(Simon & Schuster; November 1988)
The man I thought I knew
When my father stopped breathing, I tried to start his lungs again by blowing air through his lips. Then I put my arms around him. My mother and sister joined in the embrace. I could hear my sister and my mother crying and then I could hear myself.
We were standing at the end of the bed when the man from the funeral home arrived. All three faces were wet with tears.
My father was naked except for a fresh white cast on one leg. He had taken a bad fall earlier in the week. His skin was pale and luminous, like parchment, and I remember thinking that it looked as if it still had many years of wear in it.
He died in master bedroom of his house in Ossining, New York. That was on June 18, 1982. Since then I’ve found a lot of moderately successful ways of bringing him back, of making him close and real. I wear his watch, reread his books, speak with his friends. I read his letters.
He used to urge me to throw them away. “Saving a letter is like trying to preserve a kiss,” he said. I was an obedient son, but in this case I didn’t listen. I treasured his correspondence, and so did a lot of other people. And the reason these letters are so powerful, the reason they bring him so vividly to mind, is that the writer honestly thought that they were going to be thrown away.”
The most difficult revelation for me, as a son, was the extent of my fathers’ homosexuality. It’s impossible for me to be objective about this, or to separate his fears from my own, but he was certainly troubled by the issue. In one of the papers found on his desk after he died he had written:
“‘You are afraid of skating on transparent ice, aren’t you,’ said my daughter. ‘I noticed that you and Ben are afraid of skating where you can see the bottom.’ That I’m afraid is quite true. I was for years and years afraid of the fact that I might be a homosexual. I can’t think of a more legitimate source of fear. I had homosexual instincts and the only homosexuals I knew corresponded in no way to what I hoped to make of myself….”
The man who comes alive again in these letters is more complete than the man I thought I knew and knew I loved. He is not, however, a stranger to me, any more than he would be a stranger to any of the many other people who cared about him or admired his work. He is intensely himself, and he gives the world a blessed wholeness, a wholeness that I always felt in his company, and that I sorely miss.”
When I got to this point, I thought I wanted to put in a sampling of letters. When I started reading them again, though, I couldn’t stop. They set a mood which can’t be reproduced in a couple of short samples, but here are two samples anyway. If you’re genuinely interested in this element of his life, you should buy the book. This below is yanked violently out of a letter to Bill Maxwell, his editor at The New Yorker.
“I kept thinking that if I stayed at home I might get something done. What I got done was a rotten head cold. Mary’s love of me does not seem to include any infirmities. She seems lost in some race-memory where primitive men, once they began to sniffle, stripped themselves naked, lay down in the snow and let themselves be eaten by crows.”
Please don’t take this as representative of the marriage. The love letters he wrote to his new bride, when he went into the Army were the doting effusions of a besotted husband.
“Hello baby, Hello Sweet,” they began.
This from a letter about the critical response to “The Way Some People Live,” his first collection of stories.
“I got the clips today and I think the one from the Times is very funny. But all in all—even though they don’t like me—the reviewers seem to be very diligent and earnest people, anxious to help a gloomy young writer onto the right path, and to safeguard the investments of their readers.