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Sifting Memories

Sifting Memories

My brother can't forgive our father. Doesn't he know that we all disappoint those we love?


In the summer of 2005, my son is born at home. His birth is everything I could ask for. The midwife is inexplicably running late and my son enters this world directly into his father’s hands. When she finally arrives, we are all crying – my husband, my son, and I. For a few days, the festivities of making a bris push off the knowledge that my father is dying. Yet month by month, as my son grows, my father’s world narrows.

One day we receive a call. “Come now. Don’t wait.” While my neighbors are cleaning their homes for Pesach, we board a plane for New York; it is not clear if my father understands that we are coming. For this last goodbye, I have brought everyone with me, including my older daughter and this son who is too young for memories. During the flight, I pray that my father won’t die before we arrive.

My father’s room is dwarfed by the bed, where he lays ship-wrecked like a sailor whose boat has disintegrated beneath him. He has already been operated on twice. The first time, surgeons removed a portion of his leg below his knee, but later on, they were forced to operate again, and remove his whole knee.

Even that dual amputation has not solved the problem. Beneath his hospital blanket, the stump of his amputated leg refuses to heal. The stump remains malignant even as his other leg is threatened by gangrene. He couldn’t bear to lose his other leg. We couldn’t bear it. My brother says the doctors are chopping him up like sushi. How long can a body be altered and re-sown?

My father is dying of diabetes. Surgeons can delay his body’s surrender, but they cannot prevent it. This delay is intolerable. Each day is a little worse than the one preceding it.

I bring him breath mints, stacking his bedside table with boxes and boxes of sugar free candies. Then the hospital calls. Breath mints have been removed from his food plan; he can no longer digest the chemicals.

What comfort can you bring to a parent who is imprisoned within a dying body?

Finally, we are forced to return home, just before Pesach. While my husband frantically cleans and prepares our home for the approaching holiday, I wander aimlessly through the streets, pushing my son in his stroller. I feel like I have already lost my father.

My children need me. My father needs me. I am torn between the present and the past. I am torn between my need to be here for my children, and my need to be there for my father. For both, there is no one else to take my place. For me, there is no respite from this excruciating sensation of not being where I need to be.

For a memory to be nourishing enough to sustain a dying soul, it must be sifted and baked to perfection.

I speak to my father on the phone every day. On bad days, I speak to him twice a day. Yet it is not enough. I begin to write him letters.

For the next two years, as his illness ebbs and flows, I will write letters to my father, to be read to him by the volunteers who sit by his bedside. Through these letters, I will feed him memories. As every last pleasure is taken from him, I will feed him memories. I will sift through our shared history, removing anything abrasive.

His volunteers will come to know him as a young father, who threw his daughter onto his shoulders and carried her proudly. They will know him as a father who followed secret road-signs overhead during family drives to take his children to see the autumn leaves.

My father’s hunger for memories is bottomless. There is no pleasure left to him except for these stories.

“You are living in the past,” my brother says to my father. What he means is that there is no past worth holding onto. For my brother there is nothing in the past worth remembering. He doesn’t take into account the years before the divorce, before the protection that we thought would last forever began to feel patchy and inadequate.

For my brother, the years of betrayal and distrust that followed my parent’s divorce have eroded the memory of what came before.

For him, the years of betrayal and distrust that followed my parent’s divorce have eroded the memory of what came before, until it seems like there was never a single day when my father filled his needs completely.

My brother is older than me, but I wave aside his words. He doesn’t understand. He is not married. He is not a parent. He doesn’t know what I know – that we all disappoint those we love. He doesn’t know that being a parent is so much harder than we ever believed possible.

My own children have humbled me. I know that my actions will also be considered imperfect, despite how perfectly I have loved them. Perhaps, one day, they will turn to me in anger, demanding to know why I have not provided everything that they needed. This understanding separates me from my brother.

Even as my father is dying, my brother is still fighting with him. My brother fights with the doctors, and the nursing staff. Later, he will not be able to stop fighting. He will even fight with the funeral staff.

“I killed him,” my brother will tell me when I fly in the second time, this time coming into New York alone for the funeral. “I finally pulled the plug.” My aunt assures me this cannot be true when I share his words with her during the shiva. “Your father was cared for by the best doctors until the end. He wanted to hold on as long as he could.”

Perhaps I too had entered adulthood with a chip on my shoulder, but I had come to realize that being an adult means that from now on my life would be my responsibility, and not the result of my parent’s actions. Furthermore, as I began to take full responsibility for my own choices, I learned how much I had truly received from my father as a child. My anger over what I had not received had been transformed into gratitude for what I had received, and this transformation allowed me bid farewell to my father with love.

My brother resented my last act of comfort. He would rather have my father depart from this world defeated and tortured by regret.

Daddy, I wouldn’t let him shame you. When there was nothing else to feed you with, I fed you memories.

For a memory to be nourishing enough to sustain a dying soul, it must be baked to perfection.

To prepare a memory, one must first sift, like sifting wheat from chaff. One must find the pure kernel of successful connection, and mill it. Moisten it with tears to make a dough, and set it to rise.

I offered these small perfect loaves to my father until the end.

August 21, 2010

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Visitor Comments: 18

(18) dm, April 3, 2011 6:10 PM

don't judge the oldest child

Like your brother, I am the oldest child of divorced parents. Like you, my younger sister asks me why I still won't forgive my father. Although I am a parent, and I have also realized that "my life [is] my responsibility, and not the result of my parent’s actions", I cannot forgive him. I have moved past resentment, to an emptiness. I don't like the person he has become as a result of his choices. I do remember the good times with my father when I was little, but they have been overshadowed... My sister asks me, "What about the concept of teshuva?" If he once expressed regret for any of his actions, if I had not seen proof that he continues in those actions, perhaps I could forgive. But he has not. I will not tell my sister what I know of his betrayals that she does not - I will not take her love from him. Your brother is older - perhaps he saw or understood something in what happened that you did not. It is not easy to live without a father, and it is even harder to maintain contact with someone don't like for the sake of the fact he is your father. Be happy that you can take comfort in pleasant memories. For me, those memories make the later betrayals all the more painful. Please, enjoy what you have, and don't judge your brother.

(17) Anonymous, August 25, 2010 7:20 PM

Formidable article. The only time my father told me he loved me was in a postcard from the hospital when he was dying from cancer. There was never any hugs... no warmth at all. I am glad that you were able to give to your father some comfort. The writing... metaphors and such are quite excellent. Extraordinary.

(16) Aharon Tuvia, August 24, 2010 7:04 PM

My own mother

I thought it was fitting to read this article, because today is my own mother's Shloshim. In my case I'm the oldest of three children of divorced parents. My younger siblings broke off from our mother and never reconciled with her. I did reconcile with her and managed to bring her to Yiddishkeit, which she had always wanted but didn't know how to get. Needless to say, there was still a lot of baggage left over from her pre-Yiddishkeit life, and our relationship was often difficult. But we did our best, and I was the only one of the siblings to see her all through her final illness and the levaya, and now to be practicing the Aveilus prescribed by Torah. Sarah Smith, you words hit home and were very helpful to me personally today. Thank you

(15) JRG, August 24, 2010 6:00 AM

You and I have traveled the same path

My mother, zichrona l'vracha, passed away six months ago, five tortured weeks after open heart surgery. My mother raised me - an only child - alone, with the help of my grandmother, and absolutely she made mistakes along the way....But, as the author says so beautifully, it took me years, and having my own children, to understand that she had always perfectly loved me. We often "locked horns" as I grew up, and I often tried to point out to her how "imperfect" she was. Luckily, in the last dozen years of her life, both of us finally let go of the past and became best friends, as adults. The author's brother could have been my alter ego, the "yetzer hara" that could have prevented us from reconciling and building a beautiful relationship. (Guess you don't need a sibling to create that friction when it can just as easily occur within oneself.) Thank you for a heartfelt article, and as I wipe away my own tears, I also choose to remember the good things and also all the loving things, and let go of all the rest. The hardest part going forward is forgiving myself for all the years of putting her on trial for being merely human.

(14) Raisy, August 24, 2010 1:22 AM

Perhaps your brother was hurt in a way you were not?

I know families where a parent can be very hard on one particular child or this child is sensitive and takes a difficult parent' treatment to heart and is more hurt by it. When the siblings show love to the parent, this misunderstood sibling feels invalidated and experiences the hurt all over again. Often the other siblings agree that this particular child was treated hardest or had it toughest. But they have a need to see the parent as loving (something we all want to do so desperately) and fulfill their obligation toward a dying parent. I dont' know if this was the case here. It sounds as if the brother doesn't have children--since the author writes that she came to a better understanding of how difficult parenting can be after becoming a parent. Whatever the case, can you acknowledge the brothers' reality?I believe thiscan go a long way in healing the relationships between the siblings and even help the child forgive his parent.

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