My father, a brilliant and prickly character, prone to anger and armed with a great sense of humor, died on April 29, 2005. He was supremely defended while alive and tended to dictate the scope of any conversation he participated in.
Since his death he has become much more interactive, far less given to the brow-beating he often resorted to. I have enjoyed months of honest, back and forth conversation with him since January of 2016 when I began writing the first draft of The Book of Irv, the story of my father’s life and times.
When he first popped out of his grave on the outskirts of Peekskill to contest something I’d just written, I thought little of it; it appeared to be something easily enough fixed in the rewrite. It seemed kind of a stagey conceit, having the protagonist pop out of his grave to contest his biographer’s assertion, try to correct the record. I thought it was a bit idiotic, frankly. But the skeleton was soon back, intent on participating fully in the telling of his history.
It was oddly organic, the way our conversation began. He seemed to insist on it. Being by nature a collaborative improviser, I went with it. I soon found myself looking forward to our almost daily chats.
“Don’t you wish we could have had a few of these when I was alive?” said the skeleton of my father, smiling that odd, sardonic smile they all have.
Obviously. And cruel as it would have been to say while you were alive, it was almost inevitable we wouldn’t have a much better relationship until after you died. I want to underscore who you were, who you are now, as your own skeleton, and who you’re not.
“Well, clearly, I was always the proponent of people not having the ability to change their inner wiring to any significant extent,” said the skeleton.
Which was convenient, I realize now, because that belief kept you from taking responsibility for your sometimes brutal actions, things that were hard-wired in and not amenable to your will to control, according to your rigid belief that people can’t fundamentally change.
“So you dragged me out here to fight?” said the skeleton.
Nah. I dragged you out here to show that, while you have evolved to an impressive extent since your deathbed regrets and the absolution I tried to give you as you were dying, you remain, in many ways, and as you always insisted, unchanged. You get defensive, you attack when feeling cornered, you prickle, and startle, express your fear as bravado, and so forth.
“So you dragged me out here to mock me?” said the skeleton of my father.
Well, only to the extent that it’s funny to hear from such an opinionated skeleton. Most people, when they die, are simply dead, I suspect. In fact, you yourself would be completely dead now, but for my exertions here as I creep inexorably toward my own extinction.
“Well, it’s nice of you to indulge me this way, then,” said the skeleton.
It’s nice to talk with you in light of your improved insight. The regrets you had while you were dying gave you a perspective you hadn’t consciously acquired in eighty years.
“Better late than never,” said the skeleton.
Indeed. The insightful Jeanne Safer wrote about the new ongoing dialogue that is possible once a parent, no matter how problematic, dies. I never thought I’d find myself in a silent room tapping out actual conversations with the skeleton of my father.
“Well, shit happens, Elie. It seems to me you’ve gotten a lot more out of this process than you ever did out of sitting week after week with that earnest little unsupervised idiot in the Brief Psychotherapy Program who started off trying to teach you what she’d learned about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy before secretly switching to a ‘relational’ approach a few weeks in,” said the skeleton.
She wasn’t an idiot, she was just an unsupervised grad student. Yeah, look, this process is certainly the best use of my time right now. Unless I could get an appointment with someone like Jeanne Safer, who I believe is writing full-time and no longer seeing patients, it’s pretty pointless to look for the help of people who just want to be normal and successful.
“Two things nobody could accuse you of being, Elie,” said the skeleton.
Hardy-har-har. You know, you haven’t lost that deft touch you always had, even when foam was forming on the corners of your mouth.
“Foam never fucking formed on the corners of my mouth,” said the skeleton indignantly, unconsciously wiping at his molars. “You’re thinking of Eli. Now there was a guy who could turn purple at will with spittle foaming at the corners of his mouth.”
Eli is another can of worms.
“Not anymore, he’s been dead ten years longer than me. The worms have moved on. He really deserves his own book, you know,” said the skeleton.
He certainly does. Now, to sum up:
The skeleton is a combination of my father in life, a man who remained stubbornly unchanged, and the man who underwent a certain transformation in the last hours of his life, as he was seized by countless regrets.
“I literally could not make an accurate tally of my regrets,” said the skeleton, dry eyed.
I know, and I take a deep lesson from that.