Dedicated Scholar, Helpful Mentor, Loving Father

A son's inheritance

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in Features • Illustrated by Nina Pagano

It is not always easy to understand how one makes up their mind, and how they go about forming their future plans as a person. Many people, perhaps most people, never make a conscious decision about such things, and let the current of life make all major judgments for them. The road diverges, and they let the winds carry them where they may. By the time they realize they have made a choice that doesn’t suit them, their character, or particular sensibilities, it is often too late, if they realize this at all — most often a person never truly acknowledges that they chose wrong, and so they continue to wade through the mire of life quietly, or not so quietly, displeased.

I myself have escaped this unfortunate fate largely because of the support of my father: he always fought for my dreams, first when he was at his best and then in other ways after he had gone. In what follows I will do my best to tell you about him and what he means to me, as difficult as it is to hold a fragment of life and emotion in words — you may hold a perfect snowflake, but after a moment it wastes away. Trying to conjure the moment of perfection is nearly impossible, yet we must try.

He was the head of the family, but not in any oppressive sense. it was extremely important to him that each of us (my brother and I) be his own person and that we carve out our way in the world according to our own dreams. He loved other people and became a kind of mentor and ally to many. Some were his close friends, but others were not. He had a wide social circle and those in distress seemed to recognize something in him and find reasons to look for his proximity. His first four years in medical school (back then dentists studied medicine with medical students for four years and only then specialized in dentistry) had made him a better diagnostician than most specialists — he studied furiously at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and right up to his last days remembered nearly every page of every medical book he’d ever memorized. This allowed him to help those who suffered from various ailments. He gave them advice, helped them find the right doctor, and spent time with them, providing psychological support throughout. But others also looked for his help. Those who were depressed or worried about their home or work life sought his counsel. My father was wise and could see a path forward that others could not. He helped more people than I can count in this way and always did so with a smile. It was second nature to him, effortless.

Me he helped most of all by possessing unwavering faith in my future success. Wherever he went and whoever he spoke to, you could count on him telling that person about his brilliant son who was writing in English, had a big-time agent, and whose books would soon come out and be a huge success. I suppose many parents like to brag about their kids, but they usually do it about more brag-worthy things. And so, as you might expect, most of those he talked me up to were skeptical at first. But his belief in me was so infectious that by the time he was done, they were sold. I often met one of his patients in his clinic, people I’d never seen before in my life, and they’d start to talk to me like they knew me: you’re the son with the British agent, you were published in this and that journal, I know all about it.  

This might start to give you a sense of the kind of man my father was, but in order to truly understand him, we must go back, for our family’s history shaped its members, their ghosts, and bad dreams. The horrors of Auschwitz always held silent sway over things. My grandfather was probably there, but we can’t be sure since for the most part he refused to speak about those years. We do know, however, that my grandmother spent a meaningful portion of her youth running from the Nazis. All of this changes a family and brings into it palpable energy of trauma, as well as residues of pain and distress. My grandparents were good people but having dinner in their house was unpleasant. The tension was nearly unbearable in moments of silence, which were broken up by shouting matches between my grandmother and aunt. There is a special sound and unique music to the screams of Holocaust-families, a high-pitched shriek of urgency that doesn’t match the subject discussed, which might be as trivial as the shape of the plates on the dinner table.

This was the house my father grew up in, listening to that music of screams. He never knew if he would get a kiss or a slap in the face, and that forced him to get creative, learn the art of maneuvering and manipulation. When I was little, my mother tells me, I sometimes made up stories or tried to scam my parents in a most obvious fashion. My father, probably thinking of himself as a child, would laugh it off.

His boyhood, full of both love and thorns, influenced his fatherhood in contradicting ways. His father loved him, but after great suffering in Europe could be rather cold. Deciding he would be different with his own children, my father told me he loved me often and made sure that I know it. Yet the tension and urgency of his youth, the residues of the unnamable horrors that transpired before he was even born had left their mark. When I was very young, he was a little awkward around me, partly because he didn’t know how to conduct himself with little children and partly because of the music of screams. But in time that changed. My mother, the youngest daughter of parents who lived in a moshav (a kind of cooperative agricultural community) and who were as far removed from the hellish tensions of the war as humanly possible, was the calmest, kindest girl my father had ever met. They came from different emotional worlds, but they worked together. Her supreme tranquility, as well as domestic existence, influenced him, made his demeanor brighter and more outgoing. Expressions of love that were once difficult had become second nature: he would hug me and kiss my forehead and tell me that he loved me every day. If before he was a little reserved and unsure how to approach me, we now talked about anything and everything. He treated me like an adult despite my age and taught me history, literature, medicine, and politics, never once feeling that I was too young to understand. This helped instill faith in my capabilities early on.

The wounds of the past had healed, it seems, except perhaps those he kept from the rest of us. They were there, I sometimes saw them in a solemn expression or look, but my father was a man who knew how to compartmentalize his pain.

And though he had found a new kind of home, the one he grew up in continued to influence his life. He was an extremely skilled and talented dental surgeon, but he did not love his profession. As a young man, he wanted to be a physicist (not a pot smoking musician playing bars on the weekends), but his parents wouldn’t hear of it. My grandfather was a dentist and he would tell him things like: what would become of my clientele? My grandmother would say: physics? What will you be, a teacher? A solemn frown would immediately follow, as for her the idea that someone as bright as her son would choose that path was inconceivable. My father secretly applied to the top physics school in the country anyway and was accepted. When his parents found out they were livid. They protested, pressured him, laid the guilt on thick until he eventually toed the line and went to dentistry school.

For this reason, intellectually, he was always looking. Looking to grow, to sustain his sizable and voracious intellect, to conquer new grounds and new disciplines, like some wayward explorer of the mind. Work took much of his time, but he didn’t let it cage him. He read books on every subject under the sun, from French cheeses to medieval history to Victorian novels and books about different kinds of fighter planes. When he came across a subject that fascinated him, he went through every tome and professional article he could find, making himself an expert in the field – having a background in medicine and psychology he mastered the areas of stress management and body language and began teaching classes about them in universities.

This nature of his shaped and enriched our bond. Fathers and sons, after all, tend to move in different realms, different spheres of existence. They meet, spend together a few formative years, and then wish each other good luck. Love is there, but it is a string holding together separate lives. This was not my experience though and from a very young age, my dad shared things with me. Whatever was important for him, whatever he delighted in, he wanted me to delight in as well.

An example of this, as well as of the breadth of his intellectual pursuits, is his work in hypnosis. My father was fascinated by what this tool could achieve ( performing surgery without anesthesia, for example), and as it combined scientific foundations and creative storytelling, it suited him and his intellectual tastes perfectly.

This fascination he shared his me from an early age. He used hypnosis with problem patients (for example, ones that were allergic to anesthesia), which I witnessed many times, he taught hypnosis to others, and I learned as well. , I went with him to many conferences as a child, but also later in life. He and I talked about the subject, discussed what I’d seen and he explained his ideas and what he thought needed to change. In school and later during my military service I asked him to give lectures about hypnosis and every time, he left the crowd clamoring for more.

When he was invited to join freemasonry, he immediately began to study the subject, and being a history buff, he found it all fascinating. But the thing that resonated the most with him was the humanistic aspect of being a mason. For him it was a meeting place of the heart and the mind: it was learning for the sake of becoming better. As he knew more and ascended the ranks of the order, he brought me into the fold. Whatever he loved he wanted me to enjoy as well, and we talked about the subject constantly. Eventually, he initiated me into the order. We spent many evenings in the lodge together, taking part in the same rituals or listening to the same lectures. We spent countless hours speaking about the tenets of freemasonry and worked together on a new masonic constitution my father was in charge of writing.

But while I certainly learned a great deal from him, it was never a one-way street. When I attended classes in philosophy, history, and literature at university he wanted me to tell him about them. We’d take the car for a spin and I would sometimes talk for half an hour straight, if not more, and he’d just listen and remember it all. He often said that he loved learning from me: there was always give and take between my dad and me, open communication, and mutual appreciation. There was little I couldn’t talk to him about and when I was conflicted, I usually came to him. Some people are intelligent, but not wise, my Shakespeare teacher liked to say, but he was both and there was no situation or problem he could not dismantle with careful precision — he simply understood what made people tick.

But we didn’t just talk about my problems or what I read and learned about – we exchanged thoughts about life in general, about what love and family meant, and about his youth. In our conversations he many times told me how important it was for him not to limit me as had been limited. The restraints he imposed on me when I was growing up were ones of concern. The other children could walk back from school together if they wanted to, but I had to take a cab if the school bus was out of order. When the kids in my class went on a three-day annual school trip, I stayed home. It was also understood that I had to study and do my best in school, but as I did that, I never had to worry about bringing home a bad grade. If I got one, he supported me – I was the one to beat myself up. In other words, he made sure that I had possibilities, and from that point on he let me choose my own path in life.    

Still, his advice was so convincing and well-received, his potent intellect so admirable, that his word came to carry a great deal of weight with me, sometimes more than he realized. This was especially true when I was younger. After I left my position as a prosecutor, I decided to go on with my studies. By then I already knew I didn’t love the law and so I considered the possibility of a Master’s in literature or philosophy. My father thought that these degrees would be unhelpful, and he let me know it. I was in my early 20s then and I simply accepted it and continued to an LL.M. (another law degree). A couple of years later, when I wasn’t particularly happy with my choice, we had another conversation about the subject, which I quickly ended by saying: “I don’t want to talk about this anymore. The last time we talked about it I started this degree in the first place.”

My father was stunned. He didn’t remember the earlier conversation, nor did he realize how much he had influenced my decisions. His parents had outlined a path for him in life and the last thing he wanted was to do the same with me. From that point on he was very careful in this regard, and that influenced how he treated my writing when it became a meaningful part of my life.

I sacrificed a great deal for it. I continued to live at home longer than most in order to achieve progress. I never partied, never rebelled, never lived loudly even in those years when one is forgiven and even expected to do so. My devotion to my goals, to my stories, to my books, and getting them out there, simply consumed too much of my energy. I lived (and I suppose I still do) in my mind, and in those instances when I needed a respite from fictional realms there was my father, who was intent on helping me get where I wanted to go.

“When you’ll be rich and famous, you’ll make me your advisor for international affairs”, he would say and laugh (he loved traveling abroad). But in the meantime, he supported me. I asked for his advice about my writing and let him read emails I dispatched to editors, writers and agents in order to get his notes. I told him about the replies as they rolled in. Many were rejections, but little by little they got better, became complementary.

“You can’t compare the new replies to the ones you used to get.” He told me once. “You just need a little time to get there, and until then you’ll stay here.”

He took the trip with me and when I finally got an agent, nobody was happier: he was extremely proud of me and bragged about my achievements to anyone who would listen.

For most of my life, I couldn’t fathom a reality which did not include him.    

Then, a little over a year ago, he passed away.

People came and went through my house during the Shiva, chattering on about this and that, filling their mouths with the snacks we left out for them, chewing to keep busy. There are three kinds of Shivas. One is devoted to a person who has lived a good long life and that went peacefully. These are almost jovial, seven days in which people who don’t get together often or at all meet and share happy anecdotes about the deceased, or speak about other things altogether. The second kind is the Shiva of someone who has died badly or much too young. A middle-aged woman who lost her life during a routine operation. A nineteen-year-old soldier who died in combat. These are intolerable: people can’t look the family or each other in the eye. My father’s Shiva was the third kind, which is somewhere in the middle. Acquaintances, not too close friends and distant family experienced some unpleasantness in the Shiva, but not too much of it. 69 is too young to go these days, but it’s not tragically young. Most of all, it seems to me, this third kind is characterized by the almost morbid curiosity that hangs in the air, which people wouldn’t bother within the first or allow themselves in the second. I don’t remember much from those first days, but I do remember that each and every person who came to offer condolences began by asking what happened to my father — how did it happen? People didn’t know the details and I didn’t want to tell them (I had lived them, that was enough), but you couldn’t be rude and so I was forced to repeat the same clinical story over and over again. They meant well, I suppose, but that didn’t make it any better. Eventually, it started coming out mechanically. I hardly knew I was there or who I was talking to. The facts of death. Dry, meanly dry. Once when I was telling the story the words went through my mind. The facts of death. They flashed like a red neon sign inside my head and brought me back to the hospital, to the final minutes. Ventilators pumping away in a fluorescent-lit hospital corridor in the middle of the night. The staff asking us to sign something – his name in print under the category “name of the deceased”. Letters of death. I shuddered.

Then my mind went further back to the last year of my father’s life. It was full of pain. He went in and out of hospitals. He suffered from recurring pulmonary edema, atrial fibrillation, and diabetes. The fluids in his lungs needed draining every few weeks and he visited an ultraorthodox doctor in Bnei Brak who specialized in treating diabetic foot ulcers. Several times he was hospitalized due to an aggressive bacterium he must have picked up in the hospital. All this took a toll on him. Before, my father was a dextrous man, a man of quickness. his hands were quick — the hands of a brilliant dental surgeon. He had a quick stride a quick mind and quick, assured movements. now the quickness was taken from him gradually, dismantled like parts of an elaborate machine.

Thankfully his mind remained sharp throughout. He let us and his friends know it was all temporary, that he was on the mend. He was taking care of these health issues and would soon be back to normal. People outside the family didn’t know the exact details and were sure this was the case. Blinded by our hopes and by his promises we believed him, though in hindsight it was clear what was really happening.

My relationship with him stayed much unaltered through this. As he accompanied me in the past, I now accompanied him to his many doctor appointments, expecting his elusive recovery. A gloomy air took over the house as his situation devolved. He needed help getting around and that caused him endless frustration. A few times, banal instances brought about by the deterioration of his body, made him angry: one time, when he fell on the floor and I tried to help him up, but wasn’t strong enough, he got angry with me. I knew how much pain he was in, that it came from feeling helpless, but at that moment I was doing the best I could and his reaction stung. When my mother told him how the way he acted made me feel, he was very sorry. This account, I realize, isn’t terribly comprehensive, but while I remember vividly a great many things about our shared experiences, I found I cannot conjure more details about this and similar instances. They remain quite hazy, as though my mind has done its best to delete them because they sin against the whole and are mere blips: I got to spend a lot of time with my father in that last year, had long conversations with him at home or in hospital corridors, for which I am grateful. None of this eased what came next, of course.

For weeks after the Shiva I went through the motions of life, trying my best to keep to my routine. Every other thought led somehow to him. I read a chapter in a book and remembered that I talked to him about it. The whole scene would play out in my head, the remembrance followed immediately by pain. The steady-state was flatness, coldness. There was a cool blade pressed against my chest and every few minutes another memory made the blade pierce and retreat. At night I dreamed dreadful dreams in which my father’s ailments took on grotesque and surreal motifs. Almost every night I had at least one dream in which he died, only it later turned out to be a mistake. He was alive, but sicker than before. Most times, that only lasted a while and death finally came anyway.

This continued, though not as intensely, as time went by. Eventually I didn’t dream about him every night, and when I did, he was healthy and stayed healthy. His death and his illness were undone and him being there didn’t feel uncanny or strange, it was completely normal. A mind, I have learned, is extremely reluctant to accepting changes in the fundaments of its world, and my father being around, and being there for me, belonged to that category.

What I did on a daily basis also constantly made me think of him. My routine was that of a writer, I did various writing jobs for money — editing, translation, and the like, but my real aim was to make it as a fiction writer and doing this, my father was never far from my mind. After all, he played a substantial role in my literary journey, and losing him affected my chosen path, or at least how it felt to be on it.

Having presented some snapshots of my relationship with my dad, one can imagine, if one has ever had someone close to them perish, the crushing sense of loss that goes with it. Yet, as I mentioned his part in my “career” I would like to illuminate the aspect of loss that is tied directly to it. For that purpose, I will say a few words about how the writing thing got started and how my dad fit into it, which I hope will make some sense of the added pain that accompanied his going away. The more tethers bind you to another human being, the deeper you sink when they are removed from the board.   

I started writing young, first, short stories when I was in school, in Hebrew because this is my native tongue. During my time at university I started to work on my first novel, a sophomoric and ambitious book which complexity and uneven writing left the few people who read it perplexed. Though I lacked maturity as a writer my English was good, and so before I got started my brother suggested that I write in a language that would open up my tomes to the world, and the world to me. It was one of those forks in the road, and I must admit I did not give it much thought. I simply said why not.

I finished the book during my military service and then started to look for an agent. Until that time, I had not really considered my future. It was a given that university education must follow school, then came my obligatory service as a military prosecutor. But it was only when I was back at university that I came to think more deeply about such things, mainly because I realized I did not care for the practice of law or the life of an academic. At times, it is the dwindling of options that compels you to think introspectively, and as I began to consider writing a more central axis in my life, the light of my future fell on it with growing brightness, bringing things into focus. The concept of life as a writer began to emerge, romantic and thrilling, just as my sense of self began to take shape, the two intermingling dangerously. As a rule, this is the point in the story in which the parents intervene, making the already very difficult yet more difficult. This could certainly be anticipated here, for while societal expectations are probably universal, the pressure is much greater in Jewish families that have survived the Holocaust. Parents want you to be a doctor or a lawyer, to have a real job, and walk the path outlined for you, whether it fits you personally or not. This is what my grandparents did to my father and people tend to become the kind of parents their own parents have been, taking on all the parts of their upbringing that they resented growing up — the harsh verdicts that were imposed on them, they impose on their children. But as I’ve said before my father was different: he read my work, told me that I was talented, that I would succeed, and that he had faith in me. Neither he nor I had any idea how difficult it would be. When I finished my first novel, which I know now was not fit for publication, I made plans to find an agent within a week and hoped to find a publisher in a couple of months. This naïve starting point would soon be harshly tested by reality: it was difficult enough to get your work published, but doing so in a language other than your native tongue, when you lived abroad, was much more difficult. It took years to get my first agent, and at any point, during the process, any reasonable parent might have changed their mind and told their child to get a “real” job. Dreams don’t always come true. Talent isn’t always enough (should you have it). This is real life. Get a grip!

But my father never said that. I had many dark moments, moments when it seemed like I should heed the parental/societal voice inside me (since it didn’t issue from either of my actual parents), and accept the pain of losing my dreams once in order to save myself the pain of losing them over and over again. Yet at each and every one of these moments my father was there to support me, cheer me on and help me believe in myself and my future success.

His passing was a watershed moment for he had been Odysseus’s mentor in my travels, and with him gone I was left to wade the treacherous waters of life alone. Yet as big as the void he had left behind was, a shadow of him remained with me. His presence in my life was too powerful to dissipate into mere memories. If within every person’s head exists the voice of internal monologue, of their thoughts and judgments, and another voice with which the first voice can communicate and bargain, for me my father’s will has taken over that second voice. He fought for my dreams and made sure that after his departure I would continue to do the same. That has been his patrimonial gift to me.   

Sagy Zwirn is an Israeli writer. He is a certified lawyer with an LL.M. from Tel Aviv University. His Master's thesis dealt with Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment. His short stories and articles have appeared in various publications, including the Quarterly Review and the Evergreen Review. His short story ‘Carthage’ has appeared in the Yale Review. He has also written a novel.

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