For JackJune 19, 2016
There are things that I try to remember; things that elude me. They squirt through my mind like drops of mercury; they haunt the corners of my peripheral innervision, nagging yet reticent. I can remember the old houses, the sharp smells of wet dog and wool, the crunch of snow and the tender nap of flannel pajamas, but names and places and circumstances are much harder to recall.
Yet I persist. I close my eyes and try not to grab hold of the first easy, saving word. I try to dissolve the code, to reach back to the faint colors stirring deep in my muddy-bottomed brain. It’s all in there, the doctors say, everything we’ve seen and felt, every sound, everything noticed and unnoticed, all the clues.
They say we can retrieve the pertinent facts and feelings, that we can talk ourselves clear of the tangling rubble of the past and be free. They say that it is good to do this, to escape the gravitational pull of the past, to establish ourselves as beings independent of the hurt and damage our parents (however inadvertently) inflicted upon us. Remember Philip Larkin’s lines? They fuck you up, your mom and dad They may not mean to, but they do They fill you with the faults they had And add some extra, just for you
I doubt I would know of Philip Larkin had it not been for my father, who read him and in whose books I first found those lines. In retrospect it seems strange that my father should have had such a book–the only poet I can remember him ever mentioning was Kipling, the only lines I ever heard him quote were from Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade.”
I close my eyes and I can hear him, softly reciting, “Half a league, half a league, half a league onward . . . .”
He learned the poem at Belmont Abbey, the North Carolina prep school he attended on scholarship. He was a poor boy, more accurately a poor relation, but he could run and throw. He never knew his own father, or his brother’s father. He played on the same American Legion baseball team as Jimmy Hall, who set a rookie record for home runs when he came up with the Minnesota Twins in 1963. He was a shortstop most of his life–he was a soldier, an intelligence officer, an altar boy. I remember his rough hands and the way the stubble on his chin scratched me when he hugged me. I remember the way he could snap a baseball through bright air, how he could make the ball seem a humming, vibrating, living thing.
I remember the blue haze of his cigarette smoke. I can remember the wartime absences and the gray and yellow-striped queerness of early morning tarmacs, the earth-rattling roar of B-52s and the emptied belly of a C-135. I remember the old Thunderbird he had for a while, and the blue suit I “borrowed” from him while I was in high school. Details swarm together and for an instant form a picture; just as quickly they float away like ashes.
There are tangibles—I have his baseball glove. In my mother’s house there is a drawer full of military ribbons, old watches, Zippo lighters, all the paraphernalia of a certain kind of masculine existence. I am in possession of the facts, I could make the dates fit together, I can recall specific moments, days. There are photographs. There is evidence, documentation–no one goes through the world without leaving a mark.
I am, for better or worse, my father’s mark. I am, I suppose, more of the part of him that read Larkin than gripped wrenches and baseballs, but the older I grow the more I remind myself of him. I am now not much younger than he was when he died, and I think that men whose fathers die young acquire a certain fatalism. I look like his photos, I imagine that I feel some of the same things that he must have felt.
It is difficult to know how much we attribute to our fathers, how much to our mothers, how much to the crowd we happened to have fallen in with, how much to the blood and how much to the secret small voices within each of us. We are tricky and complex and not easily reducible to component parts.
Here I am, near the end of this bloodiest century, and I am missing a man I have not seen for 16 years. Even now I dream of my father and wake in quiet sorrow that he is not here. Sometimes I think I should not be surprised to pick up the phone and hear his voice. Sometimes I think I expect that.
Perhaps a personal past is nothing more than a myth, an assumptive narrative we create for ourselves to give our unruly lives a sense of order and purpose. Our stories are the way we justify ourselves to the world, the way we justify ourselves to ourselves.
When I say I remember my father I wonder if I am not ascribing to him qualities he would not claim for himself. Would he think of himself as a kind man, a quiet man, a strong man? I must admit that I am not sure–my father was not one to talk much about himself, much less about how he viewed himself. If he constructed a private biography for himself, he kept it private.
I do not remember my father talking much, though I hear his voice–his inflections, his hesitancy, a little vocal catch that signals his groping for the right word–in my own. I have made his mispronunciations my own, I have assimilated his gestures and, they tell me, his smile.
Near the end, my father told some stories. Stories about growing up in Asheville, about his single professional boxing match, about a cobra and a Jeep in the jungles of Thailand: These stories were offered more as anecdotes than as answers, as scraps of information from which we might patch together a kind of comfort, a quilt to wrap us in. They weren’t meant to explain; at the time there seemed nothing to explain other than the large mystery of why people are born to die and why dying sometimes had to hurt so much.
I think in a way I was glad for him when he finally gave out, when the suffering was over. But maybe it wasn’t like that, maybe I was more selfish than that, maybe I was tired of the hospital smell and the waiting. Maybe I was not as good a son as I might have been.
This is hard for me to think about, to think that I might have wished him dead for selfish reasons. I know that I could not help it, that awful thoughts breeze through the minds of saints. But I think about it and I wonder if I let him down.
It would not have been the first time, though we never had the break that some sons and fathers have. I loved him and he loved me and things were never so difficult that we couldn’t talk.
I think we could be friends today, that he would like me and the life I’ve made. I think he would be OK with how things turned out. And oh, I miss him sometimes, but I’m not sad when I remember him, and in the end I suppose that is all that we can hope.