He himself took the lump of sausage—and popped it into his mouth. Get the teeth to it. Chew, chew, chew! Lovely meaty smell! Meat juice, the real thing. Down it went, into his belly. End of sausage.
—One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
Dad didn’t have a gall bladder. He lost it to a bunch of sausage rinds he ate in Italy on his way to America. The butcher gave them to him for free at the end of the day and they were so very tasty, the finest, tastiest sausages you ever ate. Certainly beat the cans of dog food mistakenly bought at the grocery store, but you know, those were tasty too.
I thought for many years that I did not have a father. Even though I remember the night he left. I was three. My room felt so big, even bigger in the dark, and I stirred because there were voices, muffled voices behind the door, and I could see that the hall light was on from the crack beneath my door. I shuffled out of bed and through the hall and everyone else was already there, my mom and brother at the top of the staircase and my father at the bottom, with a big suitcase. I asked him why he had a suitcase. He said he’s going to another house, a nice house, and that I could go there whenever I wanted, I would have another house. I burst into tears.
Dad lost a kidney last year. He didn’t say much about it. He said there was fuzzy tissue covering it, said he might not make it to my college graduation. They didn’t know how they had missed it. Whisperings of cancer, but he never said the word, and then the kidney was gone and he was good as new in a sweaty gray suit.
After the divorce, I saw him every few weeks, every month or two. My brother and I would crawl into his car on Saturday afternoons and inevitably get dinner and watch a movie. As we got older, we drove further away so that we didn’t need to worry about running into anyone, so that we could be anonymous. The car was the nexus of socializing. It happened in fits and starts, nobody made any eye contact. Dad would sort of smile and say uh huh at random intervals. Sometimes something would set him off, he would rattle away emphatically about this or that—how religion is indeed the opiate of the masses, a way to fool your brain into producing endorphins, an ancient scheme to curb the spread of venereal disease. Dealing with waiters always made me cringe, I never knew what terrible faux pas I would grapple with next, but the darkness of the theater was safe. It was our escape into reality, because everything about my father felt like an illusion.
There was this very specific way he ate a watermelon. It killed me. Quarter the beast, insert your entire face into it, and suction loudly. Took about 30 seconds for the flesh to disappear.
In elementary school, I made a friend. I went to her house every day after school, and often stayed for dinner. Her dad would come home and eat dinner with the family, every day. He would laugh with us and tell stories and ask about our day. On Friday nights the family would play board games together after dinner, and on the weekends they would go on long bike rides together, or drive far away to go canoeing. He listened to their ideas and desires. He showed them how to do things. He built them a treehouse and set up a badminton net in the backyard. He even carved seven giant wooden gates for our fifth grade Egypt project, an interactive passage through the afterlife. I thought he was the coolest, the ideal father. My dad was nothing like that. He was never there for me, he never supported me. He never came to my concerts, or helped me with homework. He didn’t raise me, or know me, what I liked, or what I wanted. He left when I was three, so I barely remembered living with him, he was almost a stranger. He came to hang out sometimes, I didn’t understand why. Was it fun for him? Did he feel like he had to? Did he need to establish ownership, fulfill a legal role? So he was my biological father, fine, but maybe that’s as far as it went.
At some point, this idea fell away. I met other people’s fucked up fathers and I realized that I didn’t have it so bad. I was free in a way that few were.
Dad spent two years in gulag in Siberia. When I asked him about it once he laughed very loudly. He pick-axed ice and shoveled shit all day every day, and lost his sense of smell.
In college, I learned the ten commandments for the first time. Honor your father and mother. It was so simple. The expectations so much lower than I would ever have expected. No mention of loving, no mention of obeying, no mention of what honor meant.
The Sifra, Midrash Halacha, said honor was feeding and giving drink and clothing and covering and bringing in and bringing out. This made it sound like the fulfillment of honor came late in life, when parents are very old, when their basic functioning is compromised, and they return to a child-like state of needy dependence.
His mother had a novel approach to baby feeding. She tried it on my brother once when he refused to eat his kashka. Plugged his baby nose and inserted a spoonful right into his little breathing mouth. My mother protested and she said what? That’s how I did it with your husband.
So fine, I had a father. And I decided to honor him, despite everything, it was the least I could do, since I only existed on his account. But it didn’t mean I had to love him.
There was a rumor going round in Minsk that his father didn’t die of a stroke at the age of forty, he killed himself because his heart was broken. He used to say of his wife’s infidelity, it’s better to share cake than eat shit alone.
I thought for many years that I did not love my father. In my first year of college, I got a call from my mother, she was sobbing, and saying something incomprehensible about an accident. I picked out that it was about my father, that he was in the hospital, his face, they didn’t know if he was going to survive.
Dad had always had a knack for totaling his car and walking out without a scratch. He never told us, he’d just appear with a rental, or a new car, each more hideous than the last. He told me when I was learning to drive, don’t pay attention to anyone that is honking at you, just ignore them, and if you see something cool out the window, look, because otherwise you’ll miss it. He was the first person to take me out on the highway, long before my driver’s ed teacher, and he was the only person from whom I sensed absolutely no fear during that process.
I went into the bathroom and sat on the floor and cried and cried and cried. Why was I crying? If I didn’t love him, somewhere, it wouldn’t feel like this.
It turned out he was okay. He messed up his face though. Some metal came close to his eye, they had to do a process called “facial revision” to fix him up a little. He laughed loudly on the phone when he told me that. I laughed too. There was a genteel subtlety in the term. He’d also lost a piece of his thumb. They couldn’t find his fingernail in the rubble, so he lost that too.
When I saw him it was better than I’d expected. The skin around his left eye was thin and asymmetrical. The eyeball came out too far and I could see too much pink beneath it. There was a new indentation across his forehead. He looked a little messed up, but it wasn’t so bad. His mother made him wear sunglasses around her. He told me that the vision in that eye had actually improved.
My mother once asked him why he waited so long to marry. He told her his mother was very beautiful.
There was something uncanny about it. The slight distortion of his face did not render his appearance unfamiliar. But in slipping from its resemblance to a human face, it began to mirror his overall distance from human personality.
I thought for many years that he was not human. My suspicions began one Saturday afternoon, not too long after the divorce, when I was bedridden with a nasty bug. Dad came anyway. He walked into my room, sat on the bed, and with a false exaggeration of expression and vocal tone, asked me how I was feeling. He attempted sympathy in a way that made me want to disappear and vomit at the same time. He never came again when I was sick.
My brother went on a trip to Arizona with my father the summer he graduated high school. He went kayaking for eight hours without a dollop of sunscreen and came out with second degree burns. My brother insisted on going to the doctor. In the waiting room, my dad said, it’s because you’ve been eating too much meat. My dad refused to help, so my brother got on a plane and flew home alone. The following week, the burns inflated into pus-filled basketballs. He lied in bed and didn’t move.
This glaring inability to empathize disturbed me for years. How could he be human without sharing our basic ability to feel for one another, to care... it struck me as the only reliable access point. And then I read about autism. The autistic person experiences emotion but struggles to intuit those of others. Their situation is difficult, requiring sympathy and attention. I didn’t think that this was my father’s disorder—I suspected years of compounded trauma and neglect were. But there was a similarity: if he was incapable of empathizing, there was no use in holding it against him. There were other modes of connection, like sharing in his enthusiasm for rock’n’roll or dinosaurs, insects or engineering. There was another way to be human, a humanness that didn’t take empathy as its core value—I just didn’t know it, hadn’t accepted it yet.
I remember going to his house once, a year or so after he left. I pointed out a spider, crossing the grayish carpet. My dad told me it was a daddy long legs, that they are totally harmless. He took a glass jar from the kitchen, and we played with him, watching him waltz in and out on spindle legs. He told me there was a whole spider family in the garage. I wanted to see! We went down to the garage and he opened up a square in the side of the wall and it was really dark in there and it smelled like gasoline but he pointed to the back corners and I could barely make out the soft gray of spider webs and legs inside.