I have to tell you that I’m losing my father.
What I really mean to say is I’ve lost him. What’s worse is I have no idea when I lost him, I only know he’s gone.
Alzheimer’s secreted him away, so that little by little he disappeared before my very eyes, like a magic trick in slow motion. It has been the most gradual kidnapping ever committed.
There’s an old Jewish joke about a boy who is playing in the ocean and suddenly gets swallowed up by the waves. Panicked, his mother rushes to the edge of the water, and looking up to the sky, pleads to God to return her son to her. “Please,” she cries, “I’ll do anything.”
Just then a wave comes and spits her son out onto the beach no worse for wear. The mother looks up to God and says plaintively, “Excuse me, he was wearing a hat.”
Conversely, all I have left of my father is his hat. A vestige of the man who lifted me up, gave me a sense of solidity, belonging, safety. He has become his accessories. He smells like him, wears his clothes, reminds me of him, but he’s not him. I keep waiting for the ocean to spit my father back onto the beach, but it doesn’t. It never will.
And that terrifies me.
Because here’s the thing: I thought I knew who I was. I’ve done a lot of work, you know. I meditate, practice yoga, keep a journal and write songs. I engage in self-inquiry with piety. I have practiced diving into nothingness and embracing chaos in equal parts. And now, at the age of 48, it turns out, almost inexplicably, that I don’t know who I am. The ground upon which I built my sense of self has crumbled and fallen away. He is gone and, most surprisingly, so am I.
Suddenly everything I have built feels like pretense. It’s difficult to summon the gravitas to tell people to donate money to the non-profit I founded when I’m no longer sure why it matters. I’m a musician, but I no longer have any idea how to channel that gift in a way that feels authentic. I sense that I have wisdom, music, light, and peace to share with people, but increasingly I’m aware that I know nothing at all. I have this nagging feeling that I’m full of sh*t.
And that scares me too. I’m not sure how to make a living anymore. I’m not even sure how to make a life anymore. I’m scared of failing and of looking foolish. And I’m even more scared of the shame that comes with those things. I’m scared of not being the man I’ve created.
And I miss him.
I miss how he always insisted that he knew what was best for us. He had so many f*cking opinions. He interfered arrogantly and incessantly. I miss his jokes. He was a terrible joke teller, but that was part of his immeasurable charm. Now his jokes aren’t just terrible—they’re incomprehensible, incomplete fragments. It’s as if he’s grasping for a dream he had of himself.
About eight or nine years ago he shocked me by mentioning, somewhat casually, that he used to write poetry. He was never able to find any of his writings, but it seems my father, who was always skeptical (if supportive) of my career as a musician, had an artist living somewhere inside him. I miss discovering him.
Mostly though, I miss knowing that everything would be okay. Intellectually I recognize that sense of security as an illusion, but apparently it is one I have lived with and relied upon all my life. My father—holocaust survivor, refugee, soldier, immigrant, successful entrepreneur, divorced dad—betrayed me, loved me, disappointed me, and lifted me up. Somehow, he gave me this as well: the certainty that I was safe in the world. That he, of all people, was able to gift me that fills me with awe and unspeakable gratitude.
And so maybe gratitude is where I have to live. Not the gratitude that outshines grief, doubt or fear, but the gratitude that lives alongside those less welcome gifts. Within them. Not an answer, but a flickering. It is its own kind of alchemy. You could even call it magic. And though it doesn’t feel like enough, it’s what I have left.
I stand at the edge of the ocean looking for my father. The waves appear and disappear again.
~ Robbie Schaefer
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Editor: Travis May
Photo: Warren Goldswain (used with permission)