Remembering an Unshared Narrative

Afflicted with a Tithonian dwindling that lasted five years, my father died of "old age" at ninety-six. The agility of his light, quick step, which had always seemed the gift of a lifetime, began to abandon him, at first gradually around the middle of his ninety-first year after he had climbed the roof of his home for the last time to replace a few worn and warped shingles, and then with an alarming acceleration as other signs of physical diminution began to appear, one after the other. That this reduction was happening, as it had to, I understood in some vague way from afar and my one or two visits a year deposited in my memory a succession of framed appearances in which he moved abruptly through discrete stages of decline and decrepitude. Sitting quietly at the head of the table at family dinners, taking no pleasure in the food before him. Thanking me with the merest of nods after I had shaved him with his electric razor. Leaning lightly into the motion of whoever was available to lead him to the bathroom or bedroom—a weak, unsteady charge, whose wardrobe consisted almost completely of pajamas and bathrobes. It wasn't until this sequence of scenes progressed from one of bedridden frailty at home to one of sunken-cheeked sleep in a hospital room, that I even began to admit the possibility hat before long the next, and last, two scenes would be played in a nursing home and the Highwood Cemetery at the foot of Montana's Little Belt Mountains. Yet as long as Clotho kept spinning out the thread of his lifeline, no matter how tenuously, there was easy comfort not to think of Atropos, shears in hand, waiting in the wings to make her entrance.

After that line, spun out of the mountains of northern Peloponnesus all the way to the Rockies of the American northwest, was finally cut, one of these scenes began to assume a critical importance in my private, unshared narrative of a son's life with his father. It occurred six months before he died, on the first day of my last visit with him in the middle of March, often a season in Montana that feels winter's grip relenting without the slightest sign of spring showing its hand, a time of chilly, apprehensive liminality. It was in his hospital room, to which I had come straight from the airport with the same cousin who had picked me up this and so many times before. He was asleep when we arrived, but awoke just a few minutes after my cousin and I had sat down on either side of his bed to continue the latest installment of our habitual conversation about what was new in Great Falls. When he opened his eyes he was facing me, and I looked for a sign of acknowledgement of my surprise visit, though I knew he had been told I was coming. Before I could greet him and rise to lean over to kiss him, I was stopped by his expression of curious puzzlement, which lingered in his eyes for a moment before he turned to my cousin and asked him in Greek, "Who is this, Gus?" Chortling, Gus answered roundly, "It's George, Jim." Repeating my name once, almost incredulously, my father turned towards me with a look I will never forget, a look that began as one of agitated self-reproach and ended as one of troubled yet tender recognition. "I'm sorry I did not know you, son." Then he looked away at some point up in the ceiling.

Rising to kiss him, I said something casually dismissive like, "Oh, Papa, that can happen to anyone. It's nothing." But his lingering pensive look and my own fleeting sensation that I had been marked for some kind of unexpected enlightenment argued, for a few more moments, against its insignificance. But these initial reactions gradually wore off, and neither of us mentioned it again. I did not refer to it as my cousin drove me to my parents' home, and I said nothing about it to my mother after we arrived. I am not certain, but I would like to think, that my father no longer remembered his "lapse" when I visited him again that evening, and though I never really forgot it I succeeded in setting it aside for the next few months. Then his death restored it to a definitive standing in my memories of our relationship, and I would never again think of it as a lapse. Accidental or not, whatever its provenance, it was the gift of a condition, a faint yet permanent nimbus that only I knew circled my head.

Becoming fatherless could be reckoned with, but becoming so with an abiding doubt about the solidity of our connectedness was something else. It beckoned me into a state of uncertainty that, despite its unsettling property, maintained a claim of normality. That moment of unrecognition in my father's room in the Montana Deaconess Hospital had become for me a recognition of lasting consequence. That he did not know me as he awoke that March afternoon, no matter how easily or rationally it could be explained away, introduced grounds for questioning all of my self-assured assumptions about how well I had known him. The import of this event rather than the event itself had seized my thoughts, and my memory, which was now all that joined us, ceased to function as an end in itself and opened onto avenues with familiar surroundings that aimed ultimately at unknown destinations. My special images of us together were no longer secure, now that I realized it was only blind faith in my own feelings about them that led me to believe I knew anything concerning his feelings about them. So it came as a surprise that my recollections of him should now shake rather than confirm the confidence of my belief that I had known him well in life. With no one but myself to whom to make the necessary admission, "I'm sorry I did not know you, father," the memories, instead of behaving like simple acts of preservation, sustained the truth that I had indeed not known him as well as I thought I had and that I would spend the rest of my life trying to know him in memoriam under the same conditions as I had when he was alive, only now with all illusions eluded.

"Remembering An Unshared Narrative" first appeared in Century Dead Center.