By Andrew McCarthy
My father died this year. No one who knew us would have said we were close. He and my mother divorced thirty years ago, shortly after I had left our New Jersey home to pursue my life. Not long after that he remarried suddenly and settled in a small coastal town in Maine to restart his own life.
“Good,” my brothers and I joked. “That ought be enough distance for everyone.”
Over the next few decades my dad and I saw each other rarely. We spoke only occasionally. Yet when we did, he always invited me up to Maine.
“An open invitation, Pal,” he would shout into the phone. “It’s glorious here. Come on up.”
I would demur, and the strain of a scarred past and an unrealized present would rise up quickly. Rather than shine light on what was and wasn’t there, we rushed off the line and back to our individual lives.
As my own children grew, they began asking why they had never met Grandpa–I could give them no reason good enough, so one summer morning we set out for Thomaston.
On that lone trip north we were received graciously, if tentatively. My kids loved meeting their grandfather and his wife. I found it odd that scattered around his home were long-forgotten relics from my childhood—a chair, a small painting of a boat, a bookcase. “How had these things gotten here, into this strange house,” I thought to myself as I wandered from room to room.
While pleasant, our brief visit didn’t engender a passion in either of us to bridge whatever gap the years had etched.
Then last winter I heard my father was sick–dying–in South Carolina, where he and his wife had gone to wait out a particularly bad New England freeze. He had been sent home from the hospital to a home that was not theirs.
I surprised myself and boarded a plane in order to be by his bed. He was at times eerily lucid. I said to him things one says at the bedside of the dying–truthful, loving things. Tears stained both our cheeks. I left him there and returned home to work. The next weekend he was hanging on, and I went again to him. He was remote now, nearly gone. There was no conversation. Each massive effort required for his intermittent breath brought him only closer to death. I held his hand and whispered to him.
I was lucky to bear witness to the passing of the man I knew so deeply but not at all. We had not washed clean our past, but set down its burden in order to share a present that was oh so final–yet can the business between parent and child ever be final?
Lately, I find myself growing more and more eager to accept his open invitation and return to Maine. n
Actor Andrew McCarthy was a member of the 1980s “Brat Pack,” starring in Pretty in Pink, St. Elmo’s Fire, and Weekend at Bernie’s among many movies. His next film, Finding Julia, is in post-production. A director as well (including nine episodes of Orange is the New Black and three of The Blacklist), McCarthy has become a distinguished travel writer for Travel + Leisure, Afar, The Atlantic, Wall Street Journal, and New York Times.
He is an editor-at-large at National Geographic Traveler.