“It is not down in any map;
true places never are.”
—Herman Melville, Moby Dick
So. I have spent much of my life trying to tease out the dissonance and harmonies of life in order to quantify them, as if I practiced long and hard enough, the secrets of the garden would reveal themselves to me and me alone, and I would lay with Eve and see all that came before and after, until I could no longer stand all the things I knew.
Try as I might to suckle on the minds of great thinkers and to bathe in the chronicles of one-of-a-kind lives, it wasn’t until my father died in my arms on a balmy autumn night that I truly knew the folly of “knowing.” At that moment, I was transformed. Don’t confuse that with being struck by lightning, or acquiring a brain tumor enabling someone to recite the periodic table in Latin, or any of that crap.
My transformation was hard-won. In the days preceding his death, this great orator, who had argued successfully before the Supreme Court of the United States, went silent. Still, I knew what I had to do to fulfill the sacred oath I had made to my father. The treasure trove of time we had spent together dueling as parent and child, one-upping each other as teacher and student and, most recently, bickering as intimate, spouse-like friends, swept over me, and I knew in my heart of hearts the meaning and intensity of what we had accomplished together.
For more than fifty years, we were the dynamic duo—Batman and Robin, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Santiago and Manolin, the Green Hornet and Kato, Thelma and Louise. I was a sentence ahead of most people, and he was four ahead of me.
So when my father was about to take his last great breath, I was not expecting a final statement that would knock the Earth off its axis. If he could have spoken those last few words, here is what he would have said: “Sayonara, son!”
Dad just died. These things happen in a split second, like a 100- mph fastball before it cracks you upside your head.
Jimmy once said to me as I was topping off his bowl of bucatini all’Amatriciana, “Kid, when I’m dead, I’m fucking dead.” And I’ll be damned if he wasn’t right.
Always the joker, my dad! And playing the good son meant being a dutiful straight man, which I was.
When I was a boy, Dad and I would sit in a diner on Lexington Avenue and try to guess the profession and/or oddities associated with the other patrons. It was fun as I got to learn adult things way before my time. I learned that older women had a reputation as bad tippers, that toast was always smeared with butter, unless you explicitly requested otherwise, and that some black waitresses could curse like champs in Yiddish.
My father’s days were a whirlwind of people vying for his attention, so getting Dad to myself was always a treat. Sometimes we would go for a steam at the New York Athletic Club. There were always a few lawyers or judges hanging about who chatted us up. These big, hairy guys got a kick out of seeing this skinny string bean of a kid without a speck of hair on his body walking around with Dad.
One day, when I was 16, we had the steam room pretty much to ourselves, so I broached a topic that had me more than a little worried. There is no other way to say this, dear God, so please forgive me: My father had unusually large testicles that hung by long, leathery sacks that looked like fist-sized brass nuggets blessed by Zeus himself. It was really rather alarming to me, considering you needed an electron microscope to find mine at the time.
“Dad, did yours look like mine and will mine look like yours? I’m not trying to be a wise guy…”
I had barely begun my query before the few other men in the steam room quickly left while trying to stifle their laughter. Dad gave me the look and I dropped the subject.
In my family, there were two mortal sins, and if you committed one or the other, you were a nudnik and were cast out. Someone who was a stool pigeon was worse than a pedophile. Such rats died horrible deaths in the family dungeon. Even our dogs had a certain ballsy swagger, as if to tell the other dogs that “we know things you don’t.”
My upbringing suggested that the Ten Commandments existed as a kind of celestial test to see if you could outwit them without being caught. Children were off limits, and the innocent should be spared; otherwise, it was GAME ON! That takes judgment, which was the second family commandment. Keen objective judgment, above all else, was mandatory and gave us kids a kind of smart-ass moral compass, however cockeyed.
My father was my TrueNorth, so I bought into his exuberance lock, stock, and barrel. My three siblings, all infinitely wiser than me, had other fish to fry. So they went on with their lives, knowing I would kick up a huge fuss to find the answer to the unknowable, no matter what. Although this tale is as much theirs as mine, one of my sisters has requested anonymity, which I will steadfastly honor. (“Not all the fingers on your hand are the same.” —Guatemalan proverb)
The quest for the meaning of life is a journey better accomplished solo, like the great sled race in Alaska, the Iditarod. If I’m going down with the dogs, I’d rather not have anyone cooking s’mores on my best Cubans and laughing their asses off at me as I freeze to death.
There’s little doubt that my day of ultimate reckoning is coming soon enough. In our years in Southern California, I not only indulged Dad beyond all reason, but I was responsible for keeping him alive against all odds. In those five years, hobbled and on oxygen, he used every tool in his sizable arsenal to get my kids to transfer to colleges in California, steal Tripp’s wife, Lily, for himself, sneak a dog he named Hootie into the house the one and only weekend I wasn’t there with him, suggest we raise wild boars in our modest backyard to slaughter and age for ragu, and somehow tiptoe a rare cigarette into the house at the risk of immolating our entire block should a spark hit the powerful oxygen machines that pumped day and night. And that was an average weekend.
As a man, Dad was a force of nature—a fact not lost on many of his closest colleagues and friends. His lifestyle was both alarming and mesmerizing, like the proverbial car wreck we cannot turn away from. A thousand jury trials by day while carousing all night: Where in the Bible does it say that can’t be done? He must have known that his daring life had a gigantic HAZARD warning stamped on it, much like the cigarettes he used as props throughout much of his life. He wholly ignored those warnings, fully confident that he could beat the odds no matter what.
Every now and then, those brass balls of his would come to haunt him in the form of his “Mini-Me.” Yes, ladies and gentlemen, if you live by the sword, you die by the sword.
Thanks to one of Jimmy’s drivers, who took me under his wing at an early age, I became the ace behind the wheel of almost any car, so it shouldn’t have surprised anyone when my father woke me at dawn in a raging blizzard to drive him from our house in Connecticut to Kennedy Airport. Dad had to catch a plane to God-Knows-Where and his driver couldn’t make it from the City. At the ripe old age of fifteen, and with a mere Connecticut driver’s permit, I, of course, took this as a gift from The Divine.
My father had been up all night drinking with friends. In those days, it was gin on ice in summer and whiskey on ice in winter. You always knew the season in our household. Well, as luck would have it, when Dad got into the back of my mother’s giant Buick Estate wagon and took a decidedly unprofessional prone position, I knew he had dipped into the elixir of death, B & B (Bénédictine and brandy) the evening before. The Mother Jones of hooch was at the top of the top of “The Boozer’s Periodic Table of Heroin-Equivalent Substances.”
This was going to be fun. I made sure to hit a giant snowdrift at the foot of our driveway, putting Dad on the floorboards. As he was making some sort of medieval deal with the devil about never drinking B & B again if he was allowed to live, I careened down the closed Merritt Parkway at such a barrel roll that the state troopers dotting the exits let us fly by, telling each other that some guy’s pregnant wife must have had her water break, or some such lazy-ass cop nonsense that they reserve for one another.
I had installed a new eight-track stereo in my mother’s beast of a car so I could host the entire football team at the local graveyard, where we got high before games. As Dad recited his devilish encyclicals in the back, I turned up the one eight-track that was in the car—a little ditty called “Smoke on the Water.” I was having a grand old time listening to Dad plead for his life as I sang at the top of my lungs, hurtling toward JFK in the world’s biggest Molotov cocktail.
I certainly had the upper hand, which was not likely to happen again for a good long time, so I milked the opportunity for all it was worth. Not only was I fully aware of the fact that Dad had forgotten his luggage and probably didn’t know where he was even going, but I was certain that Kennedy would be closed as the season’s biggest Nor’easter set straight down on us like the clap at Woodstock. Every now and then as Dad’s begging went quiet, I’d utter something just loud enough for Jimmy to know I was giving him the business, but quiet enough to give me deniability later. I had learned from the master, baby, and as I made sure I hit as many snow-covered guard rails as was humanly possible, I could see in the rearview mirror that he was dying the death of a thousand cuts.
When I pulled up to Kennedy, I got out, advising Dad to stay put until I found out what was going on. The “Smoke on the Water” eight-track had burned up by then, so I left Dad in peace while I bummed a cigarette from a porter, who confirmed that the airport was, in fact, CLOSED. I don’t know whether my father viewed the news as good or bad. I turned around and put another six dents in the “Homicide Wagon” on the thirty-five-mile trek back home. I cooked Dad a big breakfast and put him to bed.
My mother actually cried when she saw what was left of her car. I just shook my head, not wanting to be a stool pigeon. She gave me a good whack and went off to cry some more. “BAD DADDY,” I muttered under my breath.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I did—once and only once— embarrass myself as the ultimate wheelman.
Ironically, it happened the very first week I possessed a full and valid Connecticut driver’s license. I had caddied two loops (thirty- six holes) with two bags and had a cool $76 in my pocket. I had borrowed a later model of my mother’s Buick Estate wagon—the one with the fake wood on the side. I stopped to buy French fries at McDonald’s and headed down a back road littered with long driveways leading to giant estates. I dropped the fries. I went down to pick them up and lost track of time. Dad’s driver could teach me how to drive, but common sense was still my own cross to bear.
While I was retrieving the fries, I crossed over to the oncoming lane. I looked up just in time to say hello to a giant stone estate marker. After eating a substantial chunk of the steering wheel, I stepped out completely dazed and bloody.
The next thing I knew, I was in a surgical theater, doped up, looking up at a young resident and a cop. My mouth was stuffed with gauze so I couldn’t speak.
“You’re a lucky young man,” the resident said. “Everyone says that was quite a wreck. One of the hospital’s best oral surgeons is on his way.”
“We pulled your father off the golf course, kid,” said the cop. “He’s on the way.”
My heart hit my throat, but all I could do was groan a faint, “UUUHHHGG, NNAAAHHOOOOO.”
My mind started to register my fate. Sure enough, golf cleats on hard tile floors could be heard in the distance. The cleats were coming hard and fast. Police radios were also approaching. The cop and doctor looked to where the noise was coming from, then looked at one another as the human hurricane approached, then backed away from me.
The cleats, now in the surgical theater, suddenly stopped. I couldn’t turn my head sideways, but I didn’t need to. I braced myself. It sounded like the surgeon had arrived and was sputtering some nonsense to placate the maniacal tumbleweed dressed head to toe in Izod that had just arrived by police escort.
“He’s had some periodontal collapse and will need some teeth capped and quite a few stitches, but all in all, he came out of that wreck quite miraculously. I passed the car on the way here.”
Suddenly, a large, hairy hand grabbed my face and turned it so he could better see the damage to my mouth.
The surgeon pleaded with him. “Please, we need to keep him sterile.”
I looked up at my father, JAMES M. LA ROSSA ESQ., and I managed a slight snicker, and to get a small piece of my tongue out of my mouth. He withdrew his hand and nuggied the top of my head with his knuckle—not too hard because I was on an operating table. A huge baritone voice uttered the unmistakable word: “ASSHOLE!” The cleats began to move away now that he knew his beloved namesake would live to torture him another day. Even though my face was still stuffed with gauze, I tried with all my might to counter my father.
“AFFFFFFFSSOLLLE!” I yelled as loud as I could to no avail. The cleats were clicking on the hard floor, getting farther away, as my father sang out: “ASSSSSSHHHHHHOOOOOOOLLLLLLE!”
With the cleats and police scanners suddenly gone, I started to laugh uncontrollably and to say “AFFFFSSOLLLE,” but the cotton shifts and blood filled my mouth.
“Clean the kid up, for fuck’s sake,” said the rattled surgeon to his resident. I knew, somehow, at an early age that I was living a unique life in my father’s wake. To this day, I often find myself saying out loud what I have often thought: That I just can’t help it if I’m lucky.
No matter how fertile the imagination, life with my father could not be depicted as any crazier than it truly was. Things just happened out of the blue with great regularity. Between Dad’s at-home antics and his frenetic “day job”—the lawyers, guns, and money—our lives were like a circus act without a net.
Dad was brutally sharp when lawyering, but he could be immensely charming when court was not in session. In fact, he might well have been the last lawyer in New York who was loved by other defense lawyers, judges, and even prosecutors, however begrudgingly. Jurors fawned over him in open court. For more than thirty years, Dad had his hand in every major criminal prosecution of note.
There was just something about Jimmy that could charm a juror from Queens as readily as the most blue-blooded judge. Dad could bring a mob boss to tears on the witness stand. That same mobster, at the defense table, would shudder at Jimmy’s toughness and guile. As was said more than once about my father, “He’s a mean motherfucker, but he’s MY MOTHERFUCKER.”
You should know from the start that this memoirist was not the model child. In fact, if you had known me at thirteen, you’d be amazed that I could even string this sentence together. Nor would you likely care because I was an immense dick—a real wiseacre, as my grandfather, Pop, used to say.
My mother, who was a cross between Lucille Ball and Rocky Marciano, received the overwhelming brunt of my dickheadedness. I was somehow convinced (wrongly, it turned out) that my mother was stupid. Not just stupid, but lacking in anything of interest. Why? Because my mother was not my father.
On those rare times he was home, Dad could do no wrong. Mom, who was always there, tried to corral me with hands as quick as lightning, but since she weighed 105 pounds soaking wet, I baited her as easily as Lord Voldemort baited Harry Potter. I waited for my father to roll up the driveway in the big, sparkling Caddy to save me with the magic that he and only he possessed, or so I believed in my dickweed of a brain.
It wasn’t long before Dad smoked me out and I learned that my act wouldn’t cut the mustard as long as I disrespected my mother. My father didn’t have to raise a hand. One of his disappointed looks could render me, well, dickless.
“What went on while I was gone?”
No hello or hi, son. Just BOOM—the boot came down.
I tripped over my words. He was not one to wait. “Tell me…if you even know.”
“Well, Dad, she won’t…”
“SHE? You mean YOUR MOTHER?”
“Well yes, she…” “YOUR MOTHER.”
I don’t know how many talks started that exact way, with me using the subconscious and disrespectful “she.” Why the Old Man never hauled off and knocked me upside my thick head is still a mystery. I guess he knew I’d come around eventually, that I was not a mean kid, just dimwitted.
He also knew that Mom was an easy mark for me, but that I was no bully. Just the opposite. I had grown up defending my younger brother, who underwent numerous eye surgeries that often left him wearing an eye patch to school—a subject of ridicule among the other kids. I was equally protective of my much younger sisters, who bunked in together during the awful spring thunderstorms that hit our high patch of land in chronic succession. On those nights, I would roll up in a sleeping bag in the doorway of their bedroom to calm their screams.
When I was seventeen, I would wait for my mother to arrive home on late Wednesday afternoons. She would invariably return from her therapist with more emotions than answers, and I would sit with her while she cried. Later that year, Mom made a serious suicide attempt while Dad was trying a case in Philadelphia. Before she fell unconscious, she had called her psychiatrist’s answering service to say, “This is Mrs. La Rossa. Tell the doctor it wasn’t his fault.” The smart service person alerted the local authorities.
My siblings were all asleep. I was watching Sanford and Son on TV in the library when squad cars poured into the circular driveway from both entrances. The police swarmed into my parents’ wing with me close behind and they threw my mother into a squad car, raced her to Greenwich Hospital, and barely saved her. Later that day, I found in her room a bottle of red wine, a pill case of Quaaludes, and Helter Skelter, the 1974 book by Los Angeles District Attorney Vincent Bugliosi on the Charles Manson murders.
I could not imagine how profoundly deep a hole she had been in while I was watching Redd Foxx cracking jokes and pleading for mercy to his best prop, his dead wife. When Mom woke in the hospital safe and sound, she swore she would not try that again and regained her footing. For a long while, she was her own giddy self.
When she was well, my mother, Gayle, was a happy and light- spirited person. Her physical countenance was as buoyant as her personality; she was a long, lean, beautiful woman, with slight buckteeth, whose effervescent smile could light up a room. Until she took up alcohol in her mid-thirties, this is the way I remember her. (I was born when my mother was just nineteen years old.)
My mother’s parents, Frank and Mary Marino, were second cousins. (My grandmother, herself born a Marino, did not need to change her name when she married.) Mary’s grandfather was the Italian Consulate to Canada. Many of my mother’s childhood summers were spent up north.
Mary’s politically connected grandfather gave her a foolhardy sense of superiority, which she dished out to everyone in her path. From what I was told growing up, she didn’t get along with any other living creature, other than a rattlesnake, as Dad used to remind me. Mary’s husband, Frank Marino, attended Columbia Medical School’s College of Physicians and Surgeons but ultimately decided to become a pharmacist during the heyday of drug compounding, at which he excelled. He opened a small pharmacy in Brooklyn. Unfortunately, Mary drove away many of Frank’s customers with her back-biting mean spiritedness. My grandfather, a rather nice, capable fellow, who had long relinquished the pants in the family to his overbearing wife, became a journeyman freelance pharmacist until they retired to a small condo in South Florida with a central view of an illuminated gas station sign from their front porch.
As Mary sunk further into a morass of affective mental disorders and physical illnesses, she decided to send her only child, who had graduated from high school at sixteen, to “finishing school” instead of college. My mother suffered greatly at her mother’s hand. My parents—two neighborhood kids—met when my mother was seventeen.
After my parents married, Mary’s small-minded coup de grâce was picking a fight with my father. Dad had decided to work for the Justice Department instead of becoming a lawyer for an insurance company, a job Mary “preferred” because of its steady 40-hour a week future in any economy. “Who does that man think he is?” Mary was heard to muse about my ambitious father. After all, her grandfather was the Italian Consulate to Canada—don’t forget that! What did that little guinea think would come of him? Did he really believe he could climb to the top of the legal pyramid? Foolish man.
A lasting, epic clue to the “Marino Legacy” comes in the form of Mary’s racial prejudice, which peaked with anti-Semitic ranting. My father could not stomach it, so he barred her from his house. I now know that this anti-Semitism of Mary’s held a secret riddle: For those who relish in hatefulness, there is no better satisfaction than that of self- hatred. (Feel free to quote me if you’d like.)
Mary could not know that, years earlier, during those summer holidays in Canada, her prominent grandfather had taken a shine to his smart, pretty, great-granddaughter, Gayle.
Mom finally put it all together with her therapist. When I was seventeen, she confided in me after one of her Wednesday afternoon sessions.
The many friends that traversed my parents’ life were all either Italian or Jewish. Our tiny bit of Jewish heritage wasn’t much of a surprise to me. After all, until I lived in Rome (1984-1985), I was better versed in Yiddish than Italian. And that was that. Chapter closed.
In my early twenties, we moved permanently back to New York City. Perhaps my father was right: We may have had the biggest house in Greenwich, but we were just passing through. Everything settled down and my mother and I grew closer.
My parents always had acrimonious spurts. It all came down to Dad wanting MORE and Mom wanting LESS—travel, parties, houses… you name it. My father was the son of a postman and housewife, raised in the same Marine Park area of Flatbush, Brooklyn, where the baseball legends, Frank and Joe Torre, hailed from. Dad slept on a couch until he went to the Marines so that his younger sister, Dolores, could have her own bedroom.
Mom wanted more alone time with Dad. This was the last thing Dad wanted. He was a social animal by nature and could not stop himself. Dad deeply loved my mother, yet he rationalized that the privileged life he worked to give her made up for his absence. Dad didn’t care much about cars, but he collected houses and apartments like some people collect stamps. My educated guess was that he was never going back to that living room couch in Flatbush, no matter who or what got in his way.
Then something happened that took me by surprise. When my mother was diagnosed with adult MS in the early 1990s after falling in the middle of a Paris boulevard, Dad dug in and was by her side every step of the way. His transformation lasted about seven years. Shockingly, it was not Dad who broke the peace.
It took us by surprise when Mom asked for a divorce and sentenced Dad to the guest room. I was not present the night my mother used the “D-Word” for the first time. Gianni, just four years old at the time, had awoken that morning with a painful bowel obstruction of some kind that left him howling every few hours. I had scrambled most of the day to figure an unobtrusive way to clear it, but by dinnertime, we were all too wiped out to make it to the “family restaurant” for one my sister’s birthday celebrations.
We met as a family for more than a decade at a restaurant in the West Village called Ennio & Michael’s whenever a family birthday or celebration appeared on the calendar. Ennio was a stocky, powerful man, who idolized my father. Michael, a worldly, slightly aloof fellow, was my confidant.
The event we had missed at Ennio & Michael’s turned sour in the car on the way home. I never got the straight poop from Dad’s driver, Neil, but my sister, Susan, finally told me what had transpired. By the time Neil had driven the gleaming Caddy to the Upper East Side, Dad had been sentenced to the guest room. A vengeful rift like we had never seen before was in full view.
At 38 years old, I became a frantic emissary between my parents in order to patch things up. I was no marital expert, but after almost four decades of my parents’ marriage, it seemed impossible that this was really the “end.”
I pushed and prodded and cajoled. Mom wanted Dad to attend therapy sessions with her; she had tired of the busy life that my father had engineered for them. Dad just wanted things to return to the way they were.
When Gayle refused to travel to St. Bart’s a few months later for our yearly family holiday, I could see that something “broke” in my father. We used to shop in town for French provisions before anyone woke up; a nice seven-year tradition between us. Dad was always buoyant on these outings, stopping our roofless Jeep for coffees and pastries and planning the day to the utmost detail. On this trip without Mom, though, Dad was detached and preoccupied. Looking back, I can see that this trip was the final straw. If Gayle was going to monopolize his time to keep him from his grandchildren, he was going to move on, simple as that. The gavel came down!
I learned years later that Dad had gone into a lawyer friend’s office and broken down in tears, unable to make sense of things. By the time Mom realized her mistake, and we had returned from St. Bart’s, Dad was making the rounds and was never coming back.
“James,” he told me one night when we met for dinner, “I am an endangered species on the Upper East Side,” and that was that. He was, at that short moment in his life, one of the more vagina- obsessed people I had ever seen. When I think back to that day, and recall that that man was my own father, it is a little alarming.
Truth be told, I was most upset at the realization that my father was having a much better time than I was. With three small children and a thriving business, girls were the last “vice” on my mind.
As always, though, Jimmy could easily put things into perspective. One night, as we were stoking the Weber Cooker, I said to him, “You know, Dad, for the first time in my life, I think more about money than women.” Without missing a beat, he countered, “Don’t worry. That won’t last.” I’ll be damned if he wasn’t right about that one.
Dad went on to remarry, live the high life for the next ten years, and continue to mesmerize juries across the land. I don’t think my mother ever forgave herself for throwing Dad to the street. My parents, as opposite in personality and temperament as two people could possibly be, always retained a certain tenderness toward each other. Before Dad and I departed New York for good, he insisted on seeing Mom “to make sure she was OK.”
My father was a full eight years older than Mom, and despite spending months in New York Hospital’s pulmonary rehab in 2007– 08, Dad truly loved the experience of living more than any other person I have ever known. He loved being around kids and young adults and never lost sight of a potential adventure around the next corner, even in a wheelchair and on oxygen. He badly wanted to live, and that’s what he did, come hell or high water.
My mother, on the other hand, was worn down by the demons that plagued her as the only child of a cruel, mentally ill mother. By her seventieth birthday, Mom’s post-suicide promise had worn thin and she proceeded to die a slow, self-inflicted death, via cigarettes and cheap white wine.
I last saw my mother right around my 52nd birthday. Dad had been with me in Manhattan Beach for a few years. Mom was the happiest I had seen her in decades, living in a lovely assisted care facility in the Russian River Valley in Northern California. Dementia from chronic oxygen deprivation had set in. I knew she was angry with me for “putting your own life on hold to care for your father,” as she put it on more than one occasion, with more than a little disdain.
I stood by her bed while she went in and out of consciousness. Finally, she looked up at me, as small as a fragile bird curled in her nest of pillows, to say the last cogent words I would ever hear from her: “You know, James, you have the larceny of your father.” She died forty-eight hours later, and that was that.
I knew they were just words, but I also knew that Mom had adopted some of her own mother’s cruel behavior those last years. In his own way, Dad was upset by Mom’s death, so I did not tell him what Mom had said to me until the right moment.
I spilled the beans six months later over some awesome grilled whole snappers, sautéed bok choy, and martinis. We cracked up like a couple of drunken hyenas.
“LARCENY! IS THAT ALL SHE COULD COME UP WITH?”
Dad coughed his martini into the oxygen cannula in his nose, and I had to hit him a good blow between his shoulder blades to stop the symphony of coughing.
“Look what you’ve done, son. Now I need another martini,” and we hoisted our glasses to Gayle, more than a little bittersweet that night.
How I wound up in the perfect place at the most opportune time of my life in order to save my father from certain death is still a mystery that borders on the divine.
I had shuttered my SoHo medical publishing company and moved to California in September 2006, when I was 47, with the ultimate plan of marrying a woman in Santa Monica whom I had recently met. We planned to spend a year in California, marry, and move back to New York City the following year. When the relationship tanked, I spent days riding up and down the coast on the same bicycle I had ridden around the World Trade Center at 6 a.m. on 9/11.
I instantly fell in love with an area in the South Bay of Los Angeles, comprised of three towns built on bluffs overlooking the Pacific: Manhattan Beach, Hermosa Beach, and Redondo Beach. For a guy who had never been on a surfboard, I had landed squarely in Surf City, USA.
I hadn’t been single in quite a while, so the beach communities with its “clothing optional” attitude and uninhibited bleach-blond divorcees suited me nicely for a short rite of passage in which I acted very badly. Many of these glamorous and well-traveled women hadn’t experienced the underbelly of Hollywood and were only too glad to leave the kids with the nanny and partner up with me.
Gianni and I lived in a light, airy triplex in Hermosa Beach with a small view of the Pacific. He had started high school in neighboring Manhattan Beach. In a stroke of pure happenstance, when Gianni’s mother and I decided that he would leave New York and live with me in Southern California, I was residing in the district with the second- best public high school in the entire state of California Before that day, I didn’t even know where the school was physically located.
I volunteered to work in the school library, cooked Gianni his favorite meals, and struggled with him over hours of biology almost every night. I was up at dawn getting Gianni ready. After I dropped him at school, I would spend the morning working on my medical journals, breaking midday to rendezvous with my “girlfriend,” and then ready the house for my son’s return.
Often after school, we would ride up and down the coast on our bikes to keep Gianni’s mind off how much he missed his mom and sisters, who flew out to visit us most holidays. I bought a Christmas tree and began to collect ornaments. I somehow remembered my grandfather’s recipe for Sunday meatballs and sausages, and we invited friends over for boisterous meals. I purchased a two-man hammock and Gianni and I swung on the porch on weekends, head to foot, in between Family Guy marathons.
As much as fortune shined down on me by having my son attend the best public high school in Los Angeles County, I lucked out again by putting down roots in the only part of L.A. rarely affected by humidity or pollution, with a yearly temperature range between 50 degrees at night and 85 degrees during the day, even in summer. My father was dying of advanced pulmonary disease, among other things. The South Bay was about the best climate on earth for him. I didn’t know it yet, but somehow I had awkwardly swung the bat and hit a grand slam!
When Dad started his rapid descent into illness in 2009, I received a call from his doctor and lifelong family friend, Louis J. Aronne, MD. Lou didn’t come out and say it, but it was clear to me that Dad was experiencing a cascade of interrelated illnesses that would lead, rather rapidly, to mortality. I settled Gianni, a high school freshman at the time, with his best friend’s family and grabbed the last red-eye from LAX.
My plane hit the tarmac at dawn and I went straight to New York- Presbyterian Hospital. Dad’s wife was MIA; she was with a boyfriend in Europe, having made it crystal clear that she “didn’t sign up to care for a sick man. She wanted to go scuba diving,” and other such nonsense, so that was that.
I found him alone in a glass-enclosed room within the ICU. He had been on a respirator for some of the night, but was off and resting nicely, hooked up to every bag and machine imaginable. Hints of two former hospitalizations were evident. Dad’s arms were bruised and purple in spots from frequent blood drawing. His color was good, but he was no longer the eternally tanned and beaming man I’d known; he had taken quite a beating. While he rested, Lou and I had a very frank discussion.
I sat on a chair at the end of Dad’s bed and hung my head. How could this have happened to my superman of a father? Jimmy had dodged so many bullets in his crazy life that he had surpassed the nine lives cliché a long time ago.
When I heard his voice, it was hoarse but still deep and strong. “SON.”
I stood over him with a shit-eating grin on my face. It had been a long time since he’d seen me in a suit and tie and he smiled. “When did you get in, kid?”
After I brought him up to speed, I gathered my emotions and started. “Dad, I want you to come with me to California. I’ll be with you every single day. You’ll never be in pain. I swear it.” Dad balked; he said he was just about to start a big federal case. I was unrelenting. “Dad, you’ve got to quit practicing law and come live with Gianni and me. Otherwise, you’re not going to make it.”
He started to say something and then hesitated. “Look, Dad,” I started, emotion creeping into my voice, “you’re just not going out like this, not with all you’ve done and the people you’ve saved. No fucking way. I’d rather lay down right here on the floor and die myself.” I was brushing back a tear when all my siblings rolled in, worry written all over their faces.
I spent nine days on a cot in the corner of his vaulted room in the hospital’s exclusive Greenberg Pavilion. It was touch and go for the first few days. Alarms buzzed every forty minutes all night. His room filled with nurses who gave him injections to regulate the blood sugar spikes. The massive amount of steroids he’d been on had made him diabetic. He would have to die a little before he got well. On the fourth day, he asked me to get him some pistachio gelato, and that’s when I knew he’d make it.
As he slipped farther into a morass of illnesses, our most daunting problem, bar none, was keeping Dad’s megalomaniacal client from pestering him to death. He truly believed that only Jimmy, as sick as he was, could get him through the SEC trial. This very wealthy guy was in a world of trouble. As the principal of a publicly traded company, he was in double trouble.
In effect, as Dad got sicker and sicker, this one billionaire monopolized every bit of what little time Dad had left. By order of the court, the client’s movements, by means of a GPS cuff, were restricted to a residential building he owned on the East Side. He went so far as to set up an apartment for Jimmy in the building, where he’d barge in day or night. Of all the mobsters, gunrunners, and crooked politicians I had met in my many years with Dad, it was this very wealthy guy who had the largest scarlet letter of guilt emblazoned on him. I wasn’t about to let Dad go out this way.
Getting Jimmy out of New York would be a small miracle that would call for a monumental plan of action. First, I had to get back to California to see to Gianni and to get all the necessary medical equipment ready for Dad’s arrival.
Dad had around-the-clock nurses at his New York apartment, but they just couldn’t handle the legal zoo that his world had become. He was trying to manage a team of lawyers that the client had hired, and they were all jockeying for position. Another few months of playing referee with these guys would have meant the end of the line for Jimmy.
By the time I returned to New York in the middle of January, the trial had started. I found Dad in worse shape than ever. He had been working around the clock and could barely make it to the bathroom without assistance and oxygen.
Meanwhile, Dr. Aronne and I quietly planned Dad’s stealthy escape from New York before his billionaire client could unwittingly kill him. Getting Jimmy and the hundreds of pounds of medical equipment to the Medevac plane would be a challenge. Wheelchairs, portable O2 compressors with FAA-approved backup tanks in case of electrical failure, nebulizers that pumped inhalable steroids into Dad’s lungs, and cases of medical records and drugs were an integral part of my father’s life from that day forward.
American Express, along with Dad’s health insurance, assisted in the leasing of a Medevac Gulfstream jet on January 30, 2010, to take us from Bruckner Aviation at Teterboro Airport to LAX with a physician onboard. I packed up Jimmy’s clothes and any other possessions he had in FedEx Ground boxes.
There was one last person who would test the very limits of my homicidal rage. I invited Dad’s soon-to-be ex-wife over—She Who Shall Not Be Named—and tricked her over a few glasses of red wine to spill her guts about the boyfriend and her unwillingness to be “saddled” with a sick man. She had never had a relationship that lasted more than twelve years in her entire life; her acute sense of narcissism wouldn’t allow it. Dad was more than a little heartbroken to hear about her lack of humanity or loyalty, and that was that. Jimmy filed separation papers, executed a new will, and we headed for the airport.
At dawn, as the private ambulance rolled through the quiet streets of New York, Dad had three concerns. Q. Can we get all the Knicks’ basketball games? A. Yes, I bought the package. Q. Can you get the ingredients in California for your grandfather’s meatballs and sausages? A. Yes, I know two places. Q. Can we have spaghetti aglio e olio for dinner tonight? A. Yes, if I have to squeeze the virgin olives myself.
Good sign, I thought.
Like the birth of my children, what happened next will be etched in my mind until the day I die. It was one of those rare moments in life when you know in your heart of hearts that the course of your life has been altered forever: Via hydraulic lift, Dad was loaded onto the jet with help from the ambulance attendants and doctor. The pilots were standing by the stairs. I stowed the steel cases and supervised my father’s positioning in the plane. I gave the onboard doc a copy of Dad’s discharge papers and a printout of his medications and dosages in alphabetical order. The doc let me sit next to Dad’s bed. While his vitals were measured, I went up to the cockpit.
“Do you gentlemen need anything from the back before we go wheels up?”
“We’re squared away. Thanks.” “The thanks are all mine.”
I will never understand why exactly, but raw emotion began to overwhelm me at that instant. This is it, I thought.
We had worked so hard to get to where we were at that exact moment. I had not doubted for a second that our journey would be a difficult one. But I’d be damned if Dad wasn’t going to live out his life the way he deserved: free from pain and loneliness and bad hospital chow. Nevertheless, the momentousness of our journey began to sink in. Dad’s life was in my hands.
I headed back down the aisle, taking deep breaths to shake off the sudden impact of the moment. I settled in next to Dad and took his thin, bruised hand in mine.
“You OK, boss man?”
“Piece of cake, kid. I just want to get there.”
I snapped my lap belt in place as the doors were secured and the jet engines quietly started to rumble. I looked over at Jimmy. He was already nodding off. I sent a quick text to Gianni.
It’s been a long morning…a long few months!
A phone on the console next to Dad gently began to beep. “This is the pilot. Are you ready to taxi and lift off?”
“Yes, by all means, sir.”
I quietly replaced the phone so as not to wake Dad. I leaned my head back, closed my eyes, and just let the tears run down my face as the engine turbines spooled and the plane moved into position.