In the late 1950s, Rod Serling and his family lived on High Point Road. My family and I lived a few doors away. I’m not sure how many Playhouse 90 and Twilight Zone stories he wrote here — but he certainly used Westport as the inspiration for at least one of the latter episodes, “Last Stop: Willoughby.”
Subtitled “I was devastated after my dad, Rod Serling, died. But then I found relief in another dimension,” it begins:
The last time I saw my father, he was lying in a hospital bed in a room with bright green and yellow walls, inappropriate colors intended to console the sick, the dying. As he slept, curled beneath a sheet, I watched him breathe, willing him to, his face still tan against that pillow so white.
And as I sat looking at him, I thought of how, when I was small, I would wake in my room beside my flowered wallpaper and listen for his footsteps down the hall, comfortable in their familiarity, secure in the insular world of my childhood, knowing without question or doubt that when I followed those sounds, I would always find him.
When he first got sick, I wiped his forehead dry until he became too ill and I could do nothing, and on the eighth floor of Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester, N.Y., my father died. He was just 50 years old, I barely 20.
Anne goes on to describe the last night before her father’s open heart surgery — in 1975, it was a new procedure — and his death from a heart attack the next day.
“We are so sorry. He’s gone,” a doctor told Anne, her mother and sister.
Gone? Gone where?
That’s the thing about euphemisms. They never speak the truth. They leave all sorts of questions and dangling expectations. “Gone” would imply my father might return, or he’d just momentarily slipped away. Around the corner. Off to the nearest store. Gone might mean there would be footsteps to follow, tracks in the snow, a place to set at the table for later.
Gone would not necessarily mean “never coming back.”
Anne tries to cope with the death. Rod Serling was a famous public figure — but he was also her father.
Sitting at his desk, I listened to his Sinatra tapes, looking at notes, letters, photographs. I found cigarettes he’d hidden after he’d “quit.” An interview where he’d said, “All I want on my grave stone is, ‘He left friends.’”
I tried to watch a “Twilight Zone.” I listened to his opening narration, but it was terse and somber and his image in black-and-white was not the man I knew.
Grieving, Anne writes, “is not tidy, not organized or easy, but after it slams you, it has nowhere else to go. Understanding this can take years, can take its toll, can excise you off the planet, and it did for me.”
Finally a therapist told her that, to achieve closure, she needed to visit her father’s grave.
It took 2 years, but finally she went. For a while, she could not find it. Suddenly, there it was. Anne saw
his name, his birth date, the date of his death, WWII paratrooper; a small American flag.
In that instant came the finality and inconsolability I’d feared, but I stayed awhile, surrounded by silence, looking again at his name and the flag and then I saw it: a piece of masking tape attached to the stick of the flag and those three words from his interview: “He left friends.”
Later that summer, Anne began watching reruns of “The Twilight Zone” — more to see him than the actual show. One — “In Praise of Pip” — was filmed at an amusement park Rod often took his girls to.
When the show was over, she listened to the sounds of the Ithaca lake she and her father both loved. She was “still haunted by the void, by the reality of this empty space, and yet, those past 30 minutes spent watching his show brought a reconnection with him in a most unexpected way.”
In the episode’s closing narration, she had watched her father say,
The ties of flesh are deep and strong, the capacity to love is a vital, rich and all-consuming function of the human animal, and you can find nobility and sacrifice and love wherever you might seek it out — down the block, in the heart, or in “The Twilight Zone.”
Anne concludes: “I found it in a darkened room on a summer afternoon. Something invisible, inaudible and, until then, quite mistakenly presumed gone.”