Letters from Dad
Posted on March 2, 2017
I had never sought out a grave before. It was a chilly October morning when I passed the wooden sign for Kearsarge Cemetery in North Conway, New Hampshire. I walked the damp, narrow paths, brushing light snow from headstones in search of my grandmother’s name: Martha Anne Burke. After a half hour, I turned toward the exit, texting my Mom that I had come up empty.
Talking to her from my dad’s house an hour before, I had asked her where her mother had been buried over a decade ago. She gave me vague directions, unable to remember the exact location. While we were talking, I heard a loud thwack. A bird had flown into a window and died instantly, the third one in as many weeks.
My dad’s chalet is his own monastery. It’s buried in the woods, tucked alongside a stream overlooking a pond. It’s the third house Greg’s built on the unpaved road in Eaton Village, NH. My brother and I are grown, so it’s his empty nest. Shangri-La, he calls it. A charming place to lay his head, if you ignore the intermittent death rattle of beaks hitting glass.
The first time I witnessed a bird’s fatal miscalculation, I was working on my laptop at the kitchen table. I slid open the glass door and crept toward a stunned chickadee. The crown of its scalp was bloodied, eyes vacant. I watched the bird take its last puzzled breaths until its body went stiff. I buried it in the woods later that day.
I told my Mom about the bird. “That’s an old wives’ tale,” she said through the phone, her voice unsteady. “It means death is near.” I was about to visit a cemetery, and in a week I would drive my motorcycle from New Hampshire to California; the timing was synchronous. I fancy myself a man of reason, not given to supernatural explanations for phenomena, but with a trip of such magnitude, I could have done without the omen. My mom offered to visit the cemetery with me, but I insisted I go alone.
The graveyard was less than a mile from where my Grandmother had lived most of her life. I had spent summers there as a child, tinkering with her tools in the backyard, or sprawling out on her living room floor, sending GI Joes on black-ops missions as Anne contemplated a puzzle or napped on the couch, “resting her eyes.” The visits were respites, summer escapes from the vortex of divorce. She died when I was seventeen, freezing those summer days in mental stasis. I now envy those who have strong adult relationships with their grandparents. Since I was moving 3,000 miles away, I wanted to say goodbye, perhaps tie-up a loose end.
There were a number of reasons for visiting the grave, I think. But one, underlying them all, came from my dad, a man acutely aware of the brevity of this ride we call life. During the six weeks I lived with him, he discussed a fatal diagnosis or mortal accident nearly every day. An old teacher diagnosed with cancer; a friend fighting for his life after a motorcycle accident. I think discussing death is my dad’s way of recognizing his existential dread and, in doing so, allowing it to propel him into a richer, fuller life. My visit to the cemetery was the culmination of these conversations during my stay at Shangri-La.
Fixating on death is really Greg’s way of illustrating his most cherished saying, cliché as it may be: life is short. His insights usually come in the stillness of early morning, around 3 or 4 AM, as he plans his workday over coffee. As I slept in the spare bedroom, he would scribble reminders of life’s shortness. I thought of these notes as letters, morning prayers, affirmations for his oldest son.
Some of the letters concerned tasks to be done. “Pick up some eggs, please,” or “clean the stove after cooking.” “Leave no trace, dude” were standing orders. But the letters sometimes penetrated deeper into his psyche, revealing those thoughts we all share (to greater and lesser degrees). “Most people don’t think they could die tomorrow,” he once wrote. “I don’t think that way. Don’t waste time.”
Each day I would wake up and read my dad’s letters over coffee. “Next door neighbor has cancer, won’t see the spring… fifty-five-years-old… life is silly short, dude… the world is your oyster.” Three weeks before I moved in, I was traveling in China. Below a picture I had posted on Facebook of me hiking the Great Wall, my dad posted his favorite saying. “A human life is only ten seconds long, geologically speaking.”
An avid mountain biker, downhill skier and generally healthy eater, Greg is the picture of health. But even at 56-years-old, he suspects he’s on borrowed time. When his father died at 55, and his uncle at 54, he began to think of the 50s as danger years. (It’s worth noting that on the day I was born, he attended the funeral of his best friend’s father.)
Greg also thinks about the end, because his mother won’t stop talking about it. While I was staying in New Hampshire, in Santa Barbara, California his 76-year-old mother, Cheryl, was creating her living trust. Cheryl had made her son the executor and was inundating him with emails about his obligations upon her passing. He became frustrated, overwhelmed. “I’ve just about had it with the emails,” he said, sitting at his laptop. I understood his frustration after she made me co-executor and shot me four emails in 24 hours. The experience taught me that my Dad prefers to take a philosophical approach to death over his mother’s more practical one.
My dad doesn’t plan for death, because he’s too busy getting the most out of life. Take a stroll around Shangri-La and life-affirming messages abound. Tacked to the walls or hanging in frames are postcards and pictures with aspirational quotes – reminders of his favorite messages. A postcard in the downstairs bathroom has a mouse on the front wearing a helmet, inches from a block of cheese perched in a mouse trap. Another quote hangs next to it, Hunter Thomson this time: “Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well-preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming, ‘Wow! What a Ride!’”
A self-employed building contractor, my dad’s days are spent “building America,” which he’ll shout with gusto if you call him in the morning while he’s working. New decks, roofs, an entire house. On the job site you’ll see a man dissatisfied, always eager for tangible measures of progress. “We need a success,” he once said as he and I stared at the foundation for a garage without walls. Once we built the walls, he sung the lyrics to a Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” playing on the local radio station. During commercial breaks, the station broadcasts its tag line – “93.5, music without boundaries,” to which Greg yells, “No boundaries, baby!” The workday ends at 3:30 PM, which justifies a 15 minute lunch. “Anything longer breaks momentum,” he claims. When he gets home, he might call a friend and ask, “Can you play today?” An hour later he’ll be diving his BMW motorcycle into the corners of the Kancamagus Highway, or peddling his mountain bike up a stump-riddled mountain path, his heartrate jacked, eyes wide open.
A week before my transcontinental journey, my brother and I were walking the footpath around the Charles River in Boston. Dad came up in conversation. I pointed to a row of docks. “A year ago, he and I were sitting there.” I asked him who he thought the wisest person in our hometown was. “What’d he say?” my brother Daniel asked. “He thought for a minute, but came up empty.”
At the time, I was reading Meditations by the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius who repeatedly reminds his reader that death is inevitable for us all. “Despise not death, but welcome it, for nature wills it like all else,” writes Aurelius. Daniel and I considered our father’s wisdom, balancing the “wise” with the occasionally not-so-wise. The impatience. He could often be judgmental. Empathy wasn’t his strong suit, and his temper was the stuff of legend. As we crossed the bridge, my brother and I shuddered at memories of us leaving a light on in the house or a refrigerator door ajar. However, in spite of his impatience and intolerance, the prejudice and temper, Daniel made a profound point. “Dad knows what’s important.” He attended his kids’ football games, rewarded good grades and ensured his kids a path to college. And with all that, he would continually remind us that life is short, not to be wasted.
For three decades I had been on the receiving end of his advice. And yet I had spent the last five years disenchanted with the office settings in which I had worked, my feet planted in front of glowing screens, pushing around pixels within Word documents or Outlook emails. I had once made a promise to myself I would never work in cubicle, but when I was promoted to the executive floor of a global company as a corporate communications writer, my boss led me around the cubicle farm, passing offices for vice presidents, directors and C-level executives. “Pick any cubicle you want,” she offered, as if it was a great honor to select a windowless box where I would sit for eight hours a day, five days a week. “It looks like a prison,” I told her. She gave me a puzzled look, a common reaction among company people and institutional folks. At my next job, I had my own office, but I still felt caged. Between meetings, I would gaze out the window into the busy square below, my eyes flitting over pedestrians, like an eager puppy watching hummingbirds at the feeder.
It’s difficult to complain, I suppose. I had a “stimulating” job (science writer) in a stimulating city (Kendal Square in Cambridge, MA) at a stimulating workplace (a biomedical research institute, considered almost an artist’s colony, among some). And I was stimulated, perhaps overstimulated. Intellectually, I was pleased with the life I had built, but my body was just along for the ride, and started to rebel against my mind. I sat in a chair for hours a day, and stumbled in and out of meetings – where we planned to make plans. To decompress, I would visit the gym for a spin class, where we synchronized to hip hop and bounce up and down for an hour. Later, I would sprawl out on the couch at home to watch Charlie Rose tilt his head at newsmakers.
My dad and I were eating dinner at his kitchen table when I confessed some not-so-teenage angst about modern life. He told me he could never live like I did. That is, live in a city, report to one building for years, take assignments from a boss, and wait until the “golden years” to satisfy the heart’s desires. Such things would be a waste and wasting time is a fate worse than death, in his eyes. No, that’s no quite right: it is death. He’s out of eggs? Well, get in the truck and buy more. Feeling cooped up? Ship the motorcycle to Southern California and ride it down the Baja peninsula to Cabo San Lucas. Greg was 22-years-old when he went into business for himself as a general contractor. “I was on the porch with my father-in-law,” he told me over dinner. “He was a talented carpenter and had always talked about starting his own business, but never did. I decided that night I was going to work for myself.” At that time, I was two-years-old; Daniel was six-months-old; my dad had $1,500 in his checking account. After he got his first client, he told my mom: “Well, I have the job, now I just need to figure out how to do it.” He’s been in business for 30 years, figuring it out every day.
My dad’s messages had wedged themselves into the corners of my soul, and I had spent five years violating them; they were becoming more difficult to ignore. Then I discovered Oliver Sacks’ essay “My Own Life” in the New York Times. The British neurologist and author had learned that he had terminal cancer. I was deeply moved by his humility and grace in the face of certain death. My dad and his mother talked about death often, but Sacks was actually dying. “It is up to me now to choose how to live out the months that remain to me,” Sacks wrote. “I have to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can.” I read his autobiography “On the Move,” and I wrote him a letter:
“I have welcomed you into my consciousness over the past few months. It began with your New York Times essay; it was catalyzed by On the Move. But, mostly, it was the discovery of your life and spirit. I am a 32-year-old writer, hoping to write on my own terms, and perhaps live as you did. On July 31, I will leave my job. I will spend three weeks in China and then a month driving my 1982 Honda Nighthawk from New Hampshire to Long Beach, California. The two essays enclosed, particularly the unpublished piece, was inspired by you—by seeing how you lived and by observing the grace with which you approach your final days. Thank you for inspiring me to embark on this immense adventure. I wish you joy, happiness and the deep satisfaction of knowing that you lived a wholly rich and truthful life. I leave you with a quote from your favorite poet, Thomas Gunn. ‘At worst, one is in motion; and at best, reaching no absolute, in which to rest, one is always nearer by not keeping still.’”
When I learned Sacks had passed away, I was in Guilin, China. I had woken up at 3 AM, my stomach in an all-out revolt from food poisoning. I spent a half-hour clutching my abdomen, groaning, running to and from the bathroom before I took an antibiotic and tried to distract myself with Facebook. As the pain began to subside, I saw the headline of Sacks’ passing.
My phone buzzed as I was just leaving Kearsarge Cemetery. It was my aunt Stephanie calling. She and my mom were participating in a walk-for-breast-cancer event in town. Stephanie helped narrow my search for the gravestone to a small quadrant of the cemetery, and I reentered the graveyard with renewed hope. It took another fifteen minutes before I turned a corner a saw a red hummingbird beside my grandmother’s name.
When I arrived, I realized I still didn’t know why I came. What do you say to a grave? I started with an apology: for not visiting more during high school. I followed with a thank you: for the attention she gave me when I was a boy bouncing between parents. Perhaps I had visited the cemetery for the same reason my dad wrote his letters: By acknowledging death we make space for life.
I told her that a bird had flown into a window at my dad’s house, an event that meant death was close, according to superstition. But I reminded my grandmother, and myself, that the wives’ tale had an alternate meaning: that change was near. So I asked my grandmother if she wouldn’t mind looking out for me as I experienced my change, if she could keep me company as I spent a month on the motorcycle taking a long 4,000-mile route to California. Then she could lay down and rest her eyes again.