In August of 2010, three months after my father died, my mother brought me a plastic grocery bag full of my dead father’s socks. She said Dad was proud of the socks and would want me to have them. Apparently, he’d found them at Rural King for a good price and stocked up. They were thick socks, she said, the kind that were good for your feet. She thought I could use them.
I thanked her, made some vague remark about everyone’s needing socks, and toted the plastic bag upstairs, where, after square-knotting the handles closed, I dropped it onto the floor next to my dresser. The bag landed with a thud and settled in, its plastic skin stretched thin with dark green and blue sock balls.
That fall, the bag didn’t budge, and neither did the thermometer. For eight months in a row, temperatures in Indiana had soared above normal. No relief came from the sky either. The month of August had been the third driest on record, and September and October were little better. Drought gripped the state like a sphinx. Under duress, the sugar maples coughed up their brittle leaves early, and hot, dry gusts from the south swept them away to the north. Field crop fires flared up throughout the state, and open burn bans were declared in fifty-nine counties.
At the end of October, after a historic storm pounded the Midwest, producing nine tornadoes in Indiana alone, I drove forty minutes southeast across this scorched and broken landscape to the small town of North Vernon to pick up my father’s cinerary urn. As both a reader and a high school English teacher, I confess to finding comfort in the suffering of the Hoosier countryside, in its fallen limbs, its uprooted trees, its ossified topsoil. It appealed to my literary senses, flattered my vanity. Indiana had become my Denmark: ’Twas grievous hot, and I was sick at heart.
Of course, even literary fancy has its limitations, and no amount of intellectualizing the landscape was going to distract me from the fact that I was on my way to a two-bit funeral home in a Podunk town to pick up the eternal vessel of my father’s ashes, an atique coffee tin that I’d bought on eBay and dropped off way back in June when the daylilies were still in bloom. Now, here it was just a few days shy of Halloween, on the wrong side of a four-month drought, and everything green, including the daylilies, was a distant, shriveled memory. In short, it had taken these rustic alchemists five months to glue a bronze nameplate on an old can. In the meantime, my dad, or the six pounds of ash that remained of him, had languished in a bag in another funeral home on the other side of the state while his socks had languished in a bag on my floor.
The drought officially broke in late November, which brought cold rain and Thanksgiving. I bundled up my son and daughter and loaded them, along with their potty seat and my dad’s cinerary urn, into the family minivan. Then, with my six-month-pregnant wife in the seat beside me and Go, Diego, Go! on the DVD player behind me, I drove two hours north to my mom’s house in Lafayette to eat turkey and give thanks. My sister had been there for three days already, helping Mom get through her first Thanksgiving alone. After dinner, I sneaked outside with my brother and transferred my dad’s empty urn from my minivan to his SUV. He planned on picking up my dad’s remains from the funeral home the next week. Dad, it turned out, would be home for Christmas.
He might just as well have skipped it. I wished I had. Christmas at Mom’s felt like a visit to the ICU. The vital signs of Christmas had all been present—there was the tree and the garland and the ribbons and bows; there was fudge and pie and marshmallow créme fruit dip—but whatever Christmas spirit we still possessed had been on life support. Mom hadn’t even done the grocery shopping when we arrived. I had to improvise a grocery list and take my three-year-old son and two-year-old daughter shopping with me just so we’d have something to eat. Meanwhile, back at the house, my now-seven-month-pregnant wife had sat on the couch and graded bad papers on her laptop while my mom had taken a shower and tried to pull herself together. If Santa had signed a do-not-resuscitate order, I would have pulled the plug on the Christmas lights long before we’d ever gotten to presents.
Finally, in January, with the holidays happily behind me, I tried turning my attention back to my growing family instead of my shrinking one. In two short months, we were going to have a baby, and so far I’d barely acknowledged his existence, let alone prepared for his arrival. Thus, with time running short, I ventured into the basement storage room, where, beneath the detritus of my family, I attempted to divine the location of the crib. I finally found it underneath a mountain of useless Fisher Price plastic and hauled its several parts upstairs to the master bedroom, where, with considerable help from my other two children, I wrestled it together again. Then, over the next couple of weeks, I continued to mine the basement storage room for baby items, pulling out a baby swing here, a car seat there, and a lot of primary-colored toys in between.
Meanwhile, upstairs, my wife was busy nesting, as the baby books had assured us she would do—vacuuming the rugs, mopping the floors, scrubbing the sinks, and fussing at her other two nestlings not to undo all of her hard work. Eventually, her efforts took her into our bedroom, where, after she’d cleaned the floors and dusted the furniture, after she’d filled and organized the drawers in the baby’s hand-me-down dresser, she set her sights on the only thing left in the room that she hadn’t cleaned or straightened yet: the plastic bag full of my dead father’s socks.
By now, the bag had become part of the topography of the room, something to be stepped around. It was like an unplumb door that kept closing itself or a leaky faucet that needed turning just-so: an inconvenience I’d grown to live with, an imperfection I’d learned to overlook. Lying in bed at night, I no longer had to avoid looking at it; getting dressed in the morning, I no longer had to avoid bumping into it. For me, the bag had disappeared, become immaterial.
But, of course, the bag hadn’t gone anywhere. It still slumped next to the dresser like a bag of dirty laundry—possessing mass, looking tumorous, collecting dust. And my wife, whose father hadn’t died, whose mother hadn’t begun sleeping in the closet next to her dead husband’s clothes, still saw the bag and wondered very gently, when she found me in the basement, what I planned to do with it.
The winter before my dad got sick, A&E Networks began promoting a new television show called The Beast, starring Patrick Swayze as an undercover F.B.I. agent. I remember watching previews for The Beast and thinking that the only thing undercover about the show and its zealous promotion—and, then, hardly so—was the real source of its appeal: a morbid fascination with Swayze’s declining health. Since March of the previous year, when Swayze’s publicist had confirmed that the star was suffering from pancreatic cancer, people had been dying to catch a glimpse of the broken heartthrob. In late May 2008, for example, the appearance of a frail-looking Swayze at a Lakers game had the tabloids buzzing for months. Thus, that winter, if people were watching The Beast—and apparently plenty of viewers were—they were doing so only to track the progression of Swayze’s emaciation.
Indeed, a random sampling of The Beast’s early reviews reveals a barely restrained emphasis on Swayze’s stricken appearance. Mary McNamara of the Los Angeles Times, for example, describes Swayze’s face in the pilot as “worn craggy by age and his battle with pancreatic cancer.” Similarly, Nancy Franklin of The New Yorker zeroes in on the “cragginess” of Swayze’s face, noting that, in the pilot, it appears “craggier and more attractive than it was twenty years ago”—craggy, apparently, being television critic-speak for gaunt as hell. And while McNamara only mentions Swayze’s battle with pancreatic cancer, both Franklin and Ginia Bellafante of the New York Times make a point of describing the grueling nature of Swayze’s schedule during filming. It’s clear, in other words, that after Swayze’s diagnosis, the storyline of The Beast became secondary to the real drama unfolding on the screen: How long until our dying hero lays down his guns?
Because when the conflict of the story is pancreatic cancer, there can be only one ending. People don’t “beat” pancreatic cancer, as they’re said to do with other forms of cancer. With the pancreas, the game is rigged; the deck, stacked. Situated deep within the abdomen, sandwiched between the stomach and the spine, the pancreas is a silent killer. Early symptoms, such as back pain, nausea, and weight loss, are often vague and subtle enough to be confused or explained away, and by the time they do become pronounced enough to send someone limping to the doctor, it’s usually too late. In fact, only fifteen percent of pancreatic cancers are detected before they’ve actually spread—when the disease is still operable, in other words—and since resection is the only hope for long-term survivability, the prognosis of most patients is frightfully grim.
To illustrate how grim, imagine that you’ve just been told you have pancreatic cancer. On average, you can expect to live another six months. If the disease doesn’t kill you by then, you can be seventy-five-percent certain it’ll kill you before the end of the year. And even if by some miracle you make it through the calendar, I still wouldn’t make any long-term plans. According to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, “Pancreatic cancer is the only one of the top 10 cancer killers that still has a five-year survival rate in the single digits.” It’s seven percent, to be exact.
I had a better-than-average sense of what a beastly diagnosis pancreatic cancer was long before Patrick Swayze ever got sick. I couldn’t have quoted exact figures, but I knew it was a death sentence. I’d always made it my business to know the many ways I could die.
Even as a child, I suspected we were all just an errant stone’s throw away from a subdural hematoma. Consequently, I was afraid of everything—from dogs to Ferris wheels, from ticks to poison ivy, from sinkholes to background radiation. In little league baseball, I held my mitt in front of my face so the ball couldn’t hit me in the eye. I remember reading about testicular cancer in my seventh grade health book and, after a week’s agonizing about my phraseology, asking my dad if it was “normal for my testicles to feel lumpy.” In high school, convinced that I had Hodgkin’s disease, I palpated my lymph nodes so obsessively that my parents took me to the doctor just to get my hands off my neck. During my first year of college, a character on television remarked that flat fingernails were associated with coronary artery disease, so I spent the rest of the year fretting over how flat was too flat. A headache was never just a headache but an aneurysm. Gas pain was either appendicitis or ulcerative colitis. I monitored scratches for signs of necrotizing fasciitis.
Matters only got worse in medical school as I learned the names of ever more obscure and terrifying diseases. By the end of my first year—my only year—I had a compelling Rolodex of diseases that I could dial up for any occasion. Foot fall asleep? Could be Guillain-Barré. Otherwise, it’s probably multiple sclerosis. Unproductive cough? Must be Gilchrist’s disease.
In other words, I knew just enough to be dangerous. I wasn’t a doctor. I was a medical school dropout with a barely checked case of obsessive-compulsive disorder. But when my mom, in an e-mail dated September 8, 2009, less than one week before Patrick Swayze’s death, sent me a radiology report describing an obstruction at the head of my father’s pancreas, I knew something was rotten in the state of Denmark.
Every winter, I have the dubious pleasure of teaching Hamlet to a bunch of seventeen-year-olds. Besides the obvious problem of teaching a metaphor like “the morn in russet mantle clad walks o’er the dew of yon high eastern hill” to a generation of students committed to insights of fewer than 140 characters, I have the added problem of personally disliking Hamlet. I find him whiny. Dressed always in his inky cloak, his eyes forever downcast, the Sweet Prince seems to enjoy his weltschmerz too much. Of course, if Hamlet were just sixteen, as some critics have proposed, instead of thirty, as the play states, I might find his crisis of conscience more compelling, but there are too many problems with this theory to make it convincing. Thus, what I’m left with is a grown man who can’t make his own decisions, an adult son who can’t get past his issues with his parents, and I’m afraid that this Hamlet wearies me. I’ve heard his story before.
In my childhood bedroom, on the wall above my desk, hung a framed poster of a sprawling seaside estate. The poster featured an oversized house sitting atop a palm-treed bluff. Behind the house lay the sun-streaked ocean. At the bottom, in a detached garage, five foreign sports cars were nestled all snug in their bays, while at the top, the words “Justification for Higher Education” were emblazoned against a perfect sunset.
I don’t know when it was decided that I was going to be a doctor, but I remember as early as fourth grade memorizing the flow of blood through the pulmonary circulatory system. My parents never forced me to do this, of course, but they also never tired of telling everyone that their little boy was going to be a doctor someday. Around my house, doctors were revered. Doctors were smart. Doctors were successful. Doctors were socially productive. In short, doctors were everything that my dad, as a wage-earning postal worker, felt as though he wasn’t.
The narrative of my dad’s life—the narrative that I was told, the narrative that my dad bought into—was one of missed opportunities and failed potential. My grandparents blamed my mom; my mom blamed them; and my dad blamed himself. Regardless, everyone agreed that Dad was a failure, that he could’ve been more. He could build a barn, take apart an engine, answer all of Alex Trebek’s questions, but he punched a time clock for a living. How sad, the story went. What a waste.
But I was supposed to be a different story. For me, there was still hope. In school, I demonstrated the same natural aptitude as Dad had, but the end of my story was going to be different because I was going to have “drive.” Drive was a big word around my house. According to my parents, my dad lacked it, but I was going to have it, and, by having it, I was going to get where I needed to go.
On a fall day in 1998, my parents thought that I’d arrived at that place. After work, in their mailbox, they discovered a weighty manila envelope from the Office of Admissions at the Indiana University School of Medicine. The envelope was too thick, too substantial, to be a rejection letter. Those came in letter-sized envelopes and lacked mass. They were apt to float away on the breeze like the dreams they poked holes in. Not this. This had weight, was a package really. It wasn’t floating away anywhere. My parents held the hefty envelope in their hands and felt the post-climactic satisfaction of a success story sliding gently toward happily ever after.
The next scene is the one that gets me. It’s the one where my parents, excited by the news, thinking I’ll be just as delighted as they are, rush through their dinner so they can hand-deliver the good news to me forty-five minutes away at college. I imagine their conversation, how proud they are, how good they feel about life. We’ve done a good job, they say. Our little boy is all grown up, almost a doctor. My dad thinks about what my face will look like when he hands me the envelope. For the moment, he doesn’t feel the burden of a failed life. He wipes his mouth, finishing his meal without ever tasting his food.
The same week that I picked up my dad’s cinerary urn, Nature published a study suggesting that pancreatic tumors, long thought to be one of the most aggressive cancers, actually take decades to kill. According to the study, researchers at the Sanger Institute and Johns Hopkins University mapped the genomes of primary and secondary tumors taken from seven pancreatic cancer patients. In doing so, they were able to reconstruct the evolutionary history of mutations in these patients’ cancers. Since DNA mutates at a predictable rate, they were also able to determine how long these patients’ tumors had been growing. To their surprise, they found that it takes, on average, fifteen years for a cell within the original tumor to evolve the ability to metastasize and another six years for the disease to kill. In other words, people who die of pancreatic cancer have been growing their tumors for an average of twenty-one years.
Twenty-one years is a long time. That means I was eleven when Dad started growing the tumor that would kill him. At eleven, I hadn’t even gone through puberty yet. I was in sixth grade, and my biggest daily fear was having my woefully inadequate penis exposed during PE class. And when I wasn’t busy hiding my hairlessness in the boys’ locker room, I was constructing frontier dioramas in social studies or reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe in English. In science, we were dissecting earthworms, but the only thing we could concentrate on in there was Mrs. Irwin, who was rumored to have been an exotic dancer before she became a teacher. I forget what we were learning in math, but Miss Carlson, who was young and pretty and drove a Corvette, thought that I was cute. She said so one day when I was at the board working a fractions problem.
At home, I played army with my friends in the woods near our neighborhood. We killed Viet Cong and tried out words like gook and fuck. When we weren’t playing army, we were playing sports. I was a devotee of ESPN. I knew who was leading the National League in on-base percentage. I had opinions on what player should win the Heisman Trophy. If there were rule changes under discussion, I understood the pros and cons of the proposals, as well as the players’ and owners’ positions on them.
On the other hand, my dad knew next to nothing about sports. He read National Geographic instead of Sports Illustrated, like my friends’ dads, and he didn’t follow a single team in any sport. He claimed to like the Chicago Bears, but he never watched their games. Instead, he worked outside on the yard or inside on the house, and when he wasn’t engaged in home maintenance, he was upstairs sleeping. He worked nights, and I had to be quiet when I came home from school in the afternoons. He had a fan as big as a desk that he propped up on my mom’s vanity and used to filter out the noise. Around six, we would eat dinner as a family, and then, a few hours later, Mom would kiss Dad goodbye, and he would trudge off to work until morning. He wore a leather bomber jacket and an Indiana Jones hat.
Twenty-one years is a long time. It makes everything that happened feel hopelessly fated. It means that Dad started growing the tumor that would kill him when I was in sixth grade. It means that this tumor was thriving by the time I graduated from high school. It means that when Dad found me in the college library and handed me my acceptance letter to medical school, his tumor was evolving the ability to spread, and by the time I handed him my newborn son eight years later, it already had. It means that when my wife became pregnant one year later, these secondary tumors were in a race with my daughter to see who could grow faster.
Dad’s cancer ran away with the victory. During an attempted resection, Dad’s surgeon discovered two tumors in his liver and aborted the procedure. Dad started chemotherapy two weeks later, exactly one week before my daughter’s first birthday. At her party, he had to excuse himself during presents to go upstairs and cry. By the time she turned two, he’d been dead for five months.
In the final scene of Hamlet, Hamlet, finally reconciled to his fate, declares that there’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow: “If it be now,” he says, “’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all.”
Considerations of fate and free will are an inevitable part of my days as an English teacher. Stories, after all, are an attempt by people to make sense of a senseless universe, to impose order on a disordered world. “Life,” writes John Gardner in On Moral Fiction, “is all conjunctions, one damn thing after another, cows and wars and chewing gum and mountains; art—the best, most important art—is all subordination: guilt because of sin because of pain.” At root, we’re all Heracliteans: we want to believe that good things happen to good people by virtue of their being good and that bad things happen to bad people by virtue of their being bad.
The problem, of course, is that we have the same narrative expectations of real life. Even now, when everything from God to the author is dead, when modern physics tells us that randomness is woven into the fabric of the universe, when neuroscientists can explain morality in material terms, when a few thousand dollars will get your personal genome mapped, we still look for meaning in the warp and woof of our lives. We desperately want to believe that our lives matter, that our stories cohere. This kind of fallacious thinking is fine so long as our lives are floating along in Panglossian fashion. It’s when our pleasure cruises run aground that we discover that our worldview is full of holes.
For me, the discovery wasn’t immediate. Years of reading fiction had so conditioned me to look for narrative logic in our lives that my faith in a character-driven explanation of human fortune proved shamefully buoyant. When I found out that my dad had pancreatic cancer, I blamed him. Of course he does, I thought. If there were a more choleric man than my father, I hadn’t met him. He once threw a chair from the garage into the road because something went wrong while he was refinishing it. He was an Old Testament God—fiery and judgmental—and I had spent most of my childhood trying not to incur his wrath. Suddenly, everything—the grumpiness, the irascibility, the mood swings—made sense. My dad had been suffering from an excess of choler his whole life. No wonder his pancreas had quit on him; it had been drowning in bile for half a century.
According to Daniel Kahneman, this kind of flawed reasoning—looking for narrative logic in the roulette wheel of life—is hardwired even into the way that we record memories. In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman explains how we don’t remember the total amount of pleasure or pain that we received from our experiences. Instead, we remember the highs and lows, and the ending, as with a story, disproportionately affects the memories of our experiences. Kahneman calls these two cognitive biases duration neglect and the peak-end rule, and he describes how they can lead people to prefer longer colonoscopies and shorter lives. They are also the reason that we believe that whole experiences, such as marriages and lives, can be ruined by a bad ending. Divorce casts a shadow on even a couple’s fondest memories, and a fatal car accident makes an entire life seem doomed.
Kahneman describes this retrospective feature of memory as “the tyranny of the remembering self” because it makes us slaves to the rules of narrative. Under the remembering self’s reign, no experience is safe from Chekhov’s gun. Every memory must be sacrificed to the evolving narrative of our lives.
In the top drawer of my desk, for example, I have a photograph of Dad taken when he was in fifth or sixth grade, the same age I was when, according to the Nature study, Dad started growing his original tumor. My aunt sent me the photograph about a year after my dad died when she discovered it in a shoebox of my grandparents’ old things. In the photograph, my dad is in uniform—a garrison cap perched on a golden head of hair, a Sam Browne belt strapped across a Jack Spratt chest, and a furled flag clamped in the crook of a sinewy arm. On the back in her careful script, my grandmother has identified Dad as a volunteer in the Highland Grade School Junior Safety Patrol.
Objectively, there’s nothing mournful or star-crossed about the photograph. It’s just a picture of a little boy mugging dutifully for the camera. But when I look at it, I see the full arc of my dad’s tragedy—from the little boy trying to make his parents proud to the grown man being cannibalized by feelings of self-doubt and anger. Already, his shoulders look a little too slumped, his smile a bit too strained. The life has gone out of his eyes, as though he’s lost all of his mirth, had his world grow dim with the pale cast of thought. Even the way he’s holding the flag looks uncertain. I suspect he would’ve surrendered it to the first curious passerby.
Of course, when my aunt found the photograph and sent it to me, she saw none of these things. Instead, in her letter, she marked this as the proud beginning to Dad’s military career. She saw a little boy who wanted to serve his country, a big brother who wanted to be like his dad.
I can’t dispute the factual accuracy of my aunt’s vision. My dad did serve in the Navy during Vietnam, exactly as my grandfather had done during World War II. But I reject the idea that my dad had a military career. The word career makes this chapter in my dad’s life sound too volitional, as if going to Vietnam had been a choice. Instead, what my dad had was conscription. Drafted in 1968, he joined the Navy to avoid tramping through the jungles of Vietnam. His only choice had been to increase the likelihood that he would live to see his twenties. It had nothing to do with patriotism or filiopiety. It was pragmatism, plain and simple. Four years later, grateful still to be alive, discharge papers in hand, he used the GI bill to enroll in college. Twenty-five years after that, the State of Indiana issued him a license plate for his troubles.
If there are thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird, how many more of a man? My version of my dad may be no more or less accurate than my aunt’s version. But I don’t believe that all truth is subjective. Light may be a wave or a particle depending on how you design your experiment, but the truth is that it’s both … and neither. Any failure to understand light results from the obscurities of language and perception and not from any lack of clarity on the part of light itself. Light owes us nothing—no explanation, no reason, no provenance. It’s our burden to answer the questions that we pose, and if we fail to ask the right questions, if the answers we find fail to square with our understanding of the world, the failure is entirely our own.
When I learned that my dad was dying, I felt this burden directly. I knew how my dad rolled his sleeves, how he liked his eggs, and how he signed his name, but in the most essential ways—who he was when he lay awake at night, what he wanted when he awoke in the morning—my dad remained a stranger to me. I had no idea, for instance, what the eleven-year-old boy in the photograph had really been thinking when the photographer had asked him to cheese for the camera. Similarly, I couldn’t have told you what my dad’s dreams had been as a teenage seaman adrift in the South Pacific or how he’d felt as a twenty-seven-year-old college student surrounded by underage frat boys who’d heard of Vietnam only on the news. In fact, apart from the most impersonal names, dates, and places, my dad’s life—who he was and who he’d been—was a black box. I knew a little about the inputs, a bit more about the outputs, but what went on inside—his thoughts, feelings, fears, and desires—remained hidden from view.
And I couldn’t ask, either, because my dad and I didn’t talk. Occasionally, we talked at each other or to each other, but we never talked with each other. My whole life, no matter how many times I’d asked, I’d gotten variations on the same answer to how my dad’s day had been. “Great,” he’d say, “Never had it so damn good.” Then, depending on the flavor of that day’s negativity—truly dark and imbued with self-loathing or just cynical and laced with self-deprecation—he’d say nothing more, or he’d go on to explain how he’d cured a couple of diseases, written a few operas, or tied up the many loose ends of string theory.
Growing up, I assumed that my dad and I would eventually learn to talk. I imagined we were like two brothers growing up on opposite sides of a generational Mason-Dixon Line. Someday, we would remember that, despite our differences, despite our embattled past, we shared a language and a history in common. The same blood coursed through our bodies, the same genes scripted our days. As soon as we recognized this, we would let down our guards and be ourselves.
It never happened. I graduated college, earned a master’s degree, found a job, married a woman, and fathered a son, and none of it made a difference. My dad and I still didn’t talk. Gradually, our conversations began to feel like contortion acts wherein the trick was to stretch the limits of appearance to avoid discussing anything of substance. Eventually, we just quit trying and fell silent. There is, after all, only so much a guy can say about the chance of rain or the price of gas.
And then my dad got sick, and I realized that we were out of time. In less than a year, my dad would be dead, and so too would be everything he ever thought or felt. All of his hopes and dreams, fears and sorrows, would die with him, and I would be stuck holding an empty black box in my memory, my mind bloody and raw from trying to pry it open.
So I started writing letters. Every morning, in the frigid predawn dark, I left my sleeping wife in our warm bed and tiptoed down two creaky flights of stairs to the even colder basement. My footfalls sounded loud and clumsy in the fragile quiet of a sleeping house, and with every step, I expected a sleepy “Daddy?” to puncture the silence. When my children did stir, which was often, I would creep into their bedrooms, smooth their hair, tell them it was okay, everything was fine, it was just Daddy, but it was still too dark and too early to get up, so they needed to go back to sleep and Daddy would wake them when it was morning. Then, in the basement, I would sit at my desk in the darkness and contemplate the lies I’d just told them.
I wrote my letters in longhand on yellow legal paper. The grief experts, of course, would say that I was trying to complete my relationship with my father, and I guess that I was, but I also just wanted to talk. Before he died, I wanted to have one true conversation with my dad. One conversation that wasn’t superficial or one-sided.
That conversation never happened. Before he died, I wrote over four hundred pages’ worth of letters, nearly one a day for seven months, and I never received a single letter in response, not one word. My mom and sister, of course, assured me that Dad carried on about my letters—rushed out to the mailbox to get them, shared his favorite parts with them, saved them in a special folder—but to me he hardly mentioned them. And they certainly never provided me with the privileged glimpse inside my dad’s head for which I was looking.
In other ways, however, dying laid my dad bare for me. Before he died, I had the privilege of listening to his crying in the middle of the night, of holding him during a seizure, and of lifting him off a toilet in the emergency room. I also got a chance to clean his bile off the bathroom floor, help Mom sponge him clean in the shower, watch nurses shave his chest and belly, ride with him in an ambulance, hold him suspended over a bedside commode, push him in a wheelchair, listen to his vomiting while I tried to sleep, and sit with him in a wheat-colored room as a machine pumped poison through a catheter in his chest. Then, at the end, I had the opportunity to witness his dying gasps, and, afterward, I got to help Mom dress his cold body for its ride to the crematorium.
What, I wonder now, would a letter have given me that such physical intimacy didn’t? Would it have answered all of my questions, translated my dad into a language I understood? Would it have exposed, like a photographic negative, the parts of my dad that were hidden in shadow?
I doubt it. My dad didn’t talk about his life because he didn’t want to. Dying wasn’t going to change that. No matter how many pledge drives PBS has, Dr. Wayne Dyer won’t convince me that people possess the power to change. Like migratory birds, we’re fixed in flight patterns too ancient and too powerful to resist. My dad wasn’t suddenly going to open up just because I’d written him a few letters. Any letter he might have written would have been stiff and collared like the cotton button-downs he kept pressed for work.
Besides, it’s just as well that he didn’t. Doing so might have deprived me of my script, and my script, as Daniel Kahneman says, is how I make sense of my life. “This is how the remembering self works,” he writes, “it composes stories and keeps them for future reference.” Even better, Kahneman continues, if the script is a flattering one, with a sympathetic lead: “Most important, we all care intensely for the narrative of our own life and very much want it to be a good story, with a decent hero.” If my dad had opened up, if he’d responded to each of my letters with one of his own, I might not be able to cast him in the role of the distant father, and, by extension, I might not get to play the role of the wounded son. I might be forced to revise my script, and, like Hamlet, who is admonished by his mother for seeking his father in the dust, I’ve grown rather fond of seeking my own.
In her next breath, after reminding Hamlet of the banality of death—“Thou know’st ’tis common; all that live must die, passing through nature to eternity”—Gertrude asks Hamlet why his father’s death weighs so heavily on him: “Why seems it so particular with thee?”
“Seems, madam!” Hamlet replies. “Nay, it is; I know not ‘seems.’”
Five years on and still stalking the memory of my own father’s death, I sympathize with Hamlet’s grief. It may be, as Claudius says, “unmanly” and “unschool’d” to “persever in obstinate condolement,” but it’s also gratifying. To imagine yourself as wronged, aggrieved, a good man pitted against a hostile universe—“O cursed spite, that ever I was born to set it right”—is to dramatize one’s experience. It is to write and to star in your own tragedy.
Although I’ve stopped short of the inky cloak, I still humor my tragic impulse. I see doom in old photographs of my dad, read ruin into childhood memories. I write essays in which I soliloquize about his death.
And yet, I’m no hero and my dad’s death was no tragedy. I’m just a son who lost his dad, and my dad was just a man who lost his life. No story could be more natural, no fate more certain. Death is banal—as common as dust, as worthless as fame. Even Hamlet, by the end of the play, recognizes this.
“To what base uses we may return,” Hamlet says to Horatio after setting down Yorick’s skull in the graveyard scene. “Why may not imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander, till he find it stopping a bung-hole?”
“’Twere to consider too curiously,” Horatio replies, “to consider so.”
Curious, maybe, but hardly a stretch. We’re all bungs in waiting. This is what Hamlet learns from his father’s death. This is what makes his final resolution possible.
Two millennia haven’t slid past since my dad’s death, so he’s not yet stopping any beer barrels. For the moment, his ashes still linger on my mom’s living room bookshelf alongside Alistair Cooke’s America, John Grisham’s The Firm, and my childhood copy of Bible Stories for Children. On another bookshelf, the weathered coffee tin in which my dad’s ashes bide their time might look out of place, but on my mom’s bookshelf, cluttered with photographs of her grandchildren, porcelain bears from Hallmark, and random ornaments from our family tree, my dad’s ashes look right at home, content for now to collect their own dust until given the opportunity to return to it.
In the meantime, the earth has continued to chase its tail around the sun, so while my dad’s ashes haven’t left her bookshelf, my mom has left her closet. She now sleeps in her bed instead of on the floor next to my dad’s clothes, and though she’s never said so directly, I understand that she doesn’t always sleep alone. In fact, at some point, she must have discovered her dancing shoes in the bottom of her closet because lately she’s strapped them on. She now goes to parties and concerts, relaxes on cruises and campouts. Every Tuesday, she meets a group of friends at the bar, and they listen to live music until last call. Last year, as I was getting ready for bed, she called from a Super Bowl party to ask if I was watching the game, and this year I had to mask my ignorance when she asked about the Chicago Cubs making the National League Championship Series.
Naturally, I prefer my mom’s rubbing elbows with real people to my dad’s mothballed shirts, but the Chicago Cubs? Three years ago, I could’ve told my mom that Wrigley Field was the site of a famous Civil War battle, and she would’ve believed me. Now she’s at the pub watching the Cubs get clobbered by the Mets.
Of course, my mom isn’t the only one who has been transformed by five years’ advance. Those same little kids whom I wheeled around Wal-Mart on Christmas Eve no longer ride in the grocery cart when I take them to the store. Now, my little boy, suddenly all tendons and teeth, prefers to push the cart himself, and my once-toddling daughter glides along behind in the lithe-limbed body of a gymnast. Similarly, the baby brother whose crib they once helped wrestle together has grown into a four-year-old Viking, so I grip his hand to prevent his charging down the aisle like an angry muskox. My wife, meanwhile, still grades bad papers on the couch, but never again will her laptop have to compete with a growing baby for space on her lap. After three children, she’s decided that she’s cleaned enough cold macaroni off the floor to last a lifetime.
In short, life didn’t stop when my dad died. The sun rose the next day, Apple released an iPhone the next month, and my youngest son was born the next year. Now, two thousand sunrises later, Apple has released several iPhones, and my youngest son has learned to read. High-rise jeans have also mounted a comeback, the Fukushima power plant has melted down, and ten million Syrians have fled their homes. Even North America has scooted half a foot away from Europe.
My dad, however, has stayed dead, just dead, for only in death do we find the assurance of constancy that we seek in life. In life, nothing is guaranteed—not our jobs, not our possessions, certainly not our bodies. Stock markets crash, tires go flat, arteries get plaque. Not so in death. In death, we know what tomorrow will look like. There’s no uncertainty in nonexistence. The dead are just gone. Their gibes, their gambols, their flashes of merriment—all of it, everything, gone.
My dad’s socks are gone now, too. After my wife found me in the basement and asked me what I wanted to do with them, I lugged them out to the van and loaded them into the back. They were still in the plastic bag my mom had brought me. I’d never opened it. Back inside, I told my wife to drop them at Goodwill next time she was out. Then I returned to the basement where I continued to resurrect baby items from the storage room.
About every six months, my mom will bring me something else of my dad—a tin cloth packer hat from Filson, a pair of wool mittens, two childhood pocket Bibles, an old bamboo fly rod, some back issues of National Geographic. I no longer fret, however, about what I’m going to do with the stuff that she brings me. I keep what I want and either throw or give the rest away. I recognize these semiannual deliveries for what they are—acts of remembrance, expressions of devotion. As soon as my mom starts to forget my dad, as soon as she senses his memory slipping out of reach, she brings me another of his coats. Never mind that the coat is two sizes too big for me or that I never wore the last one she brought; it was never about the coats anyway.
By the end of Hamlet, Hamlet’s father has all but disappeared from the play. In fact, in the final act, Hamlet only references his father twice and then indirectly. Of course, we assume that his father’s death is primary in his mind as he reflects in the graveyard on the skull of Yorick—“Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft”—but any direct mention of his father is notably absent. The dead, Hamlet’s silence seems to be saying, have no existence beyond what we give them, and even that, we’re made to understand, is illusory.
As a toddler, my daughter became convinced that life was cyclical, that mommies and daddies just switched places with their children when their lives were over. She would be sitting on my wife’s lap, brushing her dolly’s hair, getting her own hair brushed, when, almost wistfully, she would say, “Mommy, someday I will get to be the mommy, and you will get to be the little girl.” And my wife, the weight of one child on her lap, the fluttering of another in her belly, would close her eyes a moment, letting the possibility breathe, before saying, “Oh, honey, I would love for you to be my mommy, but that’s not the way nature designed it. You get to have your own babies, brand new special people whom you help to create.” But my daughter, who wanted only for her mommy to be her little girl, didn’t find this explanation compelling, so she persisted in her original belief: mommies had babies, who then had their mommies, who again had their babies—round and round the generations go.
There’s method, of course, in my daughter’s madness. We all desire a simple and compelling story to salve our fears about the uncertainties of existence. At two, my daughter already intuited the precarious nature of our lives. Without her consent, she’d been thrust into a strange and unpredictable world where, utterly helpless, she quickly learned to trust us to satisfy her needs. As the only certainties in her world, her only defenses against a dangerous disorder, we naturally became the prime movers in her personal cosmology. “You build the best possible story from the information available to you,” writes Daniel Kahneman, “and if it is a good story, you believe it.”
Fortunately, nature didn’t leave a two-year-old in charge of design and development. We moms and dads, as Philip Larkin laments, muck up our children plenty well already. The last thing we need is for the generations to keep repeating themselves, for the child to become the literal father of the man. Think how much extra baggage we would schlepp into our relationships, how many added burdens we would load onto our loving. Our children need to come into our lives unencumbered by their own past so that they can inherit the weight of ours.
Including the dusty coffee tin I bought on eBay, my dad’s ashes weigh six and a half pounds. The bag of his old socks weighed nearly five. Even together, both of these were burdens that I could bear. What I falter under is the weight of the unknown, the incalculable mass of my dad’s unhappiness, the unspecific gravity of his disappointment. This isn’t a burden that I can stick on a bookshelf next to a ceramic dancing bear or dump on my wife to haul to Goodwill. It’s a bequest with a life of its own, a heavy-jawed beast that stalks my thoughts and preys on my memories. If I ever get a bead on it, I aim to put it down.
from Issue 29.1, winner of the Wabash Prize in Nonfiction
B. G. GAYLORD grew up in Lafayette, Indiana, just across the Wabash from Purdue University. He now lives in Columbus, Indiana, with his wife and three children.