"You need chaos in your soul to give birth to a dancing star." -- Friedrich Nietzsche
A Tribute to Norman Shavin
by his daughter, Julianza Shavin-Katz
Innumerable years passed before I could listen to classical music again. Even today, a flute piece, especially, can still shake me up. It just hits too close to home, a home in which my father no longer resides, except as memory. He passed away at age 61.
In the summer of 1962, at age nine, I was just beginning my scrap-booking days, requesting pictures from the family album. Dad said no, but that "when I die, all these pictures will belong to you." Speechless with my first epiphany, because he had said not "if I die," but rather, "when," I realized that one day – very far away, perhaps, but most assuredly, I'd lose him. Nonetheless, that unimaginable event was too hazy to contemplate. Time is such stretchy stuff when young.
Now, I have exactly 18 days to complete this tribute to my father, who passed away 18 years ago on the eighteenth of February. In Judaism, eighteen is considered a lucky number (spelling “chai” (“life”) -- but what luck or comfort can I derive today, as yet another Yahrzeit looms, for a person I still desperately miss? Perhaps it may be said that I'm here not only to mourn my father's passing, but to keep his memory alive, to celebrate my luck in having had him as a father and friend for as long as I did.
Many knew my father as a local celebrity: a journalist, radio personality, public speaker, historian, and author of many books about his beloved, adopted city, Atlanta (he was born and raised in Chattanooga, TN). He was known for his brilliance, sharp, caustic wit, his generosity, his moral rectitude, and his love of dogs, music, -- of life itself! Truly, he was one of those larger-than-life-type personalities. He was passionate, driven, as singularly serious as he was zany, pensive yet ever-ready with a nutty quip, a man of letters, of learning, of compassionate gestures, of consuming creativity, a man whose strangely asymmetrical eyes twinkled at times humorous-to-devilishly, at other times, most kindly.
Philosopher Albert Camus once wrote that one of his greatest fears was of dying without having been truly known. I believe my father deeply empathized with that sentiment. With a wealth of acquaintances, admirers, friends, he seemed to me a lonely man, a melancholic, for which there was no known source or cure. But I always sensed that, for whatever reason, he never felt truly loved by those closest to him, his nuclear family. His daft and delicious sense of humor seem to me a validation of that melancholia, since, as it is said, the greatest humor springs from pain. He always had a few extremely close companions, but, especially later in life, he often brooded -- enveloping himself in a book or music to escape his many demons, which included that loneliness and the constant pressure to creative/provide, even while struggling with cancer.
Near the end of his life, he would complain that I did not visit him enough. I believe we all found it difficult to see him as sick as he was, given his continuing to work so hard. On Wednesday, February 17, 1988, I phoned him in the hospital to let him know I was coming to visit. The cat-scan had showed no cancer remaining after a treacherous course of chemotherapy, but Dad wasn't feeling well, and replied, "I wouldn't make good company today; come tomorrow. "Tomorrow" he was gone.
My father was prone to panic attacks, which, back then, were regarded not as a true medical disorder (which can be brought on even by allergy), but as hypochondria. It was rumored that at age 26 he had had a mild but nonetheless terrifying heart infarction and that this disability, never fully delinated, kept him from medical and dental school. Eventually he was medicated on Valium, and I well remember dinners at which his speech was slurred, and his shoulders slumped with side-effect exhaustion. I wish we, his family, had been better informed, or at least, more trusting that what felt real, was real.
There are happier memories: his lounging in a beloved backyard hammock; his passion for music like no one's I've ever known; our duets, his flute to my piano, including the ribald, exasperating squabbling as to who made which of our countless mistakes; his nutty jabs that spiraled all of us into helpless heaving laughter, and a maddening habit of maintaining an intellectual position he certainly did not support, to win a debate at any cost. I remember his courage in quitting Atlanta Magazine when he felt it was cramping his creativity, to become an independent publisher and writer, supporting his family (wife and three children) by the skin of his – fingers, basically. I remember his funky adoration of dogs, especially Welsh Corgis, his civil rights advocacy (he marched with Dr.King), his genius-level intellect and catholic (albeit Jewish) curiosity regarding all things, our drives to and from The Chamber of Commerce when I interned, the radio's blasting classical music, each piece more sublime and stunning than the last, and our hearing Jean-Pierre Rampal perform with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (we had second row seats!). He took us kids to movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Fantastic Voyage, Fantasia, and we were huge fans of TV's Lost in Space. How we all loved those imaginative, fantastical, escapes!
My father's sister Pauline had a huge inimitable laugh, which alternated, within a nano-second, with grave seriousness. In a heartbeat, she'd go from explosive hilarity to solemn pensiveness. To me, this was/is a hallmark, a metaphor, regarding those Shavin siblings (including the brother Seamour): individuals keenly attuned to the inextricable admixture of the comic and tragic, the joy and sorrow, that define all of our lives.
Dad's love affair and facility with words created an unfair advantage when it came to playing Scrabble, which he always won. But strangely, he relied on cliché for much of his familial communication, with such sappy phrases (but true , oh so true , I've found) as "Life is not fair," "You win some, you lose some," etc. These ubiquitous sayings seem strange, as though he could not let his real self through, was afraid of appearing too emotional, thus avoiding that virtual arsenal of words so at his command. But back to Scrabble!... if he could not use all his letters in any given game, this was high tragedy, evoking furor. My best friend, Annie Rager (now deceased), recalled a game decades ago in which Dad became "mad as a hatter," either because he couldn't make a word ("having a poor vowel movement!" he would ruefully exclaim), or because someone else could.
I think many people considered my father perfect, but was he? Well, no. He, like all of us, was flawed, human. His sophistry was aggravating as heck (he'd have made a great lawyer or politician). He was not welcoming toward my husband-to-be, pointedly asking/demanding at one dinner table conversation, "What IS Harry?" As it turns out, my husband is like my father in many, many ways, and I wish they had gotten to know one another. Also, by the time my sister was a teen, Dad, for whatever reasons, had become remote and uninvolved, much to her dismay and disdain.
My father's heroes were Abraham Lincoln, JFK, MLK, Don Quixote, the great classical composers, and his own parents, among others. From my viewpoint, he was a pessimist, ever (quizzically) the optimist, even winning an Optimist Club award (of course, he also once won an award for penmanship, and if you've ever seen his handwriting... ) Speaking of writing, Dad could not type, except with two fingers but man! -- was he fast! I wish I'd known that, in the last year of his life, he had watched the movie "Amadeus" four times, alone. I would have been with him. My younger daughter is named Amadea.
What was my father's legacy to us, his family? I personally am not religious, but have attempted to maintain his moral leanings, including a respect for others, regardless of race or economic stature; compassion for the elderly, ill, dispossessed, and others virtually, or actually, voice-less (such as animals); a profound appreciation for music (his second favorite genre was musicals); and a confounding (ask my mother) lack of fashion-sense. None of us became stamp-collecting enthusiasts or history buffs, nor do we play ping-pong or crave hard salami, but all of us, on down to the grandchildren, read voraciously, keep journals, are involved with music, and occupy ourselves professionally or avocationally, with words, words, words -- with communication -- all of us, like him, like Camus, attempting, even if only within our nuclear families, to contribute via communication, and to be truly known.
Some say sudden death is easier on the surviving. I wish I'd been able to say goodbye, though I would never wish anyone prolonged suffering. I'd like to advise here, as cliché as it sounds, to treasure your loved ones, to realize that life is indeed short, to understand that humans are both divine and flawed, and to open your heart to love, even if you have to search for it.
Sometimes I daydream that my father has suddenly returned – not just to me, but to sons- and daughters-in law, and four granddaughters, two grandsons, alll to his ineffable amazement and joy! I imagine him staring deeply into a grandchild's eyes, thrilling him or her with his sundry wisecracks and wisdoms, all of which we, his progeny, must now do. Sometimes, I wonder if he would be proud of me, as proud to be my relation as I am to be his. When
he departed Atlanta Magazine, I was so impressed by his courage and determination that I wrote a short line about it, but was too embarrassed to give it to him. For me, though, it will ever ring true . It read, "Some men make poems. Other men, are."
I end here with a paraphrase from our temple's prayerbook, which I dedicate to my late father:
Could we with ink the ocean fill,
Were every blade of grass a quill,
Were the world of parchment made,
And everyone a scribe by trade,
To write the love of you, above
Would drain the ocean, drain it dry
Nor would the scroll contain the whole,
Through stretched from sky to sky.
Copyright Julianza Shavin 2008