Gilda Radner’s 65th birthday was a few days ago. She was born the same year as my late wife Lilian. Both had terrific senses of humor and both were taken from us way too soon. As Gilda wrote in her autobiography: “It is so hard for us little human beings to accept this deal that we get. It’s really crazy, isn’t it? We get to live, then we have to die. What we put into every moment is all we have… What spirit human beings have! It is a pretty cheesy deal – all the pleasures of life, and then death.”
In these warm and almost indolent days of early summer when everything is lush green and in bloom, I’m somehow conscious of the melancholy of loss. Something about all the rich life forms remind me that fall will eventually come when the plants will die and we will return to the barrenness of winter. Although thoughts of death don’t preoccupy me, as one grows older the idea of one’s own demise sometimes comes a tapping. I know, for sure, that given the choice, I want to die in the depths of winter, far from the early twinges of spring.
In dwelling on Lilian, whose anniversary is later this summer, I think what good fortune it was to have shared even a few years with this marvelous woman. And how devastating it was to see her slip away. I have been blessed twice in my life with special women I have walked hand in hand with. Today, I share a beautiful life with my wife and partner Jody. We often smile when I remind both of us how much we are indebted to Lilian who scrubbed so many barnacles off my keel.
Such thoughts have led me back to another place to reflect on who I am and how I got here with such rich memories. Another major player in my own personal drama is my father. Certainly not in any way close to that of Lilian or Jody, but significant in different ways.
Lilian and my father have both been gone now many years, but they always seem to be with me in some form, since they were so important in who I am today.
What especially intrigues me now is making sense of my lost opportunities to ask better questions, to learn more at those moments when these people might have opened up and talked freely. So many pains and fears they kept to themselves at the end, either unable or unwilling to share or burden me with. I had my own grief to come and was just not able to think of the right questions. At other times, I was too angry or just too young to form my words. Now I have so many questions and they are gone.
In the words of the late Jim Corder, the acclaimed rhetoric scholar and teacher of writing:
“Perhaps we’re all tugged a little by nostalgia, troubled by persistent failures of memory, disturbed between competing values, and exasperated by the wrong lessons we learned and the right lessons we missed.” (Yonder, Life on The Far Side of Change).
“I’m looking for my memory, not for whoever, whatever was. But that doesn’t mean that there is no reason to look, for I am there, too, and the others are, and the places are, and there are always reasons to look, to get situated to see. We ached for home even if it never was; we always know better and don’t, and love people or places or times or things–or don’t love them–even if they never were, even if they were.” (Ibid)
My dad was a difficult man, born before WWI in the hill country of southern Ohio east of Cincinnati on a hardscrabble tobacco farm that never brought in much money and ruined the soil. Years later when he and his family moved to a more fertile farm on flatter and more inviting land, lightning slashed the barn in two at the end of the growing season, setting all their crops and livestock on fire. The Great Depression and WWII then took their turns twisting and shaping this rough diamond into the man who would become my father.
Some eight years after he died, Lilian who came from a world so different from his, also passed into the Great Mystery following her ordeal with cancer.
Good old Brooks was not able to take advantage of much formal education as a boy and was always a bit suspicious of “book-learned” people. He was a man of many contradictions, though, and he and my mother made sure that my sisters and I valued education and went to university. Despite his educational inferiority complexes, he pulled himself up by his proverbial bootstraps and became a stationary boiler engineer after many years of night school and mentoring.
In a totally different world, one that my father would have found thoroughly alien, Lilian came from a middle class Jewish family in Bucharest, capital of Romania. She was born just after WWII in the harsh reality of a new communist state. When her family was finally able to immigrate in the early 1960s to Israel when she was a teenager, they could only leave with a few belongings and little else of value. Her parents and she were just part of the commerce Nicolae Ceausescu used to extort money in exchange for human beings, especially Jews who were a commodity to this dictator, who was to meet his bloody end years later as communism fell throughout the old Soviet empire.
In the brief but filled 46 years of her life, she grew up and spent her formative years in Tel Aviv, where she first tended oranges and grapes on a kibbutz and later served as a nurse in the Israeli Defense Force just prior to the 6-Day War. She later earned her liberal arts degree in modern languages from Tel Aviv University.
As I grapple to understand my memories of these two very different people who are still deep within me, I am tossed about, rejoicing in some of the things I remember and regretting others. All these years later, I have come to grips with my father, who was not an easy man. And I have found peace with Lilian, finally accepting that there was nothing I could have done to have saved her.
“…each of us creates the narrative that he or she is. We tell our lives and live our tales, enjoying where we can, tolerating what we must, turning away to re-tell, or sinking into madness and disorder if we cannot make (or re-make) our tale into a narrative we can live in.” (Jim Corder, “Argument as Emergence, Rhetoric as Love”).
So much of my life these past 20 years has been a meditation on the connectedness of history and the possibilities of recovering and understanding the past.
Brooks never met nor knew of Lilian. Just as well, I suppose, since there could never have been any two more different people. He was the last and undoubtedly unplanned child of parents who had little joy in their lives (last lad on the left). Despite his love of his backwoods home in the “holler” where he was born and his fierce resentment of “hillbilly” slurs, he knew that if he were to improve his lot in life he had to escape the woods and make his way to industrial Columbus where the work was.
But his heart was never far from the country. He would alway take me with him, especially to funerals, which he never missed. As a young boy, I had no idea who the people were or why I was there, only that it was such a different world from the one of my boyhood friends who would all rather be out playing pickup baseball on a local lot. Years later when I read much of Faulkner, I recognized the people of Yoknapatawpha County. I can still see to this day, probably 60 years ago, driving up a dry creek bed to a funeral. It was right out of As I Lay Dying.
Lilian, on the other hand, was an urbane young woman comfortable in the cosmopolitan world of big cities. After her schooling, she moved on to enjoy a meaningful career as a translator for the U.S. Government in Vienna, Austria, where we met before relocating to Washington, DC.
At the time of her death, she was working on a series of long Moldovan newspaper articles that were appearing daily in that country’s press as civil unrest spread in the former Soviet republic that borders Romania. Moldovan was a relatively recent addition to her stable of working languages. Downplaying her skills, she often joked that it was just archaic Romanian with a Russian accent. Interestingly enough, she could read the Cyrillic alphabet but retained little working knowledge of the Russian she had been forced to learn from grade school on. Her mother tongue–Romanian–proved to be her entree into her career. With the U.S. Government, it kept her busy for many years following the political events in the repressive regime that ended during the Christmas holidays of 1989 when Ceausescu and his wife were executed. She was also professionally employed as a Hebrew translator and worked in Tel Aviv for an extended period in 1982 during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. During Operation Desert Storm, she was called upon to translate French newspaper editorials on the Gulf War. And finally in the year that her cancer returned she extended her translating skills and was working on a contract basis with the International Monetary Fund’s Bureau of Language Services.
Brooks, in contrast, had an especially narrow view of the world and often found comfort in looking for scapegoats to explain history or politics or any slights he might have suffered or imagined. He saw nothing unusual with Archie Bunker’s character and would scratch his head when told that Archie was a model bigot. But he wasn’t alone. My dad was the picture of so many white males of the 1950s.
These are my memories, at least, now clouded over by the years. And I ask myself again “about the connectedness of history and the possibility of recovering and understanding the past.” There’s a certain messiness to a personal history of this kind, where a stream of emotions have colored my memories.
I sat in his hospital room the night before he died. He was tethered to many tubes and was already gone, except for the forced breathing. I talked to him throughout the night, asking why, why, why he had chosen to be the way he was. Of course, he probably had not “chosen” his lifestyle any more than he had chosen which air molecules to breathe. The questions were for me, really, and the silence continues to this day in hearing any answers.
The four or five days Lilian was in hospital before she passed were so very difficult. When she finally slipped into her coma, it was too late to know her inner thoughts. But how much I would have given to have removed this mask of mystery, this madness whose wings beat such a cold wind in my face.
When friends told told me that Lilian had confessed to them that she knew she was going to die soon, I searched for some explanation why she could not have shared these last thoughts with me, too. But I know that she sensed that I could not deal with her death. I feel now that she knew she could offer me no solace at this time. Her pain was too great to have to carry mine, too. And she was so very tired. She probably contented herself with the simple thought that I would understand.
Eating Together by Kim Addonizio
I know my friend is going,
though she still sits there
across from me in the restaurant,
and leans over the table to dip
her bread in the oil on my plate; I know
how thick her hair used to be,
and what it takes for her to discard
her man’s cap partway through our meal,
to look straight at the young waiter
and smile when he asks
how we are liking it. She eats
as though starving—chicken, dolmata,
the buttery flakes of filo—
and what’s killing her
eats, too. I watch her lift
a glistening black olive and peel
the meat from the pit, watch
her fine long fingers, and her face,
puffy from medication. She lowers
her eyes to the food, pretending
not to know what I know. She’s going.
And we go on eating.
Alone with my father at the end, I failed to even kiss him goodbye. I just couldn’t do it. When Lilian passed, I touched her lifeless form for the last time. And I thought of Rabbi Sol Landau, himself now long gone, who had also loved her dearly when we lived in Key West in the late 1980s. It was he who had helped her later in the dark days of early 1989 when she was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. In reading the Book of Job in Hebrew–and “correcting” the accompanying English translation–she worked her way through the question of “Why Me” and proceeded to dedicate herself to helping others. As this deadly disease ravaged so many lives, she quietly worked with a number of others to help them better cope with their situation.
The Hebrew word “mitzvah,” which is a charitable act, thus took on a living meaning to her. She asked that we honor her last wish to be an organ donor. I am sure she is greatly pleased to know that two people who once were partially blind can now see thanks to the gift of her cornea. There is comfort in her ultimate mitzvah of not just giving of herself but actually giving herself to benefit others.
Retaining her sense of humor to the end, she asked to be buried in Montreal for several reasons. First, she had developed a keener sense of family, and her uncle and most of her aunts and cousins live in that beautiful city. Secondly, she said she wanted her husband and daughter to pay a proper pilgrimage to see her rather than just pop in occasionally at a more convenient local cemetery. Thirdly, she recognized that Montreal was a European city and after all she was at heart a European. And finally, to all who knew and loved her and would have enjoyed her reasoning, it added to her mystery.
I think of Brooks now as my great teacher by negative example. I know he tried in his own way to be a good person and father, but perhaps he simply did not know how. He came from another time and world, one harsher and uncompromisingly patriarchal where there was little room for give and take. But as Lilian would have reminded me as she quoted Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, the great lady who helped us all understand the five stages of grief: “We are all the victims of victims.” I don’t really know his childhood world, what his parents were like, or his troubles during the Depression and WWII. I know general stories, but they’re not detailed enough for me, especially now. I wish for the sake of my selfish side for answers, but again I have no one to ask. No one, perhaps, but myself. But as I said earlier I have come to grips with this man who no longer haunts me. Or maybe doesn’t haunt me like he used to.
And finally to try to understand the mystery of why Lilian, this young, talented, and good woman of accomplishment, was taken at such a time. As she would have said, it’s just another part of the encoded meaning of life and death that hovers out of reach. In coping with her illness, she turned away from the darkness of despair and reached for the light of understanding and service to others. In so doing, she helped a legion of others whose lives were also blessed. To quote Viktor Frankl, one of her favorite writers and a concentration camp survivor:
“As each situation in life represents a challenge to man and presents a problem for him to solve, the question
of the meaning of life may actually be reversed. Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but
rather must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life, and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life, he can only respond by being responsible.”
— May Her Soul Be Forever Bound Up In The Eternal Bonds Of Life —