Excerpt: 'The Last Goodnights'

Besides, until these rough last two years, Jolly and I had had a fine relationship—friendly, warm, adult. Other than the standard turbulence during my teen years, we'd had a smooth trip. I always felt like I could talk to him about anything. (The fact that he was a doctor made some of what we talked about a lot easier, especially when I was struggling through puberty.) We had the kind of understanding that some fathers and sons have, where the son somehow intuits what his father expects and does it naturally—and feels proud to have gotten it right. Behavioral scientists probably have a fancy name for it, but it's a common enough phenomenon: sons learning how to please their fathers. And as much as I always refused to admit it—thinking I had escaped such mundane motivations—I realize now that I'd always had a deep need to make my father notice me and be proud of me.

Of course, when I was a child I thought of Jolly as a deity, and his frequent absences from home only added to his mythology. He would be in Washington, D.C., battling with the National Institute of Mental Health. Or in Tokyo, pontificating at an international medical conference. Or just over at the hospital, working late.

Ah, yes, "working late." Jolly was a doctor—tall, handsome, successful, charming, magnetic, and powerful. Catnip to women. (Picture a young Orson Welles, whom Jolly resembled in his youth.) And so it began, and so it continued—even after he had aged and gained so much weight that, sadly, he'd come to resemble the older, ursine Orson.

Jolly attracted men, too, but in a different way. Men admired him and wanted to be his friend and colleague. This quality made him a formidable recruiter, and over the years he used his persuasive talents to attract many bright young doctors to his department.

Jolly had a true gift for making people feel special. When he wanted to, he could look you in the eye and talk to you and make you feel like you were the most important, fascinating person he'd ever met. Whenever I received this treatment from him, I felt as if Zeus himself had just smiled upon me. He was perhaps the consummate politician. In fact, many have compared him to Bill Clinton because of his powerful charm and intellect (as well as his marital lapses).

Once I arrived at my parents' house and settled into the familiar living room, my earlier nervousness about seeing Jolly subsided. Somehow, everything seemed as normal as ever. Jolly held court from his usual end of the sofa and, surprisingly, showed no sign of his illness. I sat near him, in a chair in front of the fireplace. Mom sat in her usual spot—the opposite end of the sofa from Dad—and tried to keep a poker face, although I could see her fretting. Anne and Mary dealt busily with dinner preparations and last-minute gift wrapping and such, occasionally bouncing in for a quick comment, while I caught up with the folks.

It seemed like old times: The conversation was easy and smooth, the usual rhythms. At one point, Jolly said something a bit too humorous and cavalier about his dire condition, and K gently growled at him, "Jolly, don't exaggerate." He sighed and said, "Yes, dear." She rolled her eyes at his response, then said, "Now knock it off, or you'll scare the children!" And they both chuckled. Classic Jolly-and-K banter.

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