March 22 thirty years ago was a cold day. Madison's blustery winds forced one to steel oneself against its insistent, beating heart: an extension of winter that, despite the bright sun that day, was typical.
I lost my thoughts in the middle of a favorite lecture; my right hand, ordinarily perched at attention with pen in place, drifted to the margins of my notebook. In an instant I knew that change had occurred. Someone had moved on.
After class I walked quickly home. I picked up a carton of milk at a local grocery. When I got to the door of my apartment, my roommates distraught eyes said it all. My uncle stood next to him, out of place by 70 miles or so.
"So Dad is gone," I concluded. And then I went to pack my bag. Like I was ready. I knew it was coming in exactly the way a fateful, pseudo-noirish twenty year old kid would. The smoking; the lack of exercise; the depression; the high blood pressure. His heart was a balloon waiting to burst. On March 22, 1983, it did.
Down the road to the southeast during that late morning hour when my mind left the classroom, my sister and her husband were trying to resuscitate Dad on the floor of his apartment. While my car moved down the highway home to mother, sisters and brother, word began to spread, seeping as it does like black ink on weedy shoreline rocks.
I've told this story before. Driving along I-94 in silence, my uncle's hands on the wheel. Me, staring out the window. "You know your Dad worked on jeeps and tanks during the War," he said.
"I know," I answered.
"And yet he never looked under the hood of his own car," said the uncle. Testing the statement as tall grass bent in the wind outside the passing cars, pulsed to spring by melting snow, I recalled changing the oil, the plugs, a fan belt, and draining the radiator with Dad. But just once each time. It's not like it was a regular thing. I took the metaphor at its meaning.
"Yeah," I said.
And as I look back at my life, now at fifty, thirty years removed from that day, 8 months after burying my mother, I think that on a certain level I'd actually like to actually stop looking under the hood of my own car, live my life with a bit less criticality, a moderately diminished obsession with searching for truth under every rock.
Would that it were. But it ain't gonna happen.
I was out in Milwaukee earlier this week. For a day. My sisters and I went to buy a gravestone for Mom, using the last bit of money left over from her modest estate. Medicaid and a Wisconsin health care trust narrowly escaped the ideological surgical knife of Governor Scott Walker so Mom (who worked as a wage earner until last December, half-way toward her 79th year while battling cancer and making ends meet) had saved enough to buy herself some peace of mind as she drifted toward death in the last month of her life at the wonderful Jewish Home in Milwaukee, surrounded by her children. Dad and Mom were real children of the Depression; Dad served in the Second World War and though Mom was just a kid, she too was shaped by those years, by patriotism, by the New Deal, and by the belief that if you work hard or are down on your luck, the government, as an agent of good, will support you.
My parents passed those values on to me. Living them out in the world keeps them alive. While moving back and forth across the skies between Queens and Lake Michigan, I facebooked and tweeted messages and called congressional offices about immigration reform and gun control. Tuesday on the Hebrew calendar was the 8th day of Nisan, Dad's yahrzeit. It was that day we also bought a stone for mom. In the phone calls advocating justice and in the words carved into granite, they live.
Here's the design we selected. It's printed on paper, sent to the carver who will chisel the message in to quarried Blue Granite from Vermont. We will lay it down in June, the eleventh month of saying Kaddish for her.
I told her about a dream I had when I was sitting shiva. Mom was gone less than a week. In this dream Dad had pulled into our driveway in his red Chevy convertible. He was there to pick up Mom for a date. It seemed that their divorce was in the distant past. Now both dead, they appeared ready to get on with their Forever Life, together. Mom looked beautiful. Dad kissed her cheek. And they drove away.
When I woke up I knew I had another day of shiva ahead of me but I was happy that my folks had found each other again.
"My dad visits me at the Kedusha," the congregant said. "All the angels assembled, singing God's praises; I feel my dad strongly there, and then sometimes I don't, and sometimes he just passes by."
These moments are real gifts, the best kind, the ones you don't expect.
Late yesterday afternoon I had a meeting on the Upper West Side and with a few minutes to spare I dipped into a bookstore to see if, serendipitously, there was a new book of poetry to buy. My eyes moved across the shelves and there was a new volume of poems by Philip Levine. On the cover, a Walker Evans photograph called, "Joe's Auto Graveyard." Sweet Will was first published in 1985, was out of print, and was recently brought back by the angels at Prairie Lights Books in Iowa City.
That year I went to Jerusalem, in search of "Father," then gone two years. I met the poet Yehuda Amichai, first on the pages in the Steimatzky Bookstore on Jaffa Road and then later in the year at Hebrew University where I introduced myself to him at a reading. In his 1986 book, שעת החסד/Hour of Grace, Amichai had a poem called "1924," written in dedication to himself about the year of his birth. Thrilled to see the number on the page, since that was the year my father was born, I asked him about the significance of the title. "Look," he said with a mild annoyance at my eager fandom, "If I'd have been born in 1933, I'd have called the poem, '1933.'
"But that's the year my mother was born!" I said, practically unhinged.
"So write your own poems," he said with a smile.
We all have to make sense of our own lives, our accumulations and our losses.
We gather like people in a bus station, Amichai wrote in the title poem of that book. We gather and slowly move apart. Fleeting moments to be near one another, to have the chance to build the world anew.
"But they disperse," he wrote. "The hour of grace has passed. It won't come again."
Cold air outside on Upper Broadway, Philip Levine's book in my hands, Walker Evans' captured headlights darkened, like shaded gravestones in a field of dry grass.
The last sequence of poems in Sweet Will is entitled "Jewish Graveyards." A copy of Mom's stone layout is folded neatly in my backpack, beside a waxy blue etching of Dad's, made by the salesman to approximate their styles to one another. And with this book in my hand, whose re-publication I knew nothing about, my heart thrills to the sound of the words I read aloud, with focus, savoring each shape as they pass from my mouth before this 'hour of grace' comes to an end.
"A truck gearing down to enter town,
an auto horn, perhaps the voices
of children leaving school, for it's
almost that time. A low wind
raises the hankie I've knotted
at the corners, and with one hand
I hold it and bend to the names
and say them as slowly as I can.
Full, majestic, vanished names
that fill my mouth and go out
into the densely yellowed air
of this great valley and dissolve
as even the sea dissolves beating
on a stone shore or as love does
when the beloved turns to stone
or dust or water. The old man
rocks and whistles by turns
into the long afternoon, and I
bow again to what I don't know."
What I don't know is what happens next.
Which may be the only opening we need for those moments of grace that, when stacked up, may even allow for the merit of hours, or days or years.