I think of my father’s dire childhood, it actually is unthinkable. How often was he hungry growing up? Phrases to describe the poor kid’s misery pop into my head in the middle of the night, too perfect not to get up and write down, though last night I didn’t, needing sleep more than phrases. Now I’m left with shards, like the ones on my father’s eyes and over his lips when they opened the coffin for me to do a positive I.D. at the cemetery.
Here is a thing that was impossible for my father: turning off the brooding anger. My sister said it right: the loss of a dime from the change he had received and put on the counter was the same to him as the loss of his entire family in Truvovich. Every indignity equalled every other indignity, every tragedy, no matter how small, carried equal weight. Every disappointment enraged him. Then we have the next logical step.
“Nothing you ever tell your sister, no amount of praise you can give her, ever sinks in,” said the ‘dumbest Jewish kid in Peekskill’ on his deathbed, almost 81 years old, after a distinguished life as an intellectual who was half a dissertation away from a PhD from Columbia.
“You had a temper tantrum at the rain,” observed my father when I was a boy. He shook his head with one cheek creased in a smirk to underscore the idiocy of this tantrum. Something I’d been looking forward to, possibly a day at the ballpark, had been washed away by a deluge. I apparently ranted at the rain. “You stood there hollering at the rain, you were inconsolable,” my father said sadly.
I’d like to think the skeleton of my father has the insight to reframe these two remarks.
“I know what you want me to say,” said the skeleton, “‘Your sister, I’m ashamed to say… your mother and I never gave her the emotional support we should have, all we did was undermine her confidence. Every kid needs to hear that she’s bright, and capable, and cute. Your sister was all of those things, at the top of the scale for each. We never gave her any credit, filled her with self-doubt at every step. It’s a testament to her will, independence and intelligence — her character, really– that she has done all she’s done in her life. It’s not something we like to dwell on– we were simply wrong and we fought like devils to convince you two we were never wrong.'”
Couldn’t have said it better myself.
“Well, but that’s not how it works, Elie. You can’t just rewrite all my lines and pretend I was ever capable of the insights you ascribe to me posthumously.”
Actually, as the living party of this partnership, I get the final say on how it works, though I take your point. I don’t know that you’d be capable, even now, of saying the words I just put between your jaws. Still, they are the right words for you to say. Just like you could have said this about my bitter disappointment as a young boy, when I was, as you say, inconsolable and you just shook your head about it.
“Look, Elie, I know how much you were looking forward to this and how disappointed you are that it got rained out. Any kid would feel the same way. I know it hurts. We’ll do it next week. Life is full of disappointments and one of the biggest challenges anyone faces is remembering that they are only momentary set-backs. Everything will be fine later, you’ll see. Come on, let’s do something now to take your mind off it, you want to go see ‘Son of Flubber’ today?” said the skeleton, grimacing to pronounce the fifty-two year belated words of consolation.
“But, of course, much as you’d like to hear it, I would never fucking say any of that. You really expect anyone to believe that just because I felt guilt and remorse as I was dying that I would have held on to the insights I had then throughout eternity?”
I prefer to think that, yes.
“Jesus fucking Christ, that’s not how the world works,” the skeleton squinted like Clint Eastwood, if you can picture it. “Prefer away, then, but it changes nothing, your preference. You want to believe in a world where people are not self-interested pricks out for their own advantage over everything else?
“Go ahead. Believe that 75% of your fellow Americans did not vote for this American Mussolini you got in the last election. Statistics may show you’re right, numerically, but there’s a lot of hate out there. You think Germany in the twenties was some kind of historical anomaly? The height of western civilization plunged to the depths of barbarism over the course of a few years. Your boy Frank Zappa had that track in the late sixties, ‘It Can’t Happen Here’ with the guy asking pointed questions, rat-tat-tat, in a German accent. Hey, even the Germans are alarmed by this guy you have now.
“Any nation that could enslave millions for centuries and then persecute the ancestors of those slaves for over a hundred years after a bloody civil war led to the abolition of said ‘Peculiar Institution’… well, all bets are off for the grandchildren of the little kids who ate cotton candy and cheered as black men were jerking at the end of a rope. I know you don’t need me to draw this picture for you, Elie. It doesn’t matter what you believe, what you need to believe– it matters how you live, how you use your limited influence, the example of your life. And even those things hardly matter.”
You’re a warm fire of inspiration on a chilly grey day, dad.
“Homo sapiens is distinguished by one thing, domination over others, over nature. If dolphins ran the world, maybe there’d be a chance to save the planet. But killer apes in charge? Good luck, Elie.” The skeleton looked around, that eerie smile/yawn on its face.
“You want a happy ending here, a nice bow to tie this into today? Sorry, Charlie. No can do. That’s not how this shits how works, you dig? Get on with your life, make those six medical appointments you listed yesterday, meet the new doctors, do what you can to protect your life going forward.
“God knows this motherfucker you have now is not going to do anything to protect anyone, except perhaps his reptile children, the heirs of his hideous DNA. Didn’t you love his son, speaking to his bloody mouthed followers, describing how his father came from ‘nothing.’ I guess to a billionaire’s son a few measly millions, even forty or a hundred of ’em, really are nothing. A plague on them all, Elie. Take care of yourself today.”
You have a nice day too, dad. We’ll talk again soon.