My Dear Son,
Uncle Jay, my father’s brother. His buddies at work called him Jaybird. I would love to write about him, Burt, but I draw a blank that’s the breadth of my father’s absence and the depth of my mother’s rage. My mother grew to hate my father to the point where, after he drove away on his motorcycle with his motorcycle friends when I was seven, she kept me away from all my dad’s family, all the Owen men, all my uncles and cousins. All I have is the ability to imagine an alternate universe where things don’t explode into fragments in the air and fall to the ground as ash. In that alternate universe, Uncle Jay would be a presence, not an absence.
One piece I hold on to: for the word “particularly” he said “p’tick’ly,” as in, referring to a skilled poker player, “He’d take those guys at the club to the cleaners. P’tick’ly the head pro.”
My cousin Mike called this morning and said his dad, my Uncle Jay, died of a heart attack yesterday.
The worms eat their way into the young apple tree, near the base, where they’ve climbed a little way up from the grass. The worms are tiny, small as dots, and the young apple tree has thin skin. Even a worm the size of a dot can eat through the skin of a young apple tree. The worms penetrate, little bunker-buster bombs that burrow into the living flesh under the skin.
The worms drink the tree’s sap, get bigger, eat into the live wood, and create tunnels as wide as their thickening bodies. These tunnels are death to the tree when they become large and numerous enough to choke the passage of juice from root to branch. They cut the flow of sap; the tree cannot breathe.
Sometimes the worms eat so much that a young dead apple tree will fall over in a gentle summer breeze.
My uncle’s death brings me back to my absent father. Let me say that more precisely: my uncle’s death brings me back to the feeling of my father’s absence. It’s the feeling that’s important, because the shape of the feeling of his absence is the same shape as his presence, the way that negative space in a drawing defines what is. The way that you are what you are not.
My uncle’s death brings me back to my absent father. Let me say that more precisely: my uncle’s death brings me back to the feeling of my father’s absence.
The feeling of my father’s absence still makes me unsure sometimes, makes my knees shake, makes me less than solid, makes me a scared child. It doesn’t knock me over anymore, however, and this is good news. I am speaking of his absence from my childhood and growing up. You never get over it. You just go into it, again and again, until your life, if you’re living it, has no choice but to say yes to everything in the past that led to the present; everything in the past that is always leading to the present. And I do mean everything: to say yes even to what, when it happened, was a horrific no—the long decline and the last goodbye, the sudden death without a goodbye. Say yes, even to that: it’s part of your story.
Every life must eventually affirm the negation in it, or be lost.
The sun is breaking through the clouds after a night and a morning of soft spring rain, and the trees glitter in raindrops, scintillating liquid crystal prisms. One drop on a maple twig twenty yards away bends sunlight to a quivering ruby red.
Every day we begin again.
My Dear Son,
Last night, April 1, was the first evening for the peepers this year. I went out to the barn after supper to work on the tractor and could hear them croaking from their usual spot, the vernal pools in the low wetland across the road. You may remember that you, your sister, and I used to go down there, to try to find those tiny frogs. It’s the welcome sound of spring coming, another marker toward apple-blossom time, that chorus of hundreds and hundreds of tree frogs in a mass froggy shriek.
I went inside to tell your mom. “The peepers are out.”
Back in the barn, I finally traced where the tractor ignition circuit shorts, popping the fusible link. Machines aren’t animal, aren’t vegetable. If a machine doesn’t work, you can find the cause and fix it. Fix, not heal. To speak of healing a machine is a category mistake. A young apple tree damaged by worms, however, can heal. Living tissue surrounds the wound, expands, and over time what is alive encloses the deadness and embraces it. The hole becomes part of the tree. That’s what healing means.
I replaced the faulty glow-plug indicator with a new one. The tractor is fixed.
The motorcycles came one spring morning when I was seven, and my dad left with the motorcycles. I’m not special. This happens all the time.
We moved, moved again. I made new friends, played basketball, joined the Cub Scouts, came in second in the Pinewood Derby. I was afraid I’d never see my dad again.
He sent me a chess set from South America, made of stone. All the pieces were wrapped in tissue and fit into a square green case. The green case had a thin gold border, hinges, and a clasp. I played chess with my fourth-grade friend Randy. The pawns clicked on the marble board like stone on glass. When we were done, Randy and I wrapped each chunky rook and chiselled knight into its own thin tissue paper, and we put each piece back into the green case, layering them in rows and stacks.
The chess set got lost when we moved again. Could my mom have thrown it away? She hated my dad.
Burt, this is what I’ve come to understand. Shame is the dark place you descend to when you lose something precious and you’re not allowed to grieve. Until someone holds you in your grief, this shame and this grief can’t even begin to heal. If healing doesn’t come, what eats us is an impotent rage that rises as a defence against the intolerable shame.
Rage turned inward is depression. Accelerated to critical velocity, depression goes to infinity and returns as suicide.
My Uncle Jay is in the water off the back of the boat, gripping the lowest rung of the cherry boarding ladder that his brother my dad made, which is mounted to the wood transom of the lapstrake runabout, next to the outboard motor. I remember my dad making the boarding ladder: I remember standing at the door, a child, watching him cutting and screwing, sanding and varnishing the straight-grained cherry in his shop that smelled like turpentine, smelled like my dad, sweet and volatile.
The outboard motor is running. I’m six years old. I’m wearing an orange life jacket that’s thicker than I am. Whenever I turn my head, my chin rubs nylon. I’m on my knees on the back bench, at the stern, next to the loud motor, looking down at my uncle in the water. The varnish on the cherry boarding ladder is so glossy that drops of water bead on the top rung.
We’re moving, not fast but not slow, towing my uncle who’s holding on to the bottom rung of the boarding ladder. My uncle’s legs stream behind him in eddies and waves. He’s horizontal, like Superman in flight.
He’s in the water with the engine running because the engine is quitting at intervals for no apparent reason, refusing to restart without a spray can and a box wrench. My dad is at the wheel. The cowling is off the motor so my uncle can see inside it. We leave a trail of blue smoke that hangs in the still air over Lake Erie. My uncle is trying to figure out what’s wrong with the motor. If he can figure out what’s wrong, he can fix it, or his brother my father can fix it. Both of them have worked on engines since they were boys in Pittsburgh. I didn’t know that then, of course. To me, they were my uncle and my dad, and always would be.
I’m looking over the transom at my uncle in the water. My uncle moves toward the chop and froth of the propeller blade; my dad leaves the wheel to walk back and yell to his brother “carburetor” and “air mix”; my uncle’s arms and chest are thick and powerful, a boy’s dream of manhood, as they strain to clench, hold, brace, and dodge in the water. My uncle narrows his eyes, leverages himself up out of the water to get a closer look at the engine, lowers himself back down again, horizontal in the water again, flying like Superman.
Burt, I thought my Uncle Jay died of a heart attack, but the truth is he killed himself. My cousin couldn’t bring himself to tell me what really happened at first. It was too much for him to say it. My uncle had a gun hidden in the shed.
You can’t outrun a speeding bullet if you point the gun at your heart. Even Superman can’t do it.
There’s no such thing as a circle and a square whose areas are equal. It’s not even imaginable. There’s always a discrepancy, an irreconcilable leftover, an anxious little slop between, a never-ending decimal that runs to the end of time.
Children are supposed to outlive their parents, but this doesn’t always happen. When a child dies first—what words are there for this? None that I can think of. All I can see is the irreconcilability of “what ought to have been” and “what actually happened.” What ought to have been is the story that makes sense, the area of a square, a destination you can reach, an apple tree full of apples in September, the toast you would have proposed at your child’s wedding. What actually happened just is. Is, with brute facticity, nauseatingly is. Is, without ever becoming a pattern and repeating. Is, endlessly and forever.
What actually happened is the area of a circle. You can get close enough to the answer for practical purposes, close enough eventually to get out of bed and go to work, close enough to carry on, but it will never be finished. There is no explanation. You will never know completely. It just hangs, always beyond the reach of.
What actually happened was that Uncle Jay and Aunt Linda’s first child, their son Doug, the older cousin I never knew, died in an accident when he was six and I was zero. When I was six and Doug was in his grave, I watched Doug’s father, my Uncle Jay, at the back of the boat, holding the boarding ladder and flying through the water like Superman. I didn’t know the damage Superman bore, and even if I did know, I couldn’t understand.
Live the unlivable.
Endure the intolerable.
Your son dies and you keep on living.
The biggest lie ever told: we’ll beat back the pain with love. No. Love makes pain hurt more, not less.
My Dear Son,
The soil is warming. I know because, in places where the April sunlight lingers, grass is waking up, breaking dormancy. The straw-yellow mat of the field—its colour since last November’s killing frost, hidden for months under the winter snow, visible again when the snow melted in patches at first (and the sap rose in the maples)—is now brushed with green. Faint, fine, light-green brushstrokes mark the warming soil.
Burt. Your grandfather killed himself slowly with tequila. Your great-uncle, his brother, killed himself quickly with a gun. I have been depressed enough to curse sunlight in the morning, depressed enough to know the attraction of not wanting to live anymore.
You have to fight to be a man. I think of Jacob in the desert, of Abraham and Isaac and God on the mountain. Sometimes the fight is against the urge to destroy; you fight in order to defeat destruction. If you win that fight, you win the chance for a new beginning, a new day. You win this chance by restraint and endurance. Sometimes the fight is to resist the temptation to destroy. Others. Yourself.
Destruction is a divine power, like creation. Handle with care.
Every day we begin again.
Burt, I confess to being undone by your great-uncle’s suicide.
I don’t judge, but I come close to judging. I’m not going to lie. There’s a space between me and judgment, and in that space is I don’t know the extremity of another human. If I were to judge, however, the judgment would be: Uncle Jay, I find you guilty of violating the law of suffering and grace—the law that says there is no indignity, no shame, no pain, no degradation, no humiliation that is beyond redemption.
No stink no disgust no brokenness no filth no frailty no weakness no violation no despair no loneliness no emptiness no alienation no disfigurement no grief no regret no guilt no terror no isolation no night no freeze no abomination no enmity no hate no obscenity no ugliness no lie no perversion no molestation no debasement no evil no fear no betrayal no stain . . .
. . . that cannot be redeemed.
And yet. Burt. What is dark is so dark that if I linger on it for only a moment, I cannot imagine that darkness redeemed. George Floyd gasping with a knee on his neck. A Russian missile landing on a mother and her children at a Ukrainian train station. A stray bullet killing an eight-year-old girl in Chicago. Newtown. One person starving to death near Kharkiv in 1933 because of someone else’s power dream, repeated four million times over: Each. Person. Times. Four. Million. Your cousin going to sleep with fentanyl in his blood and not waking up. A self-fired bullet ripping into your great-uncle’s body, his heart. How can this darkness be redeemed? Imagination fails. It’s impossible. I’m at the end of my ability to feel hope, to think hope, to have hope. Hope becomes a mere sound formed by lips and breath, not a real thing.
Uncle Jay, I find you guilty of violating the law of suffering and grace—the law that says there is no indignity, no shame, no pain, no degradation, no humiliation that is beyond redemption.
All that’s left in me then is this tiny spark of life in the void, this little span of a nanosecond in which my body makes heat in the vast cold; a breath in—a breath out—a breath in—a breath out—a pulse in my neck, my wrist, my groin: very little life, a slender thread, a quivering candle flame. Very little life, but enough life to willfully decide to trust the light, or, on a bad day, enough life to whisper “Fuck you” to the darkness, raise a defiant middle finger to the darkness, which, in its own way, is a beautiful, if crazy, trust. Hail Mary, full of grace.
You cannot imagine the light at this extremity: the darkness is too dark to make the light imaginable. No. What I am saying is that a spark of life is enough to will to trust. I breathe; I pulse; I will to trust.
To will to trust. Not to trust, but to will to trust.
To trust is what a child does.
To will to trust is what a man does, who as a child has his child trust, a crayon drawing offered in innocent hope, ripped from his hands, crinkled into a ball, and tossed on the fire. And then told to stop crying.
If you arrive at trust after that, it’s not by trusting. It’s by willing to trust: fighting, clawing, scratching, and biting to trust. Bleeding, breaking, crying to trust. Groaning, sighing, pleading to trust. Screaming to trust: SWEET JESUS I NEED YOU. I NEED YOU NOW. Come and save me. Come and save us.
That’s what I’ve got today, Burt. Faith is not belief. Faith is the fight to will to trust. Men can do this; superheroes cannot.
The darkness is so dark. It’s darker than a moonless night, darker than a starless night. Darker than a cave, darker than the ocean miles down. The darkness is darker than all these darknesses, because the darkness of the void is the darkness of no place, no thing. It is the darkness of emptiness, the darkness of waste, the darkness of cruelty crushing innocence. At this depth, in this darkness, even speech cannot say anything. Words go dark. There is no way out. There is only breath, and pulse, and the will to trust.
Trust means waiting.
Waiting means endurance.
Endurance means tomorrow.
Tomorrow means a new day.
A new day is a gift.
A gift is not earned.
What is not earned is grace.
Grace is when we hold each other, knowing how dark the darkness can be. Is. Will be again.
Hold me. I will hold you.
Holding means reaching out. “I” and “you” become “we.”
And every day we begin again.