Seeking My Father
I’m stumbling about in a vast field of corn or wheat (mostly stubble) – for the requisite difficulty I want to say stalks of maize – but most likely it is wheat (author living in Kansas), though the sharp starkness of the dying shoots suggest otherwise. There may be snow, it’s that bleak. I’m lugging, perhaps draggling (yes – dragging a straggling weight – I do that) a shovel – nothing unusual about the tool except that it feels abnormally heavy and the iron parts are particularly cold (reminding me of the processings of my brain). A book is open on my lap (I’m sitting in an airport) to ward off any attempts at conversation and indicate a desire to be left alone, so I might continue my dreaming. I’m using the shovel to dig for my dad. Like – to find him. The field is a veritable landscape, not a “quarter” or even thousands of acres, but more like a steppe – some foreboding Russian prairie-plain – but clearly cultivated and almost fallow, or otherwise undone.
So I’m trudging through, eyeing the horizon, searching for some limiter, some possible landmarks that could clue me or direct me toward a where to dig. Every once in awhile I stoop or coil and plunge the blade into the cloddy frozen soil, strung up in tares and straw and grasses. I guess I’m expecting a thunk or an explosion of stars or something, because I never dig for long in one place, and soon pull up and move along. How do I know that he’s here? It’s as if something told me so. A sensation a helluva lot like intuition, or premonition. It’s a thankless task, I’ll tell you that, with the approaching holidays and stuck like this waiting on delayed Winter flights. What hope is there for me? It is already dusk and the field’s enormous. I’m alone, you know. Out here trying to find my father. Trying to find my way.
Ever since I’ve been nearly-adult, or as long as I distinctly remember thinking about things like this – like death or family or meaning – I’ve wished I knew my father. In college I thought it might be a matter of vocabulary – that we didn’t possess the correct vehicle for exchanging emotion and memories and hopes – so I studied America’s westward movement (the paths of our ancestry), studied land management and read farmer-writers like Wendell Berry and William Kloefkorn, Larry Woiwode, William Stafford, Robert Bly and ilk. Trying to forge a connection now that sports and God had run their course, for me. As my own children arrived I turned to movements like Men and the Water of Life, the Iron John sort of thing – searching what is my heritage – of gender, of blood – what the hell does “manly”(ness) mean beyond observation and nurture? Now with sons. Hunting for metaphors or language that might serve as derricks plumbing wells – that might draw out my father and myself and somehow blend us together. Poem after poem, story by letter asking intimacy. Sometimes I’d gain the courage for a lunch or an outing to interrogate him directly about how he felt about things and what were his stories. I gifted my mother and he with a book of great questions and a blank notebook so they might fill out their inner-info when they felt like it, “for their grandchildren,” I’d said, “for posterity.” Simply wanting to know. As far as I know, it’s still empty.
Why is it so hard for fathers and sons? How many of us wish we really knew – our parents from the inside out? Believe that somehow knowing more than their strategies of being would offer us a clearer, fuller sense of ourselves? Unburden. Invite. Be near. As my father and I both age, I find myself anticipating his stages – frustrations, weariness and increasing losses. I find myself encountering bewilderments I saw him endure, and still I constantly wonder what he would say – if he said – not regarding politics or basketball or weather or cars, but about me. About him. About being a father and a man, a husband and a laborer, a person, a friend. About humor and music and art, about culture and meaning. He studied much and has lived long, lost so many, traveled and loved and he’s beautiful. As with my sons – toward whom I try to be so open and true – the conundrum of unknowing and uncertainty related to those closest to us is a mystery that hurts. The above piece is one of a life of installments. A kind of cry.