Body of the Father: Sifting through a changing relationship with my dad

Tuesday, November 8, 2016 - 6:11pm

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Cover by Shane Achenbach

 

And so we drove, taking his way, the way he always takes, we always take, past the trees and fields that form, I imagine, the mental landscape of his childhood, of a time lost and, with each passing, not quite regained. We drove past those fields, those trees, that granite sky, the ones we’ve always passed, the ones that haven’t changed. It was during the liminal season between winter and spring, when the snow cakes the grass. He sat in the driver’s seat — my dad, reticent, reserved, quiet in his familiar way, with a resignation that isn’t quite melancholy — navigating us through the roads in northern Michigan, where he grew up, served as the pastor of Grace Lutheran Church and now spends his retirement. He was driving me back to school, like he usually does, to Ann Arbor, where I rarely leave now. We drove down Herron Road, the quickest way, he always says. Perhaps it is. I know no other.

And so we sat there, quietly, looking out our respective windows at the place he calls home, that I don’t, can’t. And so we sat there, just looking, and we let the silence grow.

***

A scar, somewhere between a foot and 18 inches in length, runs down my dad’s right leg. It’s a record of an irrevocable change. It’s from one of his first surgeries — he’s had eight now, I think, just on the lower extremities with hip replacements likely to come. It’s a mark that divides two times of his life: before his body was damaged and after.

For my entire life and before it, my dad has suffered through various health problems. Right before I was born, when he was around 35, there was an accident, the details of which are still ambiguous to me, that ravaged his joints and started a cycle of knee surgeries that ended with replacements in both. This accident, coupled with years of wear from playing baseball, weakened his joints. Eventually, sometime when I was in elementary school, he developed psoriatic arthritis, which not only inflames the joints but produces red lesions on the skin. I can’t remember when he didn’t have it. I can’t remember a time when his beard was without gray, when he walked without the tired rhythm of old age, when he didn’t seem old. It’s strange, even now, to name it, the arthritis, to articulate it as though it weren't the structuring condition of his life but a mere disease. It seems, rather, the very mark of his experience in the world, of my experience with him, of the man that I know.

When arthritis was all that plagued his body, my dad, stubborn and implacable, retained his independence. He still worked outside, cutting wood for the fires that heat our house and tinkering with this boat. But in recent years he’s suffered from a growing number of vertigo attacks and a nascent deafness. His independence wanes. He’s only 55, but his body bears the weight of a man of 70.

I have more diligence in our interactions than I once did, now, more of an awareness in his needs and discomforts. When he visits, we eat at the place closest to his parking spot, saving him the trouble of a long walk. And I have the growing awareness that, perhaps sooner than later, he’ll need me to take care of him.

But when I was younger, I felt as though he and his body’s failure had robbed me of something, that because he wasn’t like the usual dad, which exists only in the mind of a child, that I was deprived of an essential aspect of my childhood.

***

I’ve always been a pastor’s son. It’s a moniker I’ve worn with bewilderment and, at times, disdain. I spent much of my childhood in church. I didn’t just attend services, after which old women would approach me and my mom, complimenting us on how handsome and intelligent a boy I was, squeezing my cheeks with wrinkled hands, but I’d roam throughout while my dad was at work. I’d sit in his office while he wrote his sermons, his shelves lined with books, ancient texts and scriptures in German, ancient Greek and Hebrew. I remember sitting there, awed by his knowledge, his apparent wisdom.

The church, however, never provided a moral and intellectual education that, it seems, it does for so many that attend. Church was often a place where I was hounded with attention and expectations I didn’t want. Whatever spiritual beliefs I may have developed, the social life that the church entailed pushed me away from it.

I’ve never known why my dad became a pastor nor understood it. But, I suspect, it has less to do with doctrine than its social mission. Most of his work was outside of the church. Many times, during the week, he traveled to meet with parishioners, in hospitals most often, giving them communion and worked with the people on the social periphery — the poor, the addicted, the forgotten people that populate a place like Alpena, our hometown. Christianity, preaching, isn’t so much a system through which he can arrange the world and make sense of its chaos but a place for moral action. Religion, the church, it seems, is a means by which he can take care of the world. For example, when our dog, Lucky, who I named and, it seems, cursed, developed cancer and had his right front leg amputated, my dad made four-egg omelets and bacon every morning for him to help rebuild the tissue damaged in the operation. He’s dedicated his life to taking care of the world. The misery, then, of these accumulated ailments — the arthritis, the vertigo, the deafness — isn’t just the pain they bring; it’s that he can no longer take care of the world because he can no longer take care of himself.

***

Besides the home, cars are the primary domestic space in my family, and it’s where my dad and I have shared the most time. In our home, with the exception of dinner, we rarely see each other. He has always been the driver in my family. My mom, though she has been driving for 40 years, can barely parallel park. He could do it blind.

My dad, who can’t sleep past the sunrise both because of habit and the stiff pain that sleep causes in his joints, used to drive me to school on most days and pick me up. I can’t remember, now, what happened during those or what we talked about — the Tigers, probably, or the Bush administration, which he hated as much as he loves the Tigers — but I remember the silences, the moments of shared solitude that formed our relationship.

Those silences, now, hold an anxiety that seems both new and inveterate. I feel guilty letting my dad drive me back to college. I have no idea if he will have an attack of vertigo while driving home alone, and I don’t want to be responsible for forcing him into one. As much as I know he probably wants to take me, it worries me that he’ll get an attack and be stranded on the highway. It worries me that, as he gets older, he won’t be able to take care of himself. It worries me that I won’t be there to help him.

And it worries him, now, that I won’t have a job when I graduate, that I’ll continue to rely on him and my mom, that I’ll remain dependent. Our conversations turn without fail to the question of my life plans. “What are you doing after graduation?” he’ll ask me. “Fuck if I know,” I respond, and we end there and repeat for the next time. College is a swamp between adolescence and adulthood where one is stuck in the medial space between dependence and independence. And its end poses an unavoidable question: How do I take care of my dad when I haven’t even figured out how to take care of myself?

***

As fathers tend to do, my grandpa enjoys bragging about my dad. A star catcher on his high school baseball team, he could’ve gone pro, my grandpa tells, not infrequently, in the way that the elderly repeat the stories that have solidified enough as to be easy to recall. He was the fastest kid in school, from kindergarten through high school, I’m told. My grandpa had never seen anyone that fast. In the prime of his life, he says, my dad could pick up a 500-lb. car engine alone. It’s all bullshit, probably, or at least so altered by memory as to have erased enough of the truth to be classified as bullshit.

When I was younger, I used to assemble the spare details that fell through conversations with family, verbal artifacts at once vanished and resurrected, and imagine who he was before I was born. There’s a strangeness in this gap of memory, of imagination, in which the absence of an alternative life and the possibilities of what he once was linger. But I’ve never been able to mythologize, even in the benign way my grandpa does, who he once was. I can’t, even in a fiction, summon another vision of my dad as a star baseball player. He’s still the old man.

Then, there’s the intellectual. Somehow, my dad is intellectual without being snobbish in a place where education is itself a form of arrogance. In Alpena, a small town on the eastern coast of northern Michigan where we both grew up and where little has changed in the intervening decades between our youths, intellect, specifically intellectualism, is abnormal. Once, as it was later told to me, a kid I knew in high school said to my friends that I was so smart it was like I was autistic.

My grandma once told me, furtively, with an admonishment that he wouldn’t want me to know, a story about a night my dad went missing. My grandpa woke up one morning when the sun was rising, like always, to begin work on the farm, and went to wake my dad up. He wasn’t in his bed. After searching across the farm, my grandpa found him near the outskirts of their farm, lying in the grass with a flashlight and a Bible.

To be intellectual, to have interests outside of that small sphere of rural experience — especially as a male — was, is a transgression. I remember, in 10th grade, reading “Hamlet” in the secrecy of my grandparents’ guest room, because I knew, know still, that if my friends found out they’d call me a faggot, or a queer, or one of the other dozens of epithets that circulated through my high school’s walls. There was, is, a shame in reading, in learning.

It always seemed strange, somewhat inconceivable, then, why my dad decided to — why he even wanted to — preach there. The name, the word itself, Alpena, cannot leave my tongue without a taste of contempt, of rejection. When I was in high school, I resented my parents’ choice to live there, to have me live there. I spent most of 10th grade petitioning them to send me to private school somewhere, anywhere. It’s a place antithetical to my values, to my being, which was formed, of course, by its opposition to my hometown. Reading, my interests, weren’t developed out of some passion within me, but from the environment without. More than my mom, I blamed my dad for this, for being born in a place that I grew to hate, in a home that was alien to me. Reading, learning, was a method of defiance to the people I grew up with. I did it out of arrogance and alienation, out of a sense that I was better than them.

My dad lacks that ego, that need for showing off. I envy his authenticity, the equanimity with which he manages to be somehow intellectual and provincial, to be serious yet modest, and the poise with which he navigates these seemingly distinct poles. Even now, six months before I graduate from college with a degree in English, I can’t find that authenticity, that ability to be someone independent of the forces that made me.

But I think, now, of that story my grandma told me, of that night in the Bible, and I realize now how much, like myself, he needed the intensity of that private mental space, of learning, of wrestling with the ambiguities outside of that small, simple, formative town.

***

Two scars run down my left leg, each, perhaps, six inches long. They’re from my first surgery, one of few, from when I was hit by a car and broke both of my legs and my left pelvis. I was 4. I hadn’t even gone to school yet. A year before, in daycare, I was playing tag in the woods and tripped whereupon a stick on the ground struck through my skin right underneath my left eyeball. From an early age I had a keen ability for self-destruction. After my car accident, the surgeon inserted two metal rods into my legs, which stayed there for six weeks. My dad waited outside the surgery, my mom told me years later, more upset than she’d ever seen him.

We’ve never gotten along, my dad and I, in the way it seems fathers and sons should, with a gentle, intimate camaraderie. My dad and grandpa have this — they hunt and fish together, watch the baseball game and work on their boat. Ours, my dad's and mine, isn’t a relationship filled with conflict but one with a distance, quiet yet impassable.

During my freshman year of college, I had a sort of eureka moment, an insight that both terrified me and clarified a central question in our relationship. I realized how much I had inherited from him, how much I had been formed by his presence in my life. Ah yes, I thought, we’re too similar. It’s not much of an epiphany — of course I was influenced by my dad. But there’s some incongruence in our similarities, in the ways we crave solitude and the ways we withdraw into ourselves, that makes it impossible to bridge those silences that disturb and sustain our relationship.

There’s a shame that followed me, still follows me, that I hadn’t quite repaid him for the life he’s given me, a solid, comfortable, middle-class life, and that now, or soon, when the debt is due, I’ll be penniless. But there’s another shame, now, a shame that comes with the thought of his dependence, of that condescension, of somehow taking from him what he’s given to me — the opportunity to live independently.

And then there’s a silent shame, the core shame, which flares now and then, a quiet conflagration, the shame I feel for resenting him for his body’s failures, for a life that, like me, was formed by some fate he didn’t choose.

***

And so we arrived. I took my baggage out of the car.  I made sure to take as much as I could. I knew he’d try to help me and that he’s stubborn enough to succeed. He put some of the lighter things on the porch, and for others, I met him halfway to grab them.

“All right. Well, have a good semester,” he said.

“Thanks, I’ll see you.”

He opened the door then stopped.

“Do you know how to get back onto the freeway?”

“Yeah, one second, I’ll look it up on my phone. But I think you just have to go back down

“Packard and turn at Main.”

“Ah, don’t worry about it. I’ll figure it out.”

“Just one second,” I insisted.

“Actually, you know what, you’ll find your way.”