My father at 100

If you are lucky in life, blessed might be the better word, you’ll have the experience of someone loving you completely simply because you are you. Someone with whom you can be yourself safely all the time. My father was that someone for me. He was and is the greatest gift my life has ever given me. If ever a human deserved a long life, it was my father. He died Saturday, August 16, 1969, at age 55; I was 15. When he died my ability to feel safe in the world died with him. It did not return until a few years of sobriety were tucked under my belt. I’d give up the rest of my life in the blink of an eye to hug him one more time.

My father, Sanford Cleveland Kahrmann, was born Friday, February 20, 1914, in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Next Thursday would have been his 100th birthday.  I had hoped to drive the 400-mile round-trip next Thursday to visit his grave in Graceland Memorial Park in Kenilworth, New Jersey, but my financial realities will not let me do so. He would be the first to tell me not to worry about it. He is, however, always with me. Some years after his death it occurred to me that death does not take the all of someone away from us. My father is with me all the time. His presence in my life is alive and well.

And there’s more. There is a large tree next to his grave. Some years after he’d died I was standing by his grave. It occurred to me that his body had begun to feed the soil and the soil feeds the tree and so the scattered of small twigs and branches the tree shed took on special meaning for me. I gather some up twigs and gather more every time I go. By having the twigs near me or on my person my soul says part of my father is with me. On very rare occasions over the years I’ve given one of these twigs to someone I love who has, because they are who they are, arrived at a sacred place in my heart.

My father taught English at Columbia University and John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He was a veteran of World War II, serving in the Army’s 20th Armored Division, one of three U.S. Army divisions to take part in the liberation of the Dachau Concentration Camp located about 10 miles from Munich. I did not learn about this until after he died. He never talked about it.

He was also my best friend. We built a tree house together, stayed in a cabin on Stokes Forest, New Jersey together, read books together. Once, at my pleading, he agreed to accept the non-dancing part of Herr Drosselmeyer in the Orange County Ballet Theatre’s production of the Nutcracker in which I danced the role of the Nutcracker Prince. He did beautifully and received wonderful reviews. One said his Drosselmeyer was the suave master of legerdemain. My mother gave him a box of matchbooks with those words embossed on the cover. He was little-boy happy handing them out to his colleagues.

My father also gave me the gift of reading. When I was about nine or 10 I went into his room. He was sitting behind his desk working on something. Behind him was a wall full of books. I said, “I’m not a reader like you and Mommy.”

“What makes you say that?”

“I can’t finish any of the books I start.”

“What makes you think you have to finish them”?” I was surprised by his response and it showed. “You’re thinking of school assignments. We’re talking about reading. Let me ask you, don’t you think the author has something to do with keeping you interested?”

I nodded.

“Okay then. Tell you what. Grab 10 books that perk your interest, forget page numbers, and read them until they don’t interest you anymore.”

Suddenly and gloriously the world of reading was mine. The first adult book I ever read was The Folded Leaf, by William Maxwell. I still have the copy from my father’s library on my shelf. To this day reading is one of my greatest loves and, when times get tough, refuges in life.

I loved and love my father my whole wide world. He loved and I suspect loves me the same.

Happy Birthday, Daddy. I miss you.

Days For My Father

No words of any kind, past, present or future, can do my father justice. No matter how I tell you about the ineffably loving and accepting man that was and in my heart and soul is my father I will not come close. I’d have more of a chance of giving you the actual physical experience of summiting Everest via email. My father was, in a word, a miracle.

I can tell you that to this day my father is the greatest gift life has ever given me. And while he died at age 55 when I was 15, his presence in me has never diminished. He died  Saturday, August 16, 1969. We were living in Nyack, New York, a lovely community about 30 miles north of New York City. My father has been struck down with a case of peritonitis three days earlier and was in a coma in an iron lung in St. Luke’s Hospital in upper Manhattan. My mother didn’t go see him, she explained, because he was in a coma and wouldn’t know she was there anyway. While I understand, now, that my mother’s very real emotional frailty (she would commit suicide in 1992) prevented her from handling the emotion that comes with visiting your dying husband in a coma, it still tears me apart knowing my father died alone.

My father was born February 20, 1914 in Elizabeth, New Jersey. He had one sibling, my Uncle Harry. Uncle Harry was one year younger than my father and I adored him. Both joined the Army and fought in World War II. Many years after my father’s death I  learned that his division, the 20th Armored Division, was one of three American divisions that liberated the Dachau concentration camp on April 29, 1945.  My father never said a word about this.

Ultimately my father taught English at Columbia University and John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He was brilliant and humble. Remarkably, he was utterly free of bigotry. He didn’t care if someone was black or white, Hispanic or Asian, gay, straight or bisexual. He accept people for who they were and had little problem pushing back against bigotry. For example, when we moved to our house in Nyack we were still selling our house in Pearl River, a nearby community. We were well known for being a civil rights family, our minister, for example, marched with Dr. King many times. Anyway, one day my father went back to check on the house and someone had painted the words Nigger Lover on the picture window. Rather than remove the words, my father painted the words And Proud of It underneath and left.

My father fully accepted me for being me and when he died, my ability to feel safe being me in the world died with him. That sense of self-safety would not begin to return until I began my sobriety nearly eight years ago now.

I can tell you that I felt it, physically felt it, the moment he died.

On the morning of August 16th we received a call from the hospital telling us my father wouldn’t live out the day. The house was like a morgue, all of us home, waiting. A couple of my friends had come over to be with me. I was upset the hospital was in the city and I couldn’t get to my father’s side. A little after 1:30 in the afternoon I told my mother my friend and I were going to walk into town to pick up  some soda.  It’s about a 20 minute walk. We were more than half way there when suddenly the bottom of my stomach dropped out and I doubled over, hands on my knees. I looked up at my friends and said, “He just died.”

When I got home after two I walked into the kitchen. My mother was at the counter, she turned to me and said, “Peter, it happened.” My father had died at 1:53 p.m.

My father was born on February 20 and I was born on October 2. If you start out on October 2 and count out the same number of days that run from February 20 to August 16, you reach today, March 28.  I am 56. When the clock strikes 1:54 this afternoon, I will have outlived my father by exactly one year. When the clock struck 1:54 p.m. on March 28 last year, the exact moment I passed him in time, my hand was on his gravestone. There was no way he was going to be alone then. I knew that until that moment he had cleared the trail for me in life. I also knew that from that moment  on, I would be clearing the trail for the both of us.

All my days are for my father.

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