The house Chris and I grew up in was a tiny thing, 1100 square feet, but it unfolded like a palace of surprises. This was due in no small part to the mountains of books stacked to the rafters in every room. When Kelly and Dad updated the creaky old lady, they built bookshelves that went from floor to ceiling in three rooms, every nook and cranny packed with enormous tomes. All the other rooms had books or periodicals crammed willy-nilly in corners, on our built-ins, over tables. No room was tidy; there were just too many damned books.
There was rhyme and some small reason to the order, though flexible to interpretation. The living room was devoted to art and art history books, a collection that many universities would envy. The foyer (wasted space in such a tiny house until the shelves went in) was the overflow, an annex for books that didn’t have an easy home elsewhere in the collection. The upstairs hall, another impractical room that created a bizarre catwalk around the staircase, housed literature from classics to the absolute trashiest fluff, including the collected pulpy novels about Tarzan the Ape Man. I liked them for their risqué and ridiculous cover art, Tarzan shouting in agony over the limp body of a scantily clad Jane.
In this environment, Dad was all-knowing, his grandeur bolstered by the imperious stacks which crowded every surface, his stage set behind him at all times. “Good grief,” I thought, “with all this to back him up, how could I ever doubt him?”
I flipped through dozens of his art books, though none of it really stuck. I saw “Dada” and “Baroque” on the spines and couldn’t have told you the difference, but I knew that Dad could wax a lengthy bit on either. He was well-versed in literature, history, art, who wrote what when, who influenced them, where they came from, how they painted, and why they were (or weren’t) famous. Dad swam in this ocean of books, and I was in a dinghy puddling about, surrounded by all this knowledge (and some of the kitsch) that gave Dad a sagacity that awed me.
“That this represented Dad’s history never registered in my proto-brain; Dad was always the academician thumbing through his collections, searching through archives for his next syllabus.”
There was a funky lawyer’s bookcase in the hall, stuck in one of the many useless corners. A musty old thing, but I loved it. It had transom glass doors that hinged upward with a shrill squeal and revealed the collection from Dad’s childhood: Robin Hood, King Arthur, Treasure Island, lavishly illustrated by N.C. Wyeth and preserved in their dust jackets, worn but still protective of their masters.
This was the swashbuckling section, filled with love, tragedy, adventure and heroics. I never read them—Chris did—but the bookcase held sway over me; I knew it was important. That this represented Dad’s history never registered in my proto-brain; Dad was always the academician thumbing through his collections, searching through archives for his next syllabus. He was never a child to me—though he told us stories of someone who shared his name in the distant past. The notion of Dad's childhood was irrelevant to me as a child myself; creatures of immediacy, any past before our own is as abstract as any story in a book.
When Dad became ill and closed up like a fallen leaf, he increasingly watched old movies. Musicals, sometimes, but mostly swashbucklers from when he was a kid. He needed to be entertained: no heavy lifting, no Ingmar Bergman films. No subtitles, no moral ambiguity. True evil versus true heroism, and even if the antagonists were more likable than the heroes, the resolution was fair. I recognized that these were the solace of his youth, the tales that saved him from his insufferable mother and his lonely childhood, the sanctuary to which he could retreat and be embraced by old friends and foes.
Not knowing what to do other than squire Dad from doctor to medical device and home, I gave him the Harry Potter books to read, to fill the need for escape from the betrayal of his body. It’s not Ulysses, but it’s a good yarn, as they say. And it fit the bill for the magic of literature: tales that transport you without making you work too hard for the trip. Dad devoured them one after the other, and I could sense his childlike glee with each plot twist and evil machination. He was particularly delighted and horrified by Professor Umbridge, the bureaucratic sadist who delivers Hogwarts not to ultimate evil, but the evil of busywork and petty tyranny; he was reminded of his last years as a professor himself, increasingly subjected to staff meetings and committees which had no aim but the bottom line and overshadowed the prerogative to teach.
I bought the Harry Pottermovies so that we could watch them together, leading up to the sixth release, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. During the first one, I felt him squirming next to me—in sympathy for our beleaguered heroes, or admonition toward the antagonists—just as he must have when he was a child absorbed by Robin Hood and Robinson Crusoe. I didn’t have too many cards up my sleeve, but for once I gave Dad something which could deliver him from his travails, if only for a while.
We’d settled into the new normal. Now accustomed to the traitorous cells which were chewing Dad from the inside out (and downside up, as it leaped from prostate to lymph nodes, creeping upward through his bones and settling in its new environs like kudzu), I combed over lists of side effects of this treatment or that, researched symptoms on the internet, filled with impersonal facts about Dad’s personal experience. I became familiar with Dad’s new gait as he shuffled to accommodate both a catheter and his bum foot. But as his foot healed, he took control of his life in bigger bites: shopping for himself, entertaining guests, going out to eat. It was a marked improvement.
“ It was warm, and our enormous banana trees created an other-worldly backdrop in our back yard, a tiny Land of the Lost where a moderate-sized King Kong might drop by to squeeze an itty-bitty native; Dad admired the overwhelming growth.”
Dad stopped by our house with two visitors from out of town. It was warm, and our enormous banana trees created an other-worldly backdrop in our back yard, a tiny Land of the Lost where a moderate-sized King Kong might drop by to squeeze an itty-bitty native; Dad admired theoverwhelming growth. He laughed easily, talked loudly, noticed our new shed. He chuckled at our chickens, and bragged about his little family to his friends.
Then I drove to Vancouver with Milo to visit Chris for a few days, Tuesday to Friday. Milo was infatuated with his uncle Chris who returned such devotion with great warmth and love, and a shared obsession about cars. Not once did Chris and I speak of Dad; we’d become weary of thinking about it, so we forgot it for a while as Chris squired us around to chichi car dealerships, and sushi restaurants, beaches and the science museum. Chris tirelessly entertained us, though we both agreed we were exhausted by the end. Nevertheless, no discussion of cancer, which was a better vacation than most.
Upon returning, I called Dad, and his stentorian voice rang as true as when he taught at the university. No weakness was found there, and we set up a date to watch the next Harry Potter at his house.
The evening we watched the movie, the same childlike glee bubbled up in Dad, and he laughed and sympathized and castigated. His willingness to release himself to the forces of the film (a willingness I did not share, unable to stop myself from interior crankiness) was complete; he arrested his critical mind (which unfailingly critiqued greater works over a long career as a university professor) so that he could be absolutely transported to the world of our heroes.
Once the credits rolled, we didn’t talk much; I had to get home. We hugged deeply as I left, and when he approached me, he came in just above eye-level. I felt the bones under his muscles as they faded to nothingness under assault from the cancer and lack of mobility from his foot. His size was wrong. His spine was contracting. His clothes hung poorly. He was pale.
The picture of a diminished Dad caught me off guard completely. How could this be the same father, who, while never a giant, was vital and active and rode his bike for forty-odd years to get his groceries? Why could I look almost directly into his eyes? How could he disappear in front me while I was briefly distracted?
We talked about our date to watch the Half-Blood Prince in the theater, which would then be followed by an interminable wait to see the two-part final installment. And it occurred to me before I had a chance to brush it away that the wait could be even longer this time, perhaps eternal if we weren’t lucky.
It was an unsettling, heartbreaking thought.