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I bring down the obituary file. My father is slumped in his chair. He leans forward, head down, massaging the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger. This week, he has been unusually irritable and critical of my mother. Nonetheless, she follows him around the house, sets herself down in whatever room he’s in, offers him bread, a drink, “a piece of frankfurter,” does her crossword, and immerses herself in his smoldering presence.
“I found it. Your folder.”
“Finally,” he says.
I hand him his half-filled glass of blue Gatorade. Without looking up, he nods. My mother glances up from her puzzle, sees two cats — Fluffy and Spunky — circling their dish, and gets up to feed them. There’s plenty of dry food in their bowls but they only want the food from the fancy cans.
“Bigliani’s obituary from Newsday — did you find it in the folder?” my father asks.
My father knew Raymond Bigliani, a colleague from both industry and academia for almost 40 years. According to the Long Island newspaper, Professor Bigliani died earlier this year after a short bout with acute myeloid leukemia. “Only 70,” my father says. “Nice guy. Please, Larry, read it to me.” On the page, there is a picture of a man with a sweet, amused smile holding up a physics textbook. It says he worked on the Apollo Lunar Module. It says he was a “dedicated amateur astronomer” who “shared his love of space exploration” and “spent hours staring at the sky with his children and grandchildren” trying to understand the unknown. It talks about his education, his sense of humor, his teaching, and how his father was an Italian immigrant who worked as a waiter in Greenwich Village to support the family.
“Like that,” my father says. “We’ll write one like that for me.” Yet he never brings it up again and neither do I. In two months, I will compose the narrative alone. Tonight, in case there is any doubt, I write a letter to say that I love him.
My father’s condition begins to plummet rapidly. What had served as a vector of resistance against the disease seems to have lost all force, and the sudden downward slide is frictionless and gaining momentum. The October leaves are beginning to change, and the family is quarantined in a malignant vigil from hell. When my mother quietly asks how she will survive without him, in Polish he responds, “You’ll manage.” Strangers now mill about the house, faces changing every few hours; the schedule for the administration of a rising variety of palliatives and placebos becomes nearly impossible to follow. And despite several family requests, Dr. Lichtman’s secretary refuses to schedule more appointments. Because, after all, Sloan Kettering is a busy place, in the business of saving lives. My sister shrieks at the secretary, hangs up, calls back, yells and cries some more: “Please, take him!”
Dr. Lichtman offers my sister this unclear euphemism as a last bit of consolation: “From now on, each day will be better than the one it precedes.” And as we move toward mid-October, his prognosis is dead-on. With about 10 days to go, Lichtman shows up to pay my father a final call, an unscheduled personal visit, and my father’s face lights up. My sister says that for one fleeting instant daddy sat up, smiled, said a few words, and acted almost normal. Later in the week during one of my father’s last moments of consciousness, and one of our last moments of interaction, he sits at the side of the bed, eyes softly closed, chin resting on his chest, while I grasp and hold tightly onto both of his hands, most likely for the first time since I was a small boy. Later that week he is strapped to a wheel chair and carried down the stairs by some strange men, and relocated to a more comfortable place. From then on, he never wakes up. Each day is a little worse than the one that precedes it.
The more I read about evolution and galaxies, the Big Bang and the speed of light, relativity, and rover landings scratching for dust on Mars, the less I grasp of time and consciousness, precise beginnings and definitive ends. Yet I continue the search for and remain open to metaphors that may come.
When the news arrives, I am asleep in my parents’ house. Though my father’s life has been plagued by insomnia and restlessness, I have reveled in my uncanny ability to sleep through anything, anywhere, at any time. Under the vanishing light of a (waning) gibbous moon, my window open a crack, I dream and pray for a quick ending to this torture. At some point I am startled by a succession of strange, human-like whines and shrieks. Perchance a tortured child? A horrified mother? A dying animal? It’s maybe 3 or 4 in the morning, and as I slowly regain awareness, I see that it’s the clan of foxes in a state of agitation. Squealing? Barking? Actually short baleful bursts of some sinister lament. Perhaps the young one has made its first kill, perhaps somewhere a mother and father are calling for their missing pup.
Soon I am back to sleep, working hard not to wake up, ignoring the ringing telephone, when my mother knocks on the door. “He’s gone,” is all she says. In the morning on her way to work, Michelle visited our dad for one last time as he held onto his last breaths until after she left. Had he been waiting to feel her presence, or was he waiting to be left alone? My father who believed above all in the physical laws of the universe would have claimed neither. He would have said that his illness had taken its course, and his heart simply stopped beating. No big deal. I have had friends and relatives die before. But only now for the first time I apprehend, without cynicism, the many euphemisms for death. Because my dad really has passed away, and been taken by God; because he really is gone, and not with us anymore. Because I hope he’s in a better place. Because I am certain he hasn’t died, because it’s obvious he’s alive somewhere. And I will write the obituary he wanted. It will be very much like that of Bigliani. I will almost lie and say he was a chess master. I will almost say he could have been a chess master had I not caused him so much stress. I will chicken out and say neither. And after that, I will send it to the local newspaper. I really will.
The obituary appears in print three days later, but not before I receive a call from a local reporter who read my version and has questions about how and where my dad survived the war. I tell her what I know. I tell her about the camp in Lichtenwörth. I repeat the hospital thermometer story. I confirm that he played a series of chess games in his head on a 100-mile death march from Balatonboglár to Wiener Neustadt. I stress his love of opera and chess and his expert rating. She keeps me on the phone for almost an hour. We exchange thanks. A short family debate ensues about which photograph to use. While my mother selects a formal portrait, my sister and I push for a picture from this summer, in which his open-collared blue shirt frames and enhances his always-radiant smile, his twinkling blue eyes.
The next day the small but prominent headline reads, “Edmund Mayer, Nazi Survivor, Dies.” In later editions it will be changed to “Holocaust Survivor.” And although the article gives him too much credit for designing the hydraulic system of NASA’s Lunar Excursion Module, there is no mention of chess at all. Perhaps to balance the equation, he has been bestowed an extra doctoral degree, and mistakenly called an industrial engineer. In this heroic version of his life, he is betrayed by Poles and single-handedly rescues his mother and sister from the Nazis. My mother is disturbed and upset by this account, which fails to capture the essence of a man she was married to for 58 years. In her broken heart, she knows that actually to my father this would have been a big deal.
Soon after our family’s first Passover Seder without my father, almost half a year since his death, my mother calls from New York concerned and somewhat bereft. An Orthodox friend has asked if anyone is saying Kaddish for my father; the prayer must be recited three times a day for 11 months to honor the deceased, and to ensure the soul’s ascension into heaven. According to Orthodox Jewish law, it is my responsibility as his son, yet I am not supposed to recite Kaddish unless in the presence of a minyan, which requires a minimum of 10 men.
This regulation is intended to make sure I am not without the emotional support of a community during this painful time. In theory, this seems like a practical and thoughtful rationale. Unfortunately, there is no way in hell I am going to attend some random synagogue in Cambridge even once a day (something my father wouldn’t have done either) to complete my filial obligation, which leaves me in sort of a bind; for although my father claimed not to believe in a soul or a God, I’m sure he would prefer I at least make an effort.
My natural impulse is to curse the Jewish God, not praise him. Physically and mentally my father still had plenty of life left to live. Just off the cuff, I can list at least 10 older, sicker, more annoying and miserable people who easily deserved to die ahead of him. Secondly, this kind of willy-nilly wheel-of-fortune mortality provides no logical reason to believe, let alone give praise. Watching my father’s final physical deterioration has left me with little doubt that the physical body is purely a concrete apparatus, and once it crumbles nothing remains. On the other hand, this ultimate disintegration of someone into nothingness is so terrifying and depressing that adding curses and anger and denial to an already bad situation seems counterintuitive and counterproductive. It is with this near desperation and sadness that I conclude, disingenuously, that it’s better to worship than withhold, and so I recite: “Blessed and praised, glorified and exalted, extolled and honored, adored and lauded be the name of the Holy One blessed be He.” Even as an agnostic, I can feel the palliative value of prayer, of repetition, of magical words and thoughts. Despite a lack of faith and belief, the act alone may be my salvation from the body’s ruin. And so I say, “Amen.”
For the first three months, even if I must break rules of Orthodox propriety, I turn due east using a cell phone app, and say Kaddish once a day alone at home. Clearly, my father’s entering of another realm, a better world, will not depend on me. Whatever heaven he has created is already manifest: inside him, within this world, inside of me, and wherever the hell he has ended up. Besides, I remind myself, most likely the main purpose of this prayer is to offer me personal consolation.