SAVING MEL BROOKS
The legendary comedian`s son, on giving his dad the lift of his life
By: Max Brooks,
I see him in the corner of my eye, head back, eyes closed, mouth hanging open. When he starts snoring, I move in. “Okay, that`s it,” I say, turning off the TV. “Time for bed”
“What? Huh? No, no. I`m fine. I`m up!” His eyes are wide with protest.
“Look at the time,” I say, gesturing to the clock. “Look at yourself!”
“I`m not tired!” he insists. His heels are dug in. “If I go to bed, I won`t be able to sleep.”
I sigh, and give in. “Three more dozes,” I say. “On the third, you go to bed. Okay?”
Parenting a parent is a rite of passage few of us are ever truly prepared to face. Inevitably, it happens after one parent passes away. You can only hope you`re smack dab in your 50s, your own kids off to college, your career winding down, your pockets full of life experience to help keep things in perspective.
But I was 33 when my mother died. My father was 79. My life was just beginning.
My career was picking up speed. I was barely 2 years into my marriage, and my baby boy wasn`t even 2 months old. What did I know about being there for my dad, a man who`d never — and I`m not kidding here — been alone a night in his life? He`d gone from sharing a room with his three brothers, to the army, to his first marriage, to living with a friend, to his second marriage, with my mother. Their 44 years together fused them. When she left us, he was set adrift.
On the way back to Manhattan after her funeral, our driver headed toward the Lincoln Tunnel. “What the hell are you doing?” my father barked. “We don't take tunnels!”
The driver stammered. At this time of day, it was the quickest way, he explained.
“That doesn`t matter,” my dad roared. “We never take tunnels! We can`t!”
I took his hand. “Dad, that was Mom who didn`t like tunnels.” He`d been her shield against those dark, closed spaces, and he wasn`t putting down his guard yet.
A few nights later, my father was giving my son a bedtime bottle. I sat watching. His cellphone rang for what must have been the hundredth time that day, but he switched it off without looking, then glanced up at me. “No one knew her like we did,” he said. “No one understands what we`re going through but us.” At that moment, I realized I was now my father`s keeper.
It might have been a solo job, had it not been for my son. As it turns out, the parenting lessons I learned in the months following his birth applied equally well to my dad. For example . . .
Put yourself second. I`d just lost my mother, the woman who raised me, nurtured me, protected me. It was a huge blow, and I felt like I needed my father more than ever.
But where was he? Lost, grieving, struggling to make it through each day. I quickly realized that he couldn`t help me through this, and it wasn`t fair for me to expect him to. I still had a family, a life, a future. All my father had was me — I was my parents` only child. He was helpless. You don`t weigh opportunities like this. You rise to meet them.
Let him crawl before he runs. Sure, you keep the big picture in mind. But when my son`s diaper is loaded, I can`t be worrying about where he`s going to college. Likewise,
I had to forget about where my father was going to live out the remainder of his life, so I could talk him through one more long night.
Learn his language. Just as I learned which sounds soothed and delighted my son, I figured out how to calm my father when his fears boiled over. He didn`t want to hear any new-age psychobabble, like “find your inner peace.” The man fought in World War II.
Once, I asked him, “Did you think about what it would take to rebuild postwar Europe?”
“Hell, no,” he replied. “You thought about how you were going to stay warm that night, how you were going to get from one hedgerow to another without some German sniper taking you out. You didn`t worry about tomorrow.”
In the months after my mom passed, I sat with him a lot, going over the timeline of events: from the day the oncologist told her “Your scan came back, and two points lit up” to the moment she stopped breathing. “What am I going to do?” my father would ask, sad, anxious, sometimes angry. All I could say was, “One hedgerow to the next, Dad.”
Keep him regular. Every baby is different, and so is every 79-year-old widower.
In both cases, however, when you find something that makes them happy, you stick with it. My dad liked going to the same restaurant, so I took him every night. Nothing fancy, just a hole in the wall, one of the few in New York where he wouldn`t be recognized. He also liked old war flicks, so I scoured Froogle and Amazon for all the black-and-white DVDs I could find. I could probably act out every scene in Run Silent, Run Deep.
Set up play dates. Right after my mother died, my dad would just show up at my house. There would be a knock at the door, and that was it. He was staying — usually for the night. For a while, I didn`t mind. But soon my baby was on a rigid schedule, and my father`s comings and goings easily disrupted him.
“Dad, you can`t just drop by,” I told him. “We have to make concrete plans. Or, at the very least, you have to call first.”
That was tough, but for the best. People need structure, especially those just coming into the world and those who`ve just had their worlds destroyed. Routine creates stability and security. It gives people something to depend on each day, and something to look forward to when they go to bed at night.
I knew my actions would carry more weight than my words, so I made sure to put my son to bed at the same time every night, whether Dad showed up on time to say goodnight to him or not. When he complained, I`d look at the clock and say, “You should`ve called.”
Have a sitter on speed dial. After my son settled into his routine, my wife hired a nanny. It was my job to cover my dad.
My three half-siblings were great. They made sure he never ate alone. Friends were tougher. My dad didn`t want to spend time with couples, especially those he`d only known with my mom. But he had a few friends he could go to the racetrack with.
I also began begging Dad to return to work. I`d always been jealous of my father`s passionate devotion to his career. My mother called it his mistress. I called it his favorite son. Of all the emotional barriers I`d overcome to help my dad, embracing my childhood archrival was the toughest.
But it worked. Dad started writing again. He also began working with his old team from The Producers. Slowly, the passion returned. Now I see it in his eyes.
I`m not sure that my father will ever truly recover from my mom`s death. As he said in The Twelve Chairs, “Hope for the best; expect the worst.” But he`s waking up every morning, going to work, seeing his friends. These are all victories. Watching him with my son reminds me of something else I learned: Know when to let go.
There`s a limit to my power over my son. I can love, protect, teach, and guide him, but in the end, who he becomes will be up to genetics, or God, or whatever it is that makes us who we are. The one thing I can`t give him is that special light that shines within my father. Dad has taken the hardest blow, and he`s refusing to crumple up and die. He`s still the man I looked up to when I was growing up. He`s still my hero.
And he`s snoring again. I turn off the television. “Okay, that`s it.”
“Fine, fine, I`m going, just let me get another glass of water,” Dad says. He stands up and glances at the clock.
“Look at the time — it`s not even . . . ”
“Dad . . . ”
“Fine,” he huffs. He starts for the stairs, then turns. “I love you, son.”
He`s been saying that a lot lately. “I know, Dad. I love you, too. Now go to bed.”
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