I have been on the verge of telling this story before, but on those past occasions I gave in to the storyteller’s instinct for getting a running start on the subject and, taking a step back, again and again I tumbled from that verge into a crevasse of detail or a moraine of connected facts which, when explored, offered no path back to the top but only dead ends, sheer walls and dizzying drops with nary a handhold.
But this time I shall not be rimlocked. This time I will dive right in and get to it. And, what’s more, I will not be distracted from my goal or diverted from my path but will promise now to see this simple tale through to its end, whatever that may be. That is the writer’s pledge, after all—not merely to begin but to continue and, now and then, to finish. People have the strangest ideas about writing—writers have some of the strangest, I think—but whatever else it is, writing isn’t an exercise and it isn’t meditation and it really doesn’t matter one goddamn bit until someone, anyone—like you—reads it.
Then it’s got a chance.
So here we go, without preamble. And what we lose in poetry perhaps we will gain in clarity.
When my father died it was not long before I felt that I was dying too. And not just in the sense that we are all of us mortal and one day destined to cease. I felt it looming. I felt it opening up before me with nothing and no one between me and it. The accident that had taken my unborn son, the hard-earned coronary disease that had taken my father were like two shells fired from the same cannon. It seemed the gunner had the measure of me, and the next round, no doubt already whistling through the air, would strike home.
My father had had trouble with his weight all his life. It was one defining factor of his existence—not the only one, but a major one for sure. It certainly must’ve contributed to the disease that eventually took his life, though in his last year he had gotten himself down to something approaching ideal weight for a man of his build. In fact it seems likely that, as he reached a trough in his weight and I simultaneously recorded a personal high, he weighed less than me for the first time in our lives.
At any rate, that was certainly true the last time I saw him. I flew home on a Thursday, arriving late in the evening, and first thing the next morning I went over to the funeral home where they’d held the body pending my arrival.
There was some urgency in this visit. The funeral director had impressed upon me that my father needed to get off Cape to the crematorium as soon as possible so as to ensure his timely return for the service. One last trip over the bridge, and with a snow storm in the offing, any delay might send things awry. It seemed funny that this man, who worked so hard all his life, would still be “under the gun,” as he liked to say, even in death. But I took the funeral director at his word and arrived at the parlor at just after seven in the morning.
I parked behind the building and let myself in through the back door and into a narrow, carpeted hallway.
“Hello?” I ventured quietly.
There was no one about on the first floor. I could hear some voices coming from upstairs and I made my way to the landing, but as I reached the foot of the stairs, I saw a familiar figure from the corner of my eye. It was Dad lying in the side room. Feeling somewhat like a trespasser in this strange home, I hesitated a moment. He waited. It seemed simply stupid to climb upstairs to get some stranger’s permission to go sit with my father. So I went on in, and was glad to have this time alone with him.
He lay in state, wrapped in a shroud, just his head exposed, looking like I imagine Menelaus must’ve looked, his head pointed skyward. My father had often said, usually on the occasion of the passing of this or that friend whose ashes were scattered from a mountaintop or dispersed from the stern of a sloop at sunset on the sound—in the aftermath of these times, he liked to say that it was his wish not to be cremated and scattered but to be kept whole and dropped from an airplane out over the bay. He would always follow this assertion by a brief pantomime, hands up, eyes wide, of what he might look like in that moment and then he would laugh that laugh of his, that descending chorus of “Yeah, yuh, yuh, yuh…” that always seemed like a modest acknowledgement of the success of his witticisms as well as a gentle encouragement to the listener to join in the merriment. It looks a little moronic written out, but it was a subtle laugh, modest and self-deprecating, with an edge of cynicism that recognized the tragedy in all humor—it was a hell of a laugh, in other words, and I wouldn’t mind hearing it again.
But the point was that while he may have joked about this grim airdrop, his actual instructions were characteristically more practical: he opted for cremation of his body after medical science had taken “whatever parts they see fit to take.”
His long bones had been harvested—cut away—and so the body beneath the shroud was abruptly truncated, which was curious but not so shocking as I’d been forewarned by the funeral director. It would’ve been easy enough for him to rig a fake pair of legs, I guess, and it kind of surprised me that he didn’t, as so much of his approach seemed to be to shield the living from the reality of the dead. As I said, there’d been some small resistance to the initial request of holding the body on Cape until I could come east and see it—but this reluctance was based on concerns about schedule and weather and was, after all, communicated to me secondhand, by my mother, who might well have played up or even, frankly, fabricated the objections, not maliciously or even consciously, but out of her own rather departmental sensibilities.
I am a fairly get-along-go-along person, too apt, frankly, to let the tides take me where they may—but in this case I insisted, not forcefully, but as forcefully as necessary, and the body was held. It wasn’t a whim on my part. Recent experience, when my wife and I lost our son in the last week of her pregnancy, had taught me, among other things, the importance of the body. A dead body is, in a way I am incapable of explaining, the opposite of a symbol. It doesn’t stand for anything. It is exactly what it is. When I held my son’s body, I didn’t feel that I was holding the empty vessel wherein his immortal soul had resided. I felt that I was holding my son. And what I knew of him, I knew that way. My wife had built his life and felt him grow, felt his heart beat and come to know his moods and rhythms—I can’t imagine the loss she felt within her. For me, there was the hoping and planning, to be sure, and the ear to the belly, and the wondering, but mostly I knew him through that body. The boy I loved was not this idea named Lincoln Robert Alger, but a nameless, lifeless body. I remember hardly daring to unwrap the swaddling from around him—but what harm could there be? No, the harm was done and I wanted to see him and touch him and smell his skin.
I have read that chimpanzees, when a baby chimp has died, will sometimes carry the baby for days and days, until the corpse became unbearable. Human observers want to attribute this to love, but really it is an adaptation. If the baby is merely unconscious from a fall, it is in the mother’s best interest to carry it a bit and see if it might revive. It’s not sentimentality, science assures us; she clings to the body because she has too much energy tied up in it to just let it go. All right, but will someone please tell me what the difference is?
So when I held that body, it was that body that I loved. It was that body that we named. And when it was time, finally, it was that body that I kissed goodbye.
Likewise, I had too much energy tied up in my father not to make sure, to know in my heart, that he was dead. So I went in and knelt by his head. In an instant I was reminded of being a boy and being sent in to wake him up. My father was a hard worker and consequently a prodigious sleeper. I can remember being at his side and being afraid to touch him—afraid of what, I couldn’t say. His reaction? His anger? Something in him that didn’t want to be touched. In recent months I have woken up to find my boy, my nine-year-old, standing over me with that same look in his eye that—well, now I’m confusing the issue: am I the father or the son, the sleeper or the waker? Where am I in this story?
I am at my father’s side, trying to make sense of it.
He looked great, honestly. More rested than I’d seen him in a long while, his eyes gently closed, his mouth relaxed, his hair a laurel wreath of silver curls. And that nose, so like the prow of some ancient ship. He looked elegant, graceful, noble—qualities that fit him in life, though intermittently. His skin was cold, his limbs were gone but, oh, that head. The best part of the man was always in there, and when it was time to finally leave, it was that head that I kissed goodbye.
I made my way upstairs before leaving and found two men—a grey haired, soft-spoken fellow of about my age, and a younger man whom I took to be an apprentice. The older man spoke so matter-of-factly that it put me at my ease immediately.
“So you saw John downstairs,” he said.
I said that I had.
“We took his long bones,” he said. “I hope that didn’t surprise you.”
I told him I’d been prepared.
“They can do some great things with them, you know. Transplants, grafts. All kinds of things. It’s a good thing to do, you know, when you’re done with your body.”
A week after my father’s funeral, on a Thursday evening, I was driving home from work in my little silver chariot, just merging from the Fremont bridge onto I-5 when it suddenly seemed that all the weight my father had carried for all those years had gathered itself around me, clinging to my ribs, pressing me down in my seat. I couldn’t catch my breath. I could feel my chest rise and fall but the air was not enough. My lungs felt sodden and heavy. Then, in a moment, I had a vision of myself as a young boy, running out onto the playground in the afternoon. There were the swing set and the monkey bars. I could hear the bell and the way it clattered as it rang down. I felt light and young, as if I could leap into the air and—
Is this my life flashing before my eyes? Is this what they mean? Hold on, I told myself, get it together.
I drove myself carefully home and the next day set out for the office armed with workout clothes—shorts, a spare T-shirt—and the resolve to not go gently, but to sweat and spin against the dying of the light.
And that same day, just past the noon hour, when according to well-established ritual I would normally have disconnected myself from the network, undocked from the mothership and stepped out into the neighborhood in search of a plate of warm consolation and a cold pint of courage, instead I descended unto the very fine workout facilities management has provided, and there I dressed, like a boy, in T-shirt and white socks and running shoes, then lumbered out into the weight room, clambered aboard the elliptical machine, and began running—or gliding or skiing or whatever that peculiar motion is that this machine enforces upon you.
It was tedious. It was numbing. It was slightly humiliating. And so my professional career had prepared me brilliantly and I found it was little problem to go for thirty-five or forty minutes. I truly felt that I probably could’ve continued indefinitely but after the first episode of Matlock finished up I decided it was time to quit for the day.
Thus began a routine that I surprised myself by maintaining into the next week. The elliptical machine provided an efficient low-impact full-body workout combined with a range of diagnostics—current heart rate, target heart rate, distance covered, time elapsed, calories burned and so forth—while overhead the TV provided entertainment, Matlock or something equivalent, chosen by whatever gym rat had gotten in there before me, sweating away on an adjacent machine. Fox news one day, Quincy the next, and who knows what the morrow brings? This is living! An experience so tedious, driven by the warning image of my father’s body, as curtailed as a resuci-annie doll, that it sometimes seemed I had traded the death penalty for life in prison.
Here’s another way to make the same joke: if exercise machines are meant to add years to your life, the elliptical machine certainly delivered—it made a half an hour feel like an eternity.
I throw in this second option here not just to get credit for two jokes but rather to draw your attention to the kinds of decisions that I am constantly making behind the scenes—on your behalf, let it be known—picking out these words and writing them down, considering these other words and rejecting them, not even thinking of those words over there, all with an eye toward, well, excellence, or at least some kind of understanding between us.
So, the aforementioned weight room, to get back to it, is an alcove that looks out onto a half-sized basketball court which serves as a venue for aerobics, strength-training, butt-class, the occasional basketball game and, on a daily basis, yoga.
Yoga! I can’t even say the word without feeling something stir inside me—and it is an effort to remember back to the man I was then—a transplanted and lapsed puritan, for whom the word had a kind of nutty-crunchy yogurt taste, a suspiciously foreign and healthy thing, anathema to my upbringing and at odds with the spiritual tradition of my youth. I was raised Episcopalian, you see, and by that I mean that the church we didn’t go to was a fine, handsome Episcopalian church, where, I feel certain, there was no yoga going on.
But if I merely suspected how Our Father might feel about the practice of this eastern flim-flammery, I was dead certain how my father would feel about it. He would’ve pronounced it queer and not in the sense of being gay but in the ancient New England sense, pronounced qwee-uh, and meaning peculiar and suspect—not wrong exactly, but not done, somehow. As an example, look at the time my father and I were cleaning roe from some herring we’d caught and, upon cutting open a male amongst all the females, he remarked to me that the Finns had a recipe for the milt. I could tell by the way he said it that he didn’t think much of this, and when I pressed him he said, “Don’t think I want to eat sperm. Seems queer to me.” Now my father loved the Finns, of whom there were many living in the woods north of us in West Barnstable. They were like a mythic race to him—like elves or hobbits. They possessed the secrets of nature: where the quahog could be found or how to jack a deer. So for my father to pass judgment on a Finn recipe was, to me, a sign of the strength of his moral compass. He admired these people to no end but it could not cause him to call this recipe other than what it was: queer.
And now I, who admire this man to no end, must also point out the essential, silly squeamishness of this position. After all here was a man who would, so far as I could tell, eat anything. Kidneys, liver, brains, tripe, chitterlings. He could and would happily sup on the thymus gland of a deceased bovine without inquiring after its gender, provided it—the gland, that is—were properly dredged in flour and sautéed in butter. But the sperm of an alewife? Here he raised a formidable eyebrow. And so, for my father anyway, who was not perfect, the etymology comes full circle: there was something queer about being queer. Not wrong, but not done. Yoga shared this trait with homosexuality: its similarly incomprehensible and foreign physical convolutions would’ve definitely caused my father to raise the other eyebrow.
But since he no longer had an eyebrow to raise, both of them having been consumed, along with the rest of him, in the great fire that takes us all one day, the way was clear for me to try out yoga, strictly on an experimental basis, as I suspected that it might give me more flexibility and in this way aid my elliptical efforts—that is, my efforts on the elliptical machine. Thus one day, forty-six years into my life, twenty-two minutes and thirty seconds into my workout, with my heart pumping at 152 beats per minute, I decided to step down from my machine, cast aside the spiritual heritage I had, up till then, merely been ignoring, and approach the rather formidably willowy and lithe yoga instructor with my plea: could I try this yoga thing or was it just too late for me.
“Of course,” she said. “You can start today.”
And so, in search of one sort of flexibility, I stumbled onto an entirely different kind—a flexibility of spirit and purpose, not in yoga, but in myself—which these mystic twists and turns somehow began to unlock.