When Pat Conroy died, NPR played a piece of an interview with him that struck me. He said that he writes to explain his life to himself. I realized I’d been doing exactly this, in concentrated form, for a couple of months at that point, for years, in one form or another, before that.
Conroy, a highly successful writer from a young age, with a series of valuable mentors and all the adulation and reward a writer could want, found himself paralyzed and suicidal at various times, unable to overcome the traumas of his earlier life. His father had been an angry, brutal man.
My suffering has been much less acute, though my father, without using his fists, hit as hard and as relentlessly as Conroy’s paternal tyrant. Relative suffering, I believe, is largely a matter of luck. I think Conroy must have known, as I know, that one can never fully explain this inexplicable life to oneself, coherently as one might set out parts of it for somebody else.
I am attempting to describe the contradictory life of my father as clearly, colorfully and three-dimensionally as possible. I hope this account will be engaging and, also, resonant and useful to others who have experienced the terrible accident of a damaged, inconsolably angry parent. Although my father and I were adversaries for virtually his entire life, we are adversaries no more. For his whole life he was determined never to lose, even to someone who posed no threat to him. It was an idiotic determination, but I no longer judge him for it.
In the end, he was grateful to have been so wrong about the possibility for human growth, something I demonstrated one last time as he struggled to make sense of things in those final hours of his life. The tragic poignance of his life overwhelmed the anger of it, at least for me. The lesson I take from the long struggle with my sensitive, insightful, witty, often willfully blind father is that one can overcome almost anything, given enough motivation. His life gives me abundant motivation.
My father’s funeral service was conducted by a gentle soul with a beautiful voice who had long been liberated from the need to earn a living. When he left the work place for good over creative differences a former colleague observed that it’s probably easier to have artistic integrity when your wife is a millionaire. Today, for a variety of irrelevant reasons, I am no longer in touch with the gentle volunteer cantor who so movingly read the eulogy at my father’s open grave, chanted so hauntingly. I am confident he isn’t aware of my silence.
My father was a very judgmental man. For his part, he would have snorted derisively about this kind of gentle, pampered soul, seemingly buzzed on his talents, the humble servant of his artistic passions and others’ appreciation thereof. I have to own the judgmental tendencies the old man imbued me with. They will no doubt be on display throughout this ms. I leave it to an able editor to one day comb through these pointed prejudices, leaving only those that advance the telling of my father’s story.
It was not long after I began writing these pages that my father’s skeleton began piping up. Although long dead, he understood my project immediately, and though he sometimes expressed paranoia and anger, sometimes scoffed, he remained keenly interested in the project from the beginning, as one might expect the subject of a biography to be. As often as not he was gracious and understanding, as he might have been had he been given the chance to proceed from the last conversation of his life, the first time he’d ever apologized for the harms he had inflicted. More than once his comments or insights surprised me, even as I had apparently made the words come out of his sardonically grinning skeletal mouth.
“You are walking a tightrope, Elie,” the skeleton said. “Trying to make the reader care about a person who was in many ways a monster. I realize the supreme difficulty of that. The things I did to you and your sister were not normal, not healthy, were in no way defensible or excusable. The fact that I lived to be almost eighty-one without ever apologizing for the harm I caused, or even taking responsibility for my sometimes insane actions, is enough to make most people close the book on someone like me.
“That I was only able to ask forgiveness at the very end of my life, through the dumb luck of having a son who had done hard work to reach a place of acceptance, is pitiful. If you hadn’t been so mild that last night of my life, I’d never have been able to tell you how sorry I was. You allowed that spark of decency in me to burn as a flame one time before I breathed my last.
“I have to give you credit for attempting this seemingly impossible work. I don’t know exactly why you are doing it, or why start with my story, but I appreciate the fair treatment you are trying to give me. God knows, I never treated you very fairly.
“I know you understand, finally, what I tried to explain to you the last night of my life. The enmity I expressed toward you was truly nothing personal, as hard as that is to understand, coming from the person who is supposed to be your father. You grasp what Arlene told you that time on the hill near her home: it wasn’t you– it was me. You could have been any kid in the world, I would have acted the same way. Nothing I ever did held my demons at bay for more than a moment. You and your sister didn’t have a chance against the demons I was battling. I give you credit for a life long struggle not to be the kind of person I was.”
Life long struggle it is. Bon voyage and enjoy the trip.