Best to be as clear as possible, for my sake, for the sake of the skeleton of my father, and for the sake of anyone trying to make sense out of any of this.
My father fought, until literally the last night of his life, the idea that people can change anything fundamental about themselves. My position was that we can make many crucial changes for the better, with sufficient effort, and that the question of “fundamental” was not something that should shut down the whole vital enterprise.
“Without fundamental change you’re left with scraps and window-dressing, superficial, essentially meaningless tokens of change,” said the skeleton. “You’re a student of history. Are you going to argue for incrementalism in a time of existential crisis?”
You get points for consistency, dad, but we’re talking about meaningful, positive individual change not vast, intractable institutional ones. Without hope of change, you have nothing but the unyielding misery that is. Is this the legacy of your life you want for your children, your message to your grandchildren?
I’m not talking about learned helplessness by itself, that shit happens, like passing on a genetic disposition to cancer, as you said the other day. Our general powerless over many terrible things aside, do you really want your final position on working for change to be that no matter how fucked up things are, there is no hope for change?
“Clearly not,” said the skeleton, “however it may otherwise appear. Look, I told you that last night of my life how much I regretted not taking you up on your many attempts to start a real conversation with me, how bad I felt for not reaching back across the flaming no-man’s land I kept idiotically burning between us.
“I told you how I could not forgive myself for having been too weak and rigid to realize how insane my intransigence was. You know all this. Yes, I waited until hours before my death, but yes, I also died with unbearable regrets that only faded as my kidneys finally gave out and I expired with one last short breath.”
If I was a praying kind of person, I’d have been praying for you in those last moments, dad. As it was, I did my best to make you feel loved and wished hard for your end to be as peaceful as it seemed to be.
“I know, Elie,” said the skeleton.
I want to make it very clear here that you are not some idealized version of your ungenerous, angry, bullying self now, all wise and Buddha-like just because you died with regret and are now a fucking skeleton.
“I know that,” said the skeleton, looking absently to the left and the right “who the hell are you talking to here, anyway?”
I’m making it as clear as I can, in a world that’s often based on lies, sometimes called myths, sometimes called advertising, propaganda or the cost of winning a business deal. You are not, even in death, fundamentally changed, so you can take some solace, if you like, in being right about that.
At the same time, in many other ways, you were significantly changed by the insights you had as you confronted your rapidly approaching death. Your character now is informed by the hurt you finally allowed yourself to feel at the love you denied yourself and your loved ones during your life. What you learned in your painful death is not lost on you, or on me.
Sure, like anybody else, you wake up on the wrong side of the grave sometimes and take it out on the only person who talks to you. But you are also capable, in a way you could only have dreamed of during your embattled life, of having a real, sustained, mutual conversation with your own flesh and blood.
“You are having the conversation, not me,” said the skeleton.
Nah, I may be writing it down, it may seem to be in my head, but it is a real conversation between us nonetheless, the kind you wished we’d had fifteen years of, as you found me quietly listening to your regrets as you were expiring.
“Well, all anyone really wants in a conversation is to know they are being listened to,” said the skeleton.
That’s all I was ever trying to say. It meant a lot to me that my father, the abused infant, the eternally enraged two-year old, finally came to that position too, even if it was on the last night of his life, or even eleven and a half years after his death. You understand what a crucial door that single realization opens?
Your fundamental nature may have been warped by the nightmare you endured for your entire childhood, but there is also a deeper nature, a more fundamental one than the one you identify as your baked-in personality.
That deeper nature is the miracle of the human personality, it has the resilient ability to believe in and work for evolution, even a kind of rebirth. Being listened to by someone you care about can make all the difference between belief or pessimism and despair.
“Well, I never felt I ever had that growing up, Elie,” said the skeleton.
I feel sorry for you, but, at the same time, when you were a grown man, going forward, it was your own fucking fault that you never figured out how to learn that.
“I know that, Elie, believe me,” said the skeleton. “Fostering mutual conversation between adversaries was part of the most exciting years of my professional life, for fuck’s sake. You’re supposed to have some fucking sense…”