The facts are as they are. They are in black and white; they can’t be changed. As a baby, I lived with my mother and father in Sunrise, a suburban city just east of Fort Lauderdale. The romance of the city’s name is not lost on me.
When it happened, blue and white Hanukkah lights were strung in windows all around our neighborhood and plastic Santas on sleighs sat on the roofs. It was December, 1978. While I was toddling around the family home in diapers, my father, Paul, died in circumstances that can best be described as tragic: he took his own life.
Tragedy begets change, sometimes reinvention. My mother and I left Florida for England when I was 9 and she remarried when I was 11. A few years later, I was legally adopted by her new husband, Steve, who raised me as his own. While I love my stepfather deeply, the biology of paternity is a halachic matter when you are planning a Jewish wedding, as I was, a couple of years ago. In the process of preparing to marry in the faith, I had to dig into some family history.
It was on my parent’s Ketubah that I saw my father’s handwriting for the first time. This was an item dug out on the request of a rabbi, the document proof of my heritage. My mother retrieved it from a manila file labeled ‘Florida’ in her office, filed away between the death certificates of my grandparents. The way my father wrote the “S” in “Schreibman” was the same way I wrote mine: loopy, messy. I wondered whether he too held his pen incorrectly, like me, and I traced my hand over his signature. A strange feeling this was, assuming something of him from his handwriting. I hadn’t known we’d shared a similar style of scrawl. There was so much I didn’t know.
All that I understood of my father had been gleaned from second-hand stories and several dozen matte seventies pictures in faded orange and brown hues. On the wall above my writing desk, a photo of my parents standing outside our Florida home, a bandana on my mother’s head covering the top of her curly dark hair, my father in brown polyester flared pants. He held me, a red-faced newborn, close against his white tee-shirt. My mother and father: a quintessential pair of young ’70s newlyweds, in love, content. When you lose a parent at a young age, narratives are inevitably strung together from artifacts and anecdotes; memories of him belong not to me, but to other people.
A cemetery visit was never a topic of conversation when I was growing up. Jewish friends of mine who’d lost a parent visited the cemetery a few times a year, on a birthday or on the anniversary of death, but this ritual was never mine. Unlike other families I knew, we didn’t light a candle on my father’s Yahrzeit. We didn’t mark the date of his death with any kind of annual tradition or even speak of it; ditto with his birthday.
When I was a child, and even when I was a teenager, the subject of my father rarely came up; my mother had buried the tragedy of my father’s death deep within her. These days, we talk openly about his death, now that decades have passed and time has healed her. My mother recently told me that a pediatrician she visited when I was two and a half said to her: “How do you tell a toddler that her father killed himself? You don’t; you wait for her to ask questions, and then you answer them.”
When family members referred to my father’s death, they usually said something like “It’s all water under the bridge now,” or “When she’s older and can understand, you can tell her.” The atmosphere in a room felt heavy; people looked sad all of a sudden if the topic came up – this led me to understand implicitly that my father’s death was a subject that was complicated, that broaching it with my mother or my grandparents would make them uncomfortable. So, I just didn’t bring it up. Nobody else did, either.
At age two, when my father was there one day and gone the next, I was told by both sets of grandparents when I asked where my daddy was: “He got very sick, and he died.” That was one narrative I carried with me. It was, in fact, true.
When I started kindergarten, friends would sometimes ask me why I didn’t have a father. For the first time, I asked my mother where he was. She said, “He died in a car.” Even though I was very young, I could tell that this was a very unsettling topic for my mother; her eyes suddenly downcast. My five-year-old brain must have altered that sentence into “He died in a car crash,” and that’s what I told people, for the next fifteen years.
I didn’t mention my father’s death to my mother again until I was twenty-one, when I started to ask questions of her and other relatives in effort to learn more about who my father had been and the circumstances of his death. It was the summer of 1997; I was in love for the first time. My boyfriend had asked me questions about my father and I didn’t have any answers; friends had asked too.
When I asked them to tell me more about how he died, my maternal grandmother and my mother each choked up, became red-eyed and emotional, but they answered my questions, sating my curiosity.
A rifle and some bullets, sold over the counter in K-Mart, to a skinny Jewish man wearing glasses. My father was not the kind of man to buy a gun; he was an intellectual from Brooklyn, a left-wing hippy who was anti-Vietnam and read philosophy in his free time. He had never held a gun before. But Florida gun laws are Florida gun laws; nobody asked him if he should be buying a gun. Depression was troubling him, increasingly so, but the man behind the counter didn’t inquire about his state of mind; that wasn’t his job. My father hadn’t been hospitalized, nor was his name in any database. He was over 21; Florida laws said that nothing was stopping him from buying a gun.
I imagine him with sweaty palms as he stood at the counter in the same K-Mart that I bought my My Little Pony duvet and pillow set in five years later. I picture his thick, oval frame black glasses lying blood-stained on the floor of the car. I think I remember the policeman at the door of our home later that day, but I was just two, so this must not be true.
My mother took K-Mart to court, tried to sue them for wrongful death. After my father had bought the rifle and some bullets, he walked across the parking lot to his white Ford Pinto and tried to shoot himself in the head. But the gun wouldn’t work – something was wrong. Less than ten minutes later, he returned to the same counter, told the same young clerk that had sold him the rifle earlier that he’d tried the gun, but it hadn’t worked.
A man returning to the store less than ten minutes after purchasing the gun – it was all highly developed suburban land around the store – this should have raised a question in the clerk’s mind; that’s what the lawsuit said. There was no shooting range nearby, no forest in which to hunt, but the clerk didn’t ask any questions. He fixed whatever had been wrong – perhaps the bullets had been loaded incorrectly, perhaps there was a fault with the gun. He fixed the issue, and my father walked out of the store. He died sitting in a car.
As a newlywed, I had been thinking of my father more often. I wondered whether a child of mine might resemble him: whether, like me, she’d have his long legs and dark, curly hair, or whether he’d have his gentle, introverted personality, something that had not been passed down the bloodline to me. After what felt like one too many successive months of me seeing ‘Not Pregnant’ on a plastic stick, I bought myself a plane ticket to Fort Lauderdale. I had, for a while, been craving the comforts of a Florida spring, and the latest pregnancy test result made me feel that craving more strongly.
“You have a Hollywood image of a grave,” my husband told me, with a wave of his hand. “Only Victorian cemeteries in England look like that. It’s Florida; you can expect something more manicured. A couple of rotting oranges on the ground will be as ruinous as it will get.”
Contemplating motherhood had an interesting effect on my psyche; it made me want to seek out some closure. I wanted to know where my father was: to have a real, rather than imagined, visual for the place in which he was buried. For a long time now, I had envisioned a gravestone with fading letters and overgrown weeds. I imagined that I’d have to peel back moss and brambles to read what was written on his headstone. While my husband’s notion of a Florida grave made sense, I had no experience to hang that notion upon. I had spent a large part of my life in England, where cemeteries really do look like they do in the movies.
Three miles away from the very same K-Mart where my mother had bought me childhood bedding and my father had bought himself a gun, in the lobby of my hotel, I pulled my iPhone out of my bag to call an Uber. It was April, and it was hot. The sultry weather was a welcome relief after a rainy British winter. Ever since my mid-twenties, I traveled down here once a year: I am happiest lying in the sand on the beach or floating in a swimming pool with turquoise water, the water close to bath water temperature. Florida’s sensory experiences are things I yearn for – sunsets six shades of hot pink and giant palm leaves in humid mangrove swamps.
Bamboo fans swirled overhead and tourists wearing baseball caps shuffled by us. My friend Leigh was with me in Florida that day – she had offered to be with me at the cemetery; a proposition I was grateful for. Where to? Uber asked. I consulted the email in which my mother had written the name of the cemetery. I typed into the little box on my screen: Star of David Memorial Gardens. Your driver, Marcus, is three minutes away, the little screen told me. In the backseat of a Marcus’s white Toyota, Leigh sat next to me. “I’m nervous,” I told her. “I know,” she nodded, taking my hand.
We drove down the roads my father used to drive. Long Florida roads, cloudless sky overhead. Jimi Hendrix’s version of the Star-Spangled Banner was playing on the radio, which made me think of another decade: a photograph I have of my parents in their college dorm room, her head on his shoulder. They told each other that they’d move to Canada if he was drafted for Vietnam. As it turns out, he didn’t pass the medical test required for enlistment. This was before the blues. Those came later, when I was around a year old.
The first sign that something was wrong was when my father jumped into a canal down the street from our house in Sunrise. He returned home to my mother and I smelling of moss and garbage, saying “I tried to go under, but I just couldn’t do it.” My mom immediately made an emergency appointment for him with a psychologist, who said that, given his state of mind, he needed to be hospitalized; he was a danger to himself. The psychologist told my mother, that, especially given the fact that his brother Alan had committed suicide two years earlier, my father’s condition required urgent attention.
At this point my mother called my grandmother, who, my mother told me, declared with vehemence, “No son of mine is going to a mental hospital.” This, after she’d recently lost her other son. Oh, the unfathomable nature of a social stigma so great that it became crippling. My grandparents drove to Sunrise to pick up my father, taking him to their apartment to “rest.” One late November day, after driving him to a herbalist who prescribed a potpourri of alternative remedies and said that lying by his parent’s pool and relaxing will help take care of it, my father tried to jump out of the car while my grandfather was driving. Nobody told my mother that this was happening. He tried to jump out of my grandfather’s car twice. My mom talked on the phone with my father every day for almost two weeks until the day he left his parents’ apartment and drove himself back to Sunrise, to K-Mart.
Alan had been young but already a lauded Harvard professor, just two years older than my father, and he’d shot himself in the mouth, sitting in my grandmother’s favorite armchair in the den of their home in Babylon, Long Island. They’d had the blood cleaned off the ceiling, the room repainted. Now they’d sold that home in New York, and made a new life in the Sunshine State.
My grandmother told my mother that my father just needed a little time away from his responsibilities. What he really needed was, at the minimum, some legitimate medication. He needed intervention for the mental illness that was taking over his mind. To think that my grandparents lost both sons to suicide is boggling. To think that my father could have lived, if my grandparents had recognized mental illness for what it is, and my father had received the care he required.
After he was gone, my grandparents gave me all their attention, spoiled me with annual trips to Disney World and Lion Country Safari Park. I was all they had left, and they lavished me with love. My grandmother died when I was 6, but my grandfather and I remained close until he passed away when I was a teenager. He told me often how much I resembled my father: that I had his legs, his knees, his gait. When my mother and I moved to England, he regularly wrote me long letters and sent them by airmail.
Steve, the man who’d adopted me and raised me in England, was the kind of father I’d been dreaming of ever since I was old enough to understand that I wanted a dad, too. He played Barbies with me on the floor for hours, he carried me on his shoulders when I was too tired to walk another step, and spent many arduous hours helping me with my algebra homework. My mother and I have been fortunate to have him in our lives.
Given our destination, Marcus asked if we were going to a funeral. I shook my head.
“The funeral was 36 years ago,” I told him. “We’re going to visit the grave.”
“The grave,” he repeated, in an accent I didn’t recognize.
In the Star of David Memorial Gardens lobby, a middle-aged woman wearing a navy suit dress greeted us with a smile. Leigh and I sat side by side on matching beige leather swivel chairs. A Star of David made of popsicle sticks sat inside a glass case, and a small fountain trickled water. The room reminded me a little of the office of the synagogue I’d been married in back in London; two-tone wood and chrome plaques with names of donors on the walls. I felt nervy, adrenaline soaring.
“I’m here to visit my father’s grave. I was wondering if you could help me find where he is.” Find where he is, this father I never knew. I was eager, but I was also slightly trepidatious.
It took her less than a minute to locate where the plot was; she typed his name into her database and he came right up. “Paul Schreibman?” It had taken me almost forty years to get here, and now here he was, just like that.
“That’s him,” I said with a small smile, as she handed us a little paper map and drew an X to mark the spot.
The woman in the navy suit offered me a stone to place on the gravestone; she took several from her top desk drawer. I remembered my grandmother’s funeral then, how my mother had told me that leaving a rock at a gravestone speaks to the permanence of memory. In Hebrew, pebble means “bond.” I selected a smooth little white stone. Holding it between my fingers calmed me a little.
She offered to drive us to my father’s grave in a golf cart. “It’s hot today, are you sure you want to walk it?”
“We’ll be fine, we’re almost there,” I said, glancing down at the map that Leigh held in her hands.
Together, we walked to the grave. The gardens were peaceful and well maintained; I liked the cleanliness of the place, the orange trees with their full, fresh fruit. Not one rotting orange in sight. We were right next to a main road, but it was quiet. Tropical birds I couldn’t identify swooped overhead, squawking at each other occasionally.
The X on the map was crystal clear, the rows of graves linear and easy to navigate. A small black road marker resembling a street sign bore the words Shar Hashamayim (Gate of Heaven). That’s where I found him, a few gravestones over from that sign. In some Jewish cemeteries suicides are treated differently, buried askew or apart from the others. It brought me a sense of peace to see that he was in a regular row, not cast aside.
The gravestone was elegant; they’d had a simple silver Star of David above his name, silver letters embossed within a brown stone and a border of a simple green pattern. I was struck by the simple and tasteful choice of stone, by how aesthetically pleasing it looked. I imagined my grief-stricken mother and grandparents having to select just the right font and color, having to bury a man who hadn’t yet reached his thirtieth birthday.
Seeing the word ‘Father’ under his name immediately brought me to tears. His life, and his death, had never really felt that tangible to me. Until now. This man so buried in tragedy, was here – in this tranquil spot. My father had a resting place, and seeing where it was lifted the weight I’d been carrying around for almost four decades.
I placed the stone at the edge of the gravestone. Paul L. Schreibman — 1949–1978. Beloved Son, Husband, Father. I traced over the letters with my fingers, thinking of all that he’d missed since he’d been gone. Now that I’d found where he was buried, something had shifted in me. At that moment, I knew I’d be back.
Back in the lobby, the woman in the blue suit came over with tissues and reached out her arms to offer a hug, which I gratefully accepted as tears trickled down my face. Though my father had been lost to me, something of ‘us’ could be found in this place: seeing ‘father’ on the headstone had made him more real somehow.
I wiped my tears away and called an Uber. When the driver asked us where we were headed, I told him, “To the beach, please.” He drove quickly; I rolled the window down and let the breeze fall on my face and mess up my hair. I was ready for the Florida elements to do that healing thing they do. We headed to the beach and I walked barefoot in the water, the lullaby of waves a kind of balm.
Almost three years later, I returned to the cemetery. The circumstances of my life were vastly different this time around: I was not yet a mother, but I was also not trying to get pregnant. I’d gone through a divorce and come through an early stage breast cancer diagnosis. A lot of healing had happened, and I was now in a content, happy place in my life.
Previous wonderings about my father, from the mundane (where was he buried?) to the complex (why hadn’t my father received the help he’d needed?) had been broached and discussed with my mother. These days, our conversations continue.
The week before I visited, the Parkland shooting had happened just miles away. At night in my hotel room the day before I returned to the cemetery, I watched the Town Hall discussion about gun laws in Florida until it became too grating, too repetitive, too much of an old story that needed a new ending.
This time, I visited the cemetery on my own, and I knew exactly where to find the grave. Two years on, and the white stone I had placed on my father’s name was still right where I had left it.