I’ve not written anything here for a wee while. Life’s been swept along the past couple weeks, with plans and logistics and appointments and to-do lists and paperwork. I’ve been feeling like the proverbial camel, my days filled with potential straws stacked up before me like Jenga blocks. I veer between feverish activity and giddy surrender, facing the impossible bottleneck of competing priorities. Not only have I not been writing, I’ve also not been reading.
I have been pondering one of Cat’s posts, this one, in which she describes her relationship to books. Her post touched a vulnerable spot, and what I’ve been doing is dancing around and around with the thoughts that it triggered, and the memory that it sparked. I’ve been distracting myself with my appointments and to-do lists, and skirting around the edges of a brief exchange of words that I once had with my dad, outside a Cambridge bookshop.
My dad was a thwarted scholar. He loved philosophy and history and the life of the mind, but chose instead to pursue a business career, in a working class boy’s bid to make good as his family’s first college graduate. His widowed mother relied heavily and pointedly upon him to support her and his younger brothers, and so any dream of pursuing an academic, intellectual life was sacrificed on the altar of upward mobility. In classic family dysfunction, he fed his lost dreams and ambitions to his children, ostensibly as seeds planted for our own benefit, but also, sadly, to live vicariously through us. By nature we were drawn to books, but likewise our love of them was nurtured heavily.
My dad was a lay scholar. Family legend tells how in the early years of his marriage and as a young working father, he worked his way through Will and Ariel Durant’s The Story of Civilisation. The complete set of eleven volumes sat in a long row of fat hardcovers on the bookcase in our sitting room. He would come home from work, sit with the family at the dinner table, and then go into the sitting room by himself to read, while my mother cleared up the meal and put the children to bed. He told me once that he had devised a strategy of sitting in a hardbacked chair, rather than an upholstered one. Fatigue from a long day’s work would inevitably lead him to doze off, but the uncomfortable chair would prevent him from sleeping soundly and he would jerk back awake within a few minutes. A short nap was enough to refresh him sufficiently, and he would then be able to focus on the text for another couple hours.
My dad was a would-be scholar. When enough of his children had grown up and moved out to create a spare bedroom, he lived out the fantasy of owning a gentleman’s study. He built wall-to-wall bookcases of beautiful polished wood, and set an armchair beside them, as well as a desk. Every Sunday he read the New York Times Book Review, to keep his finger on the pulse of the world of ideas. And although he bought many interesting books that had piqued his curiosity, he read them slowly if at all. His study time was diluted by other projects and interests – computers, woodworking, travelling – and perhaps also lack of confidence, fueled by regret.
My dad was a frustrated scholar. His business career in communication systems flourished as the digital age took root, and by the time I was a teenager he was fully embedded in the executive class, responsible for projects at his office that demanded ridiculously long hours and self-subsuming dedication to The Company. The prize he claimed from this deal was the privilege of sending all his children to private schools and to university. My siblings and I all performed well academically, winning scholarships and various honours for our work, and eventually pursuing postgraduate degrees of one sort or another. While he was very proud of these achievements, he was never entirely satisfied. We jumped through our hoops, higher and higher, trying to make him happy with our good grades and our intellectual pursuits – but of course we never could make him happy, not really.
Shortly after I moved to the UK, he was diagnosed with cancer. The illness lasted for three and a half years, during which time I saw him only a few times, in transatlantic visits. On one occasion he and my mom made a trip to the UK, and we spent one of the days touring Cambridge. We visited the Fitzwilliam Museum and King’s College Chapel; we wandered through college greens and saw the Bridge of Sighs; and we went to the Cambridge University Press bookshop, itself a heritage site. Dad had been enthusiastic about the day’s explorations, but among the books he grew quiet. When we left the shop he stopped a few yards from the door and stood there, still and forlorn. After a moment, he remarked wistfully on all the good books there were to read in the world, all the ideas that people had shared, and said that he wished he had more time. The sadness with which he said this didn’t allude so much to the time remaining in his lifespan, but rather to the time he had lost by denying himself his vocation.
I responded clumsily: heaven will be full of books. To start with, I didn’t believe anything of the kind by that point in my life – but this wasn’t about me. There was a terrible creeping discomfort at the direct allusion to his impending death – the problem with no solution. And it was awkward that he was delivering such a personal and revealing comment so unexpectedly on the pavement, amidst the bustle of pedestrian traffic. It caught me off guard. He had opened his heart to me – and he received a lame sweep-up job in reply.
My mother overheard our exchange, and added her weight to my remark: yes, heaven would right all the wrongs. Between the two of us, we steered his attention away from the reality of his life and his choices, away from the pain it was causing him. We all waltzed together in the great dance of denial. He seemed comforted at the time by my reply, but I wonder and doubt if he truly was.
Right now I’m missing him. I’m wanting to forward him the link to Cat’s post, just email it along to wherever and whatever and however he is now that he’s gone. I’m wanting to send him this link to Rob Newman’s poem, The Pub Quiz Champion of the World. And I’m wanting to send him these lyrics to another favourite Freakwater song, called Heaven:
Heaven is for the weak at heart
and those who never are
as smart as me.
But I would trade all that I believe
and keep no trick card up my sleeve
just to know the angels hold you in their arms tonight.