In a dream last night I cried a little bit. Not much, but a few tears came. In the dream I was in Budapest, my father’s city, and I was looking at a wide boulevard lined with trees and in the dream I thought, “Dad would have liked this boulevard” because it was spacious and elegant, and in the dream a few tears came and I was glad for them.
Because I haven’t cried for him at all. Not since the Tuesday afternoon a few weeks ago when my mother called from her new home in California to say he had died in his sleep. Finally.
I have almost started to make a list of the good things my father gave me, the good moments. Like this morning I was remembering the beige VW beetle he drove and was proud of when I was in high school.
A friend had just sent me a song by The Noisettes. I was thinking about that song this morning when I realized that the same spelling could also be pronounced “Noisette” – which is what my father called his car. Noisette, hazelnut in French.
He explained it to me somewhere, the two of us sitting together, him confiding in me – Noisette – telling me this because it made him special – he had the right car, it was the right color, and had a French name.
I remembered this morning the day he was teaching me to drive – me in the driver’s seat, backing out of the garage, speeding towards a stone wall, my father shouting – not angrily – for me to stop, and I am kicking the clutch pedal instead of the brake, “Stop! my father is saying from the passenger seat, and I hit the wall.
He didin’t get mad. That’s what I thought of this morning. Now I know how expensive it is to fix a car, but my father didin’t get angry and I didn’t feel the weight of guilt for an unnecessary expense.
Every time I think of something like this I make a mental note. The list so far is very short.
I will keep trying to understand my father, to try and separate out my disappointment in him, try and see him for who he was – but so much of him was always hidden and camouflaged. He did not want to be discovered.
And so I left him by the side of the road some time ago, let others take care of him, tried to release myself from time-honored obligations.
Because really I should not have a life of my own. I really should have dedicated my life to him. Should have always been there to help him. That is is what I have torn myself away from and what I do not completely forgive myself for.
His death hangs over me these days, like a soft gauze curtain suspended like a transparent shroud, not covering me, not even touching my life, but not invisible either. There and not there, along with what everybody has been saying to me about death.
It is the first time that someone I have known so long and so well has gone, but he has been gone for so many years geographically, and psychically I don’t believe he was ever present.
It is funny how you are left with all these bits and pieces that don’t add up – like a bouquet that is partially just stalks of different lengths, some have flowers, some are actually just green pipe cleaners.
I sort through them.
The other day, stepping out of the shower, I was having an imaginary conversation with someone in my office who, in my head, was uncertain whether I could write a letter to a very large donor, uncertain that I would get the tone right. And in my head I said to her, “Of course I will get the tone right. My father was Hungarian.”
My father took me on long walks alone with him when I was little. He used these times to talk to me, drenching me with words. He told me of how in Budapest before the war people visited each other unannounced. If the person they hoped to see was not at home they left their card, and – this was my father’s favorite part – they turned down one corner of the card.
He was full of the proper way to do things – how to eat soup, how to eat bread at the table. I remember him coming to my room when I was about ten when we were living in England to tell me – with delight – the salutation he used when writing a business letter: Gentlemen. Not “Dear Gentlemen.” Just, Gentlemen. The word gave him delight as if he were a musician and had discovered exactly the right note.
And so when I stuck up a large piece of burlap on the wall over my bed and stuck pictures to it that I cut out of magazines – some of gorgeous men, some of modelly women, I knew he would not be impressed. That it would be impossible to get it right for him because that would mean wearing tweed skirts to my knees and getting a degree in Economics or something from an Ivy League and then a doctorate and then all sorts of things that had nothing to do with rock and roll and Levis and Dylan and hitchhiking and writing and garrets and Paris.
Which made me angry, a deep low anger that had no way to appear except by no longer running to meet him, no longer seeing him as the center of the universe.