To my dear stepfather, Clay, who died at home on July 2.
Here he is in early July, 2005, holding his granddaughter, E. Later that weekend--perhaps even that day--we had to take him to the emergency room because his cough suddenly seemed much worse. He turned out to have a very serious pneumonia that kept him in the hospital fighting for his life for the next few weeks, and then still in the hospital and then in a rehab center for months more. Finally he was back home, only to be back in the hospital many more times over the next few years until finally making it back home for the past 8 months or so. Since that weekend I've been expecting bad news every time the phone has rung, and now I still do though I know the worst has already come.
I wrote a tribute to him that I read at the funeral, and it said so much of what I feel and remember about him that I want to put it here:
I first met Clay when I was one, but it wasn’t until I was around five or six, I’d say, when I began to form the impression that Clay was magic.
For one thing, whenever Clay thrust out a hand for a taxi, a checker cab appeared, even though there were hardly any left in New York at the time. I’d look up Second Avenue—or wherever we were—at the tide of yellow, and there wouldn’t be one in sight. The next thing I knew I was opening up the jump seat, trying to remember if I’d looked away for a second. Whenever we walked into a restaurant, a hotel lobby, a theater—anywhere--I’d hold my breath and wait. Within five seconds an arm, or several, would shoot up, and someone would shout “Clay!” This would also happen in other states and foreign countries. As we ate, people would stop by the table to talk, but it was never annoying. Talk WAS eating. Talk was food.
Then there was the house on 57th Street. There were three elevators into the place, and the doors were usually left wide open. The buttons on the phone were always alight. People were always coming over, always calling.
There was magic throughout that place. In a drawer upstairs was a pink plastic hairbrush with the word “Pamela” painted on it in a girl’s handwriting with red nail polish. She was the movie star he used to be married to. I liked to look in his closets, at the rows of succulent suits made of the softest wools in houndstooths and checks and heavenly shades of blues, blue greens, and earthy browns; at the caps and fedoras and homburgs, at the creamiest cappuccino of a camel’s hair coat you could ever hope to feel. On the floor were his shoes, little gems of gleaming leather in their odd, narrow, sparrow shape, highly arched, ready to carry him in his headlong, tip-toe-like gait to the next urgent destination. The waterfall of ties was mesmerizing--I counted them more than once. It seemed as if you could never get to the back of them, and if you did you’d end up somewhere like Narnia. He taught me how to tie a tie and how to fold socks and, I think, how to be a man, not only a girl.
In his room if I followed the river of dismembered papers along the floor, I’d pass the butler’s table on which lay the silver tray that held some long-ago-eaten meal and one of the alice-in-wonderland-sized cups he would drink tea from--he was never a coffee man—and then I’d reach the king-sized bed. This was one of Clay’s favorite places. He’d be there, sitting up in his bright white boxers and t-shirt, still reading, while jazz was playing so loud you were inside it and the notes were jutting out the door into the hall. Which is what had drawn me in to begin with. Where else could you want to be?
And then there was Clay himself. Clay wasn’t like anyone else. He didn’t laugh like anyone else, just a single “HAH!” and maybe a second, “HAH” if he was really amused. He knew a ditty for every situation: “Her name was Maura, she was a schoolgirl, with schoolbooks in her arms and ribbons in her hair….” He never just said hello. He shouted your name out as a greeting. He spoke in headlines—“The Kid’s Home From School!”--and exclamation points, and he ate poached eggs the way he ate life: in one swallow. From Clay’s life I learned about passion for one’s work, not driven duty, but the deepest possible creative, fulfilled, engagement. And I learned about how friendship could be part of the fiber of it all, inextricable and everlasting, loyal and dearly loving. As I saw him inspire legions, and most especially my mother, I learned that if he thought you could do it, and he always seemed to, you could. I always wished that everyone could know how tender he was beneath his kingly bluster, how sensitive and guileless and honorable.
In East Hampton, I’d make sure not to miss the trip to Marley’s for the papers. We’d chat as Clay drove in his terrifyingly absent-minded way, occasionally glancing at the road, half-reclining, with a finger or two on the wheel. He’d gather up every paper and magazine, I’d add every comic book I could find, and he’d get it all, as unquestioningly respectful of my reading material as I was of his.
In the city when we went somewhere with him he’d often just start off walking impossibly fast, down some dark street the wrong way from home. I’d yank my mother to keep up, which couldn’t be done in her heels. If I asked how much longer, he’d stab a pointed finger into the air and grunt “just, just, just.” And then suddenly he’d stop and there would be a door where it never seemed there would be one, and we’d go in, and there’d be great music, a splendid room, some unbelievable delight, people, sounds, something happening. It was magic. And so I learned, like everyone else, that even though you didn’t know where you were going, if you were with Clay it was going to be fun.
As I grew up most of my childish impressions were corrected by the world, but not this one about Clay being magic. Instead, I realized that everyone else thought so too. Because, of course, he was.