“Breaking through the atmosphere And things are pretty good from here Remember everything will be alright”
from “Sign of the Times” by Harry Styles
So to celebrate my birthday this year, I don’t get to go out, but I do get to choose whatever I want to watch on television. Thank goodness for Netflix and HBO and Prime Video. I choose not to watch the news where deaths due to the coronavirus (as of this writing) are approaching 1500 in the US. When I woke up yesterday, 1001 people had died from this pandemic in our country. In the time it took me to put on my socks – literally – 1005 people had died. We are nowhere near the end of this catastrophe. These are strange days.
If anything, the last 2 weeks of sitting in my house have made me feel incredibly grateful. I’m grateful for my job – as a college professor, the beat goes on, and I know I’ll still be working/teaching even as we struggle as a country to get our feet back under us. I feel grateful for my college and how they are working to try and help students and instructors meet the unprecedented demands this crisis presents. I am painfully aware of the work and childcare challenges that some of my family and friends face and the difficult choices they have to make. I’m grateful for good health, the safety of home, and for technology that allows me to stay connected to family and friends, to check in and have a sense of normalcy in this abnormal state. I’m blessed to have a wonderful wife and best friend who I’m glad to spend a lot of time with. And I am grateful for friends who send birthday wishes, gifts via Amazon, gift cards for wine delivery, and the beautiful yellow box of cookies left on the doorstep, with my friends who delivered them standing at an acceptable social distance on the sidewalk to wish me a happy birthday. A sign of the times.
All of this also has me thinking of what we owe to each other. This is also the title of a book about ethics by T. M. Scanlon. If you’re a fan of “The Good Place” on NBC, you might have heard the ethics professor, Chidi, refer to this book from time to time. Scanlon’s book is about fairness and responsibility within the social contract we have. The responsibility we owe each other in this time is kind of a paradox: we show our commitment to one another by staying away from one another. We show concern by practicing isolation. By engaging in social distancing, we show how we care for the least among us: the most vulnerable who have underlying health conditions, the elderly who may not be as strong, and the poorest who don’t have access to health care. But the danger isn’t just for these parts of society. It touches all of us, or it will in time.
In describing his idea of the social contract, John Rawls imagined what he called a “veil of ignorance.” It works like this: Think about creating a just and equitable society for everyone. What would make the society fair for you and everyone else? Although you could never eliminate all of your personal biases and prejudices, you should consciously try to eliminate or minimize as many of them as possible. To do this, Rawls suggests that you imagine yourself in what he calls “the original position” behind a veil of ignorance. Behind this veil, you don’t know anything about yourself, your abilities/disabilities, or what money and resources you have. You don’t know your own sex, race, or country of origin. Behind such a veil of ignorance, we start with the same set of attributes: we are all rational, free, and morally equal beings. We all have the same opportunity to rise or fall equally. Rawls and Immanuel Kant and the Bible have this ethos in common: that we should treat everyone as we would want to be treated. It’s not a radical idea, but it is not radically practiced in everyday life.
This is the unique position we find ourselves in. We have to remember now that every choice we make now has a real consequence, and every choice is an opportunity to show the better angels of our nature. The virus that courses among us is no respecter of persons. Movie stars, elite athletes, and politicians are as at-risk as the common man, as at-risk as you and me. How we deal with this moving forward will show our commitment to fairness and equity. This is another sign of the times: in a nation that likes to see ourselves in individual terms, our collective vulnerability is on full display, and like it or not, we depend on each other now to find our way through.
Later today, I expect I’ll make a wish and blow out some candles. Although it is a superstition to keep the wish secret, I’m going to risk it and share that my wish is for all of us to think of each other before or at least equally with ourselves. God Bless America.
This week – from the archives: a story about my father. This week marked the twenty-third anniversary of my brother’s death. Next month will be the thirty-fifth anniversary of my father’s death. They died of the same thing, shared the same affliction: alcoholism. When I was eight, it was a hard thing to understand. This is how I remember it.
When I think of my father, many different images come to mind. For me, he is mostly a series of pictures like a confused, silent home movie—but in Technicolor, not the standard black and white that home movies usually suggest. I see him in a red and black flannel shirt standing in the kitchen of my grandmother’s small Tennessee house; smiling with his brown golf bag hanging from his shoulder; his jeans and black boots sticking out from under the old blue rambler my mom used to drive, his brown hair sparkling in the sun.
There are other images, more vivid and disturbing. I see him punching my mother. I hear him yelling at my brother and slamming the door as he walks away. I see his rage. These are things that I wish I didn’t remember. In general, my father’s family doesn’t like to remember anything like this either; he was the youngest of five children and my grandmother’s treasure. He was famous for doing things like skipping school to drink with his buddies—on one such occasion, this resulted in his accidentally sinking his car in a lake. These things were somehow easily forgiven and laughed off. So he ruined a car? My grandfather just bought him a new one. His mistakes were never a big deal. He was immature, but he could do no real wrong, even when he was wrong. After he died, he was practically holy: Saint Ricky. Saint Ricky never really made an effort in life to consistently be a better man, but after his death, we all wanted to believe that he could have been.
My father had this charm about him. I guess that’s because when he chose to be good, he was great. He was quick to apologize when he messed up and seemed terribly sincere as he did so. I understand why my mother, his parents and his friends so easily forgave his faults: I forgave them as well. I continue to forgive them. If I were not a part of this family, I couldn’t possibly understand this, but I am; I do. There are only a handful of times that I remember being afraid of my father, but there are more times that I remember that I loved him and he loved us.
I don’t really know what my father did for a living. He never went to college, but somehow he managed to score himself a management job. I know that he wore a suit to work (I specifically remember a brown suit he wore a lot and a tie with brown and white and silver diagonal stripes), and I know that he worked for a company called Hamilton Avnet. I used to have a key chain that was a chopped up $100 bill inside a plastic shell that said “Hamilton Avnet” on it. I used to think it was really worth $100. I prized it. My father brought it back from one of his business trips for me—I guess to make me feel better about the time that he had to be away. He was often away.
But this is all that I know. I’m starting to lose even those few things I can still recall. I now remember far less about my father’s life with us than I do about his death. I can’t remember the last time I saw my father alive or recall the last thing he may have said to me. But I remember exactly the moment that he died—or at least the moment that his death became real to me. It was late at night, and I think he had been away on a trip. I should have been asleep but wasn’t. Or maybe I was. Or maybe I was caught in that space between sleeping and waking where everything is at the same time vivid and hard to remember at once. Even now, pieces of it come back to me and retreat from me—like when I have a strange dream, and I stand in the shower the next morning trying to fit it all back together while images wash over and off and away from me, out of my reach.
That night in July 1981, the ringing brought all of my senses to attention. This was long before I knew the gravity of a phone call in the middle of the night, but even at eight years old, I knew that no one was supposed to call right then. The hair on the back of my neck and my arms began to stir. I got up. The padded feet of my pajamas hit the floor. I squished and swished into the dark hall where I heard my mother’s sleepy voice answer the phone. I don’t remember any of the words that she said, but I could hear fear. The rest was silence. In the dark, I couldn’t see anything. Once my mother stopped talking, the air was still and blank. I would have thought that I was asleep and dreaming except that I could reach out and touch the frame of the doorway that led to my mother’s room. That was when I knew I really was standing in the hall, that the phone really did just ring. All at once, somehow I knew my dad was gone.
A mass of blankets was lying on the living room floor; my mother wanted us to feel safe, so she herded us together. My brother and sister and I were still trying to grasp ideas of “tragic” and “gone” and “heaven” and things like that that everyone kept repeating. In the hours since the phone had rung, I was aware of people coming and going and crying. My mother’s eyes were wild and red. I could not understand then her fear of being suddenly a widow at the age of 26 with three small children, a part-time job as a waitress and no high school diploma.
A few days later, I remember this beige building with a black railing along a walkway out front. The place was called Laycock Funeral Home. I kept going out to the railing to escape the sobbing, sniffing people dressed in black who all seemed to want to hug me. I was afraid of them, but I was more afraid to go into the other rooms in that place. I was afraid that there would be more dead people in them. There was only one room that was safe. It was a tiny room in the back, with a sink and a counter and a little soda machine. For a quarter you could buy a coca-cola in the little old-fashioned glass bottles. It was the only room where I couldn’t hear the tinny, hollow organ music—that music made me feel as though I was floating around outside of my body, not even really there.
The room my father’s body and family were in was a lot different. There was a bronze coffin. His body was inside of it. I can say his body was inside of it and not that he was inside, because what lay within that bronze coffin was definitely not my father. His hair was all wrong. It wasn’t combed the way he usually combed it. It wasn’t brown and sparkly like it was when we were out in the sun. And it wasn’t soft. I touched it. It felt hard–like fishing line. I put my face close so that I could smell it. My father usually smelled like oil and sweat and suntan lotion. Not only didn’t it smell like him, it didn’t smell like any person I had ever smelled in my life. He smelled like Vaseline and rubbing alcohol. His face was kind of puffy and he wasn’t smiling. He wasn’t frowning either. So often when he came home from work I could tell whether we would play or if I should run by the look on this face, but now this face said nothing to me. His eyes didn’t have those lines at the corners that he always got when he squinted. I remember that he squinted a lot. And this was the worst thing of all: there was a little trickle of dry blood on his ear. If that had been my father, I would have wiped that off of there. But I was certain that this was not him.
There were yellow roses on top of the bronze coffin. They added to the overpowering smell of flowers in that place. I can never drive by Laycock without remembering that smell. I can’t smell flowers without remembering that place, this day, bronze coffin, my father, yellow roses and the American flag. My uncle, Eddie, was a soldier. My father was a soldier too—before I was born. I have seen faded, cracked pictures of my father in green pants and a green shirt polishing his boots or standing next to a plane. He has really short hair in all of those pictures. There is one that my mother is in. She is standing next to him in his tan dress uniform and she is wearing a really short white dress. Since my father was a soldier, my uncle the soldier is there to honor him. But I am not noticing all of this entirely. All the things that he said about my father I have long forgotten. Out of the funeral home and on the cemetery hillside, what I notice now is the bright, blue sky, the heat of the sun, and the green tent that we are sitting under, how it is flapping loudly in the breath of God. The overwhelming smell of flowers is replaced by the smell of cut grass. The sound of hollow organ music gives way to the sounds of cars passing by, people crying softly, and my uncle whispering something into my mother’s ear. He placed a carefully folded flag (with the white stars showing) into my mother’s lap and saluted her; I didn’t know what any of it meant.
I lost that $100 key chain long ago, and I now understand that the broken, fragmented pieces inside it had no real value, just imagined worth. I lost my father long ago as well, but the disjointed images of him, both great and terrible, are all that I have left, and now I realize that they are worth everything to me. It’s taken me many years to understand that when someone dies, we don’t lose them all at once. It seems like that initially of course because their physical presence vanishes so suddenly. But in truth, pieces of them linger for years after. Despite his many faults – even the ones that really hurt our family, I’ve found that I most often tell the good stories about Saint Ricky because I want others to meet and know and love the man I think I knew.
There is a picture of my father on his tombstone. He is outside, smiling in the sun in a faded denim jacket in front of the house where we used to live before he died. For me, he will always be frozen in this moment, with this smile. I remember so much, but there are some things that I am beginning to forget. Every day, parts of him are slipping away. I can’t remember what his voice sounds like anymore. I can play the tape recorder in my head and recall actual words that he said, but the sound, the tone, that ineffable thing that made it his voice, is gone. I’ll never get it back. I am losing him finally in parts, and I feel it so much more than when I thought I lost him all at once.
I know it isn’t the First Friday yet. I am violating the protocol of my blog so that I can honor my best friend, Oberon. For over 14 years, my beloved border collie has been at my side every day. He has struggled in the past few months – his mind was as sharp as ever, but his body betrayed him. Today, we let him go on to The Rainbow Bridge. I am unaccountably sad to lose him. I take comfort in the only thing possible: the knowledge that I gave him a great life. He gave me a great life as well.
Oberon is named for a character in Shakespeare’s play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The character is the King of the Fairy World. The play has long been one of my favorites, so it was a natural, unique choice. When Oberon came into my life, I didn’t want a dog – too much responsibility, I said. I was in my final semester of my senior year of college at the University of Baltimore, I was applying to graduate school, and I was in a rocky relationship with the person who is now my ex-husband.
Why in the world would I want a dog? I gave in – but only if I could choose his name. In every way, he has lived up to his namesake: he has been a magical presence.
To steal a phrase from Tim O’Brien, this dog has been the hero of my life. I could not have known what a blessing Oberon would be. For those of you who own dogs, you know. They are so much better than people in every single category. They never hold grudges. They always think the best of you. They are always genuinely happy to see you when you get home – and they don’t get mad when you are running late. Oberon has seen me through writing my master’s thesis, through my divorce, through a major life change when I finally opened up to the love of my life, through a new marriage, through bad, annoying days at work, through my doctoral program and all the tears and stress of comprehensive exams and the dissertation process, through everything. He has been my constant, my touchstone, the buddy who reminds me that everything looks and feels better after a walk in the fresh air.
He has been a source of continual comfort. Just interacting with him always lifted my spirits no matter what happened during the day. I’ll never know exactly what he thought about me, but I like to think he also saw me as a friend – though Billy Collins has some pretty interesting thoughts about this. (It makes me happy to think of the dogs writing poetry somewhere, out there. Oberon will write Shakespearean sonnets, I just know it.)
In my Philosophy class this semester, we have talked a lot about what happens to our souls when we die. That discussion feels more real to me today. Some believe, like Aristotle, that matter and form exist together, so when our bodies cease, everything ceases: our soul cannot exist apart from the body; but some believe we go on in some form – whether that is to heaven or to Plato’s world of forms or The Rainbow Bridge or just as energy that needs to find another way of expression. When it comes to Oberon (and all dogs for that matter), I guess I prefer to think of his soul as the Eastern Philosophers do: as energy that has always been here and will always be here. His energy is not here anymore inhabiting his body, but now it has been returned to the world. It looks for a new way to interact, but it does not die, does not diminish. That would be an unbearable loss. To know that Oberon’s kind, gentle spirit will reincarnate into another form is the only thing that lets me let him go.
This week we have enjoyed the warmer weather, turned our faces toward the sun every chance we had. We’ve been noticing so much more together: how much greener the grass suddenly seems, the way the air smells different after spring rain, the red buds pixelating all of the trees, and the first smiling daffodils. All this will go on now, without Oberon this time. Today before the vet came to help him transition out of this life, my wife Stephanie and I took one last walk with Oberon. It was something we were both looking forward to and dreading all week long, ever since we made the decision to let him go.
We walked slowly and comfortably in the direction he wanted. He got to say goodbye to his best friend, Colby, a Golden Retriever who lives a few doors down. He sniffed everything, breathing in the world and enjoying every bit of it. I could not help but think that I almost missed all of this – that I didn’t want him. That seems incredible to me now. I would have missed out on so much love and friendship. I am grateful for every day of these last 14 years – I only wish we could have had a few more. I hope it was peaceful, his final act. It was peaceful and heartbreaking for me in equal measure. I just wanted to keep going, keep walking with him forever.
Tomorrow, I do have a post prepared for the First Friday. I hope you’ll come back for that.