A poignant final moment strengthens my fragile connection to my father.
My father, Charles Margolis
My father died in 1976 at the age of 66 ("a young man," as we say), leaving me permanently uncertain of how to make my connection to him.
How would I touch that elusive man, or be touched by him, when in a way I never really knew him. A retail pharmacist, a loving provider, he was away most of the time, working late in the evenings and on weekends, too. It always seemed to me that he would rather be at the store than home, for the store was his realm, and he loved his sovereignty there. The store may have been the only place where he felt completely at home.
As a Jew, my father was unexceptional - not observant but totally ethical and good-hearted. The son of immigrants and a simple, conventional man with relatively narrow experience of the larger world, he kept kosher at home, where my mother ruled - I think he wouldn't have been comfortable any other way - but ritual and synagogue life did not interest him.
But he didn't question his identity as a Jew, whereas to me Judaism was expendable, an annoyance, sentimental and repressive at the same time. I went to public schools and to afternoon Hebrew school, the House of Boredom. Both were bad, but the public school had the Declaration of Independence, and by the time I was in college, developing the ambitions of a writer, I had disappeared into America, seeking experience and meaning. My father seemed hurt and shocked, not understanding that the road onto which I had gone was only a step away from the crossroads to which he had brought me.
We rarely talked or spent time together. My mother might call on God from an anguished heart to remember her children or to judge those who had hurt her, but my father stayed silent, cheerful but somehow obscure. Did his distance indicate passive anger, inner confusion, a thoughtful man's preference for silence? I still don't know.
In my late 20s, as my life became more settled, my father and I made a kind of peace with each other. Especially in the year before my wedding, we spoke more, trading confidences and clearing up old misunderstandings. I was at last making a life he could understand, and we both wanted to build the closeness we had not had in the past.
But then, returning to Brooklyn after my wedding in San Francisco, he suffered what seemed at first a stroke, then turned out to be the first full announcement of the brain tumor that would kill him six months later. The family realized later that he had hid earlier symptoms from my mother in order not to worry her, though even at the wedding he must have suspected that something was terribly wrong.
During the months of his illness, he lapsed more and more into a world no one else could enter, alternating ordinary lucidity with glimpses of a dreamlike inner landscape that even he did not understand. As the tumor short-circuited the synapses in his brain, words came out of his mouth that made no sense and which he could not explain.
My mother's style was to deny death. "He knows what's happening," she assured my brothers and me, "but it's better not to talk about it."
So my father and I went back to avoiding the reality of things - to not communicating - and his sons collaborated in our mother's charade as a way of taking care of her while she took care of him, for she needed to deny the truth in order to have the strength to continue.
I visited from across the country several times during those final months when, slowly but surely, the tumor was lobotomizing my father. One afternoon, when it was still at least partly him inside his familiar face and body, we sat outside in the yard - the whole family: my parents, my brothers, our wives and kids. All the conversation, though desultory, was highly charged; I knew I wouldn't get to speak with my father again in this lifetime.
When it was finally time for me to go, to catch my plane back to California, he managed to walk unsteadily with me to the fence. There, focusing with effort his vanishing powers of articulation, he said to me clearly, tears in his eyes, "God bless you, boy."
My father was not, as I have said, a religious man. He did not give "blessings" to his children, and the name of God was not on his lips. Beyond that, he had disapproved of and been dissatisfied with me for much of my adulthood - we had only just begun to work at being father and son.
Yet those, thank God, were his final words to me - the parental blessing at last. I remember them especially on the anniversary of his death, his yahrzeit
, each year as the fleeting and final touch of love that came from him to me, the point of contact that we had, as father and son, missed so often during all the years before.