Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99 per year..
Subscribe for Full Access
A writer remembers his father

In America, being serious is often seen as being aloof, my old man said, once, years ago, when he was talking about his father, my Grandpa Means, who was quiet most of the time, reticent in a Midwestern way, or so I thought, think. The old man was sitting on the dock, holding the cork handle of an old fishing rod, raising the tip high to test the line from time to time, smoking his pipe and looking out at the red-and-white plastic bobber in the water, which was thin and glazed with a cruel, late-day sunlight. He was rambling to me — I was home from college, drinking a beer — in his lecture mode, his voice theoretical-sounding, and making, from time to time, his usual so ons and so forths, and he went on to talk about how easy it was, in the Midwest, for people to take your seriousness for snobbishness. I remember those words, exactly. He drove his point home by giving an example of a man he knew at the paper mill, who began to read the great books, Shakespeare, Dante, to make a study of the classics, turning again and again to Dickens, and then back to Shakespeare, going off to work — the roar of the presses and pulp separators and the men on the window ledges eating their lunches (I remember, the old man described all this). This friend of my father’s kept this new knowledge to himself as much as he could, joshing with his buddies in the same way, in survival mode because all the men at the mill had to find a way to negotiate the noise and the stench and the tedium of the tasks, not as bad as the tedium of the line at Fisher Body, where they made car bodies, or at Checker cab, but close. Then one day during lunch — my father took a puff on his pipe, a Dr. Grabow, I’m sure, with the paper filter inside — this guy had let something slip, a reference to Hamlet, or perhaps, in response to something another guy said about his elderly father-in-law, to Lear — and from that point on this guy was tagged as a snob, as standoffish, and was eventually forced to quit and begin working a dock job down in Toledo.

Illustrations by Jen Renninger. Source photograph of the author’s father courtesy the author

Illustrations by Jen Renninger. Source photograph of the author’s father courtesy the author

I don’t remember the rest of that story, but I do remember that my old man opened another can of beer and then grew silent while the sun set across the lake. He sat there perfectly still and with sad silence, and I now see that the way I was thinking about it at the time, which had to do with filtering my image of him through the sense that he was a sad professor, that he had somehow grown weary not only of teaching but of processing so much knowledge, just a fragment of what was out there, while having to present himself to the world as a full-blown know-it-all; the way I saw him then was probably totally wrong. When he was alive I saw him and focused my thoughts on his years of dedication to professing, to teaching, to his scholarly endeavors, and I thought of the time-stillness of the classroom, the cycling in and out of students who remained the same age, with the same youthful inclinations, while he, for his part, went from a whip-smart standout at Cornell to a threadbare but beloved member of the sociology department at a small Midwestern college. (It wasn’t that simple. He began as a minister, a chaplain at Cornell, where he went on to get his Ph.D., and when he retired from professing he went back to preaching, as an interim minister at various churches around southwestern Michigan.)

His sorrow at that moment on the dock — or whatever was inside that silence — came from his inability to in some authentic way be both the professorial type and the rough, solid, hard-boned type of man who would never be mistaken for some kind of snob by other tough men, just as I, as a writer, felt sometimes — and got quiet and sad in the same way — the paradox that came from the subjects that I loved to write about, to imagine my way into, the lonely sad men and women who have been eaten alive by this country, one way or another, or betrayed by the circumstances of their lives, being so different from me, now. This silence, this sorrow that comes from not being someone else, is what you hear, I now think, when you read, or rather when you listen to, the music that David Foster Wallace’s later stories create, a sorrowful lament at feeling fundamentally fraudulent in an age that is holding you up, one way or another, to the deepest scrutiny, testing you for authenticity. It’s not a sound you hear in the work of Saul Bellow, who wrote in a time when the line between real and imagined wasn’t held to such a brutal standard. Bellow was a man who could wear a hat and move around the world with purposeful brilliance, unafraid of being seen as fraudulent.

I called him Dad, or, on occasion, Father, until he was dead, and then a few weeks after his death, in casual conversations, mostly at dinner parties, telling the story of his death, I began to refer to him as my old man, saying things like: My old man wasn’t a bad guy, but I couldn’t see him, I mean really see the soul whom I called Father, until he was gone, and then it was too late. He was bound to a small Midwestern city in a way I didn’t see until he was gone, I said, and I still say on occasion, when I retell his story, not really a story but rather a sequence of facts, usually in order — I now think — to spark pity, a few comments of consolation; as time goes on I’ll probably continue to call him my old man, or on occasion the old man, giving him now that he’s dead a somewhat anachronistic-sounding reference, but also knowing full well that those listening will think, hearing it, not only of him but of me, and they’ll hear in the endearment the slight, faint edge of sarcasm, and of course the older world too, an age and time that have slipped away.

Illustration by Jen RenningerI like to believe I made the shift from calling him Dad to my old man in the graveyard just a few weeks ago, standing amid the stone markers, which were flat to the earth, in need of weeding, with the weeds around the older ones growing over the markers, creeping into the engraved letterings, and here and there a brass urn with flowers. The sky was seething with heat and there was a brittle midsummer cricket noise and around his stone the earth was tamped down with a slice of sod too green, too bright, over his casket. (I did not see it but assumed that the gravediggers had done the job, laid it to rest, dropped it in or forklifted it or whatever.) I was praying to him, or at least speaking aloud, not sure if it meant anything, aware that I was going against my nature. (I’m not a big speaker-to-the-self type. I’m not the type prone to lonely monologues. I’m not the kind of man caught mumbling to myself on the street, for the most part, although I’ve been known from time to time to wander along the river with my mouth open around a word that refuses to be articulated, and folks have said, on occasion, that I seem to want to say something but seem unable to say it. Those near to me, and they are very few, understand that on occasion I want badly to articulate some thought, or some idea, to put it into words, but find myself unable to do so.)

But this day in the graveyard — he’d call it a cemetery, my old man — I began to address the fresh stone, dark black granite with the newly carved words clear, sharp, and I said something along the lines of, Hey, old man, it was a good ride, or something like, Old man, I miss you, keeping it trite, simple, and, I’ll admit, embarrassingly plaintive, and then I began to speak to him honestly and openly (perhaps for the first time) about his function in the world as it had existed when he was alive, as it related to me, his son, and how it felt to be his son when he was alive and I was alive, unable to see his function in my life as I would see it when he was dead, but at least able, I thought at the time, to imagine what I might think if he were gone — in particular when he was old, dying, near the end — and adjusting my attitude accordingly, it seemed at the time, adding more consideration and softening my words; whereas when I was young and he was young and his death seemed far, far off in some remote region, beyond consideration, I had been brusque, sharp, angry, striking a position — it seems to me now — far away from him, pushing away in the traditional manner, but always with an awareness — I like to think — that I was playing a role, on those summer Midwestern afternoons as we sat outside beneath the big tree and drank beer, fighting it out. When he was near death, or seemed close, I adjusted my stance as much as I could, knowing that at some time in the near future I might be speaking to a void, an emptiness; I tested my words to him against the void, I now think, so that when I spoke in the graveyard it was in a practiced manner not that different from, say, in the hospital when I was at his bedside, handing him cups, listening to his grunts and groans, watching the light in his eyes receding. It did indeed recede. His eyes were deep in his skull, and when they looked at me they were emptying, wayward, scared, slightly loose in orbit but still focusing, still alive — all the literary conceits, all the clichéd metaphors seemed true. (For example, there really was a sparkle in his eyes when he woke up deep in the night, the hospital corridors quiet, with the exception of the occasional beeping or a nurse scuffling past in the hallway, and I was on my computer, listening to music, and when I looked over he had his mouth open and seemed to be dead, and then when I shook him he looked up at me — in the light from the doorway — and said, I’m not dead, and smiled while his eyes twinkled slightly with some inward joke and then settled back into oily darkness and slightly loose focus. I saw in his eyes an infinitely small bit of light and life glinting like mica in a void, a small spark in the depths of eternal darkness ahead.) So when he was near death I felt near it, too, and adjusted accordingly, I suppose, and then I suppose I began to think — and this was a few days after he died, in the funeral parlor, picking out stones, making decisions with my sister, signing papers — of him as my old man. But I spoke it aloud for the first time when I was up in the graveyard, after the interment, alone, to pay my respects (saying to myself that I was paying my respects, liking the sound of the phrase, not sure what it meant), and I spoke to him and called him my old man. Hey, old man, it’s me, your son paying his respects, not sure what to say, old man, I said, and then I went into internal prayer so deep and sad, a lamentation that was wordless, or beyond words (I’ll never know), and was manifest in the form of a few visions of the past, images of bygone days at the lake on the boat with the fishing rods in hand and the cheap plastic reels zipping and rattling on the cast, and his figure in the chair reading with a pen in hand, and a silent afternoon sleeping with him in the bed upstairs, taking a nap together and the sound of his breath through his nose, a soft whistle-wheeze that I could never forget, and then the great eternal dark with pulses of light that I imagined he was floating in, and then I was looking down at the freshly turned soil and the gravestone, sinking slightly, it seemed, into the earth already, and his name carved into the stone. I turned away and stared vacantly into the milky summer sunlight and imagined that I would call him my old man from that point on, and I imagined that I’d say it in a particular, endearing way.

You build stories around the hot core of shame that you can’t touch. To touch it is to die, you think, and so whatever you do, you find a way to bend narratives around the gravity field of shame, instead of going through, or into, shame; for years I did not talk publicly about family, and I built, and intend to keep building, stories that one way or another have little to do with the reality of my own life right now but somehow everything to do with the truth of my concerns and my past. Others fly right into the hot core and write something and then continue to burn away into it because they have a false humility — or so it seems — that protects them, perhaps, but doesn’t allow them a way into true humility. I said something about writing around your shame, not through it, to my friend Jonathan Franzen years ago, and he quoted it in one of his essays. I felt honored that he got the gist of it, that I helped him in some small way. Jonathan is like a brother to me, and we, too, occasionally butt heads, and when we do it seems we are hugely (a David Foster Wallace word: the other Dave, as Franzen sometimes called him) different in our approaches, mind-sets, in our ways of thinking and writing, but then we always unite again, bonded by a love for the word and our shared history together. I won’t go into it here. I’ll save that for a real memoir I probably won’t write.

As a way of keeping myself focused on creating fiction, I told myself for years that memoirs were for those who had a grand sweep to look back on, a vista with great views and things of great importance, and even then they often seemed somehow suspect and self-indulgent. (Of course, like most self-imposed, slightly delusional ascetic — more than aesthetic — dicta, this was easy to break and I broke it and made exceptions for a number of books, including This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff, Donald Antrim’s The Afterlife, Black Boy by Richard Wright, Nabokov’s Speak, Memory, Janet Frame’s An Angel at My Table, Henry Green’s Pack My Bag, Midnight Oil by V. S. Pritchett, Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, Tim O’Brien’s If I Die in a Combat Zone, and a few others, and I hold dear several memoirs by writers who devoted themselves purely to the memoir form.)

I told myself over the years that the problem with memoir is that the form often demands that the reader not only respect and admire the author but also fill in the cracks of a deficient imaginative experience with that respect, making something out of what seemed to me to be nothing. Fiction, I told myself, should be everything to a fiction writer, and when a good fiction writer turned to memoir it almost always seemed (again to me, personally, as a reader) a form of self-promotion. But here I am, I think to myself this afternoon. It’s bitterly cold outside, but the sun shines. Why am I writing this? Because the idea that I have to write around my shame still seems central, somehow, and I believe that most fiction writers do the same, one way or another. Bellow was a skinny runt of a kid, the son of a Jewish immigrant father who had been a failed bootlegger, Russian by way of Canadian, and he, Saul Bellow, built himself a fictional empire of ideas and an empire out of Chicago — a grand construction around some shame, some initial need to fit into the system, as he might call it; he was a major operator — like all novelists, like all fiction writers.

I met Bellow in the flesh, years after I started reading him — I had read The Adventures of Augie March in high school, sitting on the back lawn in the sun, getting bored as soon as Augie got to Mexico — at William Morrow, the publishing house where I worked as an assistant for an editor named Lisa Drew, who published Alex Haley’s Roots for Doubleday and was friends with people like Barbara Bush and Jackie Onassis. (Jackie called from time to time. We were on a first-name basis. I still remember her sing-soft voice that always seemed to be filled with pain and history.) One day it was announced that Bellow would be coming in to visit his editor, Harvey Ginsberg, and the president of Hearst books, Lawrence Hughes, who had an office down the hall from my cubicle. His secretary was a big fan of Bellow and keyed me in to the exact time of his arrival, so I made a plan, and waited. We had been told in a memo not to bother the great personage, the Nobel laureate. (A few years later, when my wife and I were in Spain, in Agua Amarga, a small fishing village, I met a friend of hers, Renate, who told me that she had caught a glimpse of Bellow at the market in Carboneras, the next town over, and that he approached her and struck up a conversation and then invited her to lunch with him, so for the next several weeks I sat around reading, smoking cigars, drinking beer, hiking up to the meseta, with an awareness that Bellow was nearby, not far away, perhaps down the long road that snaked through the desert rambla.) But that morning, a young kid with only a few poems to my name, I staked out the hall and waited until Bellow walked down on his way to the bathroom — or perhaps he was heading out to lunch — and buttonholed him, told him I was a big fan and then, knowing that he’d simply thank me and move on, explained I was from his neck of the woods, from Michigan, not far — and this was strategically planned — from Ring Lardner’s hometown. Bellow was thin and dapper in a bespoke gray pinstripe suit, and he was wearing one of his trademark hats, a Tyrolean, with a small feather — and he came to my cubicle and leaned in, with his hand on my desk, and we talked for a few minutes about Lardner. His face was slightly elfin, his eyes playful but respectfully attentive. In any case, to me in my cubicle at William Morrow publishers he was, that morning, an actual presence, and his kind words of advice — “Keep writing, kid,” he said at the end of our conversation, “you sound like you have a good head on your shoulders” — remain with me. I might be imagining it, in retrospect, but I think I felt, that afternoon, up in an office on Madison Avenue — surrounded by that round-edged, slightly delayed, slightly sloppy-sounding splat, tat-tat of Selectric typewriters — a distinct sense of camaraderie that a man who was so clearly Midwestern in style, dignified but uptight in that nasal way, so much like my grandfather who bought his Chicago suits tailor-made in the city, could establish himself as a great literary eminence.

I see now, sitting here this afternoon, that what I recognized in Bellow, in his style, in his posture, in his manner, was what Herzog — his creation — might’ve seen as a Calvinist (or Jewish) stance that arose from a time when each man, “feeling fearful damnation, had to behave as one of the elect.” If Saul Bellow was going to confess and spill the beans, it was going to spill into his fictive creations, I think I thought, or felt, that afternoon, I think right now.

In his last few years, my father’s intensity seemed to increase as his flesh decreased; his weight went down, his skin tightened around his skull, his eye sockets deepened, and his eyes, watery, rheumy — he had a cataract in one — looked forward with a blunt, accusatory stare even when he was watching television or sorting mail. As his body betrayed him, his mind, at least the part of it that scanned the landscape for threats, the part that was tactical and strategic, assessing potential harms, sharpened in response, it seemed, tightened the way his joints tightened. His thoughts seemed to be passing through a smaller window of intellect, like wind whistling through an aperture in a castle wall, increasing in speed but not necessarily increasing in volume — something like that, and I became aware, during those visits, that he had lost some capacities (a quickness with his wit, the ability to retain facts) as he gained others in equal measure, a sharpness in the thoughts he did have, an intensity that seemed to come from his will to live and a need to outwit not only the physical forces against him but the possibility that someone might sneak around his weakened state, his sickness, and take advantage of it — even someone he loved as a son. If my body can betray, why not another mind?

I was aware, on those visits, before he really began sliding downhill, that I was somehow, at least in his eyes, the long-suffering son — with what Bellow, in Herzog (or Herzog himself, really, turning back to his memory of his old man, who threatened him with a gun when he asked him to underwrite a loan), called the “Christianized smirk of the long suffering son.” This isn’t really a stretch, because he read and loved Bellow, and he was an ordained minister who had internalized Christianity into a deep structure, a crystal lattice of mental metaphor — or maybe not, perhaps his belief had formed a real neurological structure, the brain shape-shifting year by year, locking into an orderly shape through which the electrons of his thoughts could dance, as I thought of it on the train back to Chicago after one visit, the snow still blowing outside — the air bitter and clear until we got stuck on a siding in Gary and waited for two hours for freight traffic to clear, the landscape an array of rusted tracks out to the stark but massive remains of the Inland Steel plant. I think it was the remains of Inland, a vast tangle of half-bent superstructure — stark bones of brittle steel absurdly rusting, an old stack defiantly reaching into the sky — capturing sunlight into itself. I was actually rereading Bellow, having started Herzog on the way out, listening to an audio version and turning to the book on the way back, so it wasn’t a big leap to go from the cerebral thoughts of one character to thinking about my father’s mind and the nature of his character. The way I looked out at the old steel mill, I now think, and scrutinized it for meaning was the way he taught me to look, not only at the landscape — the bristle of weeds in snow, the delicateness of the steel — but at the world (the stifling silence in the train car; fans shut down, the muted sniffs and coughs absorbed by the upholstery). He saw the remains of the mill and saw something fallen, betrayed; he saw in such scenes the waste the country could produce, not only the buildings, the abandoned post offices and churches and schools and libraries, but also the people, the souls cast aside.

He taught me to see through images to the other side of them — I told myself on the train, cradling my Penguin edition of Herzog, dog-eared, the pale, powder-blue cover curling, the binding glue flaking away on the ends like chapped skin. See through them with love, with pure love and with a sense of history that goes from the beginning to the end, not just the end of life but of the great cosmic dance that includes Christ and the cross and his death and resurrection and all of that along with the individual narratives of suffering locked into acute, sharp stories. He taught me all that, I thought on the train, by teaching me to listen for stories and by pointing out stories when he pointed out people in landscape, so that even when I saw the mill — beautiful, lonely, desolate, grand — I saw the men who had worked there, toiled, their visions and their hopes and the sense most of them had, at least in theory, that the work they did was for the betterment of some future for others. My father lectured me on such things; he knew the social theory along with the realities of the workingman, as he called them, who pinned hope on somehow making a better life — through hours of repetitive tedium on the line, through the hot smoke of goggles, through pouring liquid fire — for the next generation. Yet at the father/son level that vision narrowed as his body betrayed him, and the great dance stopped, the floor cleared, and social theory — it seemed to me, on the train — went out the window and into the crapper, as my father might call it. Eventually the train shuddered back to life and we dragged at an absurdly slow speed above East Chicago, high up over the casino and then Comiskey Park, as I thought of it, refusing to use the new corporate name, and the strip malls and the body shops and the long streets of the South Side that ran straight out from below the tracks and the lonely-looking homes with shades drawn against the view and the trees that in the summer had seemed absurdly hopeful amid the ramshackle desolation of the city — those long domestic streets, with wide front yards, and then into the tighter switch arrays, the narrowing matrix of track as it passed over the city proper, first the Chicago River, and then close in along the tracks more upscale apartments, the roof decks caked with snow, and in the windows elegant curtains, and then into the low-roofed, bulb-dim — but wonderful nonetheless and somehow reminding me of the glory and grandeur of the industrial age, when covering tracks and allowing stations to be built in the center of cities was a bow to the power of capital, to a vision beyond the particulars of not-in-my-back-yard — cavernous rail yard, narrowing still more to the concrete platforms; then I was inside the stale, half-baked Amtrak parlor and out through the old Union Station, the arched ceiling overhead, and into the streets to catch a cab to O’Hare.

My father cursed one afternoon, a few years back, and said he wanted a joke on his grave, something funny, something off the cuff, and when I asked him what it should say he said, I want the stone to say: I’m here and you’ll be here soon, and then he gave a deep chuckle, bent over, coughed, sat up, and wiped the tears from his eyes. We were on the back porch having a beer when the sprinklers in the trees came on abruptly and began misting the warm afternoon air until it was scented with pine and something else — I can’t define it now, the dust and pollen and milkweed being settled down along with the scent of the spice farm across the street from his development, a smell that was bitter and sweet at the same time, a tinge of something like licorice and nutmeg. My father can joke about death, I think I thought, and it seemed unseemly, somewhat perverse to joke about death, but also typical of his character, which sometimes seemed deep and primal, wet stone, the terminal Beckettian ping arising out of the end of his life on earth, which seemed, even then, on the porch, to be near at hand, not far off — and when he laughed and the blood squeezed into his face and the broken capillaries around his eyes became more distinct, along with the deep crevices in his furrowed brow and his thinning hair, I think I noticed something I would notice again, later, in the hospital. Set in the abrupt quiet of his face, when he stopped laughing his eyes were stunningly alive — again, twinkling — and dancing with a joy at his own cynical comment. He was right, I’m sure I thought.

He didn’t say it, but I know he believed that the joke he had made was a way of wrapping up a fundamental truth of his existence, or something like that, and then I remembered (or perhaps I just remember now) that Bellow mentioned in an interview that jokes were more important (to him at least) than philosophy; a person’s life could be summed up in about ten jokes, I think Bellow said, and the joke my father told on the back porch that afternoon, a few years before his death, was now approximately one tenth of his life, give or take. There were other jokes he made that I can’t remember, and will never remember — not standard jokes but quips about life that were inward-turning, somehow, and yet outward in projection, off the cuff, dark and seemingly cynical to most, but to me, his son, not at all, because I laughed right along with him and told them myself, carrying on the tradition. Oh, another thing I remembered from the Bellow interview. He said that groaning was monotonous. I try not to overdo it, he said, and then his eyes had the same kind of twinkle in them as my father’s, but in his face, a lean, thoughtful, considerate face — not at all like his voice, I remember thinking, which was booming and all-encompassing and full of ideas that seemed persnickety and yet also, paradoxically, hopefully encompassing. Later my father would begin his perpetual groaning, but that afternoon on the back porch he was making jokes about his gravestone (he continued riffing, giving me ideas), and the sprinklers were misting in a mindless manner — they went on, even in the rain, I’d noticed — the afternoon air. In the same interview Bellow had said that a writer was a person who lives by his imagination, a godlike, or perhaps he said godly, response to the weird fact that we appear out of the blue from where we don’t know, for how long we don’t know.

There are times, my father said, when I think the key to life is to stick with only asking questions that you can answer. The problem comes when you ask a question you simply cannot answer. But then the deeper problem, he said, turning to look out at the flat, somewhat desolate, weedy old lake that was in a eutrophic death spiral, suffocating itself, sprouting huge lily-pad structures, murky and dark in the late-afternoon light. We were at the end of the dock again, fishing, throwing out the line with lazy, occasional casts, not at all dedicated to the task, barely watching the bobbers, totally aware, both of us, that at that time of the afternoon — or almost any time — the fish were seeking deeper, cooler pockets, if there were any left. He put the handle of the rod between his knees and lit a cigarette. (My father had a complex life and career, starting with Boston University seminary, where he met, at least once, his fellow student Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The old man was kicked out of BU for theological disagreements — his words — and moved to Colgate seminary. He was a chaplain at Cornell when he began taking sociology classes — with a focus on race relations — and left the ministry to pursue his Ph.D. His interests were wide-ranging, and he was at the forefront of the civil-rights and environmental movements. After he died, I found a letter to him from Rachel Carson, in which she spoke of her book, Silent Spring, just weeks before its publication. At the center of my father’s story is a tragedy, one that this essay can’t address.) To continue my thought, he said grandly, the deeper problem comes, Son, with the fact that as an intellectual, or someone who at least poses as one, I’m obligated to ask questions that I can’t answer, and in doing so I look, from time to time, some would say often, like an idiot before these questions.

Now I trace my desire to be a fiction writer to that moment on the lake, I think, and the awareness I had, as a fourteen-year-old kid in Converse All Stars, that to think too much in the realm of ideas alone was to be doomed to a life of looking like an idiot, or pretending not to be one, at least; I like to think that right at that moment, just before the fish bit, because it did bite, taking the bobber down once lightly, enough to ripple the flat surface, I understood something intimately deep about my future path. I instantly forgot it. Only when my father was dead and gone did I see it again clearly, and remember his comment — or at least think I remembered it — and all the rage I once had for thinking that my father seemed washed-up, unsuited for his profession, a rage that lasted until he retired from teaching and went back to preaching, taking up interim minister jobs at small, ragged, half-dead churches in small, ragged, half-dead towns around lower Michigan, all that rage disappeared and settled into what at first was a sense of pity but then a sense of, well, of glory and relief that his life had been one of pure value because it had engaged, truthfully, honestly, with the joke at hand, which was that his obligation to pose ideas that were beyond his answering was a sideline, a side gig, something he did to make ends meet, while his real pleasure, his joy, was simply to take what he was seeing and to locate the deeper mystery — and faith — along with the absurd humor in it, as he did that day at the lake.

One winter morning, at the crack of dawn, heading back to Michigan again, to see my father before he had a major heart procedure, I got on the train and sat back and, as we pushed out of Chicago, with Bellow in my lap, I recalled that in Humboldt’s Gift, another favorite of my father’s, there had been some mention of the afterlife, or of the dead. (Now, here, at my desk, with a copy of the book beside me, I locate the section, on page 141 of my edition, and in it Charlie Citrine, the central character and narrator, says that he cannot accept the “view of death taken by most of us, and taken by me during most of my life — on esthetic grounds therefore I am obliged to deny that so extraordinary a thing as a human soul can be wiped out forever. No, the dead are about us, shut out by our metaphysical denial of them. As we lie nightly in our hemispheres asleep by the billions, our dead approach us.”)

I now see that on the train, barely remembering this passage, just catching the gist of it, I was somehow retroactively aware that in getting up in the middle of the night and packing in the dark and heading downstairs in an Ambien stupor to catch the earliest train possible, I was, somehow, knowingly, joining the dead who haunted the nighttime places between sleep and waking. I didn’t know at the time but I was following in the tracks of Charlie Citrine’s logic, preparing myself somehow not only to travel to my father, who would die a few days later, but also for the state I would be in when he was gone. I was feeling it in the cab, sensing it in the sweep of streets — Chicago streets, against logic, rise and fall more than expected. Call it wishful thinking or sweet delusion or whatever you want, but I know now, here, writing this, that the sensation I had was of communion with the dead around me. On the train that morning, I was aware — without knowing it, admitting it fully — of the shadow-space, partly because, of course, on a train in that transitory state between one place and another, between Chicago and my hometown, Kalamazoo, I was suspended between a sense of the life behind me and my father ahead, something like that. It’s high time you admit, I say to myself now (and said on the train), that you have a full-blown belief in a certain communion with the dead, one that you feel, strongly, must be sustained, if not in argument then at least in the fiction you write. A man stands alone along a stream in upper Michigan casting his line in a curl behind him, feeling it, sensing the gorgeous loop, the play of gravity and air and swing and motion, and then lays the line down perfectly along the stream’s surface so that the fly, far out at the end of the leader, which is invisible, makes just the right splash — the same splash a mayfly would make — and he takes a split second to look away from his task and to sweep his eyes from one end of the scene to the other and feels himself to be utterly alone with nature itself, folded into the place and the moment, while also aware somehow that he is not at all alone but subsumed in his own essential eternity along with all those who came before him. In his own violation of the rules of physics, he exists and doesn’t exist, and that sensation allows him — I’m pushing here — a vital link with those who are gone, because he is gone, too, as far as reality is concerned, and no one can prove that he made such a beautiful cast because no one knows they have to prove it, and when he has left that spot, along the Au Sable River, he will purposely avoid making mention of the moment and will answer questions from his friends with vague pleasantness. That’s what I feel about that moment on the train; that I’d be much better off not even trying to articulate it, or would be better served to simply say I felt strange in the cab on the way to the train, and then on the train itself; whereas inside I’m saying, I had a communion with the dead and readied myself to have a different relation with my father, one that would be between a dead man and myself, retroactively, without knowing I was doing so.

Bellow and my father met in Chicago, at a conference on social thought, I like to think, when my father was a younger man with a mustache — before his white-beard attempt — and he dined with him. (I remember years after that, when I was teaching on Long Island, I had dinner with Bellow’s agent, Harriet Wasserman. I can’t recall how it was arranged, but I sat at the table and listened to her talk about Bellow, about his high jinks, about his seductions, his wit, and I thought back to my own meeting with him in the office, and then back further to a tiny flick of memory, a bit of information filed deep, that my father had had some kind of contact with Bellow back in the days when he went to conferences at the University of Chicago.) I can image my father and Bellow making some connections at the intellectual level, sharing theories, talking about the theologian Paul Tillich. (Martin Luther King Jr. did his Ph.D. thesis on Tillich, my father did, too, and Bellow snarked on him in Humboldt’s Gift.) I asked my father on his deathbed if he remembered meeting Bellow and he grunted — a bit of spittle from the side of his mouth — and said he couldn’t remember but he knew he had, and then he paused and closed his eyes and his brow furrowed and he opened his eyes and looked at me with a long, penetrating stare and said that he could only remember that Bellow was wearing a red bow tie, and he shook his cuffs a lot and had long, nimble fingers, and that the two of them had eaten breakfast together (not lunch) at Valois, on the South Side, and I lay back in the bed and looked up at the ceiling because I had eaten at Valois just a few months before that — the church crowd, dressed in hats, men and women, coming into the old cafeteria-style diner with the photograph of President Obama on the wall, along with his favorite orders — with my daughter, who was a student at the time at the University of Chicago: I had thought that morning, cutting into my pancakes, about Bellow, just briefly. And then again later in the day when I saw a banner flying with his face on it in the U of C quad.

Death isn’t really an abstraction, I thought, walking along the Hudson a few weeks after my father died, not in sorrow at that moment — with the Palisades looming to my left, cutting high into the blue sky, and in the cracks up there, hidden, nesting hawks — but in a kind of blissful reverie, trying to put it together, not to make sense of the loss — brutally true, nothing to be done — but to rethink the fact that it was somehow relevant to me that in those last days, as I lay in bed with my father, I read a little bit to him from Bellow, the book open on my knee, trying to read slowly. My father had stopped me by raising his hand. He opened his eyes and said something along the lines of: Bellow lost his mother at a young age, and everything he wrote, everything he did as a man, was about mourning that loss. By that I mean (he paused, licked his lips, sat up a little bit, took a sip of water from a glass on the side table, and then continued), by that I mean his mother was the central figure in his life. He saw her as heroic, an immigrant woman, strong, bathing him in love as a boy, a young man. No other woman could replace her, or come near, my father said, and then he rambled on about the powerful (he said Jungian) shadow of the mother, about the Virgin Mary, about The Feminine Mystique — the book, not the idea — and about how his views on the matter, ever since he learned the story of his own mother, my grandmother, had shifted and changed, and then, as I listened, it began to feel cheap to me (right then, on the bed) that this central fact — his response to Bellow — would be, or rather was, inserted into our time together, time that was, to me at least, hugely valuable because, as we both silently agreed, death was ahead one way or another and it would come soon, even if the procedure (the next morning) worked. The fact that he was mentioning something about Bellow’s mother, and that because he did mention it and I’m putting it in here now, and that these words feel wedged in here, forced in, placed by me, as some sort of — what? a tribute? a literary game? an attempt to find a sophisticated pattern? — gave me, as I walked along the river, a sense of literary destabilization.

What am I to make of the strange facts of those last days, the literary conceits, the fact that Bellow — oh, God, of all writers — was one of the central figures in my father’s life? What would readers make of it? As I walked I wondered: Did you know that by taking Saul Bellow with you on those trips to Michigan — books the old man had years before foisted on you — you were inserting into the story those final few days, something that might become useful to you in some future creative efforts? Just as, years before that, when the twins were being born in Columbia-Presbyterian, and you stood in the hallway — the window at the end revealing a rectangle of the Hudson River, in the streets down below, powder-blue police barricades set up in front of the remains of the Audubon Ballroom where Malcolm X had been shot, tension in the air due to a police incident — as you stood in the hallway waiting, the moment charged because it was an emergency C-section, preeclampsia a possibility, you were reading Kafka, The Castle, holding it and intentionally thinking to yourself: I’m here with Kafka in my hands while my children are being born, while my status in the world shifts to that of fatherhood, I thought as I walked along the river, stopping to gaze at Westchester, taking it in, gazing with intent, well aware that my thought about intentionally staging my life in relation to books — so to speak — was also staged, I think now remembering that morning, less than a year ago, walking the path along the river, at Hook Mountain.

But then it had occurred to me in the car, gazing out past the retaining wall at the Hudson, which was picking up a riffling, a quivering quality — still morning light, still placid — from the wind, which was starting to gust down from the north; it had occurred to me suddenly — and it felt like a eureka moment, a flash of connective insight — that Bellow had been treated for TB as a young boy, or a child, and had spent months, maybe a year, in a sanatorium, where he read the New Testament, and that Kafka had suffered and died from TB, which he got, I’d read somewhere, from drinking unpasteurized milk — on a health kick, an early form of health hipsterism — and then it occurred to me that my father’s other favorite writer, Walker Percy, had suffered from TB and had an inspired experience in the hospital that eventually turned him to writing, and I sat and thought about that until my own favorite writer, Chekhov, came to mind, and of course his death from the disease, which made me think of the fact that Raymond Carver had written about Chekhov’s last day, his last hours, in a story called “Errand,” and that both men had died of a sort of consumption of the lungs, of a loss of breathing capacity — Carver with cancer, Chekhov with TB — and both men, I assumed, had one way or another coughed blood into handkerchiefs, and both had felt the terror of the inability to breathe (just as my father, when his congestive heart failure was filling him with fluid, and the Lasix was purging water but not enough, had coughed and spit into folded Kleenex, piling them up beside the bed).

In the car, with the wind actually shaking the car slightly as it came downriver in bursts — bringing with it heavy clouds — I turned my thoughts to myself and my own lonely asthmatic solitude as a kid, before the sprays and the medications became available, when I wheezed deep into the night until my father came into the room and stroked my head and made me sit up and gave me water, as he did one night that is deep in my memory, pure and clean and vivid, when he took me downstairs and held me in his lap because I breathed better sitting up, and we were in his study in his leather chair and the moonlight was coming through the windows and I felt myself held, safe and warm as if floating in a dark moonlit sky, and I filed the memory away — not intentionally, I was too young for that, and that would come later — but somehow knew to remember it, and in the car as I wept quietly, my head against the wheel, my eyes closed, I felt the shudder and the sweep of wind as it came down from Canada, from the tundra lands, and I imagined it was the earth itself shaking, vibrating with the all-knowing grace that filled me as all of us, those writers of the past, along with Bellow, huddled together against the consumption of time as it swept past, I think I thought. But no, I thought about something else, as soon as the gusts of wind began to make the car shake. I thought of another time, five years ago, when on Cape Cod I wanted a break from the kids, wanted to get out of the house, so I drove down Campground Road in the wintery gray, the wind howling, cold rain falling, and parked at First Encounter Beach, where the town workers had, for some reason, piled up mounds of sand, most likely to replenish the beach in the spring, and I took out the hardcover copy of T. S. Eliot’s collected poems that I’d taken from my father’s shelf on the last visit — he said, Take what you want, so I took what I wanted — and I began reading “The Hollow Men” while the wind shook the car and the sand gritted it, hissing, and I saw that my father had marked — because he was a big, big marker of text, messy, loops, underlinings, strange symbols, and almost illegible notes — one passage:

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow.

 — and written, to the side of it, in shaky block letters, death. In the car that afternoon, on Cape Cod, I felt a foreboding sense of doom, exactly what Eliot wanted me to feel, and a deeper perplexing sense of being completely alone in a new kind of solitude that included time itself, flexing outward in front of me into the future when my father would be gone while at the same time, not far down the street behind me, through the dune grass and the boarded-up houses and the houses that were year-round, warm with winter light in the windows, snug and safe, my own family sat around the television or in their rooms, unaware that I was even gone, or at least not thinking about it. For them and for me, for a split second, sliced off, we were parted for eternity.

is the author of four story collections and the novel Hystopia, published in April by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. His story “The Mighty Shannon” appeared in the February 2014 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

More from

| View All Issues |

December 2019

“An unexpectedly excellent magazine that stands out amid a homogenized media landscape.” —the New York Times
Subscribe now