By some concoction of sugar, prescription painkillers, rancor, and cocaine, my father, Gregory Pardlo, Sr., began killing himself after my parents separated in 2007. He measured his health and lifestyle against his will to live, and determined he had ten years left in the tank. Though he did “fuck up and live past sixty-five,” as he was afraid he might, he was only a year over budget. He lived his last years like a child with a handful of tokens at an arcade near closing time. Those tokens included: access to credit, the patience and generosity of his family and friends, and any saleable assets (including, possibly, the titanium urn that contained his mother’s ashes, mysteriously missing from the one-bedroom Las Vegas apartment where he chose to fizzle out). These resources had to be exhausted. He didn’t want to endure penury, but neither would he ever “leave money on the table,” as he often put it.
He died without leaving a will or naming beneficiaries. My brother, Robbie, and I agreed to have him cremated. No medical school would have taken him, and I didn’t even entertain the idea of a casket. Robbie traveled from Willingboro, New Jersey, to Vegas to claim the body. My father had retired as a union representative for the American Train DispatchersAssociation (ATDA), but without a will, my mother had tonegotiate unfamiliar bureaucracies even to claim the two-thousand-dollar grievance pay the ATDA provided to cover his funeral. My father left an assortment of defaulted mortgages, overdrawn bank accounts, and maxed-out credit cards; the remaining balance on a luxury sports car he had all but totaled; and a five-figure debt to the taxman.
He died May 12, 2016, as I was working on the final drafts of this book. Writing the book gave me an excuse to talk to him. Each time I interviewed him by phone from my house in Brooklyn, I was prepared for that to have been the last time we spoke. Yet even with all my psychic and emotional preparation for his death, it was a poignant exercise to have to comb through these pages and change verb forms from present tense to past.
Robbie initially believed—sincerely, I suspect—that our father died of a broken heart. Robbie’s story of our dad’s death and life is very different from mine. I’m ten years older. I have a bigger file on our parents. Our mother and father were kids when they had me in 1968. They were twenty-one and nineteen, respectively. In the heyday before 1981, before my father lost his job as an air traffic controller in the infamous strike that ended with Ronald Reagan firing thirteen thousand federal employees, my parents’ spirits were high. They wanted a second child—so much so that after miscarrying one who’d already entered the family imagination as “Heather,” they succeeded in having Robbie. Robbie was born in 1979. We were a boomtown under a single roof. The father I imprinted on was infinitely capable and resourceful and, as far as my child’s-eye view could tell, had the world on a leash. Robbie knew a less idealistic, chastened version of our father, by then a man who was resigned to having been blackballed from the career that defined him. By the time Robbie outgrew the hypoallergenic cloth diapers that were delivered to our house once a month, Dad was, if only for lack of alternatives, more involved in domestic life.
The father I grew up with still resented the competing demands of an unplanned offspring. I was the mistake that he felt he was nobly taking responsibility for, and I was thus made to suffer the flexing of Big Greg’s narcissism in all its demonstrative and petty renditions. I don’t mean this in a self-pitying way. Whereas he wanted from me a show of gratitude, I studied him. He interpreted my scrutiny as insubordination. This made our lives adversarial. Robbie, at least symbolically, was a comfort to him. I was a threat. I was my father’s rival, and he was mine. This may sound wildly self-important, but this is the prerogative—my father would agree—of the one who has outlived the other.
There is a picture of me in my mother’s arms on my first birthday. Voodoo child, star child, love child. My first birthday was a Monday, Lunes, day of the moon. It was the day my mother turned twenty-two. Every year, the same tired joke: Happy Birthday! I’d grin, empty-handed and pitiful. I was the gift, the reminder of what she gave of herself, to herself, that she must tow through the cosmos in a contrapuntal orbit. I have always belonged to her, through the infinite umbilicus of fate, a Taoist Return to my origins revealed in this annual eclipse, November 24, the shared anniversary of our births. What grief, what blemished self-image did she need to bury that she would risk an accidental pregnancy with a man as superficial as my father? Yet my guilt over being the unexpected orange detour arrow of her life elevated me in importance over my father’s fleeting diversions. Good and bad, I was beyond evaluation, the fulcrum of every story she might devise to tell of her life.
My parents’ marriage collapsed like a shoddy circus tent on the evening we held the launch party for my first book of poems. The Writer’s House at New York University, where I’d completed my master of fine arts degree in poetry, hosted the party. It was the fall of 2007. My father was a jealous man for his wife’s attention, the success of others, and the attention of the crowd. This was the kind of crowd he coveted most: my old classmates, colleagues, and writer friends. If I’d only asked him to make a toast that night at the launch party, he might have been in better spirits. If he’d felt acknowledged, hemight still be alive. That’s a wild leap, I know, but thoughts like this cross my mind.
Before the party ended, he picked a fight with my mother. After he drove her two hours down the turnpike to our hometown of Willingboro, dropped her off at her father Bob’s house, and told her not to come home, she discovered that he had taken her house keys from her purse. According to my mother, he wouldn’t say what had provoked him or why he was upset. But I know he was throwing a tantrum over having been ignored at the book party. He was acting out. A true diva will not be upstaged.
In April 2015, days after it was announced that I’d won the Pulitzer Prize for my second book of poems, I still hadn’t heard from my dad. Most of our communication was via text message, because he would get winded and need to rest after a few minutes of talking. I wanted to know if the news had reached him. He texted back, “When a Roman general conquered a town, Caesar would send a slave to ride alongside the general in the victory parade, and remind the general that he was only human.”
The last time I saw him was August 2015, at the party my mother threw at a hotel in Marlton, New Jersey, to celebrate the prize. I was surprised he made it—not that he made the effort—all the way from Las Vegas to Marlton. What a wreck he had become physically; during our rare phone conversations, he complained about the multiplying failures of his body. He couldn’t walk five feet without losing his breath, so he’d often sit near exits where he could get out easily to have a smoke. He’d lost half his right leg to diabetes, refusing to give up the junk foods he equated with his dignity. He was incontinent. It took a herculean effort for him to “be there” in both the emotional and physical senses, an effort you’d think was motivated by pride in his son’s achievement. But I knew, as perhaps only a son can know, that I was the opening act. My father loved me, and was indeed proud of me in his complicated way, but he came to Marlton for the crowd.
He came with his motorized chair and his life-extending contraptions to give his final performance. He looked glorious, the old bull, in his matching suede jacket and pants. Determined, he ditched the chair and stood on his prosthesis, no doubt imagining himself in the mode of some hard-bitten pirate declaiming from the quarterdeck. He gave a speech that congratulated me by commemorating his own place in history, situated generationally, as he explained, between “two titans”: his father and me. We were the giants standing on his shoulders.
My father didn’t suffer from humility. He thought it was a deceitful affect. He favored potential over humility, and believed that showing the latter prevents indulging the former. Potential is a promissory note always worth more, not more than, just more. With humility, what you see is what you get. My druthers lie somewhere between, and this book studies that overlap. Can one aspire to Saint Augustine’s humility? When I got sober and began working the steps, I got stuck on the one that says, “Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.” This book is my Step Four. That I have failed is evident in my digressions and indulgences, but the eight remaining steps are full of promise.