essay

Meine Tochter

By Elizabeth Blake
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Meine Tochter
Elizabeth, 24, with her father, Dennis Riley, 53, in 1996.

The radiator hissed a welcome home. Dad gave me a hug. The apartment was stifling and the sight of my father wrapped up in his robe and slippers made me break into a sweat. I couldn’t throw off my heavy coat fast enough.

He’d invited me over right after I returned to New York City from my final semester at college in Indiana. “I would love to see you, meine Tochter,” he quietly sang over the phone that morning. We both had a fair to middling command of German, and fell into a habit of pretending we were protagonists in a Wagnerian opera whenever speaking of the mundane. It was both a marker of our shared love of language and our unspoken desire to keep things light by parodying the dramatic.

He sat in his favorite spot, a newly reupholstered wing chair, that he’d shown off on our previous visit. He should have been more than cozy, but instead he looked uncomfortable and utterly drained. He was feeling unwell, he said.

I took a seat on the sofa, facing him. It was just us and his two cats; Dad’s boyfriend was at his place on City Island. It may have been the first time Dad didn’t offer me tea or coffee when I arrived. He was usually the consummate host, taking pleasure in the small niceties of life. His coffee was superb.

It was clear that something was off. Dad took a deep breath. He was ill. Seriously ill. He confessed to me that he’d been living with HIV, now full-blown AIDS, since about 1980. He contracted the disease sixteen years prior, when being diagnosed with AIDS was a swift and final death sentence. After years of dormancy and surprisingly good health, the disease was now making rapid progress, and it was time that he told us.

I took it all in very quietly. Growing up with a gay parent, I had learned to keep my deepest feelings about my father veiled, for his, as well as my own, protection. Contrary to my standard operating procedure, I did not cry. I couldn’t. I was expending too much energy trying to mask my confusion, which probably prevented me from feeling the sorrow that was to come in waves later.

In some dusty corner of my mind, an old, painful memory rattled around. I saw myself as a 13 year-old, leaving my mother’s Upper West Side apartment to meet my dad for dinner at Chun Cha Fu on Broadway. Since divorcing when I was two, most visits with my father were centered around an evening out together —dinner, a chamber music concert, Shakespeare in the Park. As Mom said good-bye and closed the door, she suddenly stopped mid-way, thinking of something she wanted to tell me.

“Lizzy, do you kiss your father on the lips?”

“Yes, of course.” Ugh, Mom. Don’t be gross.

“You probably shouldn’t. He has AIDS, you know.”

The sound of those words echoed for what seemed like an eternity. My mind instantly raced through a thousand scenarios that would render my mother’s parting words untrue:

She has no idea what she’s talking about.

Dad wouldn’t tell her and not tell me.

She’s afraid of AIDS, and assumes that since dad is gay, he has it.

She’s still mad at him for leaving.

If she thinks kissing dad will make me sick, too, then she’s ignorant; therefore, she can’t be telling the truth.

In 1985, everyone knew that HIV couldn’t be passed via saliva—but there were people who were still living in fear. I never for a moment allowed myself to believe what she was saying could be true, because how could she tell me dad was HIV positive, in such a haphazard way? And how could he possibly have AIDS? He was totally healthy!

It didn’t make sense, so I didn’t answer; I just silently walked away. I was more disappointed in her than concerned for my father. She was still angry with him for coming out and leaving her with three young children in the wilds of New York City in the early 70s. That must have been a nightmare. But couldn’t she just let it go? I chose to forgive her for being insensitive.

 

Elizabeth (left) with her siblings and father Dennis in YEARTK.

Elizabeth (left) with her siblings and father Dennis at Lincoln Center in NYC in 1988.

 

As time went on, I felt certain that my mother’s admonition had been nothing but a cautionary assumption. No one lived more than a few years after a diagnosis of HIV. No one. Many of my father’s friends had already disappeared: gone, not forgotten, but never again mentioned.

Putting the memory aside, I got off the sofa and sat on the rug by my father’s slippered feet. I took his hand. I decided to let him think he was telling me something that I’d never heard before. After all, I hadn’t really heard it, had I? I’d done my best to shut it out.

As we sat there, it slowly dawned on me that my father had been holding on to this excruciating secret out of love for me and my siblings. He wanted to allow us a normal childhood, without the long shadow of AIDS. It wasn’t lost on me that he waited to tell us until I, his youngest child, had just finished college. He tried to save me from carrying his secret, but long before the legalization of same-sex marriage, children of gay parents kept secrets. Even on the liberal Upper West Side of Manhattan, not one of my closest friends knew that my dad was gay.

“This is an opportunity for us,” Dad said. After the initial difficulty of confiding his illness, he spoke calmly and with great clarity and determination. “I lost my own father very suddenly. He killed himself and that was that. There were so many things I wanted to know about him. I want you to take this chance to ask me anything you like…. even the most difficult questions. I want you to know me, and to feel that our relationship is completely open. I am here for you, now, and I don’t know how long that will be.”

I promised to delay my departure for D.C., where I’d intended to live post-graduation, so that we could have this time together. He visibly relaxed and invited me to stay in the spare bedroom, which he maintained for guests and used as a second office for the assistants he occasionally employed in his work as a music copyist. He was a gifted and prolific composer, but twelve-tone music is hardly a fast-track to commercial success, so he’d created a modest but thriving business copying music for orchestras and choirs.

More than anything, Dad wanted to spend time with me. He was equally adamant that I enjoy my life and not let myself feel too responsible for him. He wanted proximity so he could enjoy watching me grow into adulthood, as much as I could get to know who he was as a person. I wasn’t sure that staying with my father would be emotionally healthy, given how much time we would undoubtedly be together. But I had never spent more than two consecutive nights with him, and the idea of a daily relationship with my father twinkled in my mind like a fairytale, a spoonful of sugar swallowed with a bitter pill.

I left his apartment building and stepped out into the overcast, frigid winter evening onto Cabrini Boulevard. Somewhere beyond the thick ceiling of cloud cover, the sun was setting. Crows took to the sky overhead, screaming. I watched as they pursued and attacked one of their own. A murder. A bird. A blood cell. Turning on itself. Would the disease now be reflected in everything I see? The moment wasn’t lost on me and I tried desperately to commit this turning point in my life to memory.

It was a bitterly cold day, grey and the wind whipped the hair over my eyes. It was useless to fight the gusts coming off the Hudson and over the steep hills of Washington Heights. There was nothing to do but climb. Up the hill, up the vertiginous steps, up to the highest natural point of Manhattan, and back up to my mother’s apartment. I pulled my overcoat tighter around me, to ward off the chill.

About the Author

Elizabeth Blake, a copywriter and ceramicist, lives in Brooklyn.

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