- The Visit to My Father
I've been here before, in the taxi hurtling away from the airport, ears stuffed with the air of my old home. Still, as certainly as I am here now, I have never before returned home to the moment of my father's dying.
To describe this seems nearly impossible. I see and record the way he lies in bed all morning, how he rests, muffled in blankets, and slouches in his green easy chair, taking care of his cough in the afternoon. I notice the tremor in his hand as he carefully forms letters, legible but crooked on the label of a tape cassette or a file folder. Morning after evening, he counts out his pills: two small burgundy capsules to control his cholesterol level, a blue tablet alternating with a yellow lozenge (hormones and chemicals to combat the metastasis), a half-green, half-red capsule to undo his anemia, minuscule white tabs for depression, and a disk the size of a quarter to stop the pain when he's saturated with radiation.
My father is not the sum total of his diseases. His medications do not define him, nor do his fragile bones, lacy with cancer, weakened by the pinpoint rays that cure by killing. He bites into the painkiller and grimaces at the bitter release, masked weakly with a whiff of peppermint. He says, "Clinton is energizing the country again." He says, "Now, I have essentially retired. I still see a few patients. I am finishing the last chapter of my autobiography." [End Page 64]
At the video store, I rent Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: my father likes stories about his war. My mother dozes on the couch. I turn around from where I sit on the floor, and he, too, has fallen asleep. The horsemen gallop in the roiling clouds, between the lightning bolts—War, Pestilence, Hunger, and Death—in this "saga of a family divided by Good and Evil in Occupied France." His head tilts to the right, his lips are open in a crooked "O," the mouth of an old man. I have to look again to see that his hair is no longer mostly black, no longer crinkly. His breath is shallow. Like a baby nuzzling for the nipple, his hand reaches blindly into the ungiving air and finds his knee.
He starts awake and says, "My secretary stretches out her hours as long as possible. Twelve dollars an hour. She spells 'occasionally' with one 'c'. She leaves lines out. She takes Bush's defeat personally. 'Your President Clinton,' she says to me."
Today, my father himself goes down to the hospital to xerox extra copies of the handout for my talk at his club, the Yiddish Vinkl. He had his secretary type out 123 invitations, which now bring together my childhood pediatrician, my former orthodontist, the provost of his university, and a future Nobel Prize laureate who clones cancer-devouring genes to hear me talk about the legacy of Yiddish in my poems.
Afterwards, in the deli over a bowl of soup, "The intellectual level was higher tonight than usual." And then, swallowing his outrage like medicine, "I studied Yiddish here, at the Workmen's Circle. I liberated Bergen Belsen with Patton's Seventh Armored Division. I've given you your legacy." On the way out, he stops at the cash register to complain that the cook was stingy with the matzo ball soup, "You serve an awfully small bowl." The cashier taps her red nails on the keys and sneers. "There's two sizes." [End Page 65]
Kathryn Hellerstein is Associate Professor of Yiddish at the University of Pennsylvania. Her books include: a translation of Moyshe-Leyb Halpern's poems, In New York: A Selection; Paper Bridges: Selected Poems of Kadya Molodowsky; and Jewish American Literature: A Norton Anthology, of which she is co-editor. She's published many poems, translations, and articles, including in Bridges, Kerem, and Prairie Schooner. Her new books on women Yiddish poets are forthcoming.