Iris Dorbian is a former actress turned journalist who during her career has covered media, marketing/advertising, small business and theater/the arts. Her articles have appeared in a wide number of publications that include Playbill, Media Industry Newsletter, Mediapost’s OMMA, Live Design, DMNews, PR News, Backstage, Theatermania, Stage Directions, Pilates Style, Dance Spirit, Dance Teacher and Pointe. She is the author of Great Producers: Visionaries of the American Theater, which was published by Allworth Press in August 2008. This is her second published personal essay. Her first personal essay, “Likable? Who Cares!,” was published this past spring in B O D Y. A New Jersey native, Iris has a master’s degree from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
A Prayer in Times Square
My hand trembled on my cell phone.
“You need to come home,” my mother said, her voice choked with pain. “He’s not going to make it.”
My worst fear was coming to pass: my father who had been my lifelong champion, confidante, and best friend was dying.
Seven weeks earlier, in late August 2010, Dad had checked into New Jersey’s Hackensack University Medical Center to have a tumor removed in his bladder. Since being diagnosed with bladder cancer nearly nine years ago, he had withstood a semi-regular regimen of limited chemo treatments and procedures to obliterate a tumor in his urological tract that was becoming increasingly aggressive. I kept thinking that because his earlier operations were successful that perhaps they would be once again. The possibility that the ticking time bomb in Dad’s bladder would explode and spread to his major organs was not a scenario I wanted to face.
“Okay…I’ll be there…but I have to finish my lessons,” I said clumsily, like a child instead of the middle-aged woman I was. I had begun teaching journalism and professional writing at a New Jersey college, a job I was excited to land because it offered promise to a career that had been derailed due to a layoff. Yet as hard as I tried to give my all to the students, my father’s ailing health proved to be too much of a distraction. Small wonder I was not asked back.
“Finish it quickly and get here right away,” my mother demanded. “He doesn’t want you to know how sick he is. He’s lying to you.”
My eyes welled with tears as memories reeled in my mind like a kaleidoscope: Dad taking me to a petting zoo in Fairlawn, New Jersey because I wanted to touch and hug the goats and the deer; Dad saving me from choking to death on a piece of steak in a Wildwood Crest restaurant when I was ten; Dad treating me to Saturday breakfasts at the local International House of Pancakes where I would always eat crepe suzette because my pre-pubescent self saw an elegantly hip character on TV order it; Dad watching all the just-released movies with me, even if they were age-inappropriate and traumatized me for years; and Dad guiding me at age fifteen to the TKTS booth at the heart of Times Square where we’d wait in a long line with the other out-of-towners arriving in New York City for the day to buy a discounted ticket to a Broadway show.
I savored that last memory. Our mutual love of theater reinforced the bond between my father and I, and probably opened the gate that led to my eventual exodus from the Garden State in favor of what I saw as my Valhalla–New York City. Or maybe my mother deserves to shoulder some of the blame. It was her idea that, every Saturday, Dad take me to New York City to see a Broadway show. Her reasoning wasn’t purely altruistic: She wanted my father out of the way. He might have been off from his job on Saturday but as the owner of a small women’s clothing boutique, she certainly wasn’t. Saturday was her busiest day of the week and as much as she loved Dad, she needed her space from him to concentrate on customers who would rush into her store as soon as the door opened, clamoring for bargains.
As eager as Dad and I were to undertake our Saturday excursion, we weren’t thrilled with the unedifying spectacle that awaited us once we got to the Port Authority. It was the late 1970s and the city was a study in urban blight. As soon as we walked off the bus, Dad and I would step up our brisk pace to a canter, bypassing the hookers and drug-dealers threatening our suburban equanimity. Once we got onto a neighboring street deemed by Dad to be less troublesome than the preceding areas, we relaxed our steps and let out a measured sigh of relief. We could amble comfortably to the TKTS booth and not race to our destination like hyperventilating maniacs.
There we were greeted by a swarm of other suburban dwellers queuing around Duffy Square, their faces ruddy with anticipation as they waited for a TKTS staffer to put up that all-too-important posting that announced which Broadway shows had “twofers” or tickets available for half their regular price for that day’s matinee performance. Usually, Dad would cede the Broadway show selection to whatever appealed to me. I’d always pick the musical—like Grease, or They’re Playing Our Song, or A Chorus Line. Dad would buy the tickets, and we’d walk to our favorite pre-theater hangout, a Greek diner where I’d eat my tuna fish sandwich and Dad would gobble up his western omelet. There Dad and I would talk about everything under the sun: literature, politics, movies, bad TV—nothing was too weighty or trivial to broach with him.
There was one story he’d always love to talk about. It was when he decided to spend his first New Year’s Eve in America at Times Square. It was December 31, 1949. He and a relative had gone to Coney Island to have dinner with a couple whose home according to Dad, “was a den of Communist iniquity.” Desperate to escape their rapturous odes to Marxism and Mother Russia, Dad and his relative bolted for Times Square where during the course of the evening, he found himself forcibly pushed by the crowd of thousands into a Russian movie theater.
“It was right there,” Dad, a Latvian-native, would say, in the perfectly unaccented English he mastered by listening to Edward R. Murrow newscasts, while pointing at a porn theater currently playing a decidedly non-Russian flick with the bizarre title of “Infrasexum.” Then he’d turn to me, his face reddening like an embarrassed schoolboy and we’d both howl as we headed to our Broadway show.
But now that version of my father was fading; he was expected to die within days or maybe weeks. With his eightieth birthday approaching in a month, I kept hoping and praying he’d make it for that milestone. Come on, Dad, you can do it. You survived the Nazis and the Marines—you can do this, Dad. You can do it.
On Monday, October 11, 2010, the day after my mother’s call, my lessons done for the week, I walked to the Port Authority and took the Number 164 bus that would deposit me right in front of my childhood home in Fairlawn. It was a lovely, unseasonably warm October day; the sun was breathtakingly brilliant and luminous as set against the sky, a yawning expanse of deep sapphire blue. Dad would love a day like today.
A survivor of various concentration camps, which included Stutthof and Stolpe, Dad was liberated by British forces on May 3, 1945, five days before V-E Day, which marked the official end of World War II in Europe; he spent the next six months in a hospital in Neustadt Holstein, Germany. As he later related in a letter to the historian Martin Gilbert who incorporated it in his book, The Day the War Ended: May 8, 1945 – Victory in Europe, “The 8th of May was spent by me in a clean and white bed for the first time in three years and I was all of fourteen and a half years of age.”
Dad couldn’t stay in bed, even though he was weak with typhus and dysentery. Spring was abloom in this small town where days before Dad and other emaciated, half-dead prisoners had been marched to a barge going nowhere and later abandoned on a large naval base in Neustadt Holstein. It was the final leg of a death march that began in March 1945 when the SS, desperate to eradicate all traces of the Final Solution, Hitler’s plan to take care of the “Jewish problem” in Eastern Europe, evacuated Stutthof. Though ill with fever, Dad forced himself to go on this march. Not to go meant being left behind, which spelled certain death.
In the hospital, Dad was an unceasing source of frustration to the British medics. Rather than rest in bed to recover, every day when the nurses weren’t around, Dad would slip out to the garden at the back of the hospital, sit on a bench, and gawk at the panoply of budding flowers basking in the warmth and sunshine.
“It’s such a beautiful day today,” he said to me not long before he died, some sixty-five years after he had left that now long-distance British field hospital. It was the second to last conversation I had with him in which he was lucid. The final conversation I had with him was a day later—also on the phone: I had complained to him about the expensive commute from New York City to the Jersey college to teach my classes.
“Maybe you can get reimbursed,” Dad advised me. “Speak to the Dean, see what she says.”
A stupidly banal conversation, one that I cursed myself for having when I realized later it was the last one I’d ever share with Dad. It’s funny–you always hear these poignant Hallmark card stories about how when a loved one like a parent or a close relative is on their deathbed, they always impart one last shred of pithy advice or lay bare a stirring heartfelt admission right before emitting their last breath. My final real conversation with my father was a complaint about bus fare.
When I arrived at my childhood home that October Monday morning, I knew Dad would die—the question was when. He could no longer stand on his own or perform basic bodily functions although he was able to drink the Ensure my mother was plying him with; his speech was garbled and unintelligible and when he was able to formulate and voice complete sentences, he was not in the present but jumping to various points in his life: Working as a tool and die maker at a plant in Paterson; having a ringside seat at my brother’s acrimonious divorce from his ex; and suffering and starving in the camps. For each period he would travel to, he spoke in the language he primarily used for that time: Yiddish and or German for the pre-World War II chapter in his life and mostly English for the United States era.
It was excruciating watching Dad relapse into his Holocaust period. I knew how much that childhood trauma affected him throughout his life. I’d seen it in his enervating insomnia followed by horrendous nightmares when he was able to steal some sleep. It was horrible to witness his mind time-traveling to the emotional and physical nadir of his existence.
From his hospice bed, he bellowed in Yiddish, “People are screaming. They are being beaten. What should I do?” He uttered this as the life force was ebbing away from him. All I could think was, When will this stop already?
That Tuesday my mother and I sat up all night with my father who was rambling unintelligibly in English, German and Yiddish, incognizant of his surroundings. At one point, he moved his eyes, which had been lifeless and glassy as I clutched his hand, toward mine. He smiled sweetly and asked me in a voice that sounded very youthful:
“Who are you?”
“I’m your daughter, Dad. Iris.”
The smile evaporated. His eyes assumed a serious tincture. Whether he was confused or whether he realized who I was at that moment I will never know. Seconds later, he drifted back into incoherence.
The next evening at school, I forced my sleep-deprived self to go through the paces of teaching my students. The class was a blur. Boarding a bus from campus back to New York City, I couldn’t stop thinking about my poor, sweet father, the close relationship we had, and how his life soon would soon become just a memory. I wept on the bus, my tears streaming down my face into my parched mouth.
I couldn’t sleep that evening. I walked from my apartment in Hell’s Kitchen to Times Square. The hub of midtown Manhattan was ablaze: neon lights blasting from billboards, taxis roaring down Seventh Avenue, and rubbernecking tourists thronging outside restaurants or sitting on one of the many fold-out chairs in the pedestrian mall.
I was going to sit down on one of those chairs and gather my thoughts when my eyes alighted on a whimsical but oddly welcome sight: a Christian caravan parked at the center of Duffy Square, outside the TKTS booth where years before, when I was a starry-eyed teen, my father had taken me to stand on line for discounted tickets to Broadway shows. I gaped at a sign some of the caravan’s young people were holding up to the midnight multitude: “Do You Need a Prayer? We Will Offer Them To You.”
Noticing my eyes fixed on the sign, a young red-haired man with blue eyes, moseyed over.
“Hi. Do you need a prayer?” he asked good-naturedly.
My throat constricted for a second. I fought the urge to let out a sob. I had to get a hold of my emotions, steel my features into granite lest anyone get too personal of a peek into my grief. But the young man wishing to dispense a prayer was a stranger, someone whose face, as benign and soft-featured as it was, I’d never see again. I relaxed.
“My father is dying,” I said.
He nodded at me while touching the nascent fuzz underneath his chin. “Do you know how long he has?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “They say it may be a matter of weeks. He is completely incoherent now. I just…don’t want him to linger like this…I want the pain to stop.”
“Is he a…religious man…your father?” he asked, carefully measuring his words. “Does he believe in Jesus?”
My heart sank. I wanted him to say a prayer for my Dad, but I didn’t want to lie.
“Dad is Jewish,” I said, “but he always had a great deal of respect toward Jesus, viewing him as a smart rabbi who wanted to introduce reform to the religion.”
He nodded again, this time appreciatively. “What’s your father’s full name?”
He clasped his hands, closed his eyes, and intoned in a soothing baritone: “Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee. Please bless Hirsch Dorbian with a peaceful, relatively quick death although let it happen in a few days so his family will get things in order first. Let him go quietly and in his sleep as he enters heaven. Amen.” He opened his eyes and then glanced at me: “God bless you.” I thanked him for his prayer and walked back to my apartment.
Two days later, I got a knock on the door from my building’s concierge Debbie, an elderly black woman. I had woken up that morning early and had turned the phone off because I wanted to work on my lessons uninterrupted and in peace. Maybe I did it to pre-empt hearing the inevitable. Though I was prepared to go back to New Jersey, I was not looking forward to seeing Dad. It was cowardly of me, but I couldn’t stand watching my favorite person wither into a faded specter.
Debbie was holding a note in her hand that said I needed to call home immediately. Without asking, I knew why: the young man’s Times Square benediction had been granted; my Dad had died. A call to my mother and brother confirmed the news. Dad had died after five a.m., shortly after my mother left his side and told him, in his occasionally semi-conscious state that she had to get some sleep, but she would be back by his side in a few hours. He reached up to her and kissed her four times. An hour and a half later, the nurse woke my mother. Her husband had died in his sleep.
It was Friday late morning when I arrived back at my parents’ Fairlawn home. By then, the undertaker had removed Dad’s body. My mother had wanted him to wait until my arrival.
“Mrs. Dorbian, I’m going to get a summons if I do that,” he reasoned with her.
My brother intervened and said, “It’ll kill the kid to see him like that.” “The kid” was his nickname for me even though I’m only four years younger than he.
I was grateful for my brother. As I journeyed home, and later sat shiva for a week during the traditional Jewish mourning period, I realized that it wasn’t abject cowardice that made me balk at viewing Dad’s body as a final tableau of remembrance. It was something else—something so intangible and finite I could barely articulate it even after I eulogized Dad at his funeral: His indomitable will and need to live, his ultimate act of rebellion against the machine of evil that had wiped out most of his family, and nearly him as well. To see him dead on the hospice bed is not what he would have wanted from me.
“You’re going to live a long life, Iris,” Dad had uttered to me one fine spring afternoon six months before he died. “I know it.” We were strolling in our favorite park in New Jersey, talking about everything under the sun—just like we always did. After a miserably long and seemingly interminable winter, flowers were starting to bud. The pastoral scene was intoxicating and reminiscent of what Dad saw when he was recovering at the hospital in Neustadt Holstein so many years before. Then Dad made his non sequitur. Was it a presentiment? Or something he wanted me to believe, knowing he would only have a short time left before the cancer would finally kill him? Or maybe it was his way of urging me to honor his legacy after he died by doing the one thing he had chosen to do every minute of his life after the war—and that was live—not in stagnation, not in the past, but in the moment, with joy and enthusiasm at all of life’s offerings, no matter how mundane.
I’ve chosen to do just that.