The last time I saw Shakespeare’s King Lear was at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Frank Langella played the aging king. It was 2014. Langella played Lear not as a senile fool as the play began, but as a once great man, if not a titan, whose wisdom and charisma were waning and therefore susceptible to challenges from his crafty daughters, including his beloved Cordelia. Only later in the play does Lear sink into madness, and it is his fall and his daughters’ opportunism that makes this such a tragedy.
I am living with King Lear. As is my friend Kathy. Both of our husbands were once ambitious alpha males, businessmen who commanded their respective domains. They were best men at each other’s weddings. Back in the late 1970s, they lived next door to each other when Jordan, my husband returned from almost two decades living in Israel, after having served six years in the Israeli Defense Forces in three wars. Jim was coming off of a divorce. They partied together, drank too much, competed against each other, and then married at the same time. My husband’s first marriage failed. Jim and Kathy’s didn’t. And years later when Jordan and I began to date, meeting his friend Jim and getting Kathy’s approval was paramount to him. Kathy and I have always been grateful that we like each other as much as we do, because neither of us wanted to tinker with these men’s once complex friendship. Both men retired as cognitive issues developed. They are living with moderate cognitive decline, although in different forms and presentations. As we care for these men, Kathy and my relationship strengthens while these once close friends drift apart as their illnesses isolate them.
Last week the two families rented a house in Craryville, New York, a tiny hamlet in Columbia County, just east of Hudson and west of Great Barrington, Massachusetts. To ensure our safety, we were all tested for Covid-19 beforehand.
Our daughters, 31 and 34 years old, joined us. My daughter has spent the last five months living alone, employed and working on Covid-related issues in the company of a recently rescued eleven year-old Maine Coon cat named Archie. Kathy’s daughter is attending film school while completing a second documentary and in a budding new relationship with a creative young man. Kathy and I marveled at how emotionally accessible our daughters are to us despite the challenges of Covid-19, quarantining, working insane hours from multiple screens on Zoom, Slack, and FaceTime.
Our daughters are each the beloved Cordelia to her father. Yet this week, as they doted on their respective fathers, we saw a pattern emerge. Each man’s loss of authority was reflected back to him through the kindnesses of their daughters. And those kindnesses—a haircut and beard trim on the front lawn, an invitation to walk down the road, playful shooing from the kitchen when we were preparing meals—evoked seething silent anger in the men. They were not willing to relinquish their patriarchy to these vivacious, talented, and caring modern women. As appreciative as they might be at times with us, the wives, they could not be with their daughters. To become ineffectual in the eyes of their daughters was just too much. And the tragedy is that these young women arrived in Craryville determined to make the most of this magical week in the country with their parents, hoping that as their fathers waned, they might reconcile and find entry points for new experiences. The new experiences were disappointments although unlike in the play King Lear, they had their mothers to help them work through the sorrow of seeing their fathers diminished and angry.
I only have a daughter, but Kathy has a son, and she has not seen the same blistering anger in Jim’s eyes when her son ministers to his growing needs. I have no comparison. Our husbands’ illnesses present differently. To Kathy it seems that Jim is willfully risking his relationship with both his wife and daughter as he pushes back against intimacy and love. For me, I wonder in the context of today’s toxic masculinity, whether this is a dying breed, these aging white men who feel entitled and who carelessly risk their daughters’ delicate and intricate love in search of a last roar.