It would have been my father's 85th birthday today. How can that be? He is here in my head. He is the way I string together moments that otherwise would have never met. He is my need to make every single day a challenge of reinvention for myself. Yet I remember too well that autumn before he died when he would ask me if there was anything I wanted to discuss with him. What could I ask him? What would I ask him now? I would lay under this old tree in the backyard of the house my mother has lived in since she was 4. I would wonder, what will I need to know?
My father never taught me how to look back, so it is awkward now to know how to remember my father. He lived so totally in the moment. People talk about the big picture, he would revel in the little moments. Looking out at a sunset, all too big to take in. My father was obsessed with the little green glow that appeared at the very moment the sun ducked under the horizon. Just a small slice in the middle of the horizon where we would squint and focus. He would gather everyone on the beach to look for the green glow.
If I try to look inside of Jackson for my father I see him more in his laughing than the blue eyes they share. I mostly remember laughing with my father. We did not do serious that much. We lived alot on the surface. Which is not to say we avoided feelings. We just got at them more from laughing ourselves sick rather than scratching at the pain. The pain was there - his siblings all died way too young, as his parents. There were big holes left where each one had been. We laughed almost the hardest of all at funerals. HORRIBLE! So embarrassing. Yet. That was how we dealt with pain.
There was a minyan for his sister Gerry after she died (a minyan is a group of 10 men who pray together for 7 days after a Jewish death). My father and I were the 9th and 10th men so the prayers could not be said without our participation. Since neither of us spoke a word of Hebrew, my father decided to fake it in grand style. Bowing back and forth, making up the Hebrew. We both became so hysterical laughing - and this is so embarrassing and sacrilegious - that we had to go into the basement breathless to recover. When we left, the minyan had to pause and wait for us. This repeated itself over and over again until we just gave up. The mirrors covered with sheets, the other 8 men of much more religious practices disgusted, the women setting out the food ignoring us...and we were choking with laughter in the basement. We were never members at any of the Jewish social clubs or country clubs growing up in Pittsburgh. "We belong, we just are not members," my father used to always remind us. We did belong to the synagogue AND we were members.
The week before my father died, I had an assignment to go shoot for IBM in Beijing. I told him I could not go, but he insisted I go away and do my work. When I got to Beijing I called the house in Pittsburgh and my brother answered. He had not been in Pittsburgh when I left and I was worried to hear had raced back home. He said that our father had gotten really bad and he was not sure if he would be around when I got back. Already being in China having followed my father's wishes, I had no choice but to do my work. My father was pretty out of it that week and it was so difficult trying to take pictures when he was so sick. I flew directly back to Pittsburgh, went directly home and up into his room. Suddenly he woke, sat himself up, and asked as matter of fact as any other trip I had ever done, how my trip was.
The next morning my brother washed my father and tucked him into clean sheets on his bed. The sun was streaming into the bedroom as we held his hands. His body slowing began to shut down as he took his last breaths. My mother at that very moment said, "He was a great guy." I went out to the back room where he used to put the computer speakers in the window and play bird calls. It was January and the trees were bare. There was one bird sitting on the tree looking at me in the window, before flying off. It was my father's 74th birthday. January 24, 1998.
I think my father could have told me Jackson and Stephie were coming if I would have asked him that last autumn. I would so love to have put Jackson in his arms and watched him make noises with his hands. He would have taken Jackson to the Steeler game in his "terrible tweed" and they would have sat freezing, almost numb next to eachother. Jackson would remember much less about the game than how special it was to be spending a Sunday afternoon with his Papa Jack. Jackson would wonder if the coffee or the cigars would be keeping his Grandpa warm.
Sometimes Jackson and I literally become ill laughing with each other. I hope they never need us for a minyan.
This picture was taken January 24, 2009 in Times Square. My father is all around us alway.