Sons Without Fathers
In her novel “The Bird’s Nest,” Shirley Jackson writes: “I was thinking what it must feel like to be a prisoner going to die; you stand there looking at the sun and the sky and the grass and the trees, and because it’s the last time you’re going to see them they’re wonderful, full of colors you never noticed before, and bright and beautiful and terribly hard to leave behind. And then, suppose you’re reprieved, and you get up the next morning and you’re not dead; could you look again at the sun and the trees and the sky and think they’re the same old sun and sky and trees, nothing special at all, just the same old things you’ve seen every day?”
I’ve been looking at the world as a condemned man these past few weeks. Or rather, I’ve been contemplating it with the eyes of my dying, now dead, father. This sunset, this light glinting on the water, this birdsong at dawn, this sweet breeze, this soft rain from the heavens — all seen and felt as if for the last time. Now Sydney Cohen, at the age of 95, has merged with the nature he loved, as sea and sky merge beyond the Eden Estuary he would gaze at from his window in St. Andrews, Scotland.
There is no preparation for the loneliness of a world from which the two people who put you in it have gone. The death of parents removes the last cushion against contemplating your own mortality. The cycle of life and death becomes internal, bone-deep knowledge, a source now of despair, now of inspiration. The earth acquires a new quality of silence.
A physician, my father had the hands of the healer. He knew, and was at one with, the natural world. No terrain was so forbidding that he could not conjure a garden from it. His elements were water, trees, grass, flowers, wind and sky. From them he conjured patterns and in them he found peace.
Readers of my writings may be passingly familiar with Sydney. How he was born in 1921 in Johannesburg, then, as he wrote, “a burgeoning town, younger than most of its inhabitants, arisen from a hectic mining camp.” How chickens pecking around the yard of his modest home squawked in terror if picked for a Sunday lunch. How he studied medicine at the University of the Witwatersrand and, in 1945, reached England 10 days after the end of the war in Europe. How he treated war injured at the Royal Berkshire Hospital in Reading, where he encountered an astounding sight for a South African: a white woman on her hands and knees cleaning the floor.
How, above all, he strove over 49 years of marriage to cope with the mental illness of my mother, June. This constituted, as he once wrote to me, “the deepest and most sacred element of my life.” He was wounded and, in time, withdrew. Each of us carries a measure of mystery; each of us faces situations in which there are no good choices; each of us, untying the knot of a life (lived forward, like all lives, without the gift of hindsight), will become wary of casting the first stone.
We are left with a human being: an exterior grown forbidding, dissolved by a luminous smile; a life sometimes double; and a soul whose innocence was preserved over almost a century. As Whitman noted, to be human is to “contain multitudes.”
Sydney contained them. Displacement from South Africa to England overcame my mother, who first broke down with postpartum depression in 1958, the year after their emigration, and underwent electric-shock treatment.
Still, Britain brought some relief. His last post in South Africa was as dean of the one remaining residence for black students at Wits. He would tell me of the infuriating ordeal of extricating his talented black students from arbitrary arrest by some dumb Afrikaner cop. When Douglas Smit House was shut down in 1963 under the tightening grip of apartheid, Sydney was disgusted.
By then he was gone. Before he emigrated in 1957, a relative suggested he should change his name. “Cohen” was too conspicuously Jewish for professional success in Britain. He said that was a wonderful idea — only to add he would call himself “Einstein” instead. That was Sydney: a cool eye for human foibles and a pitch-perfect sense of humor.
Mr. Cohen did all right in Britain. He became a professor at Guy’s Hospital, was elected a fellow of the Royal Society and was appointed C.B.E. by the queen in 1978. These honors, worn lightly, reflected his pioneering work on the pursuit of a vaccine for malaria, a scourge of his beloved Africa. A landmark paper in Nature, cowritten in 1961 with Ian McGregor, chronicled how immunoglobulin from immune Gambian adults had an anti-parasitic effect when administered to infected children; it is still cited today.
On all this he turned his back 30 years ago, dedicating himself to gardening and carpentry, painting and golf. He knew what the affairs of the world were worth beside the majesty of the mountaintop.
After Mom died in 1999, and another relationship came to the surface, Dad wrote this to me: “I did strive within the feeble limits of my human fallibility to preserve and cherish and sustain her. But alas — for Mama ultimately, death was the only angel that could shield her from despair.” He continued: “I hope that before too long the turbulence of your spirit will subside and you will reach to tranquility in your inner self.”
My last moments with Sydney, in which the obdurate reserve of fathers and sons dissolved, will always be a reference in this quest:
“You have a lovely family,” I said.
“I sure do.”
“All very intelligent, just like you.”
“Darling, you are very kind to say that.”
“And funny, like you.”
“Darling,” (with a faint smile).
“We had a lot of fun together.”
“You’ll always be with me.”
“That’s for sure.”
The other evening everything was aglow. They are not “the same old sun and sky and trees.” That must be because my father is in them. To what degree the glow endures will be the measure of how far I can honor that deepest vulnerable part of Sydney whose beauty I was lucky enough to know.