Last weekend was Easter. We had a great brunch; both of my children came as did some of their friends. They both shove off to distant places this summer; Andy to graduate school in Virginia, Abby to the Peace Corps in Cambodia. These gatherings, already special, will become rare. I am excited by their prospects; my conscious-self proclaims to be content with being an empty nester and I spin adventures of my own future in my head. But my unconscious badgers me. I woke today remembering a scene of terrible isolation I witnessed many years ago.
I was twelve years old the night I walked downstairs on the way to taking out the garbage and heard my dad talking on the phone. I wasn’t eavesdropping; the pair of drafting tables where he worked in the narrow space next to the garage was open to the rest of the house. I passed through it dozens of times a day, on my way to school or the basement or the back yard. My dad was not the kind who sought privacy. But that night all the lights were off save one drafting lamp that cast a hot glow onto his shoulders. He spoke in a tone that begged no one to hear.
“I have son, Peter, who’s fifteen now. He plays basketball at the high school. And my daughter Pat will be in high school next year.”
Dad never called any of us by our given names. Peter was Turtle and Pat was Sugie. He spoke in clipped sentences, with reverential tone. I couldn’t imagine to whom he was talking. I kicked the garage door open in a rush. I was the next child in line and not anxious to hear how his starched prose described me.
The garage was chilly, but I lingered after depositing dinner’s remains; picking up a few stray leaves and dropping them into the galvanized cans, securing the lids, hoping Dad would be off the phone. The chill finally drove me back through his office. He sat in the exact same spot; the same pool of light illuminated his hunched back. He wasn’t speaking now but he was so intent on listening that he did not hear me walk softly behind him. I laid my foot on the first step when he said, in eerie quiet, “Goodnight, Dad. Thanks for calling.” I shot up the stairs so quick I never heard the phone click on the receiver.
I went through the motions of cleaning up the kitchen – it was my night to do the dishes – but my mind stuck on my father’s phone call. My father’s parents, my grandparents, were not strangers in our family; they were much less than that. I didn’t even know that they existed. I suppose I should have been more curious. We saw our maternal grandparents all the time; they were a natural extension of my mother. But my father was so brazenly his own man, so stridently unique that it seemed quite plausible he arrived on earth without the aid of anything so ordinary as a mother and a father. Yet he sounded so ordinary, so feeble, reciting the rudimentary facts of our existence to people who, by any established standard, should have known all about us.
I lay in bed that night and stared at the ceiling, trying to understand what could have happened between my dad and his parents to make them so foreign. Did they have some cataclysmic fall out or was their genetic tie simply too weak to hold over time and distance. I never found out. Though I managed to maintain some connection with my father until he died, we shared a mere flicker of our lives. Not that either of us are men of secrets; rather we each inhabit solitary expanses of psychic space.
I prayed that night I would never be estranged from my family. Though we are an odd assortment with little in common, I have held steady to that desire and extend myself to ensure it is a reality. Forty-six years later, as my own children prepare to strike out in the world, my prayer remains the same.