Sunday, February 15, 2009

Offering

Follows Prologue.


Suspend disbelief for a minute. Two angels, Damiel and Cassiel, sit invisibly in the front seat of a BMW in a Berlin showroom, politely complaining about their lot in the afterlife. Damiel longs to be human.

"...I don't have to beget a child or plant a tree, but it would be rather nice to come home after a long day. To feed the cat like Philip Marlowe. To have a fever. And blackened fingers from the newspaper...to guess, instead of always knowing. To say 'oh' and 'ah' and 'hey' instead of always 'yes' and 'amen.'"

That last line works better in German, translated by ear by me while begging the pardon of those readers who speak it for real;

"Ich wil sagen zu konnen 'oh' und 'ah' und 'hie'...statte 'ja' und 'amen'."

Perhaps you had to be there. Or be an admirer of Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire. Perhaps you know about the movie and want to run away screaming as soon as somebody mentions the title. It happens. You need patience for philosophical musings about mortality and wish-fulfillment to get through the baggage of post-war Germany before the wall fell.

I never got to show the movie to my uncle. I thought he'd like the German dialogue and the fact it was about angels and how, in the end, things works out for the best.
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After my father's death, he became Brother John to my uncle. It would come up at odd times - a drive from his home in Neustadt to a nearby farm town might suddenly become a recollection about my father's woodworking abilities. "My brother John was the best carpenter I knew," he'd say. "Your father was the most optimistic man I knew. You need that to treat wood properly."

This might be a non-sequitur for most people; I think I know what he meant. My uncle dabbled in electronics, welding wires together in the 1970's to build digital clocks out of kits advertised in Popular Mechanics. My father took unsavory bits of lumber and built bookshelves, a self-contained case for a slide projector and various other requirements for suburban living. For older pieces (real furniture), he could bring out the grain in wood with oil or light stain, rubbing it deep with fine steel wool until it looked like it had always meant to. Each required its own patience.

My uncle also spent the first few years after my father's death in tears while saying grace at dinner. I've said it before - an 80yr old trying not to cry looks like a 5yr old trying not to cry, and perhaps it should have been more painful at the time than it is to remember. Let's chalk it up to the necessity of mourning - a traditional Baptist grace would fall into tatters at the mention of "And heavenly father please keep in your care...my brother John...who was lifted from Michael and Elizabeth and Leslie and Eunice and I... we loved him and miss him very much..." fading into the kind of tears that were no more voluntary than a cough.

He'd close the grace, and apologize, and dry his eyes and we'd take dinner with an acknowledgement that we miss him too. He knows. It is enough. You don't feel pain exactly while mourning, the necessity of remembrance fills those places. There's the awareness of things lost, which is its own pain, it's own beast. You'll know it better later from a distance, noticing scars, understanding the impact and the mark remaining. At the time, you're too busy living through it to give it a name.
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I didn't get to give Wings of Desire to my Uncle. I gave him Jaws, Blue Thunder, The Hunt for Red October, The Rocketeer, two versions of L'il Abner (the musical and the B&W feature), Duel, The Flight of the Phoenix (the original and remake), Gone with the Wind, and The Gospel According to St. Matthew. I gave him copies of any film I remember him talking about when I was a child (Duel was a particular favourite) and threw in one or two I thought he'd like.

Wings would have made the cut; I couldn't bring myself to give it to him. I had a feeling it might be the last film I'd hand over before he died. Something would be too melodramatic in that. Or he was too old and too tired to watch anything, anymore.
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In December of 2002, my father was terrifyingly close to dying. My uncle had leukemia and might have beat my father to the grave. It was a coin toss I wanted nothing to do with, couldn't control, had to watch it in excruciating detail.

The post 9/11, unemployment-ridden Christmas the previous year had been a bit nerve-wracking, but at least we all walked the earth. Everything else had fallen to bits over the next 12 months and I was simply grateful that both my father and uncle had survived as long as they had. My grandmother wasn't so lucky, and there had been enough stress from the rest of the world that there hadn't been time to mourn. Get through what you need and there's time later, something told me in the matter-of-fact tone she took when something needed to be done.

There wasn't time for anything sentimental or spiritual. It was going to be my father's last Christmas, if he didn't die before the 25th. And Moody was more fragile. He would probably go first. It didn't quite turn out that way - he found more time, perhaps unhappily. But facing him on December 26th in Neustadt (the home of 34 years of post-Christmas visits) as the only representative of my family - my mother and sister stayed in Toronto, my father was too sick to travel - was something too heavy for me to let pass with the well-meaning platitudes that I'd been hearing for months.

I had walked around my cousin's house with a video camera for a Boxing Day luncheon earlier in the afternoon. My father had asked for some footage, to see his family on the visit he'd miss. They didn't know as much about his condition, or had simply chosen to brave it out. I appreciated the gesture but felt it twisting every time they wished him well, waving at the camera:

Feel better Johnny, God bless. Come to visit whenever you can.

We're missing you John, but we know you're in good hands. See you soon.

Merry Christmas John! See you next year!

Not a chance, I thought. Every good wish in that room could be woven into something to keep a dying man warm. But die he would.

I had raided a photo album a few days before to make framed prints for my family. I printed this one for my father and mother - nothing else would do that year:


My sister, father and I, 1972, No explanation required.

For Moody, the photo itself is very simple:


He looked at it: I said "This picture was taken in 1973, on December 26th. It's 29 years old today. I remember when it was taken. I remember who was there. I could tell you the colour of the wrapping paper. I remember everything. Including sitting with you for that photo."

Unsaid, unwritten until now, understood: If you're going to die like my father, you deserve a goodbye. Here it is. Nothing about you will escape being missed.

The rest of the afternoon was quiet. Abby and I left early and promised to send best wishes to my father. He might respond to the new medication. God has mercy. We have hopes. We love him and we're near him. And it's Christmas. We're together.

Before I left, Moody said "You haven't shaken my hand, Michael."

I shook it. He wasn't crying, nor was I. Not yet. But if I'm not being overly dramatic or sentimental, we both had reached an ending. "Your uncle knows you love him," said Abby on the quiet drive home. If he had passed alone, before my father, something was said. Remembered. Acknowledged.
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I don’t speak German. I pick out words and phrases that I remember from movies or the back-and-forth between my relatives in Neustadt, or my father and sister when she was taking lessons. But death felt slightly less intimidating in a different language when I found out that my uncle had died. Unprompted, I thought Mein Vater ist tot. Mein Onkel ist tot as if this was some kind of code. As children, they both spoke German before English; they might have thought in German at the end.

I thought about Cassiel and Damiel, das engel ├╝ber Berlin complaining about the burden of eternity and omniscience, followed by me in this world hanging onto mortality. Sick men die; old men die. It’s banal to belabour the point. We all understand it.

When my father was dying, Travis would tell me "You're going to see him again" when I ruminated about how much time was left, or not. Years later, realizing that he was about as lapsed a Catholic as any I've met (with great abandon), I called him on it after a few pints.

"You've got no religious affiliation. Nothing lurking in the background."

A long drag of the eternal cigarette. "Nada. I don't believe in anything."

“Agnostic to the core?”

Another drag, a statement of fact. Not picking a fight. “More than agnostic. I'm a complete non-believer.”

I waited, then asked “Why did you keep saying ‘You’re going to see him again’ when my father was dying?”

This wasn’t accusatory – I was genuinely curious. I thought it might have come from a last vestige of Sunday school. It didn't matter to me why he said it, and I saw the answer across his face a moment before he spoke.

“I thought it would make you feel better,” with a sad smile and trace of a shrug.

His nervousness came a second later. He didn’t want to lie, but clearly didn’t want to have made a hollow gesture which would upset me.

He didn’t need to be worried – I took it in the spirit in which it given and told him as much. I didn’t feel manipulated. He hadn’t been trying to sell me anything. It was a question of syntax. I have faith (allegedly, at least), he doesn’t. But he respected that belief and reminded me.

This all, somehow, ties back in with our German angels. We'd both loved Wings since long drawn-out matinees at the Bloor Cinema in the Annex in the 80's. I asked him about why the film mattered so much to him a few weeks ago after an evening of too much wine over tapas in Kensington Market. I honestly don’t remember much of what he told me. I thought it boiled down to something about craving for life, even the worst of it, stubbed toes and coughing and the act of wanting being as important as experiencing.

Travis later corrected me with "If I can remember correctly through the haze of bourbon, scotch, rose, pisco, brandy and a martini, I think that I said something along the lines of because it links us all in our humanity by exposing the mundane issues, the life changing issues and the existential angst that we all cope with hour by hour, day by day… it’s about not knowing where you’re going or doubting yourself and being reassured in that uncertainty through the knowledge that everybody else is going through the same thing…" and topped it all off with an affectionate if completely inappropriate epithet which is best left to the imagination. Love you too, T.

Mortals mourn the dead, angels envy the living. It doesn’t matter if you believe in the wings and harp of it; acknowledging the thought is enough. "You'll see him again" offered in good faith and in support. "I remember" said to my uncle as confession, a last offering. It's the only thing you can hold onto when you go.

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