He had tremendous compassion and empathy. It amazed me in high school that my friends when they were tormented, had an insoluble problem, or were simply confused, came to the house to talk to him, while I wasn’t able to talk to him at all. Although one time when I was a freshman in college in western Illinois and perhaps 16 inches away from a breakdown, he dropped everything and flew from Detroit and met me in a Chicago hotel. We didn’t really talk about my problems — I was too private for that — except that he called room service for club sandwiches and bottles of Heinekens (this was the man who was furious when he had caught me drinking). So I told him I was unhappy and didn’t know what to do, and he was patient and listened. And when the breakdown came and I quit school, he continued to be supportive. And when I crawled out of it and began to publish, he read my poems and novels, sometimes reading them again and again. Even when he didn’t understand them or like them, he encouraged me and was proud that I had written them.
I like to think of my life as having a completeness, a beginning, middle, and end. That is a sort of vanity. Rather it is a few pages in a long story, and those pages arise out of the pages that came before it. Certainly my pages have their own subject, their own energy and purpose, but they wouldn’t exist without the previous pages and the pages before that, going all the way back to the beginning, wherever that is. So my parents, both of them, make up the pages before mine. They were sensible, educated, well-meaning people who loved me. Yet the child responds with his or her own complexity. It’s like the body of memory and the final image; the two pieces of information add up to a third — the child as a mixture of the parents and some other confusion.
Because my father had been a minister and active in half a dozen dioceses, three different bishops took part in his funeral service. And positioned on a pedestal between the bishops and several ministers in the chancel and the people attending the service was a little white box. It looked just like the box you give your girl before the prom, the one containing an orchid, except this box held my father’s ashes, his mortal remains, all the passion and energy, the love and complexity, the knowledge and memory, the final dispersion of a lifetime, scaled down by flame, traveling back to the earth.
This article is part of the Father's Day issue. To read additional articles from this issue, click here.