“Did you?” I asked. We were at the breakfast table.
“Uh-huh. He gave me lots of presents, and he gave me special powers. But then he had a sickness, for a long time. And while we were sleeping, he died.”
My father’s name was not John Wilson, but this was who he was talking about. My father was diagnosed with cancer in late April of last year. He died that July 1st. He was there, but as a mere two months went by he was less and less there, and then he was gone.
My son, who was four years old by this time, was imbued with much in the way of superhero lore. He knew that heroes are endowed somehow, by chance or by some greater intelligence. Whichever the case, the hero is the agent of these forces in the mundane world. Whatever gave him his power, it cannot act directly in human affairs — maybe because it exists on a different plane, maybe because it died a long time ago.
This is the state of a father. The temptation, when you have children, is to believe that you’ve broken off a piece of yourself to project it into the future, when in fact the child is “yours” only to the extent that it might bear your name and your eyes. And far from being you, the child may run as fast as it can to avoid becoming you. Fathers and their children necessarily operate in different worlds.
I wasn’t there when my father died. I live far now from the place I grew up, and in June, three weeks before he died, I flew there to spend just over a week with him. After returning home I kept calling to find out how he was, reaching him less and less often, conferring with my mother and my sister and finally with hospice nurses, asking for that final signal flare that would summon me back again. It seemed important to be there, at the end, to perform the duty of vigil. Watching over his death, conducting his passage, is nothing my father ever would’ve demanded of me, and I certainly would not demand it of my children. Yet it seemed, and always shall seem to me, part of the contract of being a son. I will never stop regretting that I wasn’t there.
My father had once found himself in the same position. His own father died in his hometown while my mother worked and struggled, a thousand miles from there, to give birth to me. He attended my birth, then flew by a tortuous late-night route to the family homestead. How divided he must have felt — two levels of duty struggling in him, asked to shepherd male lives both into and out of his world in one day.
He was too late to see his father alive. I was too late. My brother-in-law called me that July 1st, shaking me from sleep not long after midnight. I might as well have been some lost hero, empowered with all my father had to give but stranded a star’s distance from a home that was no longer there.
“And while we were sleeping, he died.”
My son had seen me go away for that June visit, leaving him and his mom and his one-year-old brother, to “go check on Boonie.” He knew that Boonie had been sick, and needed lots of help. So when we told him that his grandfather had died, he transcribed it into this fantasy of heroes and ghosts. From him we heard the story of John Wilson a day later, as I prepared to fly back again to see to the boxing, the bagging, the signatures — the things we do to declare a life over.
It was the greatest story ever told.