By Brian George
Several weeks had gone by since the visit of my father and (his third wife) Judith in October. On a complex pattern of back roads, we had travelled to many of the places that my father remembered from the 1950s, when he has just out of Boston University and stationed at Fort Devens. Then, it was off to the airport, where we hugged goodbye, and, in three or four hours, they were back in Denver.
In hindsight, I would say that this last trip was more bittersweet than we knew, or at least than we were willing to acknowledge, and had taken place more in memory than in the landscape of New England.
So: several weeks had gone by. Already, the brilliance of the red and gold leaves had begun to fade, and there were more of them on the ground than in the trees. In their V-formations, turning on a dime, the last military jets had disappeared to the South, leaving only a few contrails. We would miss their sonic booms. We would wake to find that frost had spider-webbed the windows. How wonderful! We could smell the wood-smoke from our neighbor’s cast iron stove, which, even indoors, seemed to follow us around. Cold had driven a few field-mice to take refuge in our basement. Our cat would not kill them quickly. He liked to play with them for several hours first. Most bees had short-circuited. Their radar was gone, and they flew at odd angles, banging into things. The wind from the next season had arrived ahead of schedule. It stung fingers, and got underneath our clothes, making us, quite suddenly, aware of how inadequate they were.
One day, as I was browsing through the shelves at the Barnes and Noble Bookstore, a book by the Polish writer Zbigniew Herbert seemed to jump into my hands. I turned randomly to a page, and in front of me was a poem that Herbert had written about his father’s death. I would like to read it now.
Remembering My Father
His face severe in clouds above the waters of childhood
so rarely did he hold my warm head in his hands
given to belief not forgiving faults
because he cleared out woods and straightened paths
he carried the lantern high when we entered the night
I thought I would sit at his right hand
and we would separate light from darkness
and judge those of us who live
—it happened otherwise
a junk-deafer carried his throne on a hand-cart
and the deed of ownership—the map of our kingdom
he was born for a second time slight very fragile
with transparent skin hardly perceptible cartilage
he diminished his body so I might receive it
in an unimportant place there is shadow under a stone
he himself grows in me we eat our defeats
we burst out laughing
when they say how little is needed
to be reconciled
In this piece Herbert touches on what I think of as the three stages of interaction between parents and children, and on a final—more mysterious—stage that occurs after death.
In the first stage, our parents are giants. They have great control over the world and great authority. They exist in a mythic dimension. They cast enormous shadows as they move. The child who plays hide and seek loves to suddenly jump out. We put on an incarnation to take it off. The CEO of an international conglomerate, in the presence of a parent, can revert to being five years old. It is hard to do without our magical intermediaries, the big birds who intercede with clouds on our behalf. It is wonderful to be held in the strong arms of the ruler of the world.
We learn to take charge. We are never fully grown. When a parent dies, should he or she apologize for leaving us unprotected? The work of becoming conscious can vanish like a sand castle, as, inch by inch, the tide advances up the turrets.
In the second stage, as we grow our parents shrink to a more human scale. We see them eye to eye, as human beings like ourselves, and begin to understand their limitations. Since we know all too well our own limitations, we begin—perhaps grudgingly—to accept the limitations of our parents. It would be good if this process were as automatic as the change of the seasons or the growth of a tree. The situation is complicated by our having not one but two sets of parents. The mythic parents never do quite disappear, but go underground to live inside of us. We are confronted outside by the human ones. There are children who, for years after a parent’s death, will not forgive the one for not being the other.
False innocence can freeze the heart. It can be stunting to expect a golden childhood for ourselves. I would here pause, to direct a look at Jeff and Robbie, if my half-brothers could have put aside their disappointments to be here with us today. The soul matures by growing downwards into the darkness of the earth.
In the third stage, depending upon how long each person lives, the children might take on some part of the protective role of the parents. Bit by bit, we come to see that time’s arrow is not purely theoretical. No, all things will change. The classic, three-dimensional images that have followed us from childhood can then come to seem like badly scratched projections, and we cannot help but wonder if we have made our parents up. We come to see our parents as not only limited but also as quite vulnerable and frail. As what should be their wisdom expands, the strength of their intellect might simultaneously contract, and as the wealth of their experience grows, they might begin to develop a whole range of physical problems. At some point, they might float into the twilit mist of a kind of semi-incarnate state—a state not quite in this world, but not quite in the next.
They might rehearse their lives backwards and forwards, telling the same stories hundreds of times over. To think, “We have heard these stories!” is to miss the point. Is this simple repetition or the start of a movement beyond life itself, the first step in a process that will take off after death, and then escalate still further, in a kind of quantum leap? At the end, the parent might not even know what century he or she is in, let alone the specific year. An accountant might not be able to add up a column of figures. A dancer might not remember how she was taught to tie her shoelaces, or that the shoes for the left and right feet are supposed to match. A patriarch might become as weightless as a scarecrow. A matriarch might not recognize her child’s face. Whether we want to or not, we, the children, are forced to think—if we haven’t done so yet—primarily in terms of what we have to give. We must help our parents to acknowledge and accept that it is they who are now the dependents, and that, strangely, each is acting out the role that the other had first performed. The key thing is to operate by stealth. We must “act without acting,” and lead by way of a posture of submission. We must do our best not to get yelled at!
In the fourth stage, finally, the parents move on to a new world. We are left behind to internalize their knowledge, to develop a new and subtler relationship with them, as well as with the more intuitive aspects of ourselves. In some subtle way, our parents might once more act as our protectors.
Signs will be sent. We will speak again in dreams. We must help them to say goodbye to us, to establish themselves in the higher worlds. From there, they might act as our inter-dimensional guides, if we could only let go of all of our dead habits, and, with new ears, learn how to listen. As, with a sigh, they had once sent us off to school—first to kindergarten, then to high school and to college—so too we must send them off to conduct their life-review. From the other side of the aperture that clicks open on the light—which each is free to interpret in his or her own way—it is possible that our parents will have access to our mirrors. They will, no doubt, have important things to do, as well as many non-local parties to attend, but, when asked, they may provide us with some necessary clue. As, earlier, our parents had gone before us to the Earth, so too they have volunteered to scout the vastness of the Beyond. If we are the systole, they are the diastole; if we are the inhalation, they are the exhalation, and vice versa. It is possible that death is just birth played in reverse, and that the figure 8 is the most perfect of all forms.
I would like to present the first three stages of interaction with my father in reverse, ending with a few memories from childhood. Beyond what I have already said, however, I will not speak here of the fourth and more mysterious stage that opens up after death; it is beyond the reach of my casual recollection, and I would quickly lapse into poetry. And so, to begin:
During the recent trip of my father and Judith to Boston, I noticed that his hair had turned from silver to white, that he no longer enjoyed long walks, and, in fact, wanted to park his car at the front door of any building that we were visiting, rather than walking the few extra steps. In other words, I saw the normal signs of aging. For the first time, my father began to seem like someone in his sixties. I thought that he might develop a few health problems. It seemed like such a short time ago that he had started law school at the age of 59, bringing to it the enthusiasm of someone 20 years younger. I felt proud to have a father so willing to start again, to begin where he was and face life head on.
Now he seemed just a bit frail and cantankerous, rather than difficult in his earlier way. But what a wonderful visit that was! Speeding at 80 miles an hour through the autumn foliage, we traveled to the Bull Run Inn outside Fort Devens, where he had been stationed in 1954, when I was born. At the Inn, he remembered the name of the moose head made of sticks and scraps for vegetarians—the Egopantis—on the wall above the fireplace. I almost cried to watch him playing with his new granddaughter Elizabeth, then nine months old. He was overjoyed during a service at Emmanuel Church to find her clapping along to Bach and Schutz.
How strange that he dragged us from a meal at his favorite restaurant to see a jazz trio he had picked from the Boston Globe, a group that he had never heard of. As we were finding our way to our seats I realized that the pianist looked familiar. Out of dozens of performances he had picked one led by a person I knew. This was a person I had met at parties thrown by Elizabeth’s godfather, Steve Provizer. Stars sparkled as we left the French Library at the end of the performance. We walked back and forth along Commonwealth Ave., unable to find the car in which we had come. It had not been stolen, vandalized or towed. It was, after a hallucinated search, just waiting there in front of us.
Connections inside connections. There was a sense that we were moving deeper into memory, and then even deeper still, inhabiting a stage set made of dreams and hopes revisited. We coasted without a driver over unpaved roads.
That October trip was full of quiet joy. It was as calm as light on the surface of a lake, under which move currents that grab hold of the ankles and pull, swirling swimmers to an unknown beach. We intuited an emotion moving towards us from the future, a valedictory nostalgia. I had bought a number of ties as Christmas presents which I felt, for some reason, impelled to give to him—three months before Christmas. He appreciated the thought but wore only one, a slate gray tie with Keltic crosses on it, before his death. The others were a bit too colorful. None of them had stripes. In the October sky, a few insects blinked around us, and the stars seemed to be waiting for a new one to ascend.
(Illustration: Max Ernst, Pieta, or Revolution by Night)