My Father: The Spy and The Prisoner
My father was given two names at the time of his birth in the early 50s: Harry and Asher Moshe. It's a very common practice for American Jews to be given both an English and a Hebrew name; the English serves the purpose of fitting in amongst a xenophobic and assimilated community, while the Hebrew retains a strong connection to one's Judaic roots - an alter ego we use to identify ourselves during religious services. To his family, friends, former clients, and the larger world, my father has been known as Harry his whole life, but I'd like to believe he used his other name, Asher, as his callsign when he slipped passed the Iron Curtain while on a clandestine mission to infiltrate the former Soviet Union toward the end of the Cold War.
Asher is a strong-sounding, biblical name with an optimistic Hebraic meaning - happiness - and it seems appropriate for a man who was so committed to his Judaism that he studied to be a Rabbi and eventually worked as a clergyman before becoming a spy in the 80s. Prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, it was mostly forbidden for Jews to practice openly in the USSR, and leaving Russia was costly and complicated. Shortly before I was born, my father was trained and activated as an agent for a strategic global organization that sought to identify and extract Jews from their oppressive, Socialist homeland. It isn't exactly microfilm and baccarat, but it served a purpose. So much of this part of my father's life was about helping people - providing them religious or emotional support, and fundamental freedom.
This would all be so fantastical and amusing if it were just a story told to me as a child at bedtime, but I promise you that it's true. It may not be the stuff of James Bond or Jason Bourne but the mission did have its own moments of harrow: Asher was detained at the airport going into and out of the country, accused of smuggling contraband (which he did) and threatened with imprisonment. He traveled with a partner and was resolute that his accomplice was indeed tailed at one point by the KGB as he tried to lose them on a street corner by ducking onto a train. As if none of this sounded dangerous enough, consider that my pregnant mother would have either disavowed any knowledge of him, or found her way into Russia to "retire" Asher herself if he had been captured on the cusp of my debut.
Harry always balked at my use of the word "spy" to contextualize this assignment, but I think it's quite apt. He argued that it wasn't really that fraught, and though it was technically a mission, he was more missionary than agent. It's a tremendous story, and one of the greatest shames of my life is that I never recorded him telling it before he became imprisoned behind a glass wall called Parkinson's disease.
Today, my father's brain now works (or doesn't work, I guess) in mysterious ways - ravaged by sickness and dangerous chemicals and subpar medical care from the country's top Parkinson's doctors. It began in the early aughts when a bloated medical system, all too happy to collect money for nothing, was content to recommend therapy but not compassionate enough to help him find it. Despite this very bold moment of espionage, Harry never seemed all that eager to chase excitement - I recall from my childhood that his prized records were Barbara Streisand and Jewish High Holiday cantorial performances - yet he was a total hipster where his disease was concerned. He contracted it early and it took its toll quickly, and so now he is a prisoner locked inside himself and we are left to wonder if he's mostly oblivious to its goings-on, or a man reduced to silently screaming from within his solitary confinement.
In the past seven months there have been too many times when my mother and I have looked at him chained up to the sprawling and bland colored walls of different hospital suites, tubes and wires running from conduits, pumping room air in one direction and violently inhaling crap from his lungs in another. He's had stacks of robots surrounding his head, dripping toxins and proteins into his body to keep it functioning while another machine near his feet helps circulate the blood away from clotting in his lower extremities. Every few hours an aide enters the room to inject a cocktail of multi-colored chemicals into a tube hanging out of his stomach. Recently, a device to shock his tremors into submission that was implanted over a decade ago in his brain, neck and chest tried to rip itself out of his body and we had to find doctors willing to take it out the rest of the way; without intervention, it would have killed him. It's impossible at times not to look at this tableau and see him as some kind of captive being held in a gulag for his past crimes of espionage. Or at the very least, I tell myself this silly narrative to get through it.
My father is a man of cosmic contraditictions, each more maddening and thought-provoking than the last. These juxtapositions have become lessons for me; lessons that have made me a better man, and yet lessons I would have gladly traded in for one more chance to hear what his voice used to sound like. His disease has taught me to be patient, to be quiet, to be more compassionate, and to appreciate every single reflex I could take for granted. I've probably given up large portions of my life to stay connected and focused on my parents, and the older I get, the more comfortable I've become with this decision. This will be the hardest and most important thing I ever do, but I'm OK with this being what I do for right now because it doesn't hold me back - it helps me see who I am.
When I was a child, I lived in fear of Harry. He was too smart, putting such a high price on being learned, and he was prone to anger when things didn’t follow a basic logic or reason. As I get older, I realize I have copied this behavior in every way. He was socially awkward; ditto there. And very stubborn. Ding, ding, ding. Triple cherries.
I'll never know if I make him proud, but I'd like to think I have and I do. I'm not really sure where any of this will end up - which milestones we'll experience together, and which we won't. I wonder sometimes if he wonders about it, too, and I'm not clear on which answer would make either of us feel better. I've had many close family members tell me lately that I'm doing the right thing, and their validation is a genuine comfort.
It turns out that of all the guys I’ve known - the tough as nails, grizzled men in my life who’ve carried guns, and built things with their hands, who’ve wrestled addiction, who’ve killed other people for one reason or another, who’ve been to prison or the battlefield or both - it turns out that the toughest sonofabitch I know is my dad, the spy, who, for more than a decade, has been fighting an endless war he knows he’s going to lose. And at the moment, his war record is bookended by two battles: the opening skirmish, when a bunch of turncoat scalpel jockeys put two rods of metal into his skull and ran a bunch of jagged wires down his neck into a battery in his chest that constantly electrocutes his brain; and the most recent conflict, when those bastards sliced him open and ripped all that stuff out, leaving him shaking and confused, yet again.
I have the honor of having only one name, a Hebrew one - Ariel Rachamim - because my parents never wanted me to have to assimilate. I've never minded the name, though they gave it to me just before Disney gave it to a little mermaid, and I had to run away from those jokes for a long time. It's an interesting name - I think it sounds strong and substantive, and at the risk of being gender normative, it mixes very masculine and feminine traits into something that I think is quite appropriate to who I am and who I hope to become. Loosely translated, the two words together in English mean "Compassionate Lion of God" and I suppose that it was more than a name, really - it was a mission statement entrusted to me by parents who were deeply passionate and deeply concerned that they raise someone who wouldn't just sit idly by when others needed help. I'd like to believe that I wake up each day trying to earn the right to wear it, while I pay them back for giving it to me.