Jack Friday, March 30th, 2012

Posted on: March 30th, 2012 by admin 11 Comments

I’m walking across the kitchen when I hear it on TV. The captain of a JetBlue airplane freaks out mid-flight, his co-pilot forces him out of the cockpit, and in the main cabin some passengers pin him to the floor as he yells, “Say your prayers! Say your prayers!”

Usually, I can walk by CNN without listening. But this day I’m imagining myself on the plane, and I’m angry at this captain, outraged by this freak who put a lot of lives in danger.

I’ve been on an airplane a couple times lately, on JetBlue, heading to Florida to visit my father, age 71. Nearly 50 years ago he was a student at Cornell Medical School in New York City when, like this pilot, he had a complete nervous breakdown. For a year he took up residence on a leafy campus in suburban Boston, a patient at the famous McLean Psychiatric Hospital. Schizophrenia was the diagnosis, and it devastated his parents and younger brother and sister.

Things would start to seem normal again, for a little while. In the late 60s he enrolled in a Master’s program in psychology at Boston College. He became a therapist, a marriage counselor, an administer of IQ tests, a psychologist who counseled people to quit smoking, overeating, drinking, and taking drugs. He met and married my mother, and they had my older brother. Everyone who ever knew him has told me he was bright, athletic, charming. But in the early 70s, when I was a toddler, he just completely disappeared.

I was 28 when I went to meet him for the first time in 2000. By then we knew he’d been living all those years in Florida. I got to know him a little over meals between his shifts as a fish cutter at Publix Supermarket and his night job working security at an embalming school. When I flew home I felt like I’d gained something. Not a father, exactly, but a kind of friend, one to whom I was related by blood.

But I never liked the way he’d rush me off the phone when I asked questions about him. I was disappointed the year he agreed to come to Boston for Christmas only to back out last minute, after we purchased the plane tickets. When my wife and I were thinking about starting a family I wanted to see his records at McLean. I wanted to know the genetics. I wrote him a letter. No response.

When he called me this past February it seemed he needed help. For the first time in 10 years I flew down to see him. My wife came too.

“If you want to have a relationship with your father,” my wife said after that week in Florida. “You better do it now.”

It wasn’t the missing front teeth. Or the fact that his place was like a kennel, where a Siberian Husky was never allowed outside, not even to relieve itself. More disturbing was the labored breath, the face that went bright brick red whenever he got up and moved. It’s the way he picked up his worn black sneakers soon as he set them down, like he was walking on broken glass.

Today I sit in my office looking at his picture. We don’t really look alike. But sometimes he reminds me of my brother, who died several years ago, and I cannot help but love him for that. And I can see how naked he is right now, like anyone who shows up broken in this world, like anyone who shows up as a freak in our society. I hope the family of the JetBlue captain can accept that life might never be the same. I want to tell them to hang in there, just as I’d like to hang in there, too. Because we all have to take care of our own.

11 Responses

  1. C.B. says:


    Beautiful and moving. What else can I say? You’re brave to write it, but it takes a different type of bravery entirely to face all of this head-on over the years. Cheers to you for both. I look forward to reading more about it, if and when the day comes.


  2. Derek says:

    That was great! “…..and I cannot help but love him for that”. To seek love where others may find nothing is beautiful.

  3. Beautiful piece. I get the connection between the pilot who gives up on the plane and its occupants and the father who walks out. It is a terrible thing to be abandoned, whether in the skies or on the earth.

  4. Lisa Fleischer says:

    When I saw that picture here, Kurt, I thought…wow, he looks like Jay… We don’t have to take care of our own when they are vulnerable and fragile–but a beautiful thing about my work is seeing that people mostly do, even when the one they are caring for has not “earned” the right to ask for it, even though it can stretch them beyond belief. I’m glad your father has you and your compassion by his side and I’m proud you are a part of my family.

  5. nancy h carey says:

    this is wonderful- happy for you.

  6. Mike S. says:

    Maintain the pursuit Kurt, well done.

  7. Edward Rice says:


    I am sure this experience of connecting with your Dad and now processing it has not been easy – but possibly cathartic. I admire you for your efforts. No doubt, you will be glad that you did this. I was particularly moved by your concluding paragraph. None of us wants to see human brokeness in family and friends. Speaking for myself, I always strive to fix the brokeness – to try to maintain nice “neat packages”. But life frequently is messy as you yourself have witnessed. Thanks for sharing this wonderful piece.

  8. Mimi Shenk says:


    A beautifully written and thoughtful piece. Who among us doesn’t have a broken family member? I am happy for you that you have had the wisdom to understand the important role you can play going forward … important for both you and your father. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  9. very nice, kurt. i always like reading your writing because it is very human, very personal, very caring, and you’re not afraid to show vulnerability…something we all have but don’t like to admit. i think you should write a piece on Ken from tennis.

    want to take a walk we me and woofy later today at danvers reservoir??
    The Raven

  10. Gin says:

    Kurt, Thank you for writing this poignant, personal piece and sharing it with us. I hope that writing down this experience on paper helped bring closure to an open wound. Are you familiar with Pema Chodron a Buddhist nun? She writes in such a down to earth way about life’s ups and downs, as you do too.

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