August 14, 2006

Joyeux Anniversaire, Papa

There is one story that has echoed around me throughout my life. It starts in Communist Poland, and it ends in Fargo, North Dakota.

The version I have heard the most is a story of courage, patriotism, and a fervent pursuit of the American dream. This is the story that I retold in every grade school essay competition and scholarship application. It's the story I told in my college graduation speech. It's the story I told in his obituary.

There's another version that I prefer to tell my friends over cocktails. I didn't learn it until I was in my 20s, but it has the twists and turns of a suspense novel. The "spy mission" he accepted in order to leave the country. The secretive, hurried departure, presumably never to return. My mother's repeated breakdowns in embassies, as she struggled with the idea of leaving her homeland and family behind forever. Their constant flight from the Polish secret police, who tapped their phone lines and intercepted their mail.

I'm not in danger of forgetting the story of how my parents left Poland, fled to France, then immigrated to the United States. Even if I sustained a massive head injury and lost the narrative thread, there are plenty of relatives, friends, and former neighbors who would jump to fill in the blanks.

It's the other pieces that I am afraid of losing.

Today would have been my father's 64th birthday.

I feel compelled to record some of my memories of him. I apologize if this sounds disjointed. It's a stream-of-consciousness day.

I obviously don't remember this photo, since I'm the bald one in the white dress. I ask that you forgive my father for his choice of shirt. It was 1978, after all.

I love this photo because, at least in my interpretation, his face shows vulnerability. In most people's impressions, my father was formal, somewhat serious, generally unruffled. More like this:

I apologize if my indecent posture in the above photo offended anyone.

My father took his work very seriously. He loved his job. Medicine wasn't just an occupation to earn money; it was who he was as a human being.

Still, I mostly remember the vacations.

Even though he risked his life to leave Poland, a part of him always belonged in Europe. He took our family there every couple of years. He showed us the apartment in Paris where my brother Chris was conceived (Chris and I always acted appropriately grossed out) and told us that, if it wasn't for the Polish Secret Police and French immigration laws, we would have lived in France.

My name would have been Monique. His name would have been Pierre. We would have eaten baguettes with breakfast and drank wine with our lunch.

I still visit that alternate reality sometimes, just for a moment.

I know we don't look particularly happy in this photo, but we were in Europe, so maybe the sun was just in our eyes. Or maybe this was around the time of the Ant Incident (Moral of the story: Never allow your messy child to eat yogurt while standing on an anthill) or the Lego Incident (Moral of the story: If you plan to make a sudden stop while driving 100 mph on the Autobahn, secure any heavy boxes containing Legos directly behind your child's head).

One of the lessons my father taught me was to take memorable vacations. They don't have to be frequent (once every couple of years), but make them count.

I took this photo 13 years ago today. It was my last European vacation with my parents, although I didn't know it at the time. I was 15 years old.

We were in Bayeux, France, near the landing beaches of the WWII Normandy invasion. It was my father's 51st birthday.

Earlier that day, we had gone to the D-Day beaches and found them swarming with tourists and children playing happily in the water. Not finding the historical gravitas he was looking for, my father took us to a war museum and cemetery. As we looked out over the sea of white crosses, I saw something remarkably new and unfamiliar: My father was crying.

He was born in 1942, making him too young to remember the war. But in his career, working at the V.A. Hospital, he had encountered countless World War II veterans. To him, every Allied soldier was a hero. He made a point of personally thanking every veteran he met, since the defeat of Hitler and the liberation of Poland had enabled all of us to live.

He chose to spend his birthday paying respect to the soldiers who gave their lives for the freedom of Europe.

That evening, we found a little restaurant with stone walls, tucked halfway underground like a wine cellar. My dad ordered escargot and seafood (even though he was allergic, he made exceptions for special occasions). In honor of his birthday and the fact that we were in France, he even poured me a glass of wine so that the three of us could share a toast.

The juxtaposition of the war museum and the French restaurant captured my father well. He was passionately in love with life, but not in a reckless way. He loved life in a very thoughtful, reverent way, savoring each moment of joy because he understood and respected the sorrow just behind it.

I've been to Europe once since my father's death, and I kept expecting to see him walk around the corner of a cobbled street.

I can't pretend to understand how the afterlife works, but today I am playing with a theory. I can see why it's not a good idea for ghosts to hang around the friends and relatives they left behind. It drags out the grief and healing processes for the living.

But what if... what if, after we die, we can go visit the places on Earth that we love, where nobody might recognize us? What if today, in honor of his birthday, my father could walk down to the wine cellar in Normandy and order a plate of shellfish and a carafe of Bordeaux? What if he brought one of the old soldiers with him?

I will have a lot to tell Rasbaby about the grandfather who she'll never get to meet. I will tell the patriotic story. I might tell the spy story.

And, if my memory holds, I will tell the other Peter Czernek stories too.

I will tell her that he was funny, that he stole my SAT flashcards because he loved English words so much, and that he wore neatly pressed khakis to go fishing. I will tell her that he drove like I-94 was the Autobahn, that he watched Crossfire and Nightline religiously, and that he sometimes took me to Pizza Hut for lunch after his Army Reserve drills on Sundays.

And the first time I take Rasbaby to France, I might tell her about our alternative lives, in which I am Monique, she is Framboise-Bebe, and if we look very closely, we might find clues to the true identity of her grandfather, the spy, Pierre.

Joyeux Anniversaire, Papa. Je t'aime.

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