July 1979. St. Louis. “Catherine, our luggage is going to Paris.” I said, as we walked down the concourse to board our plane to St. Louis to attend my brother’s wedding.
“I think we’ll be OK, really,” she said.
It had to happen. Our plane and the one to Paris were scheduled to leave a few minutes apart from adjacent gates. Naturally, our luggage went to Paris. That’s France, not Texas. Before our luggage could be located, searched for drugs, escorted through French customs, and, at last, returned to us before the ceremony, we spent a miserable four days in borrowed clothing, and complaining about the one hundred six degree heat, and the general inconvenience of it all.
At the requisite bachelors’ evening I wore a shirt I had borrowed from my father. It was yellow. I never wore yellow shirts. For some reason, I thought this one looked good, and it felt good to be wearing my father’s shirt. When he offered the thin gold chain to wear around my neck I resisted the cracks about Miami and old men with their shirts unbuttoned to their waists, and so forth. I put on the chain, and he put on his smile.
The night before the wedding, a dozen celebrants met at a bar and restaurant where we ate and drank for hours. At one point in the evening, my father and I went to the men’s room together, and stood at the urinals staring at the wall and the graffiti. It reminded me of my childhood when my brothers and I would stand at the toilet and aim our streams in a game we called “Crossing Swords.” As an adult, I’ve tried to understand this. Though both brothers are psychoanalysts, they’re of no help, at all.
My father and I said nothing until we were at the sink washing our hands and smiling at each other’s reflection in the mirror.
“Are you going to marry Catherine?”
“I believe so,” I said, noting his moist eyes.
“I want you to marry Catherine.”
“I want to be there.”
“And I want to see your children.”
“And I want you to see them, too. I want them to know you.”
We dried our hands and hugged each other and returned to the celebrants who were unaware of the intimate moment that had occurred while they had sat in the main room and the band played on.
As it would happen, among many other events my father would not live to see, one of the most important would be my marriage to the woman he had wanted me to marry, and the births of the grandchildren he had longed to meet.
March 5, 1986. “I thought about you last night and I have to tell you about it.” This was my father’s first sentence when I called him at the hotel my parents stayed at during their late winter vacation in Florida. We talked for a few minutes about his exercise routines in the gym there, and the family business we had been working in together for the past four years.
“Everything’s okay here, Dad. We’ve done really well, the numbers are great, and you’ve got nothing to worry about. Just enjoy yourselves.”
“I was in bed last night and the room was completely dark” he said. “I saw your face in front of me in the darkness and I said to you, ‘I’m relaxed. I’ve finally relaxed.’”
What he said was so touching I wanted to preserve the feeling, to avoid having it ruined by anything else either of us might say. There had been considerable tension and argumentation between us for months before he and my mother had left for vacation. While they were in Florida, I was relieved to be alone.
“I really do love you, Dad. But we should get off the phone now.”
“Why? What’s wrong this time?”
“Nothing. What you said is beautiful, so we should quit before we ruin it with an argument.”
I heard him give one of his trademark, self-conscious laughs–more like a quiet clearing of the throat–indicating he’s flooded with warm emotion.
I could hear him smiling in the dark.
March 7, 1985. “I really can’t stand working with him any longer,” I said to our company’s attorney. Over a restaurant breakfast, we had been talking about my family’s business, and my parents’ vacation which would end in a few days. I had asked to meet with him to discuss my growing sense that I should disengage from the business. The relationship with my parents, but in particular with my father, was not as smooth as they and I had hoped it would be. Many of my father’s and my old, yet unresolved wounds, found their way into our interactions and hurt both of us, and the business. In fact, the situation had become even more complicated, as it involved tension between my two brothers and me. They were not working there, but had ownership stakes.
“I’ve been here for four years, and the stuff with my father and me is exhausting. And, to be honest, I’d be happier if my parents would just stay away and not come home.”
As soon as I said those words, they were as unappealing to me as our egg yolks that were congealing alongside half-eaten toast. We stood to leave. On the parking lot, the attorney said he’d call me in the afternoon so we could talk further.
Someone else called first.
“Mr. Hopper?” The voice sought confirmation over a hollow sounding long distance, land line connection to Florida. “I’m an emergency room physician calling from Miami. I have bad news for you. Your father has passed away.”
While I had been watching my breakfast egg yolks congeal, my father died. I was surprised that his death had happened at this time, but I had thought it wouldn’t be long in coming. My father had thought the same. A year or so before his death, he had shared with me that he “had pains” in his chest and knew what that meant. In response to my obvious suggestions that he might visit a cardiologist and consider a by-pass, if necessary, he had said that he’d feel like an “old man, an invalid,” if he were to do that. So, he didn’t.
Shortly after the phone call, my younger brother and I were on an airplane to Florida to be with my mother. During the flight, we imbibed enough of those little bottles of Scotch that the flight attendants “suggested” we stop. They were, of course, the attendants who had provided us with those little bottles.
At the hotel, we spoke with our father’s friend and teacher, Bishan, an Indian from a family of yogis. They had just finished a strenuous exercise routine, when our father, in typical fashion, said he wanted to do the routine again. He didn’t know he had only a few more seconds to live. Bishan turned away and pretended to adjust the controls on the device that played Indian music, hoping his friend’s urge would subside. It did, but not the way Bishan had expected…or at least had hoped. He heard the thud of a body collapsing onto an exercise mat, and turned to see my father lying dead.
He had died a way he wanted to die. In the gym, active, enjoying himself. He was seventy years old. I was forty two.
The next day, my brother and I brought our mother home to St. Louis, after having arranged for our father to make the same journey late that night. My mother’s sister stayed with her, and my brother and I went to our own homes. A close friend of our family offered to meet the funeral parlor staff at the airport, and be with them as they transferred our father to the mortuary.
From where Catherine and I lived, we could hear airplanes on their landing approaches, especially on quiet nights. Around eleven o’clock, we tried to sleep, but only lay on our backs, listening for my father’s plane. A few minutes after eleven, we heard its engines. As they grew louder, I felt like an inanimate weight sinking deep into the mattress, as my father floated effortlessly above. Motionless, we listened until the sounds of the engines faded to nothing.
I gave the eulogy at the funeral, we buried my father, but I could not lay to rest certain questions, ones that still trouble me today. Do I say to him at his grave that I, too, had a final vision of you before you died, but your loving face didn’t appear in the dark? Do I say to him I wished you would not come home? Would he say to me, “It’s okay, son. We can talk about it”?
The unexpected dawn, a day in 1990. Four years have passed since my father’s death, and our son, our first child, is now about twenty months old. One evening, Catherine and I discuss my feelings about being in the family business, and she says something that, at once, surprises and alarms me.
“Ever since you began working with your father, more times than you might realize you come home looking sullen.”
She knows I had experienced that same sullen look on my father’s face when I was younger. There were days when he’d come home from work, often with my mother who worked with him, and I’d feel the awful tightness in my stomach as I feared an argument between my father and me might be only moments away. Evening had arrived, and so had my depression, loneliness, and hunger.
I’m ashamed by what Catherine had just said to me. It is intolerable even to imagine subjecting our children to the disturbing behavior I had been subjected to, and becoming someone they might one day wish would not come home.
I do come home one evening, and Catherine and our twenty-two month old son, Michael, are in the kitchen. He is standing on a chair, and together they mash potatoes in an almond-colored, porcelain bowl.
“Daddy’s home,” Michael shouts, smiling and reaching for me, as I scoop him into my arms, hold him close, and kiss and nuzzle against his soft face.
I hand him to Catherine, kiss her softly, and pat her stomach and our second child within.
“I’ll tell you something remarkable that happened a little while ago,” she says. “Michael climbed onto this chair so he could help me with the potatoes. Right, Michael?” Our boy smiles as his mother holds him close. “He opened the drawer on the cabinet under the counter and took out that skinny, stainless steel tube for steaming milk…you know, the one that fits into the espresso machine,”
“What was he doing?”
“He held the tube and reached the curved end toward the ceiling. He did it several times. I asked him, ‘What are you doing, sweetheart?’ and he said, ‘Pulling down the dark, so my Daddy will come home.’”
“Michael said that? You said that, Michael?”
Catherine hands our son to me and he laughs as I tickle his neck with my chin. I hand him back to her, walk to our living room, and sit on the couch, thinking about what just happened. As night begins to descend, the dark feels more like the dawn.
I return to the kitchen and am bathed in the light and warmth of my growing family, and the aromas of dinner. We sit together at our table, and eat our meal; this is something better than I ever have known. And it’s even better a few months later, when our daughter Caroline is born.
Beyond the dawn. Manhood and fatherhood came accompanied with a trepidation sometimes primitive enough for me to feel a kinship with men far from wherever I might dwell. My thoughts, at times, brought me to the Dani of New Guinea and their simulated clan warfare, and violent ambushes on trails near their villages. In my own case, the ambushes along the trail would come in my sleep.
Within a few months of my father’s death, he appeared before me bare-chested, grey curly hair from his collar bone to his stomach. I placed my hand on his chest and felt the thick hair beneath my fingers, the gray hair I always hoped I would have on my own chest, one day. We said nothing. I looked at his face. He looked past me. I awoke.
While Catherine slept at my side, I lay in bed, just as I had when waiting to hear the plane bringing home my father’s coffin. But this time, awakening from my dread, I felt a lightness throughout my body and in my spirit. I could still feel on my palm and fingertips his hair, his skin, and the muscles of his chest. And I loved him.
I loved him.
Dreaming, I had wanted the comfort of his presence, to absorb some of his strength by touching him with my open palm upon his bare chest. Awake, I still wanted to be near him, to touch him. But, I knew I must not let him in, at least not in the way I had before.
Had I been a wolf, I would have marked the perimeter of my territory.
More months passed, and I began to think less about the Dani and more about the Siriono Indian men in the Amazon rainforest, under constant pressure to be providers, to feed their own and their families’ insatiable hunger by successful hunts with longbows. Roaming the concrete rainforest of suburban St. Louis, I would smell the barbecue grills, and see the shirtless males, hair covering their bare chests, standing before their fires, and basting the meat of monkeys, peccaries, tapirs, and birds I can’t identify, as their wives and children hope the family will eat before the darkness descends and the rains arrive, along with more fearful things of the night.
A father’s protection. I’m now seventy-five; it’s been more than thirty years since that dream of my hand on my father’s chest, and I have spent many hours, during many days, examining my father’s and my relationship. When I do, it’s as if I’m cupping it in my hands, protecting it, turning it over and over to let the sunlight pass through as I do with the glass and seashell paper weight on my desk.
It is a time-worn truth that relationships don’t end at the moments of formality and ritual, such as funerals, or divorce decrees. They change in character and meaning some time before or after those formalities, when people’s thoughts and behaviors shift in fundamental and enduring ways. Sometimes, they never end, at all. So, I ask, when does someone truly die? When does a father die? When is it that a son become a man?
There was a very special moment during a very special day in nineteen ninety-two. Our son was almost three, our daughter was almost one, and I was anticipating my all-too-soon, forty-ninth birthday. Early in the morning, I was sitting in my usual chair, reading a book, when I experienced a strong, though undefined, urge to get up and move. Pacing through the house, I felt excited, but not sure why.
I walked to a large mirror and stood in front of it, imagining my father’s reflection next to mine, as it once had been in another mirror when he had said he wanted to live to see Catherine’s and my children. I looked at him, and thought about some of the difficult things–among the many that were good and nurturing–that had happened between us.
In but a moment, his reflection faded, leaving me alone in the mirror. I leaned closer and studied the wrinkles and creases in my face, and my graying, thinning hair. But none of that mattered. What I truly cared about was living longer than what had been my father’s too short life of seventy years. What I truly cared about was being here for my children, and being nothing but gentle and nurturing as I help them along their paths to adulthood.
And I have.