English, French, German, Polish, Yiddish, Hebrew: of these, my father acquired the first one last, and spoke it with Nabokovian fluency and panache.
He loved to talk—I mean that he found just putting sentences together tremendously fun, although he also cherished conversation—and he talked his way into, out of, and through everything, including illness. During the years of medical crises, I had seen my father racked and raving with fever. I had seen him in a dozen kinds of pain. I had seen him hallucinating—sometimes while fully aware of it, discussing with us not only the mystery of his visions but also the mystery of cognition.
I had seen him cast about in a mind temporarily compromised by illness and catch only strange, dark, pelagic creatures, unknown and fearsome to the rest of us. In all that time, under all those varied conditions, I had never known him to lack for words. But now, for five days, he held his silence. On the sixth, he lurched back into sound, but not into himself; there followed an awful night of struggle and agitation. Even so, for a while longer, he endured—I mean his him-ness, his Isaac-ness, that inexplicable, assertive bit of self in each of us.
Schulz, can you wiggle your toes? Schulz, can you squeeze my hand? Schulz, we learned, could still stick out his tongue. His last voluntary movement, which he retained almost until the end, was the ability to kiss my mother. Whenever she leaned in close to brush his lips, he puckered up and returned the same brief, adoring gesture that I had seen all my days. I had always regarded my family as close, so it was startling to realize how much closer we could get, how near we drew around his dying flame. The room we were in was a cube of white, lit up like the aisle of a grocery store, yet in my memory that night is as dark and vibrant as a Rembrandt painting.
We talked only of love; there was nothing else to say.
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My father, mute but alert, looked from one face to the next as we spoke, eyes shining with tears. I had always dreaded seeing him cry, and rarely did, but for once I was grateful. It told me what I needed to know: for what may have been the last time in his life, and perhaps the most important, he understood. All this makes dying sound meaningful and sweet—and it is true that, if you are lucky, there is a seam of sweetness and meaning to be found within it, a vein of silver in a dark cave a thousand feet underground.
Still, the cave is a cave. We had by then spent two vertiginous, elongated, atemporal weeks in the I. At no point during that time did we have a diagnosis, still less a prognosis. At every point, we were besieged with new possibilities, new tests, new doctors, new hopes, new fears. Every night, we arrived home exhausted, many hours past dark, and talked through what had happened, as if doing so might guide us through the following day.
Eventually, we decided that my father would not recover, and so, instead of continuing to try to stave off death, we unbarred the door and began to wait. To my surprise, I found it comforting to be with him during that time, to sit by his side and hold his hand and watch his chest rise and fall with a familiar little riffle of snore. It was not, as they say, unbearably sad; on the contrary, it was bearably sad—a tranquil, contemplative, lapping kind of sorrow. I thought, as it turns out mistakenly, that what I was doing during those days was making my peace with his death. And then, very early one morning, he was not.
She looked bereft, beautiful, unimaginably calm. He did not yet look dead.
He looked like my father. I could not stop picturing the way he used to push his glasses up onto his forehead to read. It struck me, right before everything else struck me much harder, that I should set them by his bed in case he needed them. So began my second, darker season of losing things.
Three weeks after my father died, so did another family member, of cancer.
One week later, Hillary Clinton, together with sixty-six million voters, lost the Presidential election. Like a dysfunctional form of love, which to some extent it is, grief has no boundaries; seldom this fall could I distinguish my distress over these later losses from my sadness about my father.
I had maintained my composure during his memorial service, even while delivering the eulogy. But when, at the second funeral, the son of the deceased stood up to speak, I wept. The morning after the election, I cried again, missing my refugee father, missing the future I had thought would unfold. In its place, other kinds of losses suddenly seemed imminent: of civil rights, personal safety, financial security, the foundational American values of respect for dissent and difference, the institutions and protections of democracy.
For weeks, I slogged on like this, through waves of actual and anticipatory grief. Meanwhile, I had lost, along with everything else, all motivation; day after day, I did as close as humanly possible to nothing. In part, this was because I dreaded getting farther away from the time when my father was still alive.
But it was also because, after all the obvious tasks of mourning were completed—the service over, the bureaucratic side of death dispatched, the clothing donated, the thank-you cards written—I had no idea what else to do. Although I had spent a decade worrying about losing my father, I had never once thought about what would come next. Like a heart, my imagination had always stopped at the moment of death.
I found some consolation in poetry, but otherwise, for the first time in my life, I did not care to read.
I stretched out for as long as I could the small acts that felt easy and right calling my mother and my sister, curling up with my partner, playing with the cats , but these alone could not occupy the days. Not since the age of eight, when I was still learning to master boredom, had life struck me so much as simply a problem of what to do. It was during this time that I began to go out looking for my father.
Some days, I merely said to myself that I wanted to get out of the house; other days, I set about searching for him as deliberately as one would go look for a missing glove. Because I find peace and clarity in nature, I did this searching outdoors, sometimes while walking, sometimes while out on a run.
I did not expect, of course, that along the way I would encounter my father again in his physical form.
go to link To the extent that I thought about it at all, I thought that through sheer motion I might be able to create a tunnel of emptiness, in myself or in the world, that would fill up with a sense of his presence—his voice, his humor, his warmth, the perfect familiarity of our relationship. This, too, turns out to be common among the grieving. These experiences, to be clear, do not comport with my understanding of death. The first time, I turned around after five minutes; I have seldom tried anything that felt so futile.
After he lost his wife, C. Lewis, who had likewise previously felt the dead to be near at hand, looked up at the night sky and, to his dismay, knew that he would never find her anywhere. Thus do I feel about my father. I try to sense some intimation of his presence and feel nothing. Grieving him is like holding one of those homemade tin-can telephones with no tin can on the other end of the string.
His absence is total; where there was him, there is nothing. And in fact, to my surprise, it was accurate. But that turns out not to be true.
It comes from an Old English word meaning to perish, which comes from a still more ancient word meaning to separate or cut apart. In the sixteenth century, we began to lose our minds; in the seventeenth century, our hearts. The circle of what we can lose, in other words, began with our own lives and one another and has been steadily expanding ever since.
In consequence, loss today is a supremely awkward category, bulging with everything from mittens to life savings to loved ones, forcing into relationship all kinds of wildly dissimilar experiences.