Tuesday, August 05, 2003

Last week was, literally, the best of times and the worst of times:

My father was about to turn seventy, and all of us--my mom, brother, sister-in-law, assorted aunts, moi--were engaged in preparations for the birthday party that said bro and sis-in-law were generously hosting.

Dad is cranky as hell, but terribly sweet deep down: think Lou Grant from "The Mary Tyler Moore Show", but with a Greek accent and a talent for cursing in two languages. Instead of mellowing with age, his capacity for yelling has increased in recent years, and it's both awe-inspiring and exhausting to hear him rail at Seattle's evaporating parking spots, CNN's Aaron Brown, and the fact that--post-Iraq War--Safeway still carries French bread.

That Dad is merely chronically pissed off and not actually bitter is somewhat of a miracle. He was a child in Greece during WW II and Greece's subsequent civil war. He and his family had already been forced from their home by the Nazis when his mother contracted tuberculosis, was quarantined, and died without medical attention because all of the doctors were treating soldiers on the front. His last memory of his mother: the paramedics are dragging her off and she's reaching for him, crying his name. He was six.

So, Dad is entitled to his crankiness. But last year, he had a heart attack--he's doing remarkably well, thank God--and none of us want him to have another one the next time he has to talk to an automated teller.

For his birthday, I decided to make him The Book of Good Things: a giant scrapbook filled with good news from around the world, random funny stuff, and happy memories. For weeks, I compiled articles about Israeli and Palestinian doctors working together; Gorbachev spearheading an international committee to convert the former Iron Curtain into a wildlife preserve; interviews with his faves, Don Rickles and Bill O'Reilly. When laughter and justice appeared in short supply, I wanted him to have a place he could turn and think, "It's not all bad".

Last Monday night, I began pasting everything into the bound leather scrapbook. I started with several pages of family photos (careful to leave out relatives who annoy him) but I did include pix of my brother's two dogs--one recently deceased--and my four rabbits. We're an extremely close family, but we're not sappy in that cloying, Franklin Mint commerative plate kind of way. We simply love our pets.

As my living room became a whirl of double-sided tape and dissected back issues of Vanity Fair, my little brown bunny, Oscar, stopped eating. I stayed up all night, alternately working on Dad's gift and handfeeding Oscar miniature carrots and timothy hay, the latter to no avail.

The details are extremely painful, so I'll cut to the chase: Oscar died while I was working on The Book of Good Things. Amazingly affectionate, gentle, and whimsical, Oscar always made me laugh. If I was petting one of the others, he'd come hopping to be petted, too. He'd lick my hand a certain number of times and then place his head under my hand so that I could groom him, too. He loved Italian parsley, eschewed cilantro, and never whacked his sister, Lulu, when she nipped him in the ass.

I'm reminded again of what I already knew: love can't cure the ill or save the injured and that seems profoundly, preposterously fucked-up.

I also know how all of this sounds: holy mother of God, no dead pet stories in the blog, please. I get it. I loathe cheesiness, too. But I'm reminded of what Henrik Hertzberg wrote in The New Yorker last year re Bono's work to alleviate Third World debt: surely one can't argue that the world is a *worse* place because a rock star raises awareness and millions of dollars to lessen abject poverty. That's how I feel about Oscar, and all pets: you can't say that the world is a worse place because our animals allow us a glimpse of the spiritual and tap into our boundless supply of silliness.

My father's seventieth birthday party was a relaxed, giddy affair and complete fucking fun. Family, old friends, and colleagues travelled to be with all of us and toast Dad on his big day. Dad and his cohorts swapped tales from their years working at the prosecutor's office, the cousins needled each other as only cousins can, and through it all, everyone ate and drank copious amounts. (Some stereotypes are true.)

I love Dad so much and am profoundly grateful he's still here. My family and I are lucky in *so* many ways. But I miss Oscar and can't believe he's gone. For awhile, I guess, that's how it's going to be.

No comments: