Abe's memorial service at MIT Chapel, September 16, 2015
Reflections from Rachel (Abe's daughter)
From the inside of a family it is very difficult to see a person as he or she exists in the larger world. Abe Bers, accomplished scientist, professor emeritus, author of textbooks, holder of patents, will always be, for me, first and foremost my dad. The person who carried me around in a backpack when I was small; who called me Rachie; who taught me to drive, to play tennis, to study hard and to enjoy a five-course three hour meal in the middle of the day. I will always think of him in his study at home, up all night working while the rest of the world slept. Or oblivious to the doorbell as a symphony blared full volume from the radio. Or squeezing fresh orange juice while the taxi waited and the clock ticked. Or intently peeling and slicing a mango. With gloves on. Or shouting at the tennis players on TV. Or wearing his sunglasses flipped up, his bright floral bathing suit, his blue and red bathrobe. If I close my eyes I am flooded with images - memories of our family life. Dancing around the living room as kids listening to cumbia, sleeping in a couchette as we rattled across Europe, getting lost on our way to restaurants, and especially on our way home. Then as I got older, long dinners together, dancing at family weddings – which it took me half my life to learn to love, but which I finally did. Talking at the kitchen table. Sometimes arguing.
In the days since his death, these memories have become more and more vivid. But something I never expected has also happened – the memories of others have become present as though they are my own. Through emails and phone calls this past week I have had the pleasure of getting a glimpse of dad as a teacher, a mentor, a colleague, a researcher. And far from seeming foreign (as his life away from home, at work, often felt to me) the person these students and colleagues remember feels very much like my dad. Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised – but I am. And happy to find myself in the company of so many others upon whose lives he had such a profound impact. As kids we too experienced his enthusiastic, animated discussions about physics. We may have understood a little less well what he was driving at while sketching out a diagram on a paper napkin over lunch, but we felt his passion. We too felt his drive, his intense desire to attend to the complexities of the questions he might be considering. He was an interrogator of ideas – rigorous in his thinking process, and demanding that we be rigorous too. Most importantly, he listened, heard me out. And responded from a deeply respectful place. Dad’s capacity to pay attention allowed me to feel that what I thought, what I had to say, mattered and should be taken seriously.
I am so grateful to him for that and for his encouragement to figure out and then pursue my interests – it took me a while! But I got there. He wanted his children to feel the deep satisfaction he felt when he was engaged with his work. And I know I continue to strive for that. Dad could never resist trying to share what animated him and I could never resist drawing it out of him. Even in his very last days, when it was nearly impossible for him to speak, much less be understood, he felt an urgency to describe the visions he was having. He began to look past me just a little bit, into the air behind my head, smiling with his strong white teeth and raising his eyebrows just a little bit. “There are so many worlds within the world…” he said. And then, with an expression of awe, “it’s so complex…” he began to speak in a whisper about chaos and other less intelligible things and I said “dad, I don’t think I understand – do you think you could explain it to me?” And he said yes – I’ll try.
This willingness to try to share what may have been even beyond his own grasp is a beautiful, optimistic, generous, and loving quality that fills my heart when I think of dad today.