Maybe it's my age, maybe it's where I am in life, but this year, when my father's birthday came around, I didn't want to just go around it again. I am nearly the same age my father was when he died. And we needed to talk.
It's hard to talk to the dead. I understand why his father's ghost drove Hamlet crazy.
You want to understand exactly what they are saying. To be worthy of their trust.
Not to let them down.
At first I missed my father when I did something he would have been proud of: the first time my name appeared in the credits, or I wrote about Ellis Island and his parents.
But as I get older, I am having to come to terms with the things I did not become, with the limits of my talents and the leaps I didn't take, the disappointments that have battered me and the losses I could not rise above. At times I am overcome by lost dreams and the indifferent sky. I am not the daughter he left behind.
Death bestows a kind of sainthood. For over half my life I've been having a conversation with a man on a pedestal who last saw me when my hair, like my list of expectations, was very long. I wanted so badly to make him proud, to feel his eyes shine on me. But had I created an impossible version of him? Could I let go of it, without letting go of him?
My father was a tall man, strong-willed and softhearted, moved to tears by the great and small miracles in life: a field by van Gogh, Nureyev and Fonteyn as tragic lovers, me singing "Damn Yankees" in summer camp. He learned to cha-cha to please my mother, and once swirled in like an exotic prince, scattering rhinestones from his pocket to take her out dancing. But most of all, after his family, he loved the life of the mind. He didn't make his living that way, but he made it his life.
Reading all Sunday on the porch. Bliss. He thrilled to the big questions, knocking on the door of the universe with a list of things to talk about. He was a Depression kid, and free concerts and evening lectures had been his college, then his delight.
This constant learning was his great love affair with life. Art, music, words, civilization. His face lit up across the kitchen table.
At 58, my father was snapped like a twig by a brain tumor. It was a cruel ending, his mind alert while his body fell away, a man inside a rag doll. When he died, I couldn't understand why the stars were still up in the sky. I thought the universe had collapsed.
It has been 32 years, and I haven't been able to get through one of his birthdays since.
Way back then, I was all silky and certain. My father saw in me a clear mind capable of any profession. I said he didn't know me, that destiny had something arty in mind.
My refusal of a suburban existence picked up steam, and our quarrels boiled over. I fell for a charmer who believed in communes. My father called him shallow.
I moved out.
Then I found I had mistaken charm for Prince Charming. To him, communes meant lots of girls.
Illness struck my father. I flew home and into his open arms.
A few years later, I buried my mother. Another cruel ending, another slash of the knife.
The world I grew up in was gone.
Then I met the great love of my life, and he held me through my mother's death and for years after. But in the end, our ill-fated love affair left me alone and childless. I could never have told my father. My illicit affair would have scandalized him. It did me.
This year on his birthday, I walked back into the words he spoke before he died. "Life is so cruel," he said, pointing toward his tumor. "Don't make it harder by facing it alone."
Then, he put the question to himself. "What is a successful life? How do you measure success as a human being? I tried to live as an honest man, not to say one thing and do another. To treat everyone with dignity. Please, don't hurt anyone, and don't let anyone hurt you."
I carried his words like sacred jewels. Secretly I worried, how do you always know how? Was I passing or failing?
Hamlet spent most of the play wishing he could talk things over with the ghost one more time. I had clutched my father's words so tightly, I couldn't hear my own life talking to me.
Living is an ongoing imperfection. Philip Roth, soothsayer of our time, wrote: "Life isn't either/or, it is and/and/and/and. The burden isn't consciously choosing from possibilities equally difficult and regrettable. . . . it's the elusive and the graspable, the actual and the potential, all the multiplying realities, entangled, overlapping, colliding, conjoined -- plus the multiplying illusions!"
Did my father go in for conflicting truths? We hadn't gotten that far.
Now I, beloved daughter of a beloved father, had to acknowledge -- to him and to me -- that I was not without blemish or blame.
The spit and the tears of it.
I made a fool of myself for love. I did not become a mother. I have not scaled the mountains of art or civilization. I have become, to my younger self's embarrassment, just one of the many.
The roads to the life I might have led are grown over. Instead, there is a solo woman of moderate means, a cute old broad with a couple of gold-plated statues, a glory of mismatched friends and a skill that, at last, feels like a harbor.
I have tried, and often failed, not to hurt anyone. How do I measure the success of my life?
In your guidance, dear Dad, you never mentioned the long haul, the endurance it takes to rise each time you fall. Here I am, standing at your age, trying to let go of the maps to my hoped-fors and might-have-beens, and move in with the life I've come to call my own.
The day after his surgery: They removed the tumor that paralyzed his right side, and the question remained -- would he be able to walk? He asked us to wait at the end of the hallway. I saw him emerge in his bathrobe and slippers, holding a cane. He paused. Then, he pulled himself up to his full height, straightened his shoulders, and set his eyes ahead. He took a deep breath. With his first step, he set his cane down hard. Still hobbled by a weak right side, he walked with the determination of an Olympic champion. I remember now. That was how he faced his unexpected destiny. That was his rise after the fall. I'm glad I came back to see to you. I love you, and have much to tell you.