My father, Abraham Ashkenasi, died on this date last year. Above is the last picture I took of him, the last day I saw him in person.
It was February 16, 2016. Two days earlier my mother called me to say my father was in the hospital and the doctor said there was a 50/50 chance he would not survive the night. I was about to leave for a production meeting ahead of the tech rehearsals for the workshop production of my musical “Speakeasy“. Instead I purchased a plane ticket, worked out with my director how the show would manage without me during tech week, and flew from New York to Berlin, not knowing whether my father would still be alive when the plane touched down at Tegel airport the following morning.
My mother picked me up and told me Dad had made it though the night, but his situation was precarious. His doctor considered him a dying man. He would give no time estimates, but his attitude suggested days, rather than weeks or months.
In January Dad seemed well enough to plan a trip to New York. He and Mom were going to come to New York in March to see the final performances of “Speakeasy”. But early February there was a change and they announced his condition didn’t allow him to fly after all; so they cancelled their trip. I realized then that the assumptions I had made of my father surely still having several good years with us may need adjusting, and I planned an April trip to Berlin, during the school Spring break when I wouldn’t be teaching in New York. But even that adjustment was woefully optimistic. The February 14 phone call from my mother came as a considerable shock. None of us expected my father’s condition to deteriorate so dramatically so quickly.
The timing could hardly have been more awfully “inconvenient”. I could only carve two and a half days in Berlin before I had to return to the production of my musical. I knew I was very likely seeing my father for the last time, and I think he knew it too, but it wasn’t openly discussed.
I still don’t think I have the words, or yet wish to find the words, to describe what this circumstance felt like. I knew I was at a loss for many words then and there; and because of that, and the accompanying sense of helplessness, a certain need to document, to do something, I took some pictures with my phone. Of us the family, and of Dad in his hospital bed. Most of the shots of him are not ones I would wish to share, but the final shot, the one above, of Dad napping and Mom looking on, is one that radiated a calm that seemed comforting.
After I took that picture, without much thought I turned the phone onto myself to document what I felt was etched into my face.
The doctor didn’t expect my father to last the week. But Dad was determined to get back home, and after a week he was allowed home, where my mother and a live-in aide cared for him. He actually improved and seemed stable, and by mid March my mother and I optimistically agreed to booking my April flight to Berlin. I thought I would see Dad again after all.
But then late March his condition deteriorated quickly again. He died on Easter Sunday. Our niece, nephew and grandniece were visiting with Ed and me that week. And the First Grade Operas at the Brooklyn Children’s School were performing just then under my musical direction. Again, perfectly “awful timing”. I had to wait four days to fly to Berlin and spend some time with my mother. My already booked April trip, she and my brother decided, would determine the date of the funeral and memorial gathering.
I still feel wary about sharing the above photo, the last one I took of my father. Is it too private? Is it improper? Why have I felt the need to share it ever since I took it, thinking about it occasionally throughout the year without even ever looking at it again until this last week? As with so much this last year, I don’t have the words.
I did ask my mother’s permission before sharing the picture. She said to please do what I wish, but to put a nice earlier picture too. I think I might have done that anyway.
PS: The following music played my via my laptop’s shuffle function as I was finishing this piece. It is too wonderfully, awfully appropriate, so I’ll include it too:
Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten for string orchestra and bell – Arvo Pärt