My father saved people’s lives for a living. It was his job; if he hadn’t been there all those hundreds of nights in the ER, it would’ve been someone else who saved them — some other mortal man or woman sanctified by the white coat and stethoscope, living on too much coffee and too little sleep, required to look self-assured as bleeding, broken, screaming bodies were wheeled in over and over, night after night.
But my father was there. It was his job to place his hands in the bloody mess of it all, to traverse the liminal shoreline between life and death — and sometimes death and then life again. He was trained to put his hands in that mess, to set it right, if anyone could. And sometimes he did. I might have passed them in the street and never known it: two, ten, twenty, fifty, a hundred people who owed their lives to my father’s hands. “I’m best in a crisis,” he always said — leaving out the other times, the times when no crisis obliged.
Best in a crisis. Is that why he created so many of them?
“You don’t know me,” says the woman on the other end of the phone, “but I’m a . . . friend of your father’s. Well, actually, we had a . . . romantic relationship. For a few weeks.”
There’s a fading Southern-belle twang in her voice — Texas, maybe, or Oklahoma. I’d guess her to be in her fifties, which would make her a full two decades older than the women my father usually goes for — older than I am, for a change.
She spells her name for me: “Kelli,” with an i. The story comes out in pieces: She was his patient. Then he offered her a place to live. He told her that he had a “problem,” but he was working on it, trying to cut down.
“He’s incoherent a lot of the time,” she says. “He has blackouts. I think that’s what caused the accident.”
“He was driving my car. We went through the median strip to the other side. When the cops were on their way, he asked me to say I’d been the one driving. Now I’ve got all these fines to pay. ‘Reckless driving.’ The car is totaled. I broke my back — a compression fracture. He kept saying I wasn’t hurt; I’d get over it. The pain got so bad I couldn’t pee. He put a catheter in, but he wouldn’t take me to the hospital. I had to drive myself there.”
Um, let me get this straight: he got stoned, wrecked your car, made you take the blame, and then refused to take you to the hospital?
“He’s such a good man, your father,” Kelli tells me. “He’s so generous, so kindhearted. I just called because I’m so worried about him. I don’t know what to do.”
A few days later my father calls. His voice sounds artificially cheerful and a bit thin, as if he’s strained it through a sieve. He asks how I am but doesn’t listen, as usual. When I mention my partner, he interrupts, “I had a partner too, for a little while. . . .” His voice trails off dreamily.
“Oh, there was an accident.” His tone tilts downward slightly, as if he were recalling some regrettable yet entirely impersonal event. “After that, things just weren’t the same.”
To be fair, the crises weren’t always my father’s fault. Once, when he was hiking through the Alaskan wilderness, he found a wounded calf miles from any trail head. As he tells it, he hiked all the way out with that calf slung over his shoulders. I imagine it’s true. I’ve seen the photo of him standing in a canyon with a calf wrapped awkwardly around his neck like a strange scarf. It doesn’t matter that by that time the calf looked more dead than alive: it was only the gesture that mattered, not the result. My father was a man of grand gestures.
A man who carried me laughing on his shoulders, who made me feel tall enough to eat the leaves from the trees.
A man whose question for me at the end of the first day of school each year was always “Did your teacher appreciate you?”
A man who for years would buy no car that was not a convertible. Hard-roofed cars were for inferior people. He wanted sun, wind, and sky. (And in the trunk of every convertible, a bottle of champagne — because, he’d say, “You never know when you might need to celebrate.”)
My father taught me freedom. He took me hiking on dormant volcanoes so we could collect the rough, rocky worlds called “geodes,” which we would later hurl at cement. When we smashed them, they would show us their hidden crystals, their glassy, astonishing inner landscapes. And when I had too many to hold, he told me how to take off my shirt and knot them up in it, like a sack. And when I said, “I can’t. I’m a girl,” he laughed and said, “But you still look just like a boy.”
It was true. I was seven. I took off my shirt and carried home more worlds than ever before.
My mother was pretty and fragile, slender and scared. Her skin was soft, and she smelled of talc, as if she were the baby, not I. She was eighteen years old when I was born, and she told me how she stood by my crib and cried every day for her own mother. My mother danced and made silly faces to get me to open my mouth, but my father spooned the food in. He made things happen.
Because I loved my father, I gave him the back rubs he wanted. He would lie down on the living-room rug shirtless, his broad, hairy, man’s back exposed and waiting for my touch (though now I see he was only a boy himself, a college student with a child bride). I squatted on top of him, or I walked on his back, balancing my tiny feet on either side of his spine, wobbling over his torso as if it were a bridge; or I sat on the floor beside him, squeezing and pummeling as hard as I could with my tiny hands, and he moaned for more in an animal way — a male animal way. I wasn’t supposed to just stop anytime. I had to give him a “warning,” like a snooze alarm, and then go on for a while.
Question: Did your father become sexually aroused when you rubbed his back?
Answer: I don’t know.
Question: Did he touch or otherwise stimulate himself before, during, or immediately following the back rubs?
Answer: I don’t know.
Question: Did he insist on that “warning” before the back rub ended in order to give himself time to ejaculate?
Answer: I don’t know.
Question: Did you ever see or touch your father’s erect penis?
Answer: I don’t know.
Question: Why, more than forty years later, do you still feel uncomfortable giving or receiving back rubs?
Answer: I don’t know.
Question: Would it be pertinent to examine your own sexual fantasies for clues as to what may have occurred between you and your father?
Answer: I don’t know.
Question: What conclusion do you draw from the fact that for years you fantasized that you were a father becoming sexually aroused by your young daughter?
Answer: I don’t know.
Question: You were thirty-nine years old when your father last removed his clothes, lay down on his stomach on a bed, and asked you for a back rub. You felt uncomfortable, and yet you rubbed his back. Why?
Answer: I don’t know.
Question: If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck . . .
Answer: I had two pet mallard ducks the year I was ten. We lived in Bloomington, Indiana, that year, and my parents had friends named Robin and Amber, who were hippies. Robin had long brown hair and a beard, and looked like Jesus. Amber had dark hair and big breasts and wore embroidered peasant blouses, and I knew from overheard snatches of conversation that both of them smoked “grass” — not the green stuff growing outside in stubby patches, but marijuana, an illegal drug — and I worried that my parents and perhaps even I might be arrested for associating with them.
The ducks were named Thunder and Lightning. I don’t remember how I arrived at those names. Both were males with flashy emerald markings on their wings. They walked like ducks and quacked like ducks because they were ducks. End of answer.
I am able to write this in part because I assume that my father will be dead before I finish it. I am able to write this because, as the eldest child of a man who ultimately squandered his brilliance trying to hide his vulnerability, I am compelled to gaze upon the undersides of things, and to reveal them. I am able to write this because I am very like my father: when people told him not to do things, he did them anyway. “Daddy, please slow down!” we would plead as the speedometer needle passed ninety, but he would only press the pedal farther down.
I am able to write this because, in truth, my father isn’t “mine.” “Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself,” says Kahlil Gibran, and I propose that the same is true of our parents. My father belongs only to himself, and to life. And yet I came into life through him, or life came through him into me; he made me and shaped me, gave to me and took from me in ways I feel compelled to name.
I’ve spent years wandering the deep, dark woods of my past. Now I see that if I want to understand the forest from which I came, I have to begin with a single tree.
My father, the tree.
He grew up in Flushing, Queens, New York, in the 1950s, in a neat, brick Tudor house on a street of similar houses. There was always rye bread from the Clearview Bakery on the table; there was always margarine in a container labeled “Butter” — because Abe, my grandfather, wanted real butter, and Hedda, my grandmother, saved a few cents every week by buying margarine and carefully transferring it into the butter container. Abe never knew; he thought he was the boss. “Heddie, get me a cigar!” he’d yell, and she would scurry.
My father’s boyhood room was blue, the smallest of the three upstairs bedrooms. His sister, Helen, two years older, had the larger yellow room — two windows instead of one, plus a creaky set of pull-down steps to the attic. Space was the only thing Helen got more of. She was the firstborn, but he was the boy, the favored child, the one who could do no wrong in his mother’s eyes.
My father was a pudgy kid with prodigious gifts. Lore had it he could sit down at the piano and play any song he’d ever heard, but when his mother pounced on him and tried to make him practice every day, he left music behind. He became a Cub Scout, a Boy Scout, an Eagle Scout. He earned every badge, led every group he joined. Although he was never especially good-looking — short and astigmatic, with dark, oily hair and pockmarked skin — he made up for it with his bravado and quick mind.
“No one could tell him what to do,” says my father’s boyhood friend Pat over a plate of freshly baked scones. We’re sitting on Pat’s stone patio, the lush green hills of the Berkshires all around us. We’re sitting on the terrace of the stable, orderly life Pat has made for himself, and he’s telling me about the last time he saw my father, ten years ago, or maybe it was fifteen: “He found this enormous piece of driftwood on the beach and dragged it back to the house. We said, ‘You can’t take that home on the plane,’ and he said, ‘Oh, yes, I can!’ He was the brightest one of all of us. He was unstoppable.”
Paula, Pat’s wife of forty-five years, brings more tea. I was in diapers at their wedding, and they have been together ever since — while my father has gone through three wives.
Pat shakes his head and grins. “We were awed by his audacity.”
My father met my mother at a soda fountain the summer after his first year in college. He was a lifeguard at Jones Beach, saving lives even then, and she was a shy, sixteen-year-old redhead with dreams of glamour. He courted her in his father’s big black Lincoln, blaring classical music from the tinny radio, then enticing her into the back seat. He called her “Kitten”; she called him “Puppy.” “Kitten and Puppy Announce the Startling Event of Their Engagement,” the notices read. Depending on which day he told the story, either I was an accident — the product of failed coitus interruptus, an advertisement for birth control — or they’d made me on purpose, there on the stained corduroy couch in her parents’ den, so no one could keep them from getting married.
I think he loved her, as much as the boy he was could love. I think he was terribly lonely and looking for a way to tether himself to his life. He’d wanted badly to join a fraternity, but they didn’t take Jewish boys then. I think he knew deep down that he needed to harness his will and brains to something tangible in the world, to keep him from blowing away.
And it worked — for a while. He was strong for her; she was sweet for him. Together they made me and loved me and raised me as best they knew how.
My father always quoted Martin Buber: “I’m waiting for the ‘deed that intends me,’ ” he’d say. He read all of Carlos Castaneda’s books when they first came out. He wanted to know what was real, what was possible. In his later years he read the Torah, the Bible, and just enough about Buddhism to take it out of context. His curiosity was passionate, enormous; some of the time, at least, he tried to leash it to something useful in the world. He kept mice for a while and established his own messy research lab in the living room, giving them this or that substance in a quixotic, unfunded effort to cure some terrible disease. That’s testament to his grandiosity, of course, but when the grandiose succeed, we call them “visionaries,” and for many years I believed my father would succeed. I saw myself in the made-for-TV movie, the daughter of the man who’d cured cancer or multiple sclerosis.
But my father was too wounded to keep to that lonely road. After a while he’d put down the test tubes and go chasing after some leggy blonde in hot pants and thigh-high boots. For all his intellect he was like a third-grader when in love, or what he called “love” — a messy broth of lust, yearning, terror, and need.
No wonder, then, that he found women who wanted the drugs he could provide. No wonder that he let them drag him down, or let himself drag them down, or relinquished himself and them to the pull of larger forces, the wind and driving rain and tornadoes set loose in his blood.
He was sixty-four when I read online that he was losing his medical license. I thought that meant his life was over. A doctor was who my father was, who he had been for almost my entire lifetime and more than two-thirds of his own. I could not imagine how he would live stripped of this standing. But perhaps the truth is that I couldn’t imagine how I would live.
We started talking to each other then: Kelli called Coreen, who called Janine, who called Amanda; or Janine called Lanie, who called Amanda, who called Coreen and me; or Sarah called me and Janine, and I called Amanda, who called Coreen and Lanie. All of his women: ex-girlfriends, ex-wives, daughters — my father the unlikely bond between us, stranger than blood.
When I was a child, this was my father’s favorite joke:
A scientist who’s studying hearing in insects trains an insect to jump on command. “Jump, insect, jump!” he says, and it does. Then he cuts off one of its legs. “Jump, insect, jump!” A bit unsteadily, the insect jumps. He goes on cutting off legs, and the insect goes on jumping. Even when it’s down to only one leg, it manages a crude, sad hop. Then the scientist cuts off the insect’s last leg. “Jump, insect, jump!” he commands. Nothing happens. The scientist writes down his conclusion: “Insect with no legs is deaf.”
I think my father loved this joke because of the way it pokes fun at science, showing how incorrect conclusions can be “proven.” He always relished the chance to point out the blindness of others. But it’s the other aspects of the joke that haunt me now: the way the scientist betrays the insect he trained, who struggles desperately to please him; the maiming that goes on and on, one leg at a time; the idea that we need to destroy what loves us in order to prove something. The idea that what we think we know is wrong.
In his final years as a doctor, my father developed a passionate interest in a disease most other doctors don’t believe is real. That was his style, after all. He had once received an award from an organization which honored people who stick their necks out.
The people with this disease believe they suffer from parasites that conventional doctors can’t find. They traveled from all over the country to consult with my father; they brought him samples of their blood and urine and pus. My father put these samples in petri dishes and stored them in his refrigerator. (I don’t know whether or not he gave them a dedicated shelf. I do know he had only one refrigerator.)
The disease was bizarre; even my father admitted that. It seemed to “hear” what people said about it and go into hiding. It got worse when people went on the Internet. It destroyed bones, joints, and teeth. It attacked brains. Yet most doctors could find no evidence that it even existed.
Because I believed my father was brilliant, I believed what he told me was real. Because I knew my father’s behavior was growing increasingly strange (it was a while before I allowed myself to link his strangeness to organic brain damage from thirty-five-plus years of self-medication), I also listened to his stories as if they were chapters in a compelling and horrific work of fiction. Conversations with my father had made me adept at holding multiple simultaneous points of view.
When my father lost his medical license, his patients were divided. Was it better to have a discredited hero or none at all? Meanwhile his website grew increasingly bizarre, filled with poor grammar and grandiosity. He connected the disease to medical mysteries from the past, to genetic splicing, to nanobots, to the book of Revelation. He speculated that it had come from off planet, that our bodies were being rewired by aliens. He repeated himself; he contradicted himself. He’d become a Bible-quoting, apocalyptic nut. And sometimes he sounded like a snake-oil salesman, too.
Even so, if tomorrow I thought I had contracted the disease, I know exactly what I’d do: I’d look up my father’s protocol and follow it to the letter.
For a long time I imagined each phone conversation we had would be our last. Once, a few years ago, I became convinced he was dead. He’d been living with my frail, demented grandmother in her Florida condo, and then he’d disappeared. He hadn’t said where he was going or when he’d be back. I concluded that he had gone off to die, perhaps by his own hand. I drove to the beach and spent the afternoon walking beside the water, mourning him. I felt my spirit make contact with his; we expressed our regrets, made our apologies, proclaimed our love and respect for one another. His spirit reflected thoughtfully about where and how and why he’d gone off track in this lifetime. It was a deeply moving and healing experience.
Then, as I was driving home, my father called.
As usual, his voice was low and slurred. I had caused him irreparable harm, he said. He and my grandmother had gone on the run because of me. How could his eldest daughter have done such a thing? (I’d called social services when I’d realized he was spending all her money on drugs. They’d come out to investigate possible “elder abuse,” but my grandmother had sworn with her last ounce of lucidity that my father had done no wrong.)
I had argued with him before. It did no good. And I was still softened by whatever I’d experienced that afternoon — my profound interdimensional healing, my fantasy. “I’m sorry, Dad,” I said. “I’m sorry I caused you harm. That was never my intention.”
This was true and not true at once. I hadn’t intended to cause my father harm — not my real father, the father I loved. But I had intended to throw a wrench into the works of whatever it was that had taken over that father’s body and life. This wasn’t a distinction the man on the phone could appreciate.
Just a few months earlier he had called me with that other voice, the dreamy one. “I was just thinking about you,” he said when I picked up the phone. “Thinking and thinking. So I thought, What’s the point of all this thinking? I should just call you instead!” He laughed delightedly. “I just wanted to tell you that I’m so proud of you. So, so proud. Oh, look! Here’s Hedda! Hedda, would you like to say hello to your eldest granddaughter?”
I heard my grandmother in the background, fumbling, confused. “Julie?”
“No, no, Judith! Your eldest granddaughter.”
My grandmother took the phone. “Ah, Jude. We used to be so close. I used to feel so happy when I said your name. Tell me, my son is your — brother?”
“Father! Father!” my father shouted in the background. He grabbed the phone away from her. “She just woke up,” he explained. “She’ll be fine in a few hours. Anyway, I was just thinking about you. Tell me, do you know the story about the rabbi and the feathers? A man is having a hard time, and he asks the rabbi what to do. The rabbi tells him to bring a feather pillow to a high mountain, cut it open, and let the feathers go. And then he tells him to go and gather them up.
“So that’s what I’m doing,” my father told me cheerfully that day. “Just gathering feathers.”
Later I Google “rabbi, feathers” and find that most versions of this story involve a man who has committed wrongs that can’t be undone. Conveniently my father had left that part out.
When I was six, he taught me to ride a bike, running behind my little red bicycle until I could balance by myself.
When I was seven, he taught me to swim, and I joined a swim team and won ribbons.
When I was eight, he taught me to downhill ski, and there wasn’t any run I wouldn’t try.
When I was nine, he commuted a hundred miles a day to a surgical residency and got hepatitis from a needle stick, then started using speed so he could keep going. I barely saw him that year.
When I was ten, we moved to a place my mother liked that cost too much, and the fights began. Then my mother found the letters from his girlfriend sticking out of his briefcase and told me about them as she folded the laundry, crying. The woman’s name was Mary Ann, and she’d written to thank him for the locket with the beautiful inscription. My mother hid the letters in my toy chest, saying she might need them later for “evidence.”
When I was eleven and twelve, my father and mother screamed at each other, and he threw dishes one by one from the dish rack onto the floor, or over her head, or over mine. She was a slave driver, he said. He was a slave under her whip. She was bleeding him dry, drop by drop. Once, a glass of brandy smashed on the wall just behind me.
When I was thirteen, he moved out of our house and into a little cabin in the woods next to a flowing creek. He bought a yellow Jaguar and a water bed. He carried hundreds of dollars in his wallet at all times, fanning it out gleefully at every opportunity: “It’s just like Monopoly money!” He bought another sports car, one that didn’t run, and an antique surrey with a fringe on top, and he stored them outside his cabin in the woods, and when the creek flooded and ruined both, it didn’t matter; he just bought other things. There were hammocks for my sister and me to sleep in when we visited: “You’ll never get flooded!” he exclaimed. “They’re in the air!” He bought a canoe and said we could paddle to school if we came to live with him. We didn’t go live with him.
When I was fourteen, I tried to say no when he came to pick me up for the evening. One night he broke down my bedroom door, then took me to Atlantic City instead of bringing me home after dinner. I snuck out of the hotel room and walked up and down the boardwalk, asking each man I saw for a ride.
When I was fifteen, he moved to Venice Beach, California, and I visited him and found men to have sex with. One of them collected abalone shells; one of them played music; one of them kept tissues by his bed and blotted me between the legs. I told them all I was eighteen. My father didn’t notice. At home my mother had whispered to me that he’d been depressed, even suicidal. One night over dinner out with my father I made the mistake of letting that slip.
“Don’t listen to that whore,” he said. “She doesn’t know what the fuck she’s talking about.”
“Don’t call my mother a ‘whore,’ ” I replied.
“I’ll call her whatever I want, you little bitch.”
It was one of those moments when everything seems to stop. My father had called my mother names a million times, but he had never called me a name. I stood up in the red vinyl booth. “You fucking bastard!” I screamed, loud enough for everyone in the Chinese restaurant to hear. Then I took off down the street. He chased me for over a block before he finally caught me.
When I was sixteen, he married a bleached-blond New Jersey homemaker and moved across the country with her. I lived with them for the summer. I worked at the Dairy Queen and learned to call ice cream “frozen product,” and then I worked at a bagel shop where I had to tell the manager over and over that no, I didn’t want to go to the mountains with him and pose nude for pictures. At the end of the summer my father bought me my first car: a red VW convertible. He didn’t tell me he’d bought it; he just took me on a walk to the schoolyard where he’d parked it and handed me the key.
When I was seventeen, I moved to my father’s southwestern city. My boyfriend and I bought antique patchwork quilts at the flea market, set up house, and tried to love each other. My boyfriend got a pet snake, and I sat with him and watched it kill and eat mice, one or two a week. My father split up with his wife, moved into a little apartment, and gave me advice about life.
When I was eighteen, I moved back to the East Coast to go to college. I split up with my boyfriend and began dating his best friend. My boyfriend spied on us from the roof, then put his fist through the window.
When I was nineteen, I flew to my father’s city to edit a novel my father was trying to write. He wasn’t a very good writer, and I was, and he knew it. He resented my edits and quoted the Bible to me: “Get thee behind me, Satan.” I took his car and drove to the airport and flew home.
When I was twenty and had my first female lover, he came to visit me and flirted with her. That was the year he married his third wife, a real blonde this time, just a few months older than I was. He told me he understood why I was a lesbian. He said he liked women so much that if he were female, he’d be a lesbian, too.
When I was twenty-one, he refused to pay my college tuition. He asked why I didn’t just sell some of my poems and pay it myself. After that, I didn’t talk to him much for a year.
When I was twenty-three and had moved to San Francisco, he visited me and criticized my girlfriend, my job, and my house. The next day I refused to see him. That evening he called and told me how sorry he was. He said he’d spent the day walking alone on Haight Street and realized how many mistakes he’d made. He said he wanted to know me, wanted to know who I was. He left the next morning, and I wrote him a letter telling him how much that conversation had meant to me. He never wrote back.
When I was twenty-four, he refused to pay a student loan he’d asked me to take out, which he’d promised to pay back. He said, “I have a new family now. You’re a single girl. You can pay it yourself.”
For years, whenever we spoke on the phone, he would ask, “So, do you have a boyfriend?”
“No, Dad,” I’d say. “I’m a lesbian.”
“Well, maybe you should think about getting involved with a man for a change.”
“Maybe you should think about getting involved with a man for a change, Dad.”
That conversation got old after a while.
When I was thirty-four, my sister got married in a by-the-hour storefront chapel in Los Angeles, and she asked me not to tell my father. I didn’t. When he found out, he wrote me a letter saying I had become his enemy; no one who cared for him would have done such a thing.
When I was thirty-five, he called and told me I had been wrong, but the Bible said he should forgive me.
When I was thirty-eight, his third wife left him for a younger man, and he became convinced she was possessed by the devil. We spent hours on the phone having the same conversation: Did I think that was possible, he wanted to know, and what could he do about it? She was evil now, he said. She forced him to get drug tests before he could see his children. How could someone he’d loved for so long have become so evil? He wished her misery, he said. He wished her all the suffering she had caused him and more. Then he took up with Coreen, who had waist-length hair and six kids and an abusive husband. We spent hours having conversations about her. He also liked to reminisce fondly about old times. “Remember the time when you called me a ‘fucking bastard’ in the Chinese restaurant?”
When I was thirty-nine, I visited him for the last time, and he took off all his clothes and asked for a back rub, and I gave it to him. After that, I didn’t see him for five years.
When I was forty-two, I told him proudly on the phone how much my house had gone up in value — my house, for which I had used a poetry grant as the down payment — and even as I heard myself saying it, I thought, I shouldn’t be telling him this. I wasn’t surprised when he called the next week; I was just glad he asked for only $1,500. All of us went to the bank together: my child self, who actually believed that he’d pay me back in a week, as he promised; my adult self, who added up the many gifts he’d given me and thought, It’s all right to give this to him; and my dutiful-daughter self, who asked no questions and simply wired the money because her father had asked her to.
When I was forty-four, his medical license was revoked, and he showed up in California unannounced and banged on my half-sister’s door at midnight. The next day I drove there to see him and told him I knew he was an addict, and I loved him, and I wanted him to go to treatment. He smiled, showing his rotten teeth, and changed the subject. When I hugged him goodbye, I thought, I will never see you again.
I never did.
As the writer Tillie Olsen says, “I will never total it all.” There aren’t enough words for me to say who my father was to me — much less for me to begin to imagine who he was to himself, or why and how his world tilted on its axis. But he is with me when I cook — always playfully, without a recipe, making it up as I go. My food is usually delicious, as his was, and never tastes the same twice. He is with me when I try something new, something I’m not sure I know how to do, but that I do anyway. “Judith, you’re so smart,” he often told me. “You can do anything you want to do.” It was years before I realized how few people receive this particular gift from their fathers, and I treasure it. He is with me when I look in the mirror: my olive skin, which tans without burning; my myopic brown eyes with their faintly Asian slant; my round face; my compact, sturdy, reliable body — all his.
(Not the smile, though. My smile is neither his nor my mother’s. It’s there in the earliest photos of me, as if a fairy godmother had brought it: Here, child. Here is something of your very own.)
My father once told me two things that seemed wise. I remember this distinctly because I so enjoyed the experience, the novel idea that my father might be someone who could give me advice not only about medical problems, cars, and real estate but about life itself.
He said, “No matter what you’re feeling now, in six months it will be different.”
I was pouring a cup of coffee when he told me this. I’ve thought of it every single time I’ve poured coffee since then.
And he said, “You don’t have to outgrow your relationships. If both people keep growing, the relationship can keep growing, too.”
At the time he said this, I was painfully breaking up with my first live-in boyfriend, and my father had recently separated from his second wife. But he had met someone new and was feeling optimistic. I was seventeen then, and he was thirty-seven, a decade younger than I am now.
For my eighteenth birthday my father paid to have my chart done by a local astrologer. No one I knew had ever had an astrological reading; as always, he was ahead of the curve. It was a thoughtful gift from a man who didn’t know how to be a father but who wanted, somehow, to know the young woman who was his firstborn daughter, and to help her know herself. I still pull out the ancient, cracked cassette tapes of the reading every few years; the astrologer’s predictions and insights have proven startlingly accurate. As I write this, it occurs to me that it is time to listen again.
I’m staying for a week at a tiny, rustic hot-springs resort in the middle of nowhere. I’ve come here seeking a quiet so deep I can’t escape from it, a quiet big enough to hold me as I write my way through the shards of the past. This is the kind of place my father would have loved. He always sought out solitude for its creative possibilities, though he could never bear it for long — he’d always end up taking off in search of a woman, or a handful of pills. He told me once that even as a child he was terrified to sleep alone; he remembered standing up in his crib, gripping the bars in a panic when his mother left the room. Now, as I make my way past my own fears, I like to think I’m doing it for both of us.
Near dusk I start off on a hike through the endless miles of hills that surround this place. The land is rough and dry; I know grass grows here every spring, and even wildflowers, but summer is the season of death in California, and the death is complete. Or perhaps it isn’t; the rocks are furred with fluorescent green and rust-colored stubble, evidence of the water that trickles over them in spring. I don’t know where I’m going; it doesn’t matter. There’s no place to go. Around me the sunset clouds are a pink embrace.
Then I see it: an entire cow skeleton, spread out bone by bone far below me in a dry riverbed. It’s so white and stark and stunning that I immediately decide to risk life and limb — well, limb, at least — to make my way down to it. It’s a long way down. The bones have been picked clean and bleached by the sun. I don’t know exactly why, but I want these bones.
There are too many for me to carry them all, but I tuck the great, jointed spine under one arm and the enormous skull under the other and struggle back up the hills, making my way through the burs and thorns, over the narrow cow paths, under a darkening sky. The symbolism isn’t lost on me: my father was younger than I am now when he rescued a living calf; I’m past the likely midpoint of my life, making my way back with a beautiful pile of bones.