When I turned fifty in January, it was big for one reason: my dad had died at fifty.
Had it not been for that, I wouldn’t have cared much. Age doesn’t bother me but this milestone bothered me a LOT.
Many of you will understand. Over the years I have collected stories from sympathetic people who get it. They too live with ghosts: siblings who died young whose unlived lives occasionally walk into the room on an anniversary and afflict them with love and sorrow and survivor guilt. Veterans who sit in impenetrable silence after the Memorial Day service, barely able to speak of the thick presence of spirit around them of men who died in battle while they went home. Was it they who died with their comrades or is it that their comrades are living in them, taking up such subtle residence in their own lives that they go unnoticed until bidden forth and openly acknowledged in prayer and ritual?
An entire graduating class of students who will never walk by the diploma on their wall without a pit-in-the-stomach remembrance of a classmate who accidentally strangled on the monkey bars or died when the bus returning from the field hockey tournament overturned on an slick road. Time is not linear, it is series of overlapping and intertwined playground slides.
I don’t want to live an unhaunted life. I believe it is our duty to the dead to carry them as they carry us within the multiple dimensions where souls and time swirl in some intricate pattern that Einstein never imagined but possibly intuited.
My father died at fifty. He had had heart problems that were exacerbated by his Type A+ personality, his uncontrollable (and now, I see, utterly ridiciulous and narcissistic) rages, his workaholism and his “bum arteries.” It was also the 1970’s and early 80’s when the end of his story unfolded and cardiac care was in its infancy. When he had open heart surgery he had to travel from Connecticut to Ohio, and his recovery was long and serious, endured by the whole family around a rented hospital bed in the living room. He was considered an invalid, and a ticking time bomb.
Nowadays, the Carl Weinsteins of the world go in for a triple bypass and come out a few days later with instructions to return to normal activity as soon as possible. I’ve seen men in their seventies have quadruple bypass surgeries and live happy subsequent decades of golfing and Sunday prime rib dinners.
My father died at fifty and it was a personal tragedy for me. There are greater losses and more serious injustices in the world than a child of 17 losing her father on a Tuesday afternoon in April. But we do not tell our stories to compare suffering. I should know better than to even mention the relative scope of my loss. Pain that crushes, crushes. This loss crushed me. It is my “original wound,” as Henri Nouwen put it.
As the decades wore on, I had time to “heal,” or to put the loss into perspective, and more importantly, to dismantle the private religion of Weinstein worship in which I had grown up and been ordained. My paternal extended family has a gift of huge charisma, self-mythologizing, warm grandiosity, pride and (thank God) self-directed humor. We are an intense tribe, a sarcastic one, and a loyal one. We are as colorfully dysfunctional as any family. I have come to understand that the devastating persecution suffered by our kin in Europe — and the slaughter by the Nazis of those Weinsteins who did not emigrate to the United States — is the foundation of the American Weinsteins’ zealous commitment to survive, thrive, contribute to society, and tell our stories.
I learned only recently, in fact, that a branch of my Romanian family escaped the pogroms and fled to Paris where they lived well and happily for decades until they were rounded up by the Vichy government and sent to Dachau. On my most recent trip to Paris I had “just happened” upon the very small memorial marker near the Eiffel Tower Metro that identified the place where Jews were rounded up before deportation and “happened” to mention it to a family member. Didn’t we have relatives who escaped Romania for Paris? Yes, and they fled from virulent Romanian anti-Semitism right into Hitler’s gas chambers.
How had I never heard this?
These stories were too traumatic to tell, so we told stories of success: educational, professional, personal. We romanticized ourselves and our domineering papas watched their children with eagle eyes for evidence of the talent, brilliance, poise, beauty and integrity we were damned well expected to have. We were Weinsteins.
Being a Weinstein is no longer my primary identity. It is one of the many things that I am.
In 1983, Carl Davis Weinstein “succumbed,” as they said in his obituary, at fifty. His second child turned fifty in 2016 and celebrated her birthday and then released a sigh of relief that it was over.
Except that I was keeping a secret from myself. The secret was that I had a ridiculous, irrational, embarrassing fear of outliving my father, and turning fifty wasn’t actually the milestone for achieving that. He died 108 days after his fiftieth birthday — not that I was counting or anything. So while I crossed the finish line (the starting line?) to fifty in January, I was still secretly holding my breath. I myself didn’t even know that I was still holding it.
May 1, Sunday, was the 108th day after my own fiftieth birthday.
As the day approached and I felt my soul sinking down, it was not difficult to identify what was weighing on me. I finally realized that I needed to acknowledge to myself and others that I was carrying this embarrassing anxiety.
In fairytales and folk tales, the first step to breaking a curse is to tell someone about it. It loses some of its power just in the telling, as the good witch or the woodsman or the enchanted bird or the rosebush to whom the protagonist tell sit will respect the truth of the curse and likely help them to figure out how to break it. All of creation has a little grain of the magic, and the protagonist must first tell her curse to activate that magic.
So I told my friends. I admitted it.
I am glad that I did, because they twittered around me like an enchanted flock of birds to dispense wisdom,
Me too, they said. And Yes, it makes sense, they spoke.
Love and memory and trauma are real, they reminded me.
Do a ritual, someone suggested.
We are surrounding you with prayers and light, they chorused.
On May 1, buoyed by the love of my friends, I was grateful to have church to go to, and a worship service to participate in. I was grateful that a new visitor came who needed to talk, and that I got to spend over an hour in my study talking about her life and hearing her story.
Then I went home and “succumbed” to the pain caused by a pinched nerve in my hip (no surprise that I had a physical injury at the same time that my spirit was hurting) and fell into the place where even hurting requires too much energy. It was as though an odometer had turned over in my life – click – and some engine died, and I was abandoned in some permanent and irredeemable way. I sat in my recliner with a heating pad on my hip feeling bereft beyond words or caring.
I spent much of my 20’s suffering that level of depression, and had regular seasons of depression into my 30’s. As I entered my 40’s, my depression resolved into chronic anxiety and then eventually that too, resolved except for occasional relapses. In a state of depression, I can only wryly marvel at how much effort I expend in even minimal engagement with relationships and life’s responsibilities. It is a location from which it takes four-hours of encouraging self-talk of the — you can do it, ‘atta girl you can do it –sort to get up and prepare a Crock Pot of baked beans.
I have renewed compassion today for those who dwell there as frequent or permanent residents.
But the desolate night passed and this morning I woke up officially older than my father had ever been. The odometer turned and I was still there and still my father’s daughter, but somehow also his peer and now also his elder. So there it was.
The worst of the depression had lifted and I gratefully went downstairs and ate beans for breakfast (all better days start with my baked beans for breakfast) and moved through some work – writing and worship planning, some e-mails, some administration. I had a good talk with a very close friend who understands my psyche very well.
At 11:00 AM I downstairs again to get another coffee. My hip pain was resolving and I suffered no stabbing pains on the way down the stairs. More relief. What a metaphor the body is. My animals, the “guardians of the galaxy,” as I call them — went sniffing off to their own little realms of business, which is always a sign to me that they know I’m okay. They’re my bellweathers. The dog got involved with a bone. The cat circled around me then ditched me for window-watching.
And then I was in the silence, stirring my coffee at my dining table, when my father came through. I wasn’t surprised and I wasn’t alarmed as his voice abruptly manifested in my consciousness.
He was furious! – Oh boy, Dad’s pissed — I mused to myself as I added a few drops of stevia to my mug. He had a lot to say but I couldn’t hear any clear sentences so I just waited for him to get closer or louder or clearer or whatever he needed to do to better communicate his ire. He wouldn’t come all that way to bark an unintelligible argument at me.
As he admonished me, I stopped trying to make out what he was saying and withdrew to observe the contours of his hissy fit, just as I used to do as a child. Was this really about me, or was he just overtired or angry about something from work? Haven’t seen the man since Easter of 1983 or heard that much from him but boy, he hadn’t changed in his communication style. What had changed was my attitude toward his domineering daddy presence. I felt no need to placate him or to defend or explain myself. He didn’t scare or intimidate me.
I finally said – I’m listening, Dad. Carl. What is it? – I was finally able to catch snatches of phrases. I heard, – You’re being riDICULOUS. —
— I am always your father —you can’t steal that from me, don’t you dare think you can ever take that from me –
I thought that itself was ridiculous and told him so. I had forgotten how histrionic he could be.
Amid more unintelligible phrases I heard,
– You don’t understand how TIME works. I PRECEDED you in life, you can’t get OLDer than me —
I didn’t argue. It made sense and why would I argue with that anyway?
Then, as I was marveling at how deeply he lives in me that he would emerge with such clarity in a moment of daughterly need, he said,
–Vicki, you FAILED PHYSICS. —
And I laughed out loud, because it’s true and it’s something I had completely forgotten about.
In one of his last acts of involved parenting before he died, my father had, in fact, championed me as a high school student who was struggling terribly to grasp even the most basic concepts of physics. He encouraged me, he bought me early versions of the “Physics For Dummies” type books on the subject to read over the summer, he hired me a tutor, he talked to my teacher, and he cheerleaded for me as I miserably tanked the course despite all our efforts. For him to bring it up over thirty years later was hilariously in character for him: first of all, to bring up an old failure (to be fair, he celebrated and remembered every success, too). Second, to somehow connect physics to metaphysics. That is so my father. I had completely forgotten about his leaps of logic and his grandiose sense of certainty in offering tidbits of academic knowledge, no matter how ignorant he actually was on the subject.
–Oh, thank you Stephen Hawking Weinstein who didn’t have a college education and didn’t do well in high school. — I told you we were a sarcastic family.
I failed physics, so apparently — according to the part of my consciousness that is my father’s? — I can’t understand the basic premise that I can far outlive him chronologically without that having any bearing whatsoever on his status as my elder, world without end, amen.
This encounter cheered me immensely. It will take me awhile to fully recover my spirits and strength but I expect to, and that means everything.
You can judge. I don’t mind. What works to heal the soul, works. I am grateful for it. And I am grateful for the living friends and family on this side of the veil who also accept this truth.
When people tell me stories of their own suffering and how visitations or signs from the dead comfort them, they inevitably ask me : “Do you think it was real?” And I always answer in this way; I say, “Did it happen? Did it happen to you and change you?” And when they nod their assent, I always look them in the eyes and say, “Then it was real.