Sometimes, when I hear or think I’m hearing the voices of the dead, they thrum in my head like hundreds of bees I once heard in a blossoming almond tree. Other times they are the mariachi tunes or cabbies’ chatter in telephone static, or party noise from the apartment downstairs. Among them is the voice of a combative old friend of mine, a translator and critic, who had two daughters, no sons, and who welcomed surrogate student-sons into his life, but only if they were willing to contend with him. He could only love those willing to fight him. His intellectual hero and father was Nietzsche, who never wanted to father anything except contentious thoughts and who said that the truly great teachers are those who teach their students to kill their teachers.
Then there’s the sound made by a man from the Italian neighborhood where I grew up, whom all the women thought the kindest male in a community not known for male kindness. He had two sons, one daughter, and was once accused of sexual predation by an eighth-grade girl he was only trying to console (he said) after her father died. And there’s the snoring noise coming from one of my uncles, the only Jew in the family, who had two daughters, no sons, and was the favorite of all the boys because of his standard surly greeting: “Hey, knucklehead, you’re as ugly as your old man. How’d you get so ugly?” That fake belligerence seemed more loaded with affection than anything our fathers said. He was the only man in the family who could cook — exotic fare like borscht, roast duck, and potato latkes — and he cooked better than the women. He had narcolepsy and once nearly died when he fell asleep at the wheel with his beloved shih tzu, Happy, in his lap.
My father’s voice is mixed in with them. Hissed vowels, that’s how I recognize him. Because he died when I was a teenager I have sufficient salient memories to identify him as a person but not nearly enough to create that historically matured, consciousness-shaped condition that is understanding. My memories of him are broken, incomplete chunks of experience. I can hear his heavy, childlike, step-by-step way of going up and down stairs because of his fused knee, the result of a war wound. I hear his embarrassed laugh, as if he were shamed by his own laughter, but I have no memory of him smiling at me.
He drank and died from it. At his hospital bedside nearly every day, I watched the body bloat with fluids, shrivel when drained (my clearest image the puncture wound in his gut), then inflate again. He was a simple man, or maybe I think so only because we never really had conversations, so I can fantasticate any qualities I like. I do know he was melancholic and psychologically fragile in ways that the culture refused to acknowledge as anything other than unmanly inadequacy. When I see expressions of love between fathers and sons, on the street, in the movies, at the opera, I feel devastated, even in middle age, and lost. He loved me, I’m certain of that, though I don’t remember any expression of it except in unspoken, oblique ways. In the summer of 1959, he took me to a drive-in to see Gregory Peck in Pork Chop Hill. It was raining hard. His heavy presence, the envelope of rain and car, the tinny intimacy of the sound box, they made me feel safe — just about the only time I ever felt so — and I experienced that momentary safety as love. Another time, driving home from the American Legion post where he liked to drink, he told funny stories about basic training, such as the time he dug a trench incorrectly around his tent, which consequently flooded while he slept. He was tipsy and laughed out loud.
On a night I couldn’t sit with him, he died, and this has since given shape to my most frequent dream. I’m in a strange house. An awareness comes to me: to my sorrow and horror, he’s actually been alive all these years, ill and alone in a vague somewhere — often upstairs hidden away in a room I didn’t know existed — and I’ve let pass all this time we might have spent together. Maybe a dream of unrealized or withheld understanding. But the feeling tone overwhelms explanation. It’s not just the pain of loss, it’s the despair of knowing I might have done something about it, because stirred into the dream is the shame of recognition: having sworn never to forget him, I’ve forgotten. In the dream he’s speechless. He speaks to me, in sounds I can’t understand, only when I’m awake and hearing the voices of all those other fathers.