The Impossible & Miraculous: Remembering Dad: Everyday Magic, Days 183-184

I woke up thinking about how between mid-January and mid-February, it sure feels like the veil between life and death is thinner. No surprise then that many of the deaths of my loved ones happened during this time. Then it occurred to me that today — January 18 — is the 8th anniversary of my father’s death.

My dad — Hugh Melvyn Goldberg, but everyone called him Mel — was an impossibly difficult person to know, let alone be related to, so much so that I’m sure my siblings would say “impossibly difficult” is an understatement. We eventually understood that he had Asperger’s syndrome, a mishmash collection of behaviors on the functional edge of the autism spectrum. He couldn’t read social cues to save his life, and so, operating like someone blind-folded walking through new territory, he would easily crash into the metaphoric furniture and ill-placed people of life. No wonder that because of his general disposition, fierce intelligence and silver-quick mind, and crazy family dynamics and time/place (Brooklyn, 1939) he was born into, he became an expert in the strong offense.

A mostly successful businessman, he knew how to control situations, workplaces and, to whatever extent he could, people he was in charge of, and that’s where — as you might expect — his fathering went all to hell. It’s a messy story punctuated by physical abuse that was eventually funneled into verbal abuse, and one I’ve already filled journals over and therapy sessions with for decades.

It’s also a story of being his first child, the one born on his birthday, and as I grew up, sometimes dazzled by how smart, articulate, innovative, and daring he was when it came to making a living. He devoured books and harbored quiet ambitions to one day write a mystery. When I was very little, he would drive through the streets of Brooklyn, windows open on spring nights, and scream out, “Calling all dogs! Calling all cats!” to make me laugh. He also developed pastry-shop radar, particularly for the well-made eclair, and his beverage of choice was ice water.

When my father was diagnosed with late stage pancreatic cancer on 9/11/02, my first thought — always trying to look on the bright side of things — was “no new injuries.” Although we had become distant and polite over the years, both of us were a little wary of the other: me of him because of his explosive nature, and him of me because I made a life so different and far away. In fact, I thought I had crafted a sense of self, community and work that was the opposite of him.

When he went into a coma, he wasn’t supposed to live more than a day or two, but he held out for ten days. I wasn’t surprised. I would have flown to be with him immediately but having just had cancer-related surgery myself, my doctor grounded me until she said, “Go!” and I did. Turns out that despite all else about his life, my life, how we did and didn’t relate, he waited for me. My siblings already largely there along with other family, Dad didn’t finally let go until 15 minutes after I walked in the door. At the moment he died, I had my hand on his right knee, feeling the pulse until there wasn’t one.

Being my father’s daughter was impossible at times, yet my father, along with my mother, were the ones who gave me life. The way my father died was a different kind of birthday for me: knowing that despite all, he would wait for me to be beside him when he died turned out to be the great spiritual gift of my life. In that moment, I realized how much he loved me, and the tightly-wound knot in me started to unfurl. He left me with the gift of being able to pretty much completely forgive him, forgive myself, and embrace being his daughter despite and because of who we are beneath whatever we thought.

Pictures: Dad, on right, with his older brother sometime in the 1940s in Brooklyn; Dad making the blessing on the challah at our wedding (and behind me, Arden Booth, who also shared our Dec. 4th birthday); Dad with Forest.

What I Learned In 2010: Everyday Magic, Day 168

2010 is toast. Here’s what it taught me in a nutshell:

  • With a cheap, plastic sewing machine under hand, I can still sew…..and to my surprise, I can sew wabi sabi quilts.
  • I love to play a video game (who knew?) — Typer Shark — although Ken says my typing all those sharks to death could have environmental repercussions.
  • It wasn’t devastating to have my daughter leave home. And between texting, facebook-messaging, phone-calling and skype, it’s kind of like she didn’t leave.
  • It’s very cool to have sons taller than me, and in the case of Forest, much taller than me.
  • I’m blown away by the compassion and community I saw gather around one friend who lost her son, another who lost her wife, and a group of us who lost mutual friends. Death is hard (understatement), but being here for each other is what makes the unbearable bearable.
  • I can sleep easily with a purring cat on my chest for hours.
  • If need be, I can lift our 80-pound lab-mation and get her into the car and onto the table at the vet’s.
  • True but a little sad: I am MUCH healthier without wheat, dairy or sugar in my diet.
  • True and delightful: I’m most in love with the world and alive — even when not feeling my best — when doing yoga everyday.
  • “Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World” is a great movie, and I’m glad to have seen it twice.
  • There only seems to be one television show at a time that I like/love, and this time, it’s “Bones.”
  • Sky Islands are singular mountains dotted throughout the Sonoran Desert (and beyond) where the altitude changes creates complete changes in climate.
  • All estimates for most climate changes I know of were vastly understated, and although my family rolls my eyes when I say this, I don’t think much of the coasts will survive beyond my lifetime (and maybe not more than a decade or two).
  • Bluebirds in winter, Indigo Bunting in summer, and all of life is good.
  • I actually like brussel sprouts when chopped finely into stir-fry.
  • I’m better than I thought at wasting time.
  • French farce in theater, when done well, is wickedly funny.
  • Mopping can be magical.
  • Warmed up enough, I can touch my toes without bending my knees, but I still can’t meditate worth a damn.
  • Whimsy rules.
  • Cats are the ones who taught humans all about lying (as in, “No one has fed me for days” ten minutes after they got fed).
  • Minneapolis and St. Paul blur so seamlessly into each other that it’s easy to lost in the Twin Cities vortex.
  • There’s nothing that can’t be made better by playing some Laura Nyro, Leonard Cohen, Bruce Springsteen, Kelley Hunt, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Joni Mitchell, Greg Greenway or Louis Armstrong.
  • I seriously don’t want to know what or how much my kids drink at college or all manner of other things that happen late at night.
  • Without pressure, and with family I love, I actually kind of don’t always dislike Christmas so much.
  • Macaroons: the wonder food. All manner of squash too.
  • It’s always this question: “How to live?” and it’s always this answer, “With kindness.”

Best wishes to all for 2011!

Life is Dangerous: Everyday Magic, Days 11 & 12

That’s all I could think yesterday as I watched friends and my husband carry Mark in his cardboard casket, complete with farewells and love notes we all wrote on it, toward the hole in the ground. “Life is dangerous” continued to put out alerts in my mind throughout the small ceremony that morning at the edge of the woods where the green cemetery began while I stood them next to my crying daughter and surrounded by about 100 of Mark’s friends and family. Later, I felt the samething back at our house where we hosted a post-burial potluck while I sliced giant cucumbers from the garden or mixed up more limeade. I was so struck by this sense of danger that I had a hard time making conversation, staying on task or even staying awake.

Late afternoon, I still was overcome with that shaky feeling so I did the only sensible thing I could think to do: I went to the movies to see “Toy Story 3.” First, I got the mail, in which my daughter received her roommate assignments for college, which suddenly emboldened the “life is dangerous” mantra: she was really leaving, and although I was thrilled for her new adventure, I also knew how this too would feel like a loss at first, maybe already. Then I drove through a hell of a thunderstorm, running through the theater parking lot with thunder behind me. The movie itself was excellent, but its theme was, no surprise, “life is dangerous”…..for toys, and humans. Life involves change, loss, new beginnings, no control and the gifts that come when people want to play with us again.

Back home, late at night, lying in bed still awake, I felt that trembling unpredictability and tried to reason it out. In so many deaths of friends and family, I could rationalize, tell myself this person was ready, it was his or her spiritual path, the time was right, the suffering was over. But with Mark, all I know is that he was pretty darn healthy for a 77-year-old year, excited about getting his knee replaced and had a lot more mileage in him. I can’t find a reason or way to put this to peace.

What I have found this day is the light of our community being together in this dangerous knowing, the changing sky that brought a long-awaited storm, and how the roses a friend gave me to acknowledge my grief are now opening wide. Angels are terrifying and beautiful, Rilke wrote, all at the same time.