I love this picture of my dad at work in his study, hunched over, pounding out another story on his favorite manual, which was heavy enough to serve as a boat anchor for an ocean liner. The desk is too small, the chair is too small and too hard, the sunlight flooding the room is too bright. It’s too hot, but the air condition hasn’t been turned on. A cassette tape boom box is doubtless playing one of his recordings of music off the classical radio station. Paper surrounds him: it’s in the typewriter, on the desk, in the bookshelves, jammed in the remaindered file cabinets, tacked to the wall. He’s tan, so this must’ve been a period when he was still carrying on the daily battle to keep the vegetation from taking over the house, a battle that could only be carried out at dawn and at dusk if one was to live to fight another day.
Not that dad was consistently committed to living to fight another day. But when he died some eighteen years ago, it was not by his own hand. No, he’d survived both of his own attempts and was actually on the mend, thanks largely to a neurologist who’d begun to treat him for Parkinson’s and early onset of Alzheimers. It’s a sign of how terribly bleak the last decade of his life was that, at the time, we all treated this new diagnosis as good news. We weren’t wrong: the new diagnosis brought a new regime of medications and the new medications brought dad up out of the fog and gave him back some of the language that his sinking condition had taken from him. A writer without words: the indignity of it was unbearable for him and something that his four children (all of us magpies in our own ways) and his wife (our mother) tried our best to cover over with upbeat chatter. We wanted to make the gaps of silence disappear beneath the roar of our own vociferousness.
I’m not sure when this picture was taken relative to the timeline of my father’s long decline. He’s still working, so it can’t be in the second half of his descent: by that point, he’d given up all hope of finding a publisher for his novel and had stopped sending out his short stories and poetry to the small magazines that had served as his audience for over thirty years. What was the point of going on with it? Even at the best of times, firing his work into the void was a soul-crushing business: no one read those magazines, except maybe those who were published by them. Maybe. All those decades spent over that typewriter, spent waiting for the mail, spent hoping for a response that never came: eventually the weight of all that time was too much to bear and dad just stopped sitting at that desk. He retired and no one outside his immediate family, not even the postman, noticed.
In retrospect, dad’s expression seems to be an ominous sign of what lies ahead. He had ferocious powers of concentration, seemingly instant recall when the subject at hand touched on anything he’d ever read, seen, or listened to, a sense of humor I miss to this day, and, when something struck him as funny, he could laugh until he’d have to wipe tears from his eyes. Here, though, what stands out for me is his expressionless expression. One of the possible signs of Parkinson’s is “the mask of death.” As the facial muscles atrophy and their coordinated movement goes, the Parkinson’s patient’s facial expression flattens out, mirroring the expression of someone deeply, and perhaps permanently, depressed. And there’s the rub: Parkinson’s can conceal the appearance of depression or be confused with depression or be seen as the cause of the depression that seems the inevitable result of being diagnosed with Parkinson’s. Are the first traces of the mask of death in evidence here or is that just a trick of the light or a retroactive projection of the mind?
What’s going on inside his head? This was a question that consumed us as children. He preferred to be in the study, with the door closed. When he was cooking dinner or making our lunches for school or doing the shopping, it was not hard to determine that he would have preferred to be back in his study–and that the ideal study would be in a residence where there were no children. But the deal was, in exchange for taking care of the household, he got to write; mom made enough as a French professor at the nearby private liberal arts college to keep all six of us fed, clothed, and sheltered. Originally, he had ten years to prove himself: ten years to place fifty stories. He cleared that benchmark in seven years and the arrangement continued on past when the four of us kids had left for and then graduated from college, on to his retirement.
Parents are always a mystery to their kids; now that my two daughters are entering their college years, I understand that the mystery travels in both directions. But, the mystery my father left behind when he died hasn’t dissipated with the passage of time; rather, when you have a suicidal parent, I think the mystery thickens as you age. Will your genetic heritage make itself known after you turn fifty? Will the world become an even darker place? Will your tricks for staying positive–your friendships, laughter, your medications and self-medications, your spiritual gambits–wear thin before your time runs out? Is this what dad felt like, you find yourself asking at moments when you sense the abyss opening. Is this what lies ahead for my kids, too?
My father’s life was shrouded in secrecy: he never spoke of his childhood; we never met his mother and knew only that she died in an insane asylum (such was the term in play during our youth); no one, not even my mother, seemed to know who my father’s father was or might have been. We knew only that my father grew up desperately poor in East Texas, joined the Army in 1943, was part of the occupation force that came across after DDay, returned and entered the University of Chicago on the G.I. Bill. As far as he was concerned, he came into being during those college years, met my mother there, and the kids followed in a pretty steady flow from the mid-fifties to the early sixties.
Eventually, when I was in graduate school, I wrote home asking him to fill in these blanks for me. My own life was in turmoil and this was one of many ways I tried at the time to find my own moorings. Shortly after I’d written with my request, a packet arrived in the mail: it was the first installment of many that would appear over the next eighteen months. Over 200 pages, typed, single-spaced, in chronological order, from zero to when he turned twelve. The level of detail was simply astonishing. How was it possible to remember so much about each of the more than dozen houses that he and his mother moved into and out of during his youth? Who could remember the names of so many classmates from fifty years in the past? The manuscript grew. I’d write back, but my observations just got in the way of what turned out to be dad’s final sustained writing project–namely, getting down the whole of his childhood experience. His first suicide attempt only briefly interrupted the flow of pages: once he was out of the hospital and being treated for depression, the flow of memories resumed.
It’s an extraordinary document: I read it now and it seems to me to be a psychological memoir, a record of the lived experience of growing up impoverished. And it was one of many hundred documents that I took possession of when I assumed responsibility for handling my father’s literary estate. In truth, after my mother died, the dozen or so boxes holding all his files, copies of all his publications, his correspondence, and god knows what all else, spent close to a decade in the basement of my home in New Jersey before I hauled them out this summer with the goal of finding a home for the whole mass. I was spurred, in part, by a side trip I’d taken on a lark to my father’s home town a few years ago. Port Arthur had always had a sort of mythic status when we were growing up: it seemed to belong in one of the deeper circles of hell, if only because whatever happened there had been stored forever in the vault of my father’s silence. My road trip didn’t disappoint:
So, I started learning more about Port Arthur, its history, East Texas; I looked at digitized versions of old newspapers and pictures of the area from the earlier decades of the twentieth century; and I discovered that there is a Museum of the Gulf Coast right there in Port Arthur that is dedicated to preserving the accomplishments of East Texas’ artists, entertainers, and sports heroes. (These include: Janis Joplin, Robert Rauschenberg, and Jimmy Johnson–that’s one strange trifecta.) And I arranged to return this summer to explore the possibility of moving my father’s boxes into the museum’s archive.
That’s when everything got strange. As I made my way through the boxes, cataloguing what was in there, I looked closely at the material for the very first time. The answer to the question, “what was going on in his head?” was right there in front of me, recorded in journals dating back to 1949, elaborated on in voluminous correspondence with his many aunts and cousins, and drawn together in various sketches, half-started novels, and cloaked short stories. How was he able to produce two hundred pages of memories in chronological order when I wrote to him in early 1990? The short answer is: because he’d dedicated the previous forty years of his life to recovering every memory he had of his years growing up in Port Arthur. Though he never would’ve described it this way himself, he was both archiving the self and seeing the self as an inexhaustible archive where everything that had ever happened to the self was stored and could, with effort, be retrieved.
In the writing that follows, I will invite you in to see the mysteries these boxes contain and to share with you the research I am pursuing as a result of suddenly being able to say, with relative certainty, what my father was thinking on any given day, while his children tiptoed past his study and his wife wondered what could be done to lift him out of his despair. Please feel invited to share your thoughts about the project at any time. More to follow.
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