The college admissions system today, I read somewhere, rewards not the “bright well-rounded kid” (abbreviated BWRK by admissions reviewers), but the “pointy” kid instead, by which is meant an outsize and distinctive feature—like innovating a patentable medical device, launching a business, or testifying before Congress. Three sports and extracurriculars are nowhere near enough.
A couple months ago I received a group text from a friend asking if we had seen the Maggie Gyllenhaal-directed film The Lost Daughter and saying how disturbed she was by its portrayal of motherhood. This friend is both a mother and a philosophy professor; the other two friends on the thread besides me are a writer and the vice president of government relations for a pharmaceutical firm. All of us are mothers. All of us were pretty disturbed/annoyed by The Lost Daughter.
One day, I will lose my early morning low-tide walk on Isle of Palms, South Carolina. I will lose my annotated copy of Man’s Quest for God: Studies in Prayer and Symbolism by Abraham Joshua Heschel. I will lose my popcorn, and my jealousies (their house, their travels), and my wife’s smile that loosens knots in the chest…
Death is death. Death is also part of a larger story. I’m part of that story. I’m no longer hiding. No longer withholding. Since my father’s death, thousands of words. I’m living, yes, living with my father in the land of the dead.
Three Decembers ago, during the first week of Advent, I took my kids on a weekend trip to see their grandmother and my aunt and uncle. My aunt and uncle care for my grandmother, who was ninety-three at the time, and had recently started to lose her ability to speak.
“What if you knew you’d be the last / to touch someone,” asks Ellen Bass in her poem “If You Knew.” Did my anticipation of my father’s death change the way I behaved with him while he was still alive? I don’t know. Might it change my attitude toward and treatment of others, including annoying others, if I remembered, in every encounter, that they’re going to die?
You stood beside me while I crouched on the floor with a pair of bright red pumps, an oddity remembered only because of what happened next. There was the musty smell of sweat and old soap, the mold’s cool talcum in the shoe bed, the clatter of the bright room when we heard your aunt say to your mother-in-law: “You hurt me.”
The gravedigger catches my eyes: his grizzled gray stubble and worn cap, the curly hank of yellow-gray hair riding his neck. Even in his mechanic’s fatigues, he looks like a monk I know— with the same hair and glasses, the same lean jaw. “I went from sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll to chastity, poverty, and obedience,” the monk likes to quip.
I have no idea what poetry means to my father. In their modest apartment, he and my mother have a little shelf where they keep copies of my books. Along with my books, they have copies of Stephen Dunn’s Local Time and Donald Justice’s Selected Poems. Stephen and Don were my teachers. I don’t know if either of my parents have read any of their poems.
Do you remember when we convinced you to streak around the house? Of course you do; you bring it up every time I introduce you to someone. I remember your slender ass glimpsed through a succession of windows, the white soles of your running feet, your pistoning arms, your screeches when you regained our front porch to discover we’d locked the door.
I once heard a female academic talk about the necessity of “de-gendering the private sphere,” and the past year would certainly seem to confirm that, what with children (including my own) and baskets of dirty laundry creeping into the backgrounds of Zoom calls.
“Start with a woman watching a man / catching his daughter.” But find you see with the eyes of the child: yourself, small as a gangly loaf of bread, gripped and flung and caught at the ribs by your father, whose boyish face pumps up and down in the summer yard where he, years ago, once played.
My dad’s new house: it’s not new anymore, but it is still strange to me; I have no memories here. My mom’s house is twenty miles north, and six miles north of her is our last family home, exited with the order of a death: an inventory, the quick snatching of keepsakes, a staging, a sale.