah put his hand on the other child’s shoulder. “Yes, but it’s OK,” he said. “I’m alive. You’re alive. Want to play?”
Judah was three at the end of that essay. After the break, we meet him at age 16.
I was kind of stunned when Judah walked into the studio with his mom, Victoria.
He was a teenager. Of course, logically I knew I wasn’t interviewing the three-year-old from his mother’s essay, but Judah was just so big. I mean, he’s 16 now. And he’s tall in that specific teenager kind of way, where it’s almost like his own height surprises him. You know, he moves in this way where he’s still figuring himself out. And if you guys want to put yourself down, get a drink of water, go to the bathroom.
Thank you very much. This reminds me of my aspirations of being a singer. I always wanted to be in a studio.
Wait, really? We can throw on some beats right now.
We settled in, and Victoria sat down next to Judah, close enough to hold his hand. The stuff Judah was here to talk to me about was really intense, and she was there for support. But Judah and I started off with the basics.
Judah, thank you so much for coming into the studio. It’s summer, so I feel like there’s a lot of other places you could be.
Well, I did just get home from boarding school. So —
Did you? Wait, OK, that’s a question of mine — what grade are you in?
I just finished 10th grade. So a rising, rising junior.
How many years has it been since your dad passed?
Over 13. And what do you remember about your dad?
To this day, I can no longer remember what his voice sounds like vividly. But I have memories of certain things that he said and certain things we did together, some that were photographed — that helped enforce them — and some that weren’t. I have some memories that I just have.
Mm. Tell me about some of those memories. What’s something you remember doing with your dad?
The most vivid memory I have is of him talking to him and Mom’s dog. Name was Brisket. I remember him — me sitting there and him telling Brisket to sit down twice, very vividly, just saying “Brisket, sit down. Brisket, sit down,” in that exact cadence. I can still kind of see the image in my head, but it’s really distorted.
I know it existed. I don’t remember it directly. It’s more that I remember remembering it.
Mm. I love that concept, the memory of a memory. Tell me about other — what’s something else that you remember him saying or you two doing together?
I remember he used to play music for me. I would sit at my high chair, and he would play the stand-up bass for me. There’s a picture of that. But I also have a very faint memory of it happening.
So your dad died when you were three.
You’re 16 now.
And I’m curious, what are some questions that you have about him, if there are some, that have come up for you recently? You know, you’ve given us such a vivid picture of you as a kid, and I’m curious, you as a teen.
I kind of stopped thinking about him for a while, but I started again about a year ago. And I would start to ask Mom questions, who he was. I asked questions about what he liked to do, how tall was he. Was he — I remember asking, was he attractive? Was he buff? That was one of my main questions.
I was very excited when he was. Was Daddy talkative? Was Daddy funny? Was Daddy annoying? While me and my mom are similar in a lot of ways, I’ve always wanted to know if he was like me. So I would just want to know small details.
It was mostly because I wanted to know if any of the problems that I had in my life were inherited from him. And whenever I got a yes, I’d be like yes, yes! Whenever I got a no, I’d just be like, oh. Huh.
It made me feel things. I was — I’d felt sad. I’d felt melancholy a lot during these conversations because it was like I lost all this. This is all something that I will never have.
Hearing about it is comforting in some way because you know more facts. But maybe it also feels not so great because you don’t get to experience them yourself.
Also because he becomes more of a person the more you talk about them and less of a memory.
And why is that uncomfortable feeling?
Well, if you don’t know someone very well, there’s not much to miss. The more you know a person, the more about them there is to miss, especially if the person was a similar person to you — especially when you don’t have a father figure for most of your life.
You said that you and your mom talk a lot about your dad when you have questions. Was there ever a time where you were like, I’m going to try to figure some stuff out about him on my own?
I did. That’s how I found the article.
Gotcha. The Modern Love essay your mom wrote.
I didn’t the article existed until like sixth grade.
So where were you when you were —
I was [INAUDIBLE] in class, and I was on the computer because I was bored. And I was delinquent, like I was a little — little rascal. So I was like, oh, I’m an egotistical maniac. Let’s look up me.
You decided to Google your own name.
Yes. Mom usually comes up first. And I saw an article, “Could I Forgive Him One Last Time?” I didn’t read it all the way through. I just read enough to realize, oh my god, it’s about me.
What do you feel like your mom’s story revealed to you about your dad that you hadn’t known before, if anything?
It was a story that I knew. It revealed that she was paying attention more than I thought she was because I remember the swimming incident with the fish, but I didn’t know that my kindergarten teacher would come and talk to her about that. And I didn’t know that it had been such a big deal for everyone.
So it was kind of like, you’re in a play, you do the play, and then watching a video of you on stage, where you could see yourself. This was like a little bit more detail than I had had before.
Mm. Have you thought about what your life would be like if your dad were around now?
Almost every day. I believe that if he was still alive, I might have been a more balanced person. Well, he would have made my life whole. I felt like there was something missing — not that I felt there was something missing, but I assumed because I didn’t have a father that everyone else had this secret that I didn’t have.
Do you feel that way anymore?
Still feel that way.
I’ve lived with Daddy’s death more than I’ve lived with Daddy. And because of that, the main part of him to me is his death because that’s the part that has had the biggest effect on my life.
This is the final episode of our summer season. We’re going to take just a few weeks off, and then we’ll be back with a whole new lineup of stories in the fall.
Modern Love is produced by Julia Botero and Hans Buetow. It’s edited by Sara Sarasohn. This episode was mixed by Dan Powell, who also created our wonderful Modern Love theme music.
Original music in this episode by Marion Lozano. Digital production by Mahima Chablani, and a special thanks to Anna Diamond at Audm. The Modern Love column is edited by Daniel Jones. Miya Lee is the editor of Modern Love projects. And I’m Anna Martin. Thanks for listening.