Tuesday, July 08, 2008

And Now For Something Completely Different

Warning: the following post contains writing of a confessional nature, of precisely the type which regular readers of this blog will have learned not to expect. If that's not of interest to you (and honestly, why would it be), move along. I should have something book-related by the end of the week. This is just something I needed to post.

When my father died, everyone said how young he'd been. At eight years old, forty-six doesn't seem very young, and so, like so many other aspects of his loss, this one crept up on me as the years and decades accumulated between us. The older I get, the more untenable it seems for a person to die with so much of their life unlived, and so much left to accomplish. In a month my family and I will mark the nineteenth anniversary of my father's death, the amount of time it takes for the Hebrew and Gregorian calendars to synchronize with one another, so that the Jewish and secular anniversaries will both fall on the same day.  Nineteen years is also the midway point between the age I was when my father died and the age he was. These are all meaningless facts and figures, of course, but sometimes that's all you have left.

Yesterday, the day before what would have been my father's 65th birthday, I was stopped coming out of a meeting by one of the project managers in my company. Was it possible, she asked, a little nervously, that my father was the Gideon Nussbaum who worked for Israel Aircraft Industries? As it turns out, he was her boss on her first job out of university.

When someone's been out of your life--out of all life--for as long as my father's been out of mine, they take up very little space. You have to work hard, make a little area that's all their own--the framed triptych my mother made of some of her favorite photographs of him, the kind of picture one keeps only when the person in it is no longer around to remind you of their face, which hangs above the Shabbat candlesticks in the house he bought but never lived in; the photo albums my aunt made as gifts for my Bat Mitzvah and my brother's Bar Mitzvah, which follow my father from infancy to adulthood; the ancient, shabby writing desk that was once his, and which none of us are willing to throw out because, chalked on its underside, is a heart with his name and the name of a high school sweetheart inside. But in my everyday life, my father is a rare figure. I can't honestly imagine my life, more than two thirds of which have passed in his absence, with him in it. There is simply no room for him--my family and I have grown and changed to fill the void he left. To encounter him so unexpectedly, almost as though we'd met by chance on the street, was therefore inexpressibly moving, and all the more so for the obvious affection and admiration with which this person spoke of him.

And it was also, at the same time, terrifying. My father's former subordinate spoke about his qualities as a superior, repeating the praise I've heard from my mother, from my aunt, and from his friends: his natural leadership and authority, his ease and friendliness. All qualities I wish I could find in myself but so seldom do. It's quite scary to think that someone who sees me several times a week will, from now on, think of my father and of those qualities whenever she does. And at the same time it's exhilarating. To know that the place I walk into every day, a huge part of my ordinary, mundane life, is connected to a man so completely lost to me that special days and times are set aside for his remembrance--in a way this is a greater motivation to excel at my job than any salary, bonus, or performance evaluation ever could be.

About a year before my father died I was speaking to another girl at school, having a serious discussion about people we'd known who had died, when she decisively trumped my deceased grandparents with her own dead father. I was shocked. Parents weren't supposed to die. Orphans belonged in storybooks, not ordinary life. For several years after my father's death I was the subject of the same curiosity with which, on that afternoon, I surveyed this girl. Classmates and younger children who, not out of any cruelty but simply out of the same horrified fascination I had once felt, would shamefully sidle up to me and ask a few indelicate questions. As time wore on, sadly, more and more of my contemporaries got to experience death firsthand, and soon my loss was overshadowed by that of classmates and friends, whose grief was keener and more recent than my own. From my observation of them, and from my own experiences, I've come to realize that what shocked me that afternoon twenty years ago was not so much the fact of a father's death, but the matter-of-factness with which it was reported. That my friend could speak of an unspeakable thing as if it were ordinary, because to her it was, just as my father's death quickly became to me. A fact of life, and soon not even a very prominent one. People die, and even when they're remembered, life goes on without them, and the pain of their loss becomes part of the huge tapestry of happy and sad events that make up a life. Yesterday, for a brief moment, my father reentered my life--a rare occurrence in the nineteen years since he's left it, and one that is likely to grow even rarer. I'm truly grateful, therefore, for this opportunity to meet him again.


Raz Greenberg said...

I have never lost someone close to me - at least not that close - and I must say that this post is one of the most touching things I have read lately.

Matthew Cheney said...

Thanks for writing this.

ben beutler said...

I can only echo raz and matt. Thank you.

Hezy said...

Very well written. Thank you.

I'm afraid you are wrong about the coincidence of the Hebrew and Gregorian calenders. 19 years is the length of one cycle of the Hebrew calender, but the Gregorian has its own cycle and the two cycles do not coincide so often. you can read about it here (Hebrew):

Boutade said...

Very personal. I'm glad you shared with us. It makes your site more powerful and interesting.

Mae Travels said...

This is a very moving essay. I only met your father briefly, once, but I share your feelings.... Mae

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