finding fathers in surprising places
my world, my words
My own grandpa, who raised me, passed away when I was 25. Joining SAGE as a friendly visitor was something I did with very specific tenderness, and an awareness that I might end up having my feelings hurt—I didn't want to lose anyone again. But my desire to connect with someone from my Pop's generation, especially someone like Lee—someone who was critical but sensitive, an introvert whose sudden, cutting wit reminded me of Flannery O'Connor, a gentleman in his 80s who had been in the Army during World War II, who was incidentally gay—eclipsed my anxiety. And all I had to do to meet him and spend time with him was hop on the G train.
When Lee became sick suddenly, I started visiting him in the hospital instead of at his brownstone. I was having a late twenty-something crisis—what did I really want to do? I was becoming a Jack of all trades and what I really wanted was to do one meaningful thing. I said to Lee, "You're old and you're wise." This made him laugh. I continued, "What do you think I should do?"
At the time, he couldn't speak. Remembering this pains me, but also I smile when I think about the fact that Lee and I had become intimate enough for me to compress his tongue to help him strengthen it so he could start speaking again. He wrote down his answer to my existential question, telling me I should go back to the frog pond because I was happy then.
When I was a kid, my grandpa and I would go "frog hunting" together at the pond down the road. We would roll up in the middle of the night and Pop would shine his bright police light (he was the retired chief of Scarsdale) at the pond and we waded into the water together, bravely disregarding the snapping turtles that were big enough for me to catch a (terrifying) moonlit ride on. I was seldom seen without a bullfrog in those days, or without a net attached to the end of a broomstick, duct taped to another broomstick, voyaging out into the water. Call me Ishmael.
It's no surprise that I told Lee about the frog pond, since it's single-handedly my favorite thing to remember from my childhood. But I couldn't believe that his answer to my question was to conjure this memory, and at first I felt grief that I couldn't go back to the pond, and that I couldn't be with Pop anymore. But I realized that my grandfather had taught me to be patient, get dirty, respect nature, use my body as a tool, to make weird jokes, to love—a love big enough that it included (and includes) tadpoles.
And I realized that as much as I wished to go back in time and be with him again and to learn those things again, what I wanted more than that was to keep moving forward toward a future where I would teach those things to my own child.
My aunt once gave my grandparents (her parents) tiny tapes to record the stories of their lives on. If I remember correctly, my Gram passed on this; she's always been a living, moving thing—like a shark—who, while poised and charismatic is, not at all narcissistic and not at all the type to slow down to record any of her pithy or sentimental remarks. My Pop, though, recorded things like this: "If ever you want to attain immortality, have a little of your better self rub off on a child, for a child is the father of man and he is an image of yourself."
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Growing Up With A Sick Parent