Geoffrey Wolff on fatherhood and mortality

Bad news

A few hours before dawn a bedside phone woke my wife and me. My older son Nicholas, nine, was at a lakeside summer camp in Vermont. This was many years ago, but the subsequent conversation is fresh in my memory.

“Is this the home of Nicholas Wolff?” she asked, tentatively, and then identified herself as a duty nurse at a Burlington hospital emergency room.

I told her it was, and that I was his father. “Is he all right?” Priscilla was awake now, and there was no interval between her deep sleep and keen panic.

“Is it Nicholas?” she said.

“What? Is he hurt?”

I tried to shush her, to listen to the nurse, ask her what we needed to know. “Is he all right?”

The nurse sighed, perhaps with impatience. “I’ll have to get a doctor,” she said, “to tell you what happened.”

I began talking, but she had put down the telephone, and I could hear background chatter. Someone near the phone was laughing at someone else’s gossip, and while I waited — minutes of real time, a lifetime as the cliche insists with perfect justice — I whipsawed between rage at that laughter and reassurance. Meantime, my wife begged me to tell her what I knew, and I shouted into the telephone for someone to tell me how our life would be after I hung up.

Finally, a doctor: First he laboriously satisfied himself that I was my son’s father. Then he brought me the news that Nicholas had been suspected of having appendicitis. “Too many hot dogs around the campfire,” the doctor laughed. “False alarm,” he said. “We’ll keep him overnight,” he tried to say, but I was talking over his voice now, cursing and weeping with relief, demented with rage and gratitude. Long after we’d been reprieved, Priscilla and I lay beside each other that hot morning shaking in freezing terror. The curtains had parted that predawn: just a peek.

I had begun having fan-

tasies of loss — asleep and awake (awake was worse) — as soon as Nicholas was born. You know, that’s how life divides: before the first child and after. I hadn’t had a clue how it would be to put a value like that on something, someone. I’d watch him in his crib by the hour, worrying. Priscilla, accustomed through the months of pregnancy to feeling him, soon accustomed to holding him and feeding him, was more temperate in her anxieties. Her reveries were grounded by quotidian here-and-now weight and touch. But my dread, at first, was nightmarish indeed. I worried about him falling, drowning, bleeding to death from some minor cut that was beyond my power to heal.

Then, as though responding to my morbid fancy, Nicholas began to suffer nightmares of his own. When he was old enough to give words to them, w they seemed to me macabre, but no worse than what I’d conjured in my mind’s eye. He dreamed of being chased by someone with a knife, and he ran to me for protection but couldn’t find me, because 1 was the one with the knife.

Good God! How does anyone get out of here alive

(putting aside the fact that no one does)? By the time Justin was born, I’d worn myself out with fretting. I calmed down, so that now — they’re 28 and 26, and between them they’ve been sewed up, operated on, put in casts, fallen from a height to a sidewalk, had two scuba-diving accidents, suffered bad ski injuries, the usual — it’s just workaday terror.

One more of these stories and then I want to draw shut

the curtain on the commonplace and life-changing incidents any mother or father or baby sitter or grandparent will recognize in one or another variation. I know that it’s asking for trouble to tell these stories, but to tell them (I tell myself) is the only way to domesticate their wild power over me.

This was a year after the emergency room phoned, the following summer, at the Rhode Island shore. We were visiting

my wife’s family. They live near a rocky point where the fishing is good for bluefish and stripers. It is a rite of passage in that family finally to be allowed to fish alone from the tide-scoured rocks. Nicholas and his younger brother Justin were in the care of their maternal grandmother that day, and she knew they were too young for the rocks. They wanted, of course, to fish.

So she compromised, took them to a dock down by the

river that borders the family’s land. This was a pacific place, fit for children. She had an errand, left them there alone for 20 minutes. When she returned, they were gone, and one of the fishing poles was on the dock, put down in obvious haste; the other pole was missing. She understood immediately: Justin had fallen into the water, and Nicholas had gone in to rescue his little brother.

She ran to a house, phoned the police and fire department. Within minutes there were divers in the river, rescuers combing the banks. After half an hour a small motorboat, driven by a cousin, approached the dock, bearing my sons and a fishing pole. The boys were wearing life jackets, just as you’d expect, and grins. Nicholas had caught a fish, and he was holding it aloft to display his catch to the interested police and divers and emergency rescue volunteers. And of course to his grandmother. She had always been tender to my sons, but after that day by the dock there was and is more to her emotional expression than tenderness. I’m sure you understand. » * »

Best to think of my history as dumb luck: my familiarity

I know that its asking for trouble to tell these stories, but to tell them is the only way to domesticate their wild power over me.

with death, my education, is patchy and then some. I’m 57; more than 15 years ago 1 began a book of memories by confessing that "on a sunny day in a sunny humor I could sometimes think of death as mere gossip, the ugly rumor behind that locked door over there." This is still so. It’s tempting to try out a cuddly homily, maybe lower my head and raise my eyes and intone, I’ve been blessed. It has nothing to do with blessing. It has everything to do with the arbitrary, like the erratic path of a twister through a trailer park. It gives me the creeps to write about such a thing; “Don’t draw pictures of the devil,” my stepmother used to warn. “You’ll interest him.”

Trouble is, drawing pictures in my mind’s eye is the business I’m in. In such personal writing as this, I walk the line between candor and reticence. Read Henry Adams, or Nabokov, or Joshua Slocum, or that motormouth Ben Franklin; they’ll share a truncated story of untimely family loss, as powerful and unseeable as scat fencing a cat’s territory, but they won’t tell it plain: the suicide, assassination of a father, death of a wife or child. It’s cheap to spill your guts but makes me lose my breath to keep my mouth shut. So I dream all the bad dreams any father and husband and son can imagine, and many I’ve tried to articulate, in part to sap the power of distress. I haven’t been inoculated. I’ve endured no deathbed vigils, no friend fell in Vietnam or from AIDS. Two of my grandparents died before I was born; a third when I was too young to register loss; a fourth, my mother’s father, not soon enough to suit anyone unlucky enough to have known him. Three of my sons’ grandparents are alive and well. All their aunts and uncles, ditto. One of two great-uncles, all four great-aunts.

My wife grew up in a surgeon’s house where she learned to regard the effect of botched nature as a natural outcome. Her mother, a woman of refinement and sensitivity, speaks easily — no lowered voice or raised eyebrow — of this or that lifelong friend “croaking,” and such a familiar and untroubled acceptance of bad cards stood my family in good stead when I had my own death scare — a blown heart valve — nine years ago. Even then we had an easy ride. Good cutting, quick healing, to the degree that writing about the experience I whined more about the lousy food at high prices on crummy St. Martin (where the valve played its nasty trick on me) than about my poor broken heart.

But there was more to our acceptance than temperament or cultural idiom: I was 50 when my time might have come. This seemed to all of us,

I believed, in the natural order of things. People who are 50 die, and die of what we com-

fort ourselves by calling “natural causes.” And that was the least of it. My sons, then 20 and 17, knew me, knew my act. I don’t want to be bogusly stout and matter-of-fact about this, but to lose me would not have been to be made incomplete.

(Heaven save us! Note the fraidy-cat syntax and diction I use for this account, all subjunctive and conditional and passive, the rhetorical equivalent of an out-of-earshot whisper behind a delicately raised trembling hand. Put it down to terror.) 1 consoled myself then with such a conviction, even as I wonder now whether I have the faintest notion how it would be for my sons to suffer my death. Surely my own father’s death at 63, when I was 32, mowed me down. I’ve had more than enough to say about my life with Duke Wolff; but the single unassailable fact of that tangled history, with all its contingencies and misrout-ings, was the stunning pain I felt when he died. This will not surprise anyone reading these words who has had a parent die. It is an overwhelming event.

With the death of my father everything changed, at once, in a way I could never have anticipated. For one thing, I experienced no further becoming, only being, and then unwinding. But there was an upside, too, a deliverance as well as a blow. The fatherless son had no further need to explain, to apologize. The surviving son was dreadfully (and wonderfully) free.

I meditate, but in the end, nothing can prepare me. I know this. Some people of flamboyant temperament jump into their dead kin’s open graves. I learned from Robert D. Richardson’s recent biography of Emerson that that dignified and intellectually magisterial personage responded to the death of his wife by opening her coffin to see her bones, just as he opened another coffin 15 years after the death of the son who occasioned “Threnody.”

In the old days, parents had many children in the expecta-tion that some would assuredly die young. Nothing I’ve read, nothing I’ve experienced, suggests that the death of a child was any less cataclysmic for being common. To lose a child must be to lose hope, because where else can hope live if not in a child? It is also, I suspect, to feel as though a murder has been done, a gruesome trick played upon someone who didn’t beg to be born.

No, it is unimaginable. I wonder if I could make it through a single day and night if any of them — they know who they are — left me. To prepare for death I try to study, try to imagine, decide to give my organs away (Who’d want them? They’re junkers), decide to have a jazz tape played at my memorial service (What memorial service? Who

do I think I am?). Consciousness was not designed for these speculations. Let the night have these thoughts. Their weight overburdens imagination’s wings. Gravity is neither kind nor cruel. It is a dumb brute law, and all the subversive lift of fancy cannot rewrite it. Hush. ■

— Geoffrey Wolff

Geoffrey Wolff, prolific essayist and literary critic, directs the graduate fiction writing program at the University of Cali-fornia-Irvine. He is the author

of the best-selling The Duke of Deception: Memories of My Father, set in part in San Diego, and Black Sun: The Brief Transit and Violent Eclipse of Harry Crosby, a biography of the Lost Generation poet and publisher. His novels include The Final Club, A Day at the Beach, and The Age of Consent, recently released in paperback.

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