A letter to my father, four years after his death
Dear Daddy, I got the kids’ class pictures this past Friday.
It’s always hit or miss when the photos arrive: some years they’re adorable, hair perfectly in place, eyes focused on the camera, smiling. Sometimes they’re messes, with hair spilling out of carefully placed French braids and something—breakfast? Dirt? Dog poop?—mysterious on their sweaters.
This year they were magnificent. All three children outdoors, hair perfectly coifed, smiling. Jo Jo gazed dreamily into the distance. Teddy smiled a mega grin straight at the camera. Geoffrey squinted slightly (he’s so light sensitive after all) and looked pensive.
But I kept returning to the portrait of Teddy. The angle of his face, the shape of his jaw, the way his tongue ever-so-slightly touched the roof of his mouth. I knew, of course. It was impossible not to see. But it was only when I compared it to the picture of you, at the exact same age, staring steadfastly at the camera, that I lost it.
I can only guess what you were thinking when Grandma forced you into your starched white shirt and tie that morning and sternly ordered you to look straight at the camera. “Look serious” I imagine she said, and you obeyed, which explains, hand cupped under your chin, eyes focused directly ahead.
But if you took away the suit and tie, took away the slicked back hair and the somber expression, it’s there, clearly.
36 years later, meet your doppelganger. A little less nattily dressed, a little more ruffled.
I can only cry when I compare the two photos, obviously. Four years later, on the eve of your death on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, I can only mourn that you’re not there.
The kids still ask about you. They like to look at pictures. “I don’t really remember him,” Teddy confesses, and it’s always that great stabbing feeling in my intestines, but of course, he was barely three, and they forget that quickly. And wise boy that he is, maybe he blocked out the end, when you were blind and helpless and wracked with pain.
Geoffrey says he remembers you, but he was only 15 months when you died, so of course he doesn’t. (He gets upset when I tell him that though, so lately I humor him.)
I can’t tell how much Jo Jo remembers. She’ll remark on you in pictures of course, but I can’t really gauge how much she can conjure up: the feel of your skin against hers as she rubbed her cheek against you, the way she’d grab for your glasses, the look of pure, complete bliss as she snuggled against you in your lap.
So much happened this year. School plays and ballet performances,
soccer games and cub scouts,
pre-school graduations and the first day of kindergarten.
I cry at these events, because these are things you should be here for, these are things you waited for years for, things you expected to look forward to in your golden age of retirement.
But there’s so much here I’m so glad you are not here to see, too. The discrimination Jo Jo faces more and more; the rejection from summer camps and shamefully booting out of ballet performances. Just last week, she peed in her pants at the Fairfield Public Library when some old fart behind the counter refused to let her use the bathroom because they were closing. I can only imagine the string of expletives you would have unleashed at him. (That was always something I admired about you; you could be calm and level minded to a point, but if injustice sprang up, boy you let them have it.)
I can only imagine what you would say if you saw the circus our country has become; the fact that a man that you always regarded as a glaring buffoon may very well become the next president of our country. The ugliness, the hatred he’s unleashed….in some ways I’m glad you’re not around to see that.
But I’m glad to see you live on in my children, no matter how bittersweet. I see it in Teddy every day, from the way he insists on making his bed, tucking in his hospital corners with surgical precision, tongue stuck out slightly in concentration. Everyone always talks about how much Teddy is you, and of course it’s true: he has your clear, analytical mind, your thirst for knowledge, the obsession with American history (including the ability to recall with amazing clarity the years each President served, who they were married to, and what they did) but I see you more and more in Geoffrey, too. He’s inherited your sheer determination, riding bikes and cutting with scissors and kicking a soccer ball, all things that are made a thousand times harder by his vision impairment, but he perseveres until he reaches them. At his kindergarten open house last spring, standing solemnly in his button down shirt and khakis in the classroom, I was struck by how much he looked like you.
And of course I see it in both boys, in their moral coding. When they told me last spring that they wouldn’t go to Camp Teepee since Jo Jo wasn’t allowed to return, I cried. It was as if I was hearing their words straight from you.
I see you in Jo Jo, in her stubbornness, her “my way or the highway” attitude, but in her absolute pure kindness and genuine joy in people. And it breaks my heart beyond belief that the one person who was her total champion—the one person who didn’t give a damn about what milestones she made, or how well she read, but just focused on her, his beloved granddaughter—is gone, just when the world around her is becoming uglier and darkening.
You are never coming back. I will never hear your voice saying “little one,” or “now wait a minute,” or “I suspect” ever again. You will not be there for dance recitals and school plays, for sports games and graduations, for bar and bat mitzvahs and college graduations.
But I have to believe that you’re there, in my kids, encoded into their DNA, guiding them as they make their way through an increasingly vicious and turbulent world.
I promise you, they will make you proud.
I love you Daddy, wherever you are.