Saying Goodbye to My Dad and CASABLANCA
“Where I’m going, you can’t follow.”
Not the most famous line in Rick’s closing speech to Ilsa, but the one that stays with me. Casablanca was the last movie I ever saw with my Dad, who I followed everywhere.
We were true kindred spirits, and there was no one I saw more movies with. Saturday mornings were for comedies on Channel 5, especially if W.C. Fields was on. We saw It’s a Gift so often we did the routines at the breakfast table. (“You tell me where to go!” “I’d like to tell you both where to go!”) On nights I couldn’t sleep, he let me bundle in my blanket on the couch and watch the late movie with him, which is how I fell in love with Buster Keaton. And every year, to my delight and my mother’s horror, he woke me at roughly three in the morning to trundle downstairs and watch Alastair Sim’s A Christmas Carol, which, unlike the other 97 versions, somehow never aired at a normal hour.
Sometimes he threw me a curveball, like the time he sat me down to watch one of his favorite films, The Informer, without warning me I’d want to hurl myself out the window afterward. (His response? “Of course it’s depressing! It’s about Ireland!”) But usually we were completely in sync.
My father knew more about movies, and what went on behind the scenes, than anyone I’ve ever known. He’d throw out little tidbits as we watched—explaining bits of business, or telling me who that third banana was or how the woman playing the star’s grandmother used to have a vaudeville act and who she was married to. And he said it so casually, like everybody knew this stuff.
The way you do when you’re a kid, I thought those days by his side on the sofa would last forever. But when he was just 46, my father was diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus. Immediate surgery revealed it had metastasized. He was told he had about three months to live.
Summer was starting, so I could spend most every day with him until, I thought, he’d be coming home. His hospital window overlooked the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, and one day, a line of sailboats bobbed lazily through the bay, maybe stragglers from the July Fourth flotilla a couple of weeks earlier. We watched the boats for a while, but then Casablanca was coming on. My Dad had just seen it—the local stations had a handful of classics they played over and over again—but he was happy to watch it again with me.
Usually we talked a little during movies, but that day, we were mostly quiet. He was tired, I could tell. But he piped up a couple of times.
“Did you know Conrad Veidt was the highest-paid actor in the film?” No, really? “He barely escaped the Nazis, and then he donated his salary to the war effort.” I said something about how sad it was that the poor guy was forced to play Nazis all the time, but my Dad said he wanted it that way, to show how evil they were.
At one point he started to say something and broke off, and I thought maybe there was some racy tidbit he’d stopped himself from telling me. So now I had to know. He finally blurted it out: “Dooley Wilson didn’t play the piano.” For an old-movie lover, that’s right up there with “no Santa Claus.” He softened the blow by telling me Wilson was a great drummer, though, and once led his own big band.
And he talked about Humphrey Bogart, and how brave he was when he was dying, how all his friends came by, one by one, to say goodbye. And how his kids were so young, but they knew he’d always be with them. I remember thinking it must have been horrible for them just the same, and wondered to myself why my Dad, who always said things straight, had put such a soothing face on it.
When the movie ended, I could see how tired he was, just from straining to stay awake for me for those two hours. When I leaned over to kiss him goodbye, I clasped his arm, and realized I could nearly close my hand around his wrist. I almost gasped but swallowed hard to hide it. When I brushed my face against his cheek, I could feel the bone beneath. But as frail as he was, it never occurred to me he wasn’t going to get better and come home. It’s not even that I suspected the worst and dismissed it. The thought never dared come anywhere near me.
My father often called me kiddo—I was the youngest—or Babe, as his seven older brothers and sisters called him. That day, when I turned to leave, he smiled and said, “Here’s lookin’ at you, kiddo.” And he seemed so happy as he drifted off to sleep.
My Dad was slightly color-blind, and I remember going home that night and organizing his brown, blue and black socks so they’d be ready for him when he went back to work. And checking the cupboard for Bisquik, so I could make pancakes for him.
Twenty-nine days later, he was gone. He hadn’t even gotten those three stingy months they promised him.
In all the years since, with all the times it’s been on television, I’ve never been able to watch Casablanca. Some memories comfort you, some reduce you to rubble. Some do both.
When TCM brought it back to the big screen in 2012, somehow I thought my Dad, who loved that movie, would want me to give it a try. And this was such a different setting—a billion-plex in Times Square. When I got there, I had to go up so many escalators that before I even got to my theater, I was already down to the part of the popcorn where I’d buttered it in the middle.
That morning, I’d gone back and forth so much about whether to go that I barely made it before the house lights went down. There was one spot on the end, in a little two-seater off to the side, but a woman had plunked her bag there. When I asked if she could move it, she said she was saving it “for a friend.” She also seemed mildly crazy. (One thing about New York: no matter what’s preying on your mind, there’s a good chance you’ll be distracted by an insane person.) I promised to move as soon as her friend arrived, and she huffily freed up the seat.
I made it through the introduction by Robert Osborne and the first scene of the movie. Then I started crying, then panicking because I was crying, then crying and panicking because I couldn’t figure out how to get out of there in the dark. As I grabbed my purse and started to get up, the seat-saver threw her arm around me and pressed my head to her shoulder. “It’s okay, I’m sorry! My friend said she isn’t coming!” I thanked her, wriggled free, and stumbled down the stairs and the escalators, crying and laughing and still kind of panicking till I was finally out in the street, in the light.
I tried, Daddy. I really did. But I have a feeling that my last time seeing Casablanca will always be that summer day— whiling away another afternoon watching movies with you, waiting for you to come home.