My Father’s Gaze

Is That Me or Is It Him?

I look into the mirror sometimes these days and see—to my astonishment—my father’s face staring back at me.  The man died 52 years ago, and didn’t reach nearly the age I am now; he was 47, and I’m 68.  Life had been hard on him at the end, wasted him with leukemia, and when he died he looked older than I do now.

He had of course been a man, an older person, all of my life, and when he died, though I knew he died young, I thought he’d lived a full long life, but I look back on it now and it seems dreadfully short.  He was a medical student with a one-year-old daughter when Pearl Harbor took place, and he enlisted the next day.  He served as a medic though his medical training wasn’t anywhere near finished.  He spoke little of his life in the war, never spoke of heroism, though he was awarded the Bronze Star, and had a photograph of being given that prestigious award.  His letters back to my mother, heavily censored with scissors, were in a box in a closet of the den.  I sometimes looked through them, but didn’t make much of them as a boy.

After the war he had his medical training to finish, then his training as a dermatologist; his father had been the first dermatologist in Pittsburgh and wanted his son to follow in his footsteps.  My father worked for his father, and was paid a salary, until the old man died in 1953 and my father took over the practice.[1]  It was not until then that he really reaped the reward of all his training.  Within five or so years he would be diagnosed with leukemia, very possibly a result of the leaky x-ray equipment they used in those early years of dermatology.  He died six years later, on New Year’s Day, 1965.

So he had those dozen or so years, and half the time carried around the burden of his fatal illness.

The final years of his life were cluttered with medical problems and stays in the hospital.  First he had cataracts—he thought they might be linked to that x-ray equipment as well; he was only in his mid-forties—then bleeding ulcers, which were certainly related to the leukemia, though I didn’t know that at the time.  My mother didn’t tell my brother and me our father had leukemia until six months before he died.  So my teenage years involved a lot of visits to hospitals, spending time hanging around with my father.  I liked it best when it was just the two of us in the room.  I vividly remember one visit, where he tore out a page from a Faulkner paperback—one that listed his complete works—and told me to walk to the bookstore down the hill and get anything he hadn’t crossed off.  There were only three books he hadn’t read.

When my father was in the hospital he was often visited by our minister, a Scotsman named Christie Innes, who would die of a brain tumor not long after my father died.  My father had been chairman of the search committee that found Dr. Innes, had given the call asking him to come to our church, so they were quite close.  Dr. Innes would always, when he came to the hospital, spend a long time praying with my father.  I mentioned one time that all the praying embarrassed me.  My father said it was a big help to him.

Dr. Innes preached the funeral sermon.  I have no memory of it, or of anything that happened during the service.  I very vaguely remember sitting in a room outside the sanctuary before it began, and have a similarly vague memory of processing with my family into the sanctuary, but after that I blanked out.  It’s as if I wasn’t there.

Several years after my father died, when I was twenty years old and facing a decision about the Viet Nam war, I attended Friends Meeting on the Duke University campus.  I’d been told that you had to be a lifelong Quaker for that to influence your draft status, so I wasn’t doing it for that reason (though it was at the back of my mind.  I’d decided I could not fight in that war).  I didn’t understand what I was supposed to do as I sat in the silence of Friends Meeting.  There was no instruction.  If I was doing anything during the hour I sat there, I was trying to understand my father’s faith, what he had found in a Presbyterian church that seemed so dry and formulaic and just plain uninteresting to me.  He—when he was facing death—apparently found what he needed.  I sat in Quaker meeting wondering what that was.

I never found out.

Twenty years later—having abandoned religion altogether, after stops at any number of Christian denominations, and after another long period at Friends Meeting during which I did a great deal of peace work, but still never understood what my father had found in the Christian church—I wandered into a meditation center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with my wife, at her insistence (we were not actually married yet.  She was in Divinity Student at Harvard, and wanted us to have a spiritual practice in common).  We went to the basement of the building, where a Beginner’s Class was to take place.  And a man came down the stairs and began to talk who would eventually, over the months and years I knew him, remind me of my father.  He was a Jew from Brooklyn—as he liked to say—so he didn’t share my father’s ethnic background.  But he was physically warm like my father.  He was intelligent, and soft spoken like my father, funny and obscene.[2]  He was not overtly religious, in any way that showed.  He was a religious teacher who seemed completely ordinary.

It was Larry Rosenberg who showed me what my father had found in the Presbyterian Church, and in those long prayers that Dr. Innes prayed at the hospital.  I didn’t find it in praying.  I found it through long periods of sitting in silence, another form of prayer.

In a certain way I feel that my father and I have lived out the lives of our generations, he with his military service and life as a doctor, raising four children in an upper middle class neighborhood, serving as an elder in the Presbyterian Church; I with my one child and two wives and my spotty life as a writer, spiritual practice as a Buddhist.  In another way we’ve arrived at the same spot through different traditions, and I’ve lived out the life he actually wanted, if he’d been allowed to do it.  I’m a writer in the South, as he wanted to be.

About a week ago, for the first time in many years, I had a dream about the man.  I was living in my old house in Pittsburgh in the dream, but was there with my current wife.  I somehow got word that my father was “coming back,” so I wasn’t surprised when a car pulled up in front of the house, but it was some kind of space-aged vehicle, shaped like a cone, as if he had come from another dimension (which of course he had).  The man who showed up didn’t look like much like my father, but it had been fifty years, after all; I didn’t look the same either.  He was tall, thinner than I’d ever seen him, wrinkled, and had dark hair, though he’d gone stark gray in real life.  He showed up with a woman—apparently his wife—and a young man in a wheelchair, whom I assume was their son.  The young man was black, so the whole thing didn’t make a hell of a lot of sense.  The young man and my father and I went off somewhere on a Pittsburgh streetcar, we seemed to get along famously, and at some point my father said he needed something at the drugstore and was getting out.  He’d catch up with us later.  I let him do that, then realized I shouldn’t have; he was an old man, he might have trouble getting the right streetcar, finding his way.  So I said to my stepbrother, half-brother, whatever he was, this much younger man, who was black, that we should go back and get him, and he agreed.  We should get off the streetcar and go back.  But then I woke up.

Does my father still live on somewhere, so that he could come back in some kind of space vehicle, and he has kept up with social changes so he can show up with a new younger wife and a differently-abled black son and not bat an eye?  Is that my father? Or does he just live in me, is it me whom he lives through, so that I’m twenty years older than he ever became, have lived a much different life than he, perhaps more the life he wanted, so he got a chance to live it through me?  Is that the way he’s still here?  Is that really being here?  All I know is that I have this eerie sense, I’m not saying I look like my father, people always said I looked like my mother, but I look in the mirror and I see my father.  Is that my face, looking like him?  Or is it him?

[1] I have only the vaguest memory of my grandfather—I was just five when he died—but I don’t, now, think that I would have liked the man.  He lived in Pittsburgh, had arranged to adopt my father when he was in San Antonio to train doctors for work in World War I; my father was just two when he was adopted, and his father didn’t tell him until he was about to be married.  He was apparently a problem child when he was young—was that because he’d been adopted? he somehow knew that he didn’t belong where he was?—and his father sent him to military school in Virginia.  My father actually loved the place, stayed there in the summers to work, and decided at some point that he wanted to be a writer and settle in the South (exactly what I have done), but his father said he would only pay for college if his son was pre-med.  My father was never resigned to becoming a doctor until after he’d met my mother and wanted to settle down.  My grandfather bought him a house when he returned from the war, a nice gesture on the face of it, but also a way of controlling him, dictating how he lived.  Then he paid him that not very generous salary, and made him work Monday evenings.  I remember coming down in the morning and seeing my father on the day his father had died.  He didn’t look sad.

[2] Larry certainly wasn’t obscene during that class, or during the first few years I knew him.  But once we got to know each other, and especially when he wrote the books we worked on together, he was hilariously obscene, in the way that I and a number of my friends had always been.  We got along like a couple of big city guys, which we were.