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November 09, 2016 - Image 12

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The Michigan Daily

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Wednesday, November 9, 2016 // The Statement
Wednesday, November 9, 2016 // The Statement


nd so we drove, taking his way, the way he always
takes, we always take, past the trees and fields that
form, I imagine, the mental landscape of his child-
hood, a time lost and, with each passing, not quite

regained. We drove past those fields, those trees, that granite sky,
the ones we’ve always passed, the ones that haven’t changed. It was
during the liminal season between winter and spring, when the
snow cakes the grass. He sat in the driver’s seat — my dad, reticent,
reserved, quiet in his familiar way, with a resignation that isn’t
quite melancholy — navigating us through the roads in northern
Michigan, where he grew up, served as the pastor of Grace Luther-
an Church and now spends his retirement. He was driving me back
to school, like he usually does, to Ann Arbor, where I rarely leave
now. We drove down Herron Road, the quickest way, he always
says. Perhaps it is. I know no other.

And so we sat there, quietly, looking out our respective windows

at the place he calls home, that I don’t, can’t. And so we sat there,
just looking, and we let the silence grow.

A scar, somewhere between a foot and 18 inches in length, runs

down my dad’s right leg. It’s a record of an irrevocable change. It’s
from one of his first surgeries — he’s had eight now, I think, just on
the lower extremities with hip replacements likely to come. It’s a
mark that divides two times of his life: before his body was dam-
aged and after.

For my entire life and before it, my dad has suffered through var-

ious health problems. Right before I was born, when he was around
35, there was an accident, the details of which are still ambiguous
to me, that ravaged his joints and started a cycle of knee surgeries
that ended with replacements for both. This accident, coupled with
years of wear from playing baseball, weakened his joints. Eventu-
ally, sometime when I was in elementary school, he developed
psoriatic arthritis, which not only inflames the joints but produces
red lesions on the skin. I can’t remember when he didn’t have it. I
can’t remember a time when his beard was without gray, when he
walked without the tired rhythm of old age, when he didn’t seem
old. It’s strange, even now, to name it, the arthritis, to articulate it
as though it weren't the structuring condition of his life but a mere
disease. It seems, rather, the very mark of his experience in the
world, of my experience with him, of the man that I know.

When arthritis was all that plagued his body, my dad, stubborn

and implacable, retained his independence. He still worked outside,
cutting wood for the fires that heat our house and tinkering with
this boat. But in recent years he’s suffered from a growing number
of vertigo attacks and a nascent deafness. His independence wanes.
He’s only 55, but his body bears the weight of a man of 70.

I have more diligence in our interactions than I once did, now,

more of an awareness in his needs and discomforts. When he visits,
we eat at the place closest to his parking spot, saving him the trou-
ble of a long walk. And I have the growing awareness that, perhaps
sooner than later, he’ll need me to take care of him.

But when I was younger, I felt as though he and his body’s failure

had robbed me of something, that because he wasn’t like the usual
dad, which exists only in the mind of a child, that I was deprived of
an essential aspect of my childhood.

I’ve always been a pastor’s son. It’s a moniker I’ve worn with

bewilderment and, at times, disdain. I spent much of my childhood
in church. I didn’t just attend services, after which old women
would approach me and my mom, complimenting us on how
handsome and intelligent a boy I was, squeezing my cheeks with
wrinkled hands, but I’d also roam throughout while my dad was
at work. I’d sit in his office while he wrote his sermons, his shelves
lined with books, ancient texts and scriptures in German, ancient
Greek and Hebrew. I remember sitting there, awed by his knowl-
edge, his apparent wisdom.

The church, however, never provided the moral and intellectual

education for me that, it seems, it does for so many that attend.
Church was often a place where I was hounded with attention and
expectations I didn’t want. Whatever spiritual beliefs I may have
developed, the social life that the church entailed pushed me away
from it.

I’ve never known why my dad became a pastor nor understood

it. But, I suspect, it has less to do with doctrine than its social mis-
sion. Most of his work was outside of the church. Many times, dur-
ing the week, he traveled to meet with parishioners, in hospitals
most often, giving them communion. He worked with the people
on the social periphery — the poor, the addicted, the forgotten
people that populate a place like Alpena, our hometown. Chris-
tianity, preaching, isn’t so much a system through which he can
arrange the world and make sense of its chaos but a place for moral
action. Religion and the church, it seems, were a means by which
he can take care of the world. For example, when our dog, Lucky,
who I named and subsequently cursed, developed cancer and had
his right front leg amputated, my dad made four-egg omelets and
bacon every morning for him to help rebuild the tissue damaged in
the operation. He’s dedicated his life to taking care of the world.
The misery, then, of these accumulated ailments — the arthritis,
the vertigo, the deafness — isn’t the just the pain they bring; it’s
that he can no longer take care of the world because he can no lon-
ger take care of himself.


Body of the Father:

Sifting through a changing relationship with my dad


Besides the home, cars are the primary

domestic space in my family, and it’s where my
dad and I have shared the most time. In our
home, with the exception of dinner, we rarely
see each other. He has always been the driver
in my family. My mom, though she has been
driving for 40 years, can barely parallel park.
He could do it blind.

My dad, who can’t sleep past the sunrise

both because of habit and the stiff pain that
sleep causes in his joints, used to drive me to
school on most days and pick me up. I can’t
remember, now, what happened during those
or what we talked about — the Tigers, prob-
ably, or the Bush administration, which he
hated as much as he loves the Tigers — but I
remember the silences, the moments of shared
solitude that formed our relationship.

Those silences, now, hold an anxiety that

seems both new and inveterate. I feel guilty
letting my dad drive me back to college. I have
no idea if he will have an attack of vertigo
while driving home alone, and I don’t want
to be responsible for forcing him into one. As
much as I know he probably wants to take me,
it worries me that he’ll get an attack and be
stranded on the highway. It worries me that,
as he gets older, he won’t be able to take care
of himself. It worries me that I won’t be there
to help him.

And it worries him, now, that I won’t have

a job when I graduate, that I’ll continue to rely
on him and my mom, that I’ll remain depen-
dent. Our conversations turn without fail to
the question of my life plans. “What are you
doing after graduation?” he’ll ask me. “Fuck if I
know,” I respond, and we end there and repeat
for the next time. College is a swamp between
adolescence and adulthood where one is stuck
in the medial space between dependence and
independence. And its end poses an unavoid-
able question: How do I take care of my dad
when I haven’t even figured out how to take
care of myself?

As fathers tend to do, my grandpa enjoys

bragging about my dad. A star catcher on his
high school baseball team, he could’ve gone
pro, my grandpa tells me, not infrequently, in
the way that the elderly repeat the stories that
have solidified enough as to be easy to recall.
He was the fastest kid in school, from kin-
dergarten through high school, I’m told. My
grandpa had never seen anyone that fast. In
the prime of his life, he says, my dad could pick
up a 500-lb. car engine alone. It’s all bullshit,
probably, or at least so altered by memory as
to have erased enough of the truth to be clas-
sified as bullshit.

When I was younger, I used to assemble the

spare details that fell through conversations
with family, verbal artifacts at once vanished
and resurrected, and imagine who he was
before I was born. There’s a strangeness in
this gap of memory, of imagination, in which
the absence of an alternative life and the pos-
sibilities of what he once was linger. But I’ve
never been able to mythologize, even in the
benign way my grandpa does, who he once
was. I can’t, even in a fiction, summon another
vision of my dad as a star baseball player. He’s
still the old man.

Then, there’s the intellectual. Somehow,

my dad is intellectual without being snobbish
in a place where education is itself a form of
arrogance. In Alpena, a small town on the
eastern coast of northern Michigan where we
both grew up and where little has changed in
the intervening decades between our youths,
intellect, specifically intellectualism, is abnor-
mal. Once, as it was later told to me, a kid I
knew in high school said to my friends that I
was so smart it was like I was autistic.

My grandma once told me, furtively, with

an admonishment that he wouldn’t want me to
know, a story about a night my dad went miss-
ing. My grandpa woke up one morning when
the sun was rising, like always, to begin work
on the farm, and went to wake my dad up. He
wasn’t in his bed. After searching across the
farm, my grandpa found him near the out-
skirts of their farm, lying in the grass with a
flashlight and a Bible.

To be intellectual, to have interests outside

of that small sphere of rural experience —
especially as a male — was, is a transgression.
I remember, in 10th grade, reading “Hamlet”
in the secrecy of my grandparents’ guest room,
because I knew, know still, that if my friends
found out they’d call me a faggot, or a queer,
or one of the other dozens of epithets that cir-
culated through my high school’s walls. There
was, is, a shame in reading, in learning.

It always seemed strange, somewhat incon-

ceivable, then, why my dad decided to — why
he even wanted to — preach there. The name,
the word itself, Alpena, cannot leave my
tongue without a taste of contempt, of rejec-
tion. When I was in high school, I resented my
parents’ choice to live there, to have me live
there. I spent most of 10th grade petitioning
them to send me to private school somewhere,
anywhere. It’s a place antithetical to my val-
ues, to my being, which was formed, of course,
by its opposition to my hometown. Reading
and my interests, weren’t developed out of
some passion within me, but from the environ-
ment without. More than my mom, I blamed
my dad for this, for being born in a place that
I grew to hate, in a home that was alien to me.
Reading, learning, was a method of defiance to
the people I grew up with. I did it out of arro-
gance and alienation, out of a sense that I was
better than them.

But I think, now, of that story my grandma

told me, of that night in the Bible, and I real-
ize now how much, like myself, he needed the
intensity of that private mental space, of learn-
ing, of wrestling with the ambiguities outside
of that small, simple, formative town.

Two scars run down my left leg, each, per-

haps, six inches long. They’re from my first
surgery, one of few, from when I was hit by a
car and broke both of my legs and my left pel-
vis. I was 4. I hadn’t even gone to school yet. A
year before, in daycare, I was playing tag in the
woods and tripped whereupon a stick on the
ground struck through my skin right under-
neath my left eyeball. From an early age I had
a keen ability for self-destruction. After my car
accident, the surgeon inserted two metal rods
into my legs, which stayed there for six weeks.
My dad waited outside the surgery, my mom

told me years later, more upset than she’d ever
seen him.

We’ve never gotten along, my dad and I, in

the way it seems fathers and sons should, with
a gentle, intimate camaraderie. My dad and
grandpa have this — they hunt and fish togeth-
er, watch the baseball game and work on their
boat. Ours, my dad's and mine, isn’t a relation-
ship filled with conflict but one with a distance,
quiet yet impassable.

During my freshman year of college, I had a

sort of eureka moment, an insight that both ter-
rified me and clarified a central question in our
relationship. I realized how much I had inher-
ited from him, how much I had been formed by
his presence in my life. Ah yes, I thought, we’re
too similar. It’s not much of an epiphany — of
course I was influenced by my dad. But there’s
some incongruence in our similarities, in the
ways we crave solitude and the ways we with-
draw into ourselves, that makes it impossible to
bridge those silences that disturb and sustain
our relationship.

There’s a shame that followed me, still fol-

lows me, that I hadn’t quite repaid him for the
life he’s given me, a solid, comfortable, middle-
class life, and that now, or soon, when the debt
is due, I’ll be penniless. But there’s another
shame, now, a shame that comes with the
thought of his dependence, of that condescen-
sion, of somehow taking from him what he’s
given to me — the opportunity to live indepen-

And then there’s a silent shame, the core

shame, which flares now and then, a quiet con-
flagration, the shame I feel for resenting him
for his body’s failures, for a life that, like me,
was formed by some fate he didn’t choose.

And so we arrived. I took my baggage out of

the car. I made sure to take as much as I could.
I knew he’d try to help me and that he’s stub-
born enough to succeed. He put some of the
lighter things on the porch, and for others, I
met him halfway to grab them.

“All right. Well, have a good semester,” he


“Thanks, I’ll see you.”
He opened the door then stopped.
“Do you know how to get back onto the free-


“Yeah, one second, I’ll look it up on my

phone. But I think you just have to go back

Packard and turn at Main.”
“Ah, don’t worry about it. I’ll figure it out.”
“Just one second,” I insisted.
“Actually, you know what, you’ll find your


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