Photograph courtesy Meislin Projects, NY
Sharon Ya’ari, Route 6, 2010, archival pigment print 15 x 20.5 inchesPhotograph courtesy Meislin Projects, NY

Dead Fathers

Tablet Original Fiction: On a lonely road, the emptiness of the pandemic rushes in

by
Julia Fermentto-Tzaisler
February 02, 2021
Photograph courtesy Meislin Projects, NY
Sharon Ya'ari, Route 6, 2010, archival pigment print 15 x 20.5 inchesPhotograph courtesy Meislin Projects, NY

The day it happened to my father I celebrated my birthday.

I woke up in tears after a restless night tossing and turning, trying to forget the sorrow that ran through my blood like alcohol. I dragged myself out of bed, washed my face, and looked at my bloodshot eyes in the mirror. Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, Oh Lord. Lord, hear my voice: Let thine ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications. Please, please, please. I only have one wish for my birthday, God, please end my father’s suffering. I cried and stared at the large tears sliding down my cheeks. Each one was the size of an olive.

We celebrated at the upscale restaurant in the Nordoy Hotel. We ordered madeleines that were served with a side of heavy cream, giant chandeliers swung above our heads, threatening to crush us. David said beautiful things to me in honor of my birthday, warm and sweet things, and I nodded as if I were a person, just a normal person. A pretty young woman with black hair, who is eyed with envy as her boyfriend kisses her rosy birthday cheeks—not someone whose father lies in a bed at the Beyet Rivka rehabilitation center, weighing just under a hundred pounds. I stared at the bartender who was fixing bloody marys for the couple seated beside us. He had an enormous belly that swung from side to side, wobbling. His belt was punched full of holes, the metal prong tore at the last one, his belly threatened to explode in our faces. He threaded a cornichon on a fine wooden toothpick and then a shiny round olive, gently setting the toothpick across the full glass. My heart told me I would remember that bloody mary for the rest of my life.

Later on I drove to Beyet Rivka but a blue curtain had already been drawn around my father’s bed, and the only thing I could see were the tops of the feet belonging to the medical personnel who were handling him. I started to howl in pain, “No daddy, no daddy.” I fell to the floor. People who were not my father approached me, attempting to calm me down. I stroked his warm, soft face, which even at that moment hadn’t lost an ounce of its beauty and tenderness. And I started running. People who were not my father chased after me but they could not catch me. I kept running and running, I crossed the length of the entire gray city, crying. My olive-size tears from that morning had grown giant, they were now as big as balloons.

At the end of that day I was no longer the God-fearing little girl who begged the Lord to put an end to her father’s suffering. I was no longer begging. I told the Lord explicitly that if he took my father, the best of all fathers, the most generous, gracious, wise, kindhearted and sweetest of them all, and left the world with plenty of insignificant fathers, self-centered fathers, fathers who don’t show the slightest interest in their children, who are a bore to themselves and their environment, loathsome, unnecessary, alive—then I demand revenge.

I won’t tell anyone about it. I don’t want to boast about my conversations with God.

Plenty of fathers died at first, mostly in China, but now they’re dropping like flies in Italy, Germany, the United States. God recently started killing the fathers of Israel, which makes me joyous and fills me with delight, to share my pain. The government is now banning people from leaving their homes and they closed all the shops and workplaces. Tel Aviv is entirely empty of life as are the cities surrounding it, Ramat Gan, Petach Tikva, Holon, Lod, Ashdod, Jerusalem, and Haifa. The whole country has turned into an empty vessel. I stand at the window of my apartment, looking out on Allenby Street deserted, the rain dousing the desolate road.

After two hours of gazing at the asphalt and lonely ficus trees, I decide to go down to the car and take a drive. I don’t care where, I just want to feel movement, space in my body. The streets are empty, I can drive as fast as I want, I can honk, run red lights, change lanes as much as I feel like. The car is not mine, it’s my father’s. I used it the entire time he was hospitalized, driving back and forth to see him.

Whenever I drive my father’s car, my hands on the steering wheel become my father’s hands, the fingers grow long and delicate. The music on the radio reaches me through his ears and the contemplative driving thoughts, mine and his, combine—Dad thinks beautiful thoughts about Julie on his way home from work, Julie thinks beautiful thoughts about Dad on his way above.

Within minutes, I am out of the city, nothing stands in my way. Every so often I get confused, wondering where all the people are. I feel like I’ve been left all alone in the world, on the highway heading north, entirely alone. I open the windows, turn the music as loud as it can go and press the pedal hard—

These games you play, they’re gonna end in more than tears someday

I can’t help laughing, the laughter erupting forcibly, threatening to tear my guts—

it shouldn’t ever have to end this way

A police officer stops me at Yanai Junction, right in front of The Original Pancake House.

“Remember when we were there, Dad?” I was young, maybe 5 or 6. You took me with you to work in Haifa and we stopped there on our way home. I remember we sat at the bar, Dad and Julie. You wore jeans and a button-down shirt that you left casually open, you were tall, thin and handsome. People stared. A little girl with black braids and her handsome father sitting at the bar, scarfing down pancakes. You made me laugh and I laughed the deep belly laugh that I still have to this day. They all looked at us enviously. I felt their eyes piercing my back.

The officer asks me to park at the Pancake House customer parking lot and exit the car. He gives me a breathalyzer test which I pass and he can’t understand why I keep stumbling and laughing as if I just came from a carnal rave in the forest. I look at his badge, his name is Eran Yakov and he has deep brown Jewish eyes. He is my age, maybe even younger. I behave. I do everything he asks, stifling the urge to spit in his face, because my father taught me to always treat people with respect.

“Do you happen to have a bottle of water in the car? I really need to drink something, I don’t feel very well,” I say. Eran hands me a small bottle of water, adding “Here, drink it all. It’ll help you.”

“I was driving to see my dad,” I say.

“Where does your dad live? Here, in the area?”

“Yeah, in the area. Here, somewhere,” I respond, looking out at the vast expanse before us, as if I could somehow find my father’s house.

“Why were you driving so fast? What were you thinking? Do you know there’s a lockdown now, that even leaving the house is a criminal offense?” He speaks aggressively, as befitting a young officer, but I can’t help notice the curiosity in his eyes, he can’t figure me out or make sense of my behavior, driving a hundred miles an hour on Highway 2. I almost blurt out that I’m the one that caused this whole lockdown in the first place, that I’m glad so many old people are dying because more and more people on the Earth are becoming orphans.

“Where do you live?”

“Ramat Gan,” he replies, hesitating whether he should engage in small talk with me, or is even allowed to do so.

“And where are you from, originally?”

“Ramat Gan,” he laughs. “I live 10 minutes away from my parents.”

“Are you close with them?”

“Yes, I go over there often. To eat. Usually three or four times a week. But now because of the pandemic I don’t see them at all. My dad is old. I’m afraid to expose him.”

“Nice, very nice. Good for you. You’re a good son.” I smile at him and fix my gaze on the empty highway behind us. I once drove there with my dad to see a doctor in Caesarea. I wanted to be patient and good. Dad called it a “trip” and he offered to stop for lunch on the way. “We’ll make a day out of it,” he said. And some inner force that I can’t quite understand made me turn cold, distant, impatient—I practically wasn’t there at all. The smells were difficult for me, the boring discussions about work, the same old conversations. I couldn’t. And in the car on the drive back I wanted to kill us both, to steer the car off the road, to head right under the screeching wheels of a speeding train. I wished for an accident so we could both die together. I wanted to die. I hung myself again and again in my imagination, tying a rope around my neck and tightening it.

“You know, my dad was sick recently, he was hospitalized in a respiratory unit. He was in rehabilitation there, undergoing respiratory therapy and physical therapy. And one morning when I came to physical therapy he said to me, ‘You have no idea how grateful I am for you. I love you so much, you’re my life.’ I kissed his hand. I helped him with his exercises, patiently, devotedly, with undying, bottomless love. I swear that anyone who saw us there was jealous of our love. People looked at us and immediately started drawing comparisons—my father is like this, my children are like that. I could see it in their eyes.”

Eran smiles flatly, motioning with his eyes for me to continue.

“After physical therapy they put him back to bed and he wanted to tell me something but I couldn’t understand him. ‘I’m confused,’ he said. ‘It’s OK, Dad,’ I told him, “it’s not you, it’s the painkillers they gave you.’ He kissed my hand and I helped him onto his side. He had gotten so thin. His knees were as round as tennis balls.”

I cut the story off in the middle. There’s no point, and all of a sudden this young officer, this Eran Yakov with his deep-set eyes, seems like the strangest stranger I have ever met.

“And he’s OK now, your dad? Lucky it didn’t happen now with the pandemic and everything,” he says.

“Oh yeah, he’s fine. I was on my way to visit him when you stopped me, I told you.”

“Lucky I stopped you,” he laughs. “You almost died.”

Translated from the Hebrew by Maya Klein.

Julia Fermentto-Tzaisler is an Israeli writer.