My Father: This Polaroid photo from the early 1970s shows my father, on the left, with his best friend and neighbour, Mr, Pakman. Both came from Poland and worked as carpenters. (For an excellent article on Poland, see here.)
Photo Credit: (c) Perry J. Greenbaum, circa 1970s
I do remember the important details of November 6, 1980. It was Thursday; it was after sunset; it was a grey overcast day. It was the day after my 23rd birthday. It was the day my father died of colon cancer (the same disease that would three decades later assault me without mercy); he was 69, two months short of entering his seventh decade. But this time would not be granted to him for reasons that I have yet to comprehend.
My mother was at the hospital, which was where she always was these last few weeks; I was home frying some chicken and potatoes for supper for my twin brother (fraternal); my older brother was out visiting a friend. The phone rang at approximately 5:45 p.m. For some reason, it startled me and I burned my hand with oil, leaving a scar that remained for years. I walked the short distance to the hallway where the black rotary phone was set up on a small mahogany desk my father had made years before. After I said “hello,” the person on the other end said, “You better come to the hospital, now. Your mother needs you.”
I dropped the spatula I was still holding in my hand; I hung up the phone on to the receiver. I then turned to my brother, and said, “We have to go to the hospital; Dad is dead.” His was wordless but what he felt was written on his face.
I can still recall an image of my father at work, swinging a hammer, effortlessly and efficiently driving nails into pine boards. I often helped my father during my summers off from school, an idea that my two boys would today find odd, perhaps quaint, even unfair, denying them of their free time to pursue their own interests. My father, the carpenter, trained as a cabinet-maker in Europe, worked hard and enjoyed life, defeating death on many occasions during the Second World War. Not this time, however. How can it be that at one moment there is standing before you a strong living human being; and in another moment months and years later, there is not? Philip Roth writes in Patrimony: A True Story (1991) about reconciling the impossible:
To unite into a single image the robust solidity of the man in the picture with that strickenness on the sofa was and was not an impossibility. Trying with all my mental strength to join the two fathers and make them one was a bewildering, even hellish job. And yet I suddenly did feel (or made myself feel) that I could perfectly well remember (or make myself think I remembered) the very moment when that picture had been taken, over half a century before. I could even believe (or make myself believe) that our lives only seemed to have filtered through time, that everything was actually happening simultaneously, that I was as much back in Bradley with him towering over me as here in Elizabeth with him all but broken at my feet. (231)When a person we love dies, we are left with only memories of him or her. It is undoubtedly true that a part of us dies with the death of a loved one. Death erases, and never adds.
I mechanically turned off the gas stove and took the frying pan full of food and placed it on the counter. I ignored the pain of my left hand. Both of us quickly and silently got dressed and hurried out the door. We made it to the hospital, which was about seven blocks away, in about ten minutes. We took the elevator up to the sixth floor, where we met our Mom, who was sitting on a chair outside my father’s room in the corridor; she was not her self. The nurse said she had been sedated; and she then showed us my father. My brother and I looked in and saw a man who resembled our father, but his body was cold to the touch and without life. And then while we were standing there, the nurse (an Asian) did something that I will never forget. She said, “Can you hurry up; we have to bring the body downstairs to the morgue.“ A heartless women had just spoken.
Not wanting to make waves, or insisting on our rights to be treated and viewed as human beings, we left soon after, my mother supported by us both. When we got home, it was around 7 p.m., and I first made arrangements with the funeral home to pick up my father's body from the hospital. I then started phoning family and friends. My older brother soon arrived, and we told him the news. Shortly, friends and neighbours came pouring into our modest three-bedroom home, bringing not only their sympathies but food. Lots of food. Particularly memorable was the many boxes of food brought in by the Workmen’s Circle or Arbeter Ring (אַרבעטער־רינג), the Jewish fraternal organization that my father had worked tirelessly for for decades. These men were part of the Chevra kadisha (חברא קדישא).
On Sunday November 9th the funeral took place. The funeral hall was packed with family, my Dad's friends, my mother's friends, my brother's friends, our neighbours and many others I did not personally know. There were hundreds present to pay respects to an unpretentious hard-working and caring man from Poland. Many spoke from the pulpit passionately about the man they knew, but whom I did not. My father had done many good things (mitzvot) for many people that he did not tell me about. In some ways I was not surprised; in many ways he was private, but had always told me “to be a mensch.” I say this without sentimentality or embellishment, but my father was “the mensch” he very much wanted us (me and my two brothers) to be.
I have met few like him, but this is understandable; after all is said and done, he is my father. Not everyone has the same relationship with his father that I did. Many move on easily and without any hint of regret. I miss him; I hang on to his memory. Confession: I am not sure what this says about me. But I do value life, more than anything else.
My father’s died, passed from my presence, on 28 Cheshvan 5741 in accordance with the Jewish calendar; thus, his Yahrzeit (“anniversary of death”) is on 28 Cheshvan. This corresponds, this year, to Friday November 21 in the civil calendar; the evening before, in accordance to tradition, I will light a memorial candle.