After writing yesterday’s post about my father, I realized I haven’t mentioned him much in these pages. This morning I dug up a letter he sent me six or seven years ago around the time of Yom Kippur (the Jewish holy day on which we atone for our sins against God and against other people) that makes it clear why, despite his unfairness with the peanut butter, I hope someday to be half the man he is. (It’s a long letter, but worth the time.)
I want to write to you about Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
Actually, the story begins a week earlier, when I was in the synagogue during Rosh Hashanah this year. On the first night I was going through the confession of sins in “Vidui” and “Al Chet.” I was focusing on the two alphabetically adjacent sins of “neglect” and “oppression.” They will come back into the story soon.
I also found myself thinking about the process of atoning for sins against other people (as opposed to sins against God), which is a 3-part process–repent, make it right, and seek forgiveness. In particular, I was thinking about how hard it is to make it right when the injury is deep and long-lasting–like the terrible wrong I did to you by trying to reject your homosexuality and trying to force you to reject it too.
I wandered out for a library break, and happened to pick up a book called The High Holy Days, where, in a paragraph about seeking forgiveness from the person one has wronged, I found this sentence: “If the injured party is dead, then confession must be made at the grave in front of ten witnesses.”
Not to be too melodramatic, but I was suddenly struck with the realization that I did a terrible wrong not only to you, but also to Mom.
I often relive my behavior in those days, wondering how I could have behaved as I did, when, as I tell myself, I did not have the feelings of hostility that Mom did. At first I used to talk about Mom’s and my behavior as “we,” either “shielding” her from some of the blame, or sharing some of my own. Then last spring with [the therapist you and I saw together], when I acknowledged that she was the driving force, your reaction of “how could you” really rocked me. For, if my behavior was not a reflection of my feelings, that didn’t make my conduct any more excusable, but less so, because I should have known better.
In those conversations you talked about the fact that Mom couldn’t help herself because of the way her upbringing formed her personality. And that is where, in failing you, I failed her. Instead of passively following her lead and shrinking from arguing with her, I should have been struggling with her for your sake and for her sake, to help her do the right thing which I knew she could not do by herself.
These thoughts didn’t come all at once. They started with the sentence I quoted above, but the next impetus was another book in the synagogue library–one that I picked up by accident.
I had looked at some books and picked one up to take home that first night of Rosh Hashanah. When I got home I saw the book I had was not the one I had picked out, but quite another one. It was by an author named Faye Kellerman, and was called Day of Atonement. It is a type of Jewish detective thriller, a genre like the Friday the Rabbi Slept Late books (Jewish pedagogy mixed in with the plot).
Anyway, at home I started reading it and couldn’t put it down, and it started hitting home. Without going into the whole plot, one theme involves a young Jewish mother who abandons her baby son because of pressure from her parents, and the guilt she feels. I started crying and kept on crying, especially when I read about her “stern, unforgiving father and a passive, bewildered mother.”
The book, and its title, started crystallizing some things for me. With a couple of gender switches, I saw myself in the mother who abandoned her son, and in her mother–the “passive, bewildered” mother who followed the lead of the stern father. At that point, the two sins of “neglect” and “oppression” came back to mind. My sin of “neglect” (“passivity”) was compounded because I then joined in “oppressing” you, a teen-ager trying to stand up against a united front of two parents.
It’s strange how the rabbis may actually have been pretty smart. The first book I mentioned, The High Holy Days, had a paragraph (after talking about how remorse is the key to atoning for sins against God):
For one type of sin no amount of remorse will help: the sin of one man against his fellow. In the case where damage has been inflicted, it must first be repaired. Even after making amends, God will not forgive until forgiveness has been obtained from the injured party.
I have never asked you for forgiveness, and I never could put my finger on why, except that I didn’t feel ready yet or entitled to yet. I still don’t feel entitled to yet, and I think it goes back to the rabbis’ three steps, and while I have been racked with enough pain to feel that I have been working on step 1, I also know that what I did to you has not yet been undone, so my wrong has not been repaired.
And that brings it full circle. I have to help repair the injury I did to you, and the injury I did to Mom. And perhaps the way I make it right to Mom is to help do what she can no longer do, which is to make it right to you–which is what I didn’t do before, when I could have prevented so much of your pain.
I don’t know if this makes much sense. Next week is Mom’s yahrzeit, so maybe I’ll “talk” to her about it.
Faustus, I love you so much.
Half the man?
I’d settle for a tenth.