I NEVER KNEW him until he was dying. It seemed that for the 25 years I had been with him he was so locked up, so defensive, that nobody could understand anything that was going on inside him.
He never spoke much, never gave advice. He was the patriarch, removed and beyond all of us. Only in my father's last years did any of us begin to realize that he, too, had feelings.
Only a few times had I seen any sign of attachment to his children. When my brother left for the Army he didn't talk for days. Then I remember the time he pulled me on my sled to the park. I must have been 8 years old. There was a big hill and all the kids were bellyflopping head first to the bottom. I insisted on trying it, like the big girls. After a running start I made my first bellyflop and sped down, savoring a sense of accomplishment, relishing the cold wind in my face. My exhilarated smile froze when I turned around to find my father holding onto the rope of my sled. He had raced down after me, grabbed the rope and guided me down, lest I collide with some bully.
Almost never did I see any display of emotion. Once, though, he was making a point about not becoming too attached. "When I left Russia I just packed up and said goodbye - and I never saw my mother again," he told me, cutting the air with his hand in a gesture of finality. "That was it," he said. And suddenly he burst into tears. It was the one time I never saw him cry before he got sick, and perhaps the [TEXT OMITTED FROM SOURCE]
It was a few days before he died that he told me where he came from - Kreisk, in Vilna Gubernia. I never could find the town on a map. His father was a miller who had married twice. There were 11 children in the family. My father was the first of them to come to America, and he helped the others get here, one by one.
None of his memories seem to have been good ones. There was nothing but hardship. Long, cold walks to the "Jewish" school and that last long walk out of Russia. He once told me he walked most of the way to Hamburg and then missed the boat that was to take him to America. He caught the next one and conditions aboard the boat were so bad he couldn't talk about it. When I made my first trip to Europe by boat he was very worried that I would have no place to sleep. And he wanted me to pack enough sandwiches for a week. The whole idea was rather incomprehensible to him anyway. "Why do you want to go there?" he kept asking me. "Everbody there wants to come here."
My father arrived in New York with 50 cents in his pocket. For a time he sewed collars in a sweatshop during the day and slept on a table in the factory at night after going to school. Every extra penny that he didn't spent for his daily apple - for that's all he remembers having to eat - went back to Russia. His recollections of later years were a little happier, when he got to the Midwest and became a peddler. Remembering his wagon and his horses he used to boast: "I had the finest team in the vest." Like so many of his countrymen he never got his Vs and Ws straight.
He came back east to get married and to open up a children's wear shop in Brooklyn. The store afforded all of us - my mother, my two sisters, my brother and me - a good living. I was the youngest and the only one who didn't have to work in the store. My father's plans was to retire to a chicken farm one day, to get out of the city.
His day always began with prayer. We would see him every morning in his tallith, yarmulke and phylacteries, his siddur open as he stood addressing God, a model for a Chagall. One of the things that made him most unhappy when he got sick was that he was too weak to carry out all of his morning ritual.
With all his praying it didn't seem necessary for the rest of us to practice any religion; Father took care of it all. But I still remember how, at the new year, he would always eat challah, pouring honey on it directly from the bottle. I didn't like honey, but he ate it with so much gusto that I tried it too. So to this day, whatever else Rosh Hashona means, to me it means challah and some honey poured directly from the bottle. Whether it is for him or for me, I've done it every year, even the years when I've been all alone.
As strict observer of the dietary laws he would never touch pork. But he did for his canary. Bacon fat, he'd read somewhere, was good for the bird's voice. He loved birds and rejoiced in the canary's singing and he would do anything for it. One day the canary flew away and within hours my father lost a lot of money in the commodities market. The bird's disappearance became an omen of desaster, reinforcing my father's already superstitious mature.
It seems to me that he worked all the time and in the store he shouted a lot. . . He never went to movies or to the theater and he refused to go on the long trolley trips we used to take to visit my mother's parents. To him all of that was a waste of money. The one thing he did like to do was to walk to the park, even in the rain, to hear the birds sing. Not long before he died I bought him an umbrella for Father's Day. I went walking with him one rainy day and he looked up at the umbrella and he smiled. He told me that he might have parted with a few dollars for an umbrella himself but never did. It was so hard for him to spend money that had been so hard to earn.
He didn't know how to enjoy life but he cherished it. When the doctors diagnosed his constant and acute pain as an advanced state of cancer we didn't tell him because that was the one disease that terrified him. He agreed to what was to be a minor operation that the surgeon told us would ease his pain for the last few months. "Kill me or cure me," he told the doctors, "because I can't go on this way."
I was there when he came out of the anesthesia. His eyes opened slowly, then closed. When he opened his eyes again he looked around, blinked. He had said goodbye and now he was seeing me again. He looked like a little child, happy maybe for the first time in his 77 years. The man who had taken so little joy from life was grateful to return to it. He used to say, "Life may not be so good here, but we don't know what's on the other side."
The operation was far more succesful than anyone had anticipated and he lived in some comfort for more than a year before the disease took hold again. He still thought it was his old case of ulcers and insisted my mother take him to the Mayo Clinic, where 30 years before a doctor had operated on him and saved his life. It was the policy at the clinic then to tell patients everthing and they told him -- straight out -- that he would die of cancer within six months. We talked on the telephone. That was the second time I heard him cry. When he came home he never got out of bed again.
He spent his last days at St. Vincent's in New York, where the nuns were especially kind to him. I think they respected a man who prayed so often. Once I visited him and about a concert I was going to. He said, "I wish I could go with you."
William Berger died on Tuesday. In the Jewish tradition it is said to be the best day to move. He buried on a sunny day in May. Birds sang. He would have liked that.
He'd insisted on going home to die. I never understood why that ungraceful apartment over the store, the place all of us wanted to escape as quickly as possible, the place where the trolleys rattled outside all night long, was so important to him. Just before he died I asked him. He said it was the only thing he'd ever owned.