I have never visited my father’s birthplace in Kosice, Czechoslovakia. In fact, I find that part of the world quite confusing. I couldn’t tell you the difference between a Czech and a Slav or what area the Czech Republic occupies.
My father, who passed away in 1999, was an incredibly complex man who survived Holocaust death camps and then returned to an Eastern Europe where his family — mother, father, two brothers and a sister — were but a memory. He made a few European pit stops in Vienna and Paris before deciding to raise a family in America.
I often think that his will to live after losing so many close to him is a miracle. His loss is unfathomable, more than anyone should bear in a lifetime, much less at the tender age of 16 when we in America are mostly worried about college, sex, and our future prospects.
He wore his pain stoically. Most people did not know the baggage he carried in his heart. But those close to him saw the immeasurable pain and damage the war inflicted. He was a man who always thought doom was around the corner, that any silver lining was about to be eclipsed by a dark cloud.
It is Father’s Day as I write this and a glance at my Facebook feed shows countless pictures of fathers and pithy tributes. It is hard to sum up a huge relationship — one that has so many layers and ups and downs — in a short tribute. But many try to do this and it makes us feel good that, even though our fathers are long gone, we can at least honor their memory on this Hallmark holiday.
I’ve been thinking a lot about my father lately, more than 17 years after he suddenly dropped dead while on vacation in Florida. He died at the age of 73, tanned, with his mind still crystal clear and his love for my mother still fierce.
At the time, it all seemed so tragic — an unexpected bursting of an artery, a relatively young man felled just as he was beginning to enjoy being a new grandfather, a big hole opened up in my mother’s heart for the loss of her beloved.
I went through the normal stages of grieving. But because my third child was born just three weeks after dad’s sudden death, the focus shifted quickly. My child-related insomnia was exacerbated by the shock of losing a parent, the first death of someone close to me. My heart ached. I wore his clothing for a few months to feel close. I attended daily prayer groups to say the Jewish prayer for the dead. Life marched on and there were young kids, a newly fragile mother and a growing business to distract me from thinking too much about my dad and his painful life.
But last month I visited his brother, my only living relative of his generation, and the memories and the aches came flooding back. My uncle regaled me one weekend with stories about how he and my father eluded the Nazis in the mid-1940s, how they were able to procure false Christian identity documents for 9,000 other Jews, and how my father protected his young love — my mother — during the war.
It occurred to me that while my father must have suffered deeply in his teenage years because of the loss of his family, his life after that was filled with much joy. His love affair with my mother, which started when they were both tweens in 1937, stayed strong for the 51 years of marriage they enjoyed. My father saw his two sons grow up in New York, go to prestigious colleges, and find success in their chosen professions. He even got to see the promised land: two of his grandchildren, Jonah and Tess, were the apple of his eye in those few years he got to enjoy them at the end of his life.
Father’s Day does force us to think of our dads and the impact they had on our lives. I was blessed to be raised by a man who was always there when I needed him; I never questioned where he would be when the chips were down. We all have our quibbles with each of our parents — they should have done this more, they shouldn’t have done that, whatever.
But now, as a father of three wonderful children who are each entering their adult years too rapidly for me to ponder, I have a greater appreciation for my father’s sturdiness and devotion to family.
In this week after Father’s Day, I think of the famous phrase: “Ninety percent of life is just showing up.”
Here’s to all dads like mine, who never stopped showing up. That’s all we can ask.