I asked my dying father to say a few words to his daughter, right after he told me how proud he was of both of us. His expression of pride in us took me by surprise, and I knew my sister would want to hear it amplified for her.
You can hear his pause on the recording, as he gathers his thoughts. His thoughts do not seem to be anywhere within reach. I turn off the recorder. He drinks some water. I turn the recorder back on.
He begins succinctly prosecuting his ancient complaint about her complicated choice, a difficult one she’d made several years earlier, one that he could never understand. He was reiterating that if he lived to be a hundred years old he would never understand how she could have forgiven the things she had. I signaled for him to stop. I reminded him that his views on the subject were well-known. I asked rhetorically if he thought it was right to reduce someone to the sum of one choice you didn’t agree with.
I asked him to say something that might make his daughter’s understanding of all this a little easier.
We both had a pretty good idea that this was going to be his last real chance to talk to anybody. I offered to leave the recorder on and go walk down the hall, if that would make it easier for him to say what I hoped he’d have to say to his only daughter. He told me it was no problem for me to stay, though his thoughts were clearly clotted. He was, for the first time since I’d arrived, at a loss, actively trying to put his thoughts in order. He seemed stumped.
It was tough sledding, impossible, really, to get anything out of him that my sister might be able to put to much use. He was very close to his daughter, but also very punitive toward her. He had a way of making her feel invisible, which is a terrible power for one person to hold over another. It’s hard to imagine something more elementally cruel than erasing somebody.
That night each observation he made about her could have been said about himself with as much truth. He was talking about his own bottomless insecurity, portraying it as her’s, something beyond cause and effect, a mystery no-one could ever understand or explain. It struck me as very deep and ironic then, it strikes me the same way now. Very deep and convoluted shit.
It is even more complicated to describe without details. The details are not mine to make part of the official record. I respect and defend my sister’s privacy, even as, I, obviously, am not as private a person.
You can hear me on the recording, like a border collie, patiently nipping at him, redirecting him again and again away from the one path he kept veering towards– that one decision he could not get past. In the end, with my constant herding, taking his most educated guess, he chalked up her utter inability to accept praise as the result of sibling rivalry.
Yes, that was it, now that he thought about it, sibling rivalry, one hundred percent. “She felt she could never live up to the impossibly high standards we had for you, which you could easily do but were too perverse to apply yourself to.”
I had an image of my father, as a boy, already irrationally convinced, as he would still be seventy years later, that he had been the “dumbest Jewish kid in Peekskill.”
“The dumbest Jewish kid in Peekskill?” I asked, incredulous, “how is that possible?” Many bad words applied to my father, but dumb was not among them.
“BY FAR!!!!” he snorted, without a shred of doubt.
I see him in that dim room on Henry Street in Peekskill that I picture, a freeze frame from a nightmare, dust motes hanging in the airless shaft of light, the ceiling impossibly high overhead. He is reaching for the raw chopped meat, which is in a bowl.
His hand clenches around it, his other hand clutching his weak, undersized younger brother by the back of the neck. He shoves the raw chopped meat into his terrified little brother’s mouth, stuffs his mouth full. Paul sputters, his eyes wide behind thick glasses, chokes, tries to spit the raw meat out.
“Best ass whupping I ever had,” says the skeleton with a laugh. “You know, for a kid who had the shit beat out of him every day for no reason, it was a beautiful thing to finally get whipped for something despicable I’d actually done. I suppose I cried a little, but even at the time I was thinking ‘goddamn! I can’t wait to tell my kids about this one!’
“And, yeah, as far as the biggest obstacle your sister faces in her life– it all goes back to sibling rivalry, without a doubt.”