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Encounter At The Lighthouse

By Steve Gladstone

 

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Written: February 1, 2001

 

The Stranger

 

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 discovery.

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 always is.

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 youth.

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 Stranger.

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.

 

Contact

 

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 thousand miles.

            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 accusations.

            “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.

 

Pilgrimage

 

            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 entries.

            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 day.

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 my destiny.

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 her.

“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 expected.”

“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 compose myself.

“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 done so.

“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.

 

Ruins

 

            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, and fears.

            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 was alone.

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 memories.

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 era.

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 my mind.

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.

 

Encounter

 

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 blinding.

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 arrived.

“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 child.

“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 another.

“How is…that woman?” he spat, looking away from me and pursing his lips tightly.

That woman. 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 effect.

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 sunset.

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.

 

Aftermath

 

            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 was merciful.

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 own tears.

            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.

 

Torchbearer

 

            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 Michael again.

            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 his son.

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 Luke.”

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 days.

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 reciprocated.

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 level.

“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 hopefully.

“Yeah! Yeah! Snow!” Mike revved with excitement.

“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 slides.

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 pier.

“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 answer.

“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 before.

“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 done.

“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 territory.

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. Glancing 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 question.

“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.”

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