Missing: My Father

ADAM BELLOW – The New York Times

Copyright – The New York Times
Published: June 10, 2005
MY father, Saul Bellow died in April. Today, June 10, would have been his 90th birthday.
Since his death I think about him constantly. Yet in a strange and disconcerting way, he is no more gone today than he was a few months ago, or at any other time in my life.
I am my father’s second son; my parents divorced when I was 2 and I never lived with him again. He had three sons with his first three wives and, much later, a daughter with his fifth. Four only children, connected by a slender thread: a fond but highly attenuated bond with a frequently distracted, often absent, and much older father.
At the end of his life we began to gather to celebrate his few remaining major milestones. Had he lived, I know my brothers and I would have made the journey to Boston or Vermont to celebrate this day with him. Instead, we are going to spend the day reflecting, in our separate ways, on the difficulties of mourning a father who was never really there.
My brother Greg said something to me recently about his experience mourning his mother that serves to highlight this anomaly. Mourning a parent, fully, takes a year, he said, because you have to go through all the holidays and other benchmarks of the calendar without him. Each familiar occasion forces you to re-experience the loss and thereby slowly and painfully emerge as an individual in your own right. The problem is, my father was never part of my life in that way. I never spent Thanksgiving or Hanukkah with him. We had no family occasions. He just sat up there like Wotan on his mountain, in Vermont, or in his aerie overlooking Lake Michigan, and I made pilgrimages by bus or car or plane. I saw him on his occasional visits to New York or for a few weeks during summer vacation. Our relationship took place in a vacuum, on an orbital platform high above the earth.
My father’s birthday ought to be one of those occasions that brings up the pain of his loss, but I rarely celebrated his birthdays with him, and he never celebrated mine with me. I didn’t even know until after the fact that he had married his last three wives. How is his absence today any different from his absence over the past 40 years? This, I feared, would make it harder for me to grasp the reality of his loss, and so emerge at long last from his shadow.
When a parent dies, as I have lately learned, you are at first flooded with emotion and memory. I reveled in this reassuring presence, rising up to fill the hole left by my father’s disappearance. But as the weeks go by the bite of grief recedes and you forget the little things you took for granted – the shape of his face, the sound of his voice, the timbre of his laugh – and you begin to fear the loss is permanent, a loss beyond recovery.
Of all the conversations we had over the years, sitting on the lawn in Vermont, I swear I can’t recall a single word. And I thought: this just means that I will have to work harder to summon him up. I even considered trying the memory exercises that he dabbled with in his 60’s. But just as I was beginning to feel that he would slip away from me forever like a shadow, he paid me a surprise visit, one that let me know I have not lost my absent father after all.
A month after he died I had a particularly vivid dream. In the dream I am at the publishing house where I work. It’s a normal day, and who should I run into in the hallway but my father, coming back from lunch with an unfamiliar executive. Not only is Saul still alive but he has also written a new novel our company is going to publish. I introduce him to my boss and the three of us go into an empty office to talk. I hang back, as was always my habit, sitting on the desk behind my boss to allow him the pleasure of conversing with Saul, who is in very good form, though I am aware of feeling concerned every time he starts a sentence that he will not be able to finish it. Yet he does. His sentences start in midair and dance their way to an unforeseeable conclusion. In the dream he is about 80, his face is dark with age, his brows unfurl like a fine white scroll across his forehead. He has the most beautiful head. I am conscious of noticing every physical detail in his face. His large head hovers in the air at a sardonic tilt, and I think wryly, “He’s the Muhammad Ali of conversation: floats like a butterfly, stings like a bee.”
At one point an older woman comes in and tells me sotto voce that Mrs. Bellow has been “deeply involved” in helping him finish the book. So he’s not at the peak of his powers. Still he’s getting off wonderful lines and my boss is grinning with excitement and pleasure. Finally, after listening for a while, I interject: “This is the story of my life. Every time I turn around he’s publishing another book, winning another prize, or getting married to someone else. He never tells me what he’s doing. I read about it in the paper.” Saul squirms slightly in his seat and says, “Oh, no, I tell you everything.” To which I respond in a definite tone, pointing a mock-accusing finger at him, “Untrue.” And I add for good measure, emphasizing every word: “That’s MY story. And I’m sticking to it.”
I love this dream, because, first of all, my physical impressions of him were so vivid and lifelike that it made me see how deeply I have taken him in. I have ingested him, heart, lungs and spleen. He lives inside me, at the very core of my being, and I can summon him up any time. I also remember thinking, Gee, I wish I had said all those wonderful things. And then I realized – hey, I did say them. After all, it was my dream. But mostly I felt happy because I was able to speak up for myself in real time and refused to be paved over or ignored. And I did it not with anger, but with love.
My father believed strongly in the soul – in its powers, its eternity, and above all its connection with loved ones. He believed that parents and children were parts of the same soul, and that we are reunited with our family after death. When he talked about this I used to listen respectfully and inwardly roll my eyes. Now that he is gone, however, I finally begin to understand what he was talking about.
How can I maintain my connection with a father who is not just geographically distant, as in life, but really gone?
Most people have a rich fund of shared experience to help them keep their dead alive. My memories of my father are much sparser. But I do have one advantage over people who knew their parents in the normal, daily sense. Over years of separation I developed a connection with my father that did not depend on physical proximity. I did this, I now realize, by willfully incorporating aspects of his being in myself: ways of thinking, particular expressions, a certain way of looking at the world.
Therefore it seems fitting on his birthday to affirm my belief in this improbable connection, a bond that transcends time and space, and even death, because my father, though absent, is deeply, unpredictably, stubbornly present in me.
Adam Bellow, a book editor, is the author of “In Praise of Nepotism.”

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