It’s been a year since I began the manuscript I hope one day will be the book of my father’s life. I think it’s time to try to summarize the main story line, as I would before a Moth story audience.
My father always insisted that, on a fundamental level, people cannot change. It was an insistence both tragic and maddening, even as I can now see the kernel of truth there. This belief was a self-fulfilling prophecy, as they say. We argued about it over the years, as I changed, as he remained stubborn in his insistence that the only change one can hope for is on the most superficial level.
It was one of his favorite themes, dismissing all hope that things could ever be different, no matter how much one changed one’s actions and reactions. His life had taught him harsh lessons it was his sad duty to impart to my sister and me. He was dogged about removing the illusion that one might evolve past one’s genetic predispositions and childhood difficulties.
On the other hand, he always insisted that childhood injury had nothing to do with a mature responsible adult’s life. You take responsibility for your own life, and your own happiness, and you don’t blame your parents, or whatever bad luck may have led them to be less than the parents you might have hoped for. This duty apparently started, for a young man, around the age of eight or so, when it was past time to stop acting like a child and time to start behaving like a goddamn man, for fuck’s sake.
This much out of context generalized detail and emotional nuance, of course, would be hacked through by a director from the Moth, who would keep urging me to get back to the essence of the story. Make it simple, it’s a story, people have to be able to follow it from start to finish.
My father was an idealist, extremely bright, well-read, quick-witted and funny as hell. He was also, sadly for my sister and me, a man crushed by a brutal childhood who could not help replicating the cruelty that sometimes flows from such terrible childhoods.
“You can’t blame your childhood, or your parents, or bad luck, you have to take responsibility for your own life,” he always insisted. At the same time, he also insisted a person could not change on any fundamental level– what you were at five you would be a fifty. Even as a child this struck me as an idiotic and self-defeating idea. We argued about it, me a child, my father a grown man. Later as two adults we continued to wrangle over this issue.
“I’ve seen a tremendous change in you,” my mother once observed to me during a discussion my father and I were trying to keep civil, about the difficulty of change.
“Well, you can change certain things, on a superficial level,” my father yielded, “but the baked-in responses, those genetic traits hardened by experience, the reflexes you are born with, things like a bad temper, which you have, no matter how you try to conceal it with your lofty vows to remain mild and so forth, remain. You cannot change on a fundamental level, certain things will continue to enrage you if you are wired that way, you can only change the surface aspects of your personality.”
I told him that if anger was a problem in life, in our relationship, and I learned to control it enough to maintain a dialogue instead of being drawn into a fight, that was a significant change.
“Superficial,” he said, dismissing any benefit not reacting with anger could have for anybody. “Deep down, you’re still mad as hell, boiling mad, like you were when you were a baby, and at five and as a teenager.”
I finally saw the futility of having this argument with my father. He was very smart, and very skilled at the art of verbal war. He was always armed and dangerous. There came a point when his desperation to be right at any cost became clear to me.
Paint that specific moment in the den in Coconut Creek, hand-delivering that third copy of the heartfelt letter he kept denying he’d read, month after month.
“Oh, that letter,” he said with the casual nonchalance of a charismatic psychopath, “yeah, I read that letter.”
He paused to fix me with a look and then said ” you have to respect my right not to respond.”
The hideous, specific flavorful details are needed for a reader to grasp the full exact truth this story is tying to convey.
I realized at last that there was no benefit to arguing against something he would defend to the death, no matter how mutually destructive that thing was.
I believe we can change things about ourselves if we are miserable enough about the thing that needs to be changed, determined enough to do better. I have seen changes in myself and in old friends. They are the result of long, hard work and such changes are always works in progress, but I see the changes and their benefits. I can also see my father’s point of view– restraining the impulse to be enraged is not the same as no longer feeling anger. Even though learning to restrain and tame the impulse is the first step to a less enraged, contentious life.
Whatever the case about changing oneself, it is 100% certain that one cannot change anyone else, and so in the end I realized that my poor father was a lost cause and that arguing with him was only throwing fuel on a fire that should not have been burning in the first place.
Not to say I stopped chewing on the perplexing riddle of what made this anti-racist, friend of the underdog, funny, humane, otherwise very smart, hip and likable man such a brutal dick. I spent many hours with my father’s first cousin, Eli, an old man living in a little retirement cottage about an hour north of me. I’d drive up the long, twisty parkway to listen to stories about our family and my father’s unimaginably awful childhood.
Eli loved my father in a way he couldn’t love his own children, to whom he was often quite brutal and from whom he was mostly estranged. My father loved Eli, who was 17 years older, as much as he feared him. Eli was a warm, generous, very funny man capable of great savagery when angry, which was often. There was no doubt of their mutual love and there was no doubt of Eli’s genuine desire to give me insight I could use to understand my destructive old man and get along better with him. It was through Eli that I finally got helpful insight into my father’s tragic life.
Predictably, my father was defensive and angry when I reported the fascinating conversations I was having with Eli.
“Eli’s full of shit!” he said with great conviction, “he has his own twisted version of history. Yeah, listen to Eli, he’s a great historian, did he tell you how many times he would have become a millionaire if some asshole hadn’t screwed him? Ask his kids about him, what a loving soul he is– Eli has never been wrong about anything, he’s always the victim, always the righteous man wronged by vicious assholes, even when he’s smacking his kids around…” He went on in this vein for quite some time.
This reaction did not surprise me. After all, it was a yelp of pain. It made sense to me now, in the context Eli had imparted to me, quietly and deeply aware of the full pain and horror of what he was telling me. Eli’s beloved aunt was my father’s mother Chava. Eli witnessed Chava’s violent rages many times including when she turned them on her infant son, from the time he could stand.
“She had a drawer next to where she sat at the kitchen table where she kept the cord to her iron. You remember those old cloth wrapped electrical cords they used to have? Heavy cords, with a rough burlap kind of wrapping. She would reach into the drawer, grab that heavy cord and whip little Irv across the face with it. I saw this myself. After a while all she had to do was rattle the drawer and he would stand like this,” and Eli did one of his uncanny imitations, a terrified child, rigid and shaking, eyes cast to the ground.
This image was like a light going on in a darkened room. I was flooded with sympathy for the poor bastard even as I knew that my father would kill us both before he’d ever talk about something this painful. He was simply incapable of it, I realized thinking about his life from the perspective of a face-whipped infant. It explained many things I could never understand.
The last few years of his life, as my father was becoming greyer and weaker, hollowed out by the undiagnosed liver cancer that finally killed him, I pretty much abided by his wish to stick to superficial conversation. We could talk about politics, a subject we were largely in agreement about, or history, something that fascinated both of us, but most of the deeper conversations were out of bounds and I stopped trying to have them. Predictably, in a story like this, I got a life-changing phone call during dinner with old friends.
We were gathered around a table to retell a story my father had told us every year, about the spiritual journey from slavery to freedom that our ancient ancestors had undergone. In every generation we must learn this lesson anew– because we were strangers harshly mistreated in a foreign land we must never tolerate the mistreatment of anyone, if we have the power to oppose it.
“The D.U. is in the hospital,” my sister told me. “The E.R. doctor knew within two minutes that he was examining a dead man, he touched his swollen stomach, looked at me and said if your brother wants to see him, tell him to get down here right away.”
There were two doctors around the table who gently reassured me that ascites, the accumulation of liquid that gathers around the organs at the end stage of something like liver cancer, could result from several different things (all pretty much deadly, as I soon learned), and that I should go visit my father and not assume the worst until I talked to his doctors. I was on a plane soon after.
I drove to the hospital at around 1 a.m. on what turned out to be the last night of my father’s life. He was ready to have the conversation he’d never had the courage to attempt.
“You know those conversations you had with Eli, he pretty much hit the nail right on the head, although he probably spared you the worst of it. My life was over by the time I was two years old,” he began. “I felt you reaching out to me many times over the years, and it’s my fault I was too fucked up to respond to you like a human being instead of a belligerent asshole.”
The book of my father starts with this conversation and imagines what we would have shared if he had not died the next day at sunset. I have been in regular dialogue with his skeleton for the last ten months or so and am happy to report our communication is now excellent.