My dad turned 50 this week, just days after he sent me an e-mail that broke my heart. It was sent at 4 A.M. Romania time — he obviously hadn’t slept that night, busy musing about the life and the lessons he took away from always being too eager to help others. Reading his words, I wished as I have often in recent times, that our family was more open to discussing pain and the events that caused it.

“In a way, the period of major risk is coming to an end,” he wrote. “The hard years, during which I took extra care of everything scared of what would happen to those I cared about if I didn’t, are slowly left behind.”

In a bright light, this could mean he’s looking forward to taking it slower. But my dad never looked forward to taking it slow — he resented slowness and people that couldn’t sustain the same high work rhythm. He always pushed forward with the stubbornness of a bull. If these words did not mean he felt defeated, they certainly say he is starting to tire of fighting alone.

I read Philip Roth’s “Patrimony” today, a book I had avoided for no particular reason, despite my admiration for the author. I knew what the book was about (Roth taking care of his dying father) and had even read entire chapters about it in books that analyzed Roth and his work (such as Mark Shechner’s “Up Society’s Ass Copper“). The scene in which Roth cleans after Herman who “beshat” his pants, is known even to some who have not opened the book.

I realized as I put the book down and swallowed a knot along with a pocket of tears, that reading the book was long overdue. Roth as a writer has always struggled with the boundaries of fiction and reality — he stayed away from memoirs even when he was using snippets of his own life to craft his work. His attempt at a biography, The Facts, ends with a scathing rebuke by the fictitious Nathan Zuckerman who tells the author, that there is no such thing as a truthful biography — especially when there doesn’t seem to be a motive to write one.

If Zuckerman is right, “Patrimony” is as close as it gets to the truth. Herman Roth, Philip Roth’s father is slowly fading crushed under the weight of a brain tumor. At the time of the book, in the late 1980s, Herman is 86, and Philip is in his early fifties. The book is an account of Herman’s last year and Roth’s struggle to care for him and accept his father for who he was: a stubborn, overly critical, hard working Jewish man with an eight grade education. Over the course of the book, suffering alongside Herman, listening to him bitch and moan, reminiscing about old Newark and his father’s life as an insurance salesman for Metropolitan Life, Roth learns the most elusive of commandments (as writer Chris Hedges said in his most recent book): honor your parents.

Realizing his father’s flaws ultimately built an important part of him, Roth unloads on a friend, while simultaneously accepting the reality of an unchangeable Herman: “All my life I have been trying to tell him that people are different one from the other. (…) But he couldn’t grasp it. They all had to work the same way, want the same way, be dutiful the same way, and whoever did it different was meshugge – crazy.”

I sent my dad an e-mail on his birthday, urging him to follow a list of “ten commandments” I had for him. I had never scolded my dad before, and although this was far from the eviscerating letter Franz Kafka wrote to his own father, it was a first attempt to care for the man who up to now has been taking care of me. One reason I wrote the e-mail was because I want to preserve his thoughts and memories, and I cannot tap into them any other way but by trying to reverse the roles, becoming a parent if just for a page and a half.

“Patrimony” lives by a tragic but true motto given the feeble nature of life: You mustn’t forget anything. That’s what Herman Roth used to say. “That’s the inscription on his coat of arms,” Philip Roth writes. “To be alive, to him, is to be made of memory — to him if a man’s not made of memory, he’s made of nothing.”

2 Responses to “Patrimony”

  1. It was about time you read Patrimony. Welcome to looking analytically into one’s past, family and memories. Put the list aside. Where we come from and what our families did before us tells us a little about who we are. Or at least that’s how I justify my trips down memory lane.

  2. wonderful post Christian

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