WHEN HE WAS ALIVE AND I WAS STILL YOUNG, my father told me his version of the Fall. “We begin to die the day we are born,” he said. What I think my father meant by this was that the cells, which are the invisible elements of our being, are constantly churn¬ing in nature’s cycle. Silently, without our being aware of their agony, they are inexorably aging and taking us with them. Year by year, the skin parches, the sinews slacken, and the bones go brittle, until one day the process stops, and we are gone.
At least that is what I think my father said because that is all that I can remember. And what I can remember is all that is left of the time we spent together long ago, a fading image now like the rest. I can still see the sunlight on the green hedge where we paused on the sidewalk. I can see the mottled sycamores shading the street, and the way my father turned until the tan dome of his forehead caught the glint of the light when he shared his thought.
We were taking a Saturday walk through the neighborhood. In the yards, the spring warmth had pushed the yellow daffodils and purple crocuses through the black earth, creating little splashes of color. I remember the feeling of pleasure I had, and always did, being alone with him. Or maybe it is the lingering memory that is the pleasure. I can no longer tell.
When he didn’t go to work, my father took walks every day of his life that I recall. It was only years afterward that it occurred to me that for him the aim of these walks was not to go somewhere, but to get away. As though the life he had been given was less than the one he wanted, or more than one he could bear.
As my father imparted his reflection, the timbre in his voice gave off no hint of gloom but was detached and clinical, as though he were making a scientific observation devoid of human reference. Even now, I cannot guess what his intentions were, or why he decided to share this dark insight with me when I was so innocent of life myself. But he did; and the words have stuck ever since and into the present, when age is already on me and has sunk its teeth into my marrow, and feelings of mortality have made themselves as familiar as hello and goodbye.
It is more than half a century since my father and I took our walk in Sunnyside Gardens. From that time until his death nearly forty years later in the same redbrick row house on the same tree-lined street, we never discussed the subject again. Though I never forgot what he said, I never bothered in all that time to inquire of anyone who might actually know whether it was based on a biological truth, or not. Nor did it ever occur to me that his words might not actually have referred to the objective world, but to his feelings about himself.
My father was a small, well-intentioned man of melancholy humors and roiling regrets. Bleak thoughts enveloped him in a cloud so dense he was rarely able to see the sun behind it. One effect of this rough-weather approach was to make it difficult for him to find pleasure in the opportunities life offered. When good fortune came knocking at his door, he received it more often than not as he would a visitor to the wrong address.
All our days together I wrestled with my father’s discontent and tried as best I could to overcome it. But eventually I understood that the well from which he drew his unhappiness was bottomless, and no one could stem its flow. As a result, the lesson he left me was not contained in the earnest lectures he gave, but in the instruction of a life that clung to its defeats like an infant to its mother’s breast.
Unlike my father, I do not feel that life is a downhill run. Nor do I think of it as an arc that rises steadily until it reaches its apogee, tapers, and arches back to earth. The fate we choose is inscribed in multiple flights. Some follow the gravity of rise and fall, while others— those of the spirit for example—may never head downward, but climb steadily to the end, where they just drop cliff-like into the dark.
Consequently, there is no right time for last words, no point of demarcation for our adieux. There is no designated moment to set down the summary thoughts of a mind still counting. Whether you begin to die at the beginning—as my father believed — or whether you burn brightly to the end, you can’t wait forever to pass to others what you have learned. When the time approaches you could already have a foot in oblivion, or be crippled by a stroke, or so blasted with pain as to lose the ability to reflect at all.
In this life, they can haul you off without warning. You can step onto the wrong plane, or off the wrong curb, or into the wrong conversation and be gone. A microorganism can stumble into a passage to your heart and douse the lights before you even learn its name. Or the cells of your being—those busy dying since you were born—can go berserk and betray you, metastasizing into a cancer that chokes your last thought. No matter how young you are or how far you get, you can never know if there will be hours enough to finish the page.
Some of us get yanked before our time, while others hang on longer than they should. Still others take themselves out when they think they’ve had enough. But what is enough, particularly if you wise up to master the game? It doesn’t matter. The clock is ticking and the buzzer is set.
This is an injustice that no reformer can repair and no court can redress.
When I began these pages I was living in a Mediterranean-style house perched like an eyrie on the palisades high above the Pacific Ocean. I had gravitated to this refuge only two years before in what I realized was an homage to the passion I inherited from my father. It was the only one he ever really allowed himself— his unfulfilled longing for the sea.
On crystal days, which were many, I would look out through picture windows to my only horizon, a panorama of whitecaps and blue water, and miss him. In such moments, my father’s ghost would sometimes return to haunt me. I could see the face I had both loved and feared approach on the ether of memory until it was only a breath away.