Al to Dad, Al to Dad — Calling Dad, Come in, Dad
Your exit left a hole in my heart.
Monday, October 19, 2020
It’s been more than nine years since you left this world. But a wound like that doesn’t close quickly.
On Thursday, I went for a checkup at the new doctors’ offices across from Mountainside Hospital in Montclair, the hospital where you died. When I round the bend at Claremont Avenue and your place of death looms large on my right, I always think of that last night: Tuesday, March 8, 2011.
It was cold and dark, and I had parked a couple of blocks away —free street parking. I was eager to see you and didn’t want to bother with the parking deck. (I won’t lie. In my harried state, I also may not have had cash or a card on me to pay for it.) Things were scary and stressful at home, with health issues. I went alone.
You were in bed, in a hospital gown. Someone asked me if I wanted to swab your mouth with that little sponge-tipped wand, dipped in water. I did.
You could barely talk. You had a bad, painful infection, and a long challenge with spinal stenosis. And we (Sis and I) think you had suffered some mini strokes that had gone undiagnosed.
Yet you croaked “How’s your writing?” It didn’t register for me. “Your article. The one about cars,” you said. Your voice was hoarse, your throat dry. I was writing an article for Good Housekeeping about how to save money on car repairs.
“Oh, it’s okay,” I said. I had forgotten that I asked you how often to get oil changes — before double-checking with auto industry experts. You weren’t a mechanic. You had been a chemist. But for all my life, I watched you do everything yourself. And I turned to you for advice whenever possible.
You were the original DIY expert. At our house on Bedford Road in Dumont, you tarred the driveway, climbed a ladder to clean the gutters, changed the car engine oil — and, in the 1970s, constructed a compost station, complete with sifting screen. We brought out our eggshells, coffee grounds and vegetable scraps. You dug a barbecue pit in the backyard, surrounded it with a circle of stones, popped in coals and a grate.
You bought a used French Renault (“The Little Fella”) and loved toying with the engine and driving it locally. Some nights, we took it to Garden State Farms, a small store in New Milford, to get a half-gallon of milk in a real glass bottle. You treated me to a Nutty Buddy cone there. We drove around looking at Christmas lights.
You grew tomatoes, zucchini and irises — and fat, fragrant pink and white peonies, which Mommy loved. You made a little winding path in front of our garden, and added a lot of clam shells from Cape Cod, bleached white in the sun. You grew a tree from a peach pit and trimmed the forsythia into neat, boxy shapes.
You rolled your own cigarettes for a while, to save money, using the Laredo tobacco kit. You grew up with your Italian Dad making wine in the basement in the Bronx, so you tried growing grapes on a wood trellis.
You painted the inside and outside of our house — never hired a painter. You baked bread sometimes, and made tomato sauce and once, even tomato soup cake. On the day after Thanksgiving, you shaped turkey and stuffing into croquettes, aka turkey balls, browned in the old black cast-iron skillet. My friend Irene and I loved them.
It was you by Patchy’s side in the basement when she gave birth to the kittens, Tomato and Tiger. And you, and you alone, who tried to nurse a baby bird when our big tree was cut down and a nest fell with it. You borrowed my dolly’s bottle, but it just didn’t work.
You fixed all my broken chains — fragile necklaces, bracelets. When I was a teenager, and Mom was out at one of her activities (maybe Thursday night bowling, the one time she wore pants), we baked a cake from a mix and you said it was fine to use olive oil in the batter. (We didn’t have Wesson or butter on hand.) Decades later, olive oil cakes were the trendy baker’s favorite.
You knew Latin, and Greek. You finished up your Master’s Degree in night school just before I was born — you already had John, Sis and Will, three children before me. You told me “I thought to myself that I better get my degree before this one arrives. And I was right.” You smiled, as if I was a handful.
We were the best of friends, and I miss you so. That’s not to say that you weren’t Sis’s best friend, too. You called us both every night to check in.
You made me laugh. Helped me look on the bright side. Believed in me. You loved our Annie so much, and our puffy, fluffy white Sugar, too — and Sis and Don’s dog, Maggie. You loved your sons.
Well, I’m crying now. I am so lucky I had the gift of John Garbarini for my father. You were not perfect — no one is. You had a temper, like when you were teaching me to drive, in our green Datsun, with a stick shift, in the broiling summer. And I still remember in sixth/seventh grade, studying names of Italian explorers from my history book — Verrazzano, Vespucci. I couldn’t keep them straight and you tried to help. You had come right from work, still had a collared white shirt on, suit pants. You yelled and your face turned red. We were sitting on the living room sofa. But through it all, I knew you loved me.
Dad, I am so grateful for your good, true heart. Thank you for being there. Thank you for caring. For standing by me when life was easy, and when it was hard.
The world is not the same without you. When I drive over the Tappan Zee Bridge (now the Governor Mario M. Cuomo Bridge, as I’m sure you know from the starry heavens above), I think of all the times we coasted over it on trips to the Cape. For years, you drove — then I took the wheel. We tossed beloved memories back and forth — well-worn anecdotes about your mother, father and brothers, and Mommy’s family. Stories we loved to buff and polish, like the jewels they were.
I look out at the Hudson River now, glistening in the sun. I blink back tears. No one sitting at my right to say, “Hey Al? Remember how you came back every day from looking for a job in the city and your high heels were worn down? Remember when I drove you and Maureen to Girl Scouts and I put the ‘Mystery Theater’ on the radio and said, ‘Shhh, be quiet, Maureen wants to listen?’”
Yes, I remember, Dad.
In my naïveté, I did not know that night at the hospital would be the last I would see you alive.
“Dad, I have to go,” I said. “I parked on a street I don’t know and I don’t want to walk out alone in the dark.” I was not familiar with the neighborhood, and was worried about Annie.
“So go,” you said. But not in a hurt or insulted way. You always wanted me to be safe.
You are not in the passenger seat now, not anymore.
Or are you?
Alice Garbarini Hurley was a writer at Good Housekeeping, Seventeen and other magazines, and her work has appeared in The New York Times, Coastal Living and InStyle. She writes regularly for ASPIRE DESIGN AND HOME Magazine. Her mother, Anne, died when Alice was 20. Until his death 30 years later, at almost 88, her Dad encouraged her — and taught her about the magic of storytelling, with his vivid memories of the Lindbergh kidnapping, FDR’s fireside radio chats and mystery shows. One of his favorite details from “Miracle on 34th Street” is the cane in the last frame.