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23,343 Days

23,343 Days

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Published by Cable Neuhaus
Confronting mortality: When one has lived exactly as long as a father who died too young
Confronting mortality: When one has lived exactly as long as a father who died too young

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Published by: Cable Neuhaus on Aug 30, 2011
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08/30/2011

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Cable NeuhausAugust 2011MY FATHER LIVED 23,343 days. It’s easy to be exactabout such things nowadays, thanks to the Internet’shandy date-to-date calculators. When I punched inthe pertinent information -- November 19, 1919 toOctober 17, 1983 -- I instantly had what I was lookingfor: Norman Sol Neuhaus -- Polish-born Holocaustsurvivor, entrepreneur, husband, father of two,supremely complicated man -- was here for 63 years,10 months, 28 days.He died on a chilly Monday afternoon atop anoperating table at Newark Beth Israel Hospital in New Jersey. Way too soon for a man who’d been sovigorous and only then beginning to think abouteventual retirement. Even today, when called uponto speak his name, the words sometimes catch in mythroat. The loss still feels painfully fresh.I had walked alongside the gurney as they wheeledDad toward the operating room on that Octobermorning back in ‘83. He was in defiantly good spiritsconsidering the risk he was confronting. The last
 
time our eyes met, he raised one hand -- IV attached-- to give me a “V for victory” sign. He smiled. Atage 63, he was whip-smart, ambitious, still a bit of the prankster, and, remarkably, he had barely awrinkle to mar his beautiful face. Tragically, the surgery to repair his damaged heartfailed. Or, as the physicians explained, the operationhad actually gone well, but in the end they could notprompt his heart to beat on its own again. It was anoutcome no one had expected, really. Dad wassupposed to make it through the surgery. We allbelieved he would. That evening I drove my family home and whimpereduntil I somehow faded into sleep, aware with anunaccustomed clarity that my own world had justchanged forever. Dad had died.We buried him the following afternoon, in accordancewith Jewish tradition. (He always used to say to hisfamily, “When I die, just throw me in a ditch.” Ha! That’s the kind of devilish fellow he was.) Severalweeks later I returned to the cemetery and stretchedout on the moist grass beside his grave site, toreminisce and maybe to reconnect. I’d like toimagine this behavior as wholly rational for a sonwho’d had a complex and not always idealrelationship with his father. (Once, he slapped me ata seder dinner table when we had guests. You don’tforget that kind of humiliation.) But I deeply lovedhim, and he loved me, his only son, and I could notbelieve that he was gone.
 
Some months later, Elie Wiesel spoke at a lecture inhonor of Norman Sol Neuhaus. It was a proudmoment, but it did not diminish the grief. It did,however, remind me and all who tried to understandmy father that as a survivor of the Auschwitz deathcamp he had been an important messenger of astory that needs to be retold unendingly. He was theembodiment of of a terrible history, Dad was, rightup until October 17, 1983.SO, THAT WAS the trauma of 28 years ago. And now-- how did this happen? -- I am 63 years of age. Holycow! The Internet’s calculators tell me that onSeptember 1 I will have been alive exactly 23,343days -- exactly the same number of days my fatherlived. And if you are wondering, the answer is yes,absolutely, I wanted to know. How could I not?September 1 is what I think of, weirdly, as “MyExpiration Date.”I have been marking the weeks and days as theyapproach. This obsession has been shared with noone. 23,343 days. Will I die on September 1? In inperverse way, I half hope to -- to assuage any guiltfor having outlived a father who, by virtue of his faithand circumstance, spent part of his youth in theWarsaw Ghetto and then Auschwitz, which hemanaged to survive. By what right should I outlivesuch a person? The odds are that I will be around for awhile --

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