The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.
A summer night, 1955. “Your friend Martin won’t come into his own until his father dies.” My father was looking somewhere beyond me, and seemed to be speaking more to himself, a forty-one year old scoutmaster, than to me, a twelve-year-old Boy Scout. Why, I wondered, did he choose that moment, right after a Boy Scout troop meeting as we stood by ourselves on the lawn of the grade school, to make this disturbing pronouncement?
It would take many years before I would understand that what my father had offered me was his excuse, also an oblique apology for the angry and sometimes abusive behavior I had experienced far too often as his young son. It was an apology that should have been made again, but to his adult son. It never was, at least not in words.
Five years after the evening on the grade school lawn, Martin Durvitch’s father did indeed die. At a gathering of his family and their friends, I watched his uncle place his hand on his nephew’s shoulder, and say, with a solemnity reserved for such occasions, “You’re the only son. You have to take care of your mother and sister.”
I didn’t know if that hand on Martin’s shoulder was there to comfort him, or to control him. This scene, the Elder instructing the Younger, would have been familiar to our biblical ancestors much of whose time was spent driving their flocks in search of green pasture. In Martin’s case, much of his time was spent driving the used car he was so proud of in search of a Steak n’ Shake, or to and from more mundane places, such as high school.
When his uncle walked away, Martin said to me, in a hushed, almost monotone voice, “I’m selling my car. My family needs the money.”
I didn’t tell him what my father had said after our scout meeting.
Whatever truth there might have been to his pronouncement, or if there had been none, at all, Martin would have to discover it on his own, as I would have to do, one day.
April 2015. Sixty years later, another friend and I, two grey-haired men, sat in his office and continued our ongoing conversation about our families, especially our deceased fathers.
“It’s been thirty years since my father died,” I said.
“Mine’s been dead for years, too,” Mike said. “He was pretty good at beating me when he was drunk, which was pretty regular. Sometimes he’d come into the bedroom I shared with my brother and wake us up, like his father had done to him pretty regular. I’d pretend to be sleeping. Sometimes this worked, and he’d deliver the beating to my brother instead of me.”
“What’d your brother do?” I said.
“When my father left, my brother would beat the hell out of me.”
We fell silent.
In but a few ticks of a second hand of the clock on the wall, I am once more the little boy, six or seven years old, barefoot and in nothing but underpants, alone in my family’s apartment. In the dining room, a shiny, brown cockroach stands guard like an enemy soldier, motionless. The terrified boy scrambles onto a dining room chair against the wall, certain the cockroach will attack. He wants to smash it, or run to the safety of his bedroom. He wants to scream, “Somebody…please…come home and save me.” The one-inch monster scans the room with searching, threatening antennae, then races on its crooked legs across the tan, pile carpet and squeezes through a crack between floor and wall. The little boy lowers himself to the chair seat and, as if checking the temperature of a bath, touches the carpet with the toes of his left foot. Summoning all his courage, he places both feet down, and runs to his room. There he waits, trying to breathe.
Escaping from the memory of the cockroach, I said, “My father had outbursts of anger and violence that were frightening as hell, but nothing compared to the terror you experienced.”
“Terror is terror, my friend. Don't try to compare them.”
“I guess you’re right, but…” I didn’t finish the sentence. It took no more than a few ticks of the second hand of the wall clock, before I returned to a dream from, perhaps, thirty years earlier, when I would have been forty-two. In that dream, we meet the terrified little boy, once again. Trembling, he approaches the door from the dining room to the kitchen where the big man sits at the table that blocks the path to the outside and safety…the boy tiptoes into the room, his back sliding against the door frame to stay as far away as possible from danger…he has to step closer to pass between the table and the refrigerator…the big man sits immobile…the boy sees that the man is his father…not the young, dangerous father, the soldier who returned a few years earlier from the war, but an old man…the boy chances to moves so close to him that their faces almost touch…he sees that his father’s eyes are covered with an opaque, grey film…he is blind, and he is thin and weak...but still might be dangerous…the boy runs the last few feet to the open kitchen door…he sees the metal staircase, other apartments, and the sky beyond them…only the wooden screen door blocks his way to safety…he fears the hook and eye will be too strong and tight for him to open…but they are as weak and old as the father at the table…but he is able reach the hook that rests in an eye so big that a slight lifting of the little boy’s forefinger is all that is needed…he pushes open the screen door, and steps outside.
The dreamer awakes.
“Yeah, you’re right about that, Mike. Terror is terror.”
As I said that, he leaned back in his reclining office chair enough to swing his feet onto his desk. “I already came to a resolution of my feelings, and I've forgiven my father.”
That was hard for me to believe, and I couldn’t let it pass without commenting, “What kind of pronouncement is that, Mike? Maybe you can do it, but I have to try really hard not to dwell on my anger. At any moment, a bad memory will return. When that happens, I try to focus on our love for each other. It’s hard not to get hung up on the anger...mine, too, not just his…but I just don’t wanna feed that beast.”
Mike leaned as far back as his chair would allow, and locked his hands behind his head, while I continued my story.
“Actually, my dad also was a remarkable guy,” I said. “He helped so many people, even strangers. He was trying to grow his small business, but always found the time to coach our little league teams, and be our scoutmaster. My old friends still tell me how much he taught them, and how much he helped them grow up. I mean, obviously, he did it for me, too.”
Mike rolled his eyes, like he was looking for something on the perforated ceiling tiles. “I see. So you’re saying your father was perfect?”
“I guess that does sound like bullshit. When his anger would come at me…honestly, he was absolutely crazy. And it was terrifying. The worst part was not knowing when it would happen. The physical violence stopped when I was seventeen and we were in a really bad argument.” I had been looking down at the carpet, so I paused only long enough to make sure Mike was still listening. He was. “My father took a step toward me, and I just said, ‘I’m warning you, Dad, don’t even think about it.’ He looked surprised, maybe a little afraid of me. He just turned and walked away, and I think he was relieved, like he also wanted all that crap between us to stop.”
“You were lucky, Mike said. “My father didn’t seem interested in stopping.”
“But, the thing is, those times when my dad was in a rage, and sometimes I’d get hit, he'd never actually apologize. He’d be remorseful and express his love by doing one of those things we’d do when we hadn’t been arguing. Like playing catch in the driveway. I was a good pitcher, and he’d wear this old catcher’s mitt we had, and he’d have to put a sponge in the palm because I threw so hard. He never complained about it, but once in a while he’d take off the mitt and shake his hand a few times, kind of like cooling it off. Other times, he’d bring me somewhere with him. Once, it was to a cigar store, but that’s a whole other story. Think how confusing it was, not being able to predict which father you’d be dealing with.”
“Guess what?” Mike said. He pulled the lever on his desk chair, and it forced him upright. “It’s still confusing to me, and I'm fifty-five years old.”
“Yeah, pal, and I’m seventy-two. Plan on being confused for a lot longer.”
May 2015. All morning, I’d been thinking about the conversation I'd had with Mike a few weeks earlier, and feeling sorry for myself. This seemed much too self-indulgent, particularly on Memorial Day when so many people were dealing with their own painful losses, and haunting memories. Another friend was one of those people, a Viet Nam veteran coping with lifelong physical and emotional healing from his devastating wounds. On this day of memories, I wanted to be close to him, someone who has struggled to find a way to forgive. So I called him.
“It’s Memorial Day and I’ve been thinking about you, Isaac.”
“I’ve been thinking about you, too. I’m really glad you called.” He sounded very pleased, but also preoccupied and tired. “I should’ve been in touch, but I’ve been immersed in a lot of stuff, some of it not so easy.”
When he said that, I understood why he had sounded preoccupied and tired. “I’ve been immersed in a lot of stuff, too, Isaac. But you’ve had to deal with a lot more than I have.”
I was surprised that I had used that tired, old refrain.
“Oh? I don’t know about that.”
“You know what? I don’t know about that, either.” I knew I must have sounded pitiful. “Someone else delivered the same message the other day. He said, ‘Terror is terror.’ Either one of you could have added, ‘Cut the bullshit, and face reality.’”
“My point, exactly,” Isaac said. “I’m telling you, facing the wounds is the only way healing can happen.”
A few days later, as we had planned during our phone conversation, Isaac and I meet at his daily, morning hangout. I walk into the café, and he stands up, flashes that big smile, and we hug each other like long-lost brothers. He wears his customary jeans and, since the weather is warm, one of his customary tee shirts, this time in support of Veterans for Peace, a cause he holds dear. His hair and thick, walrus mustaches seem a bit longer and grayer, and I imagine, but am not certain, that a few of the wrinkles on his face seem a bit deeper than the last time we were together a few months ago.
Another day, another place, and, once again, I’m one of two gray-haired men who will sit together and continue their on-going conversation about their friendship, how to heal the wounds each has accumulated over his lifetime, and other lighter topics that any two guys might talk about on a sunny morning in a little café over breakfast.
Isaac orders his daily breakfast of eggs over medium, toast, and coffee. I do the same, but my eggs are scrambled. We carry our plates and coffee mugs, and Isaac pushes his shoulder against the screen door so we can walk through to an outside table. I watch with amused pleasure as he performs his ritual of pressing a fork into his over-medium eggs, first north and south, then east and west, producing a checkerboard of little, yellow and white squares.
The bright yellow ones remind me of something Isaac told me a couple of years ago. During an especially difficult and dark period of recovery, he lived alone in a warehouse of sorts, doing his best to resume his passion: painting and sculpting. One day, he was walking toward the old, industrial sink, carrying a plate with some of the leftover yolk from his fried eggs and thinking how unattractive and demoralizing this whole scene was. Just then, he passed under a spotlight that illuminated the egg yolk and made it glow “a bright golden color that was absolutely beautiful.” He said that the sight was “an epiphany and I just knew I was going to be okay.”
Ritual completed, Isaac looks right into my eyes. “When we first met, I was in bad shape but I tried not to show it. I was in a deep forest, feeling completely alone and somehow you understood and you reached out to me. Because of that, I was no longer in the forest.”
Our eyes remained locked together.
“Truth is, I was in bad shape, too. There were days when I was feeling completely alone, not in a deep forest, but floating in a deep ocean. When I reached out to you, Isaac, my hand was searching for a life raft.”
“Yes, my friend. I understand.”
“Yes, my friend. I know you do.”
Isaac and I dig into our eggs, but struggle with the peel-off covers of those dumb, miniature, plastic containers of strawberry jam for our toast. Watching each other bumbling through such a simple task, we laugh. Just happy little boys.