By Ron Kokish
Carbondale Age Friendly Community Initiative
This columnist may have gotten a little mired in dying over the last few months, so this month, I’m going to talk about something different, like … dead people. I can hear your profanities already, but please give me a chance. Although it may seem like the same subject, it really isn’t. Stick with me.
The approaching solstice heralds the time of year when everything that’s been dying (there’s that word again) is finally dead. But is it gone? And by extension, are dead people gone? I think not.
Late December is when dead things regenerate. Marking that annual turning point is what solstice is all about. Different cultures have different mythical stories symbolizing solstice. Christians symbolize the rebirth aspect of solstice with a story about a special and famous baby. Sadly, he died a gruesome, equally famous death about 30 years later. However, like the dead plants of December, he wasn’t gone.
It is said that the dead live on in people’s memories and the stories told about them. If you disagree with that, stop reading now. But if you at least sort of agree, you’ve got to agree that Jesus isn’t gone.
Jesus’ post-mortem life began in the memories of 12 students who told stories about him to countless others. Those others then passed the stories on for 2,000 years. The others never knew Jesus personally, and whatever they heard from his students may not have been completely accurate. Like all memories, the students’ memories were probably flawed, and the context of their stories was likely incomplete.
Maybe Jesus was just having a bad (or enjoyable) day when he attacked the money lenders. Maybe a lender was trying to collect usurious interest from him, and he went all Will Smith on the guy. But regardless of the story’s accuracy, it’s “true” for whoever chooses that truth. How do I, a Jewish atheist, know that? Because I have an ever-changing relationship with my dead, but not gone, father. Yes, I see and talk with dead people.
I have the chess board and pieces with which Dad taught me the game. I see and hear him every time I see the set or touch a chess piece. He was there last year when I played with my great-grandson, Joey. “Chess is a beautiful game,” Dad said. “Kings and scholars play it.” Naturally, I passed this information along to Joey.
Sometimes I see Dad the way he was before I was born, fleeing the Third Reich on a Dutch steamer, exhilarated by the journey, sad and angry about how he was legally robbed, confused and frightened about remaking his life in this only semi-welcoming new land. “Don’t trust anyone,” he tells me.
“Dad,” I reply, “I’ll never trust governments, but people I love? I’d be all alone.”
“Alone is good,” he says. I know he means it because he always took good care of my mother, and he always had secret mistresses. I know he means it because he never told me or my mother how much money was in his wallet or bank account. It wasn’t much, and he was ashamed.
Dad liked being alone. I don’t, but sometimes, I’m tempted to follow his advice.
Sometimes I see dad at age 89, in the hospital room where I told him he was being discharged to long-term nursing care, and he quietly said “ausgespielt!” (“all played out”). My mother, who asked me to deliver the bad news, looked confused, frightened for both of them, denying for herself the reality she wanted me to help dad accept. Dad just looked defeated. Because he was.
“You gotta know when to fold ‘em,” he tells me. I agree, hoping I’ll recognize those moments when they come. So far, I think I have.
Mom says she’s proud of me for taking the awful task of telling Dad for her. “I know how hard responsibility is for you, Mom. I’m grateful I could help. I’m sorry I didn’t always help when I could have.”
Sometimes I ask dad, “Are you proud of me? I take care of my family like you taught me. I had a successful career. I’m honest. And I’m not alone. Are you proud of me?” Dad changes the subject. I know he’s proud, but damn, I wish he’d say it. “Do you love me dad?”
“Of course I do,” he mumbles. But I can’t see that love in his eyes because he never looks at me directly when we talk. I used to pick fights with him just to see real emotion, but I got over that long ago. After all, he talks with his father, who never tells him he’s proud either. Not with his eyes, anyway. And honestly, eye contact is uncomfortable for me too, when I tell people I love them.
If you find a carpenter from Nazareth more interesting or comforting than Dad, why not? We all talk with dead people. Merry solstice and a happy new year!
Mature Content is a monthly feature from the Carbondale AARP Age-Friendly Community Initiative (CAFCI)