My father died almost a month ago in a hospice facility, surrounded by family singing the Shma, the holiest of Jewish prayers, proclaiming that God is One.
I wrote “My Father’s Many Lives” a few weeks before my father died, not knowing how imminent his death was.
On my own, I would never have chosen to read these words as at my father’s funeral, this piece being neither a conventional nor a “sweet” eulogy.
“But it’s Zayda,” my nephew said, everyone nodding assent, after I read the piece to family in the living room of my father’s condo the night after my father died. So I assented, too, and read My Father’s Many Lives as a tribute to my father at his funeral.
Dad, may you know the peace that you did not seem to find when here.
*There is a recording of me reading “My Father’s Many Lives” at the end of this post.
MY FATHER’S MANY LIVES
My father is dying. The man with so many lives. The man who lived in possibility.
Life number one: Aharon flees Zaklikow leaving behind a mother and two younger brothers. Father already dead.
Oldest brother in Palestine. Takes second oldest brother along who can’t fend for himself. Mother sends Aharon away, knowing he can save himself but not her, Yoella or Beryella.
Life number two: thrown out of a hospital with typhus and parathyphus. No hope for him, better to free the bed, the doctor said. Weighed 90 pounds at most. Skeletal. Delirious. His brother gave him gutter water to sip. His bones grew more flesh. Fever subsided.
Life number three: crossing the border into Russia. Bribed a farmer with a hay cart. Two bottles of vodka, one for his life, one for his brother’s life. Barely missed getting stabbed with the Gestapo’s pitchforks or got stabbed, but didn’t bleed visibly.
Life number four: on the Volga river, prisoner of Russian labor camp, managed not to let his hands freeze to the shovel like so many other hands cut off right there, tourniquets for some, bleeding to death for others.
Life number five: ate frozen cat and dog in Siberia to stay alive, force fed his brother Maier.
Life number six: saving his frozen ass by volunteering for the Polish Russian army.
Life number seven: more vodka traded and whatever other contraband Aharon could wrangle and trade to stay alive as a Jew in a Polish army.
Life number eight: becoming Chief Quartermaster and controlling all manner of things (sugar, boots, rifles, schnapps, flour and salt) to siphon off as needed for bribes.
Life number nine: my mother’s. Him going AWOL three times to keep an eye on the woman he would marry, who unlike him did not want to live at all costs, but rather the opposite. So now he’s keeping Maier and Esther alive— neither as keen on living as Aharon.
Life number ten, Postwar: Soldiers surround Lieutenant Tuzman’s apartment building in Berlin to capture and court marshal the quartermaster. Warned by a messenger sent by Esther to find him at the crowded theater hosting the political rally, Aharon does not return home. Moves Esther to a different apartment.
Life number eleven: selling bread by the slice to people in ration lines, making enough to feed Esther and Maier, to buy silver and crystal cheap, to bribe the officials for false papers out.
Lives number twelve, thirteen and fourteen: His new wife’s, his brother’s and his—all leaving Berlin on false papers, heading for dem goldenna landt. Giving away a silver spoon or fork if things get dicey.
Life number fifteen: mine. He sits on the boat with his back to the narrow board on which my mother sleeps, so she won’t roll off and lose the contents of her barrel: me.
Lives number sixteen, seventeen, eighteen and nineteen: Esther’s, Maier’s, mine and his. Aharon becomes Arnold, lying his way into work as a tailor in Brooklyn, making shoulder pads, then buttonholes when he learned he could make out better with buttonholes—enough to put a roof over their heads and food on the table.
Fast forward. Life number twenty-four. (I am sure there were at least five or six lives in between): Heads into Shalick’s bank in Elmer with a gun in his pocket while my brother and I huddle in the back of the green pickup sure we’ll never seem him again. Comes out alive without killing Shalick, the banker who is also the Purina feed man selling feed on credit to the Jewish chicken farmers whose mortgages he owned and had started foreclosing, but not after that day.
Life number who knows, maybe thirty-seven: surviving first round of colon cancer.
Life number forty-something: Surviving being under the knife again. Second round of colon cancer, more of his colon taken away.
Life lost: his companion Esther’s. Tries to beat her death with rage, but fails. Helpless man batting from inside the suffocating bag of Alzheimer’s. Strike one.
Three strikes and he’s out.
Of course, there were all those strikes before he “defeated” Hitler, as he likes to describe it. The defeat sealed when he went “on vacation” in the Carpathian mountains at Hitler’s former private villa, seized and turned into a public resort. Arnold, the victor, with his new wife— who didn’t want to go, not there, but couldn’t sway him. It was, after all, the closest he would come to standing on Hitler’s grave.)
Life number fifty (rounding it off, but probably underestimating): surviving first bowel obstruction.
Life number fifty-one: rushed to the ER for second bowel obstruction. Home again in record time.
Life number fifty-two: fighting the war on cancer when the colon cancer metastasizes to the lungs. One round of chemo, two rounds, three.
Interlude: Life number…but who’s counting?
The cancer’s winning, his oncologist reports. You’ve got 6 months left at most.
Who says? Arnold replies. How do you know?
Statistics, the foolish man tells the one who answers:
I will prove you wrong, doctor. You just wait.
No wonder he thinks he can outsmart death; he has until now.
again and again and again,
with chutzpah, pride, cleverness, and bravado:
Arnold Tuzman vs. death.
Dying is for fools.
Why think Arnold might lose?
Listen to Ani Read MY FATHER’S MANY LIVES
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