Saturday, August 23, 2008

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Stuff My Father Won't Tell Me ... A Continuation

"Sooooo .... Dad, tell me this ... you ready for some questions and answers?" I'm still trying to have him give up the stories of his life I know he's holding back on.

My father has stage four cancer. He is home. I spend the afternoons with him three days a week. It's good for him, me and his wife, Bobbie, gives her a chance to get out and do stuff.

This is hardly the first time my dad and I have prepared for a lengthy disputation. As a matter of fact, we rather enjoy the experience of give and take, trying to better the other with the force of his argumentation. My father gets such nachas (enjoyment) from the experience. He thinks I'm so smart. Fatherly prejudice. As for me, I've always enjoyed bonding with my dad.

"Sure, go ahead." He gears up. I can see it. It's almost as if my father is testing my "sticktoitiveness" before he'll tell me the stuff that I really want to hear. And even then, it's just a "maybe". I may get closer but there will remain, a core of stuff that he'll continue to withhold from me. My goal is to have him tell me as much about himself as possible, before it is too late.

Perhaps, you find this sort of thing hard to read because it may stir up your own comparable memories. It's powerful stuff. Hits close to home, doesn't it?

I did not live with my father for very long at all. I grew up in St. Louis with my mother and grandmother after my folks' divorce. That is why I do this. It's a mutually beneficial sort of thing: I get to ask questions and listen while my father tells his story to his son, the writer. It's really quite dramatic when you think about it.

"Dad, what was your best day?" I asked, hoping to unleash a flow of words.

"Oh, that's easy," he said smilingly. The day you were born."

"No Dad, hmm, not what I want. I knew you were going to say that. Here now, excluding all those easy answers, births, weddings bla bla bla, excluding all of that, tell me about your best day."

Ah, now that seems to have struck a note. His mien changed remarkably. I know that face. I could see he was going back to the war, WW2, digging deep, exactly where I wanted him to go. I had tried before to elicit these memories, but he always stopped short. This time I think I had him.

"My best day was when I realized I was going to survive the war. You see ... that was my primary concern, for me Albert, I was intent on coming home alive! You know the old expression about there being no atheists in the foxholes?

"Sure. I've heard that."

"Well,, I assure you. It's the absolute truth. There were a couple of guys in my company, avowed atheists. We were gearing up for the Battle of the Bulge. Eveyybody and I mean everybody had a role in that. Well, me and these two guys found ourselves in the same foxhole with our heads in the mud. I dont know what it was, a grenade, a shell whatever. In my life, I had never seen so much praying. 'Dear Lord, please get me out of this. I'll be good. I'll never do that again.' You know the usual stuff that comes out under deep stress. So I says to these guys, I says: 'Whistling a different tune now, huh?' (My father has this peculiar grammatical habit of saying "I says". Really annoying but I keep my mouth shut.)

"How about you, Dad?

"What about me?"

"You know ... your belief?" (Finally, I had him right where I wanted him.)

"Me? Naw, I don't believe in God."

I was thunderstruck.

"Huh? What about the 'whistling a different tune' stuff, the foxhole?"

"Oh, I was just trying to 'raz' them."

"But, but ..."

There was definately something wrong with this picture. My father looked tired so I dropped it. He excused himself to take a nap. I thought about this whole thing for a while. His revelation bothered me. It really did.

A day or two later, I think I may have cracked the case, but it's only a theory at this time. Something had happened in his life that not only transformed him but shattered him and his belief as well. I think my father believed in God for the longest time-not religiously because my father is not a religious man, but a man who is (was?) spiritually inclined-just not in some grandly philosophical, ethereal way. In fact, I caught a snapshot of his theology the other day. He argued, as so many do, for the "proof" of the correctness of atheism that 'were there a God-a caring, loving, parent-like God (and it's important to recognize that that is their image of a God which for them pardoxically either does not or no longer exists)-He would not allow the terrible things in life to happen. It is a child's conception of God, an outlook stunted in its growth at an early age but adhered to for years of adult life. But then something happens that just shatters it, like so much glass. It's not a resilient belief so it shouldn't surprise us to discover it cannot weather the storms of life.

What happened?

When my father's first grandson died, my son Ben, nearly eight years ago on November 22, 2000, my father's fragile belief, his glass-like spirituality shattered just outside the operating room in the ER of Cook County Hospital in Chicago. I stood right next to him as he pled with The Almighty. I was there, saw it all ... heard every word.

"Standing by my father, together we witnessed a fiercely desperate scene unfolding no more than ten feet from us. I turned my head momentarily to check on my dad and beheld a
“stranger” praying fervently for the life of my son. While holding his arms overhead with the
palms of his hands flattened against the glass partition, his body slightly angled outward and
feet spread apart, appearing as if he were about to be searched by the police, he pled with The
Almighty for His immediate intervention.

“Hold on Ben! Fight back! Please fight back!” my father, a sensitive though doggedly determined man, called out once, twice, thrice during Ben’s waning seconds, while there was yet a spark of life aglow."*

(to be continued)

*Excerpted from Snapshots In Memory of Ben.

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