In the Name of My Father: Requiem and Renewal in the Shadow of Wall Street
On May 1, after a day of May Day activities on the streets and avenues of Manhattan, my wife and I and a troop of other OWS celebrants marched into Zuccotti Park to jubilant exhortations of "welcome home" from a throng of fellow occupiers. The next day, my wife and I boarded a southbound Amtrak train to join family gathered at my dying father's bedside to bid him farewell.
May in Georgia…In this age of climate chaos, the local flora comes to bloom a full month earlier than in decades past. This season, magnolias and hydrangeas blossomed in early May. Their petals opened to the world as my father's life is fading. The magnolia petals have grown heavy; his body is shrinking. Soon he will drift from this world…carried by the scent of late spring blossoms.
In our once laboring class neighborhood, McMansions blot out the late spring sun. In the arrogant shadow of these shoddily constructed, bloated emblems of late capitalism, the neighborhood's remaining 1950's single level, brick homes seem to recede…fading like memory before the hurtling indifference of passing eras.
In late spring, veils of pollen merge with shrouds of Atlanta traffic exhaust. Timeless nature has awakened as the noxious capitalist certainties underpinning the aberration known as the New South are dying.
Hospice has arrived in the home of my father.
A death vigil has begun, as well, for our culture.
Lost, starving, wailing into a void of paternal abandonment, my father, left on the doorstep of a Baptist church adjacent to an Indian Reservation in rural Missouri, arrived into this keening world. Now, he is refusing to eat and is wailing, once again, into an abyss of helplessness…His bones, eaten by cancer, and his bowels seized up by the side effects of opiates, he is starving himself to death.
"For us, the living, breaching Death's wall, possessed of the intention of changing its implacable order, is, of course, impossible -- but challenging the present, calcified order -- a death-addicted arrangement, created and maintained by mortal men that has existed well past its given and rightful time -- has become imperative."
He now lies in his bedroom; his sight…set on the undiscovered realm of death. This world denied him succor; now Death offers the embrace that he was denied (and later) refused, as he proceeded through this life in a resentful fury. His wounds cauterized by rage-lit flames.
Now, I must comfort him…as he did me, when I was a child, seized by night terrors…that he both placated and caused.
He whimpers into the air of the small home that he once shook with rage. Now, betrayed by his body, and again orphaned by fate, he will soon leave this world -- a place from which he was perpetually estranged.
I hope the womb of night will bestow a peace upon him that was denied to him by this world. I hope whatever dawn he meets will hold him in an embrace so all encompassing and gentle that he will shed his compulsion to bristle and retreat. I hope he will, at long last, know he was loved.
My father was born on an Indian reservation and abandoned on the doorsteps of a Baptist church in rural Missouri in the early years of the Great Depression. A Jewish mother and Protestant father adopted him. In those days, it was a standard practice of adoption agencies to offer up for adoption children of so-called mixed ancestry to interdenominational couples. Caucasian babies, the conventional wisdom of the time presumed, would carry a stigma for life from being raised in a home headed by such social deviants.
My mother escaped Hitler's Germany (barely) on a Kindertransport. My wife is from the rural South Carolina Low Country. She's a flat-lander, a swamp bunny. As for myself, I was born in Birmingham, Alabama, in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. I'm an accidental Hillbilly…The lay of the land endowed me with a hill country perception of existence, yet I appreciate the mode of being evinced in places like Charleston and New Orleans...the humidity slowing down the pace of life...the mind as a gnat flurry.
My blood, as is the case with all of us, is composed of ancient oceans that long to know land and sky. On a personal basis, my atavistic blood is a sea of diverse ethnic consanguinity that meets the shore of a global polis. The waves of this body of water are changeable…sometimes, caressing the shoreline… placid, at ease in the world; sometimes, agitated and enraged by what I witness…becoming a series of antagonistic waves crashing against the insensate rocks of the mindless social circumstances that damaged my father so.
Soon, my father will return to the vast ocean of eternity. I consider it my duty to sing the song of my blood…to compose and give voice to sacred hymns, both of the personal and the collective.
This is my poet's prayer: Life rose from ancient oceans so that mollusks could gaze upon the evening sky. Likewise, we emerged from the cosmic brine to know physical embrace…made resonate because of its finite nature -- the loving limits imposed by Time. Accordingly, the immaterial longs for the caress of the summer breeze and to rage into a winter wind. Spiritus Mundi is dependent on us to cultivate our individual souls…to have our blood sing biographical ballads to audiences gathered in Eternity.
My father's song is almost at its end.
The endless song continues.
A song of tribute to the life of my father (or, for that matter, any human life) must combine elements of a fight song and a love song. One must love life enough to take a stand in its behalf.
During the Great Depression, my father was (again) left fatherless when his adopted father suffered a debilitating stroke, resulting in a protracted decline that left their small family penniless and homeless. Consequently, my father, along with his nearly incapacitated father and his mother managed to make their way from rural Missouri to Cleveland, Ohio, and then went on to find lodging with members of his mother's family who had settled in Birmingham, Alabama, where shortly thereafter his father died.
In the Deep South, the dark hue of my father's Native American skin marked him for abuse by belligerent locals. Although he had been deprived of detailed knowledge of his ancestry, his Comanche blood resisted intimidation. His tormentors wounded him deeply, but they also succeeded in opening deep reservoirs of ancestral rage.
My father harbored an abiding animus to bullies -- a trait he bequeathed to me by both blood and circumstance.
Apropos: At the foot of Broadway, on May Day, I stood near a bristling array of NYPD officers who were tasked with the crucial mission of protecting the statue of Wall Street's iconic "Charging Bull" -- where I heard one of the witless, uniformed thugs, through a smirk, opine, “These rich, lazy bums go to college and study women’s studies and the history of Negroes -- then come out here in the real world and whine that they can’t get a job…These brats should have thought about what they're going to do in life when they were in school?”
I turned to face him and averred, "I guess they could follow your example and they could stand here on Wall Street…stroking a billy club…protecting ultra-wealthy criminals and their ill-gotten riches."
Of course, he responded by calling me a socialist.
Even though that was, most likely, the first accurate statement he posited all day, I replied, “As opposed to following your noble example: choosing to spend your days as a mindless fascist bully?”
His smirk still in place, he spat, “As if you even know what a fascist is!”
I replied, "As a matter of fact, I do, and you, being posed as you are in front of that bull [with its bronze form cast to crouch in a stance of impending aggression; its form, permanently locked in a position of myopic fury] will serve as a perfect backdrop for me to illustrate the situation. Mussolini, who knew a bit about the subject, proclaimed fascism to be the merger of the corporation and the state. Therefore, since it follows that the state pays your salary, and you spend your days protecting the corporate order… that you, to a jackboot, fit the profile of a fascist…Don't you now?"
At that, his smirk solidified into a mask of belligerent stupid. He slapped his truncheon into his meaty palm, and told me that if I knew what was good for me I better move along.
I told him that he was probably right, due to the fact, I suspect, he could very accurately and with much relish impart to me the true nature of fascism with that nightstick of his.
His lipless, reptilian grin indicated he would be more than happy to take a personal interest in tutoring me on the subject.
"The ghetto that you built for me is the one you're living in." -- Bob Dylan, Dead Man, Dead Man
But the fight is not with this individual enforcer of the present, doomed order. The encounter is emblematic of what those who devote themselves to the unfolding struggle are up against: an armed and fortified wall of sneering arrogance -- a violent, human torrent of surging ignorance.
For us, the living, breaching Death's wall, possessed of the intention of changing its implacable order, is, of course, impossible -- but challenging the present, calcified order -- a death-addicted arrangement, created and maintained by mortal men that has existed well past its given and rightful time -- has become imperative.
For my father, the struggle is nearly at its end; for those of us who remain in this breathing world, the struggle has just begun.