When we're children, our parents' stories seem entirely unremarkable and typical, especially if all of our friends' parents have similar stories. It's only when we're all grown up that it ever dawns on us just how remarkable our parents really were.
My Father’s Number
“Somewhere in the world,” my father explains to me, “somewhere, there is or was another man, from another camp - a hell-hole like Auschwitz, that maybe they tattooed with this exact same number.” He shakes his head in an effort to repel tears welling in his eyes. “There could be no worse.” My father whispers. “Who knows how many of my number there could have been, how many they murdered? God only knows?”
He says the word “they” with curled lips that reveal uneven teeth. For an instant, he’s a growling dog as a bit of spittle forms in the corners of his mouth. I’ve heard these questions so often that I know exactly which words and gestures belong together, like salt and pepper. But at that moment it doesn’t really matter. Each time, the questions offer up a brand new mystery that begs resolution.
My father’s numbers are tattooed on his arm, not written in pen like answers on a math cheater’s arm. My father didn’t cheat at math but cheated death instead. And even though he passed all the tests, his numbers provide not one single correct answer. Visible through a black hair forest that grows there, they confirm membership to a unique club. It's one whose formation still haunts him, whose production of evil he survived. YNow, years later, he still struggles to comprehend it.
Occasionally, the black hairs succeed at their vital mission - to distract my father from his past while obscuring his truth from strangers. Mostly, they fail miserably or maybe it’s my knowledge about my father’s numbers, stories they tell and destruction they represent, that render the camouflage useless. I dwell on too many stories alive in those numbers. Some of them I’ve heard in such great detail that,during sleep, they play themselves back to me like movies in slow motion. They whisper the fates of 91,145 faceless men who stood in long lines in front of my father, each marked with a unique number. My father’s number is 91,146. The nine and six have faded just slightly over the years, but number four escapes the dark hair invasion. Four is bold and bright - as resiliently defiant as the man whose arm it dominates.