It’s the mechanical response: my father’s date of birth.
He died on Sunday, Father’s Day.
A few days earlier my subconscious had hovered around the equally palindromic date of six-one-six-one-six as I was waiting to pick up my older brother at the airport. Only days before that my father, who had long been immobilized by Parkinson’s Disease, had haltingly spoken the very same phrase my husband voiced days before he passed away. Although there had been no overt sign that my father’s death was imminent, intuition spoke.
“It’s just my gut, and my gut’s been wrong, but I think you should fly out this week.”
And my brothers and I found ourselves laughing, giving each other a hard time, and telling stories and finishing each other’s sentences as we surrounded my father’s bed during his last days.
Family legend has it than when my grandmother Helen held her first-born son with her husband Harry, who had arrived in New York City from Austria in time to enlist as a soldier in World War I, she announced–against all objective probabilities–that young Paul would be attending college at Harvard.
If anything, she was understating her baby’s future. Not only did he enroll at Harvard at the age of sixteen, but he had his Ph.D in Physics by the time he was 23. He remained at Harvard for more than six decades, as a researcher, professor, and Dean of Applied Sciences.
My father’s friend of now 66 years, Irwin, introduced him to an artist and bassoon-player named Ann. They married in Copenhagen in 1957.
Over the years, some interesting items have gone missing from my parents’ home–including a painting by my mother and Jackson Pollack on a Sunday New York Times magazine. In recent days I have been searching for a photograph (possibly just incriminating enough for my mother to have disposed of at some point) of her as a graduate student, wearing a spectacular polka-dotted dress and art deco hat and tickling my father with a feather at a party at Irwin’s apartment.
Who would have thought physicists could be so wild?
I am the only daughter of a father who had no sisters, and am beginning to suspect our father-daughter interactions were atypical–but for the fact that I could push his buttons when I was little and cranky.
He could not carry a note, let alone a tune, but enjoyed warbling the description he thought suited me best:
There was a little girl, who had a little curl right in the middle of her forehead/And when she was good, she was very, very good, and when she was bad she was horrid.
Well, maybe he did get me.
We didn’t go to any father-daughter dances, but he took me to some pretty fancy meetings of the Academy of Arts and Sciences.
We “summered” at what I now know was a secure nuclear laboratory facility.
Best of all were the department picnics in rural Massachusetts, where the physicists would gather inside a barn while their little ones ran around outside doing dangerous stunts, engaging in applied physics for toddlers. Nearby roads would be marked with handmade signs reading “Theoretical Picnic this way.” Think about it.
He had one of the world’s most beautiful minds and was one of Massachusetts’s most terrifying drivers. He could solve any complex problem but was baffled by teenage temperaments. He could envision aspects of time and space and matter–condensed and otherwise–no human actually can see, but had some difficulty locating matching socks. He loved his work and family and friends the best he knew how, which is all any of us can do.
This Father’s Day began, as it has for years now, with a search for the right place to honor my children’s father. We’ve been close to home and we’ve been far away, including a trip with ashes to Northern Ireland. On Sunday we knew we had to be outdoors, where we so strongly feel my husband’s presence, and settled on a trip to botanical gardens encircled by soft mountain paths.
The sunny great outdoors suddenly shifted to my father’s bedroom, windows shut and shuttered, when I received a call from my younger brother as my sons and I navigated a mountain trail. My father had a coughing spell, and a visiting nurse assured me his temperature was normal and his vital signs were good. No need to rush back, I was told, and we continued walking.
Many hours later, peacefully and suddenly, my father seemed merely to fall sleep.
In some ways, physicists seem to appreciate like no one else their place in the vastness of the universe; the human body’s nature as a temporary repository of energy; and the knowledge that in taking a last breath someone becomes not here, but everywhere.
We’ll miss you.