Eight, almost nine years in, I’ve learned a few things about this death business, and though I don’t think often of life, as such, in the way that living people do, I am slowly moving forward. I have been able to hear certain conversations and have plenty of time to muse about them, all the time in the world, literally. Yesterday you spoke of my attitude on my death bed and it struck me as poignant, the way you believe in certain things, and I’m going to address some of those beliefs now.
We had a life long debate about whether people could really change themselves. Your upbringing was hard, I was there, I saw it from the beginning, before the beginning. I played a big role in making that upbringing hard, of course, and am acutely aware of the obstacles I placed in front of you and your sister, how much heavier than necessary I made the rocks you push up the hill of your lives.
We cannot know, in some cases, what it was exactly that made our parents monstrous in the way they were. The stories from Europe were shady, muddy, obscured by smoke, and filth, and terror, they ended in the murder of everyone left there. I never got any details of how bad my mother’s life, may she rest in peace, was in that benighted little hamlet she left twenty or so years before it was wiped out by the Nazis. You found out, through diligent research, that she used to whip me in the face from the time I could stand, so something that was done to her filled her with violent rage. I appreciate the times you’ve said it’s a testament to my character that I never whipped you and your sister in the face, that it would have been understandable. I did equally terrible things, we both know.
As for our almost forty year debate on whether people can or cannot fundamentally change their natures, I have a few things to say. Problem one was our adversarial relationship, which largely foreclosed meaningful dialogue, and that was my fault. I projected many things on you when you were a baby and it set things in a very bad cast. I thought, for instance, that the way you stared at me from your crib next to the bed was accusatory. I can see now that this was an insane point of view. It came from my own carefully repressed terrors. The world is full of terrors, especially if your caregiver was a violent enemy. I have to apologize again, though I know you will say it’s not necessary. So we have the adversarial relationship standing in the way of a real discussion, turning it into a black and white fight to the death. The next problem is one of framing, the definitional problem. How do we define meaningful change?
It was your position that changing your outward behavior and reactions is a significant change for the better. I always countered that you may change how you act, but never how you feel deep down while you are acting. This is a clever debating tactic, perhaps, particularly if deployed with the skill I had to deploy such arguments, but beside the point, I can see now. It also effectively ends discussion of the nature of meaningful change. Of course how you react is significant, and changing your reactions is hard work. Of course you will have the same feelings deep down. Or maybe not.
I heard you say yesterday that the most recent troubled old friend you had to take your leave of (remember how you used to condemn me for casting people over the side? I guess you understand now that it is sometimes necessary to do this) left you with different feelings than past leave takings. You said you have no anger toward this person, just sadness. That’s real progress, I think, on an inner feeling level, and I found it credible, too. I salute you for this.
The insight that you may have been left with a sixty pound boulder to push up the hill, difficult but possible, and your former friend a hundred pound one, difficult and impossible for a person to roll, is probably correct. On many levels you continue to make progress, and on some fundamental levels she has made very little and is still very angry, critical and a bit ruthless– to herself and everyone else.
But the reason I set bone to paper today (no pen here in the grave, sad to say)– and I am conflicted about it now, is to address your feeling that I had changed on my deathbed, and so gave the final proof that people can change. Deathbed conversions are a cliche, of course, and they are a cliche because they happen so often. We are faced with the finality of death only once, no matter how many times we may fear it in our lives, when it actually approaches there is no mistaking it. When the end is near nobody can predict how they might react. Some see it as a blessing, and I have mixed feelings about that, although, to speak plainly, death has been pretty good for me. It’s true my consciousness is a bit hard to express now, and I can’t guarantee further communications, or even the end of this one, but in some ways it’s not bad. No worries, for one thing.
But anyway, what you saw as proof that I was capable of changing can be chalked up to the Grim Reaper grinning at me next to the bed. Your sister was probably right– if I’d have known about the liver cancer six months earlier, as opposed to six days before I died, I probably would have still waited until that last night to tell you the things I finally told you. Who knows? Your construction is more generous, that I would have come to those final realizations much earlier, have lived those last months differently. Due to the collective genius of Florida doctors we will never know. Your manner was indeed different in that hospital room, and I have to admit, your kindness to me, the way you kept trying to let me off the hook as I was apologizing to you for the first and last time, may be seen as proof that you were right about people being able to change for the better.
I don’t bring this last point up to undermine the progress you have undoubtedly made, at least I don’t think I’m doing that. It may be that we actually can’t change after all, though. Maybe I will always have to undermine you, in some way.
You told me, in the last real conversation we had, your last attempt to open a dialogue two years before I checked out, that my milder reactions to you had greatly improved our relationship, even if the inner feelings were the same. That I respected your wish not to be constantly bad-mouthed, often in the guise of giving fatherly advice, meant a lot to you, you told me. You offered this as proof that even I, someone who did not believe in change, could make changes.
At the time desperation forced me to be cruel. I actually laughed, scoffing at your naivete, telling you that my superficial change in reaction merely masked unchanged inner feelings. I drove the nail in by adding that if I ever honestly told you what I really felt about you it would do irreparable damage to our relationship. You could see that as just my desperation talking, and that would be fair, but I also didn’t have the insight to know any better. Which is a deeply embarrassing thing to have to admit now, almost nine years after my death.
But the point is, what if my behavior on my deathbed, the way I expressed regret, wished I’d been able to change, see the world in all its nuance and not just as a black and white fight to the death, what if all that was just a show put on to give you a fonder last impression of me? A manipulation orchestrated by Death, who was approaching on roller skates? You see, this possibility would mean that I was right, our changes are only acts, and deep down we are the same as we always were. Some things that torment you mean nothing to most people, it’s the way these things were instilled in you as a young child.
On the other hand, my stepping out of character to seek forgiveness that last night could be seen as proof that you were right, that by changing our reactions we can change the dynamics that have trapped us unhappily in our lives. That my relief at seeing you mild, and not angry or condemning me, as you had a right to as I went towards the grave, freed me to act differently.
This is one of those conversations that could go on, I suppose, though, in the ordinary course of things, if two people are not adversaries, certain agreements can be reached and the conversation need not be an ongoing battle over decades. I still think about my wish, that last night, that we could have had the kind of real conversation fifteen years earlier that we finally had the last night of my life. Fucking tragic, I know.