26 November 2010
Today I get a text from my sister, who's heading back to Chicago from Thanksgiving. "Where's Dad's plot, exactly?" Something to that effect. By the time I reached her on the phone, she was standing over his grave. "Send me a picture," I asked. And there you have it.
Fall is the most meaningful time of year--seems a perfect place created for the transitions that come with it. The brighter light, the cooler air, the leaves on the ground--evoke for me a conceptual inner landscape of clear neutral composition, a template upon which one projects one's own soul. It's spareness provides room to experience, interpret and grow, albeit alone, an essential qualification for one's emotional, spiritual and intellectual development. No wonder the Tradition chooses the New Year and Yom Kippur to challenge us at this time of year. In my secular soul, fall was also the loss of the baseball season; the loss of summer's redolence; the loss of trees' shade; the sacks and tackles and stitches brought on by football games in the yard; the decreased capacity for driveway basketball games to last, players driven inside by high winds, rain, and frozen hands. Dad died in the spring but I started to say good-bye in the fall, when it seemed pretty clear to those of us watching him closely that he had simply decided to let go. Winter that year was like the peculiar act of a play in which the actors remain on stage but behind the curtain. Through muffled velvet curtains their lines are barely heard. And then all of a sudden, at fall's mirror-image, spring, the curtain rises and voila! Finis.
During every season after my grandfather died, I'd ride with my dad out to the cemetery to visit his grandparents and father's grave; and then five years later, his mother's as well. But during those last few years, dad started to let go. His sense of place in history and his own family narrative eroded. What was once an obligatory relationship to the inheritance dissipated; and I was conscious of my own rightful place as one of its new keepers. Axiomatically speaking, it meant that he was on his way out and I would have the responsibility of replacing him; but I knew that he had been in that position with his dad as well, so it seemed natural, if not fated, to be so.
He had given me this truth. And I agreed to receive it.
"Behold a good doctrine has been given you, my Teaching, do not forsake it." One ordinarily hears this verse uttered in the synagogue each time the Torah is returned to the Ark but the author of Proverbs composes this line in the context of a father passing on wisdom to a son. During the first years of my parents divorce, on the nights I'd stay at Dad's, we'd sit up late pouring over his photographs--pictures from growing up with an immigrant mother and grandparents; pictures in the Service; back on campus courtesy of the GI Bill, and at an early career and marriage. Stories were attached to each one and during those moments when it seemed one part of my childhood was shattered, a new life was being built up within--the moral life, the historical life, the life responsible for remembering. The temporariness of it all was transcended by a timeless endeavor that told greater truths for those willing to receive them, and guard them, and protect them.
"Above all that thy guardest--keep thy heart. For out of it are the issues of life." Dad's heart is what gave way in the winter of 1983, a cardiac failing that began, no doubt, as leaves started to fall a few months before. A life-long smoker, long having given-up on exercise, and with little interest in a proper diet or meaningful stress-reduction, he hardly "kept his heart." At least the physical one. But his heart of hearts--that subtle, loving place of self and family; of time and generations; of humor and the meaning of life--that beats on.
I heard it when speaking to my sister today, who found her way to dad's spot, on a hill's gentle incline. There she stood, aiming her camera at my request and sending the picture along. She stood there in real time; and I, through the screen of my phone while traveling on a train between Baltimore and New York City, was present as well. Both of us looking into our destiny as his children.
"Let thine eyes look right on, and let thine eyelids look straight before thee."
They say perfect eyesight is 20-20. Maybe it ought to be 20-20-20: for parents, children, and those who will come after, seeing backward and forward into eternity.