H e a r t   S o n s   &   H e a r t   D a u g h t e r s   of   A l l e n   G i n s b e r g

N a p a l m   H e a l t h   S p a :   R e p o r t   2 0 1 4 :   A r c h i v e s   E d i t i o n








On the second day, a sail drew near, nearer, and picked me up at last. It

was the devious-cruising Rachel, that in her retracing search after her missing

children, only found another orphan. ––Herman Melville, Moby-Dick, 1851


On April 1, 1957, my father took my mother to see a film called The Barretts of

Wimpole Street at a theater in Ithaca, New York. My dad, Donald, was a grad

student studying American literature at Cornell and my mom, Leslie, was an

English major at Hood. They were still unmarried, and stayed at the Hotel Ithaca

that night to avoid the prying eyes of roommates and dorm mothers. Before

returning to the hotel, they visited a drugstore to buy condoms, but it was closed.

My mother assured my father that it was the wrong time of the month for her to

get pregnant. They got married in June. I was born in December.


I was named after Stephen Dedalus, the hero of James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist

as a Young Man. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was in my father's

voice. He taught me to love the sounds of language before I could speak by

carrying me on his shoulders while reading Ulysses aloud.


My father became a political activist in the era of civil rights protests, "Ban the

Bomb," and the blacklisting of suspected Communists. I have a photograph of my

family taken at a demonstration in Buffalo, where we moved four years after I was

born. My parents are wheeling me and my sister in strollers, looking like the hero

and heroine of a movie about a young Jewish couple who devote their lives to

saving the world. I'm holding up a sign that says PEACE.


We moved to New York City in the mid-'60s, settling in a tree-lined middle-class

neighborhood in Queens called Fresh Meadows. Every few weeks, my classmates

and I would have to march in single-file down to the basement of our school past

dusty drums of water marked with Civil Defense symbols. (I remembered a sign at

one of my parents' demonstrations that said FALLOUT SHELTERS ARE

OVENS.) On Sunday afternoons, my family would drive into Manhattan, where

we would stroll through Greenwich Village and then have lunch in Central Park.

When black lights, incense, and Day-Glo posters began appearing in Bleecker

Street shops, long-haired naked people started swimming in Bethesda fountain in

Central Park. I decided I wanted to be a hippie when I grew up.


My parents were not hippies, they were New Leftists. My dad would put on a

navy blue blazer and tie to go on a march. He believed that the hippies were

undermining the serious mission of fomenting a workers' revolution with their free

love, psychedelics, Eastern religions, and other decadent nonsense. This long-

awaited uprising of the proletariat was expected to break out any day, spreading

like prairie fire from radicalized college campuses, to factories, to the streets. My

father kept a copy of Mao's little red book on his night table, beside The

Godfather and Portnoy's Complaint. At a demonstration against the Vietnam War

in Washington, I saw my parents get beaten by riot police who charged down the

steps of the Department of Justice in blue helmets. Back home, FBI agents came

around to interrogate the superintendent of our apartment building and my

parents' friends from the PTA. When I was 12, my father was fired from a

teaching job because of his statements against the war. His students took over the

administration building for two weeks in protest. I saw my parents led away in handcuffs, and my father served 11 days in the Queens House of Detention.


At the same time, he was still my dad, the English professor. Whenever I stayed

home from school with a cold, he would give me the same advice: "Read Moby-

Dick." As I got older, the title of Melville's 800-page epic became shorthand in my

mind for everything that was overbearingly pedantic and tedious about my father.

In 7th grade, I figured out that I was gay, but I couldn't talk about it with him for

years. He deflected those conversations by saying in his most rabbinical voice,

"When you meet the right girl…"


My family rented a beach house in Provincetown, a former art colony at the tip of

Cape Cod, every summer for 40 years. On one of those vacations in the '70s, I

convinced my dad to smoke a joint. At first, the drug didn't seem to have much of

an effect on him. But as we were walking down the stairs he blurted out, "My

sneakers feel like marshmallows." Marijuana did wonders for my father, or rather,

he had become open to wonder by the time he started smoking it. He seemed to

relax in general, becoming less uptight and dogmatic. He told me that smoking pot

had reinvigorated his sex life with my mother, which was a little too much



By then, the revolution that my parents had fought so hard for seemed even

further away. My father was fired from several jobs because of his politics, ending

up at a state college in Jersey City where he taught inner-city kids to see their

own struggles in the travails of Dickens' textile workers. My parents put their

passion for political organizing into their union, the American Federation of

Teachers, and my father was elected president of the state council. At the same

time that he seemed to capitulate to the notion of having to work inside the

system, he secretly joined the Communist Party for the first time, stashing his red

party card in an edition of King Lear.


Every summer, my father and I would take a walk on the sand bars in

Provincetown at low tide to take stock of our lives together. After feeling that he

was my nemesis for years, I began to appreciate how similar we were in many

ways. He became much more affectionate and emotionally expressive. By the late

'80s, his own mother and father were dead, and sometimes he would burst into

tears, crying that he had become an orphan. He began talking about mortality, and

predicted that he would die at the same age as his father, 69. But his worst fear

was becoming an invalid. If I'm ever a vegetable, he would say over and over, just

pull the plug. He told me that he didn't believe in an afterlife and would be

"annihilated" after his death, which seemed like an oddly vivid choice of words, as

if he was describing the obliteration of atomic particles or an entire city.


In August of 2001, I proposed to my boyfriend, a soft-spoken science teacher

from the Midwest named Keith, on the breakwater in front of the house we rented

in Provincetown. Gay marriage was not yet legal, but we decided we would

celebrate our love and commitment in the company of our friends and families

anyway. My parents loved Keith, who I'd lived with in San Francisco for seven

years. My father had become a vocal critic of discrimination against gay people in

his union. He resigned from the Communist Party because his comrades refused to

support gay rights.


My dad made the only political speech at our wedding, a rousing toast to marriage

equality that made even Keith's church-going Republican relatives from Illinois

cheer. I felt like by my finding a life-partner and getting married, my father and I

had finally become peers.


A few months later, three weeks before my father's 70th birthday, my parents

attended a union meeting. My mother poured them both glasses of apple juice.

My dad took a sip and said to one of his colleagues, "I think I drank that too fast."

Suddenly he jerked back and slumped toward the floor. The EMTs arrived 20

minutes later and restarted his heart with a defibrillator. With shouts and sirens

wailing in the background, my mother called me on her cell phone and told me to

get on a plane to New Jersey.


My sister Hillary and brother-in-law Andrew flew in from Los Angeles, and we

all met up in Newark Airport like a fated rendezvous in a dream. My father had

been taken to Greenville Hospital, a dreary three-story facility with just one

working elevator and a sign on the wall that said RESPECT THE PRIVACY OF


to the intensive-care unit beside trays of green and orange mush and cups of Jell-

O. My father was in a private room, hooked up to a rack of bleeping and

squawking machines, because his situation was more precarious than patients in

merely critical condition. He looked like he was sleeping, but didn't react to our

presence even when my mother suddenly cried out "Please don't leave me!" It was

as if he had been turned to stone.


We visited him a couple of times a day, groping our way through an underground

cavern that only people whose loved ones are dying know about. We would eat

our meals in a diner nearby feeling like aliens who had been abruptly transported

to a planet with an atmosphere barely capable of sustaining life. I marveled at all

the people still moving around purposefully in the Day World, lining up for the

salad bar, oblivious to what is never far away. My sister was five months

pregnant, so at night, she and my brother-in-law shared the only guest bed in my

parents' apartment, while I slept in my mother's bed. Taking my father's place like

that was so psychologically fraught that I couldn't even begin to feel my own

feelings, but my mother's need to talk into the night trumped my need for

boundaries. After playing Catherine to my father's Heathcliff for 51 years, she

looked like she had been struck by lightning. She could barely navigate across the



Waves of shit smell would periodically wash over the ICU, as if the ward was

barely keeping itself afloat in a sea of decay. One day a nurse handed me a plastic

baggie containing my father's wedding ring. "Your father's finger was so swollen,

we almost had to call in a plumber to cut it off," she explained. I quickly slipped

the ring out of the bag, which was marked with BIOHAZARD warnings, and

warmed it in my palm before giving it to my mother, who was sitting desolate in

the hallway.


In the valley of the shadow of death, I decided to meditate at my father's bedside

as I'd been trained to do as a young Zen student. I sat down in a chair and started

counting my breaths: one, two, three… Right at that moment, my father's arms

shot out to the sides of his bed, his lower lip curled up in an uncharacteristic

sneer, and his feet began thrashing under the sheets. The rawest expression of fear

and terror I have ever seen in any creature, human or animal, took possession of

his face. He arched his back and rose from the mattress, shaking and convulsing, as

if he was trying to climb out of his body. I ran to the nurses' station and called

out, "My father is having a seizure!" After poking her head in, one of the nurses

said "Yes, he does that sometimes," as if she was discussing his bowel habits or

meal preferences.


I stroked my father's forehead and tried to soothe him. His eyes were open, but

when I put my face inches from his and called his name, there was no flicker of

recognition. He ground his teeth like a barnyard animal as his beautiful brown eyes

rolled in divergent directions. I was terrified of the possibility that he was fighting

to reconstitute his soul in a broken vessel so he wouldn't leave his beloved Leslie

alone on Earth. I pledged that I would take care of her, and told him that it would

be all right to leave his body if it was time. It's OK Dad. Let go. I promise to take

care of mom. Thank you for everything. We love you. You lived a beautiful life. Let

go. I felt that if my mother saw him in this condition she might drop dead of grief

on the spot. But I needed someone else in my family to know what was going on,

so we could make informed decisions. I asked my sister to go into our father's

room and tell me what she saw. After a few minutes she came out pale and

shaking and said, "Dad is in agony. We're betraying him. If I could have killed him

right then, I would have. We've got to get him out of there."


The head of my father's medical team was Dr. Faltes and the neurologist was Dr.

Ahad. When I told Dr. Faltes that I was certain that my father didn't want any

heroic measures to save his life that would leave him significantly impaired, he

snapped back, "Do you have power of attorney? How do I know you don't have

some axe to grind against your father? This happens." We renamed the doctors

Faustus and Ahab –– after the alchemist in a German tale who sells his soul to the

devil and the captain of the Pequod in Moby-Dick –– to weave the ragged thread of

my father's fate back into the narrative of his life as a teacher. My sister and I

begged Dr. Faustus to give him morphine, and he assured us that he would. But

the next morning, our dad was in the same tormented state. A nurse told us that

the staff would not give him drugs because "he does not have enough brain tissue

to feel pain." I felt like we were fighting a revolution in Greenville Hospital to free

my father from the ultimate oppression –– the tyranny of being trapped in his



Then we found out that my father's kidneys, deprived of oxygen during his heart

attack, were failing. When Dr. Faustus asked me to sign a paper authorizing

dialysis, I declined, effectively sentencing my father to death. The next day, Dr.

Ahab's EEG confirmed that he had no hope of recovery. The two halves of what

was left of the brilliant brain of Donald Silberman were firing asynchronously,

with only minimal and sporadic activity. After I conveyed this news to my mom,

a young doctor burst out of the ICU and ran over to a family praying on the other

side of the hallway. "I have great news!" he said. "Your grandmother is going to be

absolutely fine. It's like a miracle." I asked Dr. Faustus to take my dad off his



He survived for four more days. Though it seems terrible to say so, this was

awkward, because we had already scheduled a celebration of my father's life at his

college for the following Monday. But my dad was also a punctual man. On

Sunday night, I was falling asleep beside my mother when I had a strange dream: a

crystal lattice, glittering in the dark, geometrical and inhuman. Then the phone rang

on my mother's night table. A nurse's voice said, "Mr. Silberman has expired."


My father's body was still warm when we got to the hospital at 1:30 am, but he

looked utterly dead, with a slack expression that he never wore in life. My mother

said goodbye to her prince and protector for the last time. When we got back to

the apartment, she gave letters to me and my sister that he'd written and sealed

years earlier, before an operation, to be opened by us in case he didn't survive. "I

lived the life I chose. (Sometimes, these days I think that it might have chosen

me.)  I have been very happy," he wrote to me. "I did the right thing. I dedicated

my life to human progress –– to bringing about changes that would improve the

conditions of life and the quality of life of the common people. My belief as I

depart this world is that I have been an instrument of historical change -- that the

forces of change worked through me. For this reason, I led a life of meaning and



I expected a small group of tweed-jacketed socialist professors to attend the

tribute to my father, but instead, the auditorium was packed with his colleagues

and former students, standing room only. Hearing them praise his work in the

classroom and on the front lines of his union was like discovering that my dad had

lived a double life as a superhero. The man I talked about, on the other hand, was a

guy who adored salt bagels, Casablanca, college football and basketball games, and

the poems of Walt Whitman; insisted on not being disturbed as he read the Times;

and enjoyed nothing more than drifting in an inflatable raft with my mother every

August, reading a novel while curling his hair with his index finger. When the

speeches were over, a student in a wheelchair told me that while he never really

knew my father, he had been crossing the campus a few weeks earlier when he

dropped all his books on the sidewalk. My dad, who happened to be passing by,

got down on his hands and knees to pick them up.


A year later, my mother, my husband, and I returned to Provincetown while my

sister stayed home in California with Andrew to raise their son, Christopher. In an

uncanny symmetry of loss, our beloved house had been torn down the previous

winter by the guys who owned it. With my mother leaning on Keith's arm, I read

aloud from Moby-Dick before scattering my father's ashes in the water.



[Originally published in NHS 2009, http://www.poetspath.com/napalm/nhs09/Steve_Silberman.htm]