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.
His memory is still better than mine. He remembers everything I’ve ever done, both good and bad, and the times I’ve most hurt him. He tells me how cute I was as a little boy. How I learned to shave and tie a tie. He remembers how when he was pulled over for speeding on the Thruway, I called the state trooper “bad man.” He remembers my potential, my high school rank: 44 out of 900. The other night, while we were surfing TV channels together, he explained the motivation of William Holden’s character in “Bridge Over the River Kwai,” 56 years after seeing it in a Times Square theater.
I have heard his important stories dozens of times: As a post-operative 14-year-old inpatient of a hospital in Vienna, he hid beneath a blanket and rubbed the thermometer to prolong his fever and lengthen his stay, rather than be sent back to the concentration camp, where certainly he would have died. Even then, the future mechanical engineering student at City College — the future professor of physics — knew that friction created heat. As long as he had a fever, he was safe — as long as it stayed above 37 degrees Celsius he wouldn’t budge.
But now what would help him?
I remember that during a parents’ day visit to my fourth-grade class, he became furious at my teacher, Mrs. Taub, who had wrongly asserted during a science demonstration that “friction is heat.” Because in his mind, there was no room for error — clearly, friction created heat. And throughout that year, he never failed to remind me. Today I remind him, but he doesn’t laugh or smile. My sister, who lives with her husband and two boys about five houses down the street from my parents, peeks her head in the doorway and I announce to her that we are writing daddy’s obituary now. She looks horrified, shakes her head, and mumbles something about how sick this family is. She leaves a box of chocolate caramels on the coffee table next to me.
I don’t remember all his stories with the same nuanced passion and detail, or richness of history. It all seems incoherent and implausible:
“At the age of 8, escaping to Hungary, you jumped off a southbound railroad train being bombed by German planes?” I ask him. “You lay in an open marsh field with your sister, mother and father piled on top, while you recited the Sh’ma, and yelled out ‘I don’t want to die, I don’t want to die’!? The earth trembled beneath you? Literally?”
“Another time during the war, your parents sent you to play soccer all day in the Balatonboglár village park, so when the Nazis came to round up the family, at least you wouldn’t be home for deportation? Later, I think, you requested an SS officer escort you back to the concentration camp so you could be with your mother and sister? You stole a horse from an Austrian peasant? Hungarian? Russian? German?”
“Oh, yes, oops, and I almost forgot: You held onto the adolescent desire that if you were going to die it might as well be out in a grass field, under the golden sun of an open blue sky, having the time of your life?”
I will miss hearing those stories over and over, the consistency of details, the repetitive inflections:
“During one 200-kilometer death march from Hungary to Austria, you played chess — you strategized and called out moves in standard, international chess notation with a fellow Jewish prisoner, without chessmen or a board?”
“Another time, you were stripped of your pants to be proven a Jew, or as the Germans would say, unbestreitbar? Later, through the barracks window, you witnessed a Nazi officer apprehend your mother and sister in what remains the worst moment of your life. You thought it was the last time you would ever see them. Correct?”
My father speaks in a booming, singsong voice, with a touch of irony, cynicism, anger, and even once in a while, a scarcely audible tone of self-deprecation and humility. But no tears that I can see. “It was luck,” he tells me, “not more.”
Lately, the stories have been different. Clearly, he wants us to view him as more than a symbol of “the survivor” or “the suffering Jew.” He wants us to know that as a little boy he loved the General Napoleon, and could name all the kings and queens of Polish history in chronological order; how as the best student in his second-grade class of 60 students, he kept track of the constant invasions and ever-changing borders of the Polish homeland, and which kings were good for the Jews. How badly he wanted to be a soldier. How he loved Italian operas, soccer, philately, cheese blintzes, chess, Zionism, pierogies and Polish Christmas carols. Until a few days ago, he couldn’t resist a good cheesecake. As a child he studied classical piano. And after the war, he and his father had their sights set on Israel, although American relatives insisted otherwise. In 1994, he and my mother recorded their stories for Steven Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation database. “For young people,” he told them, “Education, not punishment, is the best solution.”
Once in Poland, before the war, he played a game of “house” set in a royal palace with some neighborhood “gentile children” from his building, who rather than let him be king or prince assigned him to be their pet dog on a leash. He was the youngest after all. It had nothing to do with his being a Jew, but his mother was horrified: “You will never be the dog again, not my son, not little Edmund, understand?” And he never was. But as my mother has asked, was he ever just a little boy?
When I ask him for one word to describe himself, he says, “Honest.” And until recently, I’ve lied to him only once, about a time I spent the night in a Long Island jail after being pulled over for drunk driving, in his car! My blood alcohol level had reached 0.12. Of course, when he found out the truth, he gave me hell and more (something I wish on no one) and then, of course, paid for my lawyer.
I help myself to a chocolate caramel; my father can no longer look at them. Hunger makes him weak. Food makes him sick. Even cheesecake. His temperature, usually normal, spikes in the evenings. And if you ask him what’s wrong, what hurts, or how he feels, he grumbles, “Nothing. I’m miserable, that’s all. I’m a very sick man.” I offer him a half glass of his blue Frost Glacier Freeze Gatorade, a shade darker than his eyes, the only thing, the only flavor, he will ingest these days. He sends me upstairs to find a manila file of biographical clippings he’s put together to help compose his obituary. His faith and belief in me remain steadfast.
Since April, my sister Michelle and her husband Scott have driven my father to the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center once a week for his treatments, shuttling back and forth to the pharmacy for endless prescriptions, and spending a considerable amount of time on the telephone and in person, talking with, questioning, probing, negotiating and yelling at various doctors and healthcare workers. The worst was one late night in June after my father had been rushed to some second-rate medical clinic in Smithtown, Long Island. A higher dose of the drug Gemzar had triggered a fever, acute pain and nausea, causing him to faint at the kitchen table while talking to my mother. Hours later, not wanting to wake her, he called Michelle and Scott at 3 a.m. to save him from this hospital that wouldn’t give him a Tylenol or Advil, let alone the morphine drip and antipyretic for which he had been waiting for five hours: “They’re going to kill me in here,” he screamed. “Get me out. I don’t need this kind of help!”
But the real anguish began much more recently, two weeks ago, prior to my parents’ 58th wedding anniversary. My father had gone in for his second MRI on Friday morning. He seemed calm, and as my sister reports, he said he wasn’t nervous. He was clinging, as were we, to the miracle results of early July. He wasn’t afraid to die, he told her.
As I make my way up the creaky stairs to get the binder of facts and statistics from his room, my brain begins to churn over a small detail my sister burdened me with this morning. A very short time ago — perhaps when he first started his weekly treatments — my father confided his feelings to her.
“He thinks maybe there’s still friction between the two of you, that somehow you resent him, or perhaps… don’t love him?”
“And?” I asked. “And? You said?”
“And I told him he was crazy.”
When I was a kid and we lived in Upper Manhattan, communication between us was a clumsy, indirect affair. He had very little patience for my childhood antics and needs. Perhaps he was still reeling from little Barney’s death in 1963. I know he had Holocaust nightmares, which often kept him up from 4 a.m. till his 6 o’clock cup of instant coffee. Yet whenever he asked me for a small favor, a simple thing like bringing him a cold glass of seltzer so he could relax after work, I would (a) find some double meaning in what he said, (b) misinterpret his request, and/or (c) bring him the wrong thing. Other times, and purely by accident, I would spill the soda on the carpet, or drop the glass so that it shattered on the floor, and he would say something in Yiddish that amounted to my being an unbelievable shlemiel.
Two statements I heard loud and clear in reference to me were: (1) “He can’t do you a favor without giving you a 20-minute song-and-dance,” and (2) “Everything he touches, he breaks.” His mood when arriving home from work set the emotional tone for my evening. I waited anxiously to see if he would smile, or bring me some small present like “First Day of Issue” postmarked covers of envelopes and postage stamps. He loved the colors, the precision of design, the neatly stamped dates. Most evenings, he was tired and irritable. His round trips to work in Long Island often took two hours or more; he was perpetually ensnared within the rush hour traffic of the Cross Bronx Expressway. “I’m the only idiot in the world who lives in the city and commutes to the suburbs!” he would say.
My bedroom faced West 225th Street and Broadway. I could see the muddy-green Harlem River Ship Canal, Columbia University’s Baker’s Field spreading out behind it, and beyond that, the Major Deegan and the Bronx to the east, and the Empire State straight ahead south. Beginning at 6 p.m., my mother and I would take turns craning our necks from the window, hoping to see daddy, toting his big fat briefcase filled with student papers, marching up the hill (she liked to make fun of his self-satisfied duck-footed stride), or circling around in his vinyl-topped red Oldsmobile in search of a legal parking place. My mother called cars death machines. I sensed she expected the police to call with news of a terrible accident. Either that, or 1010 WINS — “all news all the time” — would announce his tragic death every 10 minutes to the entire Tri-State area. I learned to live with a lump trapped between my throat and stomach. If he made good time, his mood and smile would reflect his good fortune. I would feel a sense of relief, spared another one of his prickly moods, or one of my mother’s long sessions of worry and unease, in which her generally happy demeanor transformed into what, until recently, my sister and I would call her “cancer face.”
But even if he was in good spirits, I was uncomfortable speaking in his presence. Afraid of being yelled at or criticized, I learned to hide in my room or say, “I don’t know,” to his questions. I found it difficult to show too much enthusiasm lest he tease me. If something was threatening or stressful, his natural inclination was to shut it down or yell at everyone in the vicinity. There was no room for anyone else’s anxiety or discomfort. For him, our aches were too painful. He dismissed most problems by saying, “No big deal.” When I failed to reach 1300 on the SAT, he said, “So you’re no genius, you’ll have to get a job like the rest of us.”
On the phone, he was alacritous, and always first to pick up. Once when I was attending college at SUNY Binghamton, I told him over the phone that all the premed science courses I was taking were irrelevant to my life. My father laughed: “He wants relevance,” he told my mother. “Larry wants college courses to be relevant to his life!”
My father communicated his emotions in three ways: yelling at you, giving you a big bear hug, then inevitably sending you a big check. In 1996, when I told him of my engagement to my soon-to-be-wife, Augusta, I spent the first 10 minutes talking to him about the New York Mets bullpen problems and who would be the setup man for John Franco. Finally, I summoned the nerve to broach the subject. Oh, he was ecstatic for me and her, and the whole family. And then he laughed. “He couldn’t just tell it to me straight,” he told my mother. “It took Larry twenty minutes to get to the main point. Well, guess what? Your son is getting married! Find for me the checks.”
For me, the most difficult thing was to look directly into his eyes. Like splitting an atom, or fusing two nuclei. Like looking into the sun. Especially when he was happy or proud, I felt blinded by a brilliance, a radiant light coming from inside him. A golden fire. The experience was so intimate and intense as to be feverish, nearly tearful for us both.
It is a Sunday afternoon, and still summer. My sister and Scott have finally earned a short break on Cape Cod after months of indulging their cruel illusions of hope. Although I have stayed with my parents on and off for most of the last eight weeks, I am also back in Massachusetts. My parents have not yet heard from Dr. Lichtman about Friday’s MRI. And even though it’s not Monday, the news is clearly not good because if it were, the doctor would have called over the weekend. Michelle insists someone has to be with mommy and daddy when they get the phone call.
By Sunday evening, after a four-hour ride, I am in Long Island, and my parents send me to pick up the Chinese takeout they have ordered. My father still has somewhat of an appetite, and my mother knows that to be strong she needs to eat. At about 9 p.m. I’m in the car, on my way back with the hot and sour soup, spring rolls, moo shu pork, and a small order of chicken in garlic sauce when my cell phone rings. It’s my wife, Augusta, and she suggests I pull over because she has something to tell me. Lichtman has just called and the results are painfully clear. My sister, her husband, and Augusta will drive together to New York, and be at my parents’ house at 9 a.m. tomorrow morning to tell them the truth. Until then, I mustn’t say a thing.
“You mean I have to eat dinner with them and pretend everything is all right?”
“You don’t have to lie,” she says, “just don’t say anything. Talk about other topics. Talk about the Mets.”
“I can’t do it,” I say. “I have no appetite. I can’t lie to my parents. I won’t be able to pull it off.”
“Do it for your sister,” she says. “We’ll be there early.”
When a man dies, people seem to feel the need to weave together a kind of hagiographic treatise. Is it not enough that a person has lived and strived, loved, struggled and triumphed — helped himself and provided for others? Is it not enough to tell people that my father’s favorite movies were “Moonstruck,” “A Fish Called Wanda,” “There’s Something About Mary” and anything starring Fred Astaire; that his favorite operas were “those by composers whose last names end with an ‘i’”; that if he hadn’t worked as a college professor, his dream job would have been center-forward for the United States mens’ national soccer team; and that his favorite childhood memory was being reunited with his own father in Budapest after World War II?
Once my father complained to my mother that I never called him Dad or Daddy; in fact, he grumbled, I never called him anything. It’s true, Daddy sounded like a little baby, Dad sounded too casual and familiar, too intimate, and calling him father was out of the question. In his defense, the word was not part of his native vernacular, and in Polish he called his own father Tato. So to me he went without a moniker, except for when my sister and I affectionately referred to him as Ed or the absolutely unacceptable Eddie. There was the occasional “Da.” But clearly, it was about comfort and intimacy. Too close was too pressing. And with this, he was equally an accomplice. Although he telephoned me once a week (if I didn’t phone him first), when he left a message, he became stiff, enunciating slowly and clearly, “Larry, this is your father speaking.”
A few years ago, while we planned a family vacation to Mexico, in an effort to be carefree, he left a voice message in which his mouth seemed to become paralytic and twisted while trying to say “Dad.” His attempt at the one-syllable word morphed into a near-diphthong as the short “a” sound took a 90-degree turn toward the short “e.” The final “d” took on the apprehensive quality of a voiceless dental fricative, and instead of saying, “Hi, Larry, it’s Dad,” his legacy forever stands as “Hello, Larry, this is Death speaking.”
Edmund Mayer’s obituary folder is stacked neatly on the top of the computer printer along with his financial statements from the last 10 years, and medical reports and insurance statements from 2013. He has saved a light-hearted campus newspaper profile of himself, “Getting to Know Edmund Mayer”; a short, more serious article from his 1998 retirement; a curriculum vitae from 1964 when he switched from the aerospace industry to academics; a letter he wrote to his boss in 1973 respectfully requesting that he be considered for a distinguished teaching professorship; an ancient letter of recommendation; and an old, typed memo, confirming that he had earned an 11% raise. For whom has he saved these files? To remember what exactly? I wonder if, from all these yellowing pages, I can piece together the life of a hero. I now know that between 1963 and 1967, his salary went from $8,942 to $12,093. Is this the measure of his life? Is this why he became enraged at me when, as a teenager, I proclaimed to one of his friends that I thought my father was a rich man? And why had he never told me he had written several chapters of a United Nations-sponsored publication called “The Use of Wood in House Construction in Developing Countries”?
I snoop around the room, looking for mementoes, and examine the various photos of his grandchildren, which he himself has carefully printed and framed (a recent hobby of his); a set of books by and about Garry Kasparov; two books on poker, “The Big Deal,” and “The Bigger Deal”; books about the church and the Holocaust; and a sad-looking portrait of me, painted by a Polish artist in 1995. Where did all this dust come from?
“Larry, are you coming downstairs?” my mother calls up.
My father’s desk faces the double windows that look onto a semi-barren backyard slope of brambles and small trees, the hill rising to a narrow swath of suburban wood. Late at night, if you loiter by this window and don’t move, you might spot one or even two red foxes lurking near the sliding door and feeding on the leftovers my mother sets aside for her cats.
My father loved his work, but after he retired, it seemed as if he never looked back. Until two weeks ago, if you peeked into this room, you’d see the back of his oversized head as he fiddled with the color settings on Picasa, upped the volume on Spotify, read bad jokes from his friends on Hotmail, planned trips for himself and my mother on Travelocity, or played chess online with people the world over. At one time, he was almost a chess master. I remember that in the early 1970s, his rating reached an all-time high of 2130. I was very proud and asked him when he would reach 2200, which denoted master. “I can’t concentrate,” he said. “If you people didn’t cause me so much stress and aggravation, I could do it.” Even now he is ranked one of the top 10 online players over 75.
My mother calls again from downstairs. “Larry, are you coming?”
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.
On the first morning, I wake up in Cambridge overcome by gloom, disorientation, and a sense of utter meaninglessness. I feel I’ve been deported to a new and uncharted country, a place offering few prospects beyond temporary survival. I believe it is guilt that motivates me more than anything else, and a need to demonstrate love and loyalty to my missing dad. My father, a fervent Zionist from an old-school Galicianer family, has always read Jewish songs and prayers with the correct modern Israeli Sephardic pronunciation. Yet now that it’s my turn I gravitate toward the more folksy, whiny Yiskadal v’yiskadash. And no sooner have I begun than my father is standing behind me, reading over my shoulder and asking why I don’t pray in the proper language.
“I thought you’d feel that way,” I tell him. “But actually I prefer to say the first two words of the prayer in the old manner — to me it sounds more authentic.” I recognize his mild disapproval, but he’s plainly moved to see that I’m bothering to do it at all. I’ve printed the prayer from the Internet and though he withholds comment, I’m surprised that he hasn’t mentioned the obvious — that I don’t own or use a decent prayer book, especially when honoring my one-and-only father. Instead, he asks why I haven’t at least washed my face and brushed my teeth, maybe even shaved and put on some decent clothes — a clean pair of pants wouldn’t hurt — before engaging in this rite. “Next time,” I tell him.
The next day, I am fully dressed debating whether or not to wear shoes, just in case he decides to show up. I remember that many years ago we went to a Knicks-Rockets game at Madison Square Garden, and when he noted my high-top sneakers, he said, “Don’t you own a decent pair of shoes? What, do you think you’re coming here to play in the game?”
In an attempt to impress him, I read the text loudly and slowly, feigning intonations of comprehension. But my fluency, as my father suddenly comments, “leaves something to be desired.” When I kiss the small sheet of folded, printed-out prayer — before stashing it back in my night table — he appears to be more remote, but reassuring. “This is what I paid for when you attended five years of that Hebrew School in the Bronx?” he asks.
For the next two weeks my facility for reading aloud does not dramatically improve, so I distract my father by performing one morning in an exaggerated Yiddish-inflected Ashkenazi cadence. This time he bursts out laughing as if it’s one of the fun-niest things he’s heard in a long time. His eyes are watering. Afterwards, we agree that it’s too soon to make jokes. “That’s the best you can do?” he asks. “You were better at your bar mitzvah. Remember, how good you were?” What I do remember is that directly following my bar mitzvah service, still in the sanctuary, there were tears in his eyes. I think it was his first synagogue service since Barney’s death.
After a month of consistently following the ritual, I begin to miss days here and there, but I also detect improvement in my pronunciation and rhythms. My father insists I can do better. One afternoon, not remembering if I’ve said the prayer earlier in the day, I say the Kaddish a second time. My father laughs in seeming frustration — more like an inverted cry. Speaking to some imaginary version of my mother, he comments, “I don’t know why your son has to make this Kaddish into a big deal — once is perfectly acceptable, but a whole production he is now making out of it.” After his short soliloquy, we are happy to agree that once a day will do. “If it’s making you sadder, don’t do it anymore, that’s all.” he says. “It’s already enough. We give each other, as best we can under these circumstances, an awkward hug.
But what’s gnawing at me is that he hasn’t mentioned a thing about the obituary. I know he read the eulogy I wrote, because the letter I handed him two weeks before he died became the eulogy. But I am sure he’s still bristling over the inaccuracies in the newspaper, and maybe he’s even furious that the writer of his obituary emphasized his betrayal to the Nazis by his Polish neighbors.
“I’m sorry, you know, there was no mention of chess in the entire article,” I say.
“Please say it,” I mutter to myself. And then as if on cue he mumbles, “No big deal.”
“Were you mad that the obituary portrayed the Poles as evil accomplices to genocide?” I ask.
“Well,” he says, “to tell you the truth, because mostly Jews are reading Long Island Newsday, I prefer it said something about how for every Jew who survived from Poland there was a righteous Polish gentile involved in saving his life.”
That’s it? I can’t believe I’m off the hook.
“It’s true,” he says. “There were Poles who were our friends. So sure I was startled and very aggravated when I first realized this, because I’m sure the journalist repeated only what you told to her. Yes, I was furious.”
“Well, I have had time to think without too many distractions and interruptions, and I’ll tell you one thing. If this obituary were written for a Polish gazette, let’s say, or a bunch of Catholics or Holocaust deniers or whatever, I would give them all hell. The Poles were some of the biggest anti-Semites.”
I’m relieved. I’m sure there are other small issues we’ll need to resolve over time, but nothing so major. I can sense my father wanting to leave. But I feel compelled to ask, “Will you tell me that thermometer story one more time?
“One day, half the building was gone,” he says. “Literally, one side of the hospital vanished overnight, the best hospital in Vienna mind you. Sure, they were Nazis in the hospital, but the Soviets were coming, you could hear rumbling, you could see obliterated a skeleton of a building, in ruins, a construction site, maybe one girder left, holding up nothing. So I stopped rubbing the thermometer. Of course, I wanted to be near to my mother and my sister if we were going to die. My father, we were sure, was already somewhere dead, but I knew if my temperature was going down the doctor would send me out. You know, of course, his name was Meyer, and since Meyer and Mayer are the same, he gave me some kind of a special treatment. But as smart as I was —”
And he pauses. Because sadly, my father is ashamed to admit what he is about to say. He laughs self-effacingly at his 14-year-old self, and continues.
“As smart as I was, when the doctor dismissed me, I walked directly to the SS headquarters and asked to be escorted back to the camp. I mean I could have been shot to the head in one second. A 14-year-old Jew in pajama pants, what do you think? I think I was stupid and lucky. When I arrived back to the camp my mother and sister were collapsed in an airplane hangar on a few strands of hay, unconscious completely. Maybe 2,000 people, mostly women, no kids at all, stretched out on the ground, starving to death. The lice were everywhere. And then just by pure luck, just in time, the war was over. You know the rest.”
Each time I call my mother now, I’m surprised when she picks up the phone. This is something she never used to do. After we talk for a while, I expect her to yell across the house for daddy to pick up. My mother still watches TV in the fireplace room at one end of the house. Every one of our conversations seems half-finished. No one is watching hockey or basketball on the other side of the living room. When I visit Long Island I see my mother as always, reclining on her leather couch in the den, with the TV on, doing her New York Times crossword puzzle, very sad but comfortable and smiling — heartbroken but managing — the rest of the house completely obliterated, leaning on one broken steel girder.
Larry Mayer’s previous essay for the Forward, “To Sir With Compassion” was a 2014 finalist in arts reporting for the Deadline Club and runner-up for the 2014 David Twersky Prize.