These are reflections on a journey that began almost eighty years ago. Its autobiographical narrative covers the twenty years since the publication of Radical Son, completing the account of my life to its seventy-seventh year. The final section, “Staying Alive” is new, but the other three parts have been previously published as separate volumes with the same titles. I have put them together here to make clear the singular nature of the underlying narrative and to underscore its themes, which are the lessons I have learned along the way.
* * *
When he was alive and I was still young, my father told me his version of the Fall. “We begin to die the day we are born,” he said. What I think my father meant by this was that the cells, which are the invisible elements of our being, are constantly churning in nature’s cycle. Silently, without our being aware of their agony, they are inexorably aging and taking us with them. Year by year, the skin parches, the sinews slacken, and the bones go brittle, until one day the process stops, and we are gone.
At least that is what I think my father said because that is all that I can remember. And what I can remember is all that is left of the time we spent together long ago, a fading image now like the rest. I can still see the sunlight on the green hedge where we paused on the sidewalk. I can see the mottled Sycamores shading the street, and the way my father turned until the tan dome of his forehead caught the glint of the light when he shared his thought.
On this day we were taking our Saturday walk through Sunnyside Gardens, the neighborhood where I grew up. In the yards the spring warmth had pushed the yellow daffodils and purple crocuses through the black earth creating warm little splashes of color. I remember the feeling of pleasure I had, and always did, being alone with him. Or maybe it is the lingering memory that is the pleasure. Or both. I can no longer tell.
When he didn’t go to work, my father took walks every day of his life that I can recall. It was only years afterward that it occurred to me that for him the aim of these walks was not to go somewhere, but to get away. As though the life he had been given was less than the one he wanted, or more than one he could bear.
As my father imparted his reflection, the timbre in his voice gave off no hint of gloom but was detached and clinical as though he were making a scientific observation devoid of human reference. Even now, I cannot guess what his intentions were, or why he decided to share this dark insight with me when I was so innocent of life myself. But he did; and the words have stuck ever since and into the present when age is already on me and has sunk its teeth into my marrow, and feelings of mortality have made themselves as familiar as hello and goodbye.
* * *
It is more than half a century since my father and I took our walk. From that time until his death nearly forty years later in the same redbrick row house on the same tree-lined street, we never discussed the subject again. Though I never forgot what he said, I never bothered in all that time to inquire of anyone who might actually know whether it was based on a biological truth, or not. Nor did it ever occur to me that his words might not actually have referred to the objective world, but to his feelings about himself.
My father was a small, well-intentioned man of melancholy humors and roiling regrets. Bleak thoughts enveloped him in a cloud so dense he was rarely able to see the sun behind it. One effect of this rough weather approach was to make it difficult for him to find pleasure in the opportunities life offered. When good fortune came knocking at his door, he received it more often than not as he would a visitor to the wrong address.
All our days together I wrestled with my father’s discontent and tried as best I could to overcome it. But eventually I understood that the well from which he drew his unhappiness was bottomless, and no one could stem its flow. As a result, the lesson he left me was not contained in the earnest lectures he gave, but in the instruction of a life that clung to its defeats like an infant to its mother’s breast.
Unlike my father, I do not feel that life is a downhill run. Nor do I think of it as an arc that rises steadily until it reaches its apogee, tapers, and arches back to earth. The fate we choose is inscribed in multiple flights. Some follow the gravity of rise and fall, while others – those of the spirit for example — may never head downward, but climb steadily to the end, where they just drop, cliff-like into the dark.
Consequently, there is no right time for last words, no point of demarcation for our adieux; no designated moment to set down the summary thoughts of a mind still counting. Whether you begin to die at the beginning — as my father believed — or whether you burn brightly to the end, you can’t wait forever to pass to others what you have learned. When the time approaches you could already have a foot in oblivion, or be crippled by a stroke, or so blasted with pain as to lose the ability to reflect at all. In this life, you can be hauled off without warning. You can step onto the wrong plane, or off the wrong curb, or into the wrong conversation and be gone. A microorganism can stumble into a passage to your heart and douse the lights before you even learn its name. Or the cells of your being — those busy dying since you were born — can go berserk and betray you in a cancer that chokes your last thought.
No matter how young you are or how far you get, you can never know if there will be hours enough to finish the page. Some of us get yanked before our time while others hang on longer than they should. Still others take themselves out when they think they’ve had enough. But what is enough, particularly if you wise up and eventually master the game? It doesn’t matter. The clock is ticking and the buzzer is set. This is an injustice that no reform can repair and no court redress.
* * *
When I began these pages I was living in a Mediterranean-style house perched like an eyrie on the palisades high above the Pacific Ocean. I had gravitated to this refuge only two years before in what I realized was an homage to a passion I inherited from my father. It was the only non-political one he ever really allowed himself – his unfulfilled longing for the sea.
On crystal days, which were many, I would look out through picture windows to my only horizon, a panorama of whitecaps and blue water, and miss him. In such moments, my father’s ghost would sometimes return to haunt me. I could see the face I had both loved and feared approach on the ether of memory until it was only a breath away. An impulse to please would swell like an ocean wave inside me, and I would look out on the roll of dolphins and pelicans, and welcome my lost father to a luxury neither of us could ever have imagined would be ours.
In these reveries his spirit was so palpable I could almost touch it. I would point my fingers towards the apparition and run them down the slope of its brow until I had fully mapped the frown of his rejection. For there was never a chance he would accept my gift or take its pleasures. Not now; not then; not ever. The opportunity rolled away from us like the ebb of an evening tide. It hardly matters why; whether he felt he didn’t deserve this happiness, or I didn’t, or both. It only matters that it was so. In my father’s house there were no mansions.
* * *
Because he was unable to get what he wanted in this life, my father frittered away his days in dreams of the next. The metaphor of this longing was the sea, limitless and unattainable. What my father desperately wanted – or so he believed — was a world better than the one he had been given. This was the unrequited romance of his life, the object of the only prayers he ever allowed himself. But the world did not heed his prayers. It ignored him, as it does us all, and went its own way.
In the end, my father’s disappointment was the gift he gave me, an irony that still links us beyond the grave. His melancholy taught me the lesson he was unable to learn himself. Don’t bury the life you have been given in this world in fantasies of the next; don’t betray yourself with impossible dreams.
Are these judgments too harsh? Are they gripes of an ungrateful son? Perhaps the father I think I know was not so helpless after all; perhaps he was even shrewd. Maybe when he shared his thoughts with me on our neighborhood walk, he meant something else entirely. Maybe what he was saying to his son was this: Prepare now for the end.
* * *
When the novelist Saul Bellow reached the age of seventy-eight his brain was still kicking like that of a young man. All Marbles Still Accounted For was the witty title he devised for a novel he was writing that was still unfinished. In the pages of the books he did send to press, he showed he was still capable of turning out clever prose and was a step ahead of everyone else in getting things to add up. He remained a master of the game.
In that same year Bellow published an elegiac tale about his dying mother who had been stricken with cancer a lifetime before. The story recounted an embarrassing incident, which its fictional narrator claimed had distracted him from his filial obligation. It happened to him on a winter’s day when his mother lay on a bed of pain, gulping the arduous breaths her family knew would be her last.
While the mother suffered, life continued for everyone else, including her son who went about his job delivering flowers for a local merchant. Late that afternoon, he was bearing an armful of lilies to the wake of a young girl no older than himself. Entering the room where her coffin lay open, he cast a diffident eye on the lifeless form. After navigating the crowd of mourners and locating the grieving mother, he pressed his funeral bouquet into her arms and fled.
This encounter with death so affected the young man that instead of returning to the shop for more orders or going home, he decided to stop at a nearby office building where his uncle worked. The uncle was out, but as the youth made his way down the hall he passed the open door of a doctor’s office and had a chance encounter with a sexual mystery woman. She was lying on a table naked, but failed to react when she caught sight of him spying on her. This seductive behavior planted the idea in his head that she was available for his pleasure. Hot with desire, he allowed her to lure him across town to an apartment, where she induced him to undress.
All the while, his flesh was burning, which caused his brain cells to go numb so he didn’t see what was coming. When he had completely removed his clothes, the hooker grabbed them and fled into the bitter cold of the Chicago night. Ruefully, Bellow’s narrator recalls how he put on a dress that he found in a closet, and went out into the freezing air, dreading the humiliation that awaited him, and his father’s anger, when he got back.
His money was gone and he had no carfare, so he went into a local bar where his luck improved when the bartender paid him to see a drunken customer home. Afterwards, he boarded the El that would take him back. But sitting in the train car, alone with his shame, he had an unnerving thought. Until then, he had been fearful of facing his father’s fury at what he had done. Now he began to hope for it instead. For he remembered what his desire had caused him to forget: his mother was dying. If his father was angry at him when he stepped through the front door, he would know she was still alive.
One lesson of this story concerns animal desire. Sex is a force so powerful that it is the source of endless human embarrassment and considerable personal grief. Lust will frustrate a man’s best efforts to elevate himself and make of his life something dignified and worthy. It will induce him to do things that are stupid and humbling. Like shaming one’s mother on her deathbed.
Yet desire is only a sub-theme of Bellow’s tale, which is built on facts taken from his life. Bellow’s fictional narrator dedicates this memoir to his son as a memento for when he is gone, calling it, Something To Remember Me By. This is a typical Bellow trope, since it is a story anyone would prefer to forget. Perhaps that is why it took Bellow until his 78th year to write it down.
The main theme of his tale is announced in its opening paragraph, which is constructed around the image of a turntable. The author doesn’t identify the turntable he has in mind, whether it is the kind one finds in children’s playgrounds or the kind used to play vinyl records and produce musical sounds, gone now like so much else. Instead he writes, “When there is too much going on, more than you can bear, you may choose to assume that nothing in particular is happening, that your life is going round and round like a turntable.” Perhaps the denial he is referring to is larger than the moment itself. Perhaps he is hinting that the music of your days can lull you into an illusion that the present will go on and on, and will never go anywhere else. Or perhaps, more simply, that your life is in motion when you think you are just standing still.
Until something happens, that is. Until you get clobbered by an event and wake up to the fact that the stillness is an illusion. That everything is changing about you, and that one day it will come to an end. In Bellow’s case the clobbering was his mother’s death. Inexplicably and without warning, the cells in her body had run amok and created a malignancy in her breast. Soon, it was choking her, until she was gasping for air and spitting up blood. And then she was gone.
When Bellow’s mother had breathed her last and her agonies finally came to an end, the coroner did not know what age to put on the certificate of death. Like many immigrants she had no idea of the date she was born and neither did anyone else. So the coroner did what he could and put on the certificate what he saw. She seemed to be a woman of “about fifty,” he wrote. The certificate was like a tag on ancient bones that had been exhumed in an archaeological dig and that no one could identify. Her surviving son was only seventeen.
“One day you are aware that what you took to be a turntable, smooth, flat and even, was in fact a whirlpool, a vortex,” Bellow observes. The vortex of his mother’s death had sucked some part of him beneath the surface and it never came back. “My life was never the same after my mother died,” he noted long afterward. In the story, he wrote: “I knew she was dying, and didn’t allow myself to think about it – there’s your turntable.”
In the business of mothers dying, fate dealt me a better hand than it did Saul Bellow. My mother lived to a ripe age and was vigorous to the end. When she had her first stroke my children were already adults and had given me two grandchildren besides. I was well into the cycle of the generations. This prepared me in a way that the young Bellow could not have been for the cold hand of mortality that a parent’s death lays on your heart. When the time arrived for my mother to go, it seemed almost natural that her life should draw to a conclusion. Even though her death was sudden and unannounced, I had time enough to prepare for it, to see the vortex coming.
On the other hand, the months before she died were not unlike the day remembered in Bellow’s story. I, too, let myself go round like a turntable, running about the business of my life while the clock on hers ticked mercilessly away. What else could I have done? Can one focus on death like a watched pot, waiting for it to boil? If we concentrated on our dying with an intensity that never let up, everything in our lives would come to a stop, until our days would seem like the grave itself. So usually we don’t pay attention to where we are headed but go round on the turntable and pretend we are standing still.
Here’s a tip. As you go spinning round, turn one eye to the side every now and then. Look over the edge and focus on a fixed object. Find a way to calculate your progress. Otherwise, life will pass you by before you wake up.
My father – blessed be his memory — was right: Never forget the cells that are dying. Life is not a turntable, and one day the music will stop.