Hamlet, Act II, scene 2
It was his suggestion. We could work together on his obituary: father and son. In his final days, it would be another way to connect and smooth things over if there were any lingering bits of resentment.
It was early September, and he’d been sick seven months. While I pondered this project, he had already discussed it with my mother. (Unemployed, I would temporarily and periodically abandon my wife, Augusta, and my 11-year-old twin daughters in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where we resided, to stay with my parents in Melville, Long Island for four- or five-day stints.) My father called me into the den, a small wood-paneled room with a fireplace, where my mom usually did the crossword, and the volume of the flat-screen TV was interminably on high. We had some time now, he told me; sit down. And so just like that I sat down and it was time.
After slugging it out with the help of chemotherapy for three months, my 82-year-old father, with the heart of a 40-year-old, was notified in July by his oncologist that the cancerous lumps had diminished. Those miserable days following the weekly treatments had paid off. So Edmund Mayer, the retired physics professor, rejoiced and did the mathematical calculations with pen and paper (in his head, my mother now insists), announcing by how many percentage points each of the tumors had shrunk: 73%, 78%, 81%. He loved numbers and statistics. Boyle’s Law, Avogadro’s constant. He remembered dates and birthdays and wedding anniversaries. The year someone’s first child was born. The year someone else’s mother died. He knew his weight in kilograms on the day of Russian liberation (converted to pounds). He knew survival rates, batting averages, Bobby Fischer’s rating in 1972 after he demolished Boris Spassky, the number of points the Dow Jones fell in its all-time collapse (exactly 634), the distance traveled by light in one year. He could look at a sequence of 20 digits for less than a minute, and repeat them in order, both forward and back.
It had been a strange and hopeful summer for the family. We had grieved from his birthday in February — when he received the initial diagnosis — until April when treatment started. With my help, he led the Passover Seder. At the table, he forced a smile when my sister took his picture with my two nephews. By July we felt as if we had weathered the storm.
But what were we thinking? From the start, we knew he had cancer of both the liver and the pancreas. The odds were pernicious. How had we allowed ourselves to be so easily fooled?
Maybe it was because he always had unusually good luck. Thanks to a middle ear infection, a “German” last name, the chicken pox, and some luck here and there, he had survived several Nazi concentration camps by the time he was 14. Thanks in part to hemorrhoids, which led to a colonoscopy, my father survived colon cancer in 1983. Even his current diagnosis was the result of an incidental MRI. He truly believed that, like a cat, he had nine lives. Dr. Lichtman, his oncologist, a middle-aged man my father came to love, said the average time he might live with this illness was six to nine months. But my father, my sister and I were unable to tell this truth to my 80-year-old mother who, as a Hunter College undergraduate in the early 1950s, had met my father on a New York City subway train. My sister probed the doctor in vain, attempting to squeeze out several more months of hope — there were always exceptions. But Lichtman had seen this disease many times and would not prognosticate.
Instead, my father interpreted for himself. “Don’t worry. No big deal,” he seemed to be saying: “Numbers are just odds. Odds are only chances.” We hoped and believed him. And besides, the future seemed a long way off.
Several times during this period, he repeated how he had already been given an extra, 68-year lease on life. While 90% of Poland’s Jews perished, he and his sister, his mother and father, had been selected for life. While 58 children in his second-grade class had been murdered, he was one of two who survived. At one time, he even believed God had played a role in saving him. And although I don’t think he put much stock in this God anymore, a stoic resignation behind his words suggested that he trusted in a larger cosmic plan. A gift of nearly 70 years was nothing to shrug off. This, in fact, was a big deal.
Once, when I asked him if he believed in God, without equivocation he answered, “No.” I pushed him further because I wanted him to believe, so that I might find solace. “I mean God doesn’t have to be an old man up in the clouds, you know,” I said. He still had a booming voice, and still talked with gesticulating hands.
“Look,” he told me, “this monotheistic idea of a Jewish god, this invisible, unknowable god, this idea that we must not worship idols, comes from a particular Jewish pragmatism. Back then there were so many groups fighting and killing each other, it didn’t matter who was killing whom. And the first thing they would do was smash any statue or image of the other tribes’ gods. The Jews were always smart at surviving, and figured if we make an invisible God nobody can touch him. If he exists, tell me, where he was during Holocaust, and how many more holocausts since then? Do you know how many lives God could have saved if Hitler had been killed by that one little bomb in a briefcase had it not been moved inadvertently? This is an all-powerful God?”
“So, you don’t believe in a soul, or transcendent being, or something eternal?” I asked him.
“The Greeks made it up; the Jews borrowed it. Larry, do I think my mother and father are waiting for me in heaven? And Barney? Will he be the sweet little curly-haired boy I knew? It will be 50 years this week.” Barney, my older brother, died of leukemia in September 1963. I was 2, he was 4, my mother 30, my sister unborn, and my father 32.
I come into the room, where my father is stretched out on a reclining chair. This is a place where he might read The New York Times or, with a small board in his lap, go over the moves of a chess game. But since last week he has entirely lost interest. Instead, he pulls the side handles and draws himself and the chair-back forward, and with a serious, understated expression in his voice, solicits my help in crafting his obituary. It’s late summer, and his handsome, healthy-looking, unshaved face is well-lit. He can’t possibly be that sick. My father, the survivor! An ardent storyteller — with smile-wrinkles etched around his eyes like penciled sun streaks — he has spent the last half-year telling us his life. Neighbors and old friends have been visiting him for months now and have told him how great he looks. Suddenly, as of this week, for some mysterious reason, his left eyelid seems to be drooping a bit, a soggy canopy, but his eyes, like the sky on a good day, seem bluer and sharper than ever.