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Honor thy circus freaks

Hommage to an extraordinary and loving father who ended his own life

My dad raised me.

(illustrative image via Shutterstock)
(illustrative image via Shutterstock)

I know that in today’s world of all kinds of families, a sentence like that doesn’t say much, but in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, a single divorced father raising a teenage daughter was unique. A father that chose to take full custody of his daughter was nearly unheard of. Combine that with being one of the few Jewish families in a small town and we probably could have been signed up by PT Barnum as a sideshow act.

My dad was a brilliant and complicated man. As a girl I used to sit in awe as he held court in our furniture store or at his office at the college where he taught or at the synagogue where so much of my youth was spent. I would do more than listen to him, I would look at the faces of people all around him. People who listened to what he had to say, who enjoyed his methodical take on many subjects and who were captivated by his opinions on things. What I saw in peoples’ eyes as they listened to him was admiration and respect. My dad had almost a magnetic personality. It was tough not to be drawn in by him.

Even though I know there was much more to his story.

There was pain. There was fear. There was anger. There was suicide.

All of those things make me sad for him, sad for my brothers and me. It’s so sad that my dad was not able to let go of his many demons and embrace all the good things that were in his life, his children and his grandchildren, his success, his friends, his family. I will always be sad that he never got to see my daughter, as he chose to take his own life four months after she was born. I will always be sad that the last decade of his life he was consumed by his anger. I am sad that his five grandchildren never really knew him, never knew what a fun, funny, brilliant man he could be or they will never experience how great it was to have a man like this in your corner.

My dad, both of my parents actually, were great at masking their own pain. They walked around sad and angry a lot of the time but had the uncanny knack for making everything look great on the surface. They were the perfect couple, our home was a happy one. A lot of it was a fantasy that my parents perpetuated, and that we, their children upheld through the unwritten code of silence.

Things changed when my parents divorced. My dad became freer, less in his own head and he focused on raising me. My brothers were already out of the house, one in college and the other working in our family business, so I think my dad focused his energy on me. Without having to deal with an unhappy marriage day in and day out, it brought out the best sides of him. In those years he was the happiest I had ever seen him. He loved being a professor and was very engaged with his students. He was the first Ph.D. in computer science in his college and he was considered the cutting edge in a time just before the technology explosion of the 1990’s and the creation of the Internet. My dad often talked about a time when the computer would be the mainstay of the house, when we would have handheld computers and where everything would be at the touch of our fingertips. I wrote him off as a geek and went back to talking to my friends on my pink princess telephone.

Those were happy years.

There were sad years too, but as I look back almost a decade since I last saw or spoke to him, I mostly remember the good times.

We had a lot of good years, and he was a wonderful father in those years when I was the most damaged and vulnerable, after my parents divorce. He was there, he took the bold move to raise his pre-pubescent daughter on his own. He taught me how to play backgammon and he helped me with my homework. We talked. He listened.

When I dropped out of college, he let me go to live my own life and make my own mistakes. Three years later, when I could see my life wasn’t going anywhere, he told me it was in my hands, he would support me, but I had to be the one to turn my life around. He told me that the only thing which stopped me was my own ambition. He made it easy when I wanted to go back to school and always encouraged me.

After I finished my Master’s Degree and was doubting what the next step was, he convinced me I could do it when I talked of leaving everything familiar and answering my own longings by moving to Israel on my own.

My dad was a difficult man, whose demons got the better of him, but he left many gifts behind.

I am naturally affectionate toward my daughter and give her all the hugs and I-love-you’s which were always so hard for my parents to give. I show up at every school production or party and always volunteer.

I let go of the pain of my youth, I tried to see my parents as fallible human beings and to love them and all their flaws, rather than resent them for not being perfect and for letting me down sometimes.

I see those gifts in my older brother, who is strong the way my dad was and who is the anchor of the family.

I see those gifts in my niece who is working on a Ph.D., as he did.

I see those gifts in my nephew who is a math teacher, as he was.

I see those gifts in my other nephew who is an engineer, as he was.

I see those gifts in me.

About the Author
Dana has made it her habit to break cultural barriers and butcher languages wherever she goes. Born in Pittsburgh, Dana lived and worked in Tel Aviv for five years, before moving to the Netherlands where she lives with her husband and daughter in Amsterdam.