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My Father, the Adept

Losing the man I worshipped as a girl

Esther Schor
June 17, 2016
Illustration by Andrea Sparacio
Illustration by Andrea Sparacio
Illustration by Andrea Sparacio
Illustration by Andrea Sparacio

My father had many lives, and he lived them large. He was a scientist and a mystic, an executive and a farmer, a marksman and an astrologer, an American and an Israeli. He was my father, but also my crush, dashing, charming, and utterly graceful, whether extracting a splinter from my foot or dancing in a tux. Like his mother, a painter, he had an eye for color, line, and shape. He took me to the Metropolitan Museum to show me the mummies and picked out my organza dresses for the High Holidays. Even when he was absent, he filled my room with sound and scent; I could smell his Hai Karate aftershave two rooms away and surrendered to the piano’s murky swirl of sound when he played Hoagy Carmichael, all the melodies doubled in octaves. He wanted maximal music, and he knew how to get it. My mother adored him, women doted on him, and his attractions were not lost on his colleagues. Once he returned from a company Christmas party with a certificate that read “First Prize: Sexiest Scientist.” He taped it up on the refrigerator, and I had to navigate around it to get orange juice.

Not for nothing did his mother name him Joseph; she raised him to dream, and dream he did. They shared an abiding devotion to the prophecies of the Kentucky-born clairvoyant Edgar Cayce (1877-1945), to whom she had turned when a childhood infection took the life of her 3-year-old daughter, Eleanor, Joe’s kid sister. At 6, my father learned that life was more than fragile and precarious—it was terrifying. Not surprising, perhaps, that by 20 he had come to live, as best he could, by Cayce’s predictions, some of which promised healing from illness and pain, while others predicted a full complement of natural disasters. During his annual week’s visit to the Cayce compound at Virginia Beach, which my brothers and I whiled away at the motel pool, he’d introduce his fellow Cayceites as “adepts,” people with visionary powers: “He’s an adept,” my father would say, as others might say, “He’s an engineer.” He, too, was an adept: In his nightstand drawer, in a cramped, penciled scrawl, lay my father’s dream log, begun in college during a week at Virginia Beach. I would check it in stealth from time to time, but he made an entry only every four or five years, recording annunciations and anointments, supernovas and apocalypses. These were the only dreams worth saving. By comparison, my own dreams were paltry and banal: a missed test, a flubbed audition. To convince myself that I, too, was an adept, I wrote visionary poems, full of fiery fourth-grade sublimity. Never mind the fact that my mother was a poet; my poems came down his line, not hers.

His odd pursuits fed his obsession with protection and were in turn nourished by them. In his study, he kept his large gun collection in a locked cabinet labeled “Old Fishing Poles.” He never hunted, but he loved target shooting and posted his best shots, dark orbs with a tiny, ragged hole at the center. He taught me to shoot, a skill I rarely call on, but as Borges said, to have known Latin and forgotten it is still an accomplishment. When I missed by a mile, he would say, “But you can’t even see,” pushing the bangs out of my eyes; his hands smelled of gun oil. A streak of survivalist paranoia, whetted by Cayce’s prophecy that New York would fall into the sea, drove him to buy 120 acres of bungalowed land in the Catskills, where he grew zucchinis the size of dirigibles. He liked to take me into the garden, to teach me the difference between ripe and unripe. Fatherhood was above all, a teaching opportunity, with a very specific goal: He was arming me for life, providing me with weapons against disaster, misinformation, and ignorance.

When I was about 10, he sat my younger brothers and me down after dinner, with a yellow legal pad before him. Thus began one of the world’s strangest curricula, imparted over several months. It included the immortality of the soul; Atlantaean civilizations; how to balance a checkbook; the evidence for the Exodus; the wisdom of buying municipal bonds; and an explanation of sexual reproduction, complete with diagrams. “Next time someone tells you you can get pregnant from drinking Coke, you know what to tell ’em,” he said. No one ever did, but I’ve been ready with this knowledge ever since. When I was in my twenties, I called him after I totaled my car in a blizzard. I’d skidded off the highway, hit the median, richocheted into a truck, and smashed back into the median. “I thought I was going to die,” I said, sobbing. “But you didn’t,” he said, “and now you know how to drive on the ice.”

He taught me to think rigorously, to measure twice, to use the right tools, to “take the balance” of a situation. To speak my mind. When I received a fellowship that gave me less money than I needed to live on, my father told me to drive to Yale, present myself to the department chair, and tell him I was worth more. “And put an edge in your voice,” he would always say. His advice, on this occasion, was entirely effective.

As a young teen, I worshiped my father. But by the time I left for college, something had changed. I don’t remember hardening to my father; it must have emerged while I was practicing Bartók or holed up with Dostoevsky, that carapace protecting me from his protection. The night before I left for college, he called me into his bedroom and asked me to get on the bathroom scale. “We need to weigh you,” he said evenly. I refused, he insisted, at which point I picked up the scale and hurled it across the room. “I’m not a piece of meat,” I yelled, slamming his door, and mine for good measure. From the hallway, he yelled, “If you were a piece of meat, I wouldn’t have just paid a year’s tuition to Yale.”

During the semester, he’d call my dorm periodically to inform me that, according to my astrological chart, I was entering a “danger period” for travel. If I wasn’t there, he’d leave the message with a hallmate: “Your father says, ‘Until you hear from me, stay put.’” What had once seemed heroic fathering was now, even from a distance of 90 miles, narcissistic, intrusive, suffocating. His unassailable opinions—he never argued, he simply propounded—were grandiose and authoritarian; his preoccupations paranoid. When I decided to live with my boyfriend for a summer, he wrote a long letter opposing it, appealing to “the wisdom of the ages”; when I began graduate school with no plans to marry my boyfriend of three years, he campaigned hard for an engagement. And when it finally came, he planned my wedding, right down to the romaine lettuce and marzipan-sheathed cake.

He cared for my mother through 15 years of cancer, less nurse than coach; for him, her final years were an epic of positive thinking and alternative treatments. “Beating the odds” was his mantra. When she had weeks to live, I told him we should look into hospice care, but he wouldn’t hear of it: “I don’t want her to have to endure that.” He demanded superdoses of antibiotics, hours before she died.

When he was widowed in 1990, my father was a dapper, successful 61-year-old, with a boyish face and a crest of wavy black hair that women must have wanted to surf on. He advertised in the New York Review of Books for a replica of my mother; he found instead a vibrant, dynamic historian with a PhD who was fluent in French and Hebrew—that degree and fluency in those languages, my mother’s three unrealized dreams.

As parents, raising two sons and a daughter, my husband Leo and I followed his example of teaching skills, lore, wisdom. I sat with the kids at the piano, taught them to swim, did tzedakah projects; Leo taught them to carpenter a birdhouse and wire a doorbell and, like his father, read to them every night after dinner: Lord of the Rings, David Copperfield, Jane Eyre. But my father, who had raised me in fear, was also a negative example: “What would Dad do?—let’s don’t do that.” Leo and I encouraged independence, applauded risk-taking, let the kids run around in March without sweaters. We understood that youth itself is a danger period, and our kids went where they would—Senegal, Peru, the West Bank.

My father thought of himself as a grand paterfamilias, and indeed, he was unfailingly generous. He loved to gather his three children and six grandchildren together for Seders, always skipping the passage on the four sons with its invidious distinctions, and introducing the kids to Laurel and Hardy, who moved a little too slowly for their taste. When our kids were small, he treated us to annual trips to Puerto Rico—“mañanaland,” he condescendingly called it, before our kids learned to say “racist!” But he was too preoccupied with his occult pursuits to build up intimacy with our children, and too late to family gatherings—sometimes by hours—to ask them about their class trips and science projects. One Thanksgiving, when he showed up three hours late, I bawled him out in the kitchen. “I respect you!” I told him, in tears, “Why can’t you show some respect for me?” “No need to raise your voice,” he said, offering a pinched, pained apology, and nothing changed.

Until everything changed.

In 1992, he began a second marriage that promised decades of companionship. A lifelong Zionist, he bought an apartment in Jerusalem, 40 miles from Jaffa, where his Goldberg ancestors had settled in the 1860s. But after a decade of untroubled years, my stepmother phoned my brother, a geriatrician. “Your dad’s been driving on the highway at 35 miles per hour,” she said. “I’m worried.” Long before being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease, he was rigorously compensating for deficits through calculations of time, distance, and direction that became increasingly difficult, then impossible. After his diagnosis, his world promptly shrank; shuttling between Jerusalem and New York was now too difficult, and over a handful of years, the man who had been adept at biochemistry, finance, carpentry, marksmanship, farming, piano—even prophecy—slid into universal incompetence.

But when Alzheimer’s Disease ravaged my father’s mind, I found comfort from an unlikely source: Donald Rumsfeld. “You go to war with the army you have,” the then-secretary of Defense told the disgruntled U.S. soldiers in Kuwait, “not the army you might want or wish to have.” Yes; I thought: You go to the park with the father you have, not the father you might want or wish to have.

My father’s life with Alzheimer’s, which lasted more than 12 years, unfolded in long, slow waves of decline. The days of distraction, preoccupation, and hypervigilance were over; once he entered the twilight zone of dementia, he was always available, sitting in his apartment on 81st Street in a magisterial blue corduroy armchair. Neatly dressed and manicured by his angelic Filipina aide, he had no end of time for visits, no end of patience for listening to Benny Goodman, and no end of pleasure watching kids and dogs go by in Central Park. The man who had cast a spell on me—and who had disenchanted me just as deeply—became, for the first time in my life, my friend. Like amicable exes, we talked about the family, took long walks, and went to IMAX movies about the Galapagos. In the early days of his illness, he would natter on about curing Alzheimer’s—something about the blood-brain barrier, repeated over and over again. In later years, when the words ran out, he sang “Thanks for the Memory,” drawing out the final words, “sooooooo much.” He sang it a million times, then a million more.

He was the still center of my turning world. I played the piano for him, and he conducted; I took him to the malt shop, where he whistled loudly to get the waitress’s attention. When she arrived, he couldn’t remember how to order, and instead, mimicked Sinatra—usually “Strangers in the Night.” Holding hands, we circled the Great Lawn week by week, month by month, year by year. If only I’d had a Fitbit to clock our mileage; we could have easily walked from Central Park to the stars.

When he died, shrunken and pale, not having smiled for two years, the father I’d worshiped as a girl was long gone. Coaching us on our eulogies, the kind rabbi told my stepmother, brothers, and me to make sure to remember him as he was. And we did, magically conjuring his long-departed charms and grace, his wild pursuits, and his tremendous pride in his family. The morning of his funeral, I had the heady sensation that death was somehow handing back to me the father I’d lost. The vigil of his final week had been exhausting, but I felt oddly exhilarated, celebratory; it felt more like a reunion than a funeral.

But that didn’t last. The hand in which I’d held his, those afternoons while we slowly circled the Great Lawn, stayed empty. For 12 years, I’d gone to the park with the father I had. He was not the father I would ever have wished to have but, more than his strange, beloved avatar, he was the father I wanted.

Esther Schor, a poet and professor of English at Princeton University, won the National Jewish Book Award forEmma Lazarus. Her poems include The Hills of Holland and Strange Nursery: New and Selected Poems, and the memoirMy Last JDate.

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