My father was diagnosed with final stage liver cancer in the Emergency Room of a Florida hospital, six days before he died. This failure of several frequently visited Florida specialists to make the fatal diagnosis, leaving it to an E.R. doc to make when there was almost no time left on the clock, confirmed what he always said about Florida doctors, that they were the worst in America.
He found himself unexpectedly on his deathbed, a tube draining ugly looking fluid from his body, with a lot of work to do in those last few days of his life. It was a bad break, as Lou Gehrig phrased the news of his own ALS diagnosis, but, like The Iron Horse, Irv was determined to get some small, important task done before he breathed his last breath. He had the good fortune of a visit late the last night of his life that allowed him to do much of what he had left to do. Which was mostly express his inextinguishable regrets, to apologize, for the first time, and try to explain why he had felt doomed from the start.
After he died I began to write the eulogy, as we arranged to fly his body from Florida to his grave on that hilltop outside of Peekskill, as Sekhnet booked a flight to fly the rest of his small family up to New York to stand around the grave as he was lowered into it and buried. The man who would be conducting the service, and reading the eulogy, advised me to write a straight chronology of my father’s life. That advice seemed sound, and I followed it. I will look for the eulogy and place it here somewhere.
I think now, as I did then, of how enormous a task it is to deliver a meaningful eulogy. A good eulogy puts a life, episodic while being lived, suddenly whole in death, into a neat frame, complete with the illusion of coherence. Life is a complicated series of often contradictory entanglements where moments of mercy are not always the rule. People are hard on themselves, hard on others, then, often at the very worst possible moment, they suddenly die.
“Well, that’s a pretty good nutshell,” said the skeleton. “You know, you try to live the best you know how, but often that best is not very good, you wind up doing great damage in spite of your most noble intentions. I intended to teach you and your sister that if you are honest, and weigh things fairly, and show kindness to the helpless among us, the way we always took care of our dogs, well, you know, the rest will kind of take care of itself.
“What I wound up teaching you was a little different, I guess. I taught you what my mother taught me, the unmistakable fatalistic lesson of her upbringing. You can be honest, weigh things fairly, show kindness to the weak– that’s all well and good. But I have demons inside me that are not impressed by what you might call a good character. In fact, your good character only pisses my demons off, enrages them enough to stomp off with a lynch mob. Who the fuck are you to have good character? I got your good character right here!
“And you are one and a half years old, younger, and you watch this violent beast inexorably rise up in your mother, watch her turn over and over again into this monster mother and all you can do is think ‘Jesus, no… not again….’ and try to comport yourself with as much dignity as an infant can muster, steel yourself for the whipping that is about to erupt.
“And then, sure as night follows day, boom!! Across the face, then again, and let’s do that one more time, and one more and once more, and then, goddamn it, this is not helping, again, again, again!!!! You worthless little fuck, goddamn it, you can’t even make me feel better when I whip you as hard as I can in the fucking face!!
“So, as I told you that last night, I don’t feel good about what I did. My mother, may she rest in peace, didn’t feel good about what she did. I have to think she didn’t, though I’ll never know for sure. A mother does not feel good knowing she has failed in the sacred task of helping to create a compassionate child.
“Now, even though I’m long dead, I am treated to the almost daily ritual of watching my own son muse in writing, trying to somehow understand and alchemize the cruelties I inflicted, unwittingly, unwillingly, deliberately, directly, as he looks for deeper meaning in it than just a cycle of misery. There is no end to these musings, Elie, and you see that now, I trust.
“You have enlisted me to narrate my own life– there’s something very macabre there, even as it’s also fitting. It’s like having Eichmann narrate a documentary about his important work during the war. Though, of course, I’m no Eichmann.
“I’m more like Barack Obama, really, if you think about it. How many of your friends, especially those who only met me a couple of times, remember me as a cool, funny guy? It happened just a few weeks ago, someone’s face lit up when the subject of fathers came up and she said ‘I remember your dad, he was a cool guy! You’re so lucky.’ I got a kick out of Sekhnet’s face as you nodded, with that smile of a thousand ironies.
“And of course, I’ll be very charming, eloquent and sincere as I accept that Nobel Peace Prize, while I keep my eye on the real prize– projecting power, propagating an absurdity like American Exceptionalism, pursuing whatever murderous policy is necessary to protect my legacy and the great wealth of the blessed nation that has made me the luckiest man on the face of the earth. Then I’ll go buy a backhoe to rake in my serious Tubmans when I step down as impeccable dignified, tastefully comedic front man for the greatest nation the world has ever known.”
I was walking with somebody yesterday who told me he’s been reading these pieces I’m putting up here in cyberspace. My first thought was the line I heard from an aphid-sized Louie CK the other night. He called blogs transcripts of conversations nobody wants to have, even the computer they’re typed on is going “ewwwww…. power failure please….” The audience and I laughed at the truth of this, picturing photos of the fabulous immortalized lunch someone had, the huge turd they later launched like a glorious ocean liner for that long, final voyage.
“What did the fellow think of your project?” asked the skeleton.
You know, I didn’t ask, I really have no sense of how he felt.
“You didn’t ask?” said the skeleton. “I don’t see how that’s possible. The guy told you he’s reading the manuscript you’re working on, have been devoting the last nine months to, and it never occurred to you to ask him what he thought about it? What his feelings were about it? What?”
It was in the woods, walking over real and metaphorical roots, where I even stumbled once, over some particularly intrusive root that stepped up to meet me, as he extended his arm, made sure I was OK. I learned that his father, apparently the same age as you, although very much alive, never turned from the leftist worker’s dream that you pursued for a while and then pretty much abandoned in search of the American Dream, that seductive mirage.
“Well, there’s another nutshell for you. But he also told you his father was always a member of a community, in a union, standing with his brothers and sisters, taking his children to a Communist summer colony the way I took you and your sister to a Zionist one. This world is goddamned complicated and the deck is stacked against any given individual, Elie, but one thing is for sure. If you’re going to change anything, if real change is even possible, you have to stand with all the comrades you can find.
“It sounds like your walking companion’s father had a sounder idea for how to put his beliefs into practice than I did, from the little we both know about his life.
“Of course, the devil, as always, is in the details. How good a man is his father? How generous and content is he in old age? Is he embittered today that his dream for a much better world than this one has been irrevocably stomped under by a thousand armies of profit-driven mercenaries? Did you find out how he’s doing with all that, in our new unipolar, post-ideological world order? There’s a $64,000 question for you.
“No need to answer, since you clearly don’t know. All we can say is that his son appears to be a decent and thoughtful man with a good sense of humor, affectionate and with a strong spirit of adventure. That tells you something about his father, doesn’t it? Then again, you appear to be decent and thoughtful, animated by a certain love of fun. What does that tell you about all this, Elie?”
It tells me that the hill I am walking up is actually a conveyor belt, dad, and that I’m going to go cast my eyes somewhere else for a while, for the good of my vision. And, also, that it’s time to go back down and stir the sauce I’m making from tomatoes, garlic and oregano that Sekhnet lovingly grew on her farm out back.