A Letter to My Father on Father’s Day

Rosebud Ben-Oni
June 18, 2017
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“Korban, 2007” by Michael Hafftka

 

—and there was a young ram who’d climb to the top of the mountain with the rest of his family, and they were wild and belonged to no one but each other.

And this ram would’ve been a father had he not one day been drawn to what he heard in the wind, sensed something calling in the wind, and looked up from the soft heap of fleece around him, from the smell and feeling of others like him.

Something was calling from a distance, from a tangle of trees and bushes. Something searing and threatened.

And the young ram felt his legs move. And he felt his horns push against the others; he tore himself out of the safe heap of fleece enveloping him, for he was at that age, had he lived one more day, that he would’ve learned the true size of his horns.

That he could’ve wrestled for the right of fatherhood.

Later, others like him would remember his disappearance and lament, the elders bleating softly with great dolor. And then some would forget. And then the rest. And their young would be taken, one by one, without remembrance and tamed and burned and erased from the wilderness.

And some would’ve been fathers.

And some would’ve been fathers.

 

*

“Untitled #215” (1987) by Michael Hafftka

 

Dear Father. Dear Aba.

Do you remember how my story of the ram horrified my Hebrew school teachers? That yet again I was sent home, such a strange, sad girl. You asked me what happened, and I told you that ever since Rosh Hashanah morning, when the rabbi read to us the Binding of Isaac from the Torah, that I began to dream of the ram whose life was taken?

Do you remember your silence that followed my confession? That you held me and said nothing?

Would you take my life for your son? I suddenly asked.

I did not consider the weight of my words as they tumbled out.

Do you love my brother more?

I was waiting for a betrayal.

And you were silent and you held me tighter.

Such silence is your truest form. Or, rather: the truest form of you as a father.

This is how I learned to hear the music in the silence. To know the missed notes, the rushed chords, the out-of-tune and the cacophony, all of which are full of dolor.

Later, many times would you lose your faith and my own waver. And yet the music did not go quiet, did not leave us behind.

Later, you said: How could you ask such a question when I’d give my life for yours?

Dear Father. Dear Aba.

*

We aren’t much of a gift-giving family. You worry about the accumulation of things in the world. Except for letters and records and photos. These you say you can pass down, keep the family alive. Keep the beloved here and present.

*

Dear Aba, recently, I asked others to share what poems on fathers and fatherhood moved them the most. Here’s a list. It’s a long one. Poets sharing the work of others. Keeping each other alive. Honoring our fathers, their weights, their faults, their mistakes, their dolor.

Some poets wrote me long emails, which you still call letters. (“Email me a letter,” you say, which in your aba-speak is not redundant.) With their permission, I’ll share a few.

On writing his long poem “Telemachy“, Ron Villanueva wrote to me about his own father: “I’ve always felt like an echo of him, but now with my own son, I’m somehow channeling my father is most everything I say and do.” These stanzas in particular resonate within this letter, within the silence between me and you:

His father’s arms
pressed into his
before the Test.

His father’s voice
a black ship
sealed with pitch.

Don Share wrote to me that his father, a scientist, passed away on Father’s Day, which he wrote about in “The Man Who Walks Like Me.” Of the poem’s last lines, Don wrote that “in the end no empirical facts illuminated either him or me with regard to his slow and painful passing.”

I understand this sentiment well. In science, there is no soundness which could possibly explain a dolor that has its own consciousnessthat is, what we feel after losing someone impossible to lose. I believe there is life in these lasting residuals of great sadness we put out into the world. What we think are ghosts or the hauntings which made Don “denounce / my own day.”

The body is strange.

In many ways, the body is the opposite of science, as much as science would like to unfold it.

How could science ever unfold dolor with consciousness?

*

A person of science might say this is a purely abstract idea: poetry keeps us alive and connected.

That, while this is a very nice sentiment, in the end we show our care for others through basic necessities: food, water, shelter. What would count in the boiling down, the zero hour, the striking of some apocalypse when there is only those you love and the rest who mean you harm. Then there might be only you, and what would you do.

A father wrestling with faith.

A ram wrestling alone in the thicket.

This is not abstract: you will be working on Father’s Day, as you’ve done for many years. From seven in the morning until four in the afternoon, you’ll help people with their cars, help them find the right parts, the correct brake pads, shock absorbers, fuel injectors and pistons, how many lives have you actually saved when they’ve chosen wrong. They don’t know your story. They don’t know you are completely self-taught.

That once you were a man immersed only in faith.

That, even in secular life, you are still being tested.

*

Later, you’ll say: An incline is not a mountain.

Last year, in late November, Brian and I came to visit you and Mama. You have an old, old car. A 1988 Towncar. The windows won’t roll down. The air conditioner doesn’t always work. The back right door doesn’t respond to the automatic door lock. It’s always breaking down. You fix it. You fix it again.

One night, it broke down outside the AutoZone where you work when Brian and I were visiting. We were in the car with Mama, waiting to pick you up, waiting for you to clock out.

You didn’t know it then, but she burst into tears.

The irony, she said to us.

Later, she’ll say: You never tell me if I’m using that word correctly.

What word?

She won’t answer.

Faith is a test in silence.

You came outside the store.

Nothing you could do could fix the car.

People watched you bent over the car as they headed into the store. Brian did his best to help you.

Soon the store closed.

We had to have it towed.

A fellow employee drove Mama and me home; Brian stayed with you.

She and I waited outside, stood outside, until the tow truck appeared. I don’t remember what we talked about.

They towed it to the street.

Our narrow driveway is slightly uphill.

The tow men said there was no way to get it up the driveway.

Brian tipped them, and you said you’d pay him back.

Later, my husband won’t take the money. He will silently refuse it.

Because of break-ins and car theft in our neighborhood, Mama didn’t want to leave the car on the street.

So you and Brian tried to push it uphill, up our narrow and uneven driveway.

You are over seventy years old, pushing up a car that weighs well over four thousand pounds. Or two tons. The same weight as the average hippopotamus. Or some elephants. I looked this up.

For nearly an hour, Brian helped you push the car up the driveway, knowing it wouldn’t work. He did this because you wouldn’t give up. It was futile, but also it wasn’t.

I wanted to help, but you were afraid the car would roll back and crush me. That I wouldn’t run fast enough.

And the car did roll back. Many times.

You were covered in sweat by the time it ended.

The car remained on the street.

But you did not give up.

It took you all night, with Brian handing you tools and Mama and I shining strong worklights, but you finally got the car running. Off the street. Up the driveway.

Of this whole incident, you’d only later say: an incline is not a mountain.

*

Theory: dark matter is growing, and everything is drifting further away from everything.

Often, Aba, I’m scientifically wrong, as wrong as can be. But how can one explain that my atheist husband was pushing that car uphill, alongside you, for nearly an hour, because he believed in something enough to do it? My pragmatic husband was wrong, but he believed that it must be donefor you.

I recall this moment when someone tells me the human race is on the decline.

That we are drifting further and further away from each other.

*

There is a story Mama loves to tell about you.

It begins with your shared love of parrots, those you and Mama used to take in, parrots unwanted or having outlived their “owners.” You like to say: share space with.

You’ve also said your life is a failure because you never owned anything.

But there are those who’ve never needed to own things to find happiness.

Mama has asked that I write this story down, and here it is:

While I was away in Jerusalem, you found one of your last birds, a very, very old parakeet, collapsed on the floor of his open-door cage. You picked him up gently. You sat down as he heaved softly and slowly spread his wings out fully on your chest. Then he died.

My mother says: Remember this. Don’t forget this happened.

Because I wasn’t there.

Because you are forever pushing some car uphill.

Because I still dream of the ram alone and bleating in the thicket.

Because when some die, they live a moment longer as what they will become.

*

—and the ram who found himself alone, who found himself so suddenly alone, became aware of his loneliness. And he panicked and became tangled in the thicket.

And because he was overcome with his aloneness, the ram did not know what to do when a two-legged creature unlike him appeared in the thicket and the cries in the wind shook the ram’s flesh from his bones. And the ram was dragged by his horns to a stone where a small, two-legged figure lay in loosened binding. And the small one looked upon the ram and then upon the one who’d dragged the ram by the horns.

And the small one stepped off the stone.

And the cries in the wind stopped, and a great silence fell upon the ram.

And it was then the ram knew.

And it was then the ram knew.

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