Father’s Day

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June 1990, Cambridge, Massachusetts

 

One-thirty-one-thirty-one.

It’s the mechanical response: my father’s date of birth.

He died on Sunday, Father’s Day.

A few days earlier my subconscious had hovered around the equally palindromic date of six-one-six-one-six as I was waiting to pick up my older brother at the airport.  Only days before that my father, who had long been immobilized by Parkinson’s Disease, had haltingly spoken the very same phrase my husband voiced days before he passed away.  Although there had been no overt sign that my father’s death was imminent, intuition spoke.

“It’s just my gut, and my gut’s been wrong, but I think you should fly out this week.”

And my brothers and I found ourselves laughing, giving each other a hard time, and telling stories and finishing each other’s sentences as we surrounded my father’s bed during his last days.

*****

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February 1931, New York City

Family legend has it than when my grandmother Helen held her first-born son  with her husband Harry, who had arrived in New York City from Austria in time to enlist as a soldier in World War I, she announced–against all objective probabilities–that young Paul would be attending college at Harvard.

If anything, she was understating her baby’s future.  Not only did he enroll at Harvard at the age of sixteen, but he had his Ph.D in Physics by the time he was 23.  He remained at Harvard for more than six decades, as a researcher, professor, and Dean of Applied Sciences.

*****

My father’s friend of now 66 years, Irwin, introduced him to an artist and bassoon-player named Ann.  They married in Copenhagen in 1957.

Over the years, some interesting items have gone missing from my parents’ home–including a painting by my mother and Jackson Pollack on a Sunday New York Times magazine.  In recent days I have been searching for a photograph (possibly just incriminating enough for my mother to have disposed of at some point) of her as a graduate student, wearing a spectacular polka-dotted dress and art deco hat and tickling my father with a feather at a party at Irwin’s apartment.

Who would have thought physicists could be so wild?

*****

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Tough Rider on the Streets of New York, 1933

 

I am the only daughter of a father who had no sisters, and am beginning to suspect our father-daughter interactions were atypical–but for the fact that I could push his buttons when I was little and cranky.

He could not carry a note, let alone a tune, but enjoyed warbling the description he thought suited me best:

There was a little girl, who had a little curl right in the middle of her forehead/And when she was good, she was very, very good, and when she was bad she was horrid.

Well, maybe he did get me.

We didn’t go to any father-daughter dances, but he took me to some pretty fancy meetings of the Academy of Arts and Sciences.

We “summered” at what I now know was a secure nuclear laboratory facility.

Best of all were the department picnics in rural Massachusetts, where the physicists would gather inside a barn while their little ones ran around outside doing dangerous stunts, engaging in applied physics for toddlers. Nearby roads would be marked with handmade signs reading “Theoretical Picnic this way.”  Think about it.

*****

He had one of the world’s most beautiful minds and was one of Massachusetts’s most terrifying drivers.  He could solve any complex problem but was baffled by teenage temperaments. He could envision aspects of time and space and matter–condensed and otherwise–no human actually can see, but had some difficulty locating matching socks. He loved his work and family and friends the best he knew how, which is all any of us can do.

*****

This Father’s Day began, as it has for years now, with a search for the right place to honor my children’s father. We’ve been close to home and we’ve been far away, including a trip with ashes to Northern Ireland.  On Sunday we knew we had to be outdoors, where we so strongly feel my husband’s presence, and settled on a trip to botanical gardens encircled by soft mountain paths.

 

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Father’s Day 2016

The sunny great outdoors suddenly shifted to my father’s bedroom, windows shut and shuttered, when I received a call from my younger brother as my sons and I navigated a mountain trail. My father had a coughing spell, and a visiting nurse assured me his temperature was normal and his vital signs were good.  No need to rush back, I was told, and we continued walking.

Many hours later, peacefully and suddenly, my father seemed merely to fall sleep.

*****

In some ways, physicists seem to appreciate like no one else their place in the vastness of the universe; the human body’s nature as a temporary repository of energy; and the knowledge that in taking a last breath someone becomes not here, but everywhere.

We’ll miss you.

 

 

 

 

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Curve Ball

In the Crook of a Curved Branch

 

Soft curves, sharp focus.

Black layers edged in curls of the setting sun’s reflected light on a cloudless night.

The white is an illusion; he will blend seamlessly into night within the hour.

Red-winged blackbirds seem in a frenzy to find one another, cawing madly and swooping among the highest branches.  Other birds, tiny and tea-colored, dive into marsh grass, leaving weaving trails which last only seconds before the reeds and early summer stalks unbend and unbow.  A rare bird of prey circles overhead.

Once again I’m alone in the woods–the same predicament that was the subject of my first favorite picture book, whose words I memorized to give the appearance of being a precocious reader.

Well, not quite alone.  The only traditionally visible human, however.

That childhood book, Betsy’s Adventure in the Woods, ended before the protagonist’s bedtime, when her big brother found her and lead her back home to her family.  My outing will end in a solitary walk under a sliver of moon to an empty home.  Life has hurled some curve balls.

I am not particularly well-constituted for them.

“Yesterday I did not know that today it would be raining.”  Edward Gorey once wrote.

Even when it’s something God-awful, I’d prefer to know what’s coming.

“Is there something I should pick up for dinner?”

“Surprise me,” my son says, echoing his father.

“Pleasantly, or unpleasantly?” I echo him, too. 

Of course it was not my plan to be a widowed mother of still growing children, although that is always a possibility when one enters the sacrament of marriage and receives the blessing of little ones.

My husband Jim was a planner, for all of us. He meticulously mapped accounts for our children’s educations, to culminate in commencements he would not live to attend, and for a retirement he would never enjoy.  I had to fire up his computer recently–after my most recent catastrophic computer missteps.  The screen still flashes reminders of weekly work meetings at which he is absent, and several programs ask me for passwords I do not know. My heart hurt when I saw financial files he had assembled, with titles like “What to do  if I cannot.” (Even those were cushioned for my eyes: he used an “if,” and not a “when.”)

I remember standing behind him as he sat at his computer, probably drafting these very files.

“I should show you how to do this.  And this is a list of things I do every season outside.”

He would not live to see spring.

“I can’t. It won’t be any easier.” My head was down, tears falling to the wide dark pine floorboard.

“But it would be easier for me.”

And I saw in his eyes that he needed to know he would still be helping take care of us.  “Anything that makes it easier for you,” I thought, but did not say, and tried to stop crying.

I am not a natural planner, perhaps because I grew up with a curiously exaggerated sense of the probability of imminent disaster.

Paradoxically, that fear, which bled into fears of the relatively ordinary–from highway driving to having blood taken to flying–disappeared only once something I had never thought to fear made itself known, and everything else “dissolve[d] in a moment/ like salt in a weakened broth.”

******

A moth lands and dawdles in tattered grass in front of me before flitting off again. One wing, dotted with tiny white hearts, follows a meandering path, broken only very slightly above one heart, a tributary scar.  The other wing is pinked, sheared off below another cluster of hearts.

I wonder how it keeps aloft with such a large missing piece.

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Make Me a Mondrian: Corrupted at Last

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Picture corrupted.

23,229 times over.

It’s not always easy to identify the dog that did not bark–or, in this case, which digital pictures among a cast of tens of thousands have disappeared and cannot be put together again.

I realized my little yellow bird was gone.  He had flown away into the ether. All that remains is one long-range shot of him warbling into a late spring wind from atop a dogwood dotted with hints of budding lime leaves.

I managed to accidentally erase from my computer every single JPG photo file, including thousands I foolishly–not having adequately absorbed my lesson–had not yet siphoned onto an external hard drive.

Apparently I have an internal “shadow drive,” which was the first attempted excavation site. Nothing. Zip.

Three increasingly desperate and expensive attempts to reconstruct pictures from my camera’s memory card ensued.  To find my little bird friend I ultimately clicked one-by-one through 28,040 files.  But he was among those which have gone, gone away.  Not a single brilliant yellow feather.

The bird’s portraits were among the lost.

But I found in my camera’s jumbled memories some glorious vistas I had never beheld, and which would not exist now but for my egregious mistakes.

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Like the orange light in between a red “stop” and a green “go,” apparently there is an interim world between a successfully reconstructed image and an irrevocable “no picture available.”

Evidently abhorring a vacuum, shards of partially reconstructed pictures were switched around like puzzle pieces.  It is as if my computer were trying desperately to please me, to assemble fractured images into a whole–an unexpected and bright new reality supplanting the one I hazily remember.  Perhaps it is merely a technological artifact that the breakdowns are more common and surreal as I go back in time through those files.

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A tree’s roots split off into equal portions of two blazing red sunsets.  Bricks slough off from their landscapes and gather together in walls of intense violet-blue or orange.  Slivers of sea and sky from different seasons are sorted and stacked into a Mondrian… and several Rothkos.  Portions of structures are transformed into neon matte colors, like a Warhol screen print.

Would a sane person have done any of this? Could I perhaps just have gone back to the grassy marsh and hoped to find another little yellow friend?

This jaunty bird was special.  Sometimes I am called–most often by birds–to make detours. Last weekend my subconscious spun me considerably out of my way, towards a stretch of the Atlantic where I’d never set foot.  The weekend before Memorial Day no on else was in sight.  And there he was: a single plump fellow singing out to the rising sun, calling out to his tribe, a lone bright dab of yellow in a tea-dyed marsh.

He’ll remain a sunny blur in my own shadowed memory.

 

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Jubilation in Unlikely Places

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What does jubilation look like?

Does it look the same to the grieving as it does to those not mired in grief?

Jubilation is different in kind, and not merely in magnitude, from happiness–and happiness itself may seem out-of-reach to those who long for the lost.

(I do not think “jubilation” meant what “Cecilia’s” lover thought it did; in context, he seemed merely to have been besotted by her sporadic company.)

To Frederick Buechner, jubilation was joy, a “dance of unimaginable beauty.” He saw happiness as merely a pale byproduct of “things going our way, which makes it only a forerunner to the unhappiness that inevitably follows when things stop going our way, as in the end they will stop for all of us.”  He points out that the Last Supper was eaten with knowledge of Jesus’ impending death, and as an occasion “was in no sense happy,” but nonetheless was an opportunity for him to express, without irony, “that my joy may be in you” (John 15:11).

Today I saw jubilation in what may seem the unlikeliest of places, including a cemetery where dozens of people gathered around a headstone, linked our hands in a large circle, then looked up to see our earthbound configuration echoed directly overhead in a perfectly round rainbow that lingered until we let go.

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On my still-healing leg, I walked with a fellow widow whose friend’s family had organized an event honoring a brother who died from pancreatic cancer, the same hideous disease that took my husband from us when he was barely out of his 40s.

One sister had made a wall of photographs selected by people who loved others who had died of cancer.  Each one of of those faces radiantly smiled into a camera, and it was impossible not to smile back at the memories of pure joy captured forever and chosen to introduce our loved ones to people they had never met: one young man cradled the smiling baby son who would turn one just before his father died; another, on a canted surfboard, caught an enormous teal wave; a woman smiled from underneath a wool winter cap; my Jim grinned as he soaked in the sun at an outdoor Richard Thompson concert. (No one other than the two of us could have dreamed he was terminally ill, and his fanny pack contained a continuous infusion of chemotherapy drugs plugged into his implanted port, underneath an orange T-shirt.)

I realized that no grief dwelled in these pictures of those for whom we grieve.

These were pictures of jubilation.  Each face and stance expressed complete joy in a moment, unfiltered by the tears and longing of the living who gathered today, or the weight of their survivors’ memories of their illnesses and pain.

“Joy,” Buechner wrote, “does not come because something is happening or not happening, but every once in a while rises up out of simply being alive, of being part of the terror as well as the fathomless richness of the world…”

During that last outdoor concert before he died, Jim was not thinking one whit about his cruel affliction.  He was feeling the late summer sun’s warmth, enjoying a cold bottle of orange juice, listening in a lawn chair at sunset to one of his favorite performers, playing one of his favorite songs.  He was jubilant.

Let me ride on the Wall Of Death one more time
You can waste your time on the other rides
This is the nearest to being alive
Oh let me take my chances on the Wall Of Death

You can go with the crazy people in the Crooked House
You can fly away on the Rocket or spin in the Mouse
The Tunnel of Love might amuse you
Noah’s Ark might confuse you
But let me take my chances on the Wall Of Death

On the Wall Of Death all the world is far from me
On the Wall Of Death it’s the nearest to being free

 

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