In memoriam …
June 17, 2013
My father, Edgar Nelson Gilbert, died this past Saturday (June 15th). He was 89 years old; my family had hoped to celebrate his 90th birthday next month. Until recently he was, or appeared to be, in reasonably good health (he still occasionally drove his car, an old Pontiac station wagon); but, three weeks ago, he passed out in the hall outside his apartment and, falling, hit his head. The doctors, thinking his fainting had to do with a new pacemaker, gave him blood thinners; that unfortunately aggravated the wound to his head; when a second CAT scan was taken a few days later, it showed massive internal bleeding. His ability to speak and see and move progressively deteriorated; towards the middle of last week, he got a fever, and stopped eating.
My father worked for nearly half a century in the Mathematics department at Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, New Jersey; he retired in 1996. I was surprised to learn, earlier this year, that there is a Wikipedia article on him; today I learned that the article exists also in French. When I used to ask my Dad what he did for a living, he would tell me that he “invented theorems.” A lot of his work was in the field of Information Theory. As best I understand it, this has to do with the mathematical representation of the flow of information, and the quantification of such factors as “noise” — something evidently of great importance in the design of telephone equipment. I learned, fairly early on, not to discuss mathematics with my father. When, as a less-than-highly-motivated high school student facing homework assignments in trigonometry or calculus, I would occasionally approach him with mathematical questions (sometimes prompted by my mother, who thought that my father surely would be helpful in this regard), his explanations inevitably left me with a deeper sense of my own incapacity than I had had in the first place: he assumed that I possessed at least some basic understanding of fundamental mathematical concepts, whereas that was precisely what I was hoping to gain by going to him. It must have grieved him to have so inept a son. Fortunately, my relations with my father were not confined to such incidents.
I suppose many American males have fond memories of playing baseball or football with their fathers; my father did not care for baseball or football, and that is not how I remember him. But I have other fond memories. I can remember, from early childhood, my father, sitting in the evening on the piano bench in the living room, with a music stand in front of him, practicing the classical guitar — something by Bach, or Fernando Sor, or Tarrega, or some other melancholy, stately piece of music, while I lay on the floor and drew pictures. I also remember him sitting in the basement, in front of an array of ham radio equipment with glowing dials, tapping out Morse code. I remember the clocks and the old radios and cameras he used to collect, and his photographs of mushrooms and radio towers. I remember how, on his 50th birthday, my father set up a transmitter and broadcast, for a couple of hours, 1920’s jazz on an impromptu AM station, something that was technically illegal — though, as the signal could be picked up only within a radius of a few blocks, he fortunately was not arrested. I remember him walking home from the beach on Long Island, barefooted and soaked, after a long swim. I remember him, in more recent years, playing duets on recorders with my sister on Long Island on the front or back porch. I know that the house on Long Island is going to feel dreadfully empty this summer.
I remember my father also in difficult times: how the death of my mother left him utterly dazed and bewildered, after he had borne with her long, slow decline for a number of sad years. I remember him standing by the bed when I was in the hospital. My father was a very quiet, private man, who didn’t easily express his emotions — which meant that such emotions as he did express were invariably genuine.
May his memory be eternal.