Song of My Father

Lillian and father
Me and my father during his last days.

Thinking of my Dad on Father’s Day …

Remembering our last five days together in Vancouver, Canada, the summer of 2005.

In this photo, he managed a crooked smile and a slight wave of his fingers, though he was literally at death’s door.

Within a few months of his passing, I wrote this piece, My Father’s Song, about my Dad’s dramatic onset of Alzheimer’s disease in his late 80’s while living in Israel. My big brother Danny and I frantically flew to his bedside from Oregon and Hawai’i, respectively.

I was overwhelmed by the impact of this disease on my Dad whom I loved so much.

Though he lived a few years longer with Danny in Oregon, and we all enjoyed this last outing in Vancouver together, just days before his death, I will never forget that my Dad had a uniquely full life, overcoming hardships that I can scarcely fathom.

My article was published by the Aloha Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association in 2007.

 

My Father’s Song

 

By the time I got there, he was contorting his frail body as violently as his 92 years could muster, gripping the rails of the hospital bed, twisting, kicking, hurling and exhausting himself, crying out tortured nonsense.

“The circle! The circle! Can’t get out! The circle! Dead, we’re all dead.The circle! Down, going down, the circle, down, dead! Can’t stop! The circle, look! Here! Look! Help me! The circle! The circle…”

I had no idea what my father meant. My father — who had always been my beacon of wisdom and strength — was a Polish Jew, numbers branded on his arm. Everyone in his family, everyone he knew and loved, was murdered in the Holocaust.

He must be trying to tell me something now, as he had always done before.

My mind flashed on all the times I sat by my father’s side, fearful but entranced by his stories of what it was like to witness unspeakable horrors and live to tell about them. He had the indomitable spirit and the guilt of the survivor. He found meaning in it all, under the worst of circumstances. He found love, made a family and had a reason to live.

There must be meaning in my father’s words now, as he thrashed in bed restraints ranting about “the circle.” I stood with my stepmother and my brother watching my father in disbelief.

“It must be a stroke,” one of us insisted. Anything seemed better than the thought that my father had an incurable, degenerative brain disease. Alzheimer’s had manifested suddenly for my father. He lost rationality seemingly all at once.
I knew how horrifying this was for my father. More than anything, his mind, his strong intellect and will power, were the things that always made him feel safe, in control, the master of anything he had to withstand. Watching him lose it like this reminded me of when my father told me how he had, one time, only once, felt himself slipping away into madness. He nearly did not come back.

It was after the War, after the Holocaust had wiped out everyone he knew and loved. His family home in Lodz, Poland, was still standing, though. He made his way back, hoping that his mother, the rotund, powerful matriarch of the family, would still be there. Despite what he heard. Despite Auschwitz.

There was a time, my father told me, before the War got really bad for Jews, that my father’s father came home with tickets for the family to escape, migrate as the wandering Jews often do, to survive, get away. A new place, a fresh start, safe again, for a while, at least, away from Hitler’s hatred, his rhetoric, his pernicious plan.

But my father’s mother said “no.” She convinced herself that the Nazis were just the latest fad of Anti-Semites. She would have no part of uprooting her family and leaving their home. All they needed to do was keep to themselves, mind their own business, lay low, stay out of trouble, and things would blow over, as they have done before. Not to worry.
Of course, she was wrong. My father loved her more than anyone else in his life. He never blamed her for not going, though he did make a point of pointing out to me that her dominance over the family made the decision to stay hers and hers alone.

So, he returned to their home, after the War, sure that she was right, sure that the Nazis must have met their match with her, knowing her strength and single-mindedness, surely she could have, would have, withstood anything that the Nazis might have leveled against her.

At least the house was still standing, though empty, well kept. Other Poles must have occupied it after my father’s family was deported, departed, put to death. He walked through each room, more than reminiscing. He actually expected to see her. He knew better, but he expected to see her, nonetheless.

When she was not there, he noticed, as if for the first time, that nobody was there. He finally collapsed on the bed, her bed. He smothered his face in the mattress and let go of himself, his immense grief, for his mother, his father, his sister, his nephews, his neighbors, his comrades, his people, his world.

The enormity of the loss, the intimacy of the loss, his irreconcilable feelings, murderous rage, hatred, panic, disbelief, longing for love, abandonment, the determination to live, self-loathing, the irrational guilt of the survivor, the unwelcome glimmer of hope that he felt in her bed when he thought, once or twice, he could still smell her.

“Why did you stay?” he implored. “You stayed, O.K., then why aren’t you here?” he screamed, sarcastic, angry, painfully ashamed.

My father told me he could feel himself, for the first time in his life, begin to descend, wretched, heaving tears, choking, barely breathing, and falling into irretrievable despair. He knew he would not be able to return to sanity, he could not save himself, if he kept going, down, down. Was it a circle?

The grief surely would break him, compressing his chest, contorting his limbs, his heart tearing apart. Worst of all, he told me, his mind was falling apart. He would surely die here, he knew it, if he let himself go, to cry, to shriek, to feel her gone, on this bed, his mother’s bed, without her, never to see her again.

My father recalled for me the precise moment that he recalled himself to himself. He literally forced his body and soul to get up. “Get up!” he shouted. “Do not let go or you will not come back! You must hold on!” He scolded himself, aloud. “You’ve made it this far!”

He lifted his body, ten times heavier than it was when he first came into the house, and lumbered out of the bedroom, through the hallway, sloshing back and forth, like a drunk, past the kitchen, out the side door, and left.

He left, and he never returned again. He left. He made himself go, as his Mother had not done. Somehow, as strong as she was, she could not leave on her own. But he had to. At that moment. His last chance! How utterly lonely he felt, forever, after that!

“Dad, it’s me, I’m here, I love you. There’s no circle, Dad. Please calm down. Your heart can’t take this.” For hours in the stark hospital, tethered by his side, despite the intermittent interference of doctors, nurses and needles, I tried to reason with this thrashing old man, my father, crazy at last, knowing how much he couldn’t stand to lose his mind before, knowing how hard it was for him to choose life, there, in his family home, hollowed out by the Nazis.

My father had finally lost his mind, not then but now, the one thing that he feared the most. Unbearable injustice! The man who I loved, who I could not stand to see suffer, who had suffered more than enough long before this. It could not, must not, happen to him! My brother and stepmother mostly stood by, aghast, as useless in inaction as I was in action.
As we did not understand him, he did not understand us. His anguish heightened as he continued to plead with us, entreat us to listen and understand him, begging us to see the circle as he saw it, comprehend the circle, the madness that had seized him and wouldn’t let go.

By evening, my father resigned himself to shut us all out. He was angry with us, I guess, or just hopeless. We couldn’t soothe him. So he fell silent. For days, he kept his eyes shut. He did not speak, he did not eat, he did not react. He was breathing low and slow, as if he could choose to die like this, or punish us for not understanding him.
I had planted myself by his side, stroking his hand. No response. Speaking words of love softly to him. No response. Weeping. No response.

Then, more to comfort myself than him, I began softly singing a Yiddish lullaby he used to sing to me as a child. My memory of the song was shaky. The language of the song was foreign and I’m sure I mangled the words. But the melody I remembered clearly, and it was sweet to me. So I sang it, over and over, quietly so nobody in the hospital could hear me.
Suddenly, his eyes still shut, my father gently lifted his right hand and forearm and began moving them slowly up and down in rhythm as I sang. Soon he began to sing with me, eyes still closed, singing with more and more clarity, articulating the foreign lyrics better than me, weaving his singing with mine, louder and louder. The steady rhythm, the sweet melody, the simple song.

After what seemed like an eternity of time suspended, my father opened his eyes. He squeezed my hand and smiled appreciatively. “We broke the circle,” he said, looking deeply in my eyes. “We broke the circle.”

 

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Song of My Father

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