By Gil Soltz
Late September last year I went to meet my dad in Tel Aviv to celebrate the Jewish New Year with his family. He’d recently retired from three-and-a-half decades of practicing clinical psychology in an out-of-the-way community hospital, and he was planning to spend a month visiting his brothers—which meant he’d be on the couch watching a lot of television. I told him I thought he should come see me in Paris first and we could then fly to Israel together. But he said he wanted to wait and visit Paris when I was getting married in the summer.
In the first 72 hours after I landed at Ben Gurion Airport my dad and I explored the streets of Tel Aviv on foot, from the uber-hip Neveh Tzedek district where he was born, to the old town of Jaffa, and all the way back along the beach to the shops on Dizingoff Street near the apartment where he was raised. Through his stories I saw an Israel I had never been to before. It wasn’t the under-developed, re-bar covered, red earth lots I saw when I first visited in the summer of 1980, when the kindergarten kid saw survivors of concentration camps as just sunflower seed eating, short shorts-wearing and ribbed undershirt-sweating elderly. Put into a geographical context, my dad’s stories were about the Tel Aviv that the British controlled, before the beaches and boulevards were fashionable, when the world was less safe than it is now, and peace and quiet in its most elemental form seemed an impossibility.
This is what I already knew about my dad: after mandatory Israeli military service he immigrated to the U.S. for the opportunities. As a boy he joined the sharpshooter scouts for the outdoor adventure, but nothing in his character suggested he would be a military man. It was his duty to country that made him a paratrooper, and, according to him, neither a particularly brave one, nor one who was happy taking orders. He wasn’t interested in living with the constant threat of war. I tried to imagine what it might have been like to leave home forever and arrive in Los Angeles with a hundred and sixty dollars in my pocket. He left more than home; he left history behind so that he could have the future promised to one with an education. A few days after his arrival, when the uncle who helped him get situated borrowed all the money he had to buy supplies for his restaurant, my dad was initiated into the spirit of his new country. He maintained a strong Jewish identity all his life, but from the very start he adopted the American way wholeheartedly and with no backward glances.
It wasn’t about embracing entrepreneurship or new hard-won civil liberties, it wasn’t because he had abandoned the ethos of the Kibbutz movement, or because his doctorate gave him a reason to permanently hang up his accordion. It was about tranquility.
So here we were walking all over the place and I tried to imagine the extent of the history he spoke about. When in sixty years everything changes, it’s hard to look back in a straight line. We moved spontaneously through the streets of Tel Aviv, following our wills. For lunch we ate at an outdoor café under a great big tree, a dish of chicken and plums.
This is how we lived for three days: highlight after highlight of indulgences in foods, sights, stories, and drinks; in ebbs and flows of conversational pieces; even with a little controversy.
On our first late night I argued that we were going the wrong way back to the bus terminal and he put up with me, knowing his hometown better than I did, if not knowing the bus schedule too. After we found that we missed the last bus and I apologized for being stubborn, we took a taxi home. He said it was no big deal.
But it was a big deal to me. That was my first time in a taxi with my dad. I didn’t know what had gotten into him. Had he given up trying to save money? Was he ready to live within his means? Each year since he sent me to college he’d relaxed the fiscal braces a little more—for meals in restaurants, travel, art collections—and his appreciation didn’t seem to grow as much as it bloomed. Was that the way he wanted to live? Though he was still essentially the same man, I could hear his refrain: “I have always lived below my means,” punctuated at each and every syllable to emphasize this sincere belief, stated in the accent he never fully-shed. He was proud of being simple, reasonable, and modest and that was his rule of spending. My sister and I never succeeded in all our years of growing up to get him to take us on what we thought was a “real vacation.” Instead, he would use all of his days off in the summer to take us camping in the Sierra Nevadas. He thought that would be more meaningful. He was right.
My dad has a passion for principles. I’ve acquired some of them—first out of a feeling of solidarity, then as a matter of conditioning, and finally for the pleasure principles bring to life—but I’ve put more stock in seizing the moment. Consequently, he’s always worried about my not having a stable, decent-paying job. We talked about this on the third day of our walks, before the new year holiday, a symbolic new beginning (which he hardly acknowledged). I had my mouth going with the excitement of all the plans I had for the year to come, and with one foot removed from my flip-flop, about to step into a fountain, he pleaded with me not to be poor all my life. My heart exploding, I thought, forgive him, it’s the immigrant mentality, and I stopped myself short of my counter-attack impulse to tell him that I wasn’t poor, just broke. So instead I proposed that I wanted to spend six weeks, from January to February of the coming year, alone in his mountain home back in California. I would finally finish writing a book. Six weeks to myself. I reasoned that if I was getting married in June, I better do it then before life changed too much for me to ever do it at all.
The days of religious observance for my dad’s secular family came and went with visits to relatives in Tel Aviv, festive meals, and far too much food. My dad and I spent the rest of our time together inside. Four days on the couch watching television and foraging in the fridge. I didn’t press him too badly about visiting Jerusalem, and I didn’t push for more walks. I wasn’t after entertainment. I came to spend time with my dad and if he was content to stay home, then that’s what I would do.
I got back to Paris at the end of September and I worked through November like anyone else. In mid-December I made a routine Sunday night call to my dad. Shortly after he said hello, I heard the drawn out anxiety in his voice and he told me that he had shitty news. I stopped talking and took a deep breath to anticipate his words. From the Golden State over the North American landmass and clear across the great Atlantic Ocean to the eleventh district of Paris, the fourth-floor of a seventeenth-century apartment where you can hear drunken voices most nights, cord phone to my ear, I was silent as a fish in a deep river. The melanoma that he had lived with for a few years and seemed to have under control had crossed his blood brain barrier and the doctors gave him six months to live.
Is it possible to get a new brain? Do I want my dad to heal or live forever?
These are the thoughts you think up when you are in denial, when your back is turned on reason and it’s natural to go screaming and crying about things unjust and important, when you realize that this isn’t the time for a Hollywood bucket list, or for fundraising dollars, or for preaching, when you decide that emotion and greed runs the world and that humans play various games of life accordingly. This is when you say: I just saw my dad fully healthy and we sat like sacks of cement on that couch! He’s only 66! He spent his entire professional life working for the same group—35 years—and all they gave him was a clock!
My dad was a passenger when he picked me up from the airport, riding in the front seat of his friend’s car, because he couldn’t read anymore. Needless to say, I was not writing anything in the first six weeks of 2012. I was with my dad.
You think things will be more intense than they ever were and then you get to California and your dad is himself and life is as it was. You dream at night that this life could go on forever. You wake up from a deep sleep. It’s sunny. You don’t care. It’ll be sunny tomorrow. This is Southern California. This is forever. All of the pressures of daily living are on you, but the uncertainty of tomorrow is missing. So long as you don’t get killed, you will live forever in that body of yours; your own forever.
I don’t subscribe to conformity . I never have. But why? My father and most others believe that there is something to be gained from choosing a solid direction in life. Now, contemplating the facts of death, you ask yourself: how is that even relevant?
There were weeks with my dad going through tests and radiation treatment where I was still wishing he would overcome the disease that threatened his life. It was the first time I really had to face the inevitability of death. In the past it was just a thought. My childhood fear of losing my parents prepared me; I used to spend long pauses in my lazy suburban home wrapping my mind around the concept of living a life and then ceasing to exist. What always got me stuck was that at some point you can’t conceive of being gone forever. How can you imagine that when you cease to exist, there is nothing? You never were and you never will be.
So I asked myself what it truly means to live with death forever.
I have the approximation of an answer: our entire existence is built on time and forever is the absence of time.
Now that science is getting closer to keeping us alive indefinitely, let’s say the human race votes yes on forever. How would it really work? What would happen to our psyches if we knew that we weren’t limited by time? In forever, we could have vastly different natures. How would it change things to never live with fear, to be able to exhaust all of our relationships? To be at a reunion with ten generations? Would we go the way of vampire stories? Would the only way to die be by annihilation? Time is an instrument of pressure. What raises the stakes of life if not time? What would come of struggle, desperation, righteousness, morality, celebration, priorities? Some may choose to do everything in existence. Would only some of us choose to live forever? And who would that be? What quality of individual, what nature?
I don’t want to live forever. What lies in the human heart—it’s intentions, its pursuits, the way we exist—relies on our knowledge that we don’t have forever.
My dad loves looking at his watch. He was never late in his life. The military probably did that to him. It’s the routine that he enjoys. A routine that was never forced, that was just simple, the way that he is. He enjoyed getting up in the morning, going to work, coming home, and going to bed. Now he gets confused about the time of day. He wakes up in the middle of the afternoon and asks me if I slept well. I want to lie to him and tell him that I slept great, but I’m a terrible liar.
No, I didn’t sleep, I tell him. It’s daytime.
Oh, he says.
My dad and I have a future as much as we have a past. I was his sidekick in the woods, his son who didn’t read and was too lazy to take long walks through the orange groves, his ambitious intern for a famous Senator, his graduate, his worry. We lived all the moments we had with each other. I was running my mouth and he was listening. The sun entered the car windshield as I napped on the ride home from the L.A. Coliseum. We spooned when we froze in our tent one late autumn in Colorado. We laughed and cried when we talked about the circumstances of his imminent death. Between us there are a thousand impregnable anecdotes and a hundred plus stories. In each of them he is the father and I am his son.
I am not ready for my father to be gone from this world, but I am accepting that when the day arrives, I will carry on, in the grand tradition of the circle of life. If there was no circle would my dad recover? Because if he would then I could easily be an advocate for this kind of forever. I would want him to get more out of his time on earth. More than the routine, more than the constant worry. I would want more time to walk with him. But the reality is we can’t predict the way life will go. It’s been eleven months since the doctor’s gave him a shitty prognosis and my dad is still alive. He has never been to Paris and I have never sat on a plane next to him. And I know that’s the way that it will be forever.