Fathers and teachers, I ponder, “What is hell?” I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love.
How did I get so lucky to have my heart awakened to others and their suffering?
WHEN MY FATHER DIES, I may not know about it for days. The people at his housing complex in Sarasota, Florida, don’t know that he has children—six, actually. He has not told anyone about this fact of his life. When he collapsed on the sidewalk last year, it was at least a week before I heard.
I am practicing now, writing about him, venturing out onto a vast glacier, knowing that day is coming. He is eighty-six, I think, with diabetes, phlebitis and smoker’s lungs that heave his chest with every breath. We will not have a service. The cessation of his breath will not be enough to draw us together. No one would cry. I don’t want to go to a funeral where no one cries.
I flew down from Alaska to see him twelve years ago. Six years had passed since my last visit. He was living on a sailboat then, moored in Captain Jack’s Marina. He had lived on the boat now for three years. His lifelong dream had been to sail around the world. Books and magazines with sailboats floated on our tables and bookshelves for most of my childhood.
It was sunny, humid. We stepped into a peapod dinghy that barely held the two of us. We had two inches of freeboard, his end sinking heavily into the still water. He was in his mid-seventies then, still strong, rowing with grunts and concentration. He did not talk. The sailboat was a twenty-eight-foot ketch, dirty white, the miniature cabin sunk with magazines and ash trays, with hardly a spot to sit or stand. I was polite, tried to say nice things about the boat, which was now everything he owned, the container of his life. He was able to buy the boat when my mother divorced him and sold the house. He had never had an income, except the last ten years working in a shoe factory, throwing hides onto a stamping machine. He got to keep five dollars a week, which he spent on cigarettes and coffee. The rest he handed over to my mother, these the only paychecks she saw in twenty-seven years. She gave him enough money from the sale of the house to buy this boat—to land his dream. I found out later that he couldn’t sail it. On one trip out of the harbor he had crashed into another boat; on the other, the coast guard had to tow him back in.
I watched him closely this trip. He had been living on his own for three years by now. Who was he here now that he was freed from the prison of his family? People who hung out at the marina knew him—the waterfront crowd, most past middle age, long hair, lots of tattoos, some toothless, all inhabiting vessels as wrecked as my father’s. Their amazement at my presence was clear. “Who’s this, Howard?” they asked, in a sly leering way—You old dog you—already reassessing what they thought they knew about him. When we ate breakfast in the marina café, the waitress greeted him by name, then asked the same: “Who is this, Howard?” I watched his face each time someone spoke to him. Would he look them in the eye? Does he see them when they speak to him? He looked away, or glanced at them and me with the flattened eyes I knew so well. He never said my name or introduced me. “This is my daughter. She’s from Alaska,” he would answer with a slight grimace and a mocking tone, his head bobbing slightly. What little he knew about my life was usually echoed back in this same tone, like a challenge or a joke. “How many kids do you have now?” he might ask at some point, in that same voice. Or, “So you’re still fishing, I suppose?” or, “I suppose you still believe in God?” Always spoken as if these were indefensible activities, performed against all sense and reason. My answer never really mattered.
I left after three days of trying to talk and be nice. He hadn’t changed.
When I was nine, I remember him standing in the den, his dark suit on, his hat, a gray overcoat, the clothes he wears when he drives off everyday. A traveling salesman, like his father. But his jobs never lasted for long. He was always fired. My throat caught as he stood there, suitcase in hand. He was leaving; my first memory of his many banishments. I was sad. He looked so pathetic standing there, my father, and I felt for a moment as though I understood. He and I were the same; we were both locked into something we couldn’t escape. It made us weak and small. And it wasn’t our fault. I think I hugged him. I may have even cried.
When I was in eighth grade, he left on his own. We had a little money left in the bank from the sale of our last house three years before—less than a thousand dollars. Our cupboards had always been sparse, but now we were down to twenty-seven dollars a week for food, eating canned mackerel for dinner, boiled chicken necks, or cracked eggs that we bought for twenty-five cents a dozen. On one of these days, my father drove to the bank, withdrew all that was left to fix his car, and then motored off. We found him one night, a month or two later, all of us in the car. He came back, promising that he would keep a job; he would show interest in his family; he would care about his children; he would smile and laugh and be sad and show feelings; he would be a husband and a father. I never wondered why he did not do any of these things.
He had lived with his parents until he was thirty. He was handsome, with dark skin and jet-black hair, perfect features, a muscular body. He met my mother through a cycling club, the AYH, American Youth Hostel. I do not know how long they knew each other before they married. In the one photo, taken after the justice of the peace pronounced them husband and wife, my father was blank. He would change, my mother thought.
He had wanted to be a writer. At his two-year business college, he was editor of the newspaper. He tested smart, had a high IQ and spent whatever time he could reading—science and boating magazines, newspapers, classic novels, a few of which now stand in my own library. Heart of Darkness, The Magic Mountain, a Charles Dickens Reader. I had read some of his short stories, long hidden in a manila folder. The stories weren’t good, but the sentences were long and fluid. He liked words, like me. When my first book came out, I sent him a copy, but he never answered. I did not send him any of my work again.
Without an income, my mother eventually found a means of provision. Our family work became restoring old colonial houses, mostly in severe disrepair, beginning with whatever house we were living in. Following my mother’s lead, we labored through weekends, after school, summers, tearing down walls, sanding pine floors, tarring barn roofs, replacing rotten sills. We lived in houses heated with a single woodstove through New Hampshire winters, our rooms below freezing most of the time, and in houses with wells that went dry in the summers. When the house was done, we attempted to sell it, though it sometimes took years, our funds from the previous sale dwindling to nothing. My father was there for some of this, the heavy work, but mostly it was us. After hot summer days whacking stands of Chinese bamboo with machetes or scraping the dried paint from the massive edifice of the current house, if my father was with us, he was the one who asked for ice cream, an astonishing luxury. We held our breath awaiting the verdict, and when it was yes, we were glad he had been with us.
He fought in the war. His high scores landed him in navigation school, but he flunked out and was moved to another rank and school. He failed there too and, with nowhere else to go, joined the infantry, a foot soldier. Of his year overseas, he told one story, if asked. He was sitting on top of a tank somewhere in Germany. The others were sitting in the grass, taking a break. Suddenly he knew he had to get off the tank. He jumped down, and within seconds a mortar blast hit the tank right where he had been sitting. “So, you wouldn’t be here today if I hadn’t gotten off the tank,” he says, in summary, his face expressionless, lips drawn into a line.
“Don’t you think that was God?” I asked once.
“I suppose,” he shrugged blandly.
He had been Christian Science for awhile, then nothing, then an atheist, with special enthusiasm for UFOs. He watched for them every clear summer night, standing out on the grass, surveying the dark tent overhead. When we were younger, we watched too, sometimes. He told us of spaceships he had seen, close up, of fireballs shooting at him right there on our back road in New Hampshire—his conversion experience. He never wavered in his belief after that. Except one year, twenty years ago. I was living in Anchorage then. A letter with his tight scrawl showed up in my mailbox, the second or third letter he had ever written to me. He had read all the way through the New Testament, he wrote. He believed in Jesus. Would I forgive him? I cried bitterly for two days after that letter, because I could claim no part in his scandalous redemption. I had never even thought to pray for him. And I was not sure I could forgive him—for my persistent invisibility, the times he made me touch him while tucking me in at night, the poverty and the work…. A year later, after a flurry of mail between us, he wrote his last letter for a while, tucked inside a box of all the books I had sent him, along with magazines with aliens and spaceships on the covers: Dear Leslie, don’t call me daddy anymore. I am returning all the books you’ve sent, I don’t have room for them on my boat. Don’t talk to me about God or church. I’m sending you some magazines you should read.
Two years ago we all flew down to Florida, my husband and children and I, ten years after my last visit. We would do the usual vacation things, but mostly this was a trip to see him. He was eighty-four then. This would be my children’s only chance to meet him. They had little curiosity about him, and he knew nothing about them, but I had learned from my husband and children what fathers might be for. I wanted them to know who he was for themselves. Someday they would care.
I warned the older kids, sixteen to nine years old, that he probably would not look at them or ask their names or ages. They shrugged, accepted this as routine. I worried about the two little boys, who were one and a half and three, who thought a grandfather was like their grandpa back home, an old man who wanted you to sit on his knee, who played hide-and-seek with you, asked you questions and gave you hugs. I just told them this man was my father.
When we pulled up to the VA housing complex in Sarasota, my husband Duncan, who was driving, saw him first.
“There he is.” I recognized his head, nearly bald, distinctively square, with a barely visible neck, dark skinned. All as I remembered. But heavy, maybe forty pounds heavier than the last time I had seen him. He was wearing shorts and a jersey, the jersey tight over his belly. I stared at him, suddenly frozen. What do I do? How do I play this scene? Loving daughter greeting long-lost father? Kind daughter bringing her children to meet their invisible grandfather? The van stopped. I got out slowly. The side doors opened and the kids piled out, one after another, like some silly cartoon about an unending stream of people spilling from a tiny car. My father stood there watching, looking past the kids, not seeming to see them. I suddenly knew what to do. I smiled and hugged him lightly, patting him on the back.
“Hi, how ahh ya?” he asked in his Massachusetts accent. He smiled a little, showing most of his teeth broken or gone.
“Good. We had a little trouble finding this place,” I said, with false brightness.
He walked us around his apartment complex and then up to his room. “I cleaned up for you,” he grimaced, waving around the room, showing us the results—a box of a room awash in old newspapers and stacks of magazines, ash trays, a bed and couch taking up most of the floor space. He showed me his refrigerator and the contents of his freezer—mostly cheap TV dinners and ice cream. My brother told me he had eaten ice cream before bed every night of his life since the divorce. Coffee in the morning, cigarettes, ice cream at night, UFOs. That was all he needed.
We loaded into the van, nine of us now, and drove to Crystal Beach on his suggestion. I had no idea what to do on this visit, and felt saved by this beach. It was blindingly white, as deep as it was wide, massed with bodies fervid with languor. I walked slowly with him out onto the beach—he walked like the old man he now was. Duncan and the kids ran ahead into the water while I staked out a stamp of ground for our blanket. “Can you sit?” I asked, looking up at him as he stood above me. No, his hips were bad—he couldn’t lower himself onto the sand. A man nearby heard our dilemma and jumped up to offer his own folding chair; I felt a sudden bright heat—yes, kindness. I understood as I set up the chair. Later I got him a hot dog, then an ice cream. I could pity him. I could feel pity. And I could pretend that this was all of my grief, simply the diminishments of age.
We sat there in the white sun on the white beach, just he and I. He sat in that chair just as he had sat in that one living room chair in all the houses we had lived in. He had no discernible waist or neck—his head and body were welded together. Heavy, always an oppressive heaviness about his body that pulled at me like gravity—so little to animate the weight of his own limbs. This was my last chance to know who he was, to find a fissure, something to take me down into that frozen stillness. I asked him about the war, about his mother and father, about his childhood—I knew so little. He didn’t remember much, answering in short vague sentences, spoken sideways, eyes always away. I was bothering him. He wanted to sit in the sun, watch the water and be quiet. I kept asking questions, tried to store some of his words in my head to write them down later, but they evaporated almost as soon as he spoke them.
Two hours later, we were headed back, the day at the beach already exhausted. I was quiet and grim. Had we really spent all that money to fly down here for these two hours? He hadn’t asked the names of my children or spoken to them, except to ask the older ones about the weather in Kodiak. Just before we left the soft-serve stand, I told Duncan to take a photo. I wanted to remember this moment, the last time I would see my father. He sat at the wooden picnic table with a slight smirk, looking utterly content. I stood behind him, deciding not to arrange my face. I would let it be. My lips taut, mouth clamped shut, containing as much emptiness and want as I could hold. And anger at myself and him—how could I still want?
The pictures done, we dropped him off at his building. I got out of the car to say goodbye, my body leaden, ready to drive away. I gave him a quick hug, shoulders only, not wanting to feel his body against mine. As I pulled away he held on and looked me in the eyes, his face just a foot away from mine, and said, “You’re amazing.”
I startled, not believing what I had heard, what he was doing. “What do you mean?”
“Up there in Alaska, fishing, with six kids, writing. You’re amazing. You’re a success.”
I blinked, aghast. He had thoughts about me? I patted his shoulder, pressed my lips into a smile and ducked down into the car, quick, before I could want him to say anything more.
This is almost everything I know about my father. Every day this week I have left my own family to march out onto that white open beach, the blankness of these pages needing to know, interrogating that heavy presence, waiting for answers, wanting a name. I had no intention of ever writing about him—how do I inscribe emptiness on a white space? But an e-mail came last week from a friend whose father had died. She sent the essay she wrote for his service. It was beautiful and mournful, filled with all she would miss without him. Hours later, I began to write, and I could not stop. I wouldn’t be satisfied with a pat and a fake smile this time. Not until the pages are filled, until a name is given—any name.
I began with a guess, searching on the internet for information on schizophrenia. I read pages, scrolled through every personality disorder until I found it, from the American Psychological Association:
A pervasive pattern of detachment from social relationships and a restricted range of expression of emotions in interpersonal settings, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by four (or more) of the following:
- neither desires nor enjoys close relationships, including being part of a family
- almost always chooses solitary activities
- takes pleasure in few, if any, activities
- lacks close friends or confidants other than first-degree relatives
- appears indifferent to the praise or criticism of others
- shows emotional coldness, detachment, or flattened affectivity.
Why have I waited until I am nearly fifty to find this name—schizoid personality disorder?
One last question. I return to the little white search box on the screen and type in one more word: treatment. My face blanches as I wait for the first entry to open. Then I read a second, and a third. They all say the same. There is no treatment. There is nothing that could have been done. Except to know. Which could have changed, yes, everything. I cried.
I cried most of the week I wrote this. It was not hard to cry. I have cried a lot these last few years. In church nearly every week. This spring, at the Washington National Cathedral, I sat behind a grandmother and mother and daughter all holding hands during evensong. I could not stop weeping. I cry for Michelle, savaged by untreatable mental illness, for my starving brothers, for the floods and droughts of motherhood, for my neighbors who saw their five-year-old son drown last month, for Ben’s mother with Alzheimer’s, for Mindi’s children…. I lament this weight of tears, my sure presence in the house of mourning, my stuttering in the house of parties, but now I have found my own true name, too: Mercy. What mercy is this, to be given life from those who cannot love or cry and to be granted such aches and loves and the glad burden of others’ sorrow? How do you live without memory and grief and sadness? You sit on a white beach under a creamy sun and eat vanilla ice cream while your daughter who you haven’t seen in ten years sits famished, dying beside you, and this day is the same as any other, but the ice cream is pretty good.
I am not sure that hell is the suffering of being unable to love. I have lived in the house of such a man. His face is almost heavenly—content, his visage unwrinkled and untroubled even at eighty-six, a sure tranquility without the complication of remembrance or regret. And he has loved. It is never a question of not loving—it is only a question of what is loved. He loved what little he could.
Maybe I will go back when the call comes. Maybe I will go sooner. I could fly down and take him back to Crystal Beach, that sparkling plain, this time with a folding chair—no, two chairs. I would sit next to him. I would see what he sees—the vast white sand, the sun, the quiet water. I would buy an ice cream for him and for me too this time. I wouldn’t ask him questions or want anything from him. I would be grateful for that one moment when he saw me and almost spoke my name—No, this is not enough. This is not the ending I can write or live. I have to want. I have to believe that fathers should love their children; I have to remember and write all that was done and lost and missed. And if, each time I remember, I can cry for him, for me, for my family, maybe this is love.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.