Buzz Bissinger on Growing Up in Central Park

Snapshots of life at home.
April 24 2012 6:15 AM

The Goodbye

An apartment, Central Park, a father, a mother, a son.

(Continued from Page 2)

I never felt closer to my family than I did in those moments, even in the throes of inebriation. I thought we would last forever. In a way I cannot quite explain, I felt a sense of immortality because Central Park was immortal, that everything would always stay the same.

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Sometime in the spring of 2001, my mother’s physical and mental health, which had been on a descending slope for several years, took a radical turn for the worse. She had mysterious fainting spells, one time falling off the sidewalk on Fifth Avenue into the street before a Good Samaritan saved her. She was hospitalized at Lenox Hill, where neurologists pecked and pawed and knew something was severely wrong but could not pinpoint the cause. Maybe it was Parkinson’s. Maybe it was Alzheimer’s. Seventy-four years old, she became increasingly disoriented and unable to process. For every day of the two weeks she was there, my father kept vigil. He arrived at 9 in the morning and left at 8 at night, only exiting the room to go out for lunch. He was 75 and his protectiveness of her was not only touching; it reinforced in a more powerful way than ever before how deeply they were in love, 50-plus years of marriage sealed into an unbreakable companionship.

Map of Central Park, showing the major features and streets
Map of Central Park, showing the major features and streets

From MapMaster.

She came home more disoriented than ever. Her acuity had been the best part of her but now the world seemed fuzzy and foggy. She began to lose her ability to walk and spent most of her days in bed reading the same article in Time magazine over and over again. She became more dependent on my father than ever. He was a man prone to frustration, and he was frustrated by what was happening to her, but he worried constantly.

Until June of 2001 when I received my weekly call from him. “Just checking in” was the way he always started the conversation in an upbeat lilt, to which I generally responded with some bitch and moan about work until he finally decreed that I would have exactly five minutes to bitch and moan about work until I was required to turn to something else. But this call was different.

He had just been diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia and was subsequently hospitalized. On the taxi ride to Mount Sinai he let out a wail and said he was scared. It was the first time he had ever shown such vulnerability. I took his hand and tried to console him but I was utterly unprepared for the role reversal that inevitably takes place when your father becomes sick and you the son become the caregiver.  

My mother did not understand what was going on. She had no clue that he had cancer, in all likelihood fatal. But one day we did take her to see him. She was in a wheelchair. My valiant sister pushed her the whole way and we went through the park, transversing the Great Lawn from west to east. The park was in its glory thanks to the work of the Central Park Conservancy, lush and green, trees spreading their wings with proud majesty. Even though this was a walk I had made a thousand times, everything felt fresh and alive. Until we reached the entrance of Mount Sinai and I felt the dread of knowing my father was dying and the inability of my mother to comprehend it.

After being filled with chemotherapy through a port that had been placed just below the shoulder, he came home. He fought valiantly. He refused to accept that he even had leukemia, until there was a recurrence. He went back into the hospital. He knew it was over. We both knew it was over. I could offer no reassurance now, only the silence of fate.

He died in October of 2001.

My mother had collapsed mentally and physically. She could not walk. She was incontinent. She often called out to my father, thinking he was coming home at any second or that he was still there in the apartment.

My sister and I groped for ways to connect her with the things about New York she had loved. So almost every day we took her to Central Park in her wheelchair. We parked it near a bench. We always picked a spot in walking distance of a hot dog stand. She still loved to eat so we all got hot dogs and sodas. The sun fell on her face and she felt tranquil in those moments, the place of New York she loved the best among so many.

We took her to a neurologist at Columbia Presbyterian. He believed she might be suffering from hydrocephalus, an abnormal buildup of fluid in the brain. A shunt was put in to relieve the pressure. It worked momentarily—she was even able to walk a little bit—but then she lapsed and had to be hospitalized. The shunt became infected. Sepsis set in, leading to liver failure.

Four months after my father, my mother died in March.

The apartment was rent-stabilized. My parents were paying $2,700 a month, an obscene deal in New York given the location. The landlord immediately raised it to $7,000, then $10,000. My sister and I could not keep it. The hideous process of emptying out took place—years and years of the accumulation of furniture and clothing and knickknacks and family papers.

I was the only one there when the apartment had been finally swept clean. I puttered about, going into each of the rooms before ending up in the living room. I stared out the picture window. Central Park unfolded like a magic carpet. I could see the joggers and the dog walkers. I could see the Guggenheim and the spires of Fifth Avenue.

Looking north at the Great Lawn on a sunny late afternoon, the Eldorado in background left.
Looking north at the Great Lawn on a sunny late afternoon

Photograph by Jim Henderson.

I lingered for another second or two. Then I went to the front door and opened it and heard the click of the lock for the final time. Central Park beckoned. It always beckoned. But like so much else, the loss of my parents, the childhood so distant, the memories now nostalgic, it would never be mine again.

Correction, April 24, 2012: The photo originally appearing at the top of this article was mistakenly identified as the Great Lawn. It was the Sheep Meadow.

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