You could have what your father has, the doctor said.
And I said, I don’t want to know.
Well, wouldn’t you want to know, the doctor replied.
And, again, I said, I don’t want to know.
When I was a child, my father and I would go to church and dinner on Saturday evenings. It had been our ritual. Father and son. God and hot dogs.
My father always insisted we sit in the back of the church on old wooden chairs. Pews always off limits. He would insist that others should get the closer seats. This was his attempt at being polite. And it always irritated me. When my mother came, it also irritated her. Even when the church was a quarter full, we still sat in the back, embracing God from the nosebleed seats. Most of the time, my father remained quiet and prayed. I would sit back and kick my chair.
But now, he doesn’t pray, and I know God was invented.
But I miss how my father would skim verses and hymn books, reading with intent. I miss how his face wrinkled to creases and how he would close his eyes during the Our Fathers. And I miss how when he finally opened his eyes and saw me, how he would tilt his head back and let out a small laugh that sounded like something getting stuck in his throat.
Before there was anything there was nothing, just a blank sea of potential, of what ifs, of analogies. Then there was an explosion. Then everything. Stars were formed, planets slowly emerged, and the universe was created. And everything that is, was, and will be came into existence. Everything from Ronald Reagan to helicopters, from the Spanish Inquisition to velociraptors. Everything, including my father.
Last time I saw my father, he barely saw me. I don’t like to see him. It takes too much out of me. He in his corner, me in mine. He repeats words. “Ryan” and “Pizza” and “Donna” and “Donuts.” I sit from a distance, watching him struggle through words, one at a time, while someone in the next room screams at the TV. I look out the window.
One Saturday at church, my mother and I noticed a mole on his neck. It was small but noticeable in a certain light, unnoticeable to him. It sprouted out of the last vertebrae in his spine. Out of that mole grew a hair. A single thick black hair. My mother nudged me with her elbow.
Come on, pull it.
So when my father closed his eyes and began to pray, I pulled the hair back. Jolted. His head back. As if something in the tug brought him back to this reality.
We are all made of matter, which is made of atoms. At the center of an atom is a nucleus, and around it is a cloud of negative electrons. This makes up the 0.1% of the mass of the molecule. Besides that, there is nothing; a weightless nothing. All matter is 99.9% nothing.
Our bodies are primarily made up of three elements. Hydrogen. Oxygen. Carbon. Each of these share the same principles, they are made up of mostly nothing. So, why is it at times I feel I’m 100% mass? I ponder this. Then I remind myself, you and I are 99.9% nothing.
There is a photo posted on the fridge of my father. This is a memento from a lost time. A memento prior to everything, prior to the big bang, prior to all of creation. He is wearing a pale blue shirt and has a black bar for a mustache. He has a beer belly, and he’s smiling. Unlike how he looks now. Tired. Gray. Confused. Broken. In this photo, he is holding a three year old version of me in his arms. Squirming and twisting, I try to fight him. But he holds me so tightly. So tightly. And he seems to whisper something into my ear. A secret to our shared reality.
One night he calls me out of the blue. I awake half naked, a quarter sober, and a third agitated. Even though he doesn’t say a word, I could tell it is him. I can hear his frantic breathing. I can hear him trying to say something, just lingering in the static.
Dad, are you there?
And then nothing.
It wasn’t all bad or all church. There were times when my father showed me something practical. Like how to ride a bike, how to spell, how to tie a shoe. My mother never had patience for my slow spelling or how I gripped the handlebars of a bike in terror. So my dad taught me what she couldn’t. He filled in the cultural gaps from my mother. Where my mother taught me about Pink Floyd, Carly Simon, and George Carlin, he taught me who Benny Hill, Travis Tritt, and Boston were.
When I was six, he had a Harley Davidson. I forgot the color, but I remember it being big and clunky. In the summer when it was hot, he would ride up and down the block, taking the neighborhood kids for rides. My father had been the talk of the town then for a different reason.
While there is no current indication that I have what my father has, there is always a chance. There is also a chance that I have what my mother has. Anxiety. Stress. Depression. I hope that I have neither, and I just have whatever it is that I have.
The last time my father was in the hospital, he shared a room with a woman roughly my age. Even though I didn’t know her story, the burn and cut marks on her arms filled me in with the details. Sadness. Depression. Self-harm. Suicide.
But she was always so nice to my father. Smiling, telling stupid jokes that my father didn’t get but laughed nonetheless. Why did the mental patient cross the road?
My dad simply laughed, not getting the joke.
One day while visiting, I noticed a tattoo on her arm. In thick black letters it read: This too shall pass.
And I remind myself of the true nature of everything.
Outside of church, my father worked and held strange compulsions and hobbies.
I heard my mom mention something in hushed tones that was her justification for his oddness. His garbage burning. His reckless spending. His yelling.
Among his rituals was the recording of motor-cross races. Before he went to bed, he set the recorder. He never watched them and years later while cleaning his stuff, they sat there as a reminder of things remained that were never used.
How are you, dad?
It’s good to see you.
Have you seen grandma?
Your birthday is coming up.
Well, I will talk to you later, dad.
They shut off the lights in the small examination room, and we huddled.
We three, my father, my mother, and I, watched the doctor put scans of your brain on a light-board and point to different regions, saying words like atrophy, fluid on the brain, frontal cortex. My father nodded.
Staring in the dark, I saw the dark spot in the center of it. It looked like a keyhole. It seemed to consume everything around it. A black hole, it pulled neurons towards the center, not erasing them, but shrinking them to the point that they appeared as if they didn’t appear at all.
I used to run miles. Miles upon miles. But one day in self-retaliation, my legs give out. My upper right thigh tightens in pain. I pull a groin.
The next several months, I walk around slowly, trying not to agitate it. I think about how useless the body becomes after injury. How the simple task of doing anything is impaired.
I give it time to heal, and I start again. But I don’t have the same strength and mobility like I used to. I get winded easier, and I don’t last as long as I should.
For we both started walking to run, to eventually walk to crawl.
One thing I know I don’t have from my father is his religious convictions, his ability to believe in the seemingly impossible. For a while, I called myself an atheist, but I realized that wasn’t true. Then I said agnostic, and that kept for a while. Then I found Buddha in the way people found Christ, when all else fails. The Buddha talked about how this world is an illusion and our ignorance brings about a false nature.
I think my problem with Christianity and Catholicism isn’t the unbelievable stuff, the miracles, and the historical inaccuracy. My issue is one of father and son. Why would a father put a child through that? Why would a father, knowing that he was capable of saving a son from his errors by simply not creating him, not create him? Maybe I just have an issue with fathers.
The last time I saw my father it was for his 55th birthday. 55 seemed like an illusion, a falsehood. Even though I have memories of him in his 40s and some in his 30s, the memories of his 50s are sparse. In the two short years, I have only amassed a collection of memories with no meaning. Of nonexistence. If memories occupied space, this space would be completely devoid of time and sense.
My father used to spend countless hours in the basement, cutting keys, keying locks, locking locks. It was a beautiful simple task. Each lock contained approximately 32 pins, each precisely calibrated to a specific cut key. When the key and the pins match, you had a functioning lock. If you didn’t, the lock wouldn’t turn. It wouldn’t allow you to open the door.
One of my first memories was walking downstairs to see him hunched over in a swivel chair with a lock in one hand and a pair of tweezers in the other. In front of him was a container filled with multicolored pins. He would delicately pluck a pin and place it in one of the chambers. Then he would pluck another.
I stood there for a while, looking at how he carefully went about his business of turning seemingly useless things into something functional. When he finally turned around and saw me, he smiled and looked up at me. Blinking through the basement darkness. The he turned back to his work, and I walked upstairs.
I often wonder how many doors my father could open. How many keys did he have and how many of them opened doors? To this day, I like to think my father could open any door, except the door between us.
What first drew me to Buddha and away from Christ was the teaching of impermanence. Nothing stays the same. The key to this universe is accepting that our reality is an illusion. Even in your current state that too will disappear. And with it your illness and yourself.
This isn’t nihilism. We don’t disappear in that sense; we aren’t gone for good. We just change. We morph. This is not good or bad.
When I was 28, I began the process of sorting and discarding my father’s possessions. Mixed among the heaps of religious books and VHS tapes were journals. Red journals. Their spines taped with thick gray duct tape. Roughly forty journals of various lengths and page counts, but all the same dusty red color.
I spent hours skimming the pages, looking for clues, looking for answers. Maybe among the margins, there was a line or a word, which might have made sense of everything. My father’s disease, my struggle in understanding him. I drank coffee all weekend and in the darkness of my garage, I found my answer. Nothing.