When I was born, my father was 66 years old.
Old 8mm videos of my older brother and me depict the same casual disregard any child has for a parent. My father, nearing 70, shot hours of footage of us with his old-fashioned video camera, his booming baritone narrating while Dan and I played air guitar or showcased our best belly flops. In my favorite vignette, I am smearing chocolate in my hair as Dad trills my nickname, Jussy, in trademark, singsong staccato.
My father, Sidney Harman, is credited with many things: building one of the biggest audio-equipment companies in the world, Harman International; maintaining an impressive golf handicap into his 90s; buying Newsweek from The Washington Post in 2010, when he was 91. He was puckish; he was a poet, a philosopher, and a sports enthusiast. But more than anything, my dad was a magician.
I will never forget the way his wiry eyebrows furrowed when he beguiled a stranger’s son at a restaurant, asking him to blow on a coin that would later surface in the boy’s ear. I remember willfully insisting that the quarter had never vanished and reappeared, that it had been in his pocket the whole time. That was my role: the adversary. When I was a kid, nothing my dad did—despite his curiosity, good humor, or success—particularly impressed me.
In seventh grade, I was accepted to a prestigious all-girls horseback-riding camp in Vermont. Only for the most serious equestriennes, the program demanded hours of intensive lessons and a regimented diet. Prior to my departure, I heavily campaigned for care packages, citing the irreparable side effects of withdrawal from Sour Straw candy. Halfway through camp session, I received a notice that a package was waiting for me at the canteen, but that it had been inspected for contraband. Evidently Dad had bought a board game and filled the box to the brim with candy, and then taken it to be shrink-wrapped. Although the packaging was seamless—and, as the camp director admitted, unprecedented—my sweets were seized. As I walked away with my gutted Monopoly game, I read the note from my dad: “A game for a gamine,” he had written, in trademark, blocky scrawl.
That wasn’t the only time one of his tricks backfired, but he never stopped trying. When I was in 12th grade, a teacher ordered me to rewrite an essay on Henry IV. Although I was fairly confident in my mastery of Falstaff as a foil to Prince Hal, I asked Dad for help. After an hour of brainstorming, we crafted a three-page masterpiece, which included two, single-sentence paragraphs for emphasis. We were quite pleased with our creativity, especially those two artful sentences. When I came home with an F, my dad maintained that Mrs. B. wouldn’t know iambic pentameter if it bit her in the ass.
It was this refusal to ascribe to social rules that made him so magical. And although I used to cringe when he would pick me up in his convertible, Frank Sinatra blaring from the speakers, the more I listened, the more I became enchanted with Ol’ Blue Eyes.
My dad always said his goal was to live long enough to see my older brother graduate from high school; this would have made him 82. At my own college graduation, Dad—then 88 and lively as ever—drank warm keg beer from a plastic cup and flirted with my roommates.
When we found out last March, that at 92, he had acute myeloid leukemia, no one believed my dad was really sick. He didn’t look it, and he didn’t feel it, he said; his opinions were still provocative, his jokes, terrible. But as we sat on the balcony of my parents’ oceanfront home on Venice Beach, he encouraged me to pursue my dream of writing, assured me I had a wonderful partner in my boyfriend, and told that one day, I’d be a lovely mother. The words were heavy, but the sun on my nose was warm, and I didn’t take any of it too seriously. After all, he’d always had a penchant for dramatics.
A month later, in April, I saw him at the hospital for the last time. Despite the morphine coursing through his veins, he looked at me and conspiratorially suggested we “get out of here.” I smiled at him, his warm body bloated with chemicals, his face shrouded in unfamiliar stubble, his dark-blue eyes weighted and cloudy. I finally understood that this was his final trick: the disappearing act.