Primary Sources

My father’s first concern when I came to talk with him that last night of his life was to make sure I was recording our talk.  He wanted to leave me a primary source to ponder, to work from.  The recordings show we began talking, or at least recording, at 1:33 a.m..  The last short recording is time stamped 3:18 a.m.   This shows we talked for around two hours, him with great effort in a voice that was incredibly weak and strained.  A lot was said, obviously.  

The nurse was smiling at me from ear to ear as I passed her in the hall when I left.  This suggested to me that she and my father had talked about his anxiety over how he was going to talk to me.  They both, likely, were surprised to find me so mild, so ready to help make his passing as easy as I could for him.  She clearly wanted to hug me as I passed her on the way back to the parking lot.  Perhaps she did.

Here’s the thing about having the primary source right in front of you– you can see how your imagination will often recall something quite different from what the record shows.  That last night of my father’s life I operated somewhat foolishly as to the primary source we were creating.   Each time my father asked for water, which he needed every few minutes, I shut off the recorder.  In the emotions of the conversation I did not always remember to turn it back on when we started talking again.  Thus I have a recording of about 35 minutes, instead of the full conversation.  What is recorded on that record, as my father must have known, is about all I can remember with absolute certainty.

I offer you one example that jumped out at me when I listened to our chat last night.   In the previous post I have my father saying, and I’m pretty sure he said it:  “Those stories Eli told you, he pretty much hit the nail on the head.  Only he spared you the worst of it, how awful it really was.  My life was pretty much over by the time I was two.”

I distinctly remember those lines, particularly “my life was pretty much over by the time I was two”.  The recording has my father saying:  “You know, you caught bits and pieces of it when you talked to Eli about me. He hammered it on the nose.”

The record does not have him say anything like “my life was pretty much over by the time I was two.”   He may well have said it, and it made the impression it made, or I may be remembering some synthesized version of the statement, created from the full context of what he was talking about.  Though I’m also sure he said it.

Maybe it was the first thing he said when I walked in, as I remember it, and we talked for ten minutes or more before I put the recorder on.  Perhaps his reference to Eli hammering it on the nose was just a restatement of what he’d said moments before, when he also told me that his life was pretty much over by the time he was two.

“Or, perhaps, it was what you wanted to hear me say,” says the always complicated skeleton that used to help my father get around when he was alive. “You always had a vivid imagination.  Do you remember that sadistic crew that lived up in the attic over your bedroom when you were a kid?   They had this kind of guillotine contraption you described to us, that you could hear them wheeling over your bed.  Your dilemma each night, trying to sleep below it, was which way to position your body when the blade fell to avoid the worst.  Do you remember all this?”

Obviously I do, since I am the only one actually in this silent conversation, old man, but continue.

“Your dilemma was, they knew the orientation of your bed and were determined to surprise you one night by dropping the blade.  So sometimes, when you heard them wheeling it, you’d reverse yourself so that your pillow was at the bottom of the bed and your feet were at the top, where your head had just been.  Then you braced yourself to have your feet cut off at the ankles, instead of your head, if the worst happened.  Young paranoid’s triage, we might say.”

Sometimes, when you are trying to make sense of things that make little sense, it is good to just let the other person run with it, particularly in the absence of primary sources to the contrary.

“I appreciate your attempt to fairly tell the story of my life, my values, to write the manifesto I might have written about my beliefs, what I learned about life and the world.  I really do.  It is not easy for an almost eleven year-old skeleton to express this, but here I am, telling you plainly. “

“I think it’s also admirable, if typically quixotic, that you’re writing this story in hopes of giving the full context for why you believe in your student-run program as much as you do.  Giving all the backstory of a difficult father, scarred by poverty and abuse, who nonetheless imparted these humanistic values, I applaud the whole thing.  May you publish the Book of Irv, may you get some publicity and attention, may somebody fund your program, may the kids do great things.”

“But I think it is also only fair to give the reader a bit more context than just your point of view.  I expressed sorrow for the first and last time, pretty much, and asked for your forgiveness, for sure for the first and last time, as I was checking out.  Prior to that time, as you’ll recall, I yielded nothing, nada, gave you not a single point.  I told you, at the end, that I knew now that you’d been right all along, reaching out to your father, and that I’d been wrong, unable to reach back.  You won’t find that in the record, stated as succinctly as that, but we both recall I made a point of making that clear.  Anyway, the thing the reader should know, is that I was your implacable enemy for most of the time we knew each other.  They should read the book knowing that.”

“And now, on the threshold of old age, you’re trying once again to do what you might have done at 24, or 35, or 40– write a coherent explanation of difficult things that might get you paid.  Make the story interesting enough, write it with enough conviction and engagingly enough,  you might sell a book.  Some publisher will hopefully give you money to sit at your keyboard and write the full manuscript, if they think they can sell your book.  That would be great, not working for free.”

“And, for the record, I thought Me Ne Frego should have been published, but you gave up after that little idiot at Farrar, Strauss and Giroux opined, from the short sample you’d sent her, and the synopsis, that unfortunately the protagonist had not seemed to have undergone the kind of dramatic transformation that is necessary for any compelling narrative.  Her name was Strauss, the author of that thoughtful rejection letter, was it not?  And she had a degree in literature from a top Ivy League School.  Who should know such things, if not her?”

“OK, then, here’s my point.  You expect the reader to come with you, to be moved by what moved you.  The reader should also consider this: everybody tells their version of events.  Meaning this– people lie, consciously or not.  You know I always hated your brother-in-law because of his eccentric relationship to the truth.  The point is, how does the reader know what is real and what is bullshit?”

“Do you really expect, for example, anyone to believe that nice little fairy tale about walking on a hill with Arlene as she pulled a chain and gave you that illuminating insight about your life?   It’s a neat story, I’ll give you that, and I love the way you slip in that ‘Mozart IQ’, that was cutely done, but the fact is, we never had a friend named Arlene.  And, even if we had, the story she told you was not true.  It was your fault.  All of it.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s nap time here at the First Hebrew Congregation Bone Yard.”

And I am left awake, wondering about the man who insisted to his eight year-old, when the kid was done vomiting after seeing the footage the Nazis shot of their Final Solution (talk about primary sources, Jesus), that the slaughter of his mother’s dozen aunts and uncles was merely an abstraction.  “Nobody ever knew those people, you’re just being dramatic to think they had anything to do with you.”  

“Fine, I was wrong to say that.  Have me admit that now, from my grave.  Now, please, Elie, leave me to my nap.”


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