I tried to leave the room dry-eyed

Even in bright rooms our shadows come with us, as our selves are full of shadows — not necessarily ours: perhaps other people’s. Other people’s shadows hang over us, and we realize we aren’t feeling anything new, but only an echo of someone. What some would call ghosts I would call histories, as the afterimages of past moments tend to linger. My mother’s father was a German Jewish refugee who had escaped from Berlin in 1938, losing much of his family in the camps, and although he did not speak about his past, he left behind an account in writing, which I find very hard reading. Above all I’m shaken by this moment:

Going to see my father on my last day in Berlin was probably the most difficult moment I ever experienced. I recall dreading going up to his room and trying to think of what to say while there. It was worse than saying goodbye to my mother upon her death – that, at least, did not call for a response from me except in my thoughts. I suspect my father knew more intuitively than I that we would not see one another again but he steered the conversation as much as possible towards practical and immediate matters. Not that he – or anyone else – suspected what was to come but even a continuation of the present was nothing one wanted to dwell upon. He was astoundingly calm and collected and I think he was trying to make it easier for me by steering the conversation toward the immediate present – like what time is your train tomorrow. This charade doubtlessly made it easier for both of us; as for me, I was constantly telling myself that I would be able to rescue him from America and that I would definitely see him again. No question about it. He clearly did not and could not know to what fate he was resigning himself but he was happy that I had at least a chance in life. I tried to leave the room dry-eyed; I don’t know if I succeeded. I do know that after leaving the hospital, I walked to the other street, looked at the lighted window of his room, and broke down crying.

My grandfather was very, very hard to picture crying. He was composure incarnate. And yet now I’m struck by the shattering precision of his memories, and by his own father’s desire to care for him even in the worst possible moments — and here I was feeling forlorn but — 

Just then, as I was writing, Claude stuck a drawing of a rainbow right in my face, and said it was a present for me. And then I felt torn between joy and the history of desolation, and I smiled, and didn’t try to explain to Claude how I felt.

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