For Adam

This morning I found an extraordinary thing. It was a letter from Adam to a woman named Jessica—a love letter, pure and simple—and though it has no date I am sure it was written not long ago. For Adam. Cover photo by Kevin Heckeler.It had to be written by someone over the age of twenty; and twenty-five, the age he amazingly is now, would be a lot more believable. I picture him sitting in this cabin not so long ago, this place where we used to come, his mother and I, eons ago, before. Where he came when he was a little boy, and she was still alive, and I had no idea that the happiness of those years was still the exception and not, as I imagined, the new rule of my life.

I picture Adam sitting here at the one table writing the letter, stopping between sentences to dream of his Jessica—I hope she was his, at least for a time. He certainly was sufficiently in love to deserve her. Or perhaps they were here together, as a consequence of the letter, living the kind of magical time Carol and I shared here once. Perhaps she brought the letter with her as a talisman, a visible evidence of being loved—but then why would she leave it here? It’s not the sort of thing one forgets to pack. And that’s not the only thing I don’t understand here. This cabin is full of unanswerable questions.

Finding the letter has given me a reckless idea—to write to Adam everything I never told him, everything he needs to know, and leave it here, for him to discover when he and his Jessica return. A dangerous impulse, to say the unsaid, to blurt it all now as I have never dared do, for fear of losing the people I cared about most. It’s his being in love that makes me want to; I know where he stands now, about to start playing his life for keeps. And don’t I owe it to him—this gift that parents are afraid to give? Doesn’t he need all the truth he can get?

I should write what I can, and leave it in something tightly sealed, so mice won’t chew it for nests when no one is here, so rain won’t drip on it even if the roof should leak, and put it where he can’t miss seeing it. And then at the end I’ll ask him to call me, and I’ll wait. Nervously, no doubt.

Except I can’t very well tell him to call me if I don’t know where I’m going after I leave.

I could stay here; it’s still my cabin, even if I haven’t been here in years. I’m glad Adam has decided to use it; that seems to justify my paying the taxes on it all this time, when I never expected to set foot in the place again. Just because I couldn’t let anyone else own it. It wouldn’t sell for much anyway, though I’d get more for it than I paid Arne Lerstein thirty years ago. It was cheap then, and it would still be cheap now. There are plenty of cabins on plenty of lakes in Wisconsin; it isn’t like this is the only one, and it’s remote, the lake is small and the mosquitoes are extra large.

I didn’t expect I’d be able to drive in here; the road was never much more than two tracks worn by the wheels of cars in the spruce-needled floor of the woods, even when we came here regularly. It took me a while to find the road at all; branches scratched their nails on the sides of the car, and bushes scraped the bottom of it, but someone—it must have been Adam—had cut away enough brush and saplings so that I was able to drive all the way in to the cabin. Just like in the old days, I was worried that if I got there and then it started to rain I’d be stuck in here until the ground dried out. I used to get Phil Hokkanen to come with his bush hog and clear the road and put a load of gravel on it, but to tell the truth I don’t even know if Phil is alive anymore.

Staying here isn’t a real possibility anyway. I’d never make it through the winter. If I were going to try, I should have already started patching the cracks, figuring ways to insulate, cutting firewood; and if I were a farmer like Arne, I’d have a vegetable garden and a root cellar.

But it’s too late for all that, and there are other things I must do before I leave.

A Writer’s Journal

Cambridge, October 16 ’95

For a while now a specific thought has been trying to come through. I’m in the odd state of being aware of that, even of hoping this thought might want to become a story, without being able to say exactly what it is. But it is something about death and memory, the anticipation of one and the question of the other. Or memory of the dead.

Simultaneously, I feel the old desire which never leaves me, to create an image of the dreamed-of, not just more life but a life altogether new.

Today I was reading a student’s piece and this line jumped out at me: “End the end so the beginning can begin.” Margret Grant got it right, for me. The time we’re living through is dominated by ending the end. Consumed in a rear-guard action against evils and mistakes that don’t know their time is past, that still have the power to do great harm before they die. And yet the inner life persists, underground, waiting for this era to be over, waiting for the beginning to begin.

A world on tenterhooks. When is the angel going to come? After the disaster, apparently, after the train wreck, after the stock market crash. After the baby is thrown out with the bathwater. After the worst, most reckless decisions have been made. After it’s too late. After the end.

Meanwhile, lacking the awaited news to give, one must nonetheless write to people who are waiting for the angel to come.

Today a student of mine (not Margret) walked into my office and said she won’t have her paper done because she has to go to another wake and funeral tonight and tomorrow. She just went to a funeral last week. I know she’s not making it up.

I want to write to people who go to funerals and reflect upon death. They want to take pleasure in things that matter; they don’t care for frivolity. They need to speak of the seriousness of their, and our, situation on earth; and they have a scorn for the superficial; and they want to imagine and live a good life.

October 23, ’95

A man awakens one day to the consciousness of carrying within himself an unknown secret. He is aware of being on a search and stumbling upon clues. He seems to have led another life besides this life, or to be leading one now. For the first time (but is it the first?) a memory of that other life breaks through, or a glimpse of something that can be explained in no other way. He is an “ordinary man” leading an “ordinary life” until this bursts upon him, at which time he recalls that he is not ordinary at all. This is a form of treason, revolution, overthrow—thrilling and inadmissible.

November 5, ’95

Every story has the same unwritten beginning:
Life was as it had ever been until the day when. But on this day, different from all other days, something threw this life off balance, something tipped it forward, and to keep from falling it had to run to catch up with itself…

For Adam

I spent the night worrying that I might be handing Adam an unnecessary burden, and one that he could never be rid of, if I tell him everything. But about five a.m., when the sky began to lighten, I decided that was only an excuse, like all the other rationalizations I’ve used throughout my life to justify lying by omission. Then I finally went to sleep, and when I woke up I hadn’t changed my mind.

So let me begin, before I do. Adam, this is for you. Now that you’re older, now that you’re ready to hear it all, these are the things I perhaps should have told you from the start, though I think you’ll see why I did not. I’ll try to keep it short, if I can, and stick to the important parts, and although some of this might sound like advice, it won’t be. You’ll see that I am the last person who should give it, and most advice is futile anyhow. Your life is yours; I want to tell you, at last, what mine has actually been. Surely I owe you a confirmation of what I imagine you must always have unknowingly known.

Some of what I have to tell you may not seem to make sense, and it isn’t a tale for children with an easy moral. But it is the life I have actually lived—the secret life, the truth. Anomalous beads on the string of the ordinary.

That means I have to start, and it isn’t easy.

I have to start right away before I have time to imagine what you’ll think of me.

Once I had a brother.

You never knew him, of course. He wasn’t the average brother, who would have played ball and learned to drive and gone on dates and later on would have gotten his master’s degree in whatever. He was what they called, when I was young, an imbecile. Or a moron. One of those. I don’t say this to be deliberately brutal; there used to be—it’s hard to believe now—an official ranking of those terms, in medical parlance. I can’t remember if a moron was smarter than an imbecile, or the other way around. But my brother, anyway, wasn’t like other people. He was retarded, feeble-minded. He never learned to read or write—never could have, even if he’d been taught the way you might teach such a person today. And no one did try to teach him for long, though someone, some time, managed to get him to learn how to print his name: Aaron. That was the one word he knew on paper. It wasn’t too easy to read, when he printed it, but you could.

Aaron was older than me by six years—which tells you, I guess, how long it took my parents to get their courage up to try again after they had him. I’m surprised now that they ever had another child, when I imagine how hard it must have been for them to have Aaron.

I wish I knew how much you remember, Adam, of what I told you about my father. I don’t want to bore you. But it’s been a long time since you asked me what your grandfather was like. I remember you used to ask me how come we got this name, Kaiulani, when we weren’t Hawaiians. Even my father wasn’t, really—his parents came to Idaho when he was a little kid. His mother was Chinese, and there was Portuguese and Polynesian and English in there somewhere too. By the time I was born he lived in Springfield, Illinois, which you must remember, from visits to your grandmother much later on. The home of Abe Lincoln. My father looked different from other people’s fathers, but people didn’t say much about that. There was only one of him in Springfield—not enough to constitute a threat to anybody, but I’m sure he knew he was an outsider. I looked a little different from the average kid, myself, in grade school, and they teased me because they thought my face was too flat; but they teased Richie Flynn too, because he was fat and shy. It’s impossible to get through your childhood without being teased about something.

My mother wasn’t always the white-haired old woman you knew, who used to offer you treats and then scold you for taking too many. I know you didn’t like her; I didn’t like her much either, by the time you were born. But she was different when I was a child. She was a redhead—pretty, I think. One never knows if one’s own mother is pretty or not. I always wonder how you remember yours. I can tell you she was beautiful, and she was, but I don’t know what image of her you carry inside. I remember that as a kid I saw some old pictures of my mother, taken around the time she and my father got married, where I hardly recognized the young woman on his arm, whose calves were round like doves. None of those pictures exist anymore. She got skinny after Aaron was born, and that is how I remember her.

When you were born, Adam—one of the unforgettable days of my life—the only thing she wanted to know was if you were normal or not. I told her you were better than normal, and she made a scornful or impatient sort of noise—we were on the phone, but I could see her lips tighten—and said, “I want to know if he’s like Aaron. You can tell immediately.” That name had not been mentioned in years.

“He’s not like Aaron,” I said, with some difficulty.

“That’s all that matters,” she replied. “I’m sure you have to get back to Carol. I’ll say goodbye.”

It isn’t all that matters to me, I wanted to say, but her tone didn’t allow me to say anything but “goodbye” in return. If I had gone on talking any longer, I would have been remiss in my duty to my wife. That was the message. Whenever I talked with my mother, some opportunity to fall short of my duties was usually ready to hand.

So she must have known from the first moment that Aaron wasn’t right. I don’t know how she dealt with that knowledge, the first week, or month, or year—a great deal must have happened that I don’t know about. I remember being surprised to hear that Aaron lived with my grandmother for a couple of years, before I was born and a while after; in my memory he was always there. Hanging over me, you might say, the way a thundercloud hangs, or a cliff, or something that might fall.

In childhood Aaron was more like an old man. It wasn’t just his mind that came out different; his bones seemed too big for his skin, his teeth too big for his mouth, his nose too much nose for a child to have. He looked chronically uncomfortable in his own body, he stumbled into the furniture and dropped half the things he tried to pick up; he grimaced a lot, muttered to himself, pouted darkly and then burst out swearing at someone or something: “You goddamn goddamn!” My mother would reprimand him, every time. When he was more under control he’d mutter “You old D.O.D.,” which I guess was his version of “S.O.B.” His speech wasn’t easy to understand, even for us; it was slurred and nasal, the inflection didn’t necessarily go with the words, and sometimes if you made out what he said, it still didn’t make any sense. He would be telling you something about his endless day that was always the same, and you’d be following it—uh-huh, Aaron, uh-huh, yeah, go on—and then suddenly he’d be talking about something that never happened and never could. How the mayor called him up and said get the police and the fire truck and go downtown and…then you stopped listening. He had no conception of time; it was no use asking him when anything happened, and if you said Christmas was coming in a week it was no more interesting to him than if you said it would come in a year. I always thought he resented us all for being normal, for having it so much easier than he did, for being able to read, to play with something without breaking it, to get through the day without a hundred frustrations and failures, without being reprimanded, without making other people look away. No one ever liked eating with Aaron; no one could ever enjoy a meal who had to look up and see him chew. The smell of him, which I have never been able to bear in later life except when you were a baby, was the smell of half-dried saliva.

I have a feeling that he resented me the most, because, after all, I started off as an infant: probably the only time in his life he was more capable than someone else. And then I had the nerve to grow up, right under his nose, and be better than he was at everything. To say that I was the favored child doesn’t even come close; I was the compensation, the consolation, the replacement for him, and by the time I can remember him clearly, when I was five, he must have known exactly how it was and always would be—because in a way that I can’t explain, he was retarded, but he wasn’t dumb.

Nothing I say explains Aaron—possibly nothing even gives you the right idea. He wasn’t a regular person trapped in a peculiar situation, like someone with cerebral palsy. If you knew Aaron, you realized you couldn’t imagine being him, no matter how hard you tried.

Of course, I didn’t want to try; I fell a long way short of compassion where Aaron was concerned. What I mostly wanted was for him to go away. At least I had the excuse of being a child and a younger brother. My parents had nothing to shelter them from the judgments they must have passed on themselves when they couldn’t bear him, but nobody could have lived with Aaron without wishing once in a while that he would just disappear. I know it ate at them; I knew it even then, and now that I’ve been a parent myself I can make a better guess at the hell that it must have been to live with love and hate in one heart. Maybe “hate” is too strong a word. I hated him at times; I don’t know what they did, but I can remember how hard it was for my father to look at him sometimes, and the way my mother clamped down on her impatience. She had to clamp down her whole self, some days. There’s no knowing what they might have been without him. They might even have been happily married—but they weren’t. That is the fact. And I would like to deal in facts, few as those are, whenever I can.

As I write this, Adam, I’m sitting on the screen porch, and whenever I stop the lake is always there, waiting for me to give it my attention. I was going to say it never changes, but it does, of course. I can watch puffs of wind travel across its surface, watch the sky change in it. Somehow, no matter how bright the sky that is reflected in them, its waters remain dark beneath the brightness, both dark and bright at once, no color I can name. Painters must spend years learning how to paint something like that.

I know there’s a point of land across from us, but the darkness of its trees melts into the trees on the shore behind it, and sitting here you’d never know that behind that point is another arm of the lake, ending in a marsh choked with water lilies and reeds. The rocks that I know are halfway out to the point cannot be seen, unless perhaps certain ripples I notice are caused by their presence just beneath the surface. I remember you standing on those rocks, ankle-deep with nothing visibly holding you up, waving your arms to me on shore and yelling, “It’s a miracle!”

“Be careful!” I yelled back. I knew how slippery they were, I was afraid you’d slide off and hit your head.

When I came here, I was thinking the lake might have gotten built up, but if anything it’s less populated than it was years ago. Maybe it’s too small and ordinary to qualify as a vacation spot nowadays. Only once since I have been here have I seen another person, a fisherman in an old metal boat, chugging steadily along in a northerly direction. But I never saw him come back. The herons and loons have all the fishing to themselves.

Bug sounds come in waves, night and day; cicadas send out their loud rasping in all directions, and when the sun is hot at midday I can smell the tall weeds baking in it, along with the dark, greenish scent of the lake’s margin. Since I first came here years ago those things have never changed, which makes me feel, sometimes, as though life were still able to begin.

Perhaps we could have endured living with him despite everything, if Aaron hadn’t started to grow…