Authors: Evan Fallenberg
Joseph is pleased with himself for remembering but notices the troubled look on Daniel’s face. He knows a query, an expression of concern will not help now. He waits patiently. This much he has learned in a quarter century of trying to father Daniel.
When Daniel speaks his voice is subdued. Joseph hears in it no small amount of pain. “You know why that coin was so important to me? I remembered learning in America that your wish will come true if you throw a coin in a fountain. I figured an old and valuable coin like that would get me any wish I wanted. When I saw the coin I formed this vague plan to find a fountain somewhere. I had a pretty heavy wish to make and I needed all the help I could get.”
Joseph purses his lips. He knows Daniel is waiting for him to ask about the wish, even though he knows what that wish will be. He can follow Daniel’s simple plan, satisfy his son with a simple question, and give him the opportunity to unburden himself more, let him shoot yet another arrow at his father’s heart. This is the price of remorse, but Joseph feels he has paid the price again and again, especially to Daniel. He knows he should acquiesce, bend to his son’s needs, but something about Daniel’s anger, his refusal to accept circumstances after all these years, hardens Joseph’s heart.
“That suicide story you told last night about your mother,” he asks instead, “did it really all happen exactly the way you described it?”
Daniel falls back into the couch with a groan. “You
do that. You just change the subject when you feel like it. I don’t even know why I bother trying to talk to you.”
“Then let’s really talk, Daniel. We both know the out-come of the coin business. You wished me remarried to your mother or dead. It would have been one and the same for me.” Daniel starts to protest but Joseph raises his hand to stop him. “Yes, I mean that. But it wasn’t your mother who was killing me. It was the situation. It was everything expected of me that was no longer me. And in the long run it would have been the same for you and your brothers, too, having a father teetering on the rim of madness or suicide all the time.” Daniel’s forehead crinkles into a question but he does not interrupt. “In those days we didn’t solve our problems on psychologists’ couches; we didn’t solve them at all. We just buried them and hoped they’d stay covered until we could join them underground ourselves.
“Yes, Daniel. You got a bad deal in fathers. A very bad deal. In fact, aside from loving you with all my heart I have been good for nothing to you. I simply could not do what was expected of me. I could not bury it all. I made a choice—the most awful, terrifying, sobering choice of my life—and I have spent the rest of my life measuring the gains and losses, inspecting the damage and patching the holes. I have been lonely and sad and sick with heart grief, but I have never, ever thought I made the wrong decision. It was simply what I had to do, what I needed to do to save myself. It was no more and no less than what a person must do if he wishes to be of any use to the people who depend on him, like those safety masks on the airplanes, the yellow ones that pop down from the ceiling in case of emergency—they always tell you to take one for yourself first, get your breath, and only then help your children. Now most of us would instinctively come to the aid of our children first and probably pass out in the attempt.”
Daniel’s laughter is bitter. “Well, you managed with your life mask but never gave us ours. You let Mom do it all, but one female parent for five boys just wasn’t enough.”
“I’m sure you’re right,” says Joseph, glad Daniel is finally engaged in this discussion. “But my heart in those days told me that you were all better off without me than with me as I was. That the oxygen in the masks I had to offer you was poisoned. In fact, I assumed that the greatest service I could perform for you was to drown myself in the sea. I felt guilty that I couldn’t do it. Funny to recall this now, but when I lost Yoel and all of you—in the same week!—and my thoughts were incessantly, relentlessly on how to end my own life, a single verse from Psalms kept ringing in my head. It was like a chant, a monotonous incantation that I heard morning, noon, and night:
I will not die; rather, I will live to tell the word
I still haven’t figured it out, but as strange as it must seem to you to be hearing this from me, I always felt I had some sort of mission to fulfill, that there was some reason for me to stay alive. That perhaps one day I would be called on to testify to God’s word—me, your father, the secular, sinful hedonist who willfully breaks more than one of his commandments. Ridiculous, isn’t it?”
Daniel looks out at the sky and the sea, then back at his father. “No, it’s not ridiculous.”
“So tell me, son, what about that suicide story?”
Daniel squirms. “I don’t really know,” he says very softy. “I’ve gone over it in my mind every day for twenty years now. I reimagine it every night in bed.” He adds, embarrassed, “At some point I began to believe I couldn’t fall asleep without reliving the whole scene from beginning to end, from the sound of the crash to Mom mentioning it that once.”
Joseph resists the urge to touch his son, to hug him or hold his hand. Daniel continues, unprompted. “The thing is, it’s all so real, every bit of it, and nothing about it ever changes. And it doesn’t feel at all like a dream. I barely ever remember my dreams but this is so. . . . Well, nothing about it ever fades. I feel like I could touch everyone, anything . . .” He stops, the words clogging his throat.
Joseph senses Daniel has never told this to anyone before. “Can’t you simply ask your mother?”
Daniel shakes his head. “She doesn’t talk about those days. We don’t even talk about you to her. It would be too hard for me to bring it up. And anyway,” he says, now meeting his father’s gaze and holding it, “I have a feeling she’s not well.”
“Not well?” Joseph asks feebly, because in the same instant he knows. When he was fretting about the upcoming Sabbath with the boys she had tried to tell him something he can only now hear:
I have a problem and I will need your help.
And suddenly, just like that, he knows. That this is not only about his father, but about Rebecca as well. That they need him to walk back into their lives with the same decisiveness he used when he walked out on them twenty years earlier. That he will indeed look after them, that he will be humbled. And that something in him will heal while he tries to mend the others.
But now there is a flesh-and-blood son sitting in front of him trying to make sense of his own existence. “Daniel, my love,” Joseph says slowly, pushing Rebecca and Manfred to the back of his mind until he can visit them alone, “it seems to me that I bequeathed you something far worse than a broken home and a father of questionable repute. I’ve kept you so busy with my legacy that you haven’t had the time or the inclination to deal with yourself.”
Joseph lets Daniel ruminate on this idea, then continues. “I’m not trying to excuse myself from blame. Heaven knows I carry around enough guilty feelings for all of us. But at some point you have to say to yourself, ‘This is the life I was given. These are my defining circumstances. This is what I have to work with.’ Certainly it will be better than what some people get and worse than others, but these are the basic facts. What you do with them is then entirely up to you. So you can spend your life angry and bitter or you can cut your losses and continue. At some point it is up to you. I only made my choices, realized what it was I wanted and how much I wanted it, when I was slightly older than you. You’ve just got to start to focus on you.”
Daniel stands up. He pulls a small envelope, crumpled and soiled, from his breast pocket. “I left this place last night thinking I wouldn’t be back, ever. I walked all over Tel Aviv and eventually wound up in my own apartment. And all of a sudden I knew I had to give this to you.” He hands the envelope to his father. Joseph does not so much as glance at the return address; the crimped handwriting is enough for him. “It came the day after you left home. Twenty years ago, I can’t believe it! I got it from the mailbox myself. Mom’s never seen this. I took it to my room without opening it. I think I was planning to give it to you that evening when you got home; I used to pretend I was the mailman sometimes. But you didn’t come home that night or any other night and the letter became a sort of prize, or a ransom I was going to lure you home with. Only I never told you about it.” He shifts position, uneasy with himself. “I eventually read it after a few months, and I’ve kept it with me, hidden, ever since, wherever I go. In the army I treated it like a goodluck charm; it was always in my breast pocket. I’ve made a study of it, and it led me to read all of Rabbi Rosenzweig’s books and articles. I can practically quote them. His brain was so . . . so . . .”
“Expansive,” Joseph says to the hands that hold the letter he both aches and fears to read. “As deep and wide and profound as the whole universe. And as complex.”
Daniel has gained his composure and is flushed with the excitement of being understood. “But I only completely grasped it last night,” he says, more passionate than Joseph has ever heard him. He stops, searching the walls for the words he is missing, then finds them. “I am so very, very sorry, Father. I should have given it to you a long time ago.”
This letter is much shorter than Yoel’s first, the love letter. No salutation, no signature. No date.
I am sick with sin. I have discovered G-d’s true purpose in
bringing us together: He has tested me and I have failed. In
our last meeting we unhinged ourselves from G-d and His
commandments, and I have squandered the many gifts He
has given me. I lack Rabbi Amram’s courage and honesty to
raise my voice and shout, “FIRE.” I cannot cry from the
housetops what I have done in the secret chamber. There is
only one thing for me now: to mete out the prescribed punishment
and join Him in the World to Come.
Save yourself, Joseph.
Joseph takes a deep breath, but there is not enough air in the room to satisfy him. He steps out onto the terrace. Here, high above land and sea, he can swallow all the air in the sky, gulp in a universe full of wind. At the railing, on this clear Sabbath morning in March, he shreds the letter and the envelope into tiny pieces and tosses them over the edge. They soar and swirl and disappear. Joseph turns around to find Daniel watching from the doorway. “You see, son,” he shouts over the roar of wind and sea, his arms spread wide, “sometimes you just have to let go!”
Joseph walks to where Daniel stands transfixed. With only a slight pause he leans toward his son, then throws his arms around him.