I listened to the recording of my father’s last words the other night. He insisted, on his deathbed, that he had been the dumbest Jewish kid in Peekskill. I probed, since, on its face, it was an idiotic statement. I asked how it was possible he could have been the dumbest Jewish kid in Peekskill.
“By far!’ he snorted, ending that line of conversation while launching an inquiry that continues almost eleven years later.
A few minutes later he was grappling with my question about what he’d like to say to my sister, anything that might help her make sense of things after his rapidly approaching death. There are long moments of silence on this section of the recording. I somehow knew to leave the silence alone, let it ripen into whatever he was going to say.
He chose sibling rivalry. Yes, that was it. The competition with her genius brother had been the main thing that had robbed her of all self-confidence, of the ability to believe a compliment later in life. In his telling my sister always had to work like a dog in school, in life, to do what I could do easily. I pointed out that she’d always been much more successful in life than I have. He shrugged this off. This hopeless competition, from her point of view, he said, made her feel she could never be good enough.
I probed, looking for any bit of sympathy or apology he might have for his daughter. The old man stuck to this simple, if also idiotic, theory.
“She feels she could never live up to the high standards I set for you guys,” he said at one point, his voice weak and strained, impatient Death breathing directly in his face.
“Well, don’t you think your standards may have been a little hard for anyone to live up to?” I asked quietly.
“That’s putting it mildly!” he said, with as much harumph! as a dying man, who is having trouble speaking at all, can put into it.