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In My Father’s Footsteps

Going on a book tour just a few weeks after my father died, I learned how to walk in his shoes—literally

Etgar Keret
May 30, 2012
Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Shutterstock
Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Shutterstock
Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Shutterstock
Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Shutterstock

It was the night I was supposed to fly from Israel to Los Angeles to kick off my book promotion tour, and I didn’t want to go.

My father had died only four weeks earlier, and this trip meant that I would miss the unveiling of his headstone. But my mother had insisted. “Your father would want you to do it.” And that was a very persuasive argument. My dad really would have wanted me to take that trip. When he first took sick, I had canceled all my travel plans, and even though he realized how important it was to both of us to be together during those difficult days, the cancellations had still bothered him.

Now I was thinking about him and the book tour while I was giving my son Lev his bath. On the one hand, I thought, the last thing I wanted now was to get on a plane. On the other, maybe it would be good for me to be busy, to think about other things for a while. Lev sensed that my mind was somewhere else, and when I took him out of the tub and started toweling him off, he saw it as a golden opportunity for a little last-minute roughhouse before his dad went away. He yelled, “Surprise attack!” and gave my stomach a friendly head butt. My stomach actually took it well, but Lev slipped on the wet floor and began to fall backward, his head threatening to land on the rim of our old bathtub. Moving instinctively, I managed to place my hand on the rim of the tub in time to cushion the blow.

Lev came out of that violent adventure unscathed, and so did I, except for a small cut on the back of my left hand. Since our ancient bathtub had some brown rust spots on the rim, I had to go to a nearby clinic for a tetanus shot. I managed to get it done quickly so I could make it back home for Lev’s bedtime. Lev, who was already lying in bed in his pajamas, was upset. “They gave you an injection?” he asked. I nodded.

“And it hurt?”

“A little,” I said.

“It’s not fair,” Lev shouted. “It’s just not fair! I was the one carrying on. I should’ve gotten the scratch and the injection, not you. Why did you even put your hand there?”

I told Lev that I did it to protect him. “I know that,” he said, “but why, why did you want to protect me?”

“Because I love you,” I said, “because you’re my son. Because a father always has to protect his son.”

“But why?” Lev persisted. “Why does a father have to protect his son?”

I thought for a moment for answering. “Look,” I said as I stroked his cheek, “the world we live in can sometimes be very tough. And it’s only fair that everyone who’s born into it should have at least one person who’ll be there to protect him.”

“What about you?” Lev asked. “Who’ll protect you now that Grandfather’s dead?”

I didn’t cry in front of Lev. But later that night, on the plane to Los Angeles, I did.

The guy at the airlines counter at Ben Gurion Airport had suggested that I take my small suitcase onto the plane, but I didn’t feel like schlepping it with me, so I checked it. After we landed and I waited in vain at the luggage carousel, I realized that I should’ve listened to him. There wasn’t much in the suitcase: underwear, socks, a few ironed, neatly folded shirts for my readings, and a pair of my father’s shoes. The truth is that my original plan was to bring a picture of him with me on the tour, but somehow, for no logical reason, a minute before I went downstairs to the cab, I shoved a pair of shoes that he’d forgotten at my place a few months ago into the suitcase instead. Now those shoes were probably circling around on some carousel in a different airport.

It took the airlines a week to return my suitcase, a week during which I’d participated in many events, given lots of interviews, and slept very little. My jetlag provided a great excuse, even though I must admit that even in Israel, before I left, I hadn’t been sleeping very well. I decided to celebrate the emotional reunion between me and my luggage with a long, hot shower. I opened my suitcase and the first thing I saw were my father’s shoes, lying on a pile of ironed shirts. I took them out and put them on the desk. I picked out an undershirt and pair of briefs and went into the bathroom. I came out 10 minutes later to a flood: The entire floor of my room was covered with water. A rare problem with the pipes, the mustached hotel maintenance guy would tell me later in a heavy Polish accent. Everything that was in my suitcase, which I’d left on the floor, was soaking wet. It was a good thing I’d tossed my jeans on the bed and hung my underwear on the towel rack.

The car that was coming to take me to the event was due in a few minutes, just enough time to dry a pair of socks with the hairdryer and discover how useless that was because my shoes were sitting on the bottom of the murky pool my room had become. The driver called me on my cell phone. He’d just arrived and had no good place to wait, so he wanted to know how long it would take me to come down. I glanced at my father’s shoes resting on the desk, dry; they looked very comfortable. I put them on and tied the laces. They fit perfectly.

Translated by Sondra Silverston

Etgar Keret is a Tel Aviv-based filmmaker and fiction writer.

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