My father would have turned 95 yesterday, if he had ever turned 72.
He didn’t though. He died of a heart attack (his third, from what I was told–one for each marriage, whatever that’s worth) when I was 17.
He died on August 11, which is two days after the Tate murders and one day after the LaBianca murders, for any Manson family devotees. I was always vaguely fascinated with the Manson murders growing up, mostly because I was born too late for the 60s (in the words of the late Lester Bangs, growing up in the 70s was like coming to town the day after the circus left) and because it was LA and I was obsessed with LA and it was warm and there were palm trees and it was sunny but in a really dark sort of way. Plus I was a teenage boy for seven years, give or take (we are every age we’ve ever been), and the darker something is, the more fascinating it is (see also: Marilyn Manson, cf: Columbine). But what’s odd now is that I knew that world, the Los Angeles I wasn’t within 2400 miles of, really well, and sort of who Manson and his followers were (minus the nuance, and there’s always nuance), but had no idea of the world my father lived in, and who he was, 4000 miles away.
When I was a freshman at UCLA, my girlfriend was a freshman at Ithaca College in Ithaca, New York. E-mail didn’t exist yet. We met each other a week before I left for Los Angeles when I happened to be in western New York for the only time in my 18-year life. We mostly talked on the phone (one Valentine’s Day massacre cost almost $200) and wrote each other actual letters via what was once known as the US mail. Once when we acknowledged how odd it was that we were becoming serious under the circumstances (although in retrospect I often wonder whether the circumstances helped, not hurt, us), she told me, “We’ve only seen each other in person for a total of 11 days.” I told her, “I think that’s as often as I saw my father.”
Of course, it wasn’t really. He and my mother and I lived in his apartment in Zürich when I was a few months old. “Awkward” would probably be an understatement. Zürich was his home for 54 years, 27 of them married to a woman no longer his wife with whom he fathered four children, three of whom also lived in Zürich. My mother wasn’t fluent in German. Women could now legally vote as of two years ago. My mother was also extremely close to her mother, my grandmother, who was now 4000 miles away and even less fluent in German (though she knew some Yiddish). It was a divorce waiting to happen, and it wasn’t a long wait.
I was as close to my mother (and my grandmother) as she was to hers, and whatever memories I had of Zürich (whether hers or my own) weren’t pleasant ones, so I rarely talked or wrote to my father for the rest of his life. We saw each other a few times, twice in the states when I was 4 or 5 and when I was 11, once in Zürich when I was 15. My mother broke the news of his death to me. I felt blank, probably nothing other than an odd relief I wouldn’t need to travel to Israel with him the following summer as he had wanted and I had feared (his notorious bad temper was apparently even worse than my own, and I’ve punched a hole in my wall and walked home several miles after an argument in a car). I didn’t even know his exact birthday until the past 10 years or so, though I knew we were both Capricorns. (Tellingly, I thought, my father shares a birthday with Alex Chilton, rather than the other way around.)
Who was my father? I guess I still don’t know. I’m not fluent in German either, which means I still haven’t read the majority of what my father has written, though I’ve read whatever was translated in English and own some of what hasn’t been. Writing isn’t the only way of understanding someone, though. I don’t even know that it’s a way. It’s just another myth. We ask too many questions of other people to try to figure ourselves out to begin with.
I went to the gym yesterday without even remembering what day it was. When I turned on my Walkman before my workout, it opened with a live version of the Tragically Hip’s “Fully Completely,” the title track off their terrific 1992 album about mortality, memory, and the wreckage of the Old World we never quite leave behind. “I ponder the endlessness of the stars,/ignoring said same of my father,” sings poet-shaman-frontman Gord Downie as he writhes and twists and shakes in perpetual audio. (In other live versions, including the “official” live version off 1997’s Live Between Us, the lyric becomes “I ponder the endlessness of the bars,/ignoring said same of my lover,” which also works.) It took me years–almost as long as it took me to figure out my own father’s birthday–to realize he’s quoting, almost directly, Milan Kundera, from The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. He’s writing, or re-writing, someone who’s writing, and keeps writing, to get to the endlessness of someone, and something, who can never be known.
I lacked Papa, and all of us are lacking in our work because in pursuit of perfection we go toward the heart of the matter but never quite get to it. That the infinitude of the exterior world escapes us we accept as natural. But we reproach ourselves until the end of our lives for lacking that other infinitude. We ponder the endlessness of the stars but ignore the endlessness our father has within him. It is not surprising that in his later years variations became the favorite form for Beethoven, who knew all too well…that there is nothing more unbearable than lacking the being we loved, those sixteen measures and the interior world of their infinitude of possibilities.