(Hebrew: “May the memory of the righteous be a blessing.” The traditional Jewish honorific for the dead when speaking of a rabbi or other righteous person.)
I was too busy fielding phone calls from family and other loved ones to write about it, but last Wednesday was the 13th anniversary of my father’s death. He died less than two weeks after my 14th birthday. And so of course for the past week or so I’ve been thinking about him even more than usual. Gathering the memories I have and trying to keep them fresh. He wasn’t perfect, and I do remember his faults, but he was one of the best men I’ve ever known. He had a sweetness and warmth that everyone who met him noticed. Strangers in elevators liked him instinctively, and at least half a dozen people considered him their best friend. Even his mother-in-law thought the world of him (“He had a heavy foot ont he gas pedal,” she likes to say, “but other than that he was a saint”). Over a thousand people came to his funeral, some flying from all over the country on almost no notice (Jewish funerals happen as quickly as possible, usually the day after the death…this one was a day later to give people time to fly in), and seven or eight cantors sang in the service. A cantor himself, he officiated at same gender weddings, but not interfaith ones. Much of what I know of compassion, generosity, and good manners I learned from him. Also perfectionism, a perhaps over-developed sense of propriety and reluctance to start conflicts or otherwise rock the boat, a tendency to sing everywhere and at any time, my excellent deadpan and dry humor, and a love of roller coasters and adrenaline highs. When we went to amusement parks I rode everything I was tall enough for with him, while my mother and little sister stayed on the ground. I still think about him every time I ride a roller coaster, especially the ones that scare me. I used to get up at 5am take martial arts lessons with him, and I realized only later that it was less because I was interested than because I wanted the time with him (and if you know what my sleep schedule is like these days, you know that’s a big deal). He died before he could teach me to drive, but I might as well have learned from him. My mother tells me how much I remind her of him more when I’m driving than at any other time, and I think of him every time I find myself saying “The gas pedal is the one on the right!” or “The left lane is for passing, asshole.” The smell of comic book stores always transports me back in time, and to this day I find myself reluctant to read single-issue comics, which clearly belong wrapped in plastic and not in my grubby little hands (never mind that my hands are no longer grubby nor quite that little). I inherited the full run of The Sandman and treasure it, but I bought the graphic novels to actually read. We sang “Hit the Road, Jack” and “Sixteen Tons” in the car. He had multiple long cute nicknames for both me and my sister that we still use with each other, and he used to change the names in old songs to mine, sometimes along with other lyrics, and sing them to me (“I have a girl, and Viva is her name…” I thought of this especially poignantly last night as Girlfriend, Esq. sang to me on the phone — “You are my Viva, my pretty Viva…”) I stayed home from school the day he died; he’d been in the hospital dealing with some heart issues, and even though they sent him home that morning with a clean bill of health, I was scared and needed to spend some time with him. I’m grateful for that, now. It was a terrible day — his mother went with him in the ambulance, leaving me home alone to wait for my mother so she’d know what was happening and telling me now that I had to be strong for my mother and sister, and it was years before I could pace impatiently without starting to cry — but I’m still glad I was there. To spend that last morning with him. To see how absolutely furious he was when he realized he was having another heart attack, how determined not to leave me and my sister while we still needed a father.
And of course that’s only a tiny piece of the picture. Because this is a blog post, and because (I realize as I write this) I knew so little of him, and remember even less. One of the things I yearn for most is an adult relationship with my father. I find myself asking my mother searching questions about his beliefs or habits, asking her to explain things she doesn’t really know because I never got the chance to have those conversations with him myself. She thinks that he didn’t perform interfaith weddings, not because he didn’t support them as unions, but because he didn’t consider them Jewish marriages — but I’d like to know for sure. I’d love a sense of whether he was as conflict-avoidant as I am (and if so whether that was something he was working on or considered a good thing), or if that was more about how cantor’s children should act, particularly when they’re too young to understand synagogue politics or recognize which of the things they hear at home they shouldn’t repeat to congregants. I know a fair amount about how Judaism views atheists, but I’d love to talk to him about being both Jewish and an atheist (If, even at this point, I’d have the nerve to tell him I’m an atheist. And — and goodness, this thought feels weird — if I even were an atheist, in a life that had gone that differently.) I miss the chance for those conversations as much as anything else.
In addition to general musings on a man I loved and still feel the loss of, I’ve also been thinking about the ways being fatherless has or might have shaped me. Like the above thought about atheism, and in other ways as well. I have a book on my shelf specifically about the ways women who lose their fathers in adolescence are often shaped by that, and recognize myself all too clearly there. I know there’s a connection to the way I never really believe, deep down, that anyone will stick around in my life for the long term.* I know that many of the stupid choices I made as a teenager came down to being willing to do almost anything for male affection and approval. I feel like I’m only recently healing from some pretty awful related relationship patterns and learning to do things a better way. I wonder what my dating life would have looked like if my dad had lived, both whether I’d have been healthier in approaching it and how he would have handled meeting the often unconventional people I’ve been involved with. Fathers meeting their daughters’ dates is such an iconic image in our culture, I can’t help wondering what dating would have been like with a father — with my father.* My path into queerness and political activism feels somehow very linked to losing my father, though perhaps more because those are both so integral to my life than because of any real causal relationship. I think I’d have been far more likely to go to college if my father had lived, but I suspect I’d have found my way into radical queer community from there eventually, just as I did from living in an intentional community with a bunch of polyamorous queers. It would have looked different, but probably gotten me to a similar place.
Maybe what feels linked about it is the way I fell out of the public eye at 14, before or as I was even starting to realize I might be bisexual. So what I wonder is how I’d be different if I’d grown up still a clergyman’s daughter, having to navigate that world. I remember so clearly how the politeness felt like a mask, and I still have a lot of the habits I picked up then. I still pretend to recognize people who act like they know me, usually faking it for long enough to figure out or remember who they are (this gets embarrassing occasionally, when I’m caught). I can still tell from the way someone walks up to me whether they want a hug or a kiss hello, and if so I tend to give it to them as a reflex. My first instinct when an acquaintance says something fucked up is to smooth it over, and it sometimes takes me a few days to realize I actually really need to address it. Etc. And these are mostly habits I’ve been working on breaking for the past ten years. I wonder what I’d have been like if instead I’d continued to have them enforced, if I were trying to balance my principles against a consideration for my father’s public image. And not just my activism — I don’t try nearly has hard as I should to obscure my identity when I blog about my sex life, usually not in much detail but often in ways that reveal it to be, um, outside the mainstream. (The recent switch to blogging under my nickname is about that; don’t worry, it’s still me.) I wonder how that would go over, and what compromises I’d make. Would I still be an activist? Would I talk about bisexuality politically as much, but less about how it relates to my actual sex/love life — or share the insights I gained there but not the stories of how I came to be thinking about such things? Would I put privacy filters on more of my online presences? Would I be active and visible in the same ways, with more of an effort made from the beginning to keep my online, activism, alternative sexual community, and family personae separate? I have trouble imagining the compromises I’d have to make to live this life, to seek the connections I find meaningful and do the work I feel called to, while worrying that any misstep could lose my father his pulpit. I don’t even know if that would be a real risk, no matter what anyone knew about me.
Of course, given the assumption that I’d have gone away to college, and considering I didn’t start getting really out there with the queerness and the politics until I moved away from home, perhaps more relevant is wondering, if I’d followed this same path, what it would have done to my relationship with my father and my family. And this is where I really get stuck, thinking about it, so maybe it is the core issue. I wonder…as I came out as bi…as I got more involved in a radically political queer community…as I started dating multiple people at once, often married people…as I did activism around (for example) meaningfully welcoming trans women into “women and trans” sexual and kink spaces…as I learned to argue, politely or not as the situation and my mood at the moment called for, with everyone who said dumb shit about bisexuals, queers, trans people, fat people, women, etc. etc. etc…what would that have looked like? Would I have tried to keep that part of my life hidden from my father, so he wouldn’t worry about it getting out and reflecting poorly on him? I hope not…I don’t feel any need to talk about my sex life with my remaining parent, but I’m out to her (as poly, as queer, even as kinky) so that I can tell her about the important things going on in my life. If I can’t imagine coming out to and being open about my life with my father, that may have more to do with still being frozen in time at 14 as far as he’s concerned and less to do with a realistic idea of what our relationship would have been like after 13 years. But even if I’d told him, would that all have to be hidden when I visited home and went to synagogue? Would he have to ask me to tone things down to protect himself? How much would I have to pretend to be someone I’m not, and how much would I resent my father for it? And if I refused to pretend, would I be less welcome in his home and congregation? I don’t have any idea, but these are the things I wonder when I’m daydreaming about how lovely it would be to still have a dad. I can’t seem to help reminding myself that it probably wouldn’t be that simple.
In a way, these aren’t risky musings. I’ve been reading Sassafras Lowry’s new anthology Kicked Out (which is absolutely worth picking up), and I am about as certain as it’s possible to be that I’d have kept my home and my family. But I wonder what my life would look like now, and if my adult relationship with my father would be as uncomplicated as I like to imagine it.
I hope I would be the person I am now even if my father had lived. I hope I’d have found a compromise between my politics and activism and his place in the public eye, that I’d have managed to both be true to myself and not damage his professional reputation. I hope, and usually believe, that he’d have embraced me in all of my complexity even if it didn’t always reflect well on him at work, that we would have both found ways to navigate our very different public lives. I don’t know how realistic that is, but it’s what I like to think when I think about this. I even like to think that he’d have admired me for commitment to social justice that maybe I had something to teach him, too, and we could have grown from knowing each other. At my most optimistic, I like to think he would have been proud of me.*
And…I hesitate to admit this, when I’m so committed to my politics and my ideals, but…every time I think about it I also realize that I’d take the chance. In a heartbeat. In most of my life, I don’t regret terribly the things that have gone wrong or been painful, because I can see their role in shaping me and my life, and I like where I am now. This is different. I’d risk losing the path I’ve found to have my father back. I don’t know what I’d have found in its place, who I’d be today if he were still alive…but I’d be willing to find out.
*edited 11:15pm 3/11/10