Tag Archives: sons

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?

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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.

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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

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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

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More Than Just A Game

I encountered the game of baseball around the age of six, when I joined my local park district team. My career ended mercifully after one season. Even though most of my time as little-leaguer was uneventful, one moment lives on today.

It was raining one summer day, so we had to play our game indoors. I was installed at first base, hoping that the ball somehow would avoid me. A kid on the opposing team hit a pitch high into the air, all the way up to the ceiling. Magically, the ball landed in my open glove and stuck there. I had no idea what was going on, but my dad was in the gym, and he was cheering for me. That’s what he always did.

Today marks five years since my father died, and all I keep thinking about is baseball and our relationship to it. I’ll never forget how my dad, a huge Cubs fan, used to find out when my favorite team as a kid, the Atlanta Braves, would be in town to play the Cubs at Wrigley Field. He made sure that I got to see my team in person at least once a year. He rooted for me even when we weren’t rooting for the same team.

By the time college rolled around, though, I started following the Cubs and quickly became a big fan. One year after graduation, in 2003, I was having a difficult time in my life. It was often hard for me to get out of bed and face the world, but that summer dad encouraged me to emerge from my darkness and watch Cubs games with him. Again he was cheering me on, wishing the best for his struggling son.

Sadly, 2003 went down as another lost year for the Cubs. After beating, ironically, the Braves in the first round of the playoffs that October, the Cubs were five outs away from reaching the World Series for the first time since 1945, when dad was just nine years old. The Florida Marlins scored seven runs in the eighth inning, though, and won game 6, forcing a game 7.

Hope was tough to come by at the start of that last game. The Cubs couldn’t recover from their previous defeat, and just like that, a promising postseason run went up in smoke.

The loss was hard enough, but I didn’t make it any easier for my father, telling him right after the loss, “It’s just a game.” Of course, I was trying to cheer him up as he had done for me that whole summer, but he was so heartbroken that my words were empty.

Three seasons later, in 2006, my father’s health was in decline. We still watched the Cubs, of course, but I could tell that it was harder for him to enjoy the games. In April, while the Cubs were in Los Angeles and playing the Dodgers, Cubs first baseman (and our best player) Derrek Lee broke two bones in his wrist during a collision at his position. Right after it happened, dad said, “There goes the season.”

I tried denying the truth of that statement, but I knew he was right. I didn’t know, however, that in one month my father would be gone.

When the season ended in October of that year, the Cubs finished in last place with close to 100 losses in a 162-game schedule. They watched the postseason from home as their archrivals, the St. Louis Cardinals, went on to win the World Series.

From my first-grade team, to my favorite club being five outs from the World Series, to watching last night’s contests on TV, baseball’s been more than just a game for me. It’s a part of who I am and part of who my father was. It unites us even though we’re not here together, cheering for each other.

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