Once, not so very long ago, my father and I visited my mother’s grave. He and I had roughed out a plan a few nights earlier as we ate dinner around a mostly quiet table (Time?; I guess so). On the appointed morning he moved more quickly than usual. He ate cold cereal instead of lingering over his usual breakfast of bacon and fried eggs, Sunny Side up. He skipped a shower, shaved with patchy results, dressed in a shirt and pants that matched only if wrinkled and casual were the defining categories. Still, he seemed reluctant, even though I can’t point to anything concrete. True, he paused to turn on the TV—but he always did that in the morning, more a ritual than real interest—clicking through the channels before settling on a game show. As far as I could figure he liked Price is Right sorts of shows, ones with upbeat hosts, contestants picked from among everyday people, and outcomes determined by luck or commonsense (no tricky questions please). All in all, nothing in his routine seemed out of the ordinary, nothing I might call a stall tactic. But maybe it was his lack of chatter that registered, his dogged silence regarding our agreed-to purpose, as if he were banking on my forgetfulness, hoping that his allegiance to the mundane would throw me off the track. Yet when I finally asked if he was ready, he said yes, got his jacket and headed for the car.
This was our first trip since the funeral. For myself, I didn’t know what to expect; as for my father, well, he still wasn’t talking. Left to interpret that silence I saw what I always saw—a willful optimist at war with a visceral pessimist, constantly updating his fearful gut checks with but-it-will-turn out-ok statements. Of course, even assuming I was right, it would not be his way to offer commentary on this internal balance. He doesn’t tell me about his indigestion either.
Given my father’s presumed reluctant to go to the cemetery I was surprised by his decisiveness when we arrived. He shouldered open the passenger door, swung his legs around with the aid of his arms, untangled his feet from his cane, pulled himself upright, shook his legs to settle his pants cuffs, then set off on his short journey. I was the one who hesitated, perhaps to linger in a starker landscape than I had remembered—fewer trees, uneven lawn, clumps of red plastic flowers—or perhaps because I was still unsure of my response to my mother’s death—anger, confusion, more anger, undigested et ceteras.
My father stumbled, but kept going until he stood on my mother’s foot stone. Once there he didn’t look up, or around, or at me. Instead, rooted to this spot he looked down between his feet then rapped the stone with his cane. Once, twice, three times. With each tap he seemed steadier, an uncertain man transformed. Mary, Mary are you there? he called out. After a pause he whispered, I miss you. Mary.
I consider myself a rational man. I am conversant in the language of science, the logic of probability theory. I like to parse things down to their simplest explanations. I think about cause and effect; I have opinions about whether the chicken or the egg came first. So why—if only for an instant—did I imagine my father the keeper of a secret code and this the way to the beyond? Why did it make perfect sense that striking the lower right edge of the sun-warmed granite might make powerful things happen?
Even now I can picture my father standing on my mother’s grave stone. He looked small, skinny, a little stooped, seemingly content to stay put with both hands resting comfortably on the top of his cane. He acted as if he always stood on graves, as if he were engaged in the most natural thing in the world. He took it for granted—I imagined—that communing with his dead wife was a straightforward proposition. In contrast, I stood behind him and to the side. I felt only emptiness. I only saw grass and stone and a vast blue sky. I was already struggling to keep my mother in the present tense. I already saw the problem as one of remembrance, of how to keep her alive in memory, how to draw strength from the way she used to look at me. My father, however, just stood in the sun and talked to her. I tell her what’s going on, he said.
I can still hear my father calling Mary, Mary, are you there? as naturally as if she might be in the next room. His was a tender question, open-ended, asked without assuming she was present, but believing she might be. Then the whispered I miss you, which sounded to me as a continuation of a conversation, as if he had sensed encouragement because she had heard his opening query. For him, she was there, fully attentive. I had this odd sensation that I had just heard an incantation and that my father had revealed himself to be a wizard. I wanted to believe I had stepped into a fairy tale where death wasn’t really a trap door, but was more fluid, offered surprises and a tiny bit of hope. I felt as if my father was alive to something in his bones, that he had slipped frames of reference, side-stepped the limits of the narrowly plausible where touching a special stone or whispering in just the right way had real power, offered an imagined crossing, created a link between here and there (without ever offering any real contours or feel for what there was like).
My father, I think, had assumed in some essential way that he and my mother would live forever. Certainly, the question of who would die first never came squarely to mind. My father might have believed that it was more chivalrous to go first in the off chance that death worked on the quota system. But really, he didn’t give it much thought. Out of sight, out of mind isn’t such a bad operating principle when it comes to death. Now that he is alone he still doesn’t seem to fear death, though he is happy enough to postpone it—I’ll get to that by and by, he often tells me.
I don’t share my father’s calmness on this subject. I am a dyed-in-my-tee-shirt existentialist, an ashes to ashes sort of fellow. Even ashes to ashes offers more continuity—with its hint of a pleasant cycling in, cycling out—than I truly believe in. Born of carbon-based compounds, die of entropy. That is closer to my fix on things. Yet I find comfort in my father talking to my dead mother, if only because it makes him strange, adds complexity to an otherwise simple fellow. It leads me to re-evaluate him, to imagine that I might ask something of him, that he might actually have something left to tell me.
So what do I still hunger for? What stored knowledge do I want access to? What might a father born in 1922 on a farm in North Carolina still have to say to a son born in a suburb of New York in 1948? What last chance bit of wisdom, cooked up by him alone, might he offer? Could he somehow distill the essence of his life into something useful, something that he hadn’t yet shared or made clear? Might he include the general sweep (depression era, rural roots, Calvinistic upbringing) along with the personal details (ten siblings, love of cornbread crumbled into a glass of milk, a dislike of peas)?
But my father isn’t reflective in this sort of way. Besides, even if he were, aren’t generational handoffs usually fumbled? To the extent that knowledge includes context, our eras are fundamentally different. I’ve never taken his advice in the past. Why would I seek his advice now? Maybe because I am running out of time? Maybe because of my new hunch that my grave-tapping father has hidden gifts? Whatever the reason, I asked my question as directly and simply as I could: Poppa what do you think wisdom looks like?
You must realize that we do not have a history of philosophic discourse, my father and I. No, we limit ourselves to sports and the weather and what we ate for dinner (when we can remember) and how my job is going. Given this usual pattern, perhaps my father sensed a trick, intuited that his dodgy son was setting him up again, thought that I might be using the endearment Poppa in some overly-clever way. All I know for sure is that if you want to appreciate the vast potential of human silence, ask my father about wisdom. I could only laugh at the acoustical abyss I had fallen into. This was no I’m-not-telling sort of silence, no pregnant pause or modest reluctance that might be overcome with a respectful repeating of the question. I heard no rustling behind the scenes, no gears turning, no energy waiting to be untapped. Just deep, unfillable silence.
Such an easy sounding word: wisdom. So easy to misapply. I could pin it to an elder as a reward for mere survival; it might float from my mouth and land unsettled upon an earnest but overly cautious friend. No, I don’t trust my own sense. I have questions. I want to know if wisdom comes from grace or from perseverance or by applying rules or perhaps from luck. I want to know if wisdom requires close study and continued contemplation or if it requires action. I want to know if folly is wisdom’s opposite or its better half. And of course I want to know if my father’s silence was some sort of clue. Could wisdom be nothing more than artful hesitation, the ability to hold one’s tongue, to recall a lifetime of experience with a shrug of the shoulders?
Only slightly deterred, I tried again to engage my father in a discussion on wisdom. Finally he relented and offered, for him, an odd clue: read the bible. He’s the religious one, but the Bible holds no great attraction for him. His approach to religion is reflected in how he picked the church he used to attend every week. His choice—small, under-funded, cheek to jowl with a boarded-up cotton mill—struck his spiritual fancy because Big Bob came up and shook my hand like he already knew me. To my father the Bible is a shadowy reference (I’ve never read it cover to cover, he says). Still, he doesn’t seem surprised when I tell him that the Bible includes more than two hundred references to the word wisdom.
I am an atheist. My father knows this. Perhaps his suggestion to read the bible amounted to a bit of missionary work, one last attempt to bring his son into the fold? If so, I was flattered. I took up his challenge. What, I wondered, could I learn from plowing through the wisdom literature of the Old Testament, reading Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job? As is obvious, I am no Biblical scholar. I sheepishly confess that the King James Version doesn’t make me cry with its beauty. But the bible is a book, right? I’ve read books my entire life. So I opened this one with respect, hoping to be moved. First Proverbs. Thirty one chapters written to know wisdom and instruction; to perceive the words of understanding. Certainly I could see the outline of something akin to wisdom—self-control, prudence, justice, courage. Certainly I’m in favor of rules against murder, can live with exhortations against idleness. But with page after page after page of avoid this and turn from that Proverbs starts to read like an operating manual for the ten commandments. More than anything I hear the voices of lawyers and community builders pretending to be poets. Then Ecclesiastes, the preacher. Lovely writing. A still-current reflection on the limits of human enterprise: both the wise and the foolish man shall die. Even builders of great cities will be forgotten. Human wisdom cannot transcend death. However, wanting that transcendent answer, Ecclesiastes paints itself into a philosophical corner. Thus stuck, the choices are to put on the dunces cap and laugh or leap into God’s arms.
But Job offers more—a dramatic story, real choices, understandable (and complex) characters. Job, you will remember, is caught in God’s crosshairs. Satan has led God to doubt Job’s piety. In a strange but wonderful opening scene, God and Satan are debating why people are good. Satan argues that Job has been pious and reverential only because he has been blessed with a good life. Heap troubles on his head, says Satan, and Job will curse you. God hesitates, begins to wonder about Job, and decides to test him. In an instant, Job’s flocks are destroyed, his house crushed, his children killed.
Patient as Job? How about as tough as Job? In response to his woes, Job becomes a fighter with a sharp tongue: “Therefore I will not refrain my mouth; I will speak in the anguish of my spirit; I will complain in the bitterness of my soul.” Job believes himself devout and that God is punishing an innocent man. With his life in ruins, he bemoans his existence, goes so far as to wish he had never been born, wants to know why the guilty so often prosper. Most amazingly, Job demands a hearing with God. He wants to know exactly what he has been accused of. He imagines a divine court with himself as defense attorney: “I would speak to the Almighty, I desire to reason with God.” So vivid is this pipe dream that he even states what ground rules God must follow, for he knows a fair fight would be difficult when matched against the shaker of the earth and the commander of the sun. As Job correctly asserts, “There is no arbiter between us, who might lay his hand on us both.” Two things he asked for: “Withdraw thine hand far from me: and let not thy dread make me afraid.”
I picture Job standing his ground, fists held defiantly aloft, but with his head ducked, just a little. No, says Job. His bones rattle for justice. He mocks the logic of his not-very-helpful friends; he challenges God to reveal himself, he asks an impossible question: “Why is light given to a man whose way is hid, whom God hath hedged in?” In all this I see wisdom-in-action. Job is true to himself. He listens to criticism but doesn’t needlessly capitulate. He challenges God but never denies him, even when God remains absent and silent. However, Job’s question—perhaps the best line in the Bible—suggests that he will fail because he lacks a vantage with the sweeping view. In the end Job believes he has no choice but to acknowledge the logic of his time: read the book, follow the rules, fear the Lord. Job bows down before the whirlwind. His arguments cease. He grows quiet. God has the last word. It’s a pity.
In a blink my father is an 88 year old living in an assisted living facility. It is tempting to say that he’s had his own set of maladies heaped upon his head. He eats in a dining hall at his assigned seat amongst people he finds uninteresting. He sleeps in a single bed. He watches television. He takes up a little space. And for some reason he’s started kicking at the staff when they try to wake him for breakfast. But any implied comparison to Job is ridiculous, right? I don’t imagine my father a fighter raising his fist toward the heavens or complaining of his lot. Nor do I really view my father as caught in a parable that is somehow mine for the taking. I can expect no polished words; it is foolish, for example, to imagine my father a Shakespearean character ready to stride across the stage to deliver a speech just for my ears.
A dramatic strut toward the footlights is especially unlikely given that my father fell last week. Three times. On his way to the bathroom, to dinner, to nowhere special. He can hardly pick up his feet so he shuffles along behind a walker. The carpets are designed to offer traction and to prevent slips, but the material seems to grab at his shoes. On weakened legs, with no margin for error he is likely to tumble down if he leans too far as he turns a corner. That the carpets are green and pink is probably irrelevant, though my father once told me he didn’t like the colors. You have to value his opinion because he’s had more than a little time to study carpet aesthetics; once down my father stays down. Nose to carpet he’s too weak to crawl to his knees and push himself back up. Because he is prideful or forgetful, he refuses to pull the alarm cord, later claiming that he couldn’t reach it. Somehow he makes himself comfortable waiting for rescue. This time my brother found him after ten minutes. At other times my father claims he’s been stranded for an hour, but he is weak on time too.
I wonder what he really thinks about when lying on the carpet? There’s no evidence of panic, so I doubt he has apocalyptic thoughts. Maybe he thinks about his wife (in bed, in the kitchen, sitting together in the living room?), or about the time he crashed a toboggan into a tree and was similarly left lying on the ground awaiting help. Or maybe he thinks about his older sister, Ruth, who recently died of a stroke. Or about the new medicine he’s been asked to take but isn’t clear why. Or—a longshot, I admit—maybe he tries to remember the lyrics of the songs he and I had recently made up. While talking on the phone, I had launched into a riff on the Singing Damerons. Why don’t we start a blues band, I suggested. The idea was patently ridiculous, both of us are horrible singers, our primes long gone. But the absurdity was the attraction. By way of example I made up a song about fathers and sons. Not me, he said. You’ve heard me sing—in church, happy birthday—you don’t want to sing next to a voice like that. But I pressed him, What’s your song? I kept asking him. Farm boy made good? Life in assisted living, at Dunlop House? He protested, but with a laugh. Then to my amazement he began, in a voice every bit as wobbly as he had forewarned, emanating from some guttural place where music finds its rhythm in the beat of the heart and its pitch from the tunes of insects and birds. His was an eerie falsetto, a wail, more poignant than he (or I) had ever imagined. I live in Dumb House, he began, where I’m known as a mean, mean man.
His words stopped me cold. His voice had a new edge, was more forceful, devoid of humor. I heard hellhounds, I tell you. I imagined a torrent of complaint, a litany of insult for my examination. Even before he had really found his groove, I was growing worried. I wanted to hear his song, yet I didn’t. I wasn’t at all sure I could tease out the fixable from the inevitable. Even if I could, I was uncertain of my father’s intent. Was he asking for help? Was he demonstrating his continued acuity (Yes son, I know what is happening to me). Or was he just lost in the game of making up doggerel?
But now the clues jumped into place—his recent mumblings, his curt responses to my questions, his flat out refusal to pick up the phone, his frequent falls. Something dark has been occurring lately. After checking with my brother I learned that our father was getting more belligerent, that he yelled when displeased, that staff found him hard to roust in the morning and that his weak legs were still to be avoided if he tried to kick. I learned that a physician had prescribed a ‘chemical restraint’ to keep him in line. In the words of the King James Bible, my father has become froward (not easily controlled, stubbornly willful, contrary, refractory). More so all the time apparently. But what does a son have to offer a froward father other than grudging admiration?
With the unearthly sound of my father’s voice in my head I thought of him tapping on my mother’s grave marker. And once again I had the sense of entering a fairy tale, where different rules applied. The very structure of our conversations reinforces this illusion. Ours is the language of fairy tales where he and I repeat the same simplified words, over and over, as if we seek visceral purity above all else. I ask how he is; he says Not bad for a kid. I ask him what he did today; he responses, As little as possible. I follow-up with Did you succeed?;He answers, Who’s to say? And the same stories. He’ll tell me, again and again, about a photograph he took in the 1940s of a plane flying low over the ocean while he stood on the beach. My father must have panned the camera because the plane was in perfect focus. He’ll tell me, repeatedly, about a birthday present he got from his father when he was a small boy—a top, as near as I can figure, made from a bobbin and a match head, powered by a rubber band. Both stories have been reduced to pure wonder. A plane frozen over the ocean, it and its pilot, forever in mid-flight. A piece of wood, fashioned by his father’s hands, that spins and spins and never stops. My father tells these stories with awe in his voice, sounding old and young at the same time, offering unguarded truths that must be shared.
The things I believed most in then, the things I believe most now, are things called fairy tales,” said C.K. Chesterton. Well, maybe, is all I can muster. Certainly my father would wave such an idea away. He doesn’t brook funny business. He isn’t haunted by unexplained mysteries, he doesn’t question his reason for existing, or display sadness about choices made or not made. However quirky (or traditional) his religious views, he has made his peace with his God. He has no need for Chesterton’s insight, he isn’t interested in fairy tales for adults.
Still, to my tastes, stories like Grimm’s Tales or even those of Hans Andersen offer a refreshing take on wisdom. The simpleton can be the hero; foolishness is given its due. Such stories offer a rudimentary ethical framework without rubbing your face in it. However reductionist or illogical, the stories typically honor the intelligence of the reader – uncertainty is tolerated, the happy ending (while sometimes arrived at too suddenly) is never over-blown (a few more good years). Cruelty and suffering are explicit, sexuality ripe for easy interpretation. For all their faults, fairy tales seem the perfect crucible for pitting hope against death, for combining lust with rage, mixing renewal and longing. They praise wisdom and mock wisdom almost in equal measure. They acknowledge desires—however outlandish—but set limits. They speak bluntly of death but describe places where wonder abounds, where goodwill and continued effort will lead to a happy ending, at least for now.
As for my father, the doctors have straightened out his medications and he seems to be doing better. We still talk every night, mostly about the weather though I keep looking for his hidden powers and wizardly ways. I believe he is a simple man who sometimes—magically—navigates just a little beyond the edge of the known world. So, if my father sometimes disregards the call to action, if he sees learning as a burden, fears controversy, and too often confuses means and ends, he still nods in the right direction. He does have an at-a-glance appreciation for the compassionate gesture. He praises people for being able to admit they are wrong. He’s acquired the habit of generosity. He savors life but doesn’t overly fear death.
Last night my father told me, again, his tale of the captured rainbow. He and my mother were driving in upstate New York when they spied a rainbow arching directly toward them. You never saw such bright colors, said my father. They stopped, got out of the car, and my father claims to have put his cupped hands into the prismatic light at the end of that rainbow. Where’s the pot of gold? he asked.
It must be at the other end, you silly man, she replied as she reached for his beribboned hands. And such are my parents—creatively optimistic, willing to play make-believe, building connections and patterns beyond easy logic. So, in their spirit I want to add my hand to theirs; I can’t help picturing us all strung together in a line, like characters in a fairy tale. Where one goes, we all go. Up the hill, down the hill, this land, strange land, all around. We are stuck to one another, our hands interlocked, unable to let go even if we wanted to. And as the tale says, if we are not dead yet, then we are still alive. Even my sweet mother.