In Honor of Father's Day: Stories about complicated dads

This week, we're celebrating Father's Day by sharing stories about complicated relationships with dads.

Part 1: After her father, a well-known intellectual, passes away, neurobiology PhD student Eva Higginbotham tries to live up to his academic standards.

Eva Higginbotham is a 3rd year PhD candidate on the University of Cambridge’s ‘Developmental Mechanisms’ programme. She works with fruit flies to discover how neurons decide on their neurotransmitter phenotype during embryogenesis, but has been fascinated by all facets of developmental biology since her undergraduate degree at the University of Manchester. Born in Boston to American parents, she moved to England as a child but travels back every year to enjoy family, friends, and food.  

Part 2: Storyteller Nisse Greenberg travels home to care for his father after a brain injury.

Nisse Greenberg is an educator and storyteller who has won multiple Moth StorySlams and First Person Arts Slams. He teaches math to high-schoolers and storytelling to adults. He is the person behind the shows Drawn Out, Bad Feelings, and VHS Presents. He also identifies as vegetarian, but he'll eat meat if it looks good or if he feels like it's going to hurt someone's feelings if he doesn't. He just feels like it's an identity he doesn't want to let go of. He misses you. His playground is at nissegreenberg.com and he is Nisse@storycollider.org.

Note: This June, The Story Collider will be celebrating Pride Month by highlighting stories about the intersection of science and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer issues. Each of our five episodes this month will include one of these stories, and you can follow us on Twitter and Instagram this month as we also share highlights from our back catalog as well.

 

Episode Transcript

Part 1: Eva Higginbotham

So I’m sitting in a dark room, alone, staring down a microscope at more than a hundred fruit fly larvae whose brains are glowing a bright, fluorescent red.  I had made my first recombinant fly. 

 Eva Higginbotham shares her story at J2 at Cambridge Junction in March 2018. Photo by Claire Haigh

Eva Higginbotham shares her story at J2 at Cambridge Junction in March 2018. Photo by Claire Haigh

I’m a developmental neuroscientist because I love thinking about how you make something immensely complicated, like a fruit fly brain, from something relatively simple.  A fertilized egg.  And my PhD project required me to generate an immensely complicated fly in terms of its genetics, and this was the first step using homologous recombination which, in short, is a way of getting two genes that you're interested in, into one fly.  Now, these two genes were going to work together to make certain cells of the brain glow red. 

I grabbed my supervisor, he looks down the microscope.  Now, we expected that about 3 to 5% of the larvae would have these glowing, red brains that would tell us the experiment had worked and what we were looking at was more like 75%, which I thought was great.  Clearly, I had made loads of recombinants.  But my supervisor kind of questioned this miraculously high percentage and so I went to the fly room to check on the flies that I used in the experiment. 

I’m standing there with two vials of flies in my hands.  One says cha-t2a-lexa-qfad.  One says cha-t2a-qf2.  I realize I used the qf2 flies, the wrong flies.  An entirely different genetic system.  It was all completely worthless.  Three months of work wasted. 

I sat motionless in my chair, surrounded by hundreds of vials of thousands of flies.  My jaw started aching.  I was grinding my teeth and I couldn’t stop thinking about how stupid and careless I was. 

As a scientist, you expect things to go wrong in the lab, but it’s different when you make the mistake yourself and the mistake is just not reading the label properly. 

And I started thinking about my dad.  My dad died suddenly six months before I started my graduate program in Cambridge.  He was a famous philosopher and linguist.  It’s because he moved to Oxford University from MIT that I grew up in England at all. 

He was an old-school, incredible intellectual.  Our last conversation was on the phone about a week before he died in which he congratulated me on my success in getting into Cambridge and corrected my actually already correct pronunciation of Newnham, my assigned college. 

He taught himself Brazilian Portuguese in less than two weeks in preparation for a conference in Brazil, which meant that he could chat happily with the men who rescued him during an accident where his car broke down.  But the thing is, he didn’t really know how to talk to his own children without making them feel out of their depth. 

I was both very close to and not close at all to my dad.  He was very hard to be close to.  He once played twenty games of chess simultaneously against twenty grad students at MIT and won them all, but he was content to just see his kids for a few weeks every year. 

After he died, I started thinking that I'd been wasting my life, but not in the way you might expect.  I had spent so much time on family and friends when I should have just been working on seeing what I could achieve academically as my dad had.  I had boyfriends and girlfriends that I spent time with.  I should have just been culturing my brain, ignoring the little things in life, like health and happiness and family. 

When I started in Cambridge, I spent weeks in a new lab crying silently while pipetting to classical Christmas music.  And every failure in the lab showed me again and again that I didn’t deserve to be here.  I refused to tell my temporary supervisor that my dad had just died for fear that it would make me look weak or like I was using it as an excuse for subpar work.  For me, it was one or the other.  Either be an intellectual and focus on your work, family be damned, or be a weak, emotional person who needed people and would never reach their potential. 

When we buried him in Los Angeles where he lived for the last fifteen years of his life, I wrote a letter to him and slipped it into the breast pocket of his jacket.  I don't remember much of what I wrote but I do remember saying that I was going to be the best scientist that I could be. 

A couple of days after he died, my mom and my siblings flew out to Los Angeles.  We took a taxi to the hotel we were staying at and we’re standing in the lobby and a man walks over.  He's wearing a kippah and he's sweaty and exhausted.  This was David. 

David is my older half-brother on my dad’s side.  He's in his forties, he converted to Judaism in his twenties, and he lives outside Boston with his wife and two sons.  There's a photo of me in a stroller and long-haired, skinny, tie-dyed T-shirt-wearing teenage David kneeling next to me, but bar an afternoon visit when I was nine, we hadn’t spoken, let alone met until my dad died. 

We all head up to our rooms and, a few hours later, my mom asks me to run a message down to David.  So I head downstairs, I knock on the door just intending on passing on the message and then heading back upstairs to my room.  But David opens the door and says, “Come in.” 

I’m sitting on the mini sofa and he's sitting on the bed and the curtains are drawn but the lamp is on and it’s warm and dark inside.  And we start talking.  We talk about my brothers and my sister.  We talk about how on earth I’m going to finish my undergraduate degree now my dad has died a few weeks before my final exams.  We talk about his years spent studying at the rabbinical school in Israel, and we talk about dad. 

We talk about what it’s like growing up with an emotionally distant father, about what it’s like being left as a young child.  Despite twenty years age difference, despite his growing up in Boston and my growing up in Oxford, our aches and pains and joys in the father we shared were the same. 

And David never had a sister, never had someone he could talk to who understood what it was like growing up with dad.  For me it was like looking to the future, talking to someone who had seventeen extra years of dad-processing time. 

We stayed in touch and a few months later I traveled to Boston to stay with him for a week.  I was nervous because, although we'd been talking a lot, I was going to be meeting my sister-in-law, getting to know my nephews. 

David looks so much like my dad.  He says, “Hmm,” like my dad.  He thinks and analyzes like my dad. 

 Photo by Claire Haigh

Photo by Claire Haigh

After my dad died, my grief felt wet and hot and like I was looking over the edge of a never-ending black pit, and as terrible as I felt and as unlucky I felt, I also knew that I was lucky because I was gaining a brother. 

During that visit, David and I are sitting at the kitchen table and Elli, my nephew comes rushing in.  He's coming back from his first day at a new middle school.  Elli is running around the kitchen and putting together crazy combinations of food in the new toaster oven and David is asking him how was school, how were the teachers, and Ellie is chatting away. 

And David also gently checking in with Elli because Elli is in a new school now away from most of his friends, if not all of them. 

Now, I know that my dad loved me very much, but witnessing this familial scene of father checking in on son just reminded me of the fact that that’s not how my dad expressed his love.  He bought me books on my birthday and we sang Gilbert and Sullivan in the car when I was ten with my brother.  And he taught me blackjack and rummy and chess, and I will cherish those memories and I will love and miss my dad for the rest of my life. 

But he wasn’t around to see if I understood my homework, he never hugged me if I was sad, he never told me everything was going to be okay.  He didn’t know how to.  And as an adult, that makes me so sad for him.  It makes me wish that I could go back in time and say to him, “You know, maybe everything could be okay.” 

Whereas David could switch so easily from dad-making-dinner mode to intellectual mode.  We would go on walks in the woods in the summer sunlight, Starbucks in hand, and he would tell me about Jewish mysticism and American politics and theology and philosophy.  We would go from discussing the Watergate Scandal to laughing hysterically as I explain to him that in England how much milk you put in your tea and whether you have sugar or not is something people will subtly judge you for. 

On my last day of that visit, David and I sat down on the sofa in the living room because he wanted to tell me that the night before he'd been lying in bed and been overcome by a feeling of love for me, and with the knowledge that he wanted to know me, he wanted to be there for me, and he wanted to be there to help me if ever I needed it.  In that moment, I knew I hadn’t been wasting my time all these years investing in my relationships because David showed me any failure in the lab I didn’t have to automatically compare to my dad’s success and my dad’s ambition. 

Fourteen months later, after that disastrous day in the lab, I’m sitting in another dark room, alone, staring down a much more expensive microscope at a single fruit fly larval brain.  I'd redone that recombination that failed, and many others, all to try and make my fancy complicated super fly. 

I’m on my last slide of the day.  I've already accepted the fact that I’m probably going to have to redo at least one stage at this process for what feels like the hundredth time, but this time I’m not panicking.  I’m not grinding my teeth.  It’s just another day in the lab.  And I've actually learned that losing three months in the first year of your PhD is not that bad. 

I’m staring at the computer screen and I can see the cells of the brain, some of them are glowing red, some of them are glowing green, and some of them are glowing blue, each for a different key neurotransmitter in the fly’s central nervous system. 

My heart starts racing.  I’m up and pacing around the room, dancing with myself because I cannot believe that I've done it.  I have made my super complicated fly. 

I run downstairs to tell my supervisor, I take pictures on the computer screen and send them to my family and friends who all respond saying, “That looks nice,” which is good of them because I gave them no context whatsoever, to explain that I had spent a year-and-a-half working towards that moment and I had done it. 

I still had a long way to go in my PhD, and I still do, and in those intervening months I had moments of total self-doubt, total lack of belief that I belonged doing a PhD, that I was good enough for this.  But I also grew and changed in so many ways that cannot be measured on an expensive microscope. 

I had realized that being a compassionate person didn’t automatically make me a bad academic.  In the end, I choose my priorities over my dad‘s.  I choose my happiness, my family, my friends over my ambition.  I can care about fruit fly brains and I can care about people too.  Thank you.

 

Part 2: Nisse Greenberg

Seven years ago, I was back visiting my parents and I was feeling like an existential loss of identity.  Like who am I?  Why do I have to exist?  What am I going to do about it?  Because I was visiting my parents. 

I was in the living room and I’m listening to my dad be like, “You guys want pizza?  We can have cheese or we can have pepperoni.”  I’m looking at my mom and we’re making these eyes that we make at each other that just mean like, “I don't know how to answer his fucking stupid questions,” because he doesn’t mean cheese or pepperoni.  He means Rice Dream Cheese and SoyBoy Yves Pepperoni. 

 Nisse Greenberg shares his story at Caveat in New York in March 2018. Photo by Nicholas Santasier.

Nisse Greenberg shares his story at Caveat in New York in March 2018. Photo by Nicholas Santasier.

I see all of you have no idea what I’m talking about that’s because you didn’t grow up in a health food store with a vegan dad who thinks that you don’t have to refer to fake cheese as ‘fake’ cheese because he goes, “Nah, well, your cheese is fake cheese.”  He's like the Donald Trump of fake meats.  I thought that Fakin’ Bacon was the real…

I’m not a linguist.  So I do what I do when I feel this sense of loss of identity.  I went online and I started doing one of those tests, what do you call it?  There's like a ‘strongly disagree’, ‘strongly agree’ sort of like spectrum.  What do you call those tests?  The Asperger’s Diagnostic Exam. 

My mom is hovering because that’s her verb and she goes, “What are you doing?”  And I tell her I’m taking the Asperger’s Diagnostic Exam. 

And she goes, “Oh, we should do it as a family.”  So we did.  What I mean by that is we did not each individually do that.  We compromised on answers and took all 136 questions very seriously. 

Question 96 is what stood out to me because the question was, “Strongly agree, strongly disagree.  You know when to apologize or say thank you correctly,” and we all immediately went strongly disagree, as though that was what bonded us together as a family.  Like this is what makes the Greenberg-Ericsson clan who we are.  It should be on our family crest, like thank you or sorry or whatever.  Whatever you want just pretend I said that. 

Because family is an inherently oppressive structure, right?  Love is just like mutually assured resentment that keeps you showing up for each other.  Thank you.  At least one person agrees with me. 

That’s to say I do love my family a lot.  I’m an only child.  I have to.  So when I heard that my dad had been airlifted to Bangor Hospital after a bicycle accident, I was on the first plane to Maine.  That was two years ago. 

I went directly from the airport to the hospital and I started walking.  I’m walking down the hallway that he's supposedly staying at and all I can think is he's not supposed to be here.  My dad is the person who will stay up until 3:00 a.m. with me debating whether or not you can feel empathy for Sean Hannity or we’ll spend all day arguing about whether or not a boycott is a valid form of political protest. 

My dad has spreadsheets, plural spreadsheets, with all of the nutritional facts of every vegetable so that he can determine what vegetable you could live off fully.  And these people in this wing are brain-dead.  There's just moaning, there's gasping, and just people look like zombies. 

He's at the end of the hallway so I walk all the way down dreading what I’m going to see, and what I see does not pacify me in any way.  He's got blood crusted all over his face, he's laying in bed, looks confused and there are about six doctors and nurses surrounding him who look equally confused. 

He looks up and he sees me and he says, “See, here he is.  Here’s my son.  He can take me home now.  I got a meeting tomorrow.”  And they all looked at me as though I’m supposed to have an answer to this question. 

I say, “Dad, we’re not leaving right now.”

“Why not?  I got to go to the BIKE MDI meeting tomorrow.”

And I said, “You have… you're… let me talk to the doctors real quick.”

“All right, fine, but we got to get out of here.”

So I talk to the doctors and what I find out is that there are three major things wrong.  My dad has a broken hip, which cannot take surgery and he needs physical therapy to fix it.  They don’t know why he crashed his bicycle.  He has localized amnesia around the moment, but they think that there's something wrong with his heart and so they want to monitor that.  And he has a brain injury that they say is like a swelling or a flooding of a part of the brain which means that he's going to have… he has loss of short-term memory, loss of an understanding of what danger is and impulse control problems.  That’s what they think.

But what I see… and they say the brain injury will probably get better.

I really don’t like the word ‘probably’ coming from a doctor.  I don't think that they should be allowed to say that.  I feel like if you dress like that, you don’t get to say ‘probably’.  If they had like shaman beads and some robes and they said ‘probably’ I'd be like, “All right.”  But if they wear a lab coat and a clipboard, they got to say ‘yes’, ‘no’, ‘black’, ‘white’.  They’ve committed to that form of conversation. 

My point, what I’m really trying to say is that the apple hasn’t fallen off the tree.  I am essentially my dad.  When I say things about my dad, I just want you to understand that I might be a little mean to him but I think of it as self-deprecation just one generation removed. 

What I see when I’m with him is that I see that he definitely has a brain injury and I know that he has one because at one point he points over across the hallway, Day 2 that I’m there he points across the hallway and he goes, “What’s that?” 

I go, “A nurse?” 

And he goes, “No, no.  What is she drinking?” 

I say, “A Mountain Dew.” 

My dad who ate only tofu, spinach and rice for a full year once, he goes, “Ah, give me one of them.” 

I said, “A Mountain Dew?” 

He goes, “Yeah, yeah.  What’s wrong with that?”

“Ah, no.  Nothing.  I think I could quote you to say I think it’s just toxic sludge.” 

And he goes, “Nah, it looks good.  It’s cold.” 

So I responded how any good son who wants to make fun of his dad later would and I said, “Code Red or regular?” 

I went and bought him a Mountain Dew, I brought it back and he starts drinking it.  I don’t think I've ever relished any interaction with my dad more just watching him suck down this Mountain Dew, and just apathetically too.  Not even like, “Oh, my God, this is good,” or, “Oh, my God, this is great.”  It was more just like, “Oh, yeah.  It’s just a drink.” 

There's something so sweet and tangible about that until the heart doctor walks in and says, “What is he doing?” 

And I said, “He's drinking a Mountain Dew.” 

And he goes, “He can’t drink caffeine.” 

“What do you mean?” 

He goes, “He's supposed to take the stress test.  We’re going to have him run on a treadmill.”

And I go, “Excuse me.  Let’s walk outside.  Do you understand he has a broken hip and you told him not to drink caffeine when he has no short-term memory?” 

And he goes, “Oh.” 

So I realize I have a plan now.  I have to get rid of three doctors.  By the end of the conversation I've gotten rid of the heart doctor.  He explains to me that he needs to go through this stress test but it can happen anytime over the next three months. 

 Photo by Nicholas Santasier.

Photo by Nicholas Santasier.

I need to get him home.  The reason I really need to get him home is because, to me, and I know to my dad, a hospital is not a place to recover.  It’s a place to survive.  I desperately need my dad to recover.  I’m not ready to just have him be surviving.

And I need him home.  We live two hours away from the hospital and my mom is driving up every single day and back, and she's getting tired.  And she's taking care of the horses back home.  We just aren’t… we’re not capable.  I have to go home in a week.  We’re not capable of handling him in the hospital any longer. 

So I get rid of the heart doctor.  I talk to the hip person and they say he has to pass two physical therapy appointments and then we can transfer him to a physical therapist back closer to home. 

And then I focused my attention on the brain doctors.  What they do with the brain injury, so like if your arm is broken, what tells you that your arm is broken is your brain.  When your brain is broken what tells you that your brain is broken is nothing, because it’s broken.  So what they have to do, what they choose to do is just test him over and over to see how he's changing, see in what ways his brain is changing over time. 

And they test him with things to see if he's okay.  So they test him with questions like, “Mr. Greenberg, if you got pulled over by a police officer, could you give a reason as to why?” 

And he said, my dad said, “Well, I do own a health food store.” 

To them, it’s large logical leaps, he's not connecting dots, he can’t create thought patterns.  To me I understand my father and this is a very direct correlation.  He thinks that vegans are the most oppressed minority in American culture and he thinks the cops saw him and was like, “Oh, look at that long hair.  Let’s cut his hair off and make him eat bacon.”  That was Day 3. 

Day 4, I take him down to the butterfly garden in a wheelchair.  He's at this point wearing his gown backwards because he got angry at the nurse and said he can wear it how he wants.  He can’t. 

We’re in the butterfly garden and I’m explaining to him what I do for work for like the 6,000th time, which is I go and I teach workshops to nonprofits essentially.  And he really grabs on to that idea and so he asked me to wheel him over to some nurses who are on their cigarette break.

And he, bloody face, gown backwards, wheelchair, says, “Excuse me, ladies.”  They turn and he says, “Are any of you involved in any nonprofits?” 

They answer, as you would expect, with silence and confusion until one of them says, “No?” 

And he goes, “Really?”  As though this is a surprising answer, and then just looks at me and says, “Well, let’s go.”  They're not worth our time, guys. 

That gets back to the doctors.  They think, “Oh, my God, he has no sense of personal boundaries.  He doesn’t understand how to be in the world,” and I think, “Well, yeah.  That was true like six weeks ago too.”  That was Day 4. 

Day 6, I think I’m going to get him out of there.  He had to pass one more brain test, the very condescending kitchen test where they bring him into a fake kitchen and then stage scenarios that he might have to deal with, like the milk is spilled on the ground and there's a knife nearby and there's a toaster dangling over there.  What do you do? 

He passes it pretty eloquently by going, “I just go, ‘Karen!’” which is my mom’s name, which is how he would deal with all of those situations. 

And he's back in his room and I’m going to get him out of there.  I mean, like I’m sure.  This is it.  A nurse comes in and says, “Mr. Greenberg.  I’m really sorry but you have to do one more physical therapy, learn how to walk up and down stairs.  And the physical therapist who’s supposed to do that is on their lunch break and then when she gets back she has three other appointments and she might not get through all of them before 5:00, in which case we have to keep you overnight one more night.” 

And I who have been fighting to get him out of there every single day just start crying.  Just tears of exhaustion.  The tears that aren’t like even… I’m not sobbing.  I’m exhaling.  I’m exhaling emotions through my eyes. 

I look up and my dad is looking at me and he looks over at the nurse and he goes, “What’s he doing?”  And I cry a little bit more. 

The nurse sees that I’m struggling and she says, “He's advocating for you.” 

And he goes, “He doesn’t need to cry.” And I see what the doctors see for the first time.  I want it to be the brain injury because I don't want to have to admit or reconcile the idea that that’s him saying that. 

It’s been two years since then.  My dad’s brain injury healed.  He's seventy, though, and his mom got Alzheimer’s in her early 70s.  When I go back to visit them, my mom will hover over to me at some point pretty regularly and tell me some story of something that he did and she’ll ask, “Is that like the brain injury coming back or Alzheimer’s or is that just him?” 

To be honest, it’s pretty hard to tell most of the time, but I think through this experience what I realize is it doesn’t matter.  To some extent it doesn’t matter.  Like that’s why I take those tests.  I’m trying to understand if the feelings of alienation that I have in the world are diagnosable.  If I have something that I can point to or if it’s just my personality.  Because if it’s my personality, I've got some self worth.  I got to fix it.  But if it’s a diagnosis, I don't know.  That’s your problem.  Right?  That’s how it works? 

But I guess through this experience I realized that it doesn’t actually matter.  What matters is that in that time in that hospital what my dad needed was to be treated like a human no matter if it was his personality or brain injury.  He just needed to be treated with respect and listened to and cared about and paid attention to.  Instead of, what I think happened is he got treated like a test subject and it confused him and it made it worse. 

What I’m saying is if somebody comes up to you and they’ve got blood all over their face and they ask you if you're involved in a very specific type of economic model of business,  maybe that person is just advocating for their child.  You don’t know. 

Thank you.  Or sorry.  Or whatever you want me to say just pretend I said that.  Thank you.