A Leap And A Precipice

When I became the lead opinion writer for my college newspaper, my father suggested I call my column “The Road Not Taken” after one of his favorite Robert Frost poems. I thought about it but went in a different direction, choosing a title of my own: “Free Association.”

Recently I came across an article by David Orr, author of The Road Not Taken: Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong. According to Orr, Frost wrote “The Road Not Taken” with his friend Edward Thomas in mind. After an initial reading, Thomas thought that Frost, through the speaker in the poem, was lamenting the uncertain nature of making choices, suggesting his life would have played out differently if he had traveled a different road.

Frost, it turns out, was mocking Thomas, who frequently complained about the routes they took on walks through the woods. Unaware of this backstory, readers assume that Frost is arguing in favor of the road not taken, praising independent spirits for forging their own paths.

We can’t experience a life we didn’t lead—we only know the path we’ve taken, the one we’re on right now.

Wherever he went, my father didn’t travel lightly. A heavy smoker for over fifty years, he carried in his chest the weight of a thousand ghosts. He was depressed but never diagnosed because a doctor might have the audacity to suggest he quit smoking.

My father died at age seventy in the hospital where I was born. Doctors assumed he had lung cancer, but we never found out because he refused any tests.

Naturally, I inherited his nerves. Three years prior to his death, I was hurting so much I decided one day to disappear. Medicine works best in small doses, but it’s easy—when you think about it—to fit a bottle in your mouth.

There were signs we missed, being caught up in our moods. I shared a poem with him once about my life being an arduous climb up a mountain that extends higher and higher with each step, death a slip within reach.

Our only hope is to keep climbing, he said, without looking down.

“This is how you’re feeling now. The pain won’t last forever.”

He spoke from experience, having survived as a young man what doctors called a “break from reality.” In the days leading up to his hospitalization, he had visited different churches, determined to find his calling into ministry.

I don’t know if my father found God, but he did take solace in the poetry of Frost, Tennyson, Keats, Byron and Blake. A student of language, he conducted his ministry as a high school English teacher for thirty-two years.

He looks human to me now, but as a child I saw him as a larger-than-life figure of strength. I remember disagreeing with him many times about my choice of friends, but I also remember how hard he fought for me, like the time my bike was stolen. Acting on a tip from a neighbor, he confronted the kid’s parents and threatened to call the police. The kid confessed, apologized and never messed with me again.

These are the pictures I paint of him in poems and stories. There’s an art to reproducing one’s father—retracing his steps, repeating his sins.

Fate is genetic; it comes before and after us. One of my favorite philosophers, Jean-Paul Sartre, didn’t believe in fate. He argued that we must create our lives every day out of nothing. Without being consulted first, each of us was thrown into the world, and this thrownness throws us for a loop. Even suicide, Sartre reminds us, is an act of being in the world.

No stranger to mental illness, German poet Friedrich Hölderlin wrote, “But where the danger is, also grows the saving power.”

To create my life out of nothing, I must, at every turn, risk my life. Faith—in myself, in my father, in God—requires both a leap and a precipice.

This is how you’re feeling now. The pain won’t last forever.

Whether or not we recognize our path, it’s easy to get lost in the woods.

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Dedication Page

Last week marked ten years since my father died. I’ve decided to dedicate my book to him.

I finally settled on a title. The Intimacy of Communication: A Spiritual Encounter.

The book is in its final stages, and I’m learning more about Microsoft Word than I ever thought possible. The perfectionist in me wants everything “just right,” as if a typo makes me a bad person.

I expect perpetual greatness from my writing when better-than-average in some parts might be good enough. Did I expect greatness from my father all the time? Did I assume he shouldn’t get angry or that we’d always see eye-to-eye? If so, I was a fool, or at least a child.

Books endure revisions—and revisions of revisions. Whole paragraphs disappear, chapters expand and contract, wordy prose turns poetic.

Over the last ten years I’ve reimagined our father-son narrative. Some days a piece of dialogue we shared gets a fresh—or murkier—interpretation. Some days the character played by my father undergoes dramatic rewrites, revealing tragic flaws I hadn’t considered.

It’s hard for a son to grasp the power of his father’s presence, but even harder to mourn his death. As my book nears publication, have I even begun the process?

Friendly Confines

My dad liked to say that in life people are free to choose their own confinements. He chose to become a teacher and found himself confined to the classroom. He chose to become a father and when I arrived he built a life based around my mother and me.

I say that our confinements help us appreciate the limited amount of freedom we have. By becoming a teacher my dad was not a librarian or a fireman or starting first baseman for the Chicago Cubs. The classroom became his world. He was bound by district rules, standardized tests, report cards and textbooks. But he had the freedom to teach Hamlet or the five-paragraph essay as he saw fit. He encouraged students to follow their passions, even though as teens many thought little of the future.

I’ve heard a theory that the major events of our lives happen no matter the daily individual choices we make. My dad was in a way destined to teach—maybe not in Chicago, maybe not English—but still a teacher. Even after his initial dream of becoming a minister wasn’t realized, he wanted to help people—lifting their spirits, nourishing their minds. Minister or teacher—he was in the same ballpark.

Oftentimes we try too hard to force the action in our lives. We push for things we think we want, only to see them escape our grasp. Then there are those opportunities we never considered, appearing out of nowhere.

There’s power in submitting to the possibility that my life follows some kind of destiny. Accepting the will of the universe and learning to live with myself? How freeing.

The Child Is Father Of The Man

Eight years ago today my father died.

It’s always tough, but with each anniversary my sense of loss has changed. The other night I looked at his picture and cried, but the heartache, vast for a moment, passed.

I remember pushing my toy chest into his room as a child. I’d sell him a stuffed animal or Matchbox car and he’d pay me in hugs. The chest was heavy and the wheels were thin, but I forged ahead.

My father, I like to think, is asleep behind a series of doors in the middle of an endless hallway. Perhaps one day he’ll wake from a dream to find I’ve arrived, and recognize the child in me.

A Difficult Piece

ABOVE A WHISPER

The grass around
my father’s grave.
To walk on blades
I can’t help but feel.

Does he see me struggle
over sunken markers
careful not to wake the dead?

I’d like to share the latest.
Everything I’m after.
News about a dream job
my own place to live
the love of a woman who finds
me worthy of affection.

There’s little to report.
I speak of world affairs.
Warmer winters.
Now he knows the score
of last year’s Super Bowl.

I get the sense
of talking to myself
above a whisper.

Over headstones
fixed in solemn rows
birds assuming
V-formation.

c b snoad
9-19-13

Seven Years

My dad joked that he’d like to come back to earth as a toll booth because “people would throw money at me all day.” Later this week we’ll reach seven years since he died. Here’s my way of remembering him.

***

MY FATHER IS A TOLL BOOTH

On a high-octane
interstate exchange
my father is a toll booth
living out his dream

Change comes steady
the stop-n-go of anxious taillights
endless fenders
compact cars and heavy loads

His mouth’s a chute
brain an agile motherboard
one long arm to keep
the world at bay

Some dads turn to tadpoles
others moss or stone
a few shine as sunbeams
or grow mighty as a rose

Concrete and flashing lights
before the final exit
my father is a toll booth
living out his dream

c b snoad
5-20-13

Dog Days

As I sit here writing my blog, our new terrier mix, Luna, is sleeping quietly through her first night at home. Our early moments together have been amazing, and her presence has lifted my spirits.

Yet I can’t help feeling sad as I replay the events of today’s adoption process.

My father loved dogs and owned many throughout his life. One morning in May 2006, as he prepared to leave for the hospital (and struggling to breathe), Dad said goodbye to our rambunctious beagle, Betsy. Unaware of the severity of my father’s illness, I thought for sure he’d see her again. He died the next day.

Betsy had her own health issues, and they got worse after Dad was gone. In January 2008, we had to put her down, her suffering too much for us to bear.

It was, of course, a terribly sad event, but it arrived with a competing emotional force. In the midst of dealing with Betsy’s passing, I recalled images of my father tossing her a coveted tennis ball, feeding her forbidden table scraps, and laughing like a child at her endearing “hound dog ways.”

All of this brings me to Luna–right now–and the realization that in joy there are often hints of sorrow; in heartache, traces of love. It all comes back to family, and in our house dogs are family too.