Copyright © 2013 by Anne Serling. All rights reserved.
“You’re traveling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind; a journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. That’s the signpost up ahead—your next stop, The Twilight Zone!”
Most people know my father through The Twilight Zone. Some can quote a portion of the introduction and many can hum the mesmerizing music. They are familiar with the man in the dark suit standing against a dramatically lit set, intoning cautionary observations about human beings, fate, or the universe.
My father could command an audience with his presence and his insights. He could also scare the hell out of viewers—many can still recall specific scenes and recite bits of chilling or poignant dialogue from favorite Twilight Zones:
“It’s a cookbook!”
“Room for one more, honey.”
“We never left the earth! That’s why nobody tracked us. We just crashed back into it!”
“This is Maple Street on a late Saturday afternoon, in the last calm and reflective moment—before the monsters came.”
And so many more.
But the man I knew, my dad, was not the one the public saw. Not this black and white image walking slowly across an MGM sound stage, cigarette in hand, speaking in a tight, clipped voice, introducing that week’s episode; not the Angry Young Man of the Golden Age of TV; not the writing professor, the documentary narrator, or the commercial pitchman, and certainly not the dark and tortured soul some have suggested.
In Twilight Zone reruns, I search for my father in the man on the screen, but I can’t always find him there. Instead, he appears in unexpected ways. Memory summoned by a certain light, a color, a smell--and I see him again on the porch of our old, red lakeside cottage, where I danced on the steps as a child. He will emerge, come back to life, just like the old snapshot in the album, just like the day the shutter clicked and the picture froze. There he is, playing the stone game, holding it tucked into one hand behind his back. I am one of the children there, his youngest daughter. I see us in our summer shorts, barefoot, all lined up in rows, my sister, our friends, our tiny, sunburned shoulders touching, guessing which hand holds the stone, moving down a step, closer, closer to my father who waits to shake the winner’s hand.
I think of his Twilight Zone episode: “A Stop at Willoughby,” a simple, serene time imagined through a train window. A day just like this.
On a summer afternoon the wind blows hot, humid air, and for just a fraction of a moment, my father, all of us, are there.
The last time I saw my father, it was 1975. He was lying in a hospital bed in a room with bright—too bright—green and yellow walls, inappropriate colors intended to console the sick, the dying. As he slept, curled beneath a sheet, I watched him breathe, willing him to, his face still tan against that pillow so white. And as I sat looking at him, I thought of how, when I was small, I would awaken in my room beside the flowered wallpaper and listen for his footsteps down the hall, comfortable in their familiarity, secure in the insular world of my childhood, knowing without question or doubt that when I followed those sounds, I would always find him.
When he first got sick, I wiped his forehead dry until he became too ill and I could do nothing. “Pops,” he said, calling me one of my many nicknames, “don’t you worry. I’m going to be just fine.” And I looked at him then and nodded because I couldn’t find the words.
My father died there, three days later, on the eighth floor of Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester, New York.
He was just fifty years old, I barely twenty.
I was so blinded by the loss. Terrified by each day that took me further from the last that I had seen him. Incapacitated by the idea of a life without him, my world grew impossibly small and inaccessible. I did not know how to grieve, to accept, to move on. I shut down. I detached. I fell apart.
I replayed those last days of the hospital—the waiting, the doctors in their silent shoes, the unimaginable words—in excruciating, explosive detail as if in the revisiting, the outcome could be changed in some way.
Walking aimlessly outside, I was stunned by the normalcy of those obscenely bright summer skies. I knew it was useless, but I would whisper, “Dad, if you can hear me, make the leaf move. Or the bird; make that bird fly now,” and I would wait. I needed something tangible, some acknowledgment that he could hear me. Some sign that I was not losing my mind.
All of the years that I mourned my father and all of the “magical thinking” that I engaged in could not bring him back. But that didn’t stop my trying. In those first weeks I sat alone in his office chair reaching for pens he had held, papers he had touched. I looked at his photographs, imagining him talking to me. I panicked when I thought it might be possible I could very soon forget the way he smiled, or the sound of his laugh and the way his voice trailed up the stairs calling me Pops or Miss Grumple or Nanny. I was so afraid that I would lose him, lose him incrementally, lose him for good.
But grief is a strange thing. After it slams you, it has nowhere else to go. This understanding can take years, can take its toll, can excise you off the planet. And it did for me. I finally started seeing a therapist after the insistent prodding of friends. It took more than a year but there I sat with Dr. Feinstein, week after week, in a room with shelves of books and no sunlight.
He told me, “You need to visit your father’s grave.” He said it quietly but emphatically. My mother, my friends were all telling me the same thing: “You need closure.” I felt ambushed from all sides. I was not doing well. Although I had just graduated from college, I was depressed. I had panic attacks and the start of agoraphobia. I was overwhelmed by this sadness that was acute and all-consuming and sometimes left me gasping for air. A year passed, then another. June, July, August. Suddenly summers were gone. Fall filled the air in a barrage of color and then succumbed to November skies. It was gray and windy and cold, and I still hadn’t done what I needed to do. I could not go to my father’s grave.
I found the simplest memory could cause the greatest ache. In one, my father—wearing blue shorts, no shirt—is carrying a small green plate with a corned beef sandwich he has just made; in his other hand, a Coke. He is going outside to eat his lunch in the sun. Thinking the sliding doors are open, he walks right into them and yells, “God damn it!”
He is not hurt. When he sees me, he laughs. “I’m okay,” he says, and we are both laughing. On our hands and knees, we clean up the mess with paper towels and pick up the pieces of sandwich. He has a small purple mark on his forehead that within weeks will disappear.
A sticker remains on those glass doors still. It is faded and peeled in one corner but warns when the doors are closed. And sometimes, if I stand there at just around noon on a summer day, I can see the soda spilling across the wood floor, the soaked corned beef on rye, and the green plate tipped in my father’s hand. I can see him turning, tanned, and smiling in the sunlight. I can hear my father laughing in the empty room.