A Tribute to my dad
“I have nothing to look forward to.” I heard this three times in one day last week. People struggling to look ahead with any kind of hope or enthusiasm. An uncertainty that things–life–were ever going to get better. So I knew it was time to talk about this ubiquitous feeling of anguish that was reverberating all around me. Since I am not an eternal optimist, landing more on the realism side of things, you’ll rarely find me saying things like, “Everything happens for a reason,” or “Things always get better.” Because the truth is, for some, things don’t get better, and we can’t always find a reason for why things happen. Eventually we may glean a meaning, but that’s a different process. I believe this comes from my Jewish heritage, being a first-generation holocaust survivor. Things didn’t get better for millions of people, there was no meaning and never will be for the extermination of people who were horrifically vilified and destroyed. And that lives inside of me.
I need to write about my father because he died last week. And he was one of the three people who said this to me. I titled this post before I started writing and before he died, maybe subconsciously thinking I’d send him a link, give him hope, and say, “Look! It’s universal. We’ll all get through this together somehow!” But that was as far as I got. So I will write about him to honor his incredible, well-lived life and to acknowledge the depth of my loss.
Surviving the Nazi Holocaust and post-war occupation of Hungary by the Soviet Union, millions of children were deprived of the innocence and freedoms associated with youth, including my father. Born in 1935, he lived through it all. Ester Perel, whose parents also survived the holocaust remarks that “there is a difference between ‘not being dead’ and ‘being alive’.” (You can read about that here: https://www.estherperel.com/my-story.)
My father wholeheartedly chose the latter. He has always been my inspiration, creating a tour de force life that I could never replicate. He lived life on his own terms, accomplishing big things (a Ph.D. in geology in his 20’s in his non-native language, teaching at university in Sri Lanka at 32 years old, buying and operating a catering business in his 50′-s and 60′-s and traveling the world to such an extent that his house is a shrine for all his cultural artifacts), while also caring deeply about the minutiae, like bringing his own espresso cup to Starbucks (he hated paper cups and unnecessary waste) and putting his keys in the fridge so he could always find them. He lived his life with a passion for food and cooking, photography, science, hiking and traveling, canoeing and camping, entertaining, playing games, writing cookbooks and newspaper articles…the list is just too long. He left no stone unturned.
My father wasn’t perfect. He didn’t suffer fools and never stayed anywhere longer than he wanted to. Get-togethers were on a time schedule and were always, always built around food. I would be lying if I said I hadn’t grappled, immensely, with my relationship with him. For many years, I wanted more than he could give me and conversely, he died wanting more than I could give him. When I write about this I am rendered speechless. It’s an overwhelming wave of sadness and longing. Without getting into too many details of our complicated relationship, I can say with certainty that we loved each other with absolute conviction and my little-girl self wanted him to live forever. I could never imagine my world without him in it.
The last year was really hard on my father. COVID showed up and his world started to shrink even more than it already had. (You can read about another holocaust survivor coping with COVID here: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/03/opinion/holocaust-covid-lockdown-pandemic.html?referringSource=articleShare)
He couldn’t entertain. No traveling. We couldn’t visit each other. His health started to decline. He felt fragile, and was desperately bored. Every time we spoke, he sounded more defeated. Despite the fact that he had a fabulous new partner in his life, he felt lonely and simply had too many hours to fill in a day. I hoped the prospects of a vaccine on the horizon might inspire him to hang on but there is a simple truth that I’ve always known about my dad. When he’s done, he’s done. He rarely stayed for a visit longer than 4 hours and he always left situations that he didn’t want to participate in. I believe that my father decided, consciously or otherwise, that he was never going to feel trapped, and he was going to exercise his freedom whenever he chose.
Last week, he chose to end his life. And because my father always did exactly what he wanted, there was nothing any of us could do to convince him to stay. While I can’t write too much about that yet, I am certain to do so in the future. After much consideration, I have decided to keep my office open next week and show up for my clients. My grief is so raw, so present. I may shed a few extra tears while I’m in session. But I do believe that this vulnerability is what my clients show me every single day. And my human-ness is all I’ve ever had to offer. My healing will come by being around others, letting the waves of grief wash over me, and being fully present.