In the beginning
“Tell me a story about your father,” I say. “A happy one if you can.”
I’m not sure that my father is listening. He is fidgeting in his hospital bed, packing wads of gauze into his abdomen, into a fistula that opens directly to his intestines. There’s no longer a way to fit a colostomy bag over the wound, so a surgical tube is constantly suctioning out anything that passes through the bowel, ferrying it to a clear canister that sits on a shelf in the corner behind him. There is always shit in that clear canister and in that clear tubing and in my father’s bowels that are on display for anyone to see if he weren’t to pack himself up with layer upon layer of gauze every few hours. I always wonder why the hospital hasn’t given him opaque tubing at the very least, but he never seems to complain. He’s even managed to retain a sense of humor about his situation.
“I’ve got this useless asshole following me around,” he’ll sometimes say while changing his dressings, or “I’m getting tired of this shit.” We’ll both laugh, even though none of it is funny.
I probe again about his father. “Do you remember anything?” I pause to gauge how much harder I can press. “Or have you blocked it all out?”
He finishes with the gauze and nods his head. “Yeah, sure. There are a few happy memories.” He continues to nod, looking through me toward the wall. He tells me a story, and as he speaks, his voice takes on the halting cadence of a person on the verge of tears. He must see the concern in my face and tells me that he’s not about to cry or anything, he’s just having some trouble breathing. As if this is supposed to reassure me.
He goes on to describe a typical childhood scene, so typical, in fact, that I’m not sure I can trust that this is his own memory or one plucked from some archetypal well of Childhood Experiences. In this memory, he and his brothers are playing a cat-and-mouse game with their father, who pops out from behind the living room furniture from time to time to scare them. There are screams of joy. Or of fear. Maybe both.
I’m not surprised that this is the scene that returns to him, one that mirrors the complexity of his relationship with the man, like an image of a father God, who confers both the olive branch and the flood. Creator and destroyer. Loving and vengeful.
This duality is so entrenched in our cultural understanding of fatherhood that even children make friendly monsters of their fathers in their games, as if they are suspicious of them by nature, unsure of what to make of the man who is in every way the antithesis of the mother figure--distant and imposing.
There's nothing much I can say in response to my father's story. I consider a feeble "At least it's something," but instead I say nothing. Perhaps I nod along with him, making thoughtful sounds as he speaks. Perhaps I remain in my own head, thinking of that monster behind the couch, the one from my own childhood imagination--is he friendly? Menacing? Broken, but yearning to be healed? In a tender moment, will he take my hand and walk me to school, or will he watch over me as I go and simply walk away?