On winter mornings long ago, we would go, my father and I, to Lake Nelson to skate. Lake Nelson, in a rural stretch of central New Jersey, was not much more than a pond formed by damming a creek. That creek had run alongside the anarchist colony where my father grew up and within miles of the town where he raised our family.
By the time of these memories, in the early 1960s, when I was 6 or 7, the rural had given way to the suburban, with ranch houses and expanded Capes surrounding Lake Nelson. But in a cold enough season, when the shallow water froze and two-by-fours burned in trash barrels for warmth, my father retrieved his skates from the closet and headed for the ice.
The skates rose above his ankles, the laces ascending through 10 sets of eyelets and six pairs of metal studs. They were figure skates, toughened by black polish and the scalpel sharpness of the blade. I had a beginner’s skates with blades as dull as a pencil’s shaft.
My father, in his patient way, had taken it upon himself to teach me to skate. I was a good enough athlete when it came to touch football and swimming lessons at the JCC, but neither balance nor precision came naturally to me. So, my skates slapped at the surface of Lake Nelson and my legs splayed outward and my knees knocked and sweat popped on my forehead, even in the 20-degree air. Just beyond my wavering reach, my father skated effortlessly backward, calling out strokes to me like a coxswain, urging me forward to meet his grasp.
When I gave up in frustration, as I inevitably did, he took my halt as his cue. With a glance every so often over his right shoulder, he threaded his way backward across the lake, not a wasted motion in his strides, sometimes lifting one skate off the ice, perfectly balanced on a sliver of steel. I watched him in awe.
On a spring morning last year, we sat, my brother and sister and I, outside the hospice room where my father lay dying. Our vigil was into its second week by this time, and what preceded the vigil were 20 years of prostate cancer, two or three of advancing diabetes, and several months of kidney failure.
At one point in those last days, my brother sat beside my father, and my father spoke. “Give it to me straight,” he said, a ramrod voice emerging from beneath the morphine, a more assertive statement than he had issued in weeks. My brother, making certain this order wasn’t part of some delusion, asked my father what he’d said.
“Give it to me straight,” my father repeated.
“Everything?” my brother asked.
My father heard a tenderly expressed version of everything, and the next day he drew his last breath. The three of us were gathered around him, watching him gasp for air, watching the very last beat of pulse pass through his carotid artery. Looking at his open mouth, looking at the tight, dry skin of his face, looking at the remnant of feathery hair on his scalp, I couldn’t help but think of a baby bird, waiting for its mother to feed it.
Because his death at age 89 had not come as a surprise, we children and my stepmother had spent the previous days talking about what kind of funeral to have. My father was a Jew by heritage and an atheist by fervent choice. His anarchist mother and father, the renegade offspring of a rabbi and a cantor, respectively, were the sort who feasted and danced at Yom Kippur banquets. My father rarely spoke the noun “religion” without affixing the adjectives “materialistic” and “sectarian.”
Yet he had approved a Jewish funeral for my mother decades earlier and done the same for his eldest brother in 2006. He had maintained a membership for 40 years at a Reform temple. Its rabbi had visited him in the hospice. There were people in our nuclear and extended families — myself, several cousins — who found meaning in observance.
So, my siblings and stepmother and I struck a compromise to oblige the dead and solace the living. We would hold a secular funeral for my father, presided over by the Ethical Culture Society leader who had married him and my stepmother, while those relatives who yearned for a religious form of leave-taking would be free to do so in a private way.
One Sunday during the years when I played Little League baseball, my father took our family to the ballet. As we sat in the balcony at Lincoln Center, gazing down onto the stage, my father whispered to me of the male dancers, “They’re in better shape than Mickey Mantle.”
Devoted to baseball and its heroes, I could not comprehend then what I know now was perfectly true. My anarchist father was a student of the body, including his own. He lived in his skin as much as he lived in his mind.
When he skied, he cut parallel turns with the precision of the machinist he had been. When he played catch with me, his fastballs stung my palm through the mitt. Even at bowling, by appearances so sedentary a game, he exuded muscle. He would loft his 16-pound ball so that it seemed to hang in midair like a planet. Then it would fall to the polished alley, flirting with the gutter, until its wicked rotation sent it crashing into the 1-pin, scattering the other nine sideways with destruction. I, the failed acolyte, struggled for spares.
When I reached my teens and saw my father adding some pounds to his middle, I once tossed out the boast that I could beat him in a race. He dared me to prove it. So, we drove over to the track of a nearby college and lined up for a 440, one full lap. I went out fast and heedless and by the second turn, as I was straining for air, he cruised by me in a controlled, steady pace. He was waiting for me at the finish line, and I said nothing all the way home.
Long after such Oedipal battles stopped mattering, I loved walking with my father, whenever my adult life and working schedule put me in his vicinity. He went out for three or four miles every morning, legs snapping briskly, as much the image of physical efficiency as on the Lake Nelson ice. Now we moved in tandem, and perhaps, though he never said it, he was proud that into his 60s and 70s he could keep pace with a son 34 years his junior.
In the hours after my father’s death, we in the immediate family made the funeral plans. The ceremony would take place four days later, no concession to the Judaic tradition of burial within 24 hours, with a luncheon at a nearby hotel to follow. Meanwhile, the observant portion of the extended family made our plan to stay at the gravesite after the others left to say Kaddish. But I already knew that prayer alone felt somehow insufficient. By then, my father would have been reduced to ashes, having requested like my mother to be cremated. I could feel nothing for ashes.
So, the idea took shape with my fiancée and a cousin to wash my father’s body, to fulfill the ritual of tahara. We arranged to do it on the morning after he died, in the funeral home where his body then lay. It was not a Jewish funeral home, and in fact the funeral director in his private life was a church deacon. Maybe because of his own faith, though, he understood and respected the imperatives of ours.
On a damp and raw morning, well suited to our somber task, we arrived. My cousin had brought an ArtScroll volume of funeral and burial liturgy, as well as a set of tahara prayers he had printed off the Internet. I knew much less than he did. But I was answering to some imperative I did not yet fully understand, something even more specific than being Jewish and being a son.
The funeral director led us from his office through several empty salons to a room in the rear where my father’s corpse waited on a stainless-steel table. My cousin and I put on white robes, almost like lab coats, and rubber gloves. The funeral director opened the cold-water tap of an industrial sink. My fiancée read from the prayers and began to weep.
Nearly a decade before he died, my father began to severely limp. He had already undergone one hip replacement, quite successfully at that, but now the other was afflicting him. Or so his doctors informed him. My father came up with his own diagnosis, irrespective of the evidence: He decided he had bone cancer in his spine.
Instead of having the hip-replacement surgery, he walked less and sat more. His legs, those legs that had skated and walked and beaten me in a race, began to atrophy. When I asked about getting the hip replacement, he shrugged me off with vague assurances. He told my stepmother he was fearful of dying on the table from the anesthesia, something that had happened to one of his childhood friends.
Ultimately, years too late, he consented to the operation. It turned out he didn’t even need full anesthesia, just the half-measure called twilight. He did his designated week or two in rehab and then skipped almost all of the outpatient follow-up sessions. Back at work, as founder and board chairman of a biotechnology company, he moved around its office hallways and factory floor in a golf cart. When he flew on vacations, he required a wheelchair to get from the ticket counter to the gate.
My father’s mind remained undimmed, a fact that I savored, especially after having seen his older brother disappear in a fog bank of Alzheimer’s. But I could not fathom how such a physical person could surrender his physical self. Never before had I seen him give up — at anything. Why this? I realized, at a certain point, that I did not just need him to be physical for himself; I needed him to be physical for me.
As I washed my father’s body, I looked upon it. I saw his foreskin, uncircumcised in his anarchist parents’ wish. I saw how hairless his skin was, the result not just of age but the female hormones prescribed to stave off prostate cancer’s advance. I saw the scar on his abdomen from the burst appendix that nearly killed him in his early 20s. I saw the seared flesh on one calf where he’d leaned against a motorbike engine on a trip we’d taken together to Bermuda decades ago.
His body was nothing like the body described in the verses my cousin chanted from the Song of Songs: “His head is burnished gold, the mane of his hair black as a raven … His arms a golden scepter … his loins the ivory thrones … his thighs like marble pillars. Tall as Mount Lebanon, a man like a cedar.” And yet to see his body, to touch his body, to watch his body, brought the person back to me.
I remembered that trip to Bermuda well. I was 16, my father 50. We had been fighting a lot, and my mother had suggested a short vacation together, father and son, as balm for our wounds. One morning, my father proposed that we walk the main road along the southern shoreline, 10 miles from our hotel to another one, where we would have lunch. Fit as I was, I worried we would never make it. My father, glad to be with me, needing nothing to prove, flagged down a cab after six or seven miles. We drank beers together at lunch, the sharp effervescence mixing with the dried sweat on my lips.
In the funeral home, when my cousin and fiancée and I were done, we dressed my father in the burial shroud, covered his head in a cloth hat and hoisted him into the cardboard coffin that would be transported to the crematorium, an odd choice indeed for a Jew of his era.
I am of a generation that has accepted as an unquestionable truth the premise that a corpse cannot look lifelike and that anyone who tells you so is either a mourner lying or a mortician selling. But on that dismal morning last spring, as I washed my father’s body in tahara, I was thankful beyond words to see that he did look like himself.
The purpose of tahara, we are taught, is spiritual. We purify the body to purify the spirit, make the literal into the metaphor. Yet for me the process ran in the opposite direction. Through the spiritual I sought to reclaim the physical — the tactile, inch-by-inch evidence of my vigorous, vibrant, virile father.
When I went to college in Wisconsin in 1973, I asked my father if I could have his skates. Winters were long in Madison, and there were lakes and canals and rinks for skating. So, he let me take them.
For my first two years of school, I continued to flail away, untrained. Finally, as a junior, I signed up for a no-credit class in skating. That winter and spring, I leaned how to stride and to push. I learned how to execute crossovers. I learned how to skate backward.
Living in New York for the past dozen years, I haven’t skated much, except to accompany my children as they took lessons. By now, the black polish has worn off my father’s skates. The blades are brown with rust. The inner soles have cracked. Meanwhile, my year of saying Kaddish has ended. My father’s first yahrtzeit fell on the 10th day of Iyar, May 14 by the civil calendar. The next day, our family unveiled the headstone for his grave.
To be honest, those skates never fit me right. My father wore a size 9 shoe, and I’m a 10½. Whenever I put on the skates, my feet start to cramp. One thing I’ve come to realize, though, is that a 10½ skate feels too big on me. And a hockey skate, which most men wear, feels too slippery. It’s only in my father’s skates, on the Lake Nelson of my bereaved soul, that I can imagine being able to catch up to his outstretched hand.
Samuel G. Freedman is the author of six books, including “Jew vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry.” He is a journalism professor at Columbia University and a religion columnist for The New York Times. Reprinted from Tabletmag.com.