My Father’s Files

Sorting Him Out, One Page at a Time

He was sitting at the glass-topped table in the study, holding a sandwich in both hands and staring at it like a relic he had just unearthed. Even in the final, wasting months of his life, my father did not miss meals. Yet what had once been full-throated gustatory pleasure was now a solemn observance: a nibbling ritual, conducted in slow motion. He furrowed his brow, concentrated, bit. Placed the sandwich back on the plate. Picked it back up and bit down. And again, slowly, and again. It took him thirty minutes to consume the few ounces of bread and turkey.

Mother sighed, and stared out the window at the tangle of bare wisteria vine.

“I hope you won’t only remember him this way,” she said.

But I knew we wouldn’t. Not like this. This was just the coda.

And yet now, many months later and his last meal long ago consumed, memories of that coda assume a kind of primacy, my father’s slow vanishing captured in deeply carved images. I spent many hours and days with him in the final year of his life; my memories of that time emerge now as stark intaglios, etchings developed in an acid bath of love and regret.

These aren’t images for the scrapbook or words for the liturgy, but they belong somewhere.

My father had asked if I would help him with his filing. He wanted his documentary evidence—the writing, the notes, the pictures, and the memorabilia—left in good order. This act of ordering struck me as a last, stubborn journey, a way for him to keep wandering when the body only wanted to stop. He wanted to remember himself and the world in which he labored. He also wanted to leave a map.

“Of course,” I replied. I gazed around his study and laughed. “Where would you suggest we start?”

We both surveyed the room. Books on top of books, newspapers, magazines, and everywhere…paper. Paper piled on top of shelves, paper sticking out in clumps from file cabinets and drawers, paper tacked to walls, paper stacked in plastic bins, paper covering the keyboard of his computer. Paper, and the words he put on it. My father had learned at last to write on a computer—on the series of desktop computers that my brother patiently set up for him—but he would be damned if he was going to leave his work trapped in that thing. And so almost everything was printed out—e-mails, reworked drafts of his book and last poems, articles that his brother sent from New York. Nothing that resided in the innards of the machine was real until it was reborn on paper.

Sheepishness was not his style, but there was a hint of it in his voice. “Well,” he replied, “we could start at the beginning.”

The beginning, as close as we could get to it, was tucked away in a walk-in closet filled with shelves, banged-up file cabinets, and a tin footlocker. This was the deep past. Buried in here were my great-grandfather’s commendations for service in the Civil War and logs from his police work in New York City; a pile of colorful stock certificates from the 1930s, when my grandfather worked on Wall Street; and, curiously, a sheaf of my grandparents’ joint tax returns from 1957. Here, too, were copies of the student newspapers my father had edited in high school and college. His writing was still adolescent, but I recognized it—the understated, clear prose, already filled with some implicit regard for an Ideal which he worried might too easily be misplaced.

But my great-grandfather, Patrick Byrne, was the primary subject pulled from the deep archive of the closet. Patrick had emigrated from Ireland, and after the Civil War went on to become a police captain in Greenwich Village. Though he died before my father was born, he came to represent to my father that elusive Ideal, some personification of duty, honor, and obedience. It was a veneration based on a few facts, fewer anecdotes, and displaced sentiment. You did not even know him, I’d always wanted to say to my father.

We moved into the larger room, and I began to sort through the wooden file cabinets. Fragments of my father’s adult life emerged: a military discharge; newspaper articles from his early reporting days with UPI; memos from the beginnings of his political life in Maine; a small clipping, announcing the federal appointment that brought the family south in 1961. Two file cabinets contained research conducted for his graduate thesis. He knew—we both knew—that this chaos of index cards, scrawled notes, and bulging folders was of little value to anyone but him. He was not willing to get rid of it, though. And who could blame him? The material represented long, exhausting years of work, ideas stalked through dusty stacks and obscure landscapes, the trials and satisfactions of the hunt. His father, who hunted with a gun, had hung the heads of glassy-eyed prey on his library walls. These files were the son’s reply.

When he was my age, my father liked to hike the switchbacks in the Blue Ridge, his little bear-chasing terrier more or less in tow. By now the terrier had been gone for decades, and my father tired so easily that a walk often lasted less than five minutes, and we could still see the shrubbery in front of his home when we turned around.

Somehow, though, he summoned the energy for this last project. We’d work for four or five hours at a time, and I would let him tell me when we were done. There were afternoons when he was not able to focus. At other times, he found the work too disheartening. One day we threw out what must have been a hundred pounds of paper. He grew more and more morose as the day wore on. He’d stare at me, as if to say: This, too?

What impressed me most about this hoard of documents was that it all still existed. How did he hold on to so much, for so long? I myself have misplaced everything over the years: manuscripts, pictures, trucks, house, lovers, families. Permanence eludes me, and my father’s pack-rat virtuosity felt like a reproach. In sorting through his trove I felt at times a tug of ruthlessness. Some evenings I could barely roll the recycling can out to the carport.

Walking down the driveway at twilight one night, I turned to watch my father through the glass door. He was standing at the table, listing to one side, glasses askew on the tip of his nose. Just standing there, staring at nothing and thinking about God knows what. I knew that such protracted pauses were symptomatic of his disease; still, I could not help but see his pose as an invocation to the animus of time, looming larger every moment: Stop. Please stop.

Parkinson’s disease is a thief in the many nights, thorough and methodical. What it steals are those essentials, those nuances of gesture and expression, that make its victim recognizable—taking them, one by one, until at last it seems as if the patient himself has been stolen away. There were moments, though, in those days of weak winter light, when my father could still shake off the veil of illness. A bad pun, a hoarse chuckle, a gleam in his still-expressive eyes when we found something that he was delighted to recall. Hey, he’d say. Hey. And then he’d dredge a halting anecdote from the deep.

Or sometimes merely Hey, followed by silence.

I was back the next day, and the two of us worked for hours in near-total silence. There were times when talking was too hard for him. Words would begin to form but would not emerge from his mouth. So I would hold a paper in front of him, and he’d think for a long moment, squinting, then gesture toward one of the piles: throw away; save; not sure.

I found the silence soothing. We had known each other for well over five decades, my father and I, and it sometimes seemed we had been talking at cross purposes for most of that time. We shared interests, many of which he had introduced me to—birds, solitary walking, writing, the lives of famous confidence men, the odd, unlit corners of American history. What we found so difficult was how often our togetherness was sundered by the different ways in which we interpreted the world. He believed, deeply and fervently, that life was a gift, one not to be trifled with. He knew—and this infuriated, baffled, and saddened him—that I had had my doubts about that. We understood that our differences were not transient, generational, or trivial. It is one thing to disagree. When the dispute is ontological at its core, things get slippery.

Working together in silence, filing documents in my father’s study, it felt as though our long dispute had ended. We’d nod, mutter, exchange glances, bow our heads toward the task at hand. The day passed, vigils to lauds to vespers. Monks at the office.

We finished early. Outside, an almost invisible snow was falling. We sat in opposing armchairs and listened to Russian liturgical chants—dark, melismatic songs emerging from lower registers, basso and profundo, carrying the earth to a higher sphere.

When I opened my eyes, he was sleeping peacefully, the thief seemingly fled. He did not tremble when at rest.

My father was polite to nearly everyone, but I think he would have been rude to Sigmund Freud if the doctor had dropped by for coffee and conversation. Long ago, my father informed me that Freud was “a horse’s ass.” I argued with him. How could a student of Sophocles’ dramas, King Lear’s monologues, and Melville’s mostly unseen whale not be intrigued by Freud’s formulations? The answer was that he abhorred the very idea of the unconscious. Beyond the final mystery of existence, he did not subscribe to the notion of the unrealized or the inaccessible. My father had spent his life in pursuit of what he took to be facts. It was consciousness that he revered. Unmediated awareness of being was its own reward, and the notion of a psychological, fragmented man had no place in the world he inhabited. And as I watched him dying, I thought: You may be right, old man.

We were making progress, and winter was ending. The maple trees were tipped with red, and the towhees that lived in the backyard hopped through the leaf meal with a little more spirit.

I sorted through piles of my father’s correspondence. There were three bulging files of family letters, much of it handwritten notes from his four sons. The letters arrived from everywhere: Missoula, Boston, Manhattan, Hyde Park, Brattleboro, London, Tallahassee, Butte, San Francisco, Lynchburg. I don’t know how my parents kept track of their children in those days—color-coded pins, maybe, on a map in the family situation room.

The letters disclosed news from everywhere: graduate schools, forgotten girlfriends, future wives, the volcanic ash that migrated from Mt. Saint Helen’s, holiday plans, a request for a loan. These communications had been intended for our parents’ eyes only, and at times I read with trepidation. But there were no surprises, really—just confirmation that we all once were who we still are. I reread a letter I had written fifteen years earlier, referring to a hike my father and I had taken on a tiny island in the Kennebec River the year before that. I recalled that day well. We were looking for warblers, but it was mid-afternoon and the tiny birds were hiding. Deep in the woods, though, I heard a hermit thrush singing. I stopped, and cocked my head toward the sound.

Listen, I said. Do you hear that?

Hear what? His ability to hear the upper register of even human voices had deteriorated in recent years.

The hermit thrush. Over there, by that swamp oak. It was a clear, liquid, and solitary sound. He leaned in the direction I pointed and listened for long minutes. Finally, he shook his head and straightened up.

I can’t hear it. You listen for me, OK?

That evening, as we drank our coffee on the porch, he had seemed elderly for the first time. More fatigued than he should have been, and quiet. He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease about eighteen months later. I suspect that the disease had already slipped through a side door while we walked that day. The palsy man had unpacked his satchel, cracked his knuckles, and tossed off a couple of opening gambits.

Freud popped up again, or rather one of his early disciples—an analytic theorist named Wilhelm Reich. Reich’s early work, in the 1920s and ’30s, had helpfully expanded the boundaries of the conversation that Freud had initiated. By the late ’40s, however, Reich had run off the rails. Messianic and paranoid, deep in bad science and errant speculation, he discovered “orgone,” a primordial energy he believed instrumental in creating weather, gravity, St. Elmo’s Fire, and orgasms, among other things. Having discovered this substance, Reich went on to fashion orgone boxes, wooden structures that accumulated the energy in sufficient quantities to dissolve the physical and psychic blockages that plague us all. The orgone boxes were a fad for a while. J. D. Salinger, Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, and Jack Kerouac all took turns sitting in the accumulators and praising his theories.

By the early ’50s, Reich had retreated to a farm in rural Maine—called Orgonon—and established an institute to promote his theories and his magic boxes. My father was a few years into his first career as a journalist and working out of Portland. Assigned to interview Reich, who was under investigation by the Food and Drug Administration at the time, he drove out to Reich’s property, and was seated by an assistant in an anteroom. After waiting quite a while, he was finally shown into Reich’s den. Reich glared at my father, who had recently graduated from journalism school and no doubt looked like it.

“Mr. Byrne,” the great man asked, “are you a learner?”

“No, Dr. Reich. I am…a conduit.”

Reich stared and sighed. “This interview is over,” he declared, and walked out of the room.

My father had a large cache of stories, but this one was among my favorites. A mad genius, Reich had also been a self-absorbed bully, who made his way through life by intimidating patients, peers, wives, and acolytes. It pleased me to think that this young reporter with the rumpled suit and a cigar stuck in his pocket wasn’t intimidated. Dad never expressed any regret about not getting the interview. He knew that not getting the story was the story.

An early morning, and we were back at work. We had gotten into an area of files that Dad had decided to junk. Toss, he’d say, as I held this or that paper up to him. And this? I’d ask.

Toss. Toss. Toss.

From a pile I pulled a single piece of paper, handwritten columns of verse with “Browning poem” scrawled in spidery handwriting at the top. I held it in front of him.

“Oh, good,” he said. “The Browning poem.”

“Are you saving it?”

“Absolutely. Put it in a separate folder, please. And put it where I can find it easily. I’m going to do something with that. Put it in the box marked ‘Current.’”

I slid the paper into the folder without reading it, and placed it in the box next to his computer.

Then it was early March, wet and ragged, and we were done. Every paper in its proper place and out of sight. I was relieved.

My father told me he had one more job, if I would do it. “Would you organize my books? I can’t seem to find the ones I want anymore.”

This was not as difficult a task; many of the books were already in their proper place, and just needed a slight adjustment. I was surprised by how few categories his books fell into, given their number. Theology, the Civil War, poetry, the environment, politics, Shakespeare, Thoreau, John Brown, and little more: This was a man who didn’t mess around when he wanted to learn something, who preferred to go deep.

It took just two partial days to get the library in order. On the second day, we were discussing how books seem to accumulate over the years.

“How many books you think you got, Dave?” my father asked me.

“Oh, I dunno. Five or six hundred. You know, one for each subject.”

That got the only barely discernible smile of the day.

Finally we were finished. In the ensuing weeks, a portion of the work we had done over the past two months got undone, as my father insisted on disinterring this or that filed-away document and placing it back into the box marked “Current.” Once again, papers began to settle like dust on all the surfaces.

During my visits we talked, but only about the few subjects of his choosing—all of them familiar favorites. He seemed to be willing off dementia by tightening his focus. No room left now for new facts or forays into old ideas. And so my great-grandfather Patrick Byrne returned; my father seemed to work him into nearly every conversation. How Patrick had emigrated from Ireland to New York as an infant, carried in his mother’s arms. How as a teenager he tried to enlist with the Union Army in the Civil War, but was thwarted by his mother when she found his newly issued uniform hidden under his bed. How he tried again, and at last succeeded in becoming a boiler tender in the Navy—stationed, toward the end of the war, on the Currituck, a wooden ship that the Union employed in the larger skirmish between the first ironclads.

Patrick, as I knew, became a cop in New York City after the war, and was eventually promoted to captain. A captain who was honest, upright, and supposedly impervious to the claims of the Irish political machine.

“And who sits at the right hand of the Father,” I said.

My father gave me a look. “That’s it,” he said.

One afternoon, I spent an hour pondering memorabilia in his study. A black-and-white photograph, taken the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated, showing Kennedy being escorted into his limousine in Fort Worth to set off for Dallas—and my father, one of the president’s advance men, standing behind the car with his arms folded, a cigarette dangling from his mouth.

A color photograph of a bluebird, with the Mass card for my father’s father, tucked into the frame of the picture.

A crow feather, inserted into a laminated sleeve. He had attended an archivists’ conference in the Soviet Union. The feather was retrieved during a visit to Tolstoy’s estate. I can see him staring at the feather on the lawn, bending down to pick it up.

Parkinson’s disease is born in the brain. For some mysterious reason, nerve cells in the substantia nigra inhibit the flow of a chemical messenger—dopamine—to the corpus striatum. Properly regulated, dopamine coordinates our every movement; decrease the dopamine supply past a certain point, and the body shakes, hardens, and falls apart.

I don’t think my father, inquisitive though he was until almost the very end, ever bothered to learn much about the mechanics of his illness. I’m glad. He would have been distressed to realize that the information pathways—and the information itself—had made such a mess of things.

My mother, who cared for him in both health and sickness, created a variation on his nickname, turning “Jeb” into “Job.” Her mordant point was that two bouts of cancer, years of back and arm problems, gastrointestinal difficulties, and this final, relentless series of visits from the palsy man would try any man’s faith. Did all that misery cause my father to doubt what he believed, as Job had? No one will ever know. He would have kept that to himself.

Spring passed, then summer. And then it was November, warm and cloudy, the leaves drained of color but reluctant to fall. I was working hard and hadn’t had much time for him for several weeks.

It took me an hour to get there after I got the call from my mother. My father had fallen; he was distressed and disoriented, could not walk. He was lying on a couch in the library. The hospice nurse arrived. We got him into the wheelchair, rolled him into his room and onto the bed.

He slept for an hour and then awoke, agitated and restless.

“Dave. Dave, pull me up.”

 His hands were still strong, and he gripped my wrist so hard that it hurt.

“I am dying,” he said.

If he had the courage to say it, then I should have had the courage to concur. But I didn’t. “No, you aren’t,” I said instead. “But you need to rest.” And: “What do you want, Dad? What can I get you?”

“Chocolate milk. Please.”

“OK.” I stood up to go get it.

“Just kidding,” he said.

Just kidding: it was just the last coherent thing I ever heard him say. For the next twenty-four hours he drifted between waking and sleeping. He called out, struggling to sit up. I pressed him back, gently I hoped, onto the mattress.

I had known it would come to this, this wishing for the end of the illness. It’s not a murderous wish, but it’s as bifurcated a desire as you can have. He was lost inside the illness. His words had become indecipherable. He repeated, over and over, a three-word phrase. He wanted something, but I did not know what it was.

I’m sorry, Dad. I don’t understand.

He raised his bare arms. Muscles atrophied, skin mottled, his fingers gnarled and bent at unlikely angles. He raised his arms, lowered them, raised them again. He was climbing an invisible ladder.

And I, no believer in an afterlife, wondered: Where are you going, Dad? What’s up there?

The body knows what it knows. He was climbing, but he was not yet reconciled. There was a trace of indignation in his expression, an echoing question: This, too? All of this? Everything? And then the morphine, and then a deeper sleep. Rasping breaths, regular for long moments. Apnea, the long pause, the exhalation. And then waking, me, not him, and then nothing.

This last scene, played out billions of times. But only once for him, and only now.

And then the funeral Mass. One of my brothers walked to the altar and placed the ossuary pall over the oak box that held our father’s ashes. I had time to look at it before it was draped, and to note its similarity to a storage box. The priest was reciting the gospel passage my mother had chosen. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…

I could not quiet my inner voice; it kept reaching for other words. For my father, T. S. Eliot was the beginning and the end of modern poetry. He valued Eliot for his insistent faith in the face of the unreason and horror that followed Europe out of the trenches of the Great War. I admire Eliot too, but mostly for his willingness to introduce such fierce doubt into the mysterium fidei. My father and I had taken turns reading “Burnt Norton” aloud several times, accenting different phrases and no doubt hearing different things. As the priest spoke words about the Word, I silently recited a parallel text:

And all is always now. Words strain,

Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,

Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,

Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,

Will not stay still. Shrieking voices

Scolding, mocking, or merely chattering,

Always assail them. The Word in the desert

Is most attacked by voices of temptation,

The crying shadow in the funeral dance,

The loud lament of the disconsolate chimera.

After the gospel, family members paid tribute—poems, recollections, a letter from a grandson. I stood, sat, and kneeled, all the while staring at the draped box on the altar and aiming silent thoughts at it. I wish I had tried harder to say what I meant, and to understand what you meant. I will make a more sustained effort, now that you are dead.

The eucharistic song was Sydney Carter’s “Lord of the Dance.” It is a lilting song, ecstatic, almost improper—Pan chronicling Christ, the form mocking the content.

I danced on a Friday when the world turned black

It’s hard to dance with the devil on your back.

For the first time that day, grief engulfed me, dark and full. But I did not weep. If you are going to make a life out of the chimerical, a little reticence might be in order.

I am not ready to stop writing, but I have begun to wonder how to bring this to an end once I have written myself out. The other night I went to the file cabinet and pulled out the Browning poem, thinking it might let me close the door, as it were, with a little gravitas. It’s a great trick, the imprimatur of borrowed authority. I’ve done it in the past, when my thoughts have begun to collapse under their own weight or crumble into insubstantiality.

It struck me that something a little messier than what Browning might provide was required here—something closer to the truth about the love and sorrow and disconnection so precariously balanced for all these years in my father’s life. I wondered, though—what if the poem was truly revelatory? One of the few movies he’d ever professed any admiration for was Citizen Kane. Was it possible there was some unforeseen clue in the poem, some unimaginable smoking gun?

In the end, I left the Browning in its folder. This wasn’t a movie, and Jeb Byrne was not the sort of man to have a “Rosebud” moment. He had some reason for keeping the poem. Or maybe he didn’t. Maybe, at that moment, he was just sick and tired of overseeing so much pitiless disappearance.

Many years ago, an old friend—an artist who deals with the alchemical—told me that after his father’s death he left the hospital, went home, sat down at his desk and, for the first time in his life, balanced his checkbook. I asked him how that went.

Good, he said. I had more money than I thought.

Debts, balances, reckonings. Are we only who we are in relation to one another? Are we that fluid, that unformed and contingent? Who is it that dies? Who is it, exactly, that survives?

Saying goodbye to my father, I said goodbye to Patrick Byrne, as he receded one step further into myth. There was no one left to love him.

The dead reappear in objects, dreams, stories, half-averted thoughts, shifting breezes, sudden shapes, distorted shadows, and unconscious imitations. They return, breathless, to haunt and to console.

To die is to give yourself away.

The dead are ours, and they remain ours, buried in our files—until we, in due time, at last are filed away ourselves.

Published in the July 11, 2014 issue: 

 

Dave Byrne is a freelance writer living in Alexandria, Virginia.

 

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