The Sorrow and The Pity Redux

FCD407_Sorrow_compressedI am a recovering Holocaust junkie. It’s really not that surprising. It was in my mother’s milk

I was weaned on infamous Holocaust epics like “The Sorrow and the Pity” or movies like “Night and Fog” which contained gruesome footage of bulldozers shoving emaciated, naked bodies into mass graves.  My mother, the survivor and my father, the Holocaust scholar saw no harm in a young child watching movie after movie of Nazi atrocities.  In fact, the more realistic the depiction, the more compelled we were to watch it. Their rationale went something like this; children lived the experience, why shouldn’t children watch the experience.

As I got older I obsessed over every news account of the Holocaust. I took the course in college.  I imagined what it was like to be in a ghetto or a concentration camp and I agonized over their suffering, which, but for the grace of God, was mine.  I read every book and saw every movie on the topic and felt enormous guilt if I missed one.  For God’s sake, I even married another child of survivors.

The last time my mom visited with me she insisted on watching a movie called “Der Letzte Zug,” (The Last Train) and she insisted I watch it with her.  I sat through every tortuous second of people dying in a cattle car on the way to Auschwitz.  When the movie ended my mother exclaimed, “So well done.”  “That’s it.” I responded bitterly. “I can’t do this anymore.” “Don’ be silly.” she said.  “You have to. How do you think the people who were there felt?”  ” Well, here’s the thing, mom, I can’t change it for them. That’s the problem. I can never, ever, not once, change the ending, not for one damned person.” Mom shrugged, clearly disgusted with my weakness.

My middle son came home the other day from a teen program during which he was presented with a slew of worthy community programs that needed funding. He was asked to choose and advocate on behalf of the one program that spoke to him the loudest. It is a given that all of the programs are worthy.  When he got home he was very animated. He said,  “Omi (his paternal survivor grandmother) and Nana (my mother) would have been be so proud of me. When the other kids wanted to abandon it, I argued for funding for a program where survivors tell kids about their Holocaust experiences. It’s really important mom because the survivors are dying out.  Their time is running out and we need to hear their stories while we still can.”

Middle son, I asked, “Have you ever seen “The Sorrow and the Pity?  We have it in the basement. Go get it. Let’s watch it, together.”

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Missing Dad

get-attachment-3.aspxIt’s almost April 6th again dad.  You would be 83.

Can it really be fourteen years since you left us?  So long ago but I remember so many details vividly, as if it was yesterday.  I remember the fear in your eyes when you said you thought you needed to go to the hospital. It was only three weeks from that moment until the final goodbye.  Still, today, the shock of that gnaws at me.  Could we have done something differently, something that might have changed the outcome or was your death fated?  I can still smell the ICU, and see the last book you were reading, Boychiks in the Hood, sitting on your hospital tray.  After you lost consciousness, I made a copy of your curriculum vitae and pinned it to your hospital wall.  I wanted the hospital staff to know who they were treating, as if it mattered.  You were someone. I can hear you now. In your soft measured tone you would say, “Helene, everyone is someone.”  But, you were my someone.  The foolish things we do.  I remember the former student who appeared in your hospital room one day to read you poetry.  I don’t remember his name.  Could you hear him and did his reading soothe or irritate you?

The grief that followed came in crushing waves. Being alone in the car seemed particularly bad. Often I would pull off the road racked with sobs.  The children were so young.  When “A” didn’t seem appropriately sad I asked, “Aren’t you sad that Papa Dad died?” and he answered, “Not as sad as I’ll be when you die.”  And, I knew it was true but how did he know it was true?  The kids were ruthless in their insistence that life goes on.  I wanted to wallow but they wouldn’t allow it.  They demanded my caretaking and in their childish way of speaking plainly they asked over and over about death and marveled at its finality and each time I explained, “that, no, we would never see Papa Dad again” I struggled to keep the quiver out of my voice and the tears at bay. But, in time, the wound, so raw and gaping scabbed over, tenderly at first and then with more permanence, so much like a physical wound.

Sometimes, I panic. Is my memory of you fading? Do I remember the sound of your voice? Are you slipping away from me?  But then, I see something of you in one of the boys and it leaves me breathless.  I wish you were here to see them and know them; A’s thoughtfulness and wordsmithery, J’s cleverness and keen wit, D’s kindness and wise old soul. They are a living monument to you, better than the most ornate headstone. You live on inside of them and inside of me.

We miss you today, and everyday. Happy Birthday dad.

The First Twenty-Five Years are the Hardest

get-attachment-1.aspxMy father was not only smart. He was wise.

On my wedding day, dad and I had a few moments alone before the ceremony. I waited eagerly for some words of wisdom. At last, dad turned to me, cupped my face lovingly in his warm hands and said “Don’t worry if things are rocky in the beginning. Hang in there. The first twenty-five years of marriage are the hardest. After that, it’s a piece of cake.” Then, we both chuckled.

But now, as my husband and I approach our twenty-fifth anniversary, I find there was a lot of truth in my father’s words. In the beginning we had our share of Sturm und Drang. There were harsh words, slammed doors and great big sob fests. Raising a family and building a career is a struggle and keeping a relationship alive through it all is hard work. Not speaking to my husband for a week because of his insistence on a certain middle name for our unborn child seemed perfectly reasonable. Now, I know with calm certainty that who your child becomes means far more than the name he bears. But, when you’re up all night with a screaming baby and he’s up all night closing a deal it’s hard to be your better selves, your kinder, gentler selves.

These days there is a new tenderness in our relationship. We’ve seen a lot together, the birth of our children, the death of three of our parents. The battlefield has largely been cleared. We know we have the ability to inflict great pain on each other but we also know that life does that all by itself so why lend it a hand. We’ve had the same argument so many times I can handle both sides of it equally well so why drag my husband into it at all?

There are things about him I will never change and vice versa. But, we’ve largely stopped railing about those details. I’ve seen the enemy and I choose to love him. It’s not about apathy. It’s about perspective and choice. And, I’ve got to hand it to my twenty-one year old self. Not bad. He’s a keeper.

Thanks for the wisdom dad. I think I get it now.