As they walked through the door, it was as if I was looking into a three-way mirror. In them, I saw the reflection of my face, my features and my soul. I was fourteen and meeting my brother and sister for the first time.
My sister was full of life, love and compassion. She had my eyes, my hair, my body, my taste in fashion, and my zest for life. But, my brother had my spirit…my soul.
Sitting next to him, I couldn’t help but to admire his beauty. He was the most gorgeous man I had ever seen. His complexion was dark, his eyes were piercingly black and intense, and his demeanor was enchanting, yet mysterious. His hair and dress were the image of perfection. And, he smoked each cigarette with the poise of a movie star and with the seeming intention that each one would provide his salvation.
Though enamored by his silent charm and flawless appearance, I soon recognized what the mysterious façade was meant to mask. It was sorrow, anxiety and anger caused by our father’s rejection of him. Despite having known him for only a few minutes, I was able to see and feel his inner turmoil, because I, too, had the same emotions of betrayal and abandonment toward our father.
Both of us refused to make eye contact with him or even gaze in his direction. We were uncomfortable sitting in the same room or breathing the same air as him. Our ears burned and our stomach churned with each bizarre and self-gratifying word our father muttered in his exotic French-Belgian accent. His sheer presence that day only served to remind us of his unapologetic absence throughout our entire lives.
Three years later, my brother tragically died at the young age of 27. His death robbed me of a soul mate and my sister of her best friend. I was shattered and mourned his loss for some time, but, somehow, I knew he was finally free. While he died hating our father, his death ended that hate and relieved his wounded spirit. No longer would he have to look into the mirror and see the reflection of a man, who didn’t love him the way he yearned to be loved, who was never proud of him and who abandoned him as a baby. He no longer had to wonder if today would be the day that his father would call and say, “I’m so sorry. Please forgive me. I want to be in your life.” Our father could never again break his heart.
It was the late 1970s in New York City, and my mother was young, beautiful, in love and eager to be inspired. My father, Andre Martheleur was from Chareloi, Belgium, a country, of which he believed he should one day be king. He was an extremely talented hair stylist and the owner of the biggest and most successful hair salon in New York at the time called CinAndre’s. More important to my mother, however, was that he was incredibly charismatic, passionate, cultured, inspirational and mesmerizing.
They were in love, and his pet name for my mother was “Kami,” the name of God in Japanese, the one culture, by which he was most intrigued. She was his goddess, and he worshipped her. But, once my mother announced that she was pregnant with me, a goddess she was no longer, but rather a liability. He insisted that she abort the child she was carrying or that their love would end. To my mother, his dictation of an abortion stripped him of his royalty, and she chose the life of their unborn child over the fleeting love of the man she adored.
Throughout the months of her pregnancy, my mother awaited his phone call, but it never came. In late July of 1980, she went into labor, and along the way to the hospital, a beautiful doe and her fawn crossed the street. She knew in that instant that she had made the right decision and that she would have a baby girl. A few hours later, she gave birth to me and to the child who most physically resembled the man she still loved. She named me “Kami.”
Soon after I was born, my father decided that mainstream fashion and hair was a cancer to society and that art was its cure. He refused to allow his staff to color hair with anything other than henna or electric neon colors. Rapidly, he lost his clientele, his staff, his business, his money and his fame.
Mahatma Gandhi left his profession as an attorney and tossed aside a life of luxury for one of simplicity, wearing only a garment of plain white cloth and eating only that, which would sustain him. So, too, my father embraced the sacrifices he had made for his love of art. He owned very few possessions, only a couple items of clothing and would go to the grocery to buy a mere loaf of bread. While Ghandi became India’s spiritual icon, my father became a brilliant abstract urban photographer, a profession, which allowed solitude and never required him to have human relationships.
As a photographer, he used lighting and angles to distort reality into fantasy, capturing illusions and making them solidarity. He transformed dumpsters, scaffolding, roadway construction and broken pieces of furniture into beautifully colored abstract shapes. He manipulated God’s works of art, the trees in Central Park, the waters and mountains of the United States’ mid-west and the parks of Paris, into inexplicably discolored, mirrored or disfigured images, without altering a single aspect of the photograph. He made the objects of his art the pieces of a puzzle for the mind to decipher and for the eyes to admire.
The first remembered meeting I had with my father was when I was nine. This long anticipated meeting was that for which I always longed. I considered it as being my first opportunity to be loved by my father and for me to love him. But, alas, our encounter did not meet my expectations. Frankly, I thought he was weird. He spoke in riddles and about concepts of love, humanity and the universe in the abstract. He spoke about everything and yet nothing, at the same time. But, he never spoke about his life.
Similarly, he was indifferent towards my life, my personality or my capabilities. Rather, he was only interested in the ways in which I resembled him. He stared at me with fascination, pointing out how I had his hands, his eyes, his nose, his hair and his round face. He related to me as though I was one of his photographs and not as a father to a child.
After that, my father called me twice a year, my birthday and Christmas. Our conversations consisted of his descriptions of the rays of light coming through his window, the scents in the air from the street or from the food he was preparing, or the melodies of whichever jazz ensemble, to which he was listening. Most of all, he spoke about love and celebrating life in the present. His favorite line was, “It’s all about love.”
I listened intently, attempting with all my might to identify the 17 moras of what seemed like some haiku poem he was reciting to me. But, with each telephone call, I failed to crack the riddle or to understand him. I failed to reveal myself to him, as well, because he never asked anything about me. And, I failed to learn anything substantial about him, because, to him, the only things, which were important, were those sights, scents and sounds of the present.
In my childhood I saw him on two more occasions. As an adult, at my behest, I saw him a few more times. Each visit was as impersonal as the last, like one bad date after another. He grew more and more bizarre to me. With each visit, however, I managed to learn more about who he really was. I achieved this, not by desperate attempts to interpret his words, but by observing his actions.
From the cracks in the street to women, both young and old, he found beauty everywhere. He loved music and got lost in its tunes and vibrations. He had a profound admiration for food, no matter the background or culture. (To be sure, I have no doubt that his enjoyment of pot enhanced, if not inspired, these strong feelings.)
On the other hand, I also quickly learned that he was controlling, judgmental and selfish. Our meetings were on his terms, the time, the place, the people and conversation. He judged my decision to become a religious Jew, to work as many hours as I did, to sleep in on my days off and my feelings of sadness when my heart was broken. (Interestingly, Erik Erikson’s biography on Ghandi discusses how Ghandi would judge those around him, accusing them of evil desires.) And, finally, while at first encounter, he seemed to be generous, always bearing some gift in hand, he never offered to lend a hand in times of need or to help, when it was inconvenient to him.
Our last encounter was in February of 2006. Only a few months before, I had moved to New York City to live and to work as an attorney. The rain was coming down in sheets, but I was determined to make it from my office in Tribeca to my conversion classes on the upper west side. After I boarded the bus, I soon realized that the rain had seeped into the electronics of my wheelchair and that I was stranded on a bus, headed for the Bronx. I desperately needed help, so I called the one person I knew – my father. He answered the phone, seemingly high, and flippantly responded, “Well, I’m with a friend, and what do you want me to do about it anyway? Can’t you call someone else?” So, I did. I called a Puerto Rican cab driver with an accessible cab, who I had met 3:00 a.m. one night in the meatpacking district. This perfect stranger came to my rescue, covered in tattoos, including two teardrops tattooed next to his right eye. Looking at those teardrops, I decided that I would never again allow my father to make me cry. For years, he had chosen not to be a part of my life. Now, I would choose not be a part of his.
Just a few weeks ago, my father’s friend posted on Facebook that one of her friends was dying and in terrible agony. I had heard a few months earlier that my father had prostate cancer and was refusing treatment. I inquired of this friend whether she was referring to my father in her status, and, indeed, she was. I never thought that I would find out through a Facebook status that my father’s last breaths were imminent.
As each day passed, I wondered if that day would be the day that my father would call me and tell me himself that he was dying. I wondered if he would apologize to me for never being a part of my life and for never loving or supporting me. And, mostly I wondered if he would ever care to call and say goodbye. That day never came.
On the last day of Sukkot, the Jewish holiday which recognizes and celebrates the value, albeit fleeting, of things temporal, my mother informed me that she had just received word that my father died the night before, September 27, 2010. She told me that he died in his Mott St. Apartment, in Soho, and was in terrible agony right up until the moment he passed on. At first, I felt nothing, but within a few minutes, my heart felt heavy as I realized that my father never even cared enough to say goodbye.
As I was shopping in the grocery store minutes later, the anxiety set in, and the memory of my brother came rushing back. I remembered the image of him so clearly smoking his Marlboro Lights and the smoke lingering in the rays of sunlight. I approached the cash register, and after the clerk had gone through all of my items of groceries, I uncontrollably blurted, “Can I get a pack of Marlboro Lights?” Not having ever been a smoker and finding the habit particularly disgusting, I couldn’t believe I had made such a request. Nonetheless, I went home, opened the pack of cigarettes, went out to my garden and smoked a cigarette, hoping it would cure the anxiety and bury my emotions. Instead, the cigarette made me terribly ill, and I was forced to find a healthier coping mechanism.
That night, I lit candles to bring in the Jewish holiday of Simchat Torah, the holiday, which celebrates the completion of the year’s reading of the Torah and the joy of beginning it all over again. While people were in the streets dancing with the Torah, I was crying from within my apartment walls. All I could do was lie in bed and wonder why it was that I was mourning the loss of someone I never even had.
The next day, I found a blog online, written about my father’s death by an apparent friend of his. She described him as an inspired lover of life, a father, a spiritual warrior, a disciplined free man and a dear friend. She described his apartment, in which he died, complete with his meditation chair and the picture of his childhood nanny. In response to this blog, many people commented on what an amazing man and friend my father was. They wrote mostly about how he taught them about love and celebrating life.
The blog and its comments caused my pain to grow more intense. I couldn’t understand how he could be such a wonderful and loving person to all these people and yet couldn’t be that person to me. How could these people be so inspired by the man who abandoned his family, his wives, his lovers and his children? How was it that the same man, whose son and daughter could not look him in the eye because of the suffering he had caused them, was the same man who taught these people about love?
His memorial service was at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Manhattan on Saturday, October 2, 2010. The service’s theme was “The Celebration of Andre Martheleur’s Life.” While I was unable to attend, my grandmother sent flowers on behalf of our family and included a note, which read, “It’s all about love.” Many people, both friends and family, came to his memorial, whether to celebrate his life or to mourn his death. Countless individuals, the majority of which were women, stood up and spoke of their warm and special experiences with him. But, one person stood up and spoke frankly. She stated that she wished she had been able to see this wonderful side of Andre, of which so many spoke. This person was my brother’s dear and beautiful mom.
As I pondered my father’s life and death, I realized the he also taught me about love. Through him, I learned that there are two types of love – one that is fleeting and one that comes with commitment and loyalty. My father achieved, in its purest sense, fleeting love. He lavished in the moments of a piece of music, in the few seconds of tasting a piece of sushi, in the glances of a ray of sunlight and the passions of an unattached woman’s touch. He taught those around him, his friends, how to appreciate and to love temporary blessings as a way to celebrate life. However, he knew nothing of love with commitment and loyalty. He was unfaithful to his wives and abandoned his children. When times were difficult, he could not commit to being there. He loved a woman like a goddess until she became a liability or until she no longer agreed with everything he said or did. He was only capable of a roundabout way of loving himself.
There is a Midrash (Jewish teaching) that asks which love is more important: the love of a friend or the love of a neighbor? The Midrash teaches us that the love we have and give to our neighbor is far more important and more valuable than that which we give to a friend, because the love of a neighbor is a love, which contains commitment. We choose who our friends are. When they disappoint, anger or betray us, we are able to easily leave, because no sense of commitment attaches us to our friends. However, we are unable to choose who our neighbors are. No matter if they upset, anger or annoy us, each day we are committed and forced to return to our houses and to see their faces in the hallways of our apartment buildings or in their adjacent yards.
I finally realized why all these friends could say such lovely and heart-felt things about my father. They were simply his friends. He owed no sense of commitment or loyalty to them. He taught them how to love, and then he left to return home, where he was alone. He was not a different person to these people than he was to me, but, rather, I was a different person to him than they were to him. I was his daughter, a person, to whom he had the obligation to be committed. But, because he never knew how to love with commitment or loyalty (and possibly because he was never taught, given that his nanny raised him), he was incapable of loving me the way he should have. I realized that the way he behaved really was “all about love.”
It is only fitting then that he died during Sukkot. On Sukkot we read Kohelet. King Solomon in Kohelet helps us understand one of the meanings of the holiday. Sukkot is the celebration of those things in life, which cannot endure, the sukka, which is vulnerable to weather, the seasonal fruits, which will spoil, and the leaves, which are changing color. We are to enjoy them because they are a gift from God, a gift that may not be with us tomorrow. So too, we must enjoy the friends and family that God has given us as a gift, for they may not be with us tomorrow. It is a time to, as my father would say, “Celebrate Life.”
Finally, his memorial service was held this year on the Shabbat that we, as the Jewish people, began to read the Torah from the beginning again, reading the portion, “Bereshit,” which means “In the beginning.” This reading is a symbol of our commitment to the Torah. Simply because we have finished reading the Torah does not imply that we move onto something else. We are committed to reading it over and over again for the rest of our lives. It is also a day of new beginnings and of fresh outlooks on something we’ve visited countless times.
My father’s death has given me great resolution. I have decorated my walls with his art, as a reminder of the love he was able to achieve. I will remember every lesson he taught me on how to love those things, which are only temporary. Instead of a picture of a nanny, I have, on my bookshelf, a picture of my father as baby in his mother’s arms, representing a love to me that he failed to achieve.
Now, it is a new beginning of my life. No longer will I have to look into the mirror and see the reflection of a man, who didn’t love me the way I yearned to be loved, who was never proud of me and who abandoned me, while still in my mother’s womb. I no longer have to wonder if today will be the day that my father will call and say, “I’m so sorry. Please forgive me. I want to be in your life.” My father can never again break my heart.