September 9, 1999
Some Thoughts on My New Year
So much seems connected to the past. My oldest son, Alexander, calls from Florida. There is talk about the summer gone by, plans for the future, a wish for the new year. I have a sudden flash of talking with one of my close friends just six months after he was born. My friend, a woman, knew me as carefree, youthful, reluctant to take that fateful step into adulthood. So how did I feel about being a father? she wanted to know. Had my life changed and, if so, how? I tried to explain, haltingly at first. Why, she said in amazement, you sound as though you've fallen in love. I treasure that moment.
Now Alexander is married, a college professor, a parent himself, planning to embark for Cape Town on a teaching Fulbright. The end of the earth.
I try for a memory from my childhood: I'm racing my 17-year-old uncle when I suddenly realize that he has a clubfoot. Without thought, I deliberately slow down. I'll never forget the smile of pleasure on his face as he crossed the finish line ahead of me. The purest act of my life -- at 7 years of age.
Inevitably, my memories return to my grandparents. They helped raise me; my grandfather taught me to read; their household was my home. My grandmother nursed me through a critical bout of pneumonia, which nearly took my life. But the new, experimental drugs worked on me; I regained my strength, only to watch her fall ill (with pneumonia). She died within three weeks -- her life for mine.
Two months later, on my ninth birthday, it was my grandfather's turn. His heart gave out. I stood there, shifting my new birthday football from hand to hand, watching my mother, my aunt, my uncles sitting shiva. I will not cry, I told myself. I will not show anything.
Did I want to join them? I was asked. No, I said, in as flat a voice as I could muster. I'm going to play football in the park, I said. I turned and ran from the house.
My life had cracked open and never would be the same. I knew that without a word being said, without even the ability to say the words. It was only years later that the magnitude of my debt, my obligation to them, became clear to me. It had shaped my life. You would think that time would blur the memory. Not so. The images are sharper, more pointed, closer at hand.
Is it that I am looking ahead to my own demise? Last year, when my mother was whipped by Alzheimer's and my son Andrew (second-born) and I looked at nursing homes in the Valley, he turned to me and said: Be forewarned. If you place her in one of these homes, that's what I'll do to you. He was reminding me of the moral choices confronting me, just as I had taught him to recognize their presence in his own life. He did not have to make the threat, but I was touched by it. I hugged him. I felt like a man who had fallen in love once again.
I suppose a past can be constructed around family, marriage and death. The score for me is two marriages, one divorce. The weddings were wondrous occasions, and intimate too. The first, in my best friend's home; the second, in my own. All our friends gathered around us; summer breezes; the pleasure and affection so palpable in the room. The sense, so crisp in my mind then and now, of a new play about to begin, the script still unfinished. It almost makes me want to embark on five or six marriages, or at least weddings, just to recapture the feelings of the day.
But then, of course, there is the sharp pain of divorce. The scars never truly disappear. It is always, for me, a reminder of great defeat and loss -- more muted each year, thank goodness. The remembrance changes as time moves along.
Other recollections, more romantic and flushed with sensation, take over.
Of first love -- in Paris, no less. Walking the narrow streets of the left bank, hand in hand; dancing in the Luxembourg Gardens; listening to Chet Baker play in the Hotel des Etas-Unis just for us -- I thought it had to be just for us -- in the early hours of a Montparnasse morning, when I was convinced that I and my world had been blessed, touched by magic.
The Days of Awe lie ahead; it is only fitting to cast our eyes back. This is the time of repentance for things said and done during this last year, and of resolutions for the year ahead. But I want something else: memories and images that take on a clarity and help me better understand the past. I realize once again that these pictures and events keep changing for me, that the present and the future have a way of altering the life I lived long ago; bringing some aspects of it into close up; highlighting edges and corners that were, until now, only dimly seen.
That's my wish for the future, a simple one: to make the past more visible, to make my life more whole. -- Gene Lichtenstein