You didn’t arrive the way I’d imagined: inching your way, slow and steady. Instead, there was the top of your head and then the rest of you in a burst, unfolding like an acrobat.
I asked if I could hold you.
“She’s your kid,” our dry-witted doctor said, which I thought was very funny, until you were in my arms and the neat truth of it landed.
She was already washing her hands. She was already heading for the door. Of course the doctor had used that line before. What could be more commonplace than a child born and her bewildered father?
Soon the three of us were alone in the green glow of machines.
When I was young, I was terrified by madness and its looming characters: the Hallelujah Lady rattling the fence of our elementary school playground; the Giant of Fourth Street under the August sun, swaddled in blankets and coats, gloves and hats, a brick in his huge fist.
In one of the early nights, when your mother and I were still hallucinating from exhaustion, you began to choke. We saw outrage in your face. Until then, you had cycled between peace and discomfort. Either you were happy, or you were not. But now your eyes bulged, as if to say: Fix this, goddammit.
I was calm then. In times of immediate threat, I tend to go cold and rational. I don’t remember what we did to make it so, but you survived and were at peace again. I had never loved your mother more.
Later, we were driving somewhere, I don’t remember where or when, maybe into town, maybe in those first months, when we were mostly alone, sequestered, when the menace and mystery of disease plagued the country. I caught your eyes in the rearview mirror and was sure I saw there an expression of absence, of dislocation. Something alien, controlled by a foreign power, and in it I thought I detected danger.
I was frightened because I knew the look. I’d seen it on my own face when my own face was most unfamiliar. Frightened because, really, it wasn’t alien at all.
I tried the few shabby tricks I knew then—clownish tools of the novice. To no avail, so I let you be. Which seemed then, as it does now, the only way. I know this of myself. We can’t be played into joy. There is no distraction good enough. I wish there were, but I’ve tried them all. Joy must reappear the way that sadness does. Of its own volition. All at once, or gradually.
On that subject, I’m afraid the best wisdom I’ll ever have to offer you is that they both inevitably return.
Know this and you will be better prepared than I was.
I was only fourteen years old when it came for me, this thing I saw, or imagined I saw, reflected in your face. Would it come for you, too? Was it lying in wait?
I was on my bike, alone by the river, and there it was: the first visit on a magnificent summer day.
Treacherous territory, describing this thing. I tried once, in a novel. I made it tar and a circling bird. That seemed right then, and it seems good enough now.
The spreading weight, the constant hunter.
It’s often misunderstood as simple sadness by those fortunate enough to misunderstand. But it is a far more complex creature, one that inhabits the body. An occupying force, it comes with weight and volume. Both of which are tremendous. Neither of which is inert.
That day, it was baffling and brutal enough that I had to stop riding and sit on a bench. I don’t remember going home, or when it left. As quickly and inexplicably as it had come, it was gone.
The other night you were watching me cook dinner, and I saw that look again. When I asked what was wrong you said, “I’m just a little sad.” I turned off the stove and picked you up and asked why. You laid your head against my chest and said you didn’t know.
I wonder whether you meant it, or if you were only trying out a sentence you’d found somewhere.
Sometimes, in the very early months of your life, I’d take you down through the town where all the shops were boarded up, where the only people left on the streets were those who lived on them.
The man, immobile, sitting on the sidewalk with an apple in his palm, studying either the fruit or the visions dancing before him.
The blond kid, so young, yanking at his hair, beat up by the sun and whatever else had swollen his eyes, screaming, trailing through the public parking lot.
Everywhere, in those days, madness. No more than usual, probably. But one had the impression that all else had been removed from the landscape—local, national, international—and nothing was left but lunacy.
When I was about thirteen years old, my mother, your grandmother, stopped her car where I was playing touch football and waved me over. My memory of this moment must be inconsistent with the truth of it. Yet there she is, clear as anything, wearing a tweed jacket, brown hair held back with a tortoiseshell barrette, leaning across the passenger seat, eyes uncharacteristically dim.
She asks if I’d like to come with her. I know that I should say yes and climb into the car and drive away from my friends, but I don’t, and I stay, and I continue playing the game, which is pure pleasure: dry wind, cold grass, all body, no mind.
It is possible that I’d forgotten where she was going until I saw your expression in the mirror.
On June 18, 1985, my grandfather, your grandmother’s father, your great-grandfather, Arthur, put a loaded shotgun into his mouth and pulled the trigger. He was sixty-five years old.
I don’t know what details I knew when. I remember your grandmother driving away after asking me if I’d like to accompany her to his funeral. And then feeling both relief and regret at my decision.
It wasn’t death that made me a coward. It was your grandmother’s grief.
You will be three years old soon, but it wasn’t until a year ago that I requested a copy of his death certificate from Los Angeles County.
Why, after all these years, have I begun to think about Arthur and how he died? Because you were born, or because I saw your eyes in the rearview mirror and they terrified me?
I will keep saying this, a kind of incantation: I hope what I saw wasn’t there at all.
According to the certificate, your great-grandfather died at 6:05 a.m. This surprised me. I don’t think of early morning as a time for suicide. Though he was a smoker and a drinker, so perhaps it was the pain of another hangover that did it. Or perhaps by then there were for him no longer any distinctions between day and night.
Your grandmother tells me that he wouldn’t leave his apartment in those days. Maybe 6:05 a.m. was no different than 6:05 p.m. Maybe it was all the same—always drunk, haze of smoke, drawn curtains. Or perhaps it was only that they found him in the morning and what difference does it make exactly what time a man ends his life?
He’d been calling your grandmother constantly. Here’s a detail I’ve never forgotten: he wanted her to come over and wash his underwear. For most of her life she was angry at him, this man, her father, who’d left a young girl to take care of her brothers, her mother. And now he was on the phone, pleading for help from the depths of his misery.
What a dull old story.
Cause of death: Perforating shotgun wound of head through mouth.