Life After College

Chapter 17 of my memoir, work in progress….

I consider that my post-college phase officially began after the teaching internship at St. Paul’s School, in the late summer/fall of 1983. Since I knew that I had the internship in hand during the remainder of my spring semester at Hampshire College, I really didn’t worry about what would happen after it ended. Again, I just hoped that something magical would transpire to take me to the next step.

In reality, I landed with a thud, and a frightening one at that. I was fortunate to have family in the area – in particular, my Aunt Emily and Uncle Bill, who lived in West Newton, a suburb outside of Boston. Uncle Bill was my mom’s younger brother – the one who went to Harvard, was a Baker Scholar at Harvard B-School, and was then a successful corporate gypsy in the oil industry. He started out in the Philippines, before grad school, working for Chemical Bank. After the two-year stint in business school, he moved to London to work for Conoco. After a few years in the UK, the oil giant sent him and his family packing to Hamburg, Germany and then Houston, Texas. For a staid New Englander, married to a former University of Illinois Homecoming Queen who had lots of allergies, Houston was about as close to Hell as they could have possibly imagined. But he was high up in the organization, and they survived for five years. My favorite Houston story came from my cousin Bill, who was born in the Philippines, raised in London, Hamburg and Houston, and attended St. Paul’s School, as did his father, uncle, and grandfather. One of Bill’s close friends was the cousin of Dusty Hill, the legendary bass player and vocalist for the rock band ZZ Top. Bill spent Christmas dinner at their house, with Dusty at the end of the table, beard, rock clothing, and the whole bit. The family was a stuffy upper-crust Houston clan, and they did not necessarily approve of what Dusty did for a living, but… “He made a lot of money, so it was okay.” I’ve never quite gotten the image of that Christmas dinner out of my head, which is a good thing.

So Aunt Emily and Uncle Bill, who would become my surrogate parents throughout my 20s and 30s, offered to let me live with them in West Newton for the final three weeks of the summer, and I would have that time to find a job and an apartment in the Boston area. Aunt Emily was on the Cape at the family compound in Bass River, and Uncle Bill was working, so I had their enormous and imposing Victorian house to myself for that period. I was still driving my dad’s 1971 Chevy Nova, which he had given to me in the fall of 1981 with over 100,000 miles on it, and which I then drove across the country by myself.

If ever I had the fear of God in me, it was during those weeks in West Newton. I was stymied, facing the rest of my life and not having a clue what I would do. Everything crashed down on me at once. I wandered around the house, looking at all the impressive memorabilia and artwork that they had collected from their far-flung travels, as well as the imposing Henry Family treasures that adorned their walls, the most impressive being the paintings and artifacts from Captain William Wyman Henry’s infamous travels in the China Trade. Captain Henry was the son of a sea captain, William Henry, who plied the seas in the 1830s. His son, William Wyman, was a captain during the heyday of the U.S. merchant marine: the relatively short period of a few decades (1850s and 60s) before the transcontinental railroad was finished, during which the only way to transport goods from the Eastern Seaboard to the West Coast, particularly, San Francisco, which was booming due to the gold rush, was by ship. So shipbuilders went to work, designing and building the fastest, largest merchant ships that could be built with the technology at hand – primarily, wood, rope and canvas. Donald McKay was among the most renowned designers and builders, with a large shipyard in East Boston. Essentially, the aim was to build the sleekest, fastest hull that would, at the same time, carry as much cargo as possible, and then attach the maximum amount of rigging to attain the greatest sail area, and therefore the greatest speed. McKay and others accomplished exactly that, and sea captains risked life and limb going “round the Horn” (around the tip of South America) to speed goods from Boston and New York, to San Francisco, China, and back. It was literally a race – both for reputation and for commerce – for the captains and their owners. Looking back, it seems a romantic notion, with great wealth being made and life at sea a fantastic journey of adventure. In fact, it was probably a grueling way of life, and the sea captain bore the brunt of the stress. I look at how authoritarianism, self-will, great risk taking and extreme independence runs through my mom’s side of the family, and I have no doubt that it stems from these sea captains – both William Henry and William Wyman Henry. In the early 1800s, William the Elder ran away from the family farm near Topsfield, Massachusetts with his brother John (essentially saying “screw THIS”) to jump aboard ship and learn the sea trade, with both eventually rising to the rank of Captain. His son, William Wyman, followed in his father’s footsteps and became a captain of Clipper Ships, as the fast ships became known by mid-century. His son was William Linzee Henry, who owned his own business – a fat rendering (to make soap) company in Charlestown, Massachusetts – and who purchased the property on Bass River, Cape Cod, in 1896. He and his wife, Florence Gertrude Furbush, had three children, Samuel Eliot, Dorothy __??__, and Andrew Kidder, my mom’s father.

I was intimidated and awestruck as I considered my future in the face of all this family lore surrounding me in this great old house in West Newton. No way I’d ever live up to all this, despite having done well in college and having a name-brand internship under my belt. I was booted from prep school and didn’t attend an Ivy League college. I would never be what I could have been, and I reminded myself of this constantly during these solitary weeks, as I had been doing, off and on, for years. However, I had survived the difficult and aimless period after prep school and was determined to make a go of it. My family’s history of success and achievement did serve as an inspiration, when not intimidating the hell out of me. Unlike my father, for whom failure was almost a foregone conclusion because the expectations were so high that they could never be fulfilled, my Uncle Bill and Aunt Emily were different. They also had the highest of standards, but they also believed in me, and this was a critical difference. It’s also why they played such an important role in my life – they were like parents, but they were not my parents. Though Uncle Bill (also William Linzee Henry) could be the ultimate hard-ass, with his bellowing voice dictating this or that – especially when sailing or at the Cape – he was often rational, kind, helpful, and keenly interested in helping people find practical solutions to their problems. It was heartwarming for me, that this person who I had always felt was so cold and distant, took such a warm and thoughtful interest in me. He was no stranger to life’s difficulties – he too had spent some post-college disillusioned years trying to figure things out – but he pulled himself up and applied himself diligently, and achieved great things. But more to the point, for me, despite my failures, such as getting kicked out of Taft (he was the uncle who was so disappointed), he saw that I had applied myself and recovered, and he and Aunt Emily really believed in me. That confidence, coming from my own distinguished family, was new and different for me, and it helped immeasurably.

With some prodding from a fellow Hampshire Alum who was living in Cambridge – she told me “Yeah, you can get a job as a busboy; all you have to do is apply!” – I got a job at Seaside Restaurant in Faneuil Hall and soon after an apartment in Somerville for $150 a month. I made about $500 a month at the restaurant before taxes, so I was all set. My new life in a new city had begun.

Memoir – chapter 1

My dad was in Youville Hospital again. This is an old rehab hospital a few miles outside of Harvard Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He had been there the previous spring, but this time the call from my step-mother was more urgent. He was in bad shape.

I entered into the 1930s-40s time-warp that is Youville Hospital. The hallways had an unpleasant green color; the linoleum floor and fluorescent overhead lights gave a bleached but dim effect to the place. It was not like modern city hospitals, which are brightly lit, with comfortable, almost homey-feeling rooms. The worst part was that in every room, people looked like they were dying (many were, in fact, doing just that), and the hallway generally smelled of death and depression. Quite a few were on ventilators—machines invented to keep people alive no matter what, for those who had neither the foresight nor courage to sign “Do Not Resussitate” (DNR) orders.

When my dad had been here the previous spring, he was feisty. Very annoyed that he was uncomfortable and wasn’t getting the level of service or care he wanted. But for me that was good, as much as it pained me to see him so uncomfortable. It showed that he had fight in him. He had had so many “close calls” over the previous 10 years that it had become routine. Except that it wasn’t, because every time, I went through the whole emotional roller coaster of what was going to happen…would he live or die. So part of me numbed myself to the pain and part was in denial. The rest put on a smile and went there to be with him. After he recovered, however—during the summer, when I spent excessive amounts of “me” time, rowing, working, being there for my kids at home and dealing with my strained marriage—I was more in denial than usual. I avoided seeing him, and I had a sneaking suspicion that that was a bad idea, because there was something about his health that scared me. He was always frail, but he had signs of greater deterioration. The one time I visited him in his Longwood Towers apartment that summer, he was on a new enormous oxygen tank for his now-extreme case of emphysema. It wasn’t one of those fire extinguisher types—this tank was about half the size of a typical basement water heater. He had a long tube, which he dragged around the apartment. It was a nuisance, but he didn’t complain. He was all smiles as he sat at his kitchen table doing the crossword. I don’t even know what we talked about that bright sunny day. I just knew that he seemed much closer to death than ever before. He was so much mellower, slower, relaxed…and that was saying something, because he had become very slow, mellow and relaxed in his senior years—a big change from his “younger dad” years, when he was extremely temperamental, moody, domineering and enigmatic. I felt uncomfortable sitting there with him. He was in such bad shape but was so fine with it all. I left earlier than I should have, not being able to think of enough things to talk about, and I felt guilty afterwards. It was my only visit that summer. It was almost like I was waiting for him to die, after all the years of ups and downs. And the guilt of that was enormous, because I truly loved him and didn’t want him to die.

Toward the end of the summer, Libby, my step-mother, told me she had arranged a relatively minor operation for dad. With his oxygen needs now very great, it had become uncomfortable and almost dangerous for him to continue using the breathing apparatus through his nose. They had a procedure in which they’d cut a hole in his trachea and stick the oxygen tube directly into it. It would supply the oxygen more directly, reducing the amount needed and making him much more comfortable. Theoretically.

The problem was that the world-class surgeon at Brigham & Women’s Hospital in Boston didn’t quite get the size of the hole right. He cut a hole that was too big. The excuse was that dad’s trachea was much stronger and thicker than most, owing to his life-long passion for singing (he had been in a cappella groups since college). As a result, the tube didn’t fit properly and leaked. He had to have another operation to stick some kind of filler in there to caulk up the leaks. It sounded like a typical surgical snafu – a “routine” operation that had gotten all botched up.

By the time he was done with operation number two, it was Labor Day weekend, and he hadn’t eaten in many days. His body was starting to shut down. This is where it got interesting. According to Libby, the hospital where he was staying, Brigham & Women’s Hospital—one of the leading hospitals in the world and a Harvard teaching Hospital—“didn’t have the staff available” to provide dad with food intraveniously. I found that hard to believe, but I wasn’t in the decision-making process (I later found out from reliable sources that there’s no way this statement could have been true). So she inexplicably moved him to Youville.

Libby called me sometime the second week of September, after dad had been in Youville for over a week and was in very bad shape. This was the first I had heard from her since she told me about the operation in mid-August. She told me I had better come in soon—he didn’t have much time left. I had heard this before, but her tone sounded much different this time: much more urgent and frightening.

When I arrived, dad had full-on pneumonia, was on morphine and was on a ventilator. He was sleeping so I couldn’t communicate with him. He looked horrible—almost no life in him at all. I was stunned. I had no idea it had gotten this bad. Libby went through the whole explanation about the operation, etc, but I was numb. I talked to the doctor, a tall, gentle black guy, who told me dad was on what they called “comfort care.”

I had no idea what this meant.

I said, but wait, can’t you give him food intravenously?

He said, “That’s no use.”

This was incomprehensible to me. I asked, “What do you mean? Isn’t there anything you can do?”

“There really isn’t,” he responded, gently but directly. “We’re just trying to keep him as comfortable as possible.” He had done this many times before, and I suspect it was not his favorite part of the job.

It slowly sank in. I felt a flood of tears, combined with an ice-cold numbness that held them back, as I realized that dad was on as much morphine as he wanted to keep him comfortable. He was going to die and it would happen soon.

I asked how much longer, and the doctor said, “Maybe a week. It’s hard to tell.”

So here it was at last. All the close calls. All the times dad came back from near-death to defy all the odds. It wasn’t going to happen this time.

I went back home to call my sister and brother. My oldest brother Jay had died 10 months before, and I was the first to break the news to both my mom and dad. It was horrible, happening suddenly and without warning when his aorta exploded out of the blue as he sat working at his home office desk at four in the morning. I sat with dad in tears in his apartment, and he comforted me. I was so glad I was with him as I told him the news. Now I had to announce dad’s situation to Anne and Will. I told them that this was it—the real deal. They needed to get on a plane as soon as possible because there was no telling how much time he had left—maybe a week, but probably only a few days. They got a plane early the following morning, which just happened to be September 11th.

I went back to the hospital that night. Dad was awake but just slightly coherent. I looked at his eyes very close. He was barely there, but he recognized me. I told him I loved him and that registered. I told him Anne and Will were coming, and his eyes lit up. That was nice. After a bit, I got up to leave with Libby. Then dad did something I’ll never forget and which was quintessentially “dad.” He pointed to the TV—the Red Sox were on and he wanted to hear the game.

He died early the next morning, and I wasn’t there for it. I was so sad…I really wanted to be with him when he died. But I had my cell phone off, which was completely idiotic, and Libby either forgot or didn’t think to call my home number. It doesn’t matter in the long run—he was out of it, and he died comfortably. But at the time I was an emotional wreck, racing into the room hours after he had passed. I shut the door and cried as I held his cold arm, saying over and over “I’m so sorry Dad…I’m so sorry…” through my tears. They had removed his ventilator, so his mouth was in an open and contorted position. It was a horrendous sight and I could barely look at him. Libby, who had been a nurse all her life, was unphased by this image of dad – she probably looked at it differently…his soul was gone, so who cares what his corpse looks like? It makes sense to me, but at the time I could barely stomach her care-free attitude. Her closest life-long friends from her fancy Nantucket social circle showed up. They all seemed as happy as they could be. What in God’s name were they so happy about? It mystified me, but she and her Greenwich-Nantucket crowd had always set me ill-at-ease. They were beyond fake.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but my dad’s death, followed by my brother’s the previous November, would lead to the third event in what I now call my Mid-Life Trifecta, with the third event being the end of my marriage three months later.