Sunday, August 1, 2010

Of Sons & Fathers

My son and I made a fast trip to Philadelphia last week (he was already there with his mother) to visit my father and look at schools. As the Redster cruised the Vermont countryside, my appreciation for this beautiful state soared. It is always important for us to look at where we are, making sure it is still where we want to be. For me, Vermont has always felt blissfully comfortable, golden in sunlight and still warm under a blanket of winter snow, always interesting in its texture of light and shadows.

With my father, of course, lies the undercurrent that I am reliant on his support, shamefully (my word) unable at this point in my life to take financial care of myself, much less what is left of my family. Even as I examine the influence of his energy on my upbringing, I arrive needing cash for the gas to drive him on a simple errand to the store.

At the end of his life and lonely for company, he is contemplative, philosophical and judgmental, evaluating his own achievements and legacy. It has not helped that in cleaning up his computer, I stumbled upon a letter to his lawyer and accountant expressing his disappointment in me, his only son.

At the same time, for the first time, he is loving, affectionate, helpless himself in many ways. We shared coffee in the kitchen, sitting with our catheters as he shared the same updates as the morning before and the visit before that, his stories new and old as routine and predictable now as his days. While he professes to look forward to the Big Sleep (his words) looming for him ever presently ahead, he is clearly scared. Even as he scoffs at our beliefs, he listens to the ideas my sister and I share about past and future lives and the spirits surrounding us.

My son is drawn towards architecture as a way of perception like his grandfather and the father before him. Where the heritage intimidated me (still I have designed many homes), my son considers no other schools than those offering a degree in creating order within our environment, perhaps a result less from the tradition in our blood than from the emotional chaos his parents provided in his own childhood. I stand between the two, admiring their sense of structure as I abandon mine to embrace intuition.

Both politely remind me in different ways, but equal in authority, that I need to get a job. Agreeing with them, I argue for the surgery that will put me back on the couch for several months at the same time answering countless opportunities on Craig’s List with resumes.

In the meantime, my spirit thrives on the adventure of long drives down the road. The solid sense of going towards something makes the view out the window and the food along the way look and taste all the better. There is purpose even as we drift along or wander around.

After a tour of Philadelphia University, and with bellies treated to the famous steak sandwiches, I could not help deviating up the East River Drive to show him the sculling boats and the gorgeous row of club houses, supporting his interest in rowing. We were feeling good and enjoyed a few quips and chuckles at the expense of tourists posing for pictures at the statue of Rocky in front of the Art Museum.

No sooner had we crossed the river into a scary section of the City, than the Redster’s ailing muffler blew apart and dragged us roaringly to a halt. We fell to the sidewalk and contrived a way to loop a guitar cord around the pipe and closed into the doors on either side so we could continue to a safer neighborhood. Forced to stop every few miles to resecure the cord, we limped cheerfully home.

I joked about the stories he would be able to tell his own children about their wayward and eccentric grandfather with the huge heart but no real grasp on a stable reality, continually caught in the storms of the black cloud that followed over him. My son good-naturedly manages my challenges, embracing the balance between his two households which are respectively one too rigid and the other too loose.

Another balance was taking him camping one night, a favorite way of travel in my family growing up, but something I had never done with him before. His cousin steered us towards a mountaintop with a fire tower where we could just park and pitch a tent. Despite the full moon and his worldly age (nearly 17), it was delightful to mentor some expertise of negotiating the darkness, the lack of comfort, and the plethora of unfamiliar natural sounds that made a normally confident young man shy being more than five feet away from me.

After financing the muffler repair, giving me cash to finish our trip and a check to cover the next month, my father joked as we were leaving that he hoped I would not be visiting again any time soon as it costs him so much to have me around. Using something forgotten as an excuse, I had to go back inside to hug him again to ensure that—being so ready to die—those would not be his final words to me. There are some things a sense of humor cannot over come.

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