Encounter At The Lighthouse
By Steve Gladstone
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Written: February 1, 2001
It was in the late Spring of 2000
that I felt my spirit move within me. I had just turned thirty-nine
years old and had felt so many middle age desires rising from a deep
place within my soul like a creeping, inevitable tide.
There is much written of this
strange time, as a man’s youth and abiding sense of invincibility
slips away. What is often un-recounted is the way youth’s passing is
experienced. It does not occur with the desperate clutching to what
could have been. No, that is reserved for the deathbed.
Instead, youth withdraws leaving an
indelible resonant longing for what once was. It’s passing wells up
within you and builds to just below a crescendo, in an effort to gain
attention. It is akin to that sudden, nostalgic feeling you experience
when you find you’ve reached the bottom of a glass of a fine wine or
scrutinize your fork in search of the last morsel of your favorite food.
It emerges into your consciousness with all the surprise of a sudden
It is as a Stranger creeping up
from behind, tapping gently but persistently upon your shoulder. You
turn and suddenly the Stranger is there and you are all-at-once fully
conscious of its presence. It is in this moment that you can first name
it. This is a powerful moment in a life, as the true naming of something
Regardless of the method of its
intrusion, youth’s passing is ultimately borne quietly. To at least
some degree, it is borne skillfully within the soul of each man with an
incommunicable, palpable sadness in a uniquely personal way. But, before
it is truly borne there is often great upheaval and struggling.
I must relay the following without
judgment, only experience: The
Stranger can be falsely named. This is common practice, especially for
the modern American male who has not looked deeply enough within himself
prior to a first encounter with the Stranger. In time you will come to
know the Stranger was there all along to be glimpsed and named by the
truly observant. You will know the Stranger was present even during your
It is for each man to ultimately
decide if the name he has assigned is the true name for the Stranger.
Only too often do we realize the true name of the Stranger in
retrospect, as it incrementally reveals the subtleties of its character
through a continued presence. Men name the Stranger in different ways,
according to the wounds they carry within the threads of their lives. It
has many names. For its face, like a diamond, has many facets.
Some men name the Stranger
“Affair” or “Divorce” and run from the cradle of their ten plus
year marriages into the arms of a waiting younger woman that has her own
issues with which to contend. Inwardly, these men hope to sip
unobtrusively at the nectar of youth like a vampire. But, outwardly they
ravage their family relationships as they desperately grapple with the
Some men name the Stranger
“Career Crisis” and finally attempt to carry out their true
life-missions, drawn from inner-passions and the mystical cravings that
lurk in the deepest parts of their being.
Men who follow their missions with
balance can achieve the inner stillness of a Zen monk, while those who
cling to the ladder rungs of success can consume their souls with the
desperate unending quest for affirmation that only the workaholic
intimately knows. The Stranger can appeal to our darker side, or our
lighter side. In either case, the face of the Stranger one observes is
universally rooted in one’s own past.
My name for the stranger was simply
“father”. My father: my estranged father. I suspect it is common for
many middle-age men use this name for the Stranger. Despite this
commonality, for each of us who name the Stranger with this name, it
does not erase the deeply personal resonance for those involved. For me,
invoking the name “father” returns me to a hundred -- a thousand --
situations, feelings, and disappointments.
I had not seen or spoken with my
father for many years. Though it had been twelve years, the actual
number does not matter. Here is a truth: For a son who has not had his
own father to provide guidance in navigating the tricky transitions from
his twenties to thirties, even one year is difficult to bear.
A true father is a torchbearer
illuminating the cave of life, lighting the way ahead for his son. A
father suggests the way from experience, but patiently waits as his son
only too often meanders out of the light into deep, dark, dead-end
tunnels to return forlorn. A father reassures and rekindles the hope of
his son in times he seems lost. A father remembers that he took the same
detours into the darkness and that his own father, torch in hand, had
waited for him.
For those of us who have not had
such a father, the above image may seem overly romanticized,
unrealistic, or evoke a bitter resentment for what never was but should
have been. My own father
provided no such guidance and was thoroughly absent at each rite of
passage I moved through, as though he took his torch and ran out of the
cave, leaving me to claw my own way through each passage in the dark.
The particular scenes and situations are not important to relate here.
For anyone who calls the Stranger by the name “father” will have
ample scenes and situations in ready supply. They will come rushing
forward accompanied by the most intense, torturous feelings. Suffice it
to say, I had traced the major paths in my life without his presence.
In spite of this, or perhaps
because of this, there came an undeniable urge in the Spring of 2000 to
satisfy the insistent beckoning of the Stranger. I knew it in my mind. I
knew it in my body and soul. Unsure of the particular reasons or what I
would say, I had to see my father again after all this time.
I spent several hours pondering the phone in anticipation and
dread before lifting the receiver from the cradle. You are never more
alive than when you so knowingly endure such critical moments in your
life. I sought a deep breath. My palms sweated profusely as I pressed
the receiver against my ear. I hesitated with my index finger shaking,
almost vibrating, above the “1” key.
I’ve dialed many numbers before. I almost said out loud, as I half-heartedly tried to
trick myself into thinking, feeling this was the same. I knew it
wasn’t, nor could it be.
Very deliberately, I pressed the keys corresponding to the phone number
written on the paper before me. It was the phone number I had
intentionally erased from my memory so long ago.
I listened for an eternity as the phone rang three times. Each ring was so distinct, almost too loud. I suddenly felt exposed and naked, as if everyone anywhere on Earth could hear the phone ringing too. There came a rushing wave of force and anxiety from deep in my stomach and spreading upward and outward across my chest.
I heard the phone be picked up
midway into the fourth ring. In an instant I felt the anxiety collapse
tightly into a black hole centered within my heart. A numbing frost
spread outward to my fingertips and my hands became cold. In that moment
I realized that I had felt this exactly throughout my youth, each time I
was in my father’s presence. As a boy, my hands had always been cold.
My mother used to joke and chide me about it. “Cool hands Luke,” she
would say. If only she had known how deeply the cause ran beneath the
symptom. I wonder what she would have said, what she would have done.
“Hello!” my father practically
laughed into the phone. He often answered the phone in such a contrived
jovial tone, even though nothing particularly funny was happening there.
Though it was endearing to most, I had always thought of it as odd.
“Hi Dad, it’s Luke,” I said
plainly, lump pounding in my throat. I waited. There was a thick,
looming silence. But, I knew he was still there.
“Luke…” he said deadpan,
betraying no hint of excitement. His voice trailed off as he said my
name. Then silence and the throbbing lump in my throat again. I wondered
if he could hear the pounding of its desperate nervous rhythm.
My father would always pause this
way when I called him, especially after our periods of estrangement.
And, we had many periods of estrangement, but none so long as this. It
was his moment to silently proclaim his own grandiose suffering and
accusations. It was his moment to proclaim his silent victory. It was
his moment to silently strike out and hurt me. So much he communicated
with so much silence.
Forcing the lump downward with a
swallow, I took the initiative.
“Dad, I’m calling you because…well, I’m not sure exactly
why,” I said with the most mildly hopeful tone I could muster. I
didn’t want to betray my feelings in any grand way. It would be
risking too much rejection too early from this man who still held such a
power over me.
He said nothing, whipping me with the silence. I felt fragile,
like the thinnest ice imaginable. I felt the ice shatter under the sharp
force of his silence…
“Dad, I’d like to see you again, talk with you…Life is
short…There is so little time…You are my father…I am your son,”
I said in a flurry, hoping he would connect the dots as I had. As I
blurted it out, I realized this short string of statements entirely
captured everything there was for me to say in that moment with a
bizarre but tangible eloquence.
You are my father…I am your son. How could I hope to
explain the innumerable mystical truths that lie between these two pure
stations of life? How could the son connect the dots, but the father
fail to? It was unjust, unfair. The boy within me wrestled with these
ancient feelings as a searing silent rage crept into my cold hands. I
glanced down at my clenched fist, white-knuckled. I marveled at the
power this man had over me, even separated by twelve years and three
And the silence still smothered me. For a moment I turned it’s
force inward and whipped myself. For a moment I wondered what terrible thing
I must be for him not to respond to my outstretched hand. For a moment I
wondered what terrible thing I must have done…in his eyes, in God’s
eyes. For a moment the guilt and the shame inwardly tore at me like some
bully’s angry words at the playground, but only for a moment. With a
shudder I retreated from this primal pain and found myself with adult
reason once again.
“How are things in California, Luke?” he finally asked
quietly, deliberately communicating his own pain and continued
“I’m doing well. I’ve married, actually nine years ago. Her
name is Maureen. I have a son, Michael. He’s seven.” For both of us
the recounting of the last decade of my life in such few words seemed to
resonate through the phone with a surreal quality. For a moment there
was silence again, but I sensed that this time the silence was also
attacking my father.
“How are things in New Jersey
Dad?” I asked, trying to help break the silence’s grip upon him.
He sighed. “I’m fine, son. Just
living my life.” He had called me son! I felt an inexplicable
stirring within me, and a taste in my mouth. It tasted steely, like a
broth distilled of hope and power.
“Dad, I need to be in New York
next week. I have a business meeting there, though even if it cancels I
will still fly out to see you. I’m thinking we could meet in Flushing
at the old pier behind the World’s Fair ruins. Do you remember the
place?” I was filled with
many memories of the lighthouse there and fishing off the pier as a
young boy. The very few happy memories I have with my father still live
at that place.
“Yes Luke, I remember,” my
father said without volunteering any affection for the memories I knew
only too well he also carried. I felt sad he either couldn’t or
wouldn’t express it.
We spoke for several minutes more, but only to finalize the day and time
for our meeting. Most unusually, he didn’t bring up my mother during
our conversation. Since their divorce when I was ten years old, he would
always refer to her as “that woman”.
My father has always been a man trapped in the tide of bitter
experiences of his past. Sometime long ago, he had ceased his struggle
with it, and had quietly slid beneath its waves letting it engulf him.
As a result, my interactions with him never formed new memories between
us in a manner that most would be accustomed. No matter which year
we met or talked, he seemed frozen in a post-divorce time capsule, with
every accompanying feeling remaining eternally fresh. As a boy, I
expended most of the warmth from within me trying to thaw him. For a
moment I wondered if that was why my hands were so cold.
It would anger me so when he would
vomit, “How is that woman?” with such an obvious,
deliberately supplied bitterness. His bitter tone shouted she was some
reviled object or the antichrist incarnate.
If I answered, I’d feel tidal
waves of guilt and shame drown me with self-judgments of my complicity.
If I offered silence, I would feel the wrath of his unspoken judgments
of my disloyalty. Still, faced with this, I would often choose silence
as the lesser of two evils, though the suffering was no less.
Unconsciously or not, my father had skillfully applied this double bind
to me as long as I could remember.
There was a lot to think about and feel about on the six-hour
flight. I tried completing some notes for my upcoming business meeting,
but only found myself staring into the screen of my laptop computer. My
eyes followed the image of the waving flag that was set to appear and
travel across the screen after a half hour had elapsed with no keyboard
Looking out the window on my right, I could see the wing of the
plane and far, far beneath the tiny structures on the Earth that housed
countless mothers, fathers, daughters, and sons. For a moment, my gaze
focused upon the plane’s wing. It occurred to me that at this moment I
was entrusting my life to this wing, this plane. I felt an irrational
anxiety that at any moment the wing would shear away from the plane by
its own choice, simply to deny me this meeting with my father. I asked
myself if that would that be so bad, but quickly pushed these thoughts
away. However, I was ambivalent about seeing him again. What would be
said? What could be said after all this time? Could he escape his time
capsule and join his only son in the present? Would it go badly, like so
many times before?
The alternating waves of hope and
despair at the possible outcomes of seeing him again rolled through me.
I knew this was the voice of the Stranger, but louder than usual. I
breathed deeply and closed my eyes. Thoughts of Maureen and Michael
lifted me from these dark considerations like a cool breeze on a warm
I silently bargained with the wing
on Maureen and Michael’s behalf, but felt embarrassed for this
attempted communion with an inanimate object. I shifted my focus back to
the image traveling gracefully across the laptop screen. Hours later,
the plane landed. The flight was on time. Inwardly, I found myself
smiling and thanked the plane for safely and properly delivering me to
I had arrived one day prior to
meeting with my father. I was able to conclude my business in the early
evening and checked into the hotel to collect at least some ration of
sleep. Upon reaching my room I unpacked, carefully arraying my clothes
for the next day, with all the tension a young college graduate has
prior to a first interview. Then I called Maureen.
She had offered to travel with me,
but understood it was a journey I needed to make alone. Though I did not
have the skill to express all the thoughts and feelings I had been
having since the Stranger first beckoned me, she knew. I could see it in
her eyes. And, that is why I loved her. She always knew. For a moment I
wondered what she would name the Stranger when it someday called for
“Hi honey!” She was truly
joyful to hear my voice. For a moment I basked in the feelings of love
this wonderful woman had for me, feelings I also had for her.
“Hi Maur. I’m here. I closed
the deal earlier today with Microsoft. It went well, even better than I
“So, are we going to Ireland?”
Maureen asked expectantly and hopefully. She had wanted to go for some
time. I had promised her and Michael that I’d take them on a vacation
if I closed the Microsoft deal.
“If the check clears Hun!” I
joked. In fact, there was no check. I’d already verified the wire
transfer of funds had successfully completed. The deal was done.
“So, are you okay about
tomorrow?” Maureen treaded gently. I could feel her yield to me, ready
for me to scream, cry, or just ramble on about it if I had wanted to.
But, I didn’t.
“I have such mixed feelings. I
want to do this, yet dread it. I need to do this…but don’t want to.
I suppose I’m not making sense at all.” I said flatly. The intense
emotions had all been drained from me during my earlier flight.
“Honey, you make perfect sense. I
know you have needed to do this for some time. I remember looking at you
on the day we were married. At the reception I saw you look out over the
crowd of our friends and family looking for him, even though you knew he
wasn’t there…your Dad, I mean. Do you remember? I grabbed your hand
just a little bit tighter. Do you remember?”
“Yes,” I was able to expel just
one breath before I felt my throat close tightly. I remembered, but
previously had no idea that she had shared the deep poignancy of that
moment with me. She knew. Even then she knew, this wonderful woman. The
tears beaded at the corners of my eyes and rolled down my cheek. At that
moment I was glad to be alone in my room. These were tears of pain and
gratitude, a very strange concoction. I trembled in the shadow of a
thought: I had not cried since I was fifteen years old.
I wiped the tears away and sniffled
once. Maureen graciously gave me a few seconds of much needed silence to
“Just remember that you are fine.
I’m fine, and Mikey’s fine too. You will get through this and be
better for it. Do your best, but let it unfold as it will and trust the
outcome.” Maureen spoke wisely. Until now I had assumed that she had
yet to face the Stranger, but found myself wondering if she had already
“Maur, I love you. I have always
loved you. Thanks.” I wanted to say so much more but no words came.
“I love you too babe. It’s late
here. Mikey’s sleeping already. Try to get some rest for tomorrow,
okay. I packed some melatonin in your travel bag. If you take it now, it
will help you sleep in about an hour.”
As I hung up the phone I felt
strangely alone as the sense of Maureen’s presence receded. Suddenly
the room seemed just a bit colder and lonely.
I found the tablets she had packed
and I deliberately swallowed them with water. At home, Maureen would
chide me for not taking water with pills. But, on this night I wanted to
make sure I slept unequivocally. So, I left nothing to chance.
Lying in bed between the
semi-starchy hotel sheets, I watched the news on the television while I
waited for the drug to take effect. In true TV news “sound byte”
style they sketched a human-interest story on the merits and dangers of
foster parenting. It lasted all of twenty seconds. I pondered the
societal impact of such shallow treatment of this complex subject.
Towards the end of the broadcast, just after the sports segment, I felt
my body unclench and my eyes begin to close. As the sleep claimed me I
had a vision of the Stranger standing over me silently, watching.
I awoke early in the morning, around six o’clock. After a shave
and shower I felt more ready to face the day. I dressed myself with the
casual clothes I had so carefully laid out the night before.
On business trips I’d usually
indulge myself in the Continental breakfast offered by whichever hotel I
stayed at. It was always easy to find somewhere near the lobby area. On
this morning however, I wanted to be alone with my own thoughts, hopes,
Room Service quickly delivered the muffin and coffee I ordered. I
was quite hungry, as I had not eaten the previous night. I buttered the
crisp English muffin and selected the apple-blackberry jam from the tiny
basket that was delivered with the meal.
After finishing the muffin, I started to sip at my coffee. At
most times I’d be too rushed to add cream and sugar. Yet this was my
favorite way to enjoy coffee. I deliberately swirled the spoon in my
beverage after adding these. I watched the clouds of cream be slowly
engulfed by the tiny vortex within the cup.
Moving towards the window, I opened the curtains. My room was on
the sixth floor of the hotel. The window faced into the sunrise. The air
within my room was a bit dry and cool, but I could feel the promising
warmth of the sun upon my face and my arms. I took a deep breath and the
stillness of the moment caused my hackles to rise. I sipped my coffee
again and gazed outward across the city towards the ocean, only a few
miles away. I cradled the cup with both hands, relishing the warmth of
the beverage within. My hands were cold again.
My father and I had arranged to meet at the pier at five
o’clock in the late afternoon that day. This left me with the balance
of the day to kill time and to endure the waves of intense emotion that
ebbed and flowed through me without much relief. Regardless of how well
or badly it went, I had a plane to catch back to Los Angeles at nine
thirty that evening.
I checked out of the hotel and wandered some nearby shops like a
zombie lacking purpose. I bought an “I love NY” tee shirt for
Maureen. The lettering was stenciled in black and the word “love”
was replaced with a bright red heart. Her courage to wear a tee shirt
like this in California had been a long-running joke between us.
I picked up a small water-filled globe for Michael. The interior
of the globe portrayed the New York skyline. Shaking it caused white,
snow-like sparkles to shimmer and swirl throughout the scene. I shook
the globe a few times before heading to the counter to buy it. It was
mesmerizing to watch.
It reminded me of winter in New
York, as I had lived there with my mother until college ended. It is
strange to feel such nostalgia for the cold and snow, yet I did feel it.
Something in having to remember to wear a coat, gloves, or a hat grounds
you. It connects you to the changing seasons and returns you to more
natural sensibilities. It is a subtle, primal relation that is absent in
many long-time residents of the West Coast. For a moment, I wondered if
I had lost this connection. Looking inwardly I could see that, even
after all this time, I had not. Relieved, it dawned on me: Michael, born
in California, had never experienced snow. I made a mental note to
change that later this year.
Hours passed as days. I grew weary
of walking and staring at my watch. At four o’clock sharp I started
down the Expressway towards nearby Flushing in my mid-sized rental car.
As I took the exit, I could see the ruins of the Fair in the distance.
The fairgrounds are an authentic relic of yesteryear, for the World’s
Fair had occurred there in 1964. There were only a few empty cars in the
giant parking lot. I wondered if one of them was my father’s car, but
I didn’t know what kind he drove. This small, passing thought saddened
me. But, I knew the remainder of this day was to be filled with such
moments. I hoped I had reconciled myself to them.
I parked as closely to the entrance
as I was able. It was still just four fifteen. I had arrived early, with
forty-five minutes to kill. I decided to walk the ruins of the Fair,
just to explore. I closed and locked the door. The car alarm chirped
once proclaiming its vigilant protection.
At the center of the fairgrounds is
a spectacular metal sculpture of the Earth, a towering globe complete
with continents. It is all rusted now, and the welds to some of the
continents have corroded, leaving them dangling at the mercy of the
wind. Standing beneath it and staring upwards, I imagined it in its
heyday, all shiny and new. I looked around me and took in the panoramic
scene. There were so many halls and ancient exhibition sites abandoned
and semi-overgrown with the weeds of time.
Though I had not attended the
World’s Fair, my parents had. My father took 8 mm home movies of their
visit. Years later, he had the film transcribed onto videotape and had
sent me a copy. I had watched them many times, sometimes with Maureen
and sometimes alone, mostly alone. The scenes of my mother and father
laughing and playing in the bright, warm sun were indelibly etched in my
mind. Anytime I watched them I’d find myself wishing I could reach
into the past and tell them of what was to come…
I looked up at the old fountains
behind the giant metal globe. The fountain looks like an array of pipes
reaching several stories. It reminded me of a giant church organ. I
remembered my father’s camera panning across the fountain and myself
marveling at the jets of water that would dance and leap so many feet
into the air before being bandied about by the wind. As I looked upon
the corpse of the rusting pipes, my mind overlaid the ghostly images of
those spouting fountains in the long-passed days of its life. It was a
bittersweet moment as I pondered what was and what was no more. From
somewhere amidst the ruins I felt the eyes of the Stranger burrowing
into me, yet when I looked in any direction no one was to be found. I
I listened quietly as the breeze
blew briskly across my cheek. In the distance I could hear the low roar
of the Expressway. Closer, I could only hear the weeds whipping and
whisking about in unison with the wind. I decided to make my way through
the ruins and towards the back of the fairgrounds to where the pier was.
As I passed each building or large structure I stopped and stood,
breathing in deeply the ghosts of the past and the shadows of their
Eventually, my path traced to the
rear of the fairgrounds. I stopped again and looked back to contemplate
the ruins with a sense of finality. Something occurred to me. In each
structure, the very architecture seemed to contain a visceral, sensual
essence. In those days there was a kind of forward-looking hope and
excitement to building design, an absence of fear. It was still evident
in every construction on the decaying fairgrounds. It was reflected in
each building’s great sweeping curves. Somehow there were less sharp
angles. Where there were sharp angles, their expression was not
minimized, but instead proclaimed with a sort of exuberance.
Modern-day architecture is often
staid, sterile, or at its worst, Orwelian. Structures too often declare
the reign of the corporations and their omnipotence. Full of sharp right
angles that wind tightly back upon themselves, the sweeping curves of
yesteryear are absent. Buildings, especially those we conduct our work
within, convey only the most exterior emotions.
Strangely, hope is not amongst these. I wondered if hope, like
the infinite expression present in those great curves, was deemed too
dangerous in today’s times.
The sixties were a time of new
gadgets: Gadgets that made kitchens easier for wives, gadgets that
organized a husband’s closets automatically. Many of these gadgets
were impractical, but the focus then was upon creating a smoother, more
comfortable life for the family. For a moment I chuckled as I thought of
the old Maytag commercials that so loudly proclaimed that a woman’s
place was in the kitchen. How na´ve that seemed in this post-modern
How could society have known that
the quest for building gadgets would carry its fathers away from their
families, working ever-longer hours at the office? Did they know how a father’s absence would impact the
children? Did they see how a man would lose his own identity? Did they
know how eagerly he would fill this chasm with corporately supplied
priorities and extramarital affairs born at the water cooler?
How did their consciences allow such wasted sacrifice, merely to
drive the company forward to endlessly increasing “shareholder
value” at the expense of their families, friends and health? I felt my
judgments and the anger rise as I shouted these entangled questions in
For a moment, I wondered if our
culture ever felt itself first climb aboard the relentless, spinning
wheel of materialism in a perpetual quest for gadgets. These days our
quests take the form of computer software or hardware to further the
ever-increasing productivity required by the corporations that employ
us. Our gadgets focus on minimizing time in relation to our work. In
theory that’s good, but in practice it paradoxically creates a driven,
numbing existence that’s stolen the presence of parents from their
homes and children almost in entirety. Yet, Americans still cling
tenuously to this idealized image of the nuclear family. Yes, the times
and our gadgets have changed. Before I turned and continued towards the
pier, I wondered what would be the next step in our culture’s
evolution. I knew that only time would tell.
The pier was just as I had remembered it as a boy. The
memories came bursting at me. The wooden planks had changed in places
from a deep brown to an ashen gray due to the inexorable chafing
influences of sea, wind, and weather. The pier jutted out from the
shore, perhaps one hundred yards. Gazing to its end, I could see a
figure standing, facing away from me. It leaned with one leg on the
railing, looking outward across the sea, privately considering its
mysteries. I knew the figure in the distance was my father.
On the left of the pier stood the
old, white lighthouse. I gazed up towards the top of it and had to
shield my eyes from the glare with my hand. The late-day sun was
starting its daily descent into the ocean. It was just near enough to be
Elements of the lighthouse
structure had the same sweeping curves I had seen earlier. It’s faded
brown and green crown loomed above the pier. Four empty flag posts, clad
with chipped black paint, seemed to herald that era long passed. Once,
this lighthouse had provided a guiding beacon to so many ships at sea.
But now the windows were closed up tightly with boards and cement. Now
it stood alone, like a seer with a sightless eye, brooding over this
pier and the ancient fairgrounds in the distance.
It suddenly occurred to me that
this scene exactly reminded me of a painting I’d seen in the past. It
was a painting of a lighthouse and a pier at sunset. It was a painting
of two figures, casting long, thin shadows, meeting on the pier beneath
the vigilant gaze of the lighthouse. It was a painting by my father.
I stepped forward and onto the
pier’s first plank. Looking onto the beach in the hazy distance, I
thought I saw the Stranger, shoulders shrugged.
He seemed to wait on the sand at the water’s edge, watching me,
anticipating a drama yet to unfold.
Plank by plank, I walked silently
to approach the figure at the pier’s end. After an eternity, I
“Dad, Hi.” I spoke. My mouth
was dry. My hands were in my pockets.
“Luke…hello.” My father said
hesitantly, quietly, not betraying any happiness in seeing his only
“It’s great to see you!” I
offered the first real feeling we would exchange this day. I moved
toward him and we hugged. It was sudden and strange to hold him. There
was no relief in feeling this physical contact, though I thought there
should have been.
“It’s good to see you too.
It’s been awhile…” His voice trailed off almost melodramatically,
as was my father’s custom. I felt him begin to stab at me for the
infinity of time that had passed since we last had spoken to one
“How is…that woman?” he spat, looking away from me and
pursing his lips tightly.
He had said it. I felt those old familiar feelings arise, as the double
bind gripped me tightly, vice-like.
“Dad, I didn’t come here to
discuss my Mom. That was another lifetime ago. It doesn’t have to do
with us here, now. Can’t you let it go? Every time I see or talk to
you, you want to talk about her. Twelve years have passed now since we
had the very same conversation. Can’t we put the past behind
and go forward? There are so many good memories we yet can make.” I
spoke a bit more loudly, partially in anger, partially in hope, and
partially to overcome a sudden gust of ocean wind.
“Are you still so selfish after all this time, son?”
He only grimaced and looked down,
plunging his hands deeply into his own pockets. I felt my face flush and
a roaring in my ears as I started to speak quickly, desperately.
“No Dad. I’m not selfish! I
traveled a long way to see you. This is difficult. There is so much I
want to say. There is so much I just don’t have the words to say. I
need you in my life somehow. Every boy…man…needs their father in
their life…to show them…to guide them. I…” I stopped
mid-sentence, wishing I could prepare just the right elixir of words to
stir this man’s heart, coaxing him into the present. I knew I had
spoken these words partially as a man, partially as a boy. I felt an
almost choking lump well up in my throat. I wondered if he could see the
tear that I struggled with all my strength to deny existence.
There was a silence as he
considered the next thing he would say.
“That’s your problem son. You
don’t even see how selfish you are. You call me here after twelve
years and expect what? All I have is a past with you, only a
past. And, I’m just picking up where we left off, you and me. You
expect it to be different? That’s selfish.”
I considered what he said for a
moment. I had come to the
pier with good intentions, to reconcile. I knew that with quiet surety.
For the first time in our meeting I looked closely at the details the
face of the man before me. I saw so many lines of bitterness and anger
carved deeply into the flesh. The shadows of sunset only added to their
In my core I pondered what he had
just said to me from the perspective of the man I was, and not the boy.
Within a moment I knew. I looked into the eyes of this strange,
tortured man. I suddenly knew he was not capable of giving what the boy
within me always so desperately wanted and needed. Until this moment I
had thought of him as though he were a lock, and if only I could be good
enough to just find the right key…
“In all these years you have
never even called me once to ask how I am coping with this
divorce. You never ask me how I am. You never have…” He complained
at me, caught in the riptide emotions of his own past and unmet needs.
In a flash it occurred to me that he was speaking to me as if I were his
father. I felt stupid for not ever having seen this before.
“But Dad, I do care how you are…I…” I shot back, in a
care-taking tone. It was distasteful to say it that way. I did care, but
at this moment I was still trapped in the boy who desperately longed for
him to be there just for me, to embrace me, to be strong
for me, to be my father. I wondered if I was selfish to want this
so much from him.
“No, you don’t care! I was
there for you all your life as a kid. Every weekend I picked you up
after that woman, that goddamn bitch left me! Every goddamn
weekend!” He snapped and spit a little as he spoke his venom.
As he spoke, I felt my hands,
buried in my pockets, grow icy cold again. I retreated to a place deep
within myself, fully numb. Time seemed to slow down to almost still. I
felt my spirit drift upward and out of my body, up to float even high
above the top of the lighthouse. Looking down from this height, I
dispassionately watched two seemingly faceless figures facing one
another, casting long, dark shadows in the orange glow of the impending
For a moment I returned to my body
to ponder his words. I remembered so many Fridays how a young boy would
eagerly pack a bag, in preparation for a pre-arranged weekend visit with
his father. I’d wait patiently on the front step of my mother’s
house, almost praying for his familiar bright blue sports car to appear
in the driveway. I
remembered the many times he never showed up and never called, never
explained. I remembered and the memory was accompanied by an ancient
searing pain and sense of rejection. But I knew I was remembering the
truth. I also knew in that moment my father would not ever join me in
the present, nor would I retreat with him into the past again. The lines
had been drawn by both of us. We were at an eternal impasse.
Again I was high above the
lighthouse, looking down. Until that moment I had imagined that the two
figures in the painting, and on this pier would depart the scene
together. But now I knew that it was a parting, an irrevocable parting.
A single teardrop escaped my eyelid’s grasp and traced out its short
life down my cheek.
I gathered myself and looked at him
closely for what I now knew would be the last time in my life. I stared
at his face through my eyes, fully as a man. He didn’t look back at
me. Instead, he put his leg back upon the wooden railing to lean and
lost himself in far away gaze, seeking the most distant horizon.
“Dad, I’m going to have to
go…” My voice trailed off and I sniffled. A stream of tears and
sobbing choked my voice as I said it.
“You do what you must. Still
loyal to her I see.” He spoke plainly, his eyes never shifting
from their lock upon the horizon. The finality of his tone sliced
through my soul as would the sharpest knife through butter. There was
nothing more to say. Our meeting had lasted for all of fifteen minutes.
I turned toward the shoreline and traversed the planks as swiftly as I was able without running. In my mind’s eye I saw my father’s painting again. I saw the figures parting, one leaving and one remaining, taking no comfort in the company of its own shadow.
As I reached the edge of the pier I
turned to look back, without hope or expectation. Tears leapt from my
eyes now and I was almost audibly sobbing. But the wind was gusting
loudly, almost howling. In a way I felt cloaked by its mercy. He still
stood at the railing and was looking back at me. He hesitated before
raising his hand above his head to wave half-heartedly. It was now only
a moment before the sun would set beneath the horizon. It was directly
behind him. From my vantage point, his upraised hand appeared to be
supporting the glowing orb of orange light like a giant Olympian torch.
The moment was etched on my spirit. I know it to be the image I will
cling to in the final moments of my own life, when on some distant
future day I perish upon my deathbed.
And in the flash of an instant the
sun dipped beneath the horizon, and my father was simply waving goodbye.
Completely numb, I retraced my path through the fairgrounds and
towards the car. I walked quickly, waiting for my body to wretch or
dissolve at any moment, but it didn’t. My mind was blank, but filled
with an absolute blackness. I felt nothing, knew nothing. The blackness
In what seemed instantly, I was
sitting in the airplane. The flight attendant was asking me if I
preferred beef or chicken for the late night dinner. I shook my head in
an effort to shoo her away and turned my gaze to the window on my right.
For a long time I stared into the blackness of the night, hypnotized by
the periodically flashing lights on the wing of the plane. At some point
I slipped away into sleep. I dreamt many dreams, vivid dreams I mostly
can’t remember. But, in one of them I thought I saw the Stranger
standing at the pier’s end, where my father had been, holding that
orange, glowing orb in that final moment of sunset…
I was awakened by the plane’s first touchdown on the tarmac. We
bounced twice before the plane settled into its posture upon the Earth.
Both times we did so I felt the jarring motion ripple through me, as
though I were gelatin.
I made the hour long drive from Los Angeles into Orange County in
silence. Usually I’d listen to the radio, music, or a CD. But I needed
silence just then. Any noise seemed to resonate painfully within me.
Only the inner blackness supplied me the grace to keep driving.
Exiting the freeway, there were no cars to be seen on the local
roads. It was late, about one thirty in the morning. I had made good
time by traveling at such a late hour. My car, seemingly on autopilot,
wended its way through our neighborhood and drew to a gentle stop in the
driveway of my home. Looking into the bay window, I saw a light in the
living room was still on. I saw a shadow gracefully move across its wall
as my car pulled up. Maureen was up, waiting.
I opened the car door and got out, exhausted. I left my suitcase
and travel bag in the trunk without having decided to. As I made my way
to the front door, it opened. It was Maureen. She was wearing her
bathrobe and pink, fuzzy slippers. As I dragged my body across the
threshold she turned on the light. For the first time I saw her face and
she saw mine. I saw her eyes search my mine for some telling of what had
transpired. My own face felt blank. I reached up my hand to scratch a
tickle on my cheek. I was surprised when I felt the cold wetness of my
Glancing back at Maureen, I saw her face tighten and tension as
she witnessed my surprise. In a moment she raised one hand to her mouth
as her own crying started to come. Though no words had yet been spoken,
she already knew the substance of what had happened. She knew the
finality of it too.
She stepped towards me and drew me
deeply into her arms. I buried my face, tears streaming, into her lovely
hair. I drew one deep breath just to take in the smell of her. Just
then, the sobbing I had silently cradled throughout my return flight
exploded uncontrollably from within me. I felt my knees buckle and she
followed me downward. In a moment we were holding one another just
inside our front door, kneeling. There was no talking now, only crying.
It felt like years of accumulated tears came. For both of us, the tears
came and came. I do not remember how long it was we stayed there.
I awoke the next morning, refreshed from the emotional release of
the previous night. I turned to look, but Maureen was already out of
bed. The delicious smells and some faint noises betrayed her presence in
the kitchen downstairs. She was making breakfast.
I treated myself to a long shower. Holding my head under the
stream of water, I hid there for a time, the warmth comforting me and
imbuing me with much needed vitality. Dressing, I noticed my suitcase
and travel bag were stacked neatly on the chair beside the bed. After
retrieving the gifts I had brought from New York, I made my way
downstairs to see my family. I felt especially excited to see my son
When I reached the kitchen only Maureen was there. Looking
through the sliding glass door I could see Michael outside. He was
backyard, facing away from the house, lost in play with some toys on the
grass. My attention turned to Maureen. She came to me, embraced me, and
kissed me softly. Wrapping my arms tightly about her, I kissed her too.
“Hi Honey! Just in time for waffles…your favorite!” She
said joyfully. The way she said it made me happy, hopeful. She always
had this effect on me.
I’d already shared the full story of the meeting with my father
before we had gone to bed and didn’t feel the need to talk more about
it, at least for now. I stretched, feeling how supple my muscles were
from the tremendous emotional release of the night before.
She served me the waffles and I ate them. I ate them with gusto.
Smiling at her, I’d occasionally hum “Mmmmmmm.” We both chuckled a
little. Mostly, she watched me. She was simply happy that she made me
happy. I gave Maureen the “I love NY” tee shirt. She unfolded it and
held it up to her chest. Looking at me, she smiled.
“I see they put a big red heart
on it so that everyone at the mall would know where to aim the gun,
huh?” We laughed together heartily, and it felt so good to laugh. I
was relieved to know I still could.
My thoughts swerved to Michael.
“Maur, you know Mike’s never
experienced snow. What do you say that we make sure he does this year,
okay?” I asked, wondering if she knew my motivations.
“Sure Honey. Let’s take him to
Big Bear in the winter.” She offered.
“No, I mean East Coast snow. I
want him to have the experience of walking in the fresh fallen snow of
an orchard or an empty field. I want him to feel the quiet of it.
I want him to be immersed in the experience of living according
to its rules for a time. I don’t want it to be a packaged, convenient
experience, going up to Big Bear and returning to the sun and warmth of
in a single afternoon. Let’s go to Vermont for a week in December.
It’s something I want to share with him, with you.” I tried to
explain my motivations, but felt a bit exposed as though I had rambled.
She considered it for a moment and smiled knowingly. I was relieved when
she didn’t laugh or tease me. She knew what I meant. She always knew.
I winked at her and shifted the conversation once again.
“Listen, I’m going to go on a
bike ride with Mike. I want to get out a little bit and spend some time
with him, okay? I should be back in about two hours. What do you say we
all go catch dinner and a movie at about five o’clock, my treat?” I
asked cheerfully. I didn’t want Maureen to feel left out or abandoned
when I went with Michael.
“Sounds great to me! Have fun.
See you later!” She understood that this father needed time alone with
I picked up the gift for Michael
and started towards the sliding glass door to the yard. I opened it and
started to step through. From the sink, Maureen shouted, “I love you
I paused and gripped the door
handle a little tighter, “I love you Maur...and thanks.” My thanks
seemed small in relation to what she had given me over the past few
I slid the glass door closed behind
me and started across the lawn towards Michael, who was still facing
away. Halfway across the yard, I looked back once and saw that Maureen
had moved to the door to watch me sneak up behind the boy.
“Hey Bean!” I practically
shouted as I scooped him up in my arms and hugged him tightly. My mind
flashed back to the strained hug I had with my own father only one day
before, but the thought retreated. This hug felt warm, alive, and
Michael laughed with glee upon the
first sight of his father.
“Daddy! Daddy! I missed you,”
the boy practically squealed.
“I missed you too son.” I said,
really meaning it. I put him down and knelt so that I was at his eye
“I brought you back a souvenir
from New York. Here you go.” I handed him the water-filled globe. He
took it from my hand gingerly and shook it. I saw him smile as he too
was mesmerized by the swirling snowstorm within it.
“Thanks Dad! This is really
cool!” He exclaimed.
“This winter, your mom and I are
going to take you to Vermont. We are going to spend an entire week at a
log cabin. We’ll go sledding down this huge hill I know. Do you want
to see real snow Mike?” I asked, anticipating his answer
“Yeah! Yeah! Snow!” Mike revved
“Mike, go put that in your room and let’s you and me go for a bike ride, then maybe to the park.” I asked.
“Awesome!” He said with a truly
Californian accent. Then, he ran back towards the glass door. I stood up
and looked back to watch him go. Maureen was still standing there inside
the door, smiling. Her arms were crossed across her chest. I could tell
by her body language that she too had been savoring the moment of
closeness I had exchanged with our son.
When Michael returned, we got the
bicycles from the garage and started riding along the sidewalk, towards
the entrance to the bike path at the end of our street. I took the lead.
Keeping ten or twenty yards between us, I looked back at the boy often.
It was more to reassure him than myself.
Mike had learned to ride the new
bike we bought him only a few months ago. He had good balance for a
child his age. I was proud of him. Sometimes though, the bike wobbled a
bit under his control. Every once in a while I could see the uncertainty
in his eyes as we rounded a tight corner.
Most bike paths in Orange County
travel along the aqueducts. At some spots the paths actually descend
into the aqueduct itself. It is impossible to ride them when it is
flooded during the rainy season. Fortunately for my son and I, the rains
had ended last month. The paths were clean and dry, except in a few
muddy spots, particularly near some of the tunnels that are along the
paths within the aqueducts.
The path I chose that day traveled
along for about one mile. I chose it because it was mostly straight and
would be easier for Michael. Also, at the end of the path was a park. I
would be able to rest a bit there, while he played on the swings and
As we rode, father and son, I felt
truly happy. At different moments I focused on the warm sun upon my
face, the wind in my hair, and the boundless love I felt for the boy
riding behind me. The events of the day before with my own father seemed
distant, as if they had occurred years ago. And, in a way they had. The
sadness would come in occasional waves and my smile would fade. In those
moments I was glad that Michael was behind me, so I could more privately
experience those feelings.
Just before the first tunnel in our
path, Michael sped up. He attempted to race ahead of me, so that he
could be first into the tunnel. I was tangled in my own thoughts and was
caught by surprise. As he shot passed I knew he was in trouble. He made
it to a place about thirty yards ahead of me, just before the mouth of
the tunnel. The bike was wobbling enough to suggest that he didn’t
have good control at that speed. Worse still, a small, soft mud puddle
had grabbed the front tire of the boy’s bike. I watched helplessly his
front wheel turned awkwardly. The bike slid and Mike was thrown to the
side of the puddle, landing squarely upon his buttocks.
For a parent, there are no worse,
more painful moments than when we see our children suffer. I was
certainly no exception. I felt my heart clench within me, as though I
had been stabbed. I tightly squeezed my own bike’s brakes and heard
the rims of my ten-speed almost hum as the bike came to an abrupt stop.
I practically threw down the bike and ran over to him. He had already
started to cry and sniffle.
I stooped down and placed my hands upon his shoulders. He was balling loudly now and I could hear his cries echo back at me annoyingly from the tunnel ahead. But, just as every parent knows how to judge the severity of a situation by the tone and volume of their own child’s cries, I knew Michael’s. He wasn’t hurt. Actually, he was fine. Only his pride had been a little wounded. Inwardly, I almost laughed because the scene was actually comical, especially the way he had landed so squarely on his bottom, bouncing only once. He sat as he had landed.
“It’s okay Bean,” I kneeled
now and wiped away his tears. He cried a little louder, milking the
moment for attention. I gave it to him freely. As we exchanged this
moment, I knew he felt cared for and protected by me. It was the same
feeling the boy within me so desperately myself craved yesterday, on the
“I fell,” he cried, squinting
and sniffling at me.
“I know Mike. It’s going to be
okay. I promise!” I offered to him as he looked deeply into my eyes,
seeking reassurance. I helped him to his feet so he could know he was
not injured. The relief was evident in his teary eyes as he realized he
wasn’t. I patted at his pants to rid them of obvious dirt and dust. I
could feel the boy enjoying the attention, but still sniffling.
“I can’t even ride a bike
right. I’m no good.” He surprised me with his words. Apparently, his
fall had injured his psyche more than his body.
“Yes you are son. You are not
only good. You are great!” I dotted his nose with my index finger and
smiled. I saw his tears begin surrendering to a faint smile.
“But Dad, I won’t ever be as
good a rider as you. All the kids at school are going to laugh at me!”
I heard the shame in his voice, and his sense of failure.
“Son, listen. You know those
business trips Dad goes on?” I waited for his answer.
“Yeah…” he sniffled once.
“Well, every time I go on one
it’s like riding a bike. When I go to a meeting, I’m never sure if
they are going to like me or not. Before the meeting I feel a little
scared too and wonder if I’m good enough. I’m never sure if they
will want me to come back or not. And, sometimes they don’t. But you
know what?” I asked, baiting him.
“What?” He asked hesitatingly.
“Even if they don’t like me, or
want to do business with me, I just go on the next business trip. I just
keep going because I know I’m okay!” I looked into his eyes. The
tears had stopped and he understood what I was saying. I could see an
ocean of relief in the boy’s eyes, as he absorbed that sometimes even
his all-powerful Dad felt inadequate.
“You are going to be a good bike
rider. By the summer you are going to be an expert! You’ll see. You
just have to keep practicing. If you fall off the bike, just get back on
and keep going. Do you know why?” I asked, hoping for a certain
“Because I am good enough?”
He met my hope.
“Yes, Bean. You are g-r-e-a-t!”
I said it like Tony the Tiger he smiled, actually laughing a
little. His crisis had passed. I decided to give him the same
opportunity to compose himself that Maureen had given me only days
“Mike, I’m going to ride ahead through the tunnel. Take a minute for
yourself. Take a few deep breaths and you’ll feel better. Once you do,
get back up on your bike and meet me on the other end of the tunnel,
okay? I’ll wait for you. I promise.”
“Okay,” he said.
I walked back to my bike as he
watched me. I climbed on and rode past him and into the tunnel, smiling
at him reassuringly as I did so. He returned my smile.
The tunnel extended just a few
dozen yards, but was long enough that it grew a bit dark towards the
center of it. As I rode, the sound of my wheel spokes in the coolness of
the tunnel eerily echoed against the walls. I pedaled towards the light
at the other end, being careful to stay to the center of the path. In a
few moments I emerged from the darkness. At the mouth of the tunnel, I
pulled my bike to the side of the path, and waited for my son.
The moments of waiting dragged on a
bit. This was a rite of passage for Michael. It was a moment of defeat,
but that was not what was critical. It was this: Would he pick himself
up, regroup, and move on after the defeat, or let it crush him. I’d
know by the expression on his face as he rode from the tunnel.
Still, he did not appear. I fought
my first urge to ride back and retrieve him. I had to just wait in order
to know. As Maureen would often say, patience was not my strong suite. I
looked down, searching the ground for something to occupy my mind. My
eye was drawn to a chain that wrapped around a pole, near where I stood.
All the links were rusted together except one. Somehow it was still a
pristine, dull silver-gray color and it was detached from the others. I
found myself wondering if this lone link was part of the rusty chain, or
was it from another source. But, there was no other chain in sight.
“The chain starts with a single
link…” I thought I heard the wind whisper. It startled me because I
knew there was no one in my proximity. Looking toward a field in the
distance, I thought I saw the Stranger. It seemed to be staring at me in
a usual wary pose.
I rubbed my eyes with my thumb and
index finger and sighed. I was annoyed because inwardly I felt that I
had already answered the Stranger’s relentless beckoning. I had
traveled to see my father. Everything had happened as it did. It was
“What more could you want?” I
whispered, still rubbing my eyes.
I was becoming more impatient with
waiting, but still unwilling to go back to get the boy. I leaned
backward and opened the travel kit on my bike, just behind my seat. I
withdrew the silver flashlight from within it. Scooting my bike closer
to the mouth of the cave, still to the side of the path, I flicked on
the switch. I pointed this modern-day torch into the cave. Casting the
brilliance of its beam, I illuminated the darkest parts I could discern.
I waited for my son.
My thoughts again returned to my
father. I felt regret, not for what had happened, but for knowing that
it could not have gone any other way. I was sad that my father and I had
drawn our battle-lines in the past and present, and neither could yield
Without warning, Mike came bursting
from the tunnel, like a runner dashing for the finish line in the last
few yards of a race. His face was beaming with a wide smile. His bike
wobbled at that speed, but he held steady. He yelled a victorious shout
as he passed me and stopped about one hundred yards ahead, waving for me
to come. I smiled inwardly and outwardly, for him and for me. I was
proud of my son.
once more towards the Stranger, as if to share this moment, I was
surprised to see no one.
I turned off the flashlight and put it back into the travel kit. I rode
ahead to join Michael. The chain starts with a single link. I
silently grappled with this riddle as we rode on together.
A few minutes later we arrived at
the park. After locking our bikes in the rack, I sat on a bench and
watched Michael play on the slide with some other boys about his age. I
continued to search for meaning in what I thought I’d heard earlier.
After some time, Michael called me
over to the swings. He enjoyed it when I would push him higher and
higher. He climbed onto the seat and I got behind him. At first I pushed
on the chains to start him going. I stepped back and pushed on his
bottom once the swing began to make its great arcs. He laughed with a
child’s glee as the swing carried him faster and higher. He began to
use his own legs to pump momentum into the swing. I stepped back and
once again became lost in my thoughts.
After a time, he slowed the swing and stopped. I walked over to him and knelt down. Due to the height of the swing’s seat, Michael’s eyes were above me. I found myself looking up at him, squinting into the midday sun above. Before I could open my mouth to tell him that we would to start back, he spoke.
“Dad, remember back there at the
tunnel?” His voice was tentative.
“Yeah.” I said, almost as a
“Well, I was kind of scared about
going in after you went on ahead. Actually, I was going to turn back and
just go home.”
“What stopped you?”
“A light. You turned on that
flashlight. Somehow it made me feel better. I knew you were up there at
the other end, waiting. Somehow I knew I’d be okay.”
As the boy spoke these words tears
began to streak down my cheek. I pursed my lips in an effort to stay
controlled as they trembled. I felt myself as a boy in so many
situations wanting the same guiding light of my father. It was a wound
that I knew would never entirely heal. But in that moment I knew that I
could be this guiding light for my son, even lacking my own.
In a flash, I realized I had all
along unconsciously assumed I would impart my own despair to Michael.
But now I knew that I didn’t have to pass the wound on. I knew that he
was not doomed to share this fate with me. An immensely satisfying
relief washed over me and cleansed me.
“Build the chain…” I heard
the wind whisper.
Looking up and past Michael, I
could see the links of the swing’s chain reaching up into the sky.
They seemed to disappear into the brilliance of the sun itself. In that
moment I understood the meaning of what the Stranger was trying to tell
me. The Stranger was not an ominous foe, a haunting fiend to be feared.
The Stranger was my teacher.
I stood up, turning away from
Michael, and looked to the edge of the park. I could see the Stranger
walking away now and I knew it would not return, the pupil having
learned the lesson. I vowed into the wind, “I will build the chain. It
starts with a single link. It starts with me.”