Fathers



This will be a page where I add a story I am currently working on about Fathers.  No, it's not nearly as good as Raymond Carver's piece, "My Father's Life," but I feel the need to take a stab at it.


I


The ever-annoying and villainous Claudius, from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, berates his nephew for an excessive period spent mourning the loss of his father.  In the first scene in which Prince Hamlet is introduced, Claudius tries to move him out of loss for several reasons.  He says:


‘Tis sweet and commendable in your nature, Hamlet,
To give these mourning duties to your father;
But, you must know, your father lost a father,
That father lost, lost his, and the survivor bound
In filial obligation for some term
To do obsequious sorrow: but to persever
In obstinate condolement is a course
Of impious stubbornness; ‘tis unmanly grief.  (I.ii.736)


There is no dramatic irony, yet, for the first-time viewer or reader of the play.  There is some truth, too, in Claudius’s utterance.  One must learn how to grieve the loss of a father and move on with life.


In the past year and a half, I have lost two fathers.  First, I lost my stepfather in September of 2013.  John had been a part of my life for only 13 or 14 years, but his loss struck me to the core.  His suffering, the pain involved in his various treatments for Myelodysplastic Syndrome, his visible exhaustion and frequent hospital treatments were difficult to witness.  This was especially true because John was there, bedside, for some of my mother’s most difficult moments during her bout with Guillain-Barré syndrome.  Twice resuscitated when her autonomic nervous system was shutting down, John had stood by her, only to be fully admitted to Mass General a year and a half later.


In August of 2013, I studied the shifting pattern of sun and clouds over the Charles River from John’s room in Mass General.  At dusk, the Citgo sign would light up, and during a couple of evenings there was a purple glow emanating from the light banks surrounding Fenway.  Surely, all kinds of members of the Red Sox nation were having a grand time with a bearded team headed for a World Series John would never witness.  Duck boats ferried visitors through the Basin for a view of Back Bay, and Routes 3 and 93 never ceased.  On the morning I helped a nurse roll him over for a bath, I became acutely aware of his feverish pain.


When he needed his rest, Mom and I would walk.  One afternoon, we wandered around the Storrow Lagoon, inspecting the sailboats and the Hatch Shell.  I plied her for information about nights during the 1960s spent going to the dinner clubs and restaurants of Boston.  We hadn’t lived too far away, and my father’s parents had lived on Charles Street.  Walking by their building on the way to the Common, I asked as many questions as I could before she became exasperated.  It seemed to be a good distraction, and there are many, many stories buried in those streets that I will never know.


On a visit to the Isabella Stewart Gardner, I admired the new architecture while my mother described the renovation project, and in the older portion of the museum we discussed the infamous Vermeer-Rembrandt theft of 1990.  It was hot that afternoon, and John had had a particularly bad night.  It was obvious that she was exhausted and had not been sleeping.  That afternoon, she had kept worrying that we were on the wrong Green Line train, even though I kept assuring her that the Heath-line was right.  There was a panicked edge, and I knew she would not last.  Somehow, in the midst of it all, she would remark on a new park or the renovation of a building I had never seen before, “Isn’t it just wonderful.  They’ve done such great things in Boston these last years.”


I concurred.  Never had it looked as painfully beautiful before.  Never had it seemed like I was even connected to the city.  I had never studied or been employed there, though my family seemed to haunt every corner.  We didn’t talk much about John’s illness or his prospects, though I did once ask, “Mom, is John dying?”  It had felt like a horrible question to ask.  I much prefered sitting on the benches out behind the MFA watching pink evening clouds build into thunderheads above the lush trees.  Everything seemed green and hot and lush.  Even the grounds outside the hospital.


In a way, that was my first wave of saying goodbye to John.  Mom and I developed routine breaks, drinking tea and coffee in the cafeteria area of the always under construction courtyard.  I even learned the elevator system and how if you rode up the wrong bank, you could end up in an entirely different high rise.  John moved rooms twice while I was there.  Doctors shrugged their shoulders and sighed.  Nurses either needed space or asked for help.  Very little happened, and it was the quiet that let me know.


II


For lack of a better way of framing it, I’ll share words I spoke at John’s funeral next.  They summarize how it is that this man meant a lot to me, the way that he could be a father despite his late arrival.


Hello, for those of you who don’t know me, I’m John’s stepson.  There are many, many other people who could speak for John, and obviously John was important to a great many people.  My relationship with John was a little different.  For one, neither one of us had any say in the matter.  We were thrown together, and  I don’t know the details of much before 1999, except for the John who existed in stories; stories from my own family, long before I stepped aboard one of John’s boats; and stories from John, who, most of the time, loved to tell them.


These stories helped me fill in gaps, reconstruct some semblance of the confluence of rivers that makes me, me.  I hadn’t even realized that I needed those stories until they began unfolding, just as much as I hadn’t realized that John would come to fill another important role for me, one that I also hadn’t yet realized that I needed.  For lack of a better phrase, John filled the “guy role” in my life, we did “guy stuff” that involved splinters and motors and grease and oil.  He once told me that he was envious of guys who committed early on to just keep their heads low and work in a boat yard, guys like Foy Brown on North Haven, or the crew over to Marshall Marine, always mucking around in boats.


I hadn’t known that I’d needed this role, a jump start as it were, until somewhere around the fall of 2000, when I had just moved to North Haven island, and I put in a cry for help to John.  I required firewood for the drafty house that I was to be living in that winter, and John had just the solution.  I could help clear and clean up the debris piles and stacked cord wood hanging around my mother’s property in York, ME in exchange for a couple cord of my own.  I could see him perk up in the drive as I arrived in a beater, 1980s F150 to complete the job.  


“Is that your truck?” he said, with slight hint of jealousy.  


“No,” I said, “I borrowed it.”  


He was relieved.  I didn’t have one up on him.  We were on common ground, both envious of the mismatched Bondo, the rust and dents.  It was a tough truck and we overstuffed it with fireplace length half and quarter rounds of birch and oak, knocking off the clinging leaves and earth while he told me about his firewood business in the 1970s.  Driving back up 95 to Rockland and the North Haven ferry, it felt good to have 2 cord of wood strapped in tight under a tarp.  Well, I said it was 2 cord, but John had set his jaw askew and squinted, breathing out a mumbling count, saying, “Mmm, well, I think maybe that’s a cord and a half, on a good day.”


Riding the ferry back to the island, lobstermen neighbors who had previously watched me skeptically from afar came over to the truck, one by one, to take a peak.  “Where’d you get the hard wood?  Bet that’s close to two cord.”  Still feeling the job’s dust in my boots, I knew that I was easing into a new initiation.


After that day, I never passed up an opportunity to muck around with John.  Weed whacking, pulling stumps, splitting and stacking wood, setting stones for walls, dropping trees.  I think he liked that latter activity best.  He’d sit atop the Kabota, or his prized blue Ford, offering hand signal commands or instructing me on the correct angle of a cut so that a tree would drop just so.  After the wood was bucked and sorted and stacked, he always had the patience to sharpen the chain, complete with a running narrative to instruct me how.  Reminiscent of ancient oral tradition, repetition and rhythm, here, was the key.


Sometime around Easter, the float would go in at Great Neck; some time after Thanksgiving, it would come out.  No one present could forget the time that Manny Silva and John were having a “tractor off,” competing to haul out a particularly water-logged float.  At one point, Manny’s machine was balanced on one wheel, and John later grumbled, “Manny just likes to show off.”  One June, my brother Charley and I helped John and Manny and several others hay this field.  That same July, Charley and I were tasked with reducing an enormous pile of timber to orderly cuts of stove length, and John confessed that it could have been about 8 cord, an enormous compliment.  It was only momentary, though, because stories about the legendary blowdowns in the wake of the Blizzard of ’78 soon followed, and I listened, eagerly.


Be it tending a boat, navigation through the fog, finding good anchorage in Merchant’s Row, talking grease guns and hydraulics, or just putting on a nasty old Carhart jacket to drive to the dump, John provided for me something I hadn’t known that I was missing.  And it was in this spirit that I tried to write a poem for him last week.


The tide is up, the moon is rising high,
and goldenrod’s in bloom, lest we should forget
that yet another season’s passing by.


Crank the wood splitter, split and stack to dry
last winter’s blow down.  Beyond the forest’s line
the tide is up, the moon is rising high,


and, heads down, we’re not looking at the sky
but at oak rounds and hickory, and we sweat
as yet another season passes by.


Some wood makes it to the Great Neck porch, high
above oyster shells and one lone, white egret
where the tide is up.  The moon is rising high,


and a crowd by candle light is eating
and drinking wine, the only sole regret
that yet another season is passing by.


Soon, snows will come, but summer has to fly,
eventually, and we can just sit back and let
the tide come up while the moon is rising high
and yet another season passes by.


Thank you, John.




III


This is difficult to continue.  As I write this, tomorrow would have been my own father’s 80th birthday had he lived through a bout with lung cancer.  In November of 2012, my significant other had suggested that we go to Florida to visit her mother and stepfather.  Not having seen my father since his brother’s funeral in 2002, I weighed in that I could not visit the state without visiting my father.  He was in Jacksonville, and Nancy’s parents live near Sarasota, on the other side of the state.  We made plans accordingly.


Not accustom to air travel, much less travel as a couple to a tourist-like destinations, I was casually bemused by the car rental and easy navigation process.  Nervous, but game, we headed out of the
airport and drove straight to Jacksonville Beach.  I had a fairly strong sense of where things were laid out as I had been studying maps for weeks.  I was surprised though by the green, the palms and the seemingly random pools of water inside the clover leafed highway ramps.  I was still wearing long underwear and feeling a sore shoulder from the 5 a.m. shoveling session in a New Hampshire hotel parking lot.  It was all a little disorienting.


The drive seemed short.  Suddenly, we were approaching my father’s building.  Pulling into the hotel-like loading area in front, I parked as if to go check in.  As I stepped out, I gazed over at a man who was standing off to the side and was stunned to see that it was my father.  My stomach dropped.  White hair?  Age spots?  Who is this guy?  He seemed smaller, somehow, though he was still of substantial size.  The shape of his face and head seemed narrower or something.  I couldn’t tell what had changed, but he had changed.  That much was sure.


“Heya,” he said with a smirk and laugh.  His voice hadn’t changed.  Of course, I had heard his voice on the phone from time to time, usually when I called him.  In 2007, I called him to break a six year silence that had settled between us.  It was Superbowl Sunday, and I was thinking of him.  The Patriots had gone undefeated the entire season.  Whenever there was an amazing hit from a linebacker or defensive end, I could hear him saying something like, “Pow” or “Kablooie,” as he used to do watching football when I was a kid.  A Harvard football player, himself, he relished the slow motion replays of two helmets colliding.  Now, here he was, looking a little diminished.


“Hi, Dad,” I said, completely forgetting myself, Nancy, or the rental idling behind me.  Two days later, we left by way of the A1A coast road.  I had always disdained Florida.  My sneering judgement was founded on a trip I took as a 12-year-old to Orlando with my grandparents.  Now, here I was, admiring the draped moss and overgrown gardens around gates which led to 1930s-era mansions south of Ponte Vedra Beach.  Most radio stations were rubbish, and I only half-listened as I scanned the dial, alighting on Terry Gross and Fresh Air.  The familiar tones of a favorite show provided some comfort, though its presence in the midday hour was a little disorienting.  


Richard Blanco was on the program, and that caught my attention.  Just one month prior, Blanco had read at Obama’s inauguration, and I had shared his reading with all of my classes.  His voice had been a surprise to me.  I had never heard of him until the runup, and I had been reading him some since the inauguration.  It felt natural to tune in to the interview while dunes and beach houses slipped past.  Serendipity was in fine working order as Blanco was talking about his father’s grave.  The simple elegance of his discussion about “where he belongs” unleashed tears from my eyes.  They simply rushed out of me, and everything the Cuban-American poet discussed was somehow connected to me, to now, to Florida and Maine and poetry and fathers and mothers and everything I was experiencing.

IV

In October of 2013, a box of books arrived on our front porch, heavy, the cardboard thick with humidity.  The handwriting addressing me on the label was neat as a pin, black letters like some graphic designer’s font of “hand-written-black-letters”.  Cutting through the tape, the air of stale cigarettes wafted out.  It was not unlike the old jackets which I had received years ago–wool oil, tweed, smooth, satin linings, stale cigarette smoke always, my father’s constant aroma.

It was the smell of old ashtrays, the antique iron cooking pots and pans, little skillets or oil lamps of our old homes, now filled with Tareytons or Merit butts.  Never Marlboro or Camel or Vantage, they were always some off brand, piled high and stained brown at the end, collapsed from the intense sucking inhale.  The slow exhale would often yield little to no smoke, most of it ingested.  How could he do that?

Early mornings when Dad would take me to hockey practice, I’d anticipate the click of the car lighter, the crackle of the ember glow, my nostrils flaring nicotine recognition at 8 years old.  He’d crack the driver’s window one inch, and I’d watch the smoke trail out with rapt attention.  I guess that was how I was picturing him then, too, when the box arrived: a smirk, an overstuffed ashtray, a long drag and exhale, an odd thought passing through him about my possibly enjoying a monograph on Shaker chairs or study of a lost naval expedition in the Penobscot.

Everything was an abstraction, and he would read this stuff to find traces of his family, though we have been, here, all the while.  He backed the box tighter than I ever could–History of Eastport, Early Settlements of Washington County, The Downeast Reader, Chamberlain’s Portsmouth.  All were familiar in the way misty memories of threadbare carpets and touch worn furniture came back in a gauzy haze.  There had been trips to see boatbuilders, old barns and lovers of stone walls.  There were rhapsodic conversations about old brickyards near Exeter, the Cocheco River freezing, shipping lanes off the Isles of Shoals.

For several summers, we commuted to work together.  It was always dewey in the early morning, a mist hung low over the bottom fields of the York River estuary.  A thick orange sun would burn off the dew slowly.  I don’t remember what we discussed or that we discussed anything at all.  The cigarette was there, though, and the coffee.  Late in the afternoons, sawdust or chipped bottom paint stuck to my neck and boots, I’d walk the half mile from Badger’s Island to Portsmouth over the Memorial Bridge.  The current pulling at the tugs, the tires whining over the steel grates, the siren indicating the lift of the span, I soaked it all in with a slow gate.

Not three doors up from the bridge, he shared an office space with a stock and commodities guy, Dad wrote on bonds.  Every afternoon, they’d be there, feet on desks, bullshitting someone on the phone–gold prices, the Fed, Friedman, Reagan’s latest deficit increase.  Their ashtrays were like hubcaps, too, filled with carton after carton of butts.  Facing north, their offices had painter’s light, not enough to catch the billows of smoke pouring out into the day.

I really hadn't seen him much after that.  Years became decades punctuated by my occasional jaunt to one of his hideaways, or the odd funeral or wedding.  More often than not, at those family occasions, my sibs and I would slink away in embarrassment when words slurred, when tempers flared, the hours and roads calling us away.  Oddly, though I wasn’t always sure where he was, exactly, I always knew what my father was up to in those years.  He was pawing through books, old and new, which detailed the histories of our ancestors.  He was trying to trace a genetic map with some elusive goal of finding the “You Are Here” destination in himself.  How prescient, then, that he would have sent me these books not three months before his fatal diagnosis: small cell lung cancer.

V

The following winter, Nancy and I made the same trek to Florida, only this time we flew to Tampa, deciding to pop up to Jacksonville for a couple of nights at the beginning of our visit.  Unlike the first visit, I was no longer awkward.  Yes, reconnecting with an estranged father can become normalized.  Midway through the 2013 visit, I had decided to roll with it, to embrace the awkward.  I had also decided that there would be no wringing of hands or fretting over the spilled milk that had once been our nuclear family.  Dad had made some choices, and this was where he was.  Fine.  I embraced it, and there was a new elephant in the room.

Having been diagnosed only weeks before our arrival, my father hadn’t fully wrapped his head around the reality of cancer.  He had had one chemotherapy treatment and had recovered from the session.  We were there at a good time.  He looked fine and seemed strong.  He didn’t want to leave the apartment and walk on the beach or head to a restaurant or do any of the familiar activities he would have engaged previously, but that made some sort of sense.  My stepmother smoking around a lung cancer patient while having recovered from her own bout with lung cancer only months before did not.  She smoked on a small porch overlooking the Atlantic when we were there, but the ample ashtray by her computer was brimming over with butts.


My father and me, Feb. 2014.
During the spring and early summer months, I spoke with my father on the phone several times.  I tried to plan a visit for Memorial Day weekend with a sister.  My brother and I considered a mid-April weekend.  Wanting to space the visits out over time, and not wanting to interfere with other guests, I booked a flight for the second week of August.  It would be hot, but that wouldn’t matter.  I would be visiting him one last time.  Weather was irrelevant, but he died less than 48-hours ahead of my planned arrival.  My siblings had each been able to see him in the weeks prior, and I felt lost for not having had a chance.  February, saying goodbye in his apartment where he was wedded to a naugahyde chair overlooking the Atlantic, would be my final glimpse.

I did see him that August, though.  One day prior to his cremation, the Quinn Shalz funeral home arranged a visitation.  It felt cold.  Outside, at 11 a.m., the palm fronds had not yet begun to clap from a shore breeze or approaching storm, and the pavement was skillet-like.  Inside, though, there was AC and silence.  I was led to a room where I could see that Dad was lain on a gurney.  A long, velvet-like cloth was draped over him so that everything except his head was covered.  He was cold, very cold.  Solid, too.  His arms were solid.  His hands, his cheeks.  I didn’t know what to do.

After about 5 or 10 minutes, I retreated to the lobby where I met with the young woman who was handling my father.  I began to cry when I said, “He looks dignified, but he’s so cold.”  She explained that we would be able to pick up the ashes the following day.  There was a Bible in her room.  “Do you mind if I borrow that to read to him?” I asked.

“Not at all,” she said.  “Spend as much time with him as you need,” she offered, generously.  Then, after a pause, “Is anyone else coming?”

“Sorry, no.  Just me.”

“OK, then.  You can simply leave when you’re done.”

I grabbed the big, white Bible and brought it with me.  I read psalms to Dad, finding comfort in the King James translations.  Psalm 8 seemed a nice fit as it mentions the birds of the air, fish of the sea and the beasts of the wild.  I wanted an image of my father’s younger self, hunting, ranging the fields and forests of New England, cutting wood, gardening, and watching the birds.  I wanted to think of that older self who had collected carved wood sandpipers and cranes.  I wanted to think of his earth tone, tweedy self more than the casino gambling neon Floridian version.  I wanted to remember antiques, Eric Sloane and boxwood hedges.  I wanted to acknowledge all of those parts that were still with me.

When I left at around Quinn Shalz around 12:30, there was no ceremony.  It was an ordinary Florida day of shopping plazas by the sea, a Waffle House serving hash brown smothered and covered, and shore birds.  I swam, packed a few remaining boxes for me and my siblings, tossing several dozen into the dumpster below.  A storm rolled through.  My stepmother, then, brought me to my father’s favorite bar, a nondescript place that was dark on a bright August afternoon.  It was a shock to discover that they still permitted indoor smoking, but it was somehow fitting.  A vodka cranberry, some second-hand smoke and, like that, he’s gone.

No one of any note ever walks out of our lives, really.  Though my father chose to move away from our mother, and us, in 1987, he never left.  In his book collections, he never left us either.  It was all in his head, and somewhere in that oft-dreaming head was his heart.



Ash, my father and Teddy, @1965


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