My father, who died a year ago, was a racist. I've dedicated much angst to sharing that, but in the end I decided that since he was unapologetic about being that way, I'd be unapologetic about writing about it.
As a child, I would describe him as an Archie Bunker-type racist. People understood the reference and the description fit. My father wouldn't go out and deliberately say or do things to people, but in the comfort of his own home? Yeowch. He was an equal-opportunity hater, and family dinners often consisted of him spouting angry words toward any and every group. He included Jews—his own group. I took some solace in that. If you hate everyone, do you really hate anyone? Was he a racist or a misanthrope? There's a kind of fairness in misanthropy.
Ours was a totalitarian household, and never would I have felt safe in contesting his views. I digested myself more than the food, building my own views and arguments while simultaneously trying to hide my canned peas beneath my knife. When I became a mother I vowed to myself that my children would never have to sit and listen to such ugliness. He must've felt it and respected it, because in twenty-six years of holiday meals with him and my children, I never had my moment to leap to my feet and shout, "Enough!"
About a year ago, he declined rapidly, going from feeling discomfort while eating his Ben's Deli eighty-first birthday dinner to dead from stomach cancer in under a month. It was sudden and shocking and I'm just now beginning to tease apart the experiences that happened around it.
His diagnosis arrived on a Thursday. They scheduled an MRI for the following Tuesday to find out more. My father looked me in the eye: "I'll be dead by then." I agreed. Despite his flaws, he was still my powerful dad, and I never doubted his certainty. In the days that followed we attempted to set up hospice and learn his wishes for a funeral. The internment of his ashes. What kind of service. Although he lacked affiliation with his faith in a traditional sense, he wanted a rabbi. In the end, we cling to ritual.
A few days later he was in the hospital. It was a hard way to die (is there an easy one?) and his final hours of pain and consciousness were hard to bear, even for the staff. His doctor was the floor doctor, not someone we knew. She was kind and spent quite a bit of time with him and they talked when he was able, the white old racist and the young black woman in charge of his care. I saw him take her hand more than once and look into her eyes. "You're a good doctor," he would tell her. Her eyes would well and mine would overflow. She couldn't know how meaningful these moments were.
He died, and my siblings and I made funeral arrangements. We found a rabbi who was retired but agreed to officiate. We hired a singer to close the ceremony with Amazing Grace, as my father had requested. The lyrics were printed on the back of the memorial leaflet. The rabbi was taken aback by the choice, possibly even angry. He introduced it saying, "He wanted this Christian hymn read. It's not something we do. I guess he heard it somewhere." Then he left, pushing through the crowd, getting in his car and driving away while we were still singing.
I didn't see the rabbi leave and when friends told me about it later I wanted to find him and scold him. I wanted to tell him that the hymn is about redemption. That it was written by a slave ship trader who had seen the wrongness of his actions and reformed himself. But in the year since his death, I see that it wouldn't have mattered. I will leave the rabbi to his own prejudices, and pray that his knots will loosen as well. For me, Amazing Grace will always be a song about my father's self-awareness and hope for redemption, redemption that came late and not fully, but came nonetheless.