The lesson of my father’s life

The painful regrets and too late apologies my father recited the night before he died dramatically illuminated mistakes to try to avoid in my own life.    My father had a quick wit, was sensitive, well-read, thoughtful, well-spoken.    He also saw the world as black and white, a zero-sum game that had only winners and losers.

“That’s not really how it is, Elie,” he told me in that weak dead man’s voice the last night of his life.  “I wish I’d been able to see the many gradations and colors of the world,  I think now how much richer my life would have been…”

As he was leaving the world he regretted his maniacal focus on being a “winner”, a silly abstraction in a game that everyone, in the end, must lose by giving up life, consciousness, all possessions.  Being a winner to my father meant never tolerating disrespect, and, more precisely, never losing an argument.   He was a strong, confident debater, even if he reflexively exerted this well-exercised power on his young children.   He deeply regretted this lifelong mistake and the merciless burdens it placed on his children, expressing his sorrow in a weak voice about sixteen hours before he breathed his last breath.

He came by his obsession with winning honestly, early in his life, but I think the word ‘winning’ is more properly rendered ‘surviving’ or ‘maintaining integrity’.   He’d been born in desperate poverty, raised by a cruel, violent, religious mother and a father of few words whose main concern was not getting beaten any more.   My father told me that he and his little brother were earmarked as classic losers, the sons of a brain damaged man, from day one.  Their future was decided by their uncle and his brilliant son and daughter — the Widem boys would go to trade school, learn to work sheet metal.   They were fit for nothing higher, in the opinion of the people in charge of the family.    Both made it to college, graduate school and the middle class, in spite of the odds against them.

 The fear and the indignities of their childhood never left them.  It didn’t help, of course, that all but a couple of their many aunts and uncles were slaughtered in a Belarusian hamlet that was wiped off the world map forever.  

“Elie, not to be a prick or anything,” said the skeleton of my father from his grave in Cortlandt, New York, “but didn’t you recently write over a thousand pages about my life already?   Presumably there were lessons in there too, I mean, in a sense, wasn’t that why you started the process in the first place?”    

Yes, of course.   My focus today is a little different, though.    

“Not seeing the sad parallels between my essentially solitary life and your own?   Locked in an endless battle to be conclusively right, in spite of your dedication to non-harm, or what did that little Indian guy who slept naked with his naked teenaged nieces to show he could overcome lust call it– ahimsa.   You know, you can be absolutely right and at the same time blind to the effect your insistence on being right has on others.”    

Jesus, dad, you’re reading my mind.   What I’m thinking about glancing from the computer screen to the window out into the grey afternoon, are the choices we make, how we use our time.   Not everyone is wired to think deeply on the things that vex them.    

“Well, I had a large part in wiring your brain that way, providing endless vexations for a small boy with a curious, nimble mind to brood upon.   Your imagination is a blessing and a curse.   Imagine less, sometimes you’re better off.   Look, clearly, you’re imagining these words of mine now, I am now but a long-time skeleton, a literary conceit, and maybe, at this point, also a tired one.   A rubber crutch, if you will.”

Funny as a rubber crutch, the jokes that killed vaudeville… 

“Yeah, listen, Elie, you write everyday but nobody is all that interested until a book or an article comes out of it.  Nobody you know is capable of being interested in that ton of verbiage you produce, even if most of it is well-written, even if some of it is genuinely insightful.    As that alcoholic dispatcher at Prometheus used to sympathetically tell you all the time, whenever you complained —  ‘nobody cares, nobody cares.’  

“A writer writes not for the handful of readers he or she knows, they write for people they don’t know, and they get paid to do it.  You grasp this, and yet, you are constantly disappointed that nobody you know gives a shit.  Nobody you know gives a shit, only you can care about this uncontrollably prolific output.   Trust me on this.  Get some of your writing in print and they will be very happy to be happy for you, even read it.  Were they not all happy for you when you got a few words published and paid for?”

Yes, they were unanimously happy for me, every one of them.    They read each of those hamfistedly edited thousand word pieces, loved ’em.

“I know what sent you to the keyboard to write this today.   You’re wrestling with a need to be right that suddenly seems to you uncannily like my need to be right, a need you correctly condemn as primitive and conflict-producing.   The need to be right is deeply human, it’s also at the root of most human conflict.   Most people when they begin fighting with an old friend, have the same fight a few times, conclude the other person is not worth fighting with and walk away.   The person who keeps fighting is an unreasonable jerk, not a friend.  Done.  

“You don’t do this, though, do you?   You’re always looking for some kind of deeper principle about the way friends should treat each other, why this person is not a friend but a deluded, clueless antagonist.   You write thousands of words about it, like you’re insane.  You think you are working out some dark puzzle about human nature, but, seriously, Elie, what the fuck?”

That is what I am wrestling with, all of the above.   If we are to live principled lives, isn’t it necessary to clearly understand the principles we live by?

“That depends on how many angels are dancing on the head of a particular metaphysical pin.  Yes, you’ve come to the same conclusions about particular people that I did when I was alive.   We disagreed about my need to condemn and walk away from them, and years later you came to the same conclusion I did.  So what?   Why should this concern you?   The old lady who constantly lied, taught her daughter to lie, who in turn taught her son and insane daughter to lie— where is the mystery in any of that?  The woman who did not know how to not fight kept irrationally fighting with you?   Quelle surprise, monsieur!   as we used to say in Peekskill.  What is this sudden torment today?”

I want to nail the lids on the coffins of a trio of glowering vampires.  

“God bless you, then, son, that’s what you do with vampire coffins.   Why even agonize a second about taking a stake to the undead?   Take a hammer, or a rock, and nail that shit closed, bang! done, next case!    Lights, camera, action!  Enough with the Hamlet routine– be done.”

The chill that is making the trees outside this window tremble creeps into this room.  The fading light outside a premonition, touching me lightly with Isaac Babel’s cold, dead fingers.    The imperative keeps goading me — to find a resting place for my thoughts.

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