The most important thing for me is to not be overwhelmed. When faced with too many things to do, I am paralyzed. Which one is more important? If I do one, the others don’t get done. How to line them up? Which goes first? Which second?
Right now, this very instant, as I am sitting in my bed at the coast, looking out over the Pacific, which is still and glassy after a week of tremendous turmoil and dotted along the horizon with the yellow lights of fishermen that are as bright as the candle flickering on the chest of drawers in the corner – right that very instant the light overhead flashed on. As I whipped around to see what had turned it on – Dylan getting up to stretch and scratch? My leaning too aggressively into the headboard? – the light went out again. I’ve wriggled my fingers into the narrow space between the headboard and the wall and tried to depress the rheostat and flip the switch. It won’t budge. The light went on. The light went off. I can only conclude, completely irrationally, that this is my father’s way of weighing in on my indecision about what to do first, and what second.
He always quoted Ruskin to me: “Know what you have to do, and do it!” So what I have to do is: taxes (again!); translation; drawing; grant proposals; self-evaluation (work); course proposals. I will work my walks with Dylan into that string, and use my mind’s various levels to brainstorm solutions to problems as they present themselves.
Now Dylan is growling a soft threat, and there’s a creaking downstairs, though the doors are locked. Perhaps it’s the house stretching and settling down to sleep after the sunny day. The fire is still burning in the fireplace. I’m listening for the little sounds and on the alert.
Today, seven years ago, my father died at the Hebrew Home for the Aged in Riverdale, NY, without waiting for me to come and say good-bye to him and wish him well on his long journey and thank him for having brought me into the world, for having taught and guided me and given me constant examples of integrity, courage, responsibility, creativity, diligence, and love. Not to mention: punctuality. I have, God willing (D.v.) many more years of work ahead of me before I can live up to the example he left me.
Even if he caused me great plain and fear throughout our years together, my love for him was constant, and filled with compassion and pity: for the obstacles life continually threw his way that he had to steel himself over and over again to overcome. He was a brave man, with much pain and anguish in his soul. May he rest in peace and look over me.
Did he really send me the “man in my life” seven years ago to guide me on my path since he, my father, left me? If one were to believe in signs, then the signs say: yes. In November of the year he died, I was setting off to visit, for the first time, the “MIML”. It was early morning, on a Friday. Snow was in the air, and the sky pressed down hard against the Portland hills. I stepped outside to put my bag in the car, collect the red poodle, Pika Secunda, who was crouching into a luxurious pee on the sloping sidewalk, when a small grey bird with a pertly upturned tail, hopped toward me and suddenly sprang into the air and flew into my house.
Stunned, I stood indecisive (see opening paragraph, above): what to do? Get the dog? Lock the car? Get the bird? And decided to seize the dog, lock the car, and go in the house. The bird was fluttering around the living room, chirping merrily. It settled on the arm of the couch, tilted its head, and watched me. I stepped lightly to the terrace door and threw it open and walked back to the couch, waving my hands to shoo the bird out. But he had absolutely no interest in leaving. I realized I could spend the entire morning trying to chase the bird out, and anxious to get on the road before the snows began, made up my mind to shelter the bird.
I filled a bowl with cereals (flax-seed and oats and bird seed), and another bowl with water, said a prayer that all would be ok, and left.
Two days later I was back. The bird was waiting for me, sitting on the frame of my father’s portrait on the mantle. He had made that his home. The seeds were nearly all gone. He looked at me with my father’s expression as if to say,” Well done! “ and then hopped over to the door and waited for me to open it, and flew off.
That visitation of the bird I took for a sign that my father approved of the relationship that was then still in the making, from which I would learn so much and come to understand so much about my blind spots and denials.
I need my father’s guidance again and I ask for it tonight, eight minutes before the day is done.
The images I’ve interspersed in this remembrance of my father are from the aftermath of the turbulence at sea, when my eye was caught by all the blue that had washed up with the spindrift and the massive waves. The blue flotsam and jetsam matched perfectly the deep, clear blue of the sky.
My father has moved on from this life. My daughter’s mother, at 100, is still alive, still exerting a tremendous psychological power over her son, and through him, over all our lives. She delivers oracular pronouncements in the briefer and briefer intervals of wakefulness. Today, she spoke about “conflicts of interest” and her words reverberated through the conversation I had with her son, though while I was listening to him telling me how his wife would be outraged – and rightly so, he said – about all that he does for me to make my life easier, I had no inkling that he was working out the intense anxiety into which his mother’s comments on “conflicts of interest” had thrown him.
My nerves jangled from his fear of the potential consequences of his good deeds. He is still terrified of his mother’s judgment, even though she is a tiny, weak, frail old creature, fiercely looking out for his well-being and trying to shield him from matrimonial woes. She always asks about the MIML – even though her memory is failing her in other areas of the present. I know why she asks: as long as I’m not married off to another man, in her eyes, I continue to represent a threat to the stability of her son’s marriage. Once, several weeks ago, when he and I and she were on Skype together, and I pointed out what she was doing, she instantly agreed: “She’s right,” she told her son. “Yes.” Woman to woman, we understand each other and love and respect each other, even as we circle each other warily, competing for influence over her son’s heart.
When I was just an infant, an old man – so my mother tells the story – peered into the baby carriage where I was lying, and spotting the blue vein crossing the bridge of my tiny nose, said, “Tut tut, she’ll be trouble, this one.” I do create a fair amount of trouble around me, I’m afraid. I make some women nervous, and I don’t seem to be able to give to any man I’ve loved and love, the most fundamental gift one human being can give to another: peace of mind, security and soul commitment.
Is this peculiar to me? Do other women succeed in giving this to the men they love? I look at a number of my women friends and acquaintances who have long, stable marriages and wonder what it is that they know that I don’t know. How do they manage to find their way while I make such a hash of it? Sometimes I think I’ve loved well and then I wonder why is it that I am alone now, stubbornly trying to reclaim my life. Or… maybe I’m just running away from life’s challenges into solitude?
Sometimes I think that being an immigrant, I have a tin ear for American men. I can’t judge accurately the character of the men to whom I’m drawn. My daughter, on the other hand, seems to have a better, sounder sense. Unless I am mistaken – and I hope fervently that I am not — she chose her love carefully, deliberately, and wisely. Time will tell.
I remember how awed I was when I first met her father and he began to court me. I could scarcely believe my good fortune: he was such a perfect match for my background, intelligence, education, aspirations, and looks. It seemed a perfect miracle that somehow in the alien Great Pacific Northwest the two of us, cast adrift here in the same year 1977, would have come together. A year of utter misery preceded that meeting at the end of May 1980 that would fundamentally reshape the course of my life.
The house has settled down for the night. The waves break with a syncopated crash followed by a muted hum. The fragrant candle sputters. The black sky is dotted with stars, and the fishing boats’ lights still mark the line of the horizon.