**Disclaimer: I am strange, so it makes sense that my father is strange. Strangeness makes for good writing material, but writing about my father’s strangeness and failures as a human should not be construed as disrespect or a lack of love. My father made his mistakes and has his shortcomings like anyone, but I have always felt totally and completely loved by him, and he is an amazing man who has overcome many things that would have killed most people. Some of those things he lived through and overcame left their marks on him and me, and that is what I write about. I love my father, and so I seize the freedom to write honestly about him and our relationship.
My father the zen master is to have surgery on his head. Part of his scalp will be removed to hopefully outwit the cancer that’s been squatting and working there like a team of eager scientists.
The zen master is 71. He looks maybe 80. He has no teeth. “I had ‘em all pulled,” he will tell you if asked. “I didn’t know your teeth could ruin you.”
Ruin is a word my father seems to love, always at hand in his interesting (if limited) quiver of vocabulary. He pronounces it with an overemphasis on the U.
“Didn’t your dad fight in the battle of the bulge?” I ask while we’re waiting for the surgeon to come collect him. His hospital Johnny drapes from his left shoulder like a debutant’s. The contrast between his dark, scarred worker’s arms and his white, old man shoulder and chest is pleasant to me in a sort of metonymical way. It seems to represent something, but I savor not knowing what it is.
“Yeah,” he nods. “It rooned him.”
We sit for a while. It is 1 o’clock. The procedure was supposed to begin at noon, but it turns out they won’t come get him until about 2, and I won’t see him again until almost 7. The people at the VA have been kind and full of genuine concern and compassion for their charges. This has been a surprise to me. The delays and bureaucracy have not, nor the ancient chairs in the lobby.
“Why do you think he killed himself?” I ask about my grandfather after what may have been half an hour. We have both dozed in the interim. He doesn’t pause at the question.
“It was a show of power,” he says, yawning. We are both yawning a lot. “He was a drunk, and he wanted to show he still had some power.”
I try to doze again, squaring this with the unpleasant, distant man I barely remember. I think of him raising the shotgun to his grimacing face in that house on Addison. I have pictured this many times, but now I see not a grimace of existential agony laced with sadness, but of spite, of avarice even. He is greedy to assert something in this new vision, something neither he — nor I — can quite divine.
This characterization of my grandfather’s suicide is as articulate as the zen master gets, and those rare moments of lucidity serve to remind you that he is indeed the zen master. The true zen master never reveals that he is the master. He doesn’t even understand it himself, would never guess it.
Much of what a true zen master says will seem like utter nonsense. In fact it IS utter nonsense. A zen master does not resist or fear nonsense, knowing as he does that sense and nonsense are shot through existence side by side and overlapping like cordwood or Victorian lattice.
“When Christ ascended to heaven, he didn’t go up on no damn rocket!” my father says.
For the past ten or fifteen minutes, I have been treated to a mishmash of bible stories, traditions about Jesus and his milieu, and stories that he THINKS are in the bible. His account of Samson bringing down the pagan temple on his smug captors is entertaining in a cartoonish sort of way, the captors mustache-twirling Snidelies, and Samson a spirited, idealistic teenager who’s gonna show those jerks.
I know where this is coming from. We have both sensed that they will soon be coming for him (turns out we are off by over an hour), and he has begun to issue a sort of religious manifesto. He has so far lamented, among other things, the use of big screens and other technology in churches, and has assured me several times that “they can’t get nothing on me! They can run a background check or whatever!”
He tells me about going to church when he was a teenager.
“I liked going to the Sunday night services,” he says. The monitor clamped to his finger glows red against his nail, indicating both his blood oxygen levels and his annoyance at its grip on his finger. He fiddles with the white medical tape, which has already become dingy and unsticky at the edges, the way medical tape does.
“I’d do my running around on Sunday days, fishing and whatever I wanted to do. Then I’d go to the Sunday night service over in Meadowthorpe. There wasn’t too many people on Sunday nights, just a few people who liked the evening service. And that pastor — what was his name? Brother Duncan, I think — he told me he would be *my* pastor if I joined the church.”
He trails off, fiddling, fiddling with the blood oxygen clinger. He lets it go and looks at me, eyes wide, mouth sagging against gums. “I’m in the lamb’s book of life, son, and can’t nobody get me outa there!”
He scratches the back of his hand in a tiny circling motion, barely touching the skin. He tends to scratch his body this way when he’s thinking; a light, absent scratch. He scratched my back the same way when I was young, and rubbed his beard against my face when he hugged me. He always smelled of beer, a smell I still love.
“They can’t get nothing on me.” He’s a bit quieter now, but no less intense. His eyes are squinted like a wise man telling you the truth no one else will. Like a sage revealing snakes’ true nature or secrets the government doesn’t want you to know. “Run a background check or whatever. I ain’t no womanizer or drug addict, I ain’t got no tattoos.”
He switches gears so abruptly, I have to give up trying to trace the trajectory of his thoughts. There is no use, and I will just get behind. A zen master doesn’t necessarily pause for the student to catch up. Being in his presence is always a magic-carpet exercise in letting go of the previous moment and coasting on the present one.
“People are like knees,” he says. “There’s two kinds of knees: good knees and bad knees. Ain’t no in between.”
I write this down. I do not agree — people are all over the place, an amalgamation of good and bad like molecules mixing and mashing to make matter — but this is beside the point. I must let him talk. A true zen master communicates truth through falsehood as easily as through eternal truth. I struggle to get my students to see the value in falsehood, reminding them that even Jesus told made up stories to reveal truth (or sew confusion, that Trickster) among his disciples and sycophants.
So I write it down: People = knees; good and bad only.
This is the way the zen master wants to see people, which I chalk up (not unkindly) to his lack of formal education. It’s the way he wants to see all things: black and white, up and down, in and out. Wise fools like me see the truth in this, but also in the grays and striations.
But the zen master’s direct access to single threads of the tapestry of existence — his ability to ignore the big picture, both a liability and a strength — enables him to see it in a way I can’t. The infant and the neophyte both trade enlightenment for knowledge. The zen master exists in the thin and precious membrane between the two.
The zen master wants Tex Ritter’s “Beyond the Sunset” played at his funeral, should such an event come to pass. He and I both know it will at some point, but this is the manner of speaking among humans. We use the adverb “if” instead of “when” out of habit more than denial even. Living seems to make no sense to us unless if feels inevitable, as a birthright.
I do not know this song, so I write it down so I can look it up on YouTube later. I picture myself listening to it thoughtfully and trying to decipher something about the master from it. He has always been as much mystery as man, to everyone who knows him. Some resent him for it; some love him for it; to some, he is invisible because of it. Indeed, he was invisible to himself for the twenty or so years he was addiction’s slave.
This is my knowledge brain speaking, not my enlightenment brain, of course. My father the zen master would know nothing of invisibility if I suggested such a theoretical definition of his addiction to him. I have learned not to share every analogy.
Metaphors never occur to the zen master. He tells it to me straight. It is clear by this point that he is concerned he will not wake up from the scalping. Within a few hours, a portion of his skull will be naked to the world save for a tincture of pig bladder and medical research. The doctor will assure me that they did not cut the thin, final membrane encasing the skull, and this will give me some comfort. The technology my father understandably mistrusts in the church will enable this tired doctor to cut with an exactitude that would have amazed — and ultimately disappointed — an ancient sculptor (of flesh or stone or wood) who had earned exactitude through discipline and failure and pain.
But change is as much a Trickster as Jesus was. Everything we lose through technological advancement — and we DO lose a lot, as the zen master reminds us with the unlikely image of Jesus riding a rocket to ultimate enlightenment — is countered by a new ability to make life more bearable. This is in some ways a confirmation of my father’s black/white perception of the world and a confounding of my own.
And is this not at least related to the kind of truth Jesus was trying to communicate through those falsehoods known as parables?
Not that Jesus necessarily *meant* to do that. It is probably a mistake to imagine him rolling up the sleeves of his tunic every morning and deciding to go out and enlighten people. Perhaps Jesus was just as surprised by enlightenment as his followers were — at his and at their own.
The zen master in that frigid VA hospital room is no less surprised by his own enlightenment. If asked, he loves to tell how far gone he was, how unlikely a candidate for sobriety.
“I would buy a six-pack,” he tells me when I ask how bad he had it. I never tire of this question, because he always answers in a different way. Sometimes it’s a painful scrunching of the brows and a simple declaration that settles the discussion: “Your poppa was sick, son! He had a disease.”
Other times the answer is simply mysterious, like the time he answered by telling me a dream he’d had where he was supposed to lead an elephant through the French Quarter and everyone was laughing at him.
But he is about to face scalping through technology, and he is in the mood for truth.
“I would buy a six-pack,” he says, “and the first thing I would do is open two of them and pour them over my head and arms.”
He pauses to remember. I notice he is not referring to himself in the third person as he usually does when we have these discussions, and I wonder if this is significant. His mouth sinks because the bed is low. He is thirsty, of course, as are all surgical candidates during the holding pattern before the blade. He licks his lips.
“I loved the smell of it.”
“The hops?” I ask, and immediately regret interrupting. I remember another alcoholic once describing to me how irresistible he found the smell of hops, and I have tried to layer this detail into the zen master’s confession. I snap shut my mouth in penance. Thankfully, he has all but ignored the question.
“I just loved the smell of beer. I would rub it into my hair and arms, all over me. Then I would hold one in each hand and drink them both.” He closes his eyes.
It is quiet in the room for a while then.
“You know why you and your brother never had the disease, right?”
He seems to want an actual answer, but I hesitate, even though I have many thoughts on this issue. His forehead scrunches up the way it does, a tuft of stray grays forming the pivot point between his arched eyebrows. His stares an unrelenting gaze. This is what he does when he wants you to give the wrong answer so he can correct you with an answer you could never have predicted. I grin because I can’t help it.
“Because I *made* you all drink it!” The eyebrows somehow crawl up even farther — the deep wrinkles in his head tell the story these days even when he isn’t being intense. This is his favorite expression when he thinks he is going to rock you with some startling information — even though often it isn’t startling at all, or even that interesting. But this time it’s both.
“We was over at old lady Burton’s house down on Addison visiting — me and your ma and you boys. And you boys kept coming over for a drink of my beer, and I’d give it to you.” He mimics our childish puckerings like a monkey. “And old Mrs. Burton said, ‘I’m gonna call the law. You’re gonna get them boys drunk.’ And I said, ‘I’m gonna get ’em drunk as hell!'”
The eyebrows click up a final notch and he adjusts his body in the bed. He is excited.
“And now look. Ain’t neither of you boys drunks. It worked! Your mother got *mad* at your pop, but look. Ask her about it.” He grins and lies back, satisfied.
My brother is in federal prison, and I have appetites so hulking and rampant that the six-pack story sounds completely familiar to me, only with the details changed. I like beer, but until well into adulthood I deliberately chose to not touch alcohol, having witnessed how it ruined his marriage, his health, and almost his life. I am grateful for this gift from my father. What greater thing can a parent ask of his children than to learn from his own mistakes?
And I did, which is a beautiful thing and which in hindsight feels more like a relief than anything. Like I cheated the universe; like it was “THIS CLOSE” and just missed taking my head off. It makes me love life.
This conscious, deliberate response to disease and destruction is far more likely to have contributed to my non-alcoholism than a random incident on a porch on Addison Avenue when I was a toddler.
But why say such a thing to a man about to be pared down to his skull membrane? It seems cruel. It cannot hurt to let a man so innocent believe in magic so late in life.