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“I Will End Generations of Cruelty”

After a year with liver cancer, my dad is going to die soon. I want to go see him. I want to tell him I love him. To thank him for raising me. To tell him I know he loves me. So I call, intent on forcing him to let me come visit. 

“Dad, I want to come visit.” 

He says, “No, come later, when I’m stronger. We’re too busy. Too much going on1.”

I ignore being pushed away repeatedly, make light of2 hours of travel, make him laugh. Finally I succeed, and he agrees to my first visit in twenty years. 

The next morning the phone rings. It is one of my dad’s oldest friends, Peter. I knew him when I was a child. He tells me my dad has been given one week to live.

Three days later I arrive in my hometown. My husband, daughter, and I go to Peter’s house as instructed. I’ve been told this is the easiest way. That my father’s wife is too busy and too sad. Peter tells me it is a good time to visit and drives me there. I go upstairs to where my dad lies in bed. He is sleeping on and off. He has the energy to speak about one sentence before he drifts off again.

He says, “I’m glad you came.”

“Of course,” I say. “I’m so glad to be here with you. I love you. I’ve always loved you.”

“Why didn’t you come more often?”

“Dad, we’ve had so many struggles. But I love you, always have.3

“You should have come, you were thoughtless . . .” He falls asleep before he can call me selfish, lacking in integrity, a failure of a daughter. When he wakes he has forgotten his train of thought.4 I sit with him for thirty minutes and then leave with Peter, who is waiting downstairs.

I’m upset about leaving my dad alone and want to wait for his wife’s return. With prodding I’m told she is waiting for me to leave. She left for my visit and will not come home until she is sure not to see me. I’m told that my father’s wife will not see or speak to me. Everything must go through Peter. So I wait in the car around the corner. Peter calls to tell her I’m gone and waits in the house until she arrives. I never see her.

I spend some time with Peter and his wife, ask about his now grown children whom I knew when I was young. He seems puzzled by me. I don’t match what he has been told about me. He expected someone selfish, uncaring, I think. I ask to see my dad again the next day, and Peter kindly arranges for this.

There will be no funeral. No service of any kind. Dad and Martha don’t believe in them, Peter tells me.

I see my dad the next day. That night he dies, six hours before my brother arrives. With Peter’s further assistance we are admitted to the funeral parlor to see his body. We say a final goodbye and sit on the steps of the funeral home, talking about our childhood. Some things for the first time ever. My brother wants to see Martha and our half siblings. Though I have never met them, he has and feels fondly toward them. But she doesn’t answer his calls or e-mails. He calls and says he is coming. The house is empty, though clearly just5. It appears they left to avoid seeing him. He is devastated.

So there we are, home together for the first time in twenty years. We visit the parents of our childhood best friends. We visit one of my best friends who still lives there. We go on a tour of all the houses we lived in. We notice what a nice town it really is. We are free of a tyranny that has been hanging over us. And we are desolate having lost our father. How do we grieve? 

We were raised largely by our dad. He loved us deeply. I could see it in his eyes, hear it in his voice, every time we met. When our parents divorced and our mom left, he didn’t hesitate to raise his two young children. He came on all the school trips, played tickle monster with us, took us cross-country skiing and to the beach. He bought beautiful birthday presents and made me seven birthday cakes one year—one for each letter in my name. He cooked and cleaned. He loved to cook us meals of German sausage that I hated but he loved and so we would laugh. One time he learned to make fresh pasta. He made sure we ate something green at every dinner. Then we had ice cream. My dad loved ice cream.

At the same time he was calculating, cruel, distant, controlling.

He was never mean in public, and he never yelled at or hit us. To the world we were the perfect happy family. At home it was different. When we were hurt, he accused us of lying to get attention. To teach me to throw a baseball, he berated me for an hour not to throw like a girl, gave up, and went inside. Each night at dinner he grilled6 us on horticulture (his love) or the times tables.7 When we didn’t know the answers, he accused us of being lazy, unobservant, weak of character. For fun he would dare my brother and me to do dangerous things like balance on high narrow structures. If we were tired or upset, we were simply left behind.

As I matured physically, he became more cruel and his cruelty became more focused on me than my brother. I was endlessly grounded8 for such infractions as losing a hat. If I told him I loved him, I was insincere and plotting. If I agreed with a friend, I couldn’t think for myself. If I went first in anything, I was selfish. Minute details of my life were stored up and later used in hours-long lectures on my lack of character and moral fiber.

I went through many phases of healing from and then reclaiming my dad. I cried and raged for many, many hours. First I avoided him; I couldn’t stand to see him9. Then I tried to talk to him, wanted him to heal with me. We would have one good talk, then the cruelty would resurface. Eventually I figured out that if I saw or spoke to him no more than once every six months, he could show love. I would, of course, become hopeful and call too soon. Then he was accusing, lecturing; I had no integrity or moral fiber. He blamed me for our distance, for the distance from his son as well. He knew, I think, that he had hurt me too badly. He couldn’t face his own cruelty, so he blamed me. How else could he go on, raise more children? He married a woman who agreed to blame me. They got married and didn’t invite us. Had two children and didn’t tell me. I was not allowed to meet them. All my requests for visits were avoided, ignored, or turned down on some false pretext of bad timing. When I had a child, he wanted to know her, so he would visit us alone and deflect all questions about his other family—like we were one of his affairs.

And then he got sick, and I knew it had to end.

My dad lived in a world of lies and obfuscation.10 When we were little, the only thing he taught us about World War II was that Germans in America were treated horribly. That his dad lost his job because he was German. That he himself never learned German because when they spoke German in public in New York City, people threw things at them. He was politically progressive, a self-proclaimed feminist. Yet I learned about the Holocaust when I was six from my best friend who was Jewish. I learned what a swastika was from another Jewish friend at thirteen. When one of my dad’s girlfriends stormed from our house because she realized she wasn’t his only girlfriend, he never spoke of it. By the time I was fifteen I could tell11 when he was with a woman, having an affair. When I asked him to go to Germany to learn about family, he came home with pictures of uncles still devastated by their time in the “German Army.” He never said the words Holocaust or Nazi.

And so I went to say good-bye. In our German family I will end it. His life will end with kindness and truth. I will be human. I will be female. I will show love. In this family line I will end generations of cruelty that made Nazis.

On my final visit my dad is much weaker. I sit with him, hold his hand. 

I say, “I love you. Good-bye.”

He says, “I’ll have you in my mind as I go.”

It’s all I needed to say and to hear. Tears run down my cheeks. He can’t speak more. His breath is loud and deep. A death-rattle breath. His face drawn and yellow with jaundice. I would stay, but sitting with him is not my vigil, and as long as I am there his wife and younger children stay away. So I go. I thank Peter.


1"Going on" means happening.
2"Make light of" means treating in a light way.
3"Always have" means I always have.
4"His train of thought" means what he was thinking about/
5"Just" means just recently empty.
6"Grilled" means intensively questioned.
7"Times tables" are tables used as an aid in memorization that list the products of certain numbers multiplied together.
8"grounded" means restricted to stay in the house.
9"Couldn't stand to see him" means couldn't tolerate seeing him.
10"Obfuscation" means hiding of the truth.
11"Tell" means perceive.

Last modified: 2020-07-02 14:27:35+00