The difference between man and woman is the force that hauls life forward (as the Talmud remarks) and the origin of everything that is most beautiful in our world. I thought I understood that, but I didn’t until my father died. The whole can transcend the sum of parts, and that’s why Judaism deems marriage sacred. I never truly understood that either.
The death of a loved one rips us like shrapnel, but the wound heals and we limp gamely on. A father’s death is one of the harder hits life offers as it fights to knock you down. There is nobility in a boxer’s fighting until the last bell, although he is hurt and bound to lose. Every one of us has that kind of nobility. We acquire it as boxers do, blow by blow. Don’t sell us short. We are tough.
My father Herbert Gelernter, of blessed memory, died in May at 85. He had a remarkable career. His doctorate was in theoretical physics. My mother had supported him throughout graduate school, but it was his duty to support her. So in 1955, his degree complete, he looked for a secure job and a living wage—which he found at IBM.
IBM Research was ablaze with new ideas about computing. “Computer science” was being created, by physicists, mathematicians, and engineers. In the late 1950s, my father became one of the six men who invented artificial intelligence and changed the intellectual world.
He built the first AI program ever to do anything substantial—history’s third overall. His revolutionary software proved theorems in high school geometry and introduced techniques that became fundamental to computing.
But he missed physics and returned to it in the early 1960s; then he missed computing, and spent the rest of his career at the outer limits of AI. His last achievement was a program that discovers syntheses for organic compounds—otherwise a task for Ph.D. chemists. It took him a quarter-century. It remains one of the most sophisticated programs ever built.
IBM wanted to elevate him to senior management. So he left. He had been in love with physics since boyhood (although he loved my mother incomparably more, and we all knew that from the day we were born). Nothing in science or mathematics was foreign to him. The acute curiosity and the powerful, joyful intelligence always sparkling in his eyes—everyone saw it—extended to every corner of nature and everything his children did or cared about.
He wanted to stay near New York, where his parents and my mother’s lived. Between offers from SUNY at Stony Brook and Yale, he chose SUNY; stayed for the rest of his career. In the late ’60s, truckloads of money were being spent on Stony Brook. It was about to become the “Berkeley of the East.” It didn’t. But my father was happy there. Prestige meant nothing to him. (As a graduate student, he had left MIT for the University of Rochester, where his thesis director of choice happened to teach.)
He was the smartest man I ever knew. A master of real life also. He could repair anything from busted TVs to stuck zippers. He was a superb musician. His French was fluent; on trips to Soviet Russia, he talked science in Yiddish. And on sabbaticals in Israel, he mastered “Fill it up, please!” All right: Hebrew was not his strong suit. But he tried.
Yet in the last period of his life he was weak and in pain, and could do almost nothing for himself. My mother did it all.
It never damaged his dignity or hers. It only exalted them both. Sometimes he was sad, more often serene. After all: He had worked all his life to support her. In the end, when she had to support him every moment, it was a labor of love for her as it had always been for him.
He could not equal my mother’s grasp of human character and her sheer kindliness. She lacks his intellectual aggression (all eminent scientists have it), his uncanny grasp of mathematics, music, and everything in between. Husband plus wife equaled a miracle. But every man and wife are a miracle waiting to happen: Manly and womanly virtues are so deeply different—each so desperately essential to the other and to the children. He always knew, God bless him, that her gifts were more important than his. But there was nothing he wouldn’t do for his children, and they all—and his two daughters-in-law—loved him dearly. He lived life in a vibrant major key, but when affliction forced him into the dark relative minor, he was prepared with bigness of heart and soul. He showed us the sanctity of a life that puts first things first.