You know, the more I go to put stuff down, the more I realize that there likely isn’t much I’ve forgotten. Probably I’m not all that scared of forgetting my father; probably I spent too many years rehashing my memories of him to lose them now. Instead I find myself wondering about the start of this letter, about why I began it where I did. Maybe this is where I’ve been headed all along, even before I read about thirteen-or-fourteen-year-old Wuck “unable to face [the] thought of what losing [his] father might mean,” even before Hoke and Brennan killed the cuddly occupants of Schrödinger’s owl box. I guess—if I’m being totally honest—my real fear is that the apple won’t fall far from the tree.
Last year about this time I found myself in an emergency room bed for the first time in my life. I had this dull and persistent pain in my scrotum that would worsen over the course of each day, a pain that radiated deeper and deeper into my abdomen and wouldn’t quit until I finally stopped moving for the night, effectively resetting the cycle for the next morning. At first, I didn’t think much of it, even as novel as the pain was. I just figured I’d jarred everything at some point—during softball or sleep or sex or something—and that whatever was ailing me would go away. There were maybe ten days like this—each just a fraction worse than the last—before Kristen started noticing my gait after work, how gingerly I made my way up the stairs, how carefully I sat down to untie my shoes.
“My balls hurt,” I must’ve told her early on, innocently enough.
When, however, I eventually confessed to her that the pain had intensified since I’d mentioned it maybe a week earlier, she threatened to drag me to the emergency room straight away. I had, admittedly, done some digging as to the possible causes of the discomfort and was growing more concerned myself. Still, I convinced her that a midnight trip to the ER was overkill and acquiesced to her demands to call in sick the next day and go, at the very least, to urgent care. Twenty-four hours later—to make a long and inefficient story short—I was <quote-01>lying in a hospital bed with ultrasound gel all over my junk<quote-01>, the technician pressing a wand hard against my testicles and repeatedly apologizing: “Sorry, bro. Here I go again,” and “I gotta get the picture, man, I’m so sorry,” and “Just a couple more, bro, my bad. I know it’s uncomfortable.”
I don’t envy these technicians. Not only because they have to do things like squeeze another person’s testicle between an imaging wand and his thigh, but because they can’t let on if and when they see something abnormal. They aren’t doctors, of course, but you have to figure that any technician worth his hourly rate knows a tumor when he sees one, knows the ominous shadows from the inconsequential ones. In addition to the constant apologies, he kept reminding me that he was only a technician, that he couldn’t tell me anything or do anything more than upload the images for the doctor. I wasn’t hounding him. Others probably do—and not without good reason.
“Could be cancer, sure,” the emergency room doctor had said before ordering the ultrasound; she’d already ruled out infection and sexually transmitted disease based on an initial exam.
Unsurprisingly, my only other ultrasound experiences were during Kristen’s many prenatal checkups, some in softly lit rooms arrayed for nothing but. Our second ultrasound suite, I remember, had several monitors of all sizes mounted around the room, not just for mom and dad’s viewing pleasure but to allow the doctor to compare the just captured images from all different angles, to superimpose them upon layouts and grids with acceptable measurements: “Do you see here?” and “There we go,” and “Looking good, mom!” These were images of glad tidings, after all, images of promise and not foreboding—no middleman required.
Except for the fluorescent hallway light leaking through a gap in the drawn plastic curtains, the only illumination in my shared hospital room was from an obstructed screen on the small ultrasound unit wheeled in just minutes prior. There was no wondering at shapes, no educated guesses; my only glimpses of what the probing wand uncovered came from the reflection in the technician’s glasses, the facial expressions into which I kept reading so much. “That was a frown,” I remember thinking to myself. “This guy looks sorry for me. Sorrier now. Fuck.”
I will admit to some gloom and doom in the days leading up to this visit, some mild panic after reading articles about how <quote-02>those with high pain tolerances<quote-02> die of testicular cancer at increased rates, or about how a certain serious heart condition manifests itself in exactly the kind of scrotal pain I’d been experiencing. My mind wandered to some dark places, for sure, and foremost among them the thought of a fatherless Grammar—if only for a second. I couldn’t handle more than a second.
What, I now wonder, must my father have gone through? I picture him alone in a clinic-recliner with a chemotherapy needle in his arm, or maybe splayed atop an examination table with a laser directed at his liver, nothing but the echoing of that monstrous machine in an empty room to distract him.
I can at least content myself in knowing he had no firsthand knowledge of what it’s like to grow up without a dad. Any worries he might have had were purely hypothetical, abstract. I mean, he just wasn’t the kind of guy to envision and dwell upon an imagined sadness, to project what my life soon would be. And it’s not like it was so bad. It happens to people, right? But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to some rough patches, to a moment or two of nearly unspeakable sadness. And to go through it yourself is one thing; you do it. Whatever. But to imagine—instead of me and Conch—Grammar and Kristen suffering those slings and arrows, lying in each other’s arms and sobbing into the afternoon, say, at the prospect of my imminent demise—that breaks my heart, fucking breaks it. It’d be better not to know, for sure, better not to have experienced firsthand the contemplative moments, those in which I had no choice but to confront my reality: walking home by myself through an alley, making my solitary way from one end of the junior high school campus to the other during passing period, waiting for the therapist’s door to open for yet another session. I can’t imagine those for Grammar without almost losing it, <quote-03>can’t stomach the image of his face assuming the frown I sported for so many months<quote-03>.
But lying in that emergency room bed with nothing to distract me, I couldn’t help but shuffle through exactly all of that, to replace my younger self with an older Grammar.
I didn’t want him to remember my face and voice chiefly from the photos app on his mother’s smartphone, to learn about the “real me” from others’ stories; I didn’t want him ever to wonder about the advice I would have given him, the regrets I would have shared, about <quote-04>how much money I would have forked over before a date<quote-04>. I didn’t want him to have to guess at my sincerest beliefs and convictions, whether or not he could’ve changed my mind about a genre of music or a certain politician. I didn’t want him to have to wonder if I’d approve of his friends, his wife, the life he chose for himself. I didn’t want him to have to assume that I loved him more than anything, so much that the prolonged thought of him made my eyes water, so much that I never went to bed without first sneaking into his room and waiting for a reassuring breath, never once in his entire life. I didn’t want him to have to worry about his own mother because her husband was dead, to feel responsible for her, not until he was an adult himself anyway.
I just wanted for him the things I never had. Isn’t that what parents always say?
Maybe the most incredible thing about parenthood is not how it reconfigures your priorities but how it reconfigures your mortality, how you no longer fear death for your own sake <quote-05>but for the sake of your child<quote-05>.
I used to think there was <quote-06>nothing sadder than dying young<quote-06>. I loved Keats’ “When I Have Fears” even before I loved poetry. “When I have fears that I may cease to be / Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain” struck me as the height of melancholy. What could be worse than “Love and Fame” unrealized?
Now I know.
What a sense of accomplishment it must be to send one’s child off into the world, what profound bittersweetness. I hope my father’s regrets were elsewhere in his final hours, that he passed as peacefully and as unawares as two baby owls in the November night.
Turns out it was just an infection after all. <quote-07>Some amoxycillin did the trick<quote-07>.
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