XX Files: Far From Kosher
When my brother, Andrew, called to break the news that our father had died on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, I suspected God was fleshing out a comedy routine. After all, death on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar was reserved for the holy, no?
My dad was rebelliously agnostic; when I was growing up in the 1960s, nothing gave him more pleasure than provoking my Orthodox mother's fury by eating a very un-kosher bacon breakfast as the rest of the family headed off to pray on Yom Kippur. Yet, consuming treif was the least of it. When the sexual revolution rolled around, he was the first to enlist, causing everyone a whole new level of grief and, eventually, an extremely messy divorce.
At that time, he'd been a lawyer on the rise, a handsome guy with a future, possibly even in politics. By the end of his life, he was broke, working low-rent divorce cases for women who usually couldn't pay him with money. What went wrong? Women, yes. A narcissistic personality disorder, probably. As he grew older, he grew poorer but was still desperate for female validation. My mother, his lovers and wives -- fueled by rage as they, too, discovered infidelities -- all took him to the cleaners during their breakups. One threatened murder-suicide if he didn't pay her pots of dough. The next cleaned him of his household goods; even as he was recovering from back surgery, she was taking his house. Diabetic and broken, he sped off and landed in Tampa, where, by design, he knew no one. He was an optimistic depressive and, at 80, still wished to reinvent himself. He lived there with his dog -- he called her his "girlfriend"-- for two years, during which time neither Andrew nor I visited.
Instead, Andrew and I ended up making the trip for one of those classic bonding rituals: the disposal of the belongings. We checked into a rickety Comfort Inn. About 2 a.m., I had a nightmare: My father was in the bed next to mine, engaging in a feisty menage a trois. When he reached over, I swatted him away. I woke up dripping in sweat.
The next day, my father's garden apartment smelled of dog and decay. Bread was in the cupboard. Dirty dishes were folded like cards in the sink. There were four flashlights, none of which worked. After a few minutes of pretending we were cleaning up, Andrew and I looked at each other as if to say, Why waste time?, and ran for his office.
We were a detective team with years on the job. As children, we used to paw through Dad's underwear drawer, searching for clues to find out when he was leaving and whom was he leaving for. This time, we were hunting for answers to his failed life. I searched the computer while Andrew scavenged the file cabinets. How could someone with so much promise have made such a mess of things? Perhaps it would have been easier to understand if we'd found some sort of secret: another child, embezzlement, even writings expressing remorse. We were coming up with a lot of nothing. Then I found the love file. Dad had discovered Internet dating.
To Peg he wrote: "Am cutting this letter short. Very short. Like right now. I will follow it up tomorrow. You really sound like hot stuff. Philip."
To Lula he wrote: "I know how to please a woman, but we don't have to talk about it now."
Dad had a fused spine, a penile implant, a cane and pain. He was carless and indigent -- but he embodied the truth that lady-killers really never stop, they just choose sadder victims. Those last letters to Peg and Lula were dated the night before another female friend found him crumpled next to his bed.
My father often said he wanted to be cremated, but he left nothing in writing. Following Jewish law, we chose burial. It was an expensive decision, and my mother was concerned about the money my brother would have to shell out for the funeral. "It's only graveside, yet they want money for everything. I'm taking over a tallis to Riverside. At least that will save him $100."
"Whose tallis is it?" I asked. I couldn't imagine where she could have found a prayer shawl.
"My father had a tallis?"
"It's the one he wore when he married me," she said.
And so it came to pass that as earth thudded onto his coffin, my father was wrapped not in Phyllis or Joyce or any other woman he'd been linked to, but in the prayer shawl he wore when he was still a young, charismatic guy with a future. Returned to both religion and his first marriage, he would wear that tallis until it, too, crumbled into dust.