His brother corrects him: “He’s got Parkinson’s, Will, not epilepsy.”
I hustle them outside to play.
Later that day, I manage to break away for some tennis, a game I’ve picked up again after years without touching a racket. My last regular partner was my dad, who didn’t set his own racket down until he was a few years into the Parkinson’s fight.
I remember his vigor when he was the age I am now. Home from a game of doubles, he’d tackle chores in his tennis whites, propelling the rotary mower up the hill or yanking strands of ivy.
He was raised on tennis. I remember, as a boy, visiting the Pittsfield, Massachusetts, home where he’d grown up. It sat grandly on a hill, approached by a serpentine drive. In spring, we’d ascend a path of soft brown spruce needles beyond the back-yard pool to a series of steppingstones, laid by my father and his twin brother as teenagers. These curved through the woods to a clay tennis court tucked into a glade.
Dad played throughout his adult life. His partners were sometimes Washington powerbrokers, such as “Z’big”—Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter’s national-security adviser. Just as often, he’d corral a family member. Doubles was preferred. Weekend games were ritual, and vacation round robins provided endless permutations. The jovial reminder “Guard your coat—and your alley,” was invoked after a passing shot down the side when someone inched too close to the middle in an attempt to poach an opponent’s return. My older brother suspects this quip was inherited from my grandfather, a joke about a garderobe (a castle privy).
For a man who made his living with words, my dad’s tennis game was notably devoid of them. He analyzed events of global significance with incisive prose but lacked a vocabulary for small talk. Tennis stood in for that—a way to be together without the burden of words.
We were trained early that the paramount virtue on the court, as elsewhere, was to be considerate. “Inconsiderate” was perhaps his most damning epithet, one that could be earned for various infractions: not hustling to retrieve balls between points, not responding promptly to the signal of a raised racket or the phrase “Need one,” by which one asked for a second ball before beginning a point. Serving with a single ball was unthinkable, except perhaps by a teenage boy with a hangover.
These days, I steal weekend hours to play with other neighborhood dads, recalling my father at unbidden moments. On one such afternoon this summer, I stand on the red asphalt behind the baseline. Neat white lines demarcate orderly rectangles of green before me as I fall into an easy rhythm. Long rallies are punctuated by banter with my partner or the occasional rumble of traffic beyond the border of cedars that separates the courts from the road. My eyes follow the trunks of swaying poplars to the sky, where leaves snicker in a breeze that hasn’t descended to court level.
I’m transported to Saturday-morning games when my twin brother and I were 16, my father on the other side of the net, wordless and resolute.
“It smells like a brewery in here,” Mom would have observed earlier that morning upon entering our bedrooms. A late night was no excuse to miss the appointed game. I can see now that the routine itself was a form of discipline. Pushing us from sideline to sideline with relentless flat ground strokes, Dad expressed his disapproval of our teenage drinking without uttering a word.
I’m not sure at what point the tables turned, when the 6–0 drubbings gave way to split sets—certainly by the time we were in college. The day finally came when I was the one who could take sets from him at will, and I did without quarter for a while before realizing that there was no satisfaction in unwavering revenge. By then, the pleasure our infrequent games supplied was a chance to be together. Father and son and the clear white lines.
The lines were always there between us, on the court or off. The somewhat taciturn but loving relationship my father shared with his children was very different than the one we aspire to with our own kids. I attribute this in part to the parenting mores of his pre-boomer generation.
I witnessed my own sons come into the world; he wasn’t in the hospital when my twin brother and I were born. I coach my son’s soccer team; I recall my parents being thrilled when my twin brother and I could at last ride our bikes to baseball practices and no longer needed carting around.
Dad’s emotional reserve was also a function of his career. From on high he watched the events of the world unfold each day and parsed the personalities of heads of state. The small dramas of our lives could never compete with the collapse of the Berlin Wall.
There were family dinners, of course. Around the dining-room table, both physical and verbal slouching were corrected.
“Sit up,” he’d correct. When we recounted a story, we’d hear “Don’t make me ask a million questions.”
The most energetic exchanges, particularly as my siblings and I got older, concerned foreign policy. As we argued about events in Israel, he’d patiently supply us with context to bolster our points of view, which were reflexively to the left of his. That intellectual push and pull, like the tennis, was rigorous. With Dad, it was how we connected.
The unused violin in my father’s study was a relic of his youth, of a time before he’d chosen words over music. When I was younger, he played violin for our preschool class and helped my twin brother with Suzuki exercises until Jim quit in fourth grade. On those rare occasions when the case came open, the flash of blood-orange velvet in which the mahogany instrument rested never failed to capture my imagination. It was like a peek inside Dad himself—one I wasn’t sure I was supposed to have.
There were other glimpses of his musical past.
“Do C! Do C!” we kids would plead, competing with the Sunday Post for Dad’s attention. He’d pause for a moment, form his mouth into a schoolboy O, and in a sweet tenor sing a single note. We’d run to the piano, find the white key to the left of the two blacks near the middle, and press it down with the excitement of tearing open a package. There in the Acrosonic’s beige timbre would be the exact same note.
Dad’s family has always been musical: His sister has enjoyed a career as a flutist and his brother as a cellist. Their father, a clothier, was both a skillful amateur and a music reviewer for more than 50 years for the Berkshire Eagle. My grandfather was also a longtime patron of Tanglewood, the center for the performing arts, where he and his wife were a fixture during concert season. Musicians were frequent guests at the family table in Pittsfield and for chamber music in the living room.
Dad published a memoir called The Time of Their Dying in 1977, after losing both of his parents to cancer in the span of a year. I can summon my own memories of that time—hushed visits to the big house and the vague understanding that Grandpa Jay wasn’t around anymore to put eggshells on his eyes at breakfast to make us laugh. The eggs were served soft-boiled, in a cup, gently cracked with a spoon and lightly salted. After breakfast, he’d open the bay window and let us sprinkle birdseed on the sill.
My father stood in front of the wall of cards in the Hallmark store. For a moment, I shared his befuddlement—row after row of cards crafted for a friend or a mother-in-law or the mail carrier. My boys tussled over who would give Mommy a card that played a pop song.
Dad wanted a Valentine. That was all. Even the Parkinson’s couldn’t dull a habit instilled over 42 years of marriage. “He had a card already,” my mom had told me. “He can’t find it.”
I’d offered to take him down the block to the card store as much to give her a break as to replace the card. And so, 20 minutes after we left the house, there we were. We’d surmounted the usual challenges: the arms that wouldn’t cooperate to shrug on a coat, the feet that shuffled over uneven brick sidewalks. Now the wall of cards.
“Here,” I said, holding up a couple of less elaborate ones. With the kids getting antsy, I wanted to move him along. He glanced at the cards without interest. A man picked his own Valentine for his wife, his expression seemed to say.
A dozen times a day, his urge for independence reduced my mom to excruciating slow motion. As my own frustration mounted, his hand reached out and plucked a card from the clutter. Something familiar: Peanuts.
“Perfect,” I said. “Let me get you a pen.” My older son helped him to a bench, and I borrowed a Sharpie at the counter and handed it to my Dad. He grasped it.
Both boys were watching. Third-grader Jack displayed a rooting interest: He likes to sit at the kitchen table and make cards, composing drawings and forming letters. Will, the mischievous one, eyed the permanent marker of the type he’s never allowed to play with at home. “Leave Pop-pop alone, boys,” I said. “Let’s get Mommy’s card.”