True understanding rarely arrives as anything whole. The most profound of it comes to us most often in glimmers and in shards, flickers and fragments, information that swirls around, perhaps chaotic, until one day we know something that we didn’t know before.
I saw a picture of my father recently, ran into it among old photographs during a recent move. I’m still startled by unexpected images of him, though he died more than twelve years ago. The primitive fear that photographs may steal our souls has this flip-side in experience for me; at the sight of a photograph of my father, I feel the presence of his soul. I feel him flash through me. And then I feel, again, the dizziness of loss. And only then am I steadied to see him. Him. His face.
He looks happy in this picture, leaning up against a window of his old office. Images of my father smiling are ones to which I have a particular response, something like gratitude. See! He could be happy. Here is some evidence of ease and of joy. Despite it all. Despite all the undeniable sadness and all of the fears, there were undoubtedly also these moments of delight.
In the summer of 2002, just more than a year after my father’s death, my husband and I were dining with a close friend, at his seaside home. A congenial trio, we were all the more so that night with the help of a generous supply of alcohol. The grilled steaks were excellent. A fire blazed in the fireplace, and music we could all agree on – Jimmy Buffet singing ballads, to match our seaside locale – hovered in the air.
I don’t remember why or how talk turned that night to the subject of religion, though it’s a topic that emerges easily enough from me. I have always clung fiercely to my identity as a Half-Southern Methodist/Half-Jew, exercising my prerogative as a self-proclaimed mutt to jettison neither side but maintain instead an idiosyncratic and inherently paradoxical duality of religion inside myself. Fifty-one years old now, I have, for the most part, given up trying to persuade anyone that this is no more or less rational than any other religious identity. I have, for the most part, given up. But as I say the topic arises easily enough and there remains a certain defensiveness in me around my right to maintain a sense of Christianity inside myself.
My husband is Jewish, as is my former husband, the father to my two eldest children. For many reasons, not the least of which can be summed up in the phrase critical mass, all three of my children have been “raised Jewish,” meaning they attended religious school, they have become Bar and Bat Mitvot.
We were all a little tipsy at that beachside dinner when the subject of my father’s Christianity arose. Tipsy enough for me to use the word Jewthodist to describe myself and think it very witty, and tipsy enough for our dinner companion, a Jew, to express incredulity at the idea that my father, a man of intellect and in many contexts good sense, well-known for being a logical thinker, believed that Jesus Christ was the son of God. Literally. The actual son. And, perhaps most impressively, tipsy enough for my husband to look amused, rather than terrified as this all too delicate discussion took place.
“Impossible,” this friend declared of my father’s Christian faith. “He can’t actually have thought that God and Mary had a child.”
“But he did.”
“I don’t believe it.” Our friend shook his head, as he poured more wine into my glass. “He was too intelligent. It’s incomprehensible.”
“Okay.” I leaned forward, a little heavily from drink. “Here’s what I don’t understand. I don’t understand why once you accept the existence of an all powerful immortal being, of God, why it’s any more irrational to think he chose to procreate. Or, for that matter, play golf. The leap, I would think, is between thinking there is a God and not. Not between thinking that there is a God and then thinking he would or wouldn’t do this or that. After you accept the existence of God, the rest seems like details to me.”
To which my friend replied, “You’re absolutely right. I no longer believe in God.”
Later, in the remorseful after-glow, my husband assured me that my brilliant, drunken rhetoric hadn’t actually robbed a true believer of many decades worth of comforting faith.
“I think he was yanking your chain,” he said.
And of course he was right.
So the puzzle that remains for me from this exchange has little if anything to do with my drinking buddy’s religious beliefs. The puzzle for me still is why I placed the words “comforting” and “faith” together in a clause, as though it were obvious that they should be linked.
A puzzle, because, as my father’s daughter, I had good reason to know better than that.
The fact that my father was a devout Christian was hardly a secret, though he never attended church with any regularity. Nor did he pray at meals or wear a cross around his neck or in any other way wear his religion on his sleeve. But still I knew, while growing up, that he believed. Occasionally, he said so outright. He was prone to declarations of position on matters that mattered to him, and religion was no exception. And there were other signs, unmistakable, and in some cases indisputably odd.
When I was ten, my pet guinea pig died. My father, sparing me the grisly aspects of this death as he could not later do with his own, wrapped the tiny body in a handkerchief and drove it to a garbage can outside the nearby United Methodist Church to deposit it there. Standing over the garbage can, he recited a prayer he had composed on a 3×5 index card: Dear Lord, Snowball was a sweet, good guinea pig. If there is a guinea pig heaven, I hope and pray you will find a place for her there. Then he slid this card and a note recounting what he had done under my bedroom door.
The story takes a short detour into comedy here, because for reasons of delicacy my father eschewed the phrase “garbage can” and replaced it with the word “receptacle” the result being that with the willingness of a child to think anything possible, I believed for a time that he had put Snowball’s rigid rodent corpse in the Goodwill collection box outside the church, and until my mother set me straight, this miscommunication misdirected my understanding of the event and I thought, quite simply, that Dad had done something far too weird to be remotely comforting to me or anyone. But once we cleared up the meaning of the word receptacle, I was struck by the reality of the faith that had driven him to do what he did.
He never made any attempt to transmit his belief to my generation. Couples who are of mixed religions can take any of many different paths. My parents chose to incorporate the celebrations of Judaism and Christianity into our home, but not the beliefs. There was no proselytizing from either side – only presents and food: at Christmas, at Passover, at Easter, at Hanukah. Candy canes, matzo balls, chocolate bunnies and chocolate monies, too. But no articles of faith.
Far more conspicuous than my father’s religious conviction, was his unhappiness. In my eulogy of him, I described him as “melancholic by nature” and as the word melancholic has a purposefully archaic feel to it, so too do other words that might describe his emotional state. Haunted. Tortured. Tormented. Woven into my earliest memories is the sight of my father, day after day, sitting in our kitchen, an enormous cup of tea steaming by his side, a pipe hanging from his mouth, his head drooped heavy into his hand, looking up to meet my gaze as I approached, rolling his eyes in all too clear pain. Shaken, obviously, by what night had once again delivered unto him.
“I’ve never had a good night’s sleep in my life. I have nightmares, Baby. . .” He would tremble a little, shudder at the memories. “Nightmares so terrible, I won’t tell you what they are.”
And indeed, he never did, but even so, these nightmares of my father’s haunted me. Often, as I lay in my bed, I would hear him rattling in our attic, moving from one room of his office suite to another, unable to sleep. Or unwilling to. Resisting the nightly descent into the horror of his own unconscious being. And I would find my own thoughts drift with the elastic envisioning of a child’s sleepy mind into imagining what realm could be so terrifying as to linger over him, diminishing his enjoyment of every following day.
“I’ve spent every night of my life trying to forgive my parents,” he used to say.
At what point did I ask him “forgive them for what?” I’m not sure I ever did, but the story emerged through the years.
“They beat me, baby. They whooped me till I shook.”
There was a tree in the yard, he said, and he had been required to select the branches that they used. “It had to be a good one, too. You couldn’t try to cheat.” There had been alcohol involved, lots and lots of alcohol, and beatings that blended into other beatings until few stood out, distinct. There had been one, though, one so devastating that my father recounted his own father regretting it decades later, as he himself neared death. “We went too far that time. That time it was too much,” my father heard his own father say. “That one time we went too far.”
Comfort. I believe my father took some comfort from that exchange.
But where my father failed to find comfort, was in his faith.
Hell became a practical problem for our family when we suggested to him, dying then, that he might want to sign a Do Not Resuscitate order, a DNR. He was eighty-four years old and riddled with so many illnesses that when I asked my mother, “Is there anything Dad doesn’t have?” her answer was, “Only teeth.”
The disease that got him in the end was a rare form of skin cancer that itself carried a whiff of myth to it, a cautionary tale about the futility of outrunning one’s own history. Ancient mistakes, unknown as such at the time, can lurk, later to emerge from our own narratives, fatal finally. The cancer appeared as he passed eighty, first on his nose, barely noticeable. But those small patches grew, devouring his skin, ultimately causing the disintegration of that feature, and indeed much of his face, working its way through him like a singularly malicious curse – though the true origin was x-ray treatments he had received for acne, given in the late 1920’s or early 30’s.
My father’s reaction to the suggestion of a DNR was simple and shocking all at once. He wanted to talk to a Catholic priest. He wanted to know if signing would be tantamount to suicide and would result in his being damned to Hell. He wasn’t a Catholic – he had always balked at the doctrine of Papal infallibility – but he wanted the strictest possible reading of the rules, and he wasn’t taking any chances with the Methodists.
The priest who appeared assured him that even the Catholics have no problems with DNR’s, and the document was signed. So that was the end of that. Except of course that it wasn’t the end for me – because of what I’d learned.
Hell is a metaphor to me. It is the act of imagining unimaginable pain. It is paintings I have seen, words that I have read. It is the idea of something being as bad as one can imagine; and then worse than that. It is a rhetorical device, a challenge to the imagination, a fear tactic; and not a real place. Hell does not exist for me.
But it did exist for my father. That was what I learned. Hell was an all too real possibility, drawing ever closer in the months before his death.
It comes back again to the question of why somebody else’s religious beliefs can seem unbelievable. As the priest came and left, and my father’s nurse witnessed the mark that he made on the page, it was unbelievable to me that my father was worried – as one worries about some practical issue like running out of gas or whether the milk is fresh – about eternal damnation.
During those final months, the Fall of 2000, early 2001, my father hovered between lucidity and delusion. All of the faculties that are likely to fail, did. The bladder, the bowels, the brain. He lost track of time and of place, lost his knowledge of who each of us was – and then knew everything again for days at a time. The physical, the emotional, the spiritual, past, present, the unimaginable future; all are loosely joined, reconfigured, in slow and certain death.
I have wondered, writing this, whether I care when the pieces fell together for me, when I gained an understanding of my father’s lifelong sleepless nights, but I have decided it doesn’t matter whether it was before or after the stroke he had that December, whether it was while I was in the room with him, perched beside him on his bed, or miles away, cooking dinner, in my own home. All that matters is that as my father’s reality fell into fragments, certain shards of it reassembled, inside of me.
There was a conversation in his room. I used to say of Dad’s study, where he spent his final illness and where he died, that it was the externalization of his Id. The space was crowded, bursting to overflow with his artwork, his books, his trumpet, souvenirs of travels with my mother, pictures of us all, drawings by his grandchildren. Even the smells – turpentine, tobacco, urine – competed for space, overlapping and creating new versions of themselves. When I describe myself as “my father’s daughter,” when I find the connection that a child naturally seeks, part of what I locate is this odd combination of clarity and chaos that has always resided within us both. Certain corners of his study would reveal themselves to be orderly, files alphabetized, aspects of his work recorded perfectly. But the overall impression was that a none too careful ransacking had occurred.
We were sitting on his bed, our feet dangling over the side, his, feeble and swollen twice their healthy size. And of course we were smoking. After more than seventy years of puffing away, my father had gratefully reached an age and stage at which everyone had stopped nagging him to stop. I haven’t smoked for years and never did very much, but always did around him – another sought connection, perhaps. By the time this conversation took place, he had grown too weak to grasp a cigarette, so I held one in each of my hands, placing his between his lips as I took a drag from my own.
My father had a lifelong habit of speaking from the train of his own thoughts, as though the listener had been privy to them and could easily join in. “I have tried and I have failed,” he said to me.
“To do what?”
“I cannot forgive those two people. But baby, I have done nothing but try.”
“Dad, it’s understandable. . .”
My father had a face that could express a depth of sadness defying measurement. The light brown of his eyes seemed to come from a palette mixed purposefully for the depiction of grief. And as this conversation occurred, that face had already been ravaged by disease. The smoke that he inhaled, he exhaled through only vestiges of what had been a beautiful, even noble nose. In his final months he seemed more ancient than merely old.
But speaking of his parents then, he became a boy again. Childhood visited his being, catching up with him in the end, so I could see him, clearly, see who he was to himself. Somebody’s son.
I didn’t know what to say. I told him something I believed but that I don’t think helped him at all. I said that he was misreading the fifth commandment – giving it too strict an interpretation to make any logical sense. “I think that by devoting your life to trying to forgive your parents for what they did, you have honored them,” I said. “It can’t mean never dishonor your parents, never feel anger at them – because if it does, we’re all guilty for all our lives. If it does, it’s just an impossible commandment to fulfill.”
But nobody can define for anyone else what they believe. This has been my position all along. Nobody can convince me that it is impossible to be both Jewish and Christian at the same time. And I was not able to talk my father out of the conviction that he had let down his God.
Was he still alive when I understood that this was what kept him up at night for all those years? I don’t know. The logic of it, the poetry of it too, fell gradually on me, until I knew it was those intimations of Hell that filled his dreams, the Hell that he feared would welcome him at his death, because he had not been able to forgive his parents for abusing him, for making him choose the branches that they used, for taking turns at whooping him until he shook.
Somewhere in the heart of every abused child lies the suspicion that he or she deserves the abuse. The abused child who fathered me was no exception to this rule, and at the intersection of emotion and of faith, he devised an unimaginably terrible punishment for himself.
My father has been gone for more than twelve years now. And I often wonder why I cling with such tenacity and against the tide of my own household to a religion that I believe brought him such extraordinary pain. It might be more logical, more sensible, to disavow what caused someone I love those thousands upon thousands of nightmare-filled nights.
But then there are those words before me on the page: Logical. Sensible. Religion. Believe. And I should know better by now than to try to pull these particular puzzle pieces together into a rational whole. I should know better than to seek in logical argument an alternative to being who I am: the daughter who herself fought sleep as a child, listening to his footsteps, fearing that his nightmares might mingle with my own. The daughter who cannot ever disentangle or disavow his half of me.
He is buried near my house and when I visit him, I talk to him. And at times I pray – in my own way. I pray for my father to have found the peace I never doubt that he deserves. I pray for the shattered little boy he was to be somehow healed. But I haven’t recorded my prayers on a 3×5 index card, to slip under the door of a grieving child. I have written this instead.