My siblings and I awoke with a start on the Sunday morning of June 12, 1960 to find our father standing stooped in the hallway adjoining our bedroom, clutching his chest and gasping for breath. Our mother was propping him up, screaming "George! George!" repeatedly. A minute or so later, his pains apparently subsiding, dad assured us that everything was all right. We all went on about our business that day, and for the next few days at least, the incident was forgotten by all.
Exactly two weeks later, Geoffrey, Suzy and I were hastily awakened by our mom, fed a quick breakfast and, without explanation, hurriedly dispatched to the home of our neighbors Bill and Barbara Neidlinger on the corner of our block, where we often played with their children Steve and Ann. Despite their best attempts to keep us entertained and distracted, I felt a knot in my stomach the entire morning and afternoon, a sick feeling that told me, "Something is up, and it isn't good." I do not know what suspicions my brother and sister harbored, if any. However, if the truth be known at this point, I was already filled with dread. I feared that we would never see our father again.
After what seemed an interminable morning and afternoon, we were all summoned back home. Our mother sat us kids down, and with the severest gravity, she intoned, "You will all have to be very brave about this." At that point my worst fears were already confirmed, and for my purposes she really had no need to say more. After a lengthy pause, she continued, very stoically. "Daddy died at the hospital today."
My brother and sister, both younger and apparently not quite grasping the finality of the situation, fumbled with awkward and unknowing questions such as "Is he coming back?" For my part, I would not permit myself any tears or displays of anguish and grief. Senseless or not, a peculiar feeling of responsibility settled over me instead, as I realized I was now the eldest male in the household, even at just three weeks shy of my tenth birthday. Somehow I intuited that my childhood was, for all intents and purposes, finished. I sensed that I had to grow up in one hell of a hurry.
In the days that followed, arrangements were made for a funeral. I vaguely recall being introduced to Joy Lacks, the shadowy, mysterious former wife of my father, who turned out to be a small, barrel-shaped woman who appeared considerably older than my mother. I elected to have no part in the funeral proceedings, which suited my mother just fine, as she detested funerals. The funeral came and went, and in its aftermath my mother instructed me that if I ever answer the telephone, and the caller is our paternal grandmother Jennifer Lacks, I am to tell her that "My mother is not home." I did field a few of these calls, in fact, and after trying to explain to our grandmother that my mother isn't available, she began to whine bitterly. "What's the matter, doesn't your mother want to speak to me?" After a time the calls stopped, and we lost contact with this side of the family completely.
Years later, it became clear to me why my mother had rebuffed these advances from her mother-in-law. To begin with, there was never any love lost between the two, as Jennifer Lacks had already caused so much enmity with her bigoted and unrelenting ostracism of my mother for her non-Jewish origins. That would have been reason enough for my mother to sever every association with her. As it turns out, what happened at the funeral was like throwing gasoline on this fire. My grandmother had insisted that my father be interred in a plain pine box, consistent with Orthodox Jewish tradition, and my mother capitulated. What my grandmother had not anticipated, however, was that her son was celebrated, admired, and loved by literally hundreds of people in his profession. Accordingly, the funeral was attended by several hundred people who came to pay their respects, and their remembrances. As my mother, my aunt, and grandmother rode uncomfort- ably in the back seat of one of the funeral cars, my grandmother began to complain. "If I had known there would be so many people at this funeral, I wouldn't have hired all the daveners."
Not altogether ignorant of Yiddish parlance, my mother knew exactly what she meant, and this remark made her blood boil. Jennifer Lacks had, in essence, hired a group of professional mourners, women whose task was to pray for my father, reciting prayers from the Jewish liturgy. Many of these women beat their breasts and wailed conspicuously, even though they had never met my father! Needless to say, my mother found these ministrations to be not only unseemly, but acutely inappropriate and embarrassing. At the same time, my grandmother would not let up with her whining about all the wasted expense she incurred in hiring these women. Before too long, my aunt, herself of rather hot-blooded temperament, turned to my grand- mother and exclaimed, "Grandma Lacks, will you kindly shut up??!!"
I mention this unpleasant episode only to contrast the daveners with another group of people who had significantly better reason to mourn the passing of George Lacks, and who did significantly better to mark his memory. That would be his friends and colleagues in the Los Angeles Press Photographers Association. The men of LAPPA drafted a brief eulogy for George that was published as an insert in the 1960 edition of "Just one more!", the annual journal of the Association. To the extent that any precocious nine-year-old kid could appreciate his own father, I would have to say that their praise captures my father's essence to a T. Indeed, they knew him very, very well, and served his memory accordingly. (next column)
More than fifty years have passed since that awful time, yet I have never sought the counsel of a psychiatrist or psychoanalyst. Whether that turns out to have been a mistake is an issue that I don't dwell on. Suffice it to say that, in more recent times, the grief that I would not permit myself as a child occasionally bleeds out in conversation with friends, as I recall fondly the precious few days I enjoyed with my father, or share photographs with my friends, and the like. The worst of it seems to manifest in subconscious states of mind, chiefly when I'm dreaming. I sometimes dream that I'm back home with my father in North Hollywood, or wandering about in our back yard as I often did, or visiting with my dad in the workshop that he set up in the garage, as he builds something intriguing, such as a film dryer. Invariably, the little house, the back yard, and the workshop are enlarged and aggrandized well beyond what they were in reality, with all sorts of additional and often surreal features that never existed. Invariably, I am so happy that I've found my way home again, back with my dad, so happy that I simultaneously sob inexplicably and uncontrollably. At times my sobbing is so intense that I awake suddenly in the middle of the night, my heart throbbing wildly, my bedsheets soaked in sweat.
I take no particular pride in the fact that I've endured multiple hospitalizations for Crohn's disease and bowel blockages, endured multiple major abdominal surgeries. I would have just as soon lived without them, and I recognize that others have withstood similar experiences, and much worse. As a young adult I lost my only brother, and a stepsister, to vehicular accidents. Just the same, these experiences pale in comparison to having one's childhood innocence slashed across the belly by the sudden, senseless death of a parent. Nothing, but nothing, it seems, could cut as deeply, save for the reciprocal experience of a parent losing his or her child. I won't kid you: after more than fifty years, it still hurts; after more than fifty years, I still feel as though I have been robbed. As teenagers, my stepsisters had their mother stolen away from them by cancer. I suspect they know intimately what I'm talking about.
As I write this, I want to be clear about one thing. Not for an instant do I pretend that, in creating this paean for my father, he is somehow "there" to appreciate it, or that he's "smiling at me from above," or that I'm "channeling" my father's consciousness through my own, or any other manner of metaphysical nonsense so popular among ordinarily religious people, and so widely purveyed by self-anointed "seers," "visionaries," and other touchy-feely denizens of the so-called "New Age" culture. (If you count yourself among those caught in the viselike grip of such beliefs as these, I heartily recommend that you read Bertrand Russell's brief, biting, and cogent essay, "Do We Survive Death?"* Once you do, you may find yourself at some remove from the things you once found so comforting and reassuring.)
Why, then, expend so much effort on my father's account, while simultaneously holding that in no wise could he be present to appreciate it? The answer is simple, and relies largely on simple reasoning by analogy. Whereas I hold belief in an afterlife to be so much metaphysical claptrap, I also contend that the matter of how a person, while still alive, chooses to be remembered after his or her death is neither trivial nor nonsensical, whether from a metaphysical standpoint or otherwise. I resolutely believe that while my father was still alive, he would have chosen to have the memory of his life and his good works perpetuated well after his passing. Why? Well, would I choose to have my own good works, my own legacy, preserved and recog- nized fifty or more years after my annihilation? Yes, unequivocally. That is the real reason why I have so gladly labored on my father's behalf.
*Bertrand Russell, "Why I Am Not a Christian" and Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects (New York: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1957), pp. 88-93. A portion of this essay is posted on Google Books.