In 1997 I was finishing up a significant part of my life – a chapter in every sense of the word. I could not write about the events that transpired during the last few months of that year for many months afterward. But eventually I did. What follows is that effort. It was originally a piece I had submitted to the Sun , which, incredibly, still exists. The story was rejected, but not without kind words of encouragement. Here it is, slightly changed from the 1998 version.
Mid-October is the best time to arrive in New York. The skies are often a rich blue, the air just slightly crisp, and the foliage… well, have a look at any one of a dozen classics of the Hudson River School to see the potential. In the fall of 1997 I had returned home to rural Ulster County twice each year for the previous ten, and the second visit had always begun just after the end of the Bering Sea Pollock “B” season. After two months at sea, I would normally spend the first six days helping to steer a ship across the Gulf of Alaska, and then I was generally on an eastbound plane the day after we docked in Seattle.
That autumn visit in 1997 I saw my father before he picked me out from the crowd exiting the train at the Poughkeepsie station. He stood with his hands at his sides, his head tilted very slightly. The afternoon sun accentuated the lines made by his jowls. Tired expression. Waiting for me. His oldest. This image of him is burned into my memory: the countless times he stood exactly in that spot , waiting for his sons. Each time he looked a bit older, a bit more tired. His face brightened when he found mine, and his eyebrows lifted in the slight bemused expression that made him look younger. As we drove up route 9W on the poorer, West side of the Hudson, he explained the fall foliage and clipped, excited sentences.
“Be damned if I’ve ever seen anything like it. Look at this! Half the trees peaking, what in hell is the other half doing? Green! Deep, dark green like summer. Stays like this … we’ll go straight through November.”
Whenever he drove, even back when he was teaching me to drive when I was 15, he gripped the wheel tightly with both hands and peered over the upper edge, focused and with great intensity. Trips more than an hour gave him neck aches, put him in a foul mood. Later, after I returned from Mexico, and the leaves had all fallen and the woods had turned to the repellent, uniform gray color that had driven me from the place 10 years earlier, my father had looked out through the glass doors of the cottage at the songbirds feeding on the back porch and said, “this was my last autumn and I’ll be damned if I didn’t enjoy every fucking minute of it.”
That first week we spent our days together, there were movies at Rhinebeck, long drives through the Catskill mountains, and walks around the Ashokan reservoir. Although he would tire easily, nothing diminished his appreciation of the foliage. The forest was resplendent, and we would sometimes stand before a single tree for minutes without moving or speaking. Once, he whispered, “You see why I needed to come back – why I had to finish up here?” He never cared much for the year or so he spent living in Seattle. “Trudging up hills in the rain, past scores of homeless…” was how he described it to friends who had never been there.
I had left Seattle with the impression that it would be a good idea for me to make every effort to obtain a captain’s license for the 5,000 gross-ton fishing boat I was working on at the time. A broad hint was delivered by our Norwegian Fishing Master over a plate of baked shrimp at the pos- season party in a fancy restaurant on the shore of Lake Union. It would be inopportune, perhaps even rude to refuse outright, so I said, “my father is ill… We’ll see.” My host shrugged, looked away.
After that first week, Dad seemed to be doing well. Very little pain. I figured I needed about 12 hours a day for 20 days to prepare myself for what would be a three-day Captain’s exam to be taken in New York City. It would be impossible to accomplish this while sharing a small house in the woods with my father. I cautiously broached the subject one afternoon. He waved a backhand at me, “Of course ! Of course! Christ, when I studied for the first-class radio ticket I practically sequestered myself from your mother. Go to some third world country or something. You look like you need a vacation, anyway. Hah!”
We agreed on Mexico. I had always wanted to see Taxco, a small city that was designated a historical landmark. My brother had described narrow cobbled streets winding up the mountain, the tap-tap-tap of the silversmiths’ hammers ringing through the town, mixing with the church bells. I pictured myself in some colonial garret overlooking a verdant valley, working out the formulas for nautical astronomy. I didn’t have to return to Seattle until the first week in January, so I booked a flight that brought me back to New York around the third week of November. One of the things about terminal cancer is that you must get in the habit of saying goodbye, really saying goodbye, every time you leave for a trip, or when you go back to the other coast you live on or in that other state or city you move two years before. Eventually, you say goodbye every time you go out to get a half gallon of milk or bagels in the morning. You get pretty good at it. One of the many things cancer teaches a survivor is sincerity. A fluidity and resilience of the heart. How would you like to remember your last moments with someone important? This is one of the gifts for those of us that are left behind.
I needed Taxco or the Taxco I imagined, for a number of reasons. My father was dying of advanced prostate cancer. He had been “dying” for over a year. On my wedding day the August before, I had to tell my younger brother about our father’s illness because he could not tell him himself, understandably repelled by the idea of so wounding his youngest and beloved son. I told my brother on that day, since it was the only day that month that I had seen him. We were lounging around on blankets near a pond in a park in British Columbia, our tiny wedding party of three, where we had finished taking our vows by the sea. After I broke the news, he walked away from me and my new wife and stood on the other side of the water, and looked away and wept. I felt as though I had driven a stake through his heart. In the ensuing year I flew to New York twice, once to help our father through an operation. I threw myself into my job, working nearly every day. I canceled a long trip to Asia with my new wife so that I could work, and she went alone. The following season she decided to switch ships, and we worked in the Bering Sea within a mile of each other, but in separate realities, linked only by e-mail, which in those days was very difficult and unreliable. During the first 15 months of our marriage we had spent, cumulatively, one month together. While I was walking with my father in the Catskill forests that October, she was at the end of a 5 1/2 month stint off the coast of Siberia. I had a nagging feeling that things were not as well between us is they could be. I sought my own private Taxco in the same manner a ship captain searches for a harbor, any harbor, in a raging storm.
The “Pasado Javier” is a favorite with German and Japanese silver buyers, as well as Mexican tourists. It is centrally located, but not too central, and it is far enough away from the Zocalo to remain free from the noise and fumes of the endless caravans of combis that pushed through the narrow streets at a walking pace. I chose it for the magnificent stonework, the garden, and the wide wooden tables under a huge arched foyer behind the pool. It reminded me of a monastery. But it lies between two churches, and the morning, afternoon, and evening guests are graced with the enthusiastic sounds of Mexican youths ringing the massive bells – crazed homunculi who I supposed must’ve seen Disney’s version of “the hunchback…” 100 times or more. Nevertheless, each morning I would swim for 20 min., then park myself at one of the tables with a half gallon of lime water. Lunch in the marketplace was $.80. I jumped into the books with appropriate ferocity, but found it difficult to concentrate.
On the evening of October 31, I wandered around the streets of Taxco, examining the shrines created by local families for the Dead for the following Dia De La Muerte. The shrines were beautiful, pagan influenced affairs , fully lit with candles and graced with dried and fresh flowers and pictures or artwork of the beloved Dead. Early the next morning, in that exhilarating netherworld between waking and sleeping , where everything is possible, I was approached by my mother, who had died four years earlier, in November of 1993. She was radiant, and stood before me with perfect clarity. I was overjoyed to see her, and my mood was buoyant, even jocular. She remained uncharacteristically silent and grave. I was laughing and bubbling over for a full minute, but I trailed off and began to go cold when I finally took in her manner. Then she said, quietly but with great intensity, “Owen, I have something to tell you!” The tone of her voice, the way she held my eye, and the manner in which she enunciated each word, shook me terribly. I felt as if I had swallowed an enormous bowl of ice that quick-chilled me to the core. My extremities were paralyzed, and I felt an onrush of dread the likes of which I had never experienced. I screamed, “NO!” and pushed her away and spun myself out of the dream. I didn’t want to hear what she had to say – things that I knew were coming but could not begin to face.
After a week or so I called my father and received no answer. A day later I called my wife, who had just returned from her very extended fishing trip. I invited her to Mexico. She declined – numerous appointments, etc. Would she check in on my father? She would. Was there anything wrong? No, of course not. Everything with her was fine.
A few days later I called my wife again in Seattle. No answer. None for over a week. Neither an answer from my father. I focused on my studies. I told myself that there was no reason to panic. Finally, I called my wife on a day that she was home. She explained that she had to leave town for about eight days. And by the way, my father was in the hospital. But no, I shouldn’t rush home. He would be out by the following week, and I would be back in New York by then anyway.
After I hung up the phone, I thought about things. It was likely that my father would die very soon. But what, exactly, was happening with my marriage? I decided to write my wife a letter. I told her that I felt she distanced herself from me in the past few months, and that I really didn’t know where we stood anymore. I told her some plans I had formulated myself – ways to escape the industry that had held me happily captive for 10 years. A few things that I would like to do, and “… By the way you always have my support and with whatever you want to do with your own life, but please do let me know what is going through your mind…” Two days later I received a fax that more or less said “We both know why we are not right for this relationship, so there’s really no point in going into any detail.” And that was that. End of a brief and fleeting marriage. As silly as a marriage it was, it was no less painful for it to end, especially at that particular moment in my life.
I returned to New York to find my father an invalid in his small cottage in the backwoods of Ulster County. For the first week I helped him bathe, cooked his meals, and kept him company. He showed great enthusiasm for my study material, and we drilled through hundreds of “rules of the road” questions regarding esoteric regulations about fog whistles and colored navigation lights. He gradually grew stronger, and one day in a moment of exasperation tossed his walker aside and began, simply, to walk. Once that psychological barrier was broken we were able to go to the cinema again, although he would tire easily. We had two golden weeks together after that. A time of grace, during which we talked almost incessantly about the mysteries of life and death, and his anticipation of this new adventure. We drove the back roads of Ulster County at the far end of the spectacular autumn. The trees were empty of leaves, but no snow had fallen. We said all the things we needed to say to each other.
On the Monday morning of December 8, my father woke up vomiting uncontrollably. He vomited, dry heaved for ten minutes or so, but then continued for about eight more hours. I found some medicine to control the nausea, but the hospice nurse suggested that the cancer might’ve reached his stomach. He had already lost 20 pounds in three weeks. After two days of this incomprehensible agony he voiced what both of us were thinking – that this was the end. He had reached the point that he had so often anticipated in which the continuation of his life was pointless. He would be dead in a matter of weeks anyway, maybe a month or two at best, and it would be a slow, miserable death. He wanted none of it. He was going on his own terms. He asked when I had scheduled my captain’s test in the city. It was the following Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday.
Then my father said, “Good. I’ll be leaving Tuesday.”
We had talked about this, and he knew he had the support of both of his sons. My brother was due to arrive next Thursday. He would miss him. Dad wrote him an e-mail that night and explained everything. My brother accepted the situation with the grace that I knew he would. If there was anything any of us had learned in our family it is that there is nothing but poison in clinging desperately to those that you love the most. The e-mail that my brother sent back was a short piece of writing so exquisite that I was rendered speechless when I read it. My father visibly relaxed after that day and thanked the both of us with the deepest of gratitude.
I woke the morning of the first day of my exam at 5 AM. Monday. The moon was bright and full and bathed the snow colored woods around the house with a harsh, almost metallic brightness. I stepped into the doorway of my father’s room and I heard him speak, clearly and without the grogginess of morning. He had not slept. I came to sit by him, and his face was bathed in a cream-colored light that made him glow. We spoke of nothing. Of everything. I kept thinking, “Remember this. Remember these moments forever.”
After I showered I went out to start the car. It was so cold, the door locks had frozen and I had to crawl through the trunk to get inside to start and warm the car. After a few moments I returned to the house, toasted and ate a bagel, and then sat again beside my father as he lay and looked up at the moon through the window. “How do you feel?” I asked, mainly to break the silence that lay heavy in the room. He sighed. “Clear. I feel very clear.” But his voice wavered as he said it, and then I embraced him and held him as we cried together. Again, I heard my internal voice, ” … never, ever, forget this. Never forget this moment, never forget the quality of this light, and how it feels to hug this man who gave you life, who gave you everything, who taught you how to think and feel about the world and who you will not see in this life again except in dreams and in your imagination and your memory. Never forget what is like to sit in his company and listen to his stories and laugh at his humor, his great and powerful humor that pushed through a lifetime of suffering as if it were a stick of soft butter and never, ever forget the sound of his voice or the sound of the typewriter, his ongoing oeuvre, pounding through the house like thunder.“
My exam started at a low-slung Coast Guard building at The Battery, at the very bottom of the city. Strangely, or perhaps due simply to my state of mind, I was startled by an old man at Battery Park who sat on a bench as I approached the test site, looking upward at the sun in the same way my own Dad did so often in the clear days of October, dressed almost exactly like him, and bearing enough resemblance that I reached out to him and almost spoke. Even now I am not completely sure if that man was actually sitting there or was merely a figment of my own.
After the first day of testing, I walked up to the small hotel I often chose, near Washington Square Park , and stood a half block east of 6th avenue looking at the sun set behind an old church. I called my father from a payphone, and we spoke for a few minutes. He wished me well on the exam, and told me I would pass. The next day I found out that he was right. Later that afternoon, I tried calling again, but there was no answer. I felt pretty strongly that he was gone.
He was in my thoughts as I walked from the Battery uptown, winding through the neighborhoods where he and my mother had lived in the 50’s. I had a beer at McSorley’s, where he took me and my friends back in the 70’s, when women weren’t allowed in, and you had to order two ales at a time. Around Union Square there was a theater playing a current Woody Allen movie, and I watched it, again thinking of him. Amazingly, the place where our family would always stop on our way down to the city — the Red Apple Rest — was featured in the movie, which was a neat trick, since the place had been abandoned years before.
When I returned from Manhattan on Wednesday night the cottage was pitch black. I felt around for the knob and found instead a card slipped in the jamb of the front door. It was the business card of a detective from the Ulster County Sheriff’s Department. A wave of complex emotions – fear, dread, horror and emptiness but also soaring pride for the courage of my father – rose and swept through me. I stood in the doorway listening to the silence of the place and looked inward, toward the road that led to the rest of my life.
For many years I had unconsciously built up an edifice of belief regarding death and suffering that I used to comfort myself and others in times like these. It was rooted in a secure belief in the Universe-at-Large – that there are no mistakes, that every last little detail of life has tremendous significance ,and that the challenge is to remain sensitive enough to catch the meaning. Dreams were a big part of the process. It seemed that everyone who died when I was young would return to at least offer clues and hints about the details of the experience. I took great comfort in this and constructed a belief system around it. This construct was sort of forced upon me violently — first with the death of a very close friend, John U., then the death a few years later, of my younger brother Eric. I think back at how young I was and am amazed at how well we all handled it. I suppose I was well prepared. I was 15 when John died, and had already read Ram Dass, all of Castaneda’s books, a few by Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, some Krishnamurti, the Tao Te Ching, and the life of the Buddha,as well as parts of both the new and the old Testaments. Not to mention all the discussions I had had with my parents and close friends of similar bent regarding such matters. I was 20 when my younger brother Eric died, and by then I had already formed the core of my spiritual belief system. I had recently read Testimony of Light – a beautiful story written by a nun in the 1950s who had lost her sister of 40 years, who was also a nun. One day, the surviving sister was in the middle of a letter, holding a fountain pen and idly searching for her next thought, when her hand began to write by itself. She soon discovered the meditative state she needed to allow it to happen, nearly at will. As it turned out, the phenomena were letters from her sister, describing the work she was doing with souls that had recently died. It was an extraordinary piece of work, and I couldn’t care less whether it was an actual event, just as I cannot understand the controversy that continues to this day about Castaneda’s work. The point is not whether the events occurred exactly as claimed, and can be “proven” by some verifiable recording, but that the concepts are true in the sense of what you know as absolute truth with every fiber of your being.
Now I am no longer so sure of the details of death, and what happens to us when we die, but I do not find my doubt discomforting. Instead, I find my general sense of non-knowing to be more honest, and peaceful. And I believe that this is the reason that I do not receive such detailed, informational dreams about the death experience from those who have died. I still believe that there are no mistakes in our existence, and more than ever I see that every moment on this Earth is a gift, nearly all of which we throw away in a most ungrateful way. And after sitting with two dying parents and been given the luxury of walking carefully and thoughtfully into the death experience with them, I no longer seem to have such an anxiety about what actually happens afterward. Death now appears to be to be much more of an integral role part of our existence. An inevitability, a sure thing, a comfort. I cannot imagine life without it. And the death of my father, for whom so many of my values and ideals I received, and who was so very close to me in so many ways, has burned into me the absolute urgency of facing the deepest questions of life. It’s as if his passing has freed me from the desire to know about the details of death so that I may now face life as an opportunity to experience our moment to moment existence. In this way his death, and the constant possibility of death that shadows us throughout this long and arduous life, is the ultimate teacher, the finest gift, so long as we know how to receive it as we should all gifts – with wide open eyes in the deepest and most sincere gratitude.