At this point I don’t remember what I have written about my father, now a skeleton up in northern Westchester County, and it is likely I’ve mentioned his great bon mot about his brother, my uncle, but here is a new take on it.
In the years before cellphones, (these days I often walk while talking on the phone) I almost always drew during phone calls. My father had stayed overnight with his brother and my aunt, who lived in Bethesda, Maryland, outside of Washington, DC, where my uncle worked for the government. I don’t remember why my father was there, or why my mother wasn’t with him. I spoke to him shortly after the visit and asked him how my uncle was doing. He paused to reflect for a second.
“Let’s just say … he remains unchanged,” he said diplomatically as I transcribed the wonderful bit of understatement on my drawing for posterity. He told me we could talk more about the visit when I was in Florida in a couple of weeks. We never did, but the point was made.
My uncle was a slightly built, seemingly jovial man with a corny sense of humor and a distinctive scraping laugh he let loose regularly. My mother was always unaccountably cool toward him, seemed to regard him as an annoying bantam rooster. It turns out she’d seen flashes of his violent temper early on and was disgusted by the overbearing little tyrant.
I’d had nothing but warm interactions with my uncle, until I was about 40, when I was suddenly confronted with his implacable temper and rigid, irrational demands. I can see now that he was fucking nuts, but for much of my life I always felt he was much more approachable and understanding than my father.
“Ask his son which one of us was more approachable and understanding,” said the skeleton of my father.
You’ll get no debate from me. I have to give it to you on this one, though of course, it’s not a very high bar. It’s certainly undeniable that the last night of your life you were very open to conversation, at least as far as setting forth your regrets, apologies and concerns.
“Well, I didn’t want to leave without setting all that out as clearly as I could,” he said.
That you did. One of your regrets was that you’d always seen the world in black and white, you sighed as you imagined how much richer your life, all of our lives, would have been had you been able to appreciate that beautiful array of gradations, all the colors and flavors of life.
“Well, you gild the lily there a bit, I wasn’t so florid in my description, but yeah, that’s essentially what I said.”
It hit me the other day when I thought of your great line about Uncle Paul, “let’s just say he remains unchanged”, that it was, at the same time, not only a characteristically personalized judgment on your brother but also an expression of your overall view of anyone’s ability to change. You always held that people cannot change in any fundamental way.
“I still hold that belief, pretty much,” said the skeleton.
Although you yourself have changed.
“Well, yeah, I’m a lot thinner than I used to be, if that’s what you mean,” said the skeleton, “and I’m not very active, though none of that was my doing.”
Come on. You were changed when you were full of regrets and apologizing that last night of your life.
“No, that’s not really a change of any kind. It’s a common occurrence when a man contemplates his life helplessly from his deathbed, Death hovering nearby, looming over him, those kind of thoughts, you know, it happens a lot,” said the skeleton.
My mother denied she was dying of the cancer that devoured her until she went into a coma.
“Well, there you go, different strokes for different folks. She had less to regret and apologize for than I did,” said the skeleton glibly.
Glibness is its own reward, pops.
“Well, look, in our case, you and I had a lifelong battle and I couldn’t yield any points to you, ever. It’s just the way it was. You may have changed, I suppose you did when you stood by my bed at the end of my life. I would have expected at least a little anger from you, was relieved to feel none,” the skeleton turned his head, surveying the small cemetery with sightless eyes.
Anger was pointless at that point, dad. You know, to another way of thinking, the anger between us is what your insane mother always referred to as Seenas Cheenam, senseless enmity.
“Well, a case could be made that it was that,” he said. Thoughts of my father’s long, terrible childhood ordeal flashed before both of us, under the turns of two turkey vultures, wings outstretched, lazily riding the thermals.
“Look, Elie, you recall that your mother told us both that she saw the change in you, how much better you became at reining in your anger. I refused to see it. You remember when you told me….”
That you yourself were living proof of our ability to change ourselves. Yeah, and you certainly won that point, though it cost you pretty dearly.
“I’m not proud of that moment,” said the skeleton. “But, again, I saw the war between us as a zero sum, black and white game, one of us had to win unconditionally and the other had to lose. It was an asshole’s view of things, granted, but it was as far as I’d been able to come in 78 years.”
You remember that Yom Kippur about ten years earlier, when I’d told you I’d no longer tolerate hostility thinly disguised as paternal advice?
“Yeah, link to the fucking piece you wrote about it, spare us all here and now,” said the skeleton.
Done. So, during our last major argument over whether angry people can learn to be less angry, learn to breathe, to honestly discuss things instead of debating from obdurate positions, I pointed out that you had kept your word not to discharge hostility in the guise of fatherly advice. Tell everybody what you said, dad, during that last real conversation between then and two or three years later, on your deathbed, when I pointed out how well you’d refrained from that behavior for the decade since.
“You’re still fighting me, Elie,” said the skeleton.
I am fighting the bullying impulse, wherever I encounter it, the insistence on forcing people to swallow their legitimate feelings, to submit to intolerable conditions, to stuff whatever reasonable grievances they might have.
“Fair enough, when you put it like that, ” said the skeleton.
“I never really thought there was any possibility that I could change anything about my life and I extrapolated from that on to everyone else. I was desperate when I dismissed my own change in my superficial actions toward you.”
My point at that moment was that changing the superficial actions had been a step toward improving our relationship, even if only a small first step.
“Had it really been a step toward improving our relationship, Elie? Seriously? In light of everything else?”
No, not at all, not in light of what you said next, go ahead, say it.
“I told you it was merely an act, hiding the hostility, like the insincere, transactional act I did with Roy, who I fucking despised, and that ‘if I ever told you how I really feel about you it would do such irreparable harm that we could never have any kind of relationship.'”
The People rest.
“Like I said, I’m not proud of it. I was about to lose, Elie, that’s how I saw it, my back was to the wall, I had nothing but the nuclear option at that moment. The only way not to lose was to blow the whole fucking thing up. You want to say love wins, you merciless fuck, how about I tell you that I treat your love exactly the same way I treat the love of another bastard who I openly despise?”
“Nice work, if you can get it,” said the skeleton dispassionately.