Elie's Expositions

A bereaved father blogging for catharsis... and for distraction. Accordingly, you'll see a diverse set of topics and posts here, from the affecting to the analytical to the absurd. Something for everyone, but all, at the core, meeting a personal need.

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Tuesday, February 28, 2006

My Dad - Part 2: Breaking Down

This is the second of a two-part post about my father, to mark the occasion of his 2nd yahrzeit, 30 Shevat (posted a bit late!). The first part was posted last week on what would have been his 75th birthday. Actually, my father passed away exactly halfway between his English and Hebrew birthdays - so symbolic of the way he devoted his life to both science and Torah in equal parts.

People have many selves, many faces that they show to the world - and some that, in Billy Joel's profound words, they hide away forever.

My father, as far back as I can remember, mostly showed me one face, played one primary role in my life - that of a teacher, an instructor, a mentor. To me, he was brilliant, fascinating, and inspiring - but also, sometimes, daunting, overwhelming, even frightening. Not infrequently, together with his instructive face came his impatient, angry one - an inseparable package deal.

Years later, as a parent myself, I can understand and forgive the impatience, the frustration, yes, even the anger and the verbal slings. As a child, how could I have known the burdens he carried, the tremendous pressure that he must have been under? Goodness knows, I lose it with my own kids sometimes - more frequently these days, God forgive me. I inherited some of my dad's challenging qualities along with - I hope - some of his good ones as well.

I think my dad was simply impatient of error, of weakness, in anyone... but most of all in himself. He worked six 18 hour days a week, and would typically stay awake 40+ hours straight during his frequent global travels. Passivity and down time were luxuries he would never allow himself. On those rare occasions when exhaustion or illness took that choice from him, he was unquestionably the worst patient I've ever seen.

I have a few vivid memories of my dad's control breaking down, his becoming very emotional, even crying. Every year, when leading the Yom Kippur service, he would sob while chanting the liturgical poem about the asara harugay malchus, the ten martyrs. Other such occasions, scattered through the years, still shine out like gems in my memory vault. Once or twice on Chanukah he began to cry while singing the last verse of maoz tzur - the one that talks about how much we still need salvation, even after all the past ones just recounted. At his UofM retirement event in 2002, while thanking his family for our role in enabling him to have the career he did. When he would read me a certain childhood story, one with a very sad ending and one I've been searching for ever since*.

During the winter of 2003-04, when my dad was struck down by cancer and then further damaged by the treatments meant to cure, his entire life changed in a matter of weeks. Suddenly, the precision of thought, the carefully chosen language, the near-perfect and unshakable focus were shattered. He could still speak, but his communication had become jumbled, disconnected, maddeningly random. The illness robbed him of that which always seemed to matter most to him, his matchless intellect.

But along with this devastating loss came an astounding, unexpected gain. Suddenly, the barriers gone, my father's long-suppressed passive feelings came to the forefront, literally pouring out of him like a flood. Within the confused, rambling verbiage that were all he could now muster, he expressed a gamut of vulnerable emotions - fear, love, sadness, regret. In between, he cried almost constantly, day and night. It was like God gave him this last chance to let loose all the feelings that had been aching for release though the long years of control, of logic, of focus.

My sharpest memory of that harrowing time occurred just a few days before the end. From his hospital bed, amidst a jumble of seemingly random words, my dad suddenly grabbed my hand and said, "It's so nice that you're here with me." With brief, pure lucidity, he was speaking not just for that moment but for a lifetime.

"I'm glad to be here too, dad" I told him, a lump suddenly rising to my throat.

It was the last real conversation we were to have. And, no less than all the wisdom and knowledge he had taught me over the years, I will value and cherish those last words for the rest of my life.

May my father's soul be intertwined in the bundle of life, and may he be a heavenly advocate for those he has left behind... and for one very special young man who has joined him in the next world.

*Footnote: After some creative "google-ing" I figured out the book that used to make my father sad. It's called Another Day and it's by Marie Hall Ets. The basic plot was about a child visiting a gathering of animals, each of which can do something unique that he can't do. Finally, the child laughs, and the animals realize that's what he can do that they can't. On the last page of the book the boy relates these events to his father and says, "The animals all wished they could laugh like me". The father replies, "So do I".

Now that I'm grown up myself, I understand his reaction so very well. Sigh.


At 3/1/06, 9:41 AM, Blogger Jack's Shack said...

This was beautiful.

At 3/1/06, 12:47 PM, Blogger Mirty said...

Wow. Elie. That is amazing.

I can't tell you all the parallels I see with my own Dad. Not to rob anything from your experience.

For the last 10 years or so, my Dad has been struggling with Parkinson's Disease. It's a terrible thing. But it has, actually, softened and changed him. He also was always a very precise and exact speaker. Now he can't find the correct nouns or remember names. That's a trial for him.

But the other change is something else: he now talks about how he feels. He is warmer. He expresses emotion easily, readily. He bonded with my step-kids effortlessly. The sort of prickly armor he always wore is gone. Because of the Parkinson's, his face is unable to show expression (my stepson described him as "the man who never smiles"), but he really reveals himself somehow.

This decade has been so difficult for him and my Mom, but it's been rewarding too. I'm fortunate he's been blessed with a long life. A light went out for him when your Dad died. He always saw Azriel as his best friend. (Did they ever talk about anything besides math and Torah? Anything personal? I have no idea.) Now, my Dad says he is the last of his crowd, his group of friends from childhood.

Maybe it says something about him that all his friendships were formed in childhood. As an adult, he did not make new friends. But he always treasured his old friends, and especially your father.

At 3/2/06, 2:02 PM, Blogger Elie said...

Mirty: Thanks so much for sharing your dad's story as well as his feelings about my dad. I'm sure it was their similarities that drew them together as friends in the beginning and kept them in touch ever after.

I think my dad made one new friend in Silver Spring - his chavrusa there for ~35 years. For most of that time, he's also been a relative of sorts, since his son married my mom's niece. My mom made the shidduch. (I was at that wedding, and now they're grandparents! Gee I feel old!)

Otherwise, in terms of my dad's friends it was also the few he kept up with since college: your dad and two others I can think of, one who died just a year before my dad and one who died young from MS.


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