Father and Sons: My father, Michael Sarvas, behind the wheel of his beloved 1950 MG-TD, circa 1992.
My father passed away peacefully on Wednesday, March 25, 2009 at 10:34 p.m. He had decided nine days earlier to end the dialysis that had kept him alive for the last 13 years. He was blind in one eye, deaf in one ear, and had a pacemaker. He was lucid, serene and surrounded by his family almost until the very last moment. He was free of pain, and had ample time to say everything that needed to be said. To say goodbye to a parent and to leave no unfinished business is no small thing. He was born in Budapest in 1927. He was 81.
When I walked into the hospital room, the very first thing he said to me – after his face lit up with happiness at the sight of me (I would see that expression again several times over the next week whenever he woke up to see his family) – was how proud he was of me. He spoke of his particular pride at seeing my novel published in so many different countries. And he was proud of this blog, and impressed by all the gracious readers who frequent it. (He was surprised and moved four years ago at the outpouring of kind comments when I wrote about his heart problems. “I don’t have that many friends,” he joked.)
As for me, there were many things I got to say to him, but the most important thing I wanted to say was simply “Thank you.” He looked at me a little surprised. “For what?” he asked. “For giving me life,” I said. “For raising me. For providing for our family. For everything you did for all of us.” The “For what?” seems so typical of my father – one simply did what one was required to do, no fuss. But I could see he was moved.
Since he died (how strange to type those words), I’ve been looking at old photos, mostly of him as a young man new to these shores, and have been listening to the stories of those who knew him, and trying to reconcile my parent with this other person. I’m struck by how little we sometimes seem to see of those who are in our view every day. It is impossible to reduce the life of a parent into a single blog post, and I won’t even try. But I can tell you that, in addition to being a father, a grandfather and a husband, he was a collector (with the largest collection of MG toy cars in the world); he was a Master Plumber (it took him three tries to pass the NY exam, burned and cursing each time); he was a card player (when I was a kid, he would leave five dollars at my bedside when he’d had a good night); he was a speed skater (who might have been Olympics-bound but for the 1956 Hungarian Revolution); he had a temper but was generous; he could be blunt, brusque and politically incorrect; but he could also be kindhearted, understanding and fiercely loyal; he was many things to many people, as I’m learning now, as words like “courage” and “inspirational” keep turning up in email after email from his friends.
I sat with my father that last night, almost until the end, just the two of us. I watched him for hours as he lay in a deep sleep, his lips pursing and puffing as if trying to coax a note from a defective trumpet. I spoke to him in those last hours, though he did not wake, told him that it was all right for him to go, it was ok to be finished, that we would be fine and we would look out for one another. An incipient migraine sent me to my parents’ home around 9:30 and when the phone rang at 11:00, I knew he was gone. I find myself wishing I had just stayed a little longer, but the hospice nurse advised me that it's common for people to hold on to life while family is there, slipping quietly away only once they are alone.
I am grateful to all the friends who have been in touch while this unfolded over the past week. My mother, my sister and I will be fine but it will take time. For more than forty years of my life, the world has been configured one way, defined by his seemingly immutable presence, and now, all at once, it is unrecognizably another. I’m ineffably saddened that I will never again hear him call me “Kisfiu,” pronounced kish-FEE-you, a Hungarian endearment which means, literally, “little boy.” When I first moved to California more than 20 years ago, and we talked on the phone, he rarely responded when I said “I love you" - that was a bit too touch-feely for him - but after his renal failure which nearly took his life 13 years ago, he said it every time. I will very much miss hearing that.
Always back to books, I found comfort in those last days reading through Frederick Seidel’s Poems: 1959-2009, and I leave you with this one, “Fall Snowfall”, until literary news resumes in these parts in another day or two:
The book of nothingness begins
The pages turn and there
There is far from where
The pages turns into
And everything and everyone and
What is happening
Is blood in urine.
Ask the trees
The leaves leave.
They are left.
They remove their wigs.
They turn themselves in.
They stand here blank.
The now falls
On the fields white.
The smell of wood smoke stares and
The no falls,
Of blank now
On the fields.
A black crow shakes the no off.
Go circling around
The drain, life is but a dream.
The doctors in their white
On the fields.
(From The Cosmos Trilogy.)