“My father… died in 1997 at age eighty-three, and afterward his friends told me how much they loved him. They told me how enjoyable he was, how outgoing he was, how funny and caring he was. I was surprised by these descriptions, because the number of funny or caring words that had passed between my father and me was few… When I was seven or eight years old, he suggested we play catch in the front yard. This offer to spend time together was so rare that I was confused about what I was supposed to do. We tossed the ball back and forth with cheerless formality…
My father… was not impressed [with my comedy act]. After my first appearance on Saturday Night Live, he wrote a bad review of me in his newsletter for the Newport Beach Association of Realtors, of which he was president: ‘His performance did nothing to further his career.’… I believe my father didn’t like what I was doing in my work, and was embarrassed by it. Perhaps he thought his friends were embarrassed by it, too, and the review was to indicate that he was not sanctioning this new comedy. Later, he gave an interview in a newspaper in which he said, ‘I think Saturday Night Live is the most horrible thing on television.’… But as my career progressed, I noticed that my father remained uncomplimentary toward my comedy, and what I did about it still makes sense to me: I never discussed my work with him…
[Years later, just before my father’s death] I was alone with him in his bedroom; his mind was alert but his body was failing. He said, almost buoyantly, ‘I’m ready now.’ I sat on the edge of the bed, and a silence fell over us. Then he said, ‘I wish I could cry, I wish I could cry.’
At first, I took this as a comment on his condition, but am forever thankful that I pushed on. ‘What do you want to cry about?’ I said.
‘For all the love I received but couldn’t return.’
I felt a chill of familiarity.
There was another lengthy silence as we looked into each other’s eyes. At last, he said, ‘You did everything I wanted to do.’
‘I did it for you,’ I said. Then we wept for the lost years. I was glad I didn’t say the more complicated truth: ‘I did it because of you.'”
A selection from Martin’s 2008 memoir Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life.
- Peter Hitchens reflects on how the wish to please one’s parents can distort our relationship to the past
- Calvin Trillin on the singular priority of good parents
- Louis Simpson’s poem — A light is on in my father’s study…