Young boy’s response to what he thought about the solar eclipse, as heard on NPR (August 21, 2017)
Young boy’s response to what he thought about the solar eclipse, as heard on NPR (August 21, 2017)
Rusty, my father’s golden retriever, was revered. My father, who each weekend cooked her fresh organ meats, loved her more than he loved my stepmother, my brother, and me. My stepmother loved Rusty more than she loved my brother and me. And I loved my father more than I loved anyone, including Rusty, though I very much loved Rusty. My brother, it turned out, was fairly indifferent to everyone — Rusty included.
This morning, I awoke from a dream about Rusty, who has been dead some 40 years, but, as I wandered across that vaporous, atemporal continent that separates dream from wakefulness, I believed she was still alive and was confused for some seconds about where on the timeline of my little life I stood.
Once I touched bed, pillow, table and saw mirror, bookshelf, clock, I remembered who I was and remembered, also, the man who has been installed in the White House. Just about every morning when I first open my eyes, his image — or the image of someone in his inner circle — appears, and I find myself needing more air than seems available. This morning I recalled what my stepmother once told me about sleeping dogs with twitchy legs and paws: They’re dreaming about running, she said.
I have been thinking about my father, who died when I was 20. Nothing that has happened in my life from his death until now can compare with the terrible sorrow I felt, although certainly there have been competing blows.
Back then, though, before I had thickened with callus, it swallowed me whole, that grief, and there was no one in the extended family, not any soul, who even took notice of it much less tried to salve it. I was the frailest of ghosts in a collective of vapors.
Rita, my mother, divorced my father when I was six, presumably because of his philandering. I remember just a very few fragments from that story, which came to me through her. Since she lied more often than not, I do not know for certain what is true here: 1) He had been doing his big-breasted secretary on the west coast while she had been setting up a new house for him some 3,000 miles away, her addled children in tow. 2) She had listened nonstop to Ritchie Valens’s “Donna” and had wailed all the livelong day. 3) He had thrown a heavy glass ashtray at her when the children were sleeping.
I knew my father for just a handful of years—from zero to six, say. After that he was out the door with another secretary, whom he met at a New York City cosmetics company while an advertising executive there. She had recently arrived from England; was some twenty years younger than he was; had become a bottle redhead, like my mother; and was more an athlete than an intellectual. Soon enough they married, and off they flew to Southern California—ostensibly to rid themselves of his verbally violent, alcoholic ex-wife but also, I think, to offload the two children: one an odd and lonely kid who cried all the time; the other her older brother, who by then had become a real rotter.
Through middle and high school, during my winter and summer vacations, I would visit my father and his young bride. I confess to having worshipped her then, and for many years after, though it turns out this devotion was undeserved. Although I have relatively few memories from that time, I can call up several stray fragments from the earlier years. Perhaps they, too, are part fabrication:
1) At a weekend party of adults, except for me, I am sitting at a round table next to my father. Several other grownups are at the table with us. My father has been drinking heavily, and I lean over to tell him he should go easy on the booze. Laughing and glassy-eyed, he turns to me and says, “I can drink you under the table.” I am ten.
2) I am in the bedroom of the party-givers, alone and rifling through a night table drawer. I find a small comic book and discover it is porn: Inside the booklet a hand-drawn couple is going at it in a car parked at an overlook. A police officer shines a flashlight in on them and sees the man’s outsized penis. I see the outsized penis, also. “We’re just necking,” says the man. “Well, put your neck back in your pants and go on home,” the officer tells him. I continue to be ten.
3) I am in a room with one of my only friends. We have come from New York to spend the summer in California with my father and stepmother. We are smoking, and my stepmother walks in on us. “Smoking!” she exclaims—then turns and leaves. I am thirteen, as is my friend, but by then I had already been smoking for four years.
When I was a child, I had a dream I was running fleet-footed from my mother’s house, past the homes of the young girls who shunned me, past my elementary school, past the old Catholic church, past our railway station, past an empty park bench, past the five and dime all the way to Jones Beach, where I crossed what seemed a mile-long expanse of burning sand so I could dive into the water and sit at the bottom of the sea. There, I discovered I could breathe easily and well if I took small, sip-like breaths. In my 20s and 30s, I ran through streets, up and down hills, and around tracks. I didn’t much like it, running, but it was the only thing I could do to persuade myself I was free. In recent years, I discovered long-distance walking around and around an indoor track, where I again found a kind of freedom so long as I didn’t stop. Now it appears I have badly torn my Achilles tendon, what with all those many miles of my moving sorrow from pillar to post.
My brother, who is some years older, once said, “When I don’t see you, I don’t think about you.” This meanness nearly felled me, but it was just one of an infinity of cruelties for which he had become known.
Now, memories of these sadisms live in me as if they were another body with a separate respiration, and I continue my lived life in the other vessel, the more fragile of the two, which nevertheless still sustains me.
I have been thinking, though, that my brother simply gave voice to what many of us could never be honest enough to admit but to what is likely true for most human beings: we really don’t think about others—not deeply, not at length, and not over the long haul—in part because we are consumed by our own often desperate needs, which, when you really think about it, are born out of this wish we have not to die.
Here I am, for instance, feeling terribly sorry for a sweet student who tells me her boyfriend has just passed away; then, a few days later, forgetting all about what seemed in me a genuine compassion, I am irritated that she has not come to class and that she has not handed in several assignments.
Or this: a friend is ill, with a ravaging and protracted treatment ahead of her, and I am solicitous and well-wishing at the start. I even offer assistance and seem to mean it. Ask me a week on about how she is doing, though, and, if I am honest with you and with myself, I will have to confess that I have not thought of her once since I made my offer. It seems, instead, that I have been busy worrying about bills. And about a man.
With my friend, whom I really quite love, it is as though the offering is nearly the same thing as the doing, and I can convince myself I am a pretty terrific person by conveniently mistaking the former for the latter.
Today, September 17, I received birthday emails from my dentist, my eye doctor, my everyday doctor, and my bank. In the past, I have sneered at these types of marketing ploys and have inwardly labeled them as ungenuine and self-serving.
On this day, though, and in part because these emails were the only birthday wishes I had so far received (with the exception of a text from my daughter), I noticed the sneer was nearly gone. I attribute this softening in part to my age (which is older than it used to be) and to my slowly growing acceptance, it seems, that the world—including its marketing arm—is what it is.
While showering, I also noticed I was thinking about the word “grit.” It is one that is bandied about these days in education circles, and it has to do with a recognition that students not only need academic skills to succeed but also need “noncognitive competencies” to have a successful launch. Those who possess grit, then, have developed the inner resources that enable them to persevere even in the face of significant suffering. One of the many reasons I prefer working with community college students to working with students at four-year institutions is that so many of them have had to overcome great hardship to get to college, and they show their “grit” in all that they say and do.
I can relate well to the many struggles of the students I have known. When I look back on my years, I see that I, too, had learned to rely on my inner strength and on my sense of purpose when it seemed there was no one else to support and help me.
From childhood, mine has not been an easy life: Broken home. Broken marriages. Broken heart. But, I have more than survived the many difficulties, and I am still here, on September 17, to wish myself a happy birthday and to be grateful I have been given the possibility of one more year.
I will tell you about the naked oak in our yard and about
my dead robin, June, who couldn’t fly south for winter
and about the Cooper’s hawk that swooped down to eat
the poor thing, pecking first at a dull eye, while close by
two cracked eggs, each the size of a large jelly bean,
lay oozing yolk and about the cold sky pulled thin and
plumed across my low horizon and about Hyena, with
his pail full of silver buckshot, who shouted from across
the avenue, “Wanna lick my lollipop, pancake tits?”
while behind him two fat boys cackled, with Br’er
Rabbit, the older by some years, in Daddy’s pink shirt
and about mother leaving for the City, her thin
lips painted plump, and about my gray lunch
congealing in a tin pan that sat on the top rack of a
cold oven and about the canned peaches she dumped
into a tea cup and placed on a shelf in her
refrigerator. But not yet and not here