It was pointless to ask my father direct questions about anything of substance. Subtlety was required – a slow, gentle curve of a question – never approach straight on. Anything I learned about him that was at all personal came only on his terms…when he was ready, and it always came quick…like a shooting star. With a blink of the eyes, it was gone. It’s a hard way to get to know someone, but in the end, deeply meaningful, because the stories come in precious and unexpected little nuggets.
Sometimes dad would join me as I sought refuge out in the backyard of his home – the place that had embraced my entire childhood. Along the west-facing fence was a row of Liquid Amber trees that generously gave us relief from the scorching sun. The trees grew just below the power lines that crisscrossed every backyard, up and down the street. Mourning doves perched on the wires, singing their gentle chorus, gratefully calmed the sparks that often crackled between dad and I. It seemed we were “striker” and “match” for each other, although thankfully, after more than 40 years, the friction between us had finally begun to wear down. A slight, cool breeze calmed the fiery afternoon. Two dark green lawn chairs with woven, plastic webbing, that had been in the backyard as long as I could remember, provided us with familiar seating.
We sat side by side, in front of a tangerine tree that was planted to mark my birth. Currently, it was at the center of dad’s venomous war with the squirrels, over ownership of the sweet and sour, deliciously juicy fruit: a battle they waged every season. The squirrels’ method of devouring dad’s favorite fruit was, according to my father, a personal affront. They’d jump down out of the taller Liquid Ambers nearby and sit at the very top of the tangerine tree, harvesting only the best sun–ripened fruit. That would have been crime enough, but their technique was unforgivable, and brilliant. They’d gnaw a little hole in the perfectly ripe fruit and then suck the entire contents out, leaving the empty, round, skin intact. Then they’d just toss the empty fruits, which lay scattered all around the base of the tree. From a distance they looked like whole tangerines, and I’m sure that dad, with his failing eyesight, had been fooled many times.
I imagined the squirrels safely up in their roost watching dad curse as he found another empty shell of his favorite, late afternoon snack. This was their eternal feud, but dad had a plan. There was a big stack of old aluminum-framed screens discarded when the original wooden windows had been replaced. He subscribed to the belief that nothing should ever be thrown out…so they’d been stacked in the back shed behind the garage for about ten years. He had this amazing and complex scheme that involved suspending the screens above the tangerine tree so the squirrels couldn’t jump down to it from above.
I told dad that I thought he was actually training the squirrels to perform ever more sophisticated aerial feats, adding, “They’ll just climb around to the underside of the screens and carry on with their plundering.” He snorted his disagreement to me at about the same time that a squirrel with impressive agility, demonstrated my point by climbing up a large tree trunk backwards, with its head pointing down and bushy tail jabbing upward, all the while scolding dad for ever considering that he might come out the victor. Dad just muttered and waved his hand as if to dismiss both the squirrel and me.
In the midst of all this talk of tangerines and squirrels, dad suddenly veered off into an entirely different conversation, stating that my mother was an agnostic and he was an atheist. “Where did THAT come from?” I wondered. I restrained myself from turning to directly face him as he brought up such an intensely personal subject. Instead, I listened as unobtrusively as possible. It was so rare to have this kind of conversation with him – even intense listening could cause him to clam up and change the subject.
I spoke softly…“If you’re an atheist, doesn’t that mean that you’re certain there is no God? How can you be sure about it? How do you know for sure?” After a long pause, my father, born in 1914, told me that it happened when he was in his twenties – when he became aware of what was going on in Germany, then spreading throughout much of Europe, ahead of World War II. In a tone I’d never heard from him he replied, “A lot of us felt it,” – “us” being American Jews, born of Jewish immigrants who’d fled Eastern Europe during the pogroms. He told me that initially he felt betrayed by a God that would allow such slaughter, and this betrayal turned into a certainty when he learned that it was happening again: such destruction of life and property proved to him that there couldn’t possibly be a God. As he described this shift in his belief, I felt his heartbreak, his utter sense of abandonment, and his unequivocal knowing that he was completely on his own; a belief he lived by, ever after. Based on the beliefs…or maybe more accurately, non-beliefs of my parents, I was left on my own to develop any sense of religious or spiritual faith that I might yearn for. And I did…I had a deep yearning for such guidance.
Over the years, as I watched my father turn down help again and again, I came to see that it was the only way for him, if he was to continue with his conviction that he had to “go it alone”. There was no one else but him: no one here, which I can imagine stemmed from the fact that at the age of eleven, and being the eldest boy at home, he became the male head of the household after his father died of tuberculosis, and, there was no God above that was going to help him either. I also slowly realized that he saw any acceptance of help, as an admission of vulnerability that he could not allow, could not bear.
Being the child most like him in this regard, I was a seasoned student of this mindset, having grown up in his household under his stern rule. As a young adult, I’d become quite skilled at the very same approach to life: the belief that I could, and moreover had to, carry whatever came my way, all on my own.
A few months after my 31st birthday, I was in a car accident so horrific that when the first Emergency Responder showed up and found me wandering around crazed and barefoot in the darkness, soaking wet from the pouring rain, he looked at me and then at my car and said, “Whoever was in that car…they didn’t make it. There’s no way anyone could live through that.” But I was the one in that car. And I did make it.
It took a lot of years for me to shed that big, old, shell of a belief I inherited from my proud father that demanded, “I gotta go it alone”. I realized that clearly, the fact that I did live through that accident meant I DID NOT GO IT ALONE. It was true what that First Responder said – there’s no way someone could live through that – but I did, somehow. I had help – and lots of it. They were there. The angels. To this day, I don’t exactly know what I mean by angels…but it’s the word that always comes. I can tell you for sure that in the midst of that one conversation, as dad and I were taunted by tangerine-marauding squirrels, it never dawned on me that I would ever wonder if angels might be looking after my father.
In the years following my mother’s death, my father just kept making adjustments…as he’d done his entire life. Whatever fate fell to him, he would meet it head on. And so it was with becoming a widower; figuring out how to live in his home, alone, after sharing it with his wife and three children for fifty-six years. As I watched dad navigate his way through the last years of his life, I slowly began to realize he was clearly surrounded by them – angels. He was approaching his nineties, his vision was declining rapidly, and so was his hearing. Dementia was hanging around, just on the edge of his world, showing up now and again.
Having given up driving, dad did a lot of walking. He lived just four doors down from a busy street that he used as his main thoroughfare. One day, returning from a trip to the bank, he misjudged the height of a curb and instead of climbing back up to the sidewalk after crossing the street; he tripped and fell, hitting his head on the concrete. There he was, laid out on the ground, inches from where cars were making right turns. One such driver saw my father there on the sidewalk and pulled over. As he approached, my father ever on the alert, shouted as menacingly as a skinny old man could,
“GET AWAY FROM ME!” fearing that he was about to be mugged or attacked, when he was down and seemingly helpless.
The driver leaned over to help dad up.
“I SAID GET AWAY FROM ME!” dad hurled, as blood ran down his face.
The man approached dad again, who took a swing at him, even as he lay on the ground.
Finally something let loose and he allowed the man to help him up, but then he turned again, preparing to throw a punch in case he tried to take advantage of dad. This angel offered dad a ride home, but was vigorously refused. As the adrenaline began to wear off, he felt the chill of exhaustion sink deep into his bones and softened to the man. Eventually my father agreed that he could use a little help walking home, but refused to get into the stranger’s car. Disoriented at first, dad wasn’t even sure where he lived. Luckily he was only two blocks from his home, and in the end, recognized his dear old house at 5219. He allowed the man to walk him almost to the front porch and then sent him away.
Miraculously, dad didn’t break any bones, or suffer a concussion. He did have some bruises, but all in all, how was that possible at his age? Later on he would recount the part that he was most proud of: he remembered how to roll into a fall, instead of bracing himself with his hands. He called it “the tuck and roll,” and sang it out slow like a chorus from some old favorite song. It came from his training as a fighter in his youth; both on the streets and in the gymnasiums in his rough and tumble 1920’s Detroit neighborhood. With Jews on one street, Italians on the next, Irish around the corner – fist fighting was a way of life.
There are many stories about my father in the last years of his life that are true mysteries…so many “near misses” where he could have been terribly injured or even lost his life, due to his fierce sense of independence which demanded that he do everything for himself.
Who helped dad, who helped me – that is the Great Mystery. I don’t need to understand it all, and at this point in my life, what I say is, YES: the angels come, whether or not you believe in…anything.