Being held by Dad was different than being held by Mom.
Mom was a walking pillow. You could bury your face in Mom and it was ok even if your nose was runny. You could be with Mom nearly all day, and moving in her arms was a type of sleep that transformed life into a painless dream world.
Being held by Dad was like climbing a structure. The edges were sharp and there were elbows where there shouldn't be. Sometimes things went roller coaster fast so you'd have to hang on, and it seemed you could get clear up to the sky on his shoulders.
I remember sitting on the flat dark sand at the water's edge. Foam from the waves would lap at my ankles. It softened all the hard edges on the sand mounds I built. It filled in all the holes first with water, then with sand, healing smooth round earth.
And then my dad picked me up.
"Want to go out into the deep part?"
I didn't have a choice, but I did.
I remember being held in the crook of his arm. My hands on his neck. He was in up to his shoulders. Ahead the dark ocean waters of the Jersey shore curled up and thundered onto the beach. Even though we'd been on the beach all morning, I hadn't heard the waves. Now I was threatened by the booming water.
Then Mom started yelling at us from the beach blanket. She stood up and came to the water in her floppy hat and sunglasses, stopping short of the breakers, holding her cupped hands to her mouth as she shouted.
"Not too far."
Did he know what he was doing? I was cold. There was a wind that filled my mouth and pressed against my eyes so I couldn't see. The water was pungent and tasted like vegetables.
"Dad, let's go back. Can you touch bottom?" I asked him.
"Sometimes. Watch." He motioned to the sea behind us. From my vantage point the swells looked like moving buildings. Something huge and terrible sent to extinguish us. The horizon rose until it was over our heads. We would be engulfed.
"No, it's okay. Look."
Then the swell lifted us.
"We're flying," my dad said. "Look."
And I could see the beach descending as we rose. I could see the top of my mom's head. And then we came back down.
"Again," I insisted.
"Sure," said Dad.
The next swell came and I saw my mom and her sunglasses below us as we rose.
"How do you do that?"
"I just jump when the wave comes," he said.
"We're flying," I said, thrilled with adventure. Another swell. I was ten feet tall.
We defeated gravity. We were creatures of the sky.
"We're flying," said Dad.
Yes, yes. This now, too.
I was twenty-five when I got my master's degree in electrical engineering. It was 1984. Orwell's year. I had a full time job as an engineer. I had a wife and a mortgage and two cars that came with monthly payments.
The main reason for suffering through three more part-time years at the university was that with the master's degree completed I would be eligible for a pay increase. There was no desire to pursue important contributions to the technology. Rather, there was a profit motive for the whole thing.
Most of us who worked full time finished the degree and simply waited for the paperwork to arrive in the mail. Nobody went to the ceremony. Just bring the diploma to human resources and they'd program our raises.
But I wanted one more shot at the robe and mortarboard. Besides, I'd get time off work to go graduate.
My mom said she wouldn't miss it. She planned to come up for the graduation with my brother, who was going to drive my wife up. I was going to come down from work, cutting out after lunch. Then I'd celebrate my raise by taking everyone out to dinner.
Graduation was on a Thursday, and Dad had to work. I wouldn't expect him there, and it really was no problem because after all, it wasn't as serious as graduating high school or after four years of college. He had responsibilities. So did I. And I wouldn't miss him, he said. I wouldn't.
I went through the ceremony. Stood in a small clot of my fellow enrobed graduates. Watched the honorary degrees given out. Listened to the Nobel Prize winner extol the virtues of hard work and genius. Watched the PhD candidates receive their honors. As there were few of them, each of their names was called. For the rest of us MS and BS students, we received certification en-masse. I picked up my empty velum envelope on the way out. My name was stamped on front. The diploma would come in the mail some days later.
I remember the sky was gray and threatening rain. I wanted to meet my wife and mom quickly, get to the cars, and drive off to a nice dinner in New Brunswick.
The first person I ran into was dad. Suit and tie. Light gray raincoat. He'd waded through the throng. Hugged me.
He said, "I'm proud, son."
And I gasped, and hugged back.
I swallowed the lump. Said, "thanks," or something, color seeping back into the world, no longer an adult, the most fortunate boy on earth.
My parents came home a day early from their weekend away in Atlantic City. My grandparents had been babysitting and we kids had been adjusting to different breakfast, lunch, and dinner, different bedtime rituals, different rules about TV. None of the differences had been enjoyable. We were glad Mom and Dad were back.
They'd brought us gifts. The girls got salt water taffy and buckets with shovels to use when we went to the beach. My brother got plastic trucks.
I got a baseball, a bat, and a glove. I had no clue what to do with these foreign implements.
My dad had got himself a glove, too, and he stationed me at one end of the backyard with the heavy awkward glove on my hand.
"Now catch," he said, and tossed the ball at me lightly. I remember it hit the glove, nearly knocking it from my hand.
"No no no. You have to open the glove. Watch the ball go into the webbing."
But I couldn't open my hand. The glove was not only heavy, but it was like a vise holding my fingers together.
Dad fetched the ball and tried again, with the same effect. The ball hit the glove, knocked my arm and the glove backward and fell away.
"You have to try," he said.
I did. No effect.
I tried throwing the ball.
"Look right at me when you throw," he said. "Look at where you want the ball to go." But it didn't matter. The ball left my hand like a blue bottle fly and went wherever it wanted, not where either of us wanted. And not very far, either.
"It's not going to work if you don't try."
"I am trying."
"No, you're not."
I started crying. It made him mad.
"This is nothing to cry about. Now pick up the ball and throw it."
I picked up the ball. I stared at it. I hated it, that object of my insurmountable failure. I dropped it.
"Pick it up."
I dropped the glove. He glared at me.
I ran away. I left him in the backyard, staring at his hands.
I went into the street. I cried my eyes out front of our house, 1502 Franklin Street, Rahway, New Jersey.
My first child was born after my wife labored for 18 hours. We had been awake for nearly 36 hours, and after the birth she had fallen asleep. Outside, snow coated New Brunswick and it was still coming down. Roads were passable, but only by the brave. The plows were out but couldn't keep up. The schools gave a free day to the students. The hospital was forty miles from where our families lived. We didn't expect anyone to make it up from the shore to New Brunswick that night. In fact, it was most likely I was going to spend the night on a worn lounge chair in the father's waiting room.
The baby was cozy in the bright nursery where the newborns were stationed like school children in rows in front of a big observation window. Swaddled and warmed, she slept in a clear plastic bassinet with her name on a card taped to the front, second row back, fourth from the left.
I watched the nurse station her in place, and felt a hand on my arm.
"Hey, she looks great," dad said. There was snow on his shoulders and golf beret. He took off his maroon scarf and swatted it against a gloved hand to knock off the flakes.
"That's your granddaughter," I said.
"But she's your daughter," he said to me, grinning. "Don't you have a lot ahead of you now. I wouldn't want to be in your shoes."
"But you were in my shoes."
"That's what I'm saying."
We admired the baby. Dad found the pay phone I'd used to notify everyone of the birth earlier that day, and called back to my mom to let her know he'd made it.
"You must be hungry," he said, and up to that point I hadn't really thought about the fact that since dinner two nights prior I was living on a couple cups of coffee I'd had at five AM that morning.
We checked in with the nurse at the desk in the maternity ward, told them we'd be going out for a while in case my wife woke up and wondered where I was, and then we headed into the snow to see what was open. We picked the first restaurant with lights on. We sat by the window and watched the snow stop falling and the sun blast through the clouds the way it does on cold winter days when the air is crisp and the light flows past the empty tree limbs and makes the eyes tingle.
He told me stories about how it was when his kids were born. The fear of moving in one motion from childhood to adulthood to fatherhood, and how they were all different things, and each terrifying and wonderful in its own way.
That had he the chance, he wouldn't give any of it up.
How he didn't know it at the time, but that all those choices had been the right ones.
How much I didn't know right then, and couldn't.
But it was okay. It would all be fine.
In those last days I visited dad every couple of weeks. Because of all my international trips my United Airlines frequent flier account was brimming with miles. I was platinum, 100k. I could go anywhere for free, first class. I went back to New Jersey every two or three weeks.
It wouldn't be long.
On one of the last trips I brought my oldest daughter. She was in seventh grade and struggling with her math homework. We did the homework on the plane. Visited grandma and grandpa over the weekend.
When we went to leave, Dad took her by the arm and pulled her close. She was frightened and tried to get away from him at first, and then she gave in. He kissed her, once, twice, then again.
We got into the rental car and she started crying.
"What's wrong with grandpa? Why is he getting so small?"
Indolent Non-Hodgkins B-cell lymphoma. He wasn't going to live much longer. We all knew it. Especially him.
"He's very sick, sweetie."
"Is he going to get better?"
"I hope so," I said. I changed the subject to math. We did arithmetic problems all the way to the airport. And on the plane. Until she fell asleep.
I prayed she wouldn't have nightmares I was having.
After he was gone Mom started tossing out his stuff. Old school stuff. Grammar school diploma. College pictures. Papers.
I took a lot of it. He had wanted to be a writer. I had a pile of a bunch of his unfinished attempts to produce short stores. There were a couple he'd sent to the "Famous Writer's School" which advertised in magazines. For a couple bucks you could send in your manuscripts and a professional editor would help you get them ready for publication.
Nothing had gone very far.
I found a mimeographed copy of a play he had written with a friend in college. Through the wonder of the internet, I found his friend, Ed Norton. Ed had been an editor at the New York Times for years, and was trying to start an on-line publishing business. He lived up on Cape Cod.
"You probably don't know that I'm the one who introduced your mother and father," Ed said in an e-mail, when I contacted him.
"We drifted apart. He went into the army, and I didn't see him again. We stayed in touch by mail, but you know how that is."
"Let me send you a few things," Ed said.
He shipped over a small box. In it were pictures of him and Dad when they were in their early 20s. A tie painted with the name of their university and graduation year.
They were fragments of a life that predated my existence. Precious artifacts from the great fiction that is the time before us. I put the memorabilia in my home office. They remind me of the stories he told, but they don't remind me of him.
And I knew I could keep doing this. Unearthing bits of his past, gathering anecdotes and things he once possessed. But that effort could never be more than a hobby. It was interesting but didn't fill the gap he left by dying when I was still young.
"Stay in touch," Ed Norton had said. He was in good health and getting older.
But I didn't.
To save money, for part of my senior undergraduate year I lived at home instead of in an apartment at school. For lack of a proper desk or study area I would do my homework at the dining room table.
One Saturday afternoon I was solving a bunch of physics problems. Some old friends of my parents came over the house and I could hear them sitting in the kitchen gabbing about whatever inanities of life with which they'd decided to entertain themselves. Then the conversation turned to me.
"What is he doing?" my father said, trying to answer a question put to him. "Homework, I think?" Then to me, "What homework are you doing?"
"Physics," I said, loud enough to be heard, realizing the interruption was the penalty I paid for not living at school and having a nice library to work in.
"What kind of physics?"
"He's working on quantum mechanics," I heard my dad say. While Dad had graduated with a bachelor's degree in sociology from Fordham University none of the others at that kitchen table had even a high school equivalency degree. I didn't know if they'd take my statement of truth as the sort of unintended challenge my dad's friends sometimes felt I made by identifying my college studies to them. Sometimes I was accused of trying to act "better" than they were.
But these friends had been around since I was unable to walk. They were family, and I never felt anything but love for them. Though, the mere words "quantum mechanics" might have been enough to wreck my parent's afternoon.
I could hear my dad coming into the dining room. I expected a challenge.
I figured I'd go for broke. "If you must know," I said, "I'm solving Schroedinger's time-invariant equation for an electron in a potential well."
"If I must know?" said Dad. He raised one eyebrow like the guys on Star Trek could. "If I must?"
"Can I do my homework or not?" I said. "You want me to go somewhere else?"
"No. I do not want you to go somewhere else," he said. He put his hand on my shoulder. "Time...what? Who's equation?"
"Time-invariant Schroedinger's wave equation for an electron in a potential well."
"Time-invariant Schroedinger's wave equation for an electron in a potential well," he said.
"Yes. It's differential equations. Calculus. Math."
He looked back into the kitchen at my mom and their friends.
Dad said, "Behold my son, in whom I am well pleased."
I remember that like it was yesterday.
I had some of Dad's stuff with me when I went to the geographic south pole.
It was easy to shove a couple of his personalized golf tees into my deployment duffles. The tees were white. His name was stamped on them in gold letters.
His name is also my name.
I stepped on the earth's south pole, and I poked one of his tees into the ice there. It immediately disappeared in the immense whiteness so huge and vast that when you are there it is impossible to tell if you are on the ground or thousands of feet up.