He was a small man.
In his Army physical, given in Greensboro, North Carolina, in August 1942, at age twenty-one, he was listed at five foot four and a half inches tall. He weighed 127 pounds.
It is evening. Sunlight is beginning to slant across the lawn, and my father and I, sitting on the back porch steps, don’t say anything.
I’m picking at the concrete steps with an old Popsicle stick, and I see specks of mica that I think are diamonds.
My father is wearing a white tee shirt and baggy green pants and black, scuffed shoes. He has been at work all day.
Shortly after the birth of my first son, when I am in my late 30’s and my father dead, I begin to see a therapist with an analytic background. She asks me what my father was like, and I say, Bartleby.
He’s a character in a story by Melville, I explain. He gets hired by a legal firm as a scrivener, or copyist, works diligently for a time, then one day, when asked to perform some routine task, says, I would prefer not to.
I get a copy of “Bartleby the Scrivener” for my therapist. Bartleby continues to “prefer not to” do anything. Eventually he dies of neglect, in a jail for vagrants.
I often don’t know how to read “Bartleby.” He’s a Christ figure, a figure of an increasingly industrialized world, a copyist rather than someone who does authentic, original work, a rebel, a hero, weak, powerful. Weak in his power. Powerful in his weakness.
My father was born in Newton, Massachusetts, in 1920, and died in Boston, after a long, languishing pulmonary illness called central and obstructive sleep apnea, a disease where the brain does not effectively tell the body when to breathe. He was sixty-eight when he died.
He was a dedicated member of the Catholic Worker movement in the 1940’s, 50’s, and 60’s. The Catholic Workers are “Fools for Christ,” who believe strongly in racial, social and economic justice, and who take informal vows of poverty.
My mother, an orphan, spent four years as a novitiate, almost becoming a nun, then she too joined the Catholic Worker movement.
They met, married, and within six years, 1951-1957, have five children, whom they raise in a big two-family house in Newton. My father’s father and mother live in the first-floor apartment.
There is very little money. My father works clerical jobs, at a trucking company during the week, and in the admitting office of a hospital on weekends. We have no car, television, washing machine, no couch, one easy chair that has stuffing pouring out of it like tissues, and very few toys.
I picture too how happy they are that they have found each other——Mora and James. They have nothing materially, but they have everything. Children, a home, love, health, God, and a way of living that strikes deep inside them.
They are both exhausted almost all the time, and they are always behind on bills, but God will provide. God will provide.
James finds himself standing at a back window of the house. It is fall, and trees are turning and they are the colors of fire, and this is a gift—all of it is a gift. That they are here, and that there are both great suffering and want in the world, and still these moments of small beauty.
The sky is a deep autumnal blue, but there is a single long cloud like a pigeon’s lost feather nearly straight ahead and above in the sky. It makes him think of winter and snow and the price of heating oil. But almost as quickly he thinks of Mary and Joseph and the Christ-child in a manger, and he feels he is lucky in everything.
When my father is dying, we read aloud to him, though we have no idea if he can hear us. Someone somewhere has said that hearing is the last sense to go. I read from the Song of Solomon: Thou art all fair, my love; there is no spot on thee.
So how do you do this? Remember and memorialize a man you don’t much know?
My mother says to me not long after his death, I feel as though I never knew him.
What do you do with that?
In my teens he and I spend an entire year not speaking, not nodding, not acknowledging the other’s presence, while living in the same house.
I always love him, but for a long time I also despise him, treat him with contempt, disrespect, with open derision.
I think of him as weak, failed, castrated, stupid. Several of my friends refer to him as Fairy James. My shrink, years later, says, You didn’t defend him?
My mother, after his death, tells me she often came upon him in a room in the house, his head in his hands, crying.
When she asked what was wrong, he always said he didn’t know.
She says this went on for at least five or even ten years, toward the end of his life. He always begged her not to tell anyone about the crying.
When my father is about sixty-two or -three, he has a routine operation, during which he stops breathing. They have to intubate him, put a breathing tube down his throat. Hours later, as he is coming out of the anesthesia, his blood gases are off and distorting his thinking; he must be in a great deal of confusion and fear and pain, so he rips the tube from his throat.
He severely damages his vocal cords, so for the rest of his life he hardly has a voice. What little voice he has is faint, whispery, labored, like dry leaves scraping pavement in November.
By the time my father dies, he has been in the hospital for well over two months and cannot weigh more than eighty pounds. Death has already taken over. He wants his body to be donated to a medical school to be used as a cadaver.
In the late 40’s, Dorothy Day suggested that my father move to the South Side of Chicago, where the movement had acquired a large house in a very poor neighborhood. The house was structurally sound, and though he knew very little about hammers and nails, his job was to help form a community to fix up the house, make it habitable, and form the Catholic Worker movement’s first House of Hospitality in Chicago.
He spent more than a year in Chicago’s South Side, made connections in the poor parishes of Chicago, and work on the house began.
Much later, my father says to me that one of the strangest things about the whole experience was that for days and sometimes weeks, he didn’t see another white person. It got to the point, my father says, where he didn’t notice people’s color.
My mother, whose name was Mora, was very small, like my father. Perhaps five feet tall. When she left the novitiate, she moved to a Catholic Worker farm in Ohio, near a town called Loveland, where she met my father in the late 1940’s.
Their first two children, Martha and Mark, are born near Lorain, Ohio, where they move after their marriage, and my father finds work as a housepainter and general laborer. Martha is born in May 1951, and Mark in August 1952.
In the last ten weeks of his life, when there is little left of my father, except, perhaps, his hearing, I read to him, Oh send out thy light and thy truth; let them lead me, let them bring me to thy holy hill and to thy dwelling.
I am his middle child, and at best, I am some odd mixture of agnostic/Buddhist/ex-Catholic. I pray by breathing and trying to meditate, which I am not good at. If I were graded in meditation, I would receive a D, and that would be generous on the part of the instructor.
People like Dorothy Day, Saints Francis, Ignatius, Benedict, and Thomas Merton interest me enormously. Also the Tao Te Ching, and dozens of Buddhist writers: Eugen Herrigal and Robert Aiken and Dainin Katagiri take me to places that feel deeply spiritual. I absolutely love the line from the Tao, in Stephen Mitchell’s translation, which reads: If you want to know me, look inside your heart.
Sometimes a half hour of reading these people, of Katagiri, for example, puts me in this deep quiet space, where I feel in balance, centered, compassionate, unconcerned with myself, a concern, I’m ashamed to say, which takes up at least ninety percent of my thoughts most of the time.
Can he remember and think as he lies there these last days? Can he recall the scent of pine? A dove cooing? His own grandfather perhaps asleep in a rocking chair, unshaven, his lower face and neck stippled with white?
For my days pass away like smoke. My days are like an evening shadow.
Their third, fourth and fifth kids are born in Newton, Massachusetts, where my parents decide to move to be near his parents, and buy a house using benefits of the G.I. Bill. My father stays behind in Ohio a few months to keep working, while my mother and the two kids move in with my father’s parents.
They buy a house on California Street, in the Newtonville/Nonantum sections of Newton, a big, three-story place, with a two-bedroom apartment on the first floor, and a five-bedroom apartment on the second and third floors.
My name is Paul, and I am born a few days before Christmas, 1953, about two weeks after my family move into the Newton house. Stephen is born April 1956, and Gwen in June 1957.
So between May 1951 and June 1957 there is Martha-Mark-Paul-Stephen-Gwen——five kids, six years and one month.
Catholics. The Baby Boom. Irish-Catholics.
You tell me.
What in the world were they thinking? Did they have any clue? Were they nuts?
On the other hand I think, God bless them. Good luck and may you have fair skies and following seas.
What the hell. We make choices, and they certainly made some choices. Honestly.
It’s not going to be easy, but good luck. I wish I could have been there to help, but instead, I’m there and I’m one of the major problems.
They call the cops on me. Long long after they should have. And looking back, it was the start of something good.
I am trouble. Pretty big trouble. I am not the only one, but I have to say I take it to a new level.
No jail time, no lawyers, no official crime, but very bad news.
But two big cops in your bedroom, and you weigh 128 pounds, though you’re six one and a half, officially. And they have guns and radios, handcuffs and notebooks, and the big, cop flashlights and batons.
They call me Son, and they are pretty nice, though the memory is hazy.
I go peacefully, though that’s kind of funny. They can knock me over with a straw.
I don’t even try to bullshit my way out of it. This is all self-evident. Emaciated individual. Heavily under the influence of god-knows-what chemicals. Knows his name. Doesn’t know the day or date. Isn’t sure where he is.
Clearly not oriented in all three spheres.
When I have my first son at age 38, I am absolutely unprepared, moved, floored, shocked, everythinged——by the whole experience. The being up for 27 hours, the level of pain I’ve never imagined existed, the blood, the extraordinary work involved (Why do you think they call it labor, dummy? a nurse says to me), and the fluids—water, blood, yellowish stuff I can’t identify.
It’s beyond anything I can begin to describe. My wife the warrior. Twenty-four hours of back labor, then a C-section. I’m behind a little cloth in the operating room, at my wife’s head, along with this prince of an anesthesiologist, a guy named Lowell.
They’re throwing towels of sopping crimson blood on the floor. You’re doing great, Lowell’s saying, then someone’s holding this big purplish-looking thing up, and it takes me a few moments. I’m slow, I’m dumb, and Lowell says, Watch him pink up, and then I know——it’s a baby. It’s him. And he’s turning pink, and he has red hair, and someone says, We got a linebacker here.
While they are sewing my wife up I go with the baby, Eammon, and the pediatrician—another redhead—to check over my son. This whole thing is weird beyond surreal—exhausting, exhilarating, terrifying, fascinating, and the whole time I’m thinking, She better take damn good care of my son. He’s my son. Son.
I’m swaying on my legs like a drunk I’m so tired, but I’m also staring at his hands, arms, feet, toes, his nose, his slate eyes, all of it. I think I’m also babbling to the doctor, who looks to be in her 50’s and has no doubt experienced a few of these first father or mother or parent exams. She has a wry smile.
Everything looks great, she finally says, then says, Why don’t we bring your son to his mother, and then maybe all of you can get some rest?
An hour later I’m driving home, and I drive real slow. I tell myself that. You have a son now. You have to drive careful and slow from now on. Not that I’ve ever been a reckless driver in my life.
It’s seven in the morning, maybe eight, and people are coming in to work, and I just start crying. Deep crying.
This is Patriot’s Day in Boston, the day they run the Boston Marathon, but that’s not why I’m crying, of course.
I pull over on the side of the road leading out of the hospital, and I’m thinking of my wife Liza, and what a soldier she’s been. I’m thinking in a weird way of how much like my father’s death this is. The exhaustion, the fluids, the enormity of the moments, the feeling that you’re at the center somehow of life—of its beginning and end. And I’m crying because my father could not be here, and will not see my son.
I’m thinking, This is as deep as it goes. Everything else is dross.
There are pine trees, and cars coming in and out of the hospital driveway, and I’ve gotta go home and sleep a little. Call people. Get the news out there. But somehow I want to go home and sit and be silent a little.
For a year or two, when I am in my mid-forties, teaching college English and helping raise two small boys, writing novels, I spend nearly every Tuesday night teaching in a maximum-security prison about forty miles north of Ithaca, the city where I live. I do it with two friends who are English professors.
We drive to Auburn, New York, and the prison is something to see. It’s one of the half-dozen or so oldest continuously running prisons in the country, and was the first institution to use electricity to execute a prisoner. It’s massive and forbidding, has thirty- and forty-foot walls, concertina wire, and guard towers where marksmen with high-powered rifles watch things down below carefully. Very carefully.
If a fight involving weapons—a shiv or knife—breaks out in the yard, a shot will be fired very close to the area of the fight. If all the inmates do not immediately fall face down to the asphalt of the yard, the second shot is unlikely to miss a standing or crouching or armed person.
To get in we are searched, go through a metal detector, then get spread-eagled and scanned with an electronic wand. Our left hands are stamped with invisible ink, which can only be seen under ultraviolet light. We then go through seven sets of heavily locked gates and checkpoints—up stairs, down halls, into a steel box where one heavy barred door closes, and a man behind bullet-proof glass counts us before opening the door on the other side. Then we’re outside again, the cell blocks looming high on each side of us.
We see high walls, bars on all the windows, and inside the bars, tier upon tier of cell blocks, galleries of cells piled on top of each other like stacked cages. We hear hoots, screams. We hear motherfucker, fresh meat, cocksucker, asshole, faggot, rapo. Long keening cries.
Then one more gate, and we cross the big empty main yard on our way to the back of the prison. Three more checkpoints and we’re in the classroom. Bare tables, mismatched chairs—almost nothing else.
Then a loud bell rings, and the inmates come down a long hallway and into the class. They are far more black than white, wear prison-green pants and jackets, tee shirts. Many have scars——long healed cuts on the neck or face or arms. One man is missing part of an ear. We get up, shake hands, say welcome, and say good to see you. We give the prison hug, shoulder pressed to shoulder, and you realize if you already haven’t seen it, how many of these guys work out with weights, how many are ripped.
The men hold you by the shoulder, look you in the eye, say, Thanks for coming in.
Virtually every inmate we teach at Auburn is from downstate—the Bronx, Queens, Manhattan, and nearly every one is doing a twenty-five to life bid, as they put it. Just about all of them are doing their minimum––twenty-five years. They call it getting hit by the board. No early release for good behavior. Most of our students have killed someone, and most of the killings in one way or another involve drugs.
As kids, we pretty much keep the third floor closed, because we don’t need the room, we can’t afford to heat it, and there’s no furniture to put up there.
There’s a single door at the bottom of the stairs, and then on the third floor a long hallway, and three good-sized bedrooms off the hallway. There’s a cool feel to the rooms in every season but summer, and nothing in the rooms except empty boxes, a few suitcases, and a trunk.
A single window at the top of the stairs is kept open a few inches in the summer for ventilation. That means to let a little bit of air circulate. Once in a while, when a breeze is blowing, the gauzy curtains on that window blow out and seem like ghosts, maybe because we know nobody lives up there, and we hurry down the stairs and close the door.
Because a bad person, a crazy man escaped from a locked-in place is hiding there. He’s gonna come out. He’s just waiting to come out. Soon. Maybe later.