Learning My Father’s Story By Heart

·7 min read
Photo credit: Catherine MacBride - Getty Images
Photo credit: Catherine MacBride - Getty Images

Last year, in a brightly lit hospital room in Jerusalem, I took my father’s hand in mine and asked him: “What would you like me to read to you?” Our relationship had always been such that he did all the talking, so it was strange to be the one initiating this interaction. But now that he was in a coma because of Covid, I had to make an effort and try to reach him.

I’ve always associated my dad with books. Back in our tiny apartment in the Soviet Union, before immigrating to Israel, we had 5,438 of them lined up against every wall. I know the numbers because my grandmother had appointed herself family librarian, cataloguing and numbering every volume. In addition to being a bibliophile and art lover, my father was a musicologist and spent a large part of my childhood writing a dissertation in ethnomusicology at the kitchen table.

One day, in the Soviet elementary school, we started reading Pushkin’s rhyming fairy tales, and I discovered I already knew Skazka o Tsare Saltane (“The Tale of Tsar Saltan”) by heart, though I’d never read it before. Inexplicably, I found the sound of the first lines extremely soothing:

Tri devizy pod oknom / Pryali pozdno vecherkom…

“Three fair maidens, late one night / Sat and spun by candlelight…”

“The Tale of Tsar Saltan” has all the classic fairy tale elements and more—a young maiden, evil sisters, a squirrel who turns nuts into emeralds and a beautiful princess who can turn into a swan and build a magical city with a wave of her wing—all told in Pushkin’s rich language that doesn’t talk down to children.

For a long time, I believed I was a psychic for remembering something I’d never read. It was only years later that my older sister revealed to me that our father had read it to us every night when we were little. I have no recollection of him ever reading to me at bedtime, so I held onto this new knowledge like a rare gemstone. For me, Pushkin’s language has always radiated warmth, and now I knew why.

We were not close, my dad and I. We were not distant, either. He was an old-school type of father for whom getting too close with his kids meant losing parental authority. Growing up, our relationship was complicated by the fact that he was also my piano teacher. Every day after school, I walked to the music conservatory where my perfectionist father became my perfectionist instructor. The best I could ever get from him was “You can do better than that.” More often, he’d admonish, “See what happens when you don’t practice enough at home?” Because he knew, being my dad, that I didn’t practice enough. I always felt judged when I was with him, and not just with piano. I could be skipping rope or making clay monsters, and he’d manage to find a way to squeeze in a teaching moment. Like him, I went into academia, and although unlike him, I did manage to finish my dissertation, I still often find myself quieting the voices in my head that whisper: “You can do better than that.”

Still, when I was little, I loved the fact that I could ask him any question and he would answer me seriously. During our long walks back from the music conservatory, we talked about the origins of the universe and the evils of Communism, about literature and history, and about the life and work of Russian dissident poets repressed during Stalin’s purges. Oftentimes I didn’t understand most of what he was saying, but I liked that he talked to me like a grown-up. Sometimes, as he talked, he seemed to forget that I was there. I liked that, too.

It wasn’t until my teens that I began to resent him for these very same things. There were no arguments (we’re not an arguing family); I just stopped asking questions, perfecting the art of pretend-listening. Once I moved from Israel to Canada for graduate studies in linguistics (probably my father’s influence, though I didn’t recognize it then) there were cultures and countries and languages between us. My father felt like a relict of a bygone era, along with my Russian. I was not interested in meandering philosophical discussions anymore. Instead, I longed for some kind of emotional connection, a warm and fuzzy father-daughter bond from a cozy family movie. But I was too afraid to take a step closer for fear of being judged.

When in January 2021 he developed Covid-19 and landed in a hospital on a ventilator, it was not only frightening but also disorienting to see him in such a vulnerable position.

Three weeks into his coma, he was free of the virus, which meant we could visit him more easily. Every day, we were told to be patient, that waking him up would take time.

The wait seemed endless, and one day I got tired of obsessively googling survival rates of people on ventilators, and instead discovered that reading to comatose patients helps keep their brain active and might help with recovery.

So at his hospital bed one afternoon, I took his swollen hand in mine and asked him: “What would you like me to read?” Even that simple question felt awkward—not only because he couldn’t answer but because simple conversations had never come easily to us. I tried hard to remember when we’d last had one—a back-and-forth where I wasn’t just providing polite monosyllabic answers to his monologues—and I couldn’t. But reading felt more natural than talking. And books, especially poetry, had always been the thread of connection between us, so I grabbed onto this thread like a lifeline—the only one that could transmit my words into the darkness of his sleeping brain.

But what to read? The books had to be in Russian, his mother tongue, but most Russian classical literature and his favorite 20th-century Russian poetry felt too depressing. (From the poet Anna Akhmatova: “The souls of all my dears have flown to the stars. / Thank God there’s no one left for me to lose.”) After a few morose lines, I’d invariably give up. I tried Gogol’s “Nose”—in my memory, Gogol was funny—but reciting a story about a guy who finds a nose in his bread one morning to a person hooked to a breathing machine seemed obscene.

Nothing felt right. Sitting by his hospital bed, I felt increasingly frustrated, as I couldn’t find the perfect thing to read. A nurse came in, glanced at the beeping machines, scribbled something in his chart, and left. The shuffling of feet in the corridor reminded me that visiting hours were almost over. I couldn’t bear the thought that the monotonous beeping— which sounded way too much like my uninvolved monosyllabic answers to his questions— would be the only sound he heard in his sleep once I walked out the door.

It is then that I heard myself begin to recite the only lines that felt right:

Tri devizy pod oknom / Pryali pozdno vecherkom…

“Three fair maidens, late one night / Sat and spun by candlelight…”

I recited the whole long poem from memory, holding his hand the entire time, and watching his chest rise and fall as the machine rhythmically and reliably pumped air into his lungs. And every word transformed me back into the little girl that was returning these warm bedtime lines to her sleeping father, quieting the voice that kept murmuring in my head these past few weeks: “You could have done better than that.”

He died the next morning. I’ll never know if he heard me or not, but I hope that he was able to take the warmth of those lines with him, wherever he went.

Tanya Mozias Slavin is a writer who grew up in Russia, has lived in the United States, Canada, and the UK, and is now based in Israel. She is working on a memoir about language, identity, and belonging. Follow her Twitter @tanya_mozias and on Facebook.

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