"He edited my novel, St. Ursula’s Girls Against the Atomic Bomb, a manuscript I recently published with MacAdam/Cage and Plume Paperbacks.  His comments not only helped me rewrite the book, they also made me realize what a collaborative process writing actually is.  The writer's vision is so limited.  Without a gifted editor like Christopher, my book would have remained quite flawed since I (like most writers) was not able to pinpoint and analyze the problems in my own work."  Valerie Hurley
                                                         
Christopher Noël
Editor & Mentor                        
 
                                                                                  
Writing from Grief & Loss

Part One


Part Two


Epilogue





Excerpts from my memoir

tender bomb
          
The split second before it explodes, a bomb will inhale oxygen enough
to feed its detonation.  If it's in a small container, it will suck at the walls,
causing a near vacuum.
           On grenade days, as I call them, my chest almost caves in.  The pin has
been pulled but the grenade refuses to explode; it's just about to.   The violence
would be a relief.  Everywhere I go I go gingerly, because although I do want it
to explode, I also want to take care of it before it does, because it's a soft little
bomb, very very tender somehow at its center, and as crippling in its demand
for constant protection as for its threat. 
           I can't explain this softness, except to say that it sometimes seems the bomb
contains the accident scene in miniature, suspended at the instant before impact,
our blue Honda Civic only just starting to swerve--as reports have it--out of the way
of the Ford Bronco spinning toward her on ice.  And the softness in this scene isn't
Brigid herself, as you might think.  It's more like a point, not physical, but a point
of silly, sunny possibility to place alongside the pinpoint accurancy of the crash
(as though aimed for her drowsy head).
           It's like this:  Soon afterward, my mother dreamed the whole thing out again
as a brief ballet, the Bronco pirouetting ardently toward Brigid but halting with
the sort of cleanness a halt can have when it seems premature, a millimeter from
the Civic, parallel but switched around, so that when the driver rolled down his
window (it was a man in this version), he could lean out and lightly kiss the
hatch of our gastank, which he did, then laughed and drove away.

what he needed to know
          
In Burlington, at the second hospital, the doctor explains, "We've given
her strong cardiac medicine, to try to get her heart to pump blood into her brain.
But it's not working, because her brain is so swollen and the pressure keeps the
blood out."
           "Like a balloon?" I say, oddly proud of myself.
           "Well, yes," he says.  His beard is in the goatee family, neatly trimmed.
           I wanted to shake his hand, the way Raymond Carver shook his doctor's
hand when he got his bad news--to be classy like that, but he trots back through 
the swining doors, toward Brigid's brain. 
           I wish I'd kept him out here awhile, told him a few things he'd need to know, 
like you tell allergies.  "You see, she is an excellent speller.... She cares about many
more kinds of things than I do, like plants, and quilting, and spices.... When she was
a little girl, and her mother would take her places like department stores, and would
pass out of sight for even ten seconds, Brigid's heart would bang... Two weeks ago, in 
Los Angeles, she was mistaken for Molly Ringwald, and she wasn't too pleased about 
that, so don't you make the same mistake.... Last week, she dreamed that a giant 
awk was chasing her... She makes up funny songs in the car, Doctor; how can you work 
on someone with such a sense of humor?"  

no angle   
            I once lost Brigid for fifteen minutes in JCPenney, and I let myself get worried
out of all proportion.  I knew she must be trying things on behind some curtain,
but aren't women whisked away without a trace all the time?  During those minutes I
was guardedly afraid, but I really felt the brunt of it--what it would be like to lose a
person in her entirety--only after she showed up again, trailing a chosen skirt from
her forearm.
            Near misses are justly famous for conjuring a huge response, later.  After
avoiding an accident--during which avoidance we are businesslike, absorbed--we
find an impressive tree of horror branching and blooming within us, prickling
along our pathways.  Looking back, from the other side, we get a pretty clear view of
how things could have been different, what they "would" have been "like."  A sharp
and powerful experience of what almost happened, not despote but because of the
hypothetical angle. 
           That's the angle I need.  I've got no stance.  The truth faces me so squarely it
blocks all the light, comes at me flat, with no edge to cut me right.  Or say it this way:
I'm deprived of the backward glance, to catch the receding; the whole broad front
hull of it is always looming over me, like some lover without subtlety, without winks
and poses, without variety, attitude, with no interest in showing off, or letting
me
get into the act.
          The night before the accident, she took a long, soaking bath, extra hot.  Some of
the time, I sat talked with her, sitting on the low stool.  Her shifting weight would
moan against the porcelain. I wish I could recall our exact conversation; I do know
she was feeling unusually optimistic, lying there contained by the water, the tub, the
steamy bathroom, warm, contained by our house, by us, by plans she was making to
leave her job at Goddard in the spring, to finally devote more time to her fiction writing. 
          During an earlier bath, she laid a faded green washcloth on her belly.  She told me
that her first sexual sensations as a girl had come from her putting a wet cloth like
this on her front, and that she must have been quite young because it covered her all
the way from her nipples to her thighs.
          But this night we just chatted; she floated.  Nine hours later, to the other end of
the spectrum:  out on the pavement, cold January pavement, out, all the way out,
pried loose, worked over, clothing now fabric being torn away.  A small crowd gathered,
I hear; official photos were snapped.  Just anyone could look, and she couldn't even
cover her legs.
          I say all this.  But I still can't begin to realize it, not the broad, straight story of
it.  The same is true of the impact itself.  It eludes me, it is supposed to elude mel. 
It's not given to the two of us alike:  her job was to get it all at once; mine is to take it,
meted out little by little, for life.
          I can sort of relax when I talk to myself like this.  I claim handicapped parking 
in my  mind.  I'm as unable to take in the whole thing as if asked to consume one of 
those sidewalk slabs of concrete.  People don't operate that way, foolish to try, you'll
harm your poor mouth. 
          But then there are the apertures--into the concept, for instance, of impact.  
          Four days before, she walked into her dark writing room at home, and banged
her nose hard on the arm of the cheap exercise machine I'd bought her for
Christmas.  She yelled at me for not putting it away more carefully.  I ran and held
her nose.  What an insult, I thought, to hit one's actual head
           My sister Becky waited months to show me what she'd found while leafing 
through Brigid's date book, which had, during the accident, been down inside her 
shoulder bag on the passenger seat:  a tiny chip of clear windshield glass, driven 
between two pages.  At first, Becky had thought it must be a jewel. 
       


    
                                 The Cromagnon’s Flute
  
         
                                                     A Meditation on My Father

                                             I

"Oh, big white egg of a pillow," Dad says, hugging it to his head, "scramble me up a dream.” It’s Christmas Eve, 2000, and I’m far from Vermont snow by choice.  Lying in a dark hotel room in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, on Providentiales Island, in the Turks and Caicos Chain east of the Bahamas, I watch news reports from a fragile Bethlehem.  My father is here with me, napping on the other bed.  We arrived three days ago, the heat and humidity making us slack and pleased, since, but torporous, too.  He looks like a boy, in shorts and white t-shirt, on top of the bedspread, one knee hoisted to his belly in the colored flicker of the tv set, hugging his pillow, star of his silly egg analogy.         

I hatched this scheme–exotic flight during Christmas–way back in May, suspecting that the best way to stave off the usual depressed plunge this December 26th would be to shatter the holiday routines, to place myself in a starkly different setting for my fortieth birthday. 

When Dad wakes up, his gray hair juts up sparsely.  We watch an episode of "The Simpsons"–a meteorite is headed toward Springfield; the family is shopping for fallout shelters: "Now, this one is called 'The Withstandanator.'  It can withstand a sixty-megaton blast, no more, no less"–then we go off to dinner, here at the Erebus Inn, pick a table out on the deck, where a laughably gentle breeze slides over us, feigning emotional sufficiency.  Back in Vermont, carol sings, bell choirs and candlelight masses have yearly left me hollow, and heavy, ever since my fiancee Brigid died, in 1992.  Dad loved a woman for ten years, and after they bought a house together, she abruptly broke up with him.  He's been alone these seven years since.  So tonight, we're giving any ordinary Christmas Eve the slip.  Skin still keen from the eight-degree winds back home, we're able to celebrate this contrast itself, the very notion of climate, although yes, management has placed a Christmas tree here on the deck, dutifully drizzled with silver tinsel and an aluminum star at the peak.  Not to look at it, our attention continually drifts out to sea, where heat lightning plays at the horizon. 


Our first evening on Providentiales, two nights ago, still lacking a rental car or any clear plan, and before we fetched up at the present, well-organized inn, Dad and I walked for miles, hungry, in the dark, along the crumbling blacktop shoulder of a main road and over dusty side-streets, sweating in the unnatural swelter, getting lost in some labyrinth, but not the generative kind, and passing silent men who didn’t return our hopeful “hellos.”  We’d gotten bad advice at the bad hotel–“Yes, the town is right down there, less than a mile”–but forty-five minutes into our hike, we had yet to find sanctuary or food.  We couldn’t admit till later that we were actually afraid–such stupid tourists, bumbling targets with cash in our pockets, and too naive even to know whether our fear was absurd. 

We finally found a sort of booth/bar willing to sell us beers and fry us fish sandwiches, then paid the owner’s son for a ride back “home” in his bouncy pick-up truck.  Lying in grimy beds, Dad said, “So, tomorrow we’ll just have to find a modus vivendi,” a phrase that instantly drew off my anxiety like a centrifuge separating substances.  To mix metaphors, we had a shield now to keep chaos at bay, or a ground to hold us.   I thought, But what an egghead he is to use a pretentious Latin phrase here on a tropical island!  And then, quickly:  Well, we’re eggheads together, and for the rest of our trip I referred to my father secretly as “Egghead Vivendi.”

Sixteen and a half months earlier, I may have saved his life.  He and I were in Cornwall, England, he leading a conference called “Black Sun, Deep End,” which used the occasion of a total solar eclipse to meditate upon and celebrate the end of the Millennium, to “re-imagine Apocalypse” and to ponder the meaning of endings more broadly.  I helped out by driving our people around in a van.  Dad had conceived of this conference twenty years before–when he learned that southwestern England would lie in “the path of totality”–and had imaginatively anticipated it ever since, planning its thematic contours, which artists and thinkers to invite, puzzling over logistics; when the morning of the eclipse finally arrived, August 11, 1999, skies were opaque with heavy clouds and we all got soaked with rain.


On Providentiales, now, safely landed in the new millennium, we’re feeling languid, sitting on this restaurant deck, no longer wondering about that car.  We each order bowls of conch soup, reflexively, already getting sick of this bland rubbery creature, staple on the Island.  At  nearby tables, several couples seem sad, for their own opaque reasons.  Can they tell we're father and son, two quiet men in glasses, two goatees–one gray, one brown?

"Do you know," Dad says, "they've discovered pieces of antlers, hollow sections with patterns of holes in them?  Probably used as an instrument, like a recorder or a flute?" 

"How old?"

"About thirty thousand years.  Cromagnon man.  From the same period as the cave art."


Last spring, he visited the caverns at Dordogne, France, whose walls bear some of the earliest known paintings, floating dimly on the rock, simple depictions of animals–elk, reindeer, woolly mammoth, bird, horse, gazelle–as well as stick-figure renderings of people.  He's fascinated by this impulse to lift reality out of its concrete context, to fix it in place by hand, idealized in pigment.  I picture him browsing underground, in half-light, face to face with prehistoric contours.  "I just love not knowing," he tells me, "what the images literally mean."  He prefers to spin interpretive possibilities, like poems, hates stiff theories such as "hunting magic," such as "the quarry's spirit is being captured."  Down inside the cavern, he noticed that compared to the richly textured beasts, the stick-figures are crude and little, hardly invoking a hunter's prowess; maybe instead–he proposes–we hadn't yet come to see people as distinct from nature or as quite real, to anthropomorphize ourselves, so to speak.  Several of the paintings seem to show, indeed, fantastical animal-human hybrids.

"So, you mean," I ask, "they've found enough of these antlers so they can establish a definite pattern?"  We're onto coffees now, and sharing one piece of carrot cake.

"Well, not a ton of them, but yeah, enough to extrapolate, and they all have the same holes.  Think of it, what that could have sounded like.  Cromagnon music, thirty thousand years ago, people playing on bone flutes.  The actual beginnings of it all."

My father marks the awakening of his own imagination in 1948, sitting in a movie theater at age twelve, watching "Dumbo."  The images took him–bundled baby falling through clouds; mother's trunk enwrapping child; black crow's feather grasped in faith.


I'm grateful he wanted to accompany me on my birthday sojourn, because his presence here is right for my mission:  in the face of turning forty, I've decided not only to avoid Vermontly pomp and circumstance, but even, within my head, to forego any and all counting of blessings.  The rest of the year, sure, I can take stock, estimate that my cup is two-thirds full, after all: I'm healthy, graced with loving friends and family, able to pursue my writing, to feel that Vermont is home ground, to edit student and client manuscripts, to teach in one of the best MFA programs in the country.  The other one-third of the cup is "family" and "home" in a nearer sense–house, mate, children, mine all mine.  But each December, this lack suddenly tosses its head, roars at being considered a mere fraction; this head grows a body, a cold one, which steps into mine, turning me to clay.  The milk of human kindness can't help; milk shows clay it's clay.  No, this year, I plan to sight myself through a scope, to core in underneath, look at what I am, not have.         

Now here's where Dad comes in; he started my mind up.  In his voice, thought itself first showed its stuff, grabbed my breath.  And I don't mean profound thought, but much simpler–the very desire to put something, anything, into words, to try a phrase out.  We once explored the freezer and found an age-old carton of ice cream, which tasted, he said, "like sleet and tin."  A television newscaster said that a certain patient’s condition had stabilized–“Yeah,” said Dad, “he’s dead.”  He seemed to work with the materials at hand in such a way that they were always showing new things.  When I came across this passage in Kafka’s Josephine the Singer, it seemed to speak of my father’s brand of impractical magic, the sly grasp of the obvious, the quickening attendance to the everyday:

 There is first of all this peculiarity to consider, that here is someone making a ceremonial performance out of doing the usual thing.  To crack a nut is truly no feat, so no one would ever dare to collect an audience in order to entertain it with nut-cracking.  But if all the same one does do that and succeeds in entertaining the public, then it cannot be a matter of simple nut-cracking.  Or it is a matter of nut-cracking, but it turns out that we have overlooked the art of cracking nuts because we were too skilled in it and that this newcomer to it first shows us its real nature, even finding it useful...to be rather less expert in nut-cracking than most of us.


Another time, after visiting a biofeedback practitioner for lower-back pain, my father laughed at the idea of forcing oneself to relax:  "She wants me to achieve dynamic flaccidity."  Eating a very tangy lemon meringue pie, once:  "If I take one more bite, I'm going to go into lemon arrest."  Pulling himself up out of a deep and comfortable chair, he said, "Another foray into the energy-depleting realm of motion." 

As his apprentice, I intend to dedicate my next book (if such there be), "To Daniel Calhoun Noel–In The Beginning Was The Word Play."

Things he'd toss off would set me into hysterics, even if they were, I know, quite feathery and dry; but this is why they tickled me so much, startling me with the suppleness, the quicksilver feints and match-making, of conceptuality itself, game to improv, and besides the famous coup that experience can be–drumroll, cymbal!–articulated at all, here was a vaguely irresponsible dare, mere abstract nothings that most ignore, being willed into form. 

Back in the room, we get ready for bed, with blessedly zero plans for the next day.  Dad takes his medications, to control various blood levels; he's had incipient diabetes, hypertension, and heart trouble; he first experienced angina in his mid-forties, though not since. 

We switch off the lights, get into our beds, "goodnight."  I listen for the snoring.  It never takes long; one of the pills is a Dumbo's feather for sleep.  But maybe he'll talk some more.  I find it hard to believe that, even now, though I seem to have lost the capacity for hysterics, I can still feel like a tuning fork about to be struck:  "What will he say next?"

 


  Christmas morning, 9:45.  Outside our sliding glass door, sitting on the cement patio beside a scruffy garden, I watch a gray-striped lizard bobbing its head under the foot-long prong of a cactus.  Others prefer to zip on top of prongs, pausing to execute quick push-ups in the sun, probably for good reason.  Occasional butterflies flit orange or yellow; unseen birds issue statements brimming with nuance.  Dad calls in from the room behind me, "Does the epigraph go before or after the table of contents?"  He is working on his new book manuscript, to be entitled, The End of Belief, or, Leaving Believing Behind.  I've told him those sound like bad choices, too cerebral, that a title ought to contain an image, something for the mind to latch onto and play with.  He's reconsidering.  I say, "After, I think."

He's published five books and hundreds of essays in the field of religious studies –broadly Jungian explorations into human expression in literature, art, contemporary culture.  Of this current project he's written ninety pages, exploring the nature of belief in relation to today's profusion of supernatural and parapsychological claims, and the odd zeal we seem to have for validating these in the stance of science, to take them literally as one believes chemical reactions.  For instance, "ghost hunters" put instruments in apparently haunted houses, in order to measure frequency shifts across the light spectrum,  hoping to pin down and credit the spiritual realm.  Dad's book laments the decline, over the past five hundred years–and presents this decline in some detail–of a sense of "belief" that doesn't borrow from science's worship of objectivity.  Instead of seeking an experimentally verifiable correspondence between a proposition, on the one hand, and a given state of affairs, on the other, that earlier, richer meaning of belief was nearer to faith, to a "belief in" something rather than a "belief that" it may be proven; think loyalty, cherishing, entrusting, unconditional love. 


On the plane from Hartford, Connecticut, and during our first morning on the Island, I read his pages and marked them up, made revision suggestions ("You'll need to include more concrete examples here and here and here, for readers to be able to sink their teeth in better, to help them follow your abstract argument"; he didn't even include the ghost hunters example, that was mine).  Editing him always gladdens me, though, lets me feel less woefully outweighed by his intellect.  And he’s edited me, too, teaching me to trust in language’s ways of world-making–“believing in” my storytelling.

The lizards haven't stopped exercising, pumping up and down on their spindly forearms, as though in training for an upcoming competition.  I stare at them, stare into space, recall that I have let years pass largely in daydreaming, years and years, ticking me on toward forty.  But no thinking along a time line, not now, on such a strange Christmas morning, in a perfume soup of breeze, sitting in a plastic patio chair two thousand miles from any context of concern, breathing balm, taking these notes.

I've recently started peeking into books on Zen.  In Verses from the Center, Stephen Batchelor writes that, for the sage, “All things play in emptiness."  He quotes Shabkar:

Friends!  Mind does not emerge from anything...there is nothing there to hold on to.  It is not anywhere; it has no shape or color.  And in the end nowhere to go.  There is no trace of its having been by.  Its motions are empty motions...I am thought-free, vivid.

 

This calms me, of course, as would any exhortation to simply release.  Only, my mind feels so very unlike "nothing" to me.  When I have a pleasing, shapely thought, or write a good phrase, a crux of the pleasure seems to be that I am like the cat who's swallowed the canary; it's a secret score, solid food; I once told a friend, after I'd written well, "I am a total canary glutton."

Zen would caution, such canaries cannot be kept or held, lest they cease to be canaries.  But what else do I have going for me, really, but being this hungry cat?  My father has read--no exaggeration–several hundred times more books than me and can recall most of them extensively.  My strength will never be as a storehouse of knowledge, never; my lack of reading stuns me, yet most often I find I'd rather daydream or write than address this lack.  I loved Marilyn on "Northern Exposure," and whenever I get down to the nub of my own prowess (aside from a knack I have for editing others' writing), I can hear myself say, in Marilyn's pallid voice, devoutly unsophisticated, "I like to make up stuff."

I remind myself that in college, I liked Keats on "negative capability," the notion that the poet is empty of self yet filled  with world, able to be suspended "in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact or reason."  Maybe this is why I'm a good teacher, I can let the rough draft enter and instruct me, tell me where it wants to go.

In the shadow of my father's edifice of positive capability, all right, I'll muse upon the humble bareness of Zen practice.


        The meditator settles into a state of perplexity by focusing on a question such as "What is this?"  Far from [seeking a solution], such a question is an articulation of the mystery of life itself.  The penetration of this mystery requires that one not foreclose it by substituting an answer...to fill the emptiness opened by the question.

 

I am eager to travel deeper into the mystery of life itself, but I'm afraid this will require caffeine itself.  Inside the room, I find Dad hunched at the little desk, busy at his book.  At the end of a long, blue-tiled hallway, a nice man in the Inn's kitchen fixes me, for cheap, a whole pot of coffee and a glass of milk, on a tray with a thick blue napkin like a miniature table cloth.  Back in my chair, where I belong, I pour a cup, add milk, open a banana.  Swallowing my first gulp, I notice a lizard hop onto the patio and start toward me.  His tail is long and twists around, keeps twisting, as though too long for itself.  There are people now playing down in the pool, but not in my line of sight; two young girls run down the path, at my left, to join the fun.  Me, I'd rather hear the splashes than dive in; on beautiful summer afternoons, I often like to go into a dark theater for a matinee, because there's something lush about knowing that summer leans, ready and entire, just on the other side of that wall. 

Suddenly, a greater lizard–maybe eight inches long not including tail, meaty body vividly marked–appears on a rock.  I close my eyes, hear the two girls laughing below, and around me in the air, all the clean tunes. 

I know little about birds, especially this tropical sort, but have always thought how dry their calls are–a complete absence of liquid, produced inside a vacuum chamber where squeaks, clicks, clacks, trills, come up friction-free.  Each, a machine alone in deep space.  Oh, it can sound like fluid, but only because it's not.  Sealed, it agrees with itself, no false note or foreign influence within that safe voice box.    

Dad shows up at the door behind me.  "It's twelve o'clock," he says, "whatever that may mean."  I toss him a smile, and he recedes again.  He's only acknowledging what we both know--our timeless, placeless drift here at an arbitrary inn, out in the middle of the Atlantic.  He'd go on, he'd riff, if I weren't preoccupied.  He once confessed (and I forget what he referred to; it could have been anything), "God help me, but I do like to think of it." 

Some of these bird calls are, of course, unapproachably intricate, but others are comically simple, an endless round, each reiteration careful, emphatic, as though merely stating the obvious, but stating it, after all, selling it, with a straight face.  "You know, couscous is just like spaghetti," Dad said recently, "except for the length."

 


Christmas, 1988, he showed us four children a quirky Bill Viola video entitled, "I Do Not Know What It Is I Am Like." It was a montage of animals filmed from unusual angles, the standard breathtaking variety of forms heightened, now, by these angles, and close-ups that made what we were seeing hard to identify, at first, even if familiar.  The opening shot featured just a large dark shape, pitching about, lolling and jerking, staggering for balance like a drunk.  When the view pulled back, we could see that it was the eye of a cormorant trying to stay awake.

Twelve years earlier, in 1976, I remember walking from the kitchen toward the door into the living room, noticing something that protruded unrecognizably from the right-side doorjamb, about a third of the way up from the floor.  I stopped cold.  The jolt I received when I determined that what I was looking at was none other than the top half of my father's face, without a body, held exactly sideways so that the eyes ran parallel to the edge of the jamb, was the sort of jolt that becomes, for a time, a way of life, that takes whole seconds to build and build and turn your body to dreadful crystal.  I pitched against the wall, gripping my chest.  Dad stood up, a body after all, contrite but proud of himself.

 

When I cross my legs, the lizard with the too-twisty tail dashes away.  The cactus garden is filling with more and more lizards, as the sun climbs higher.  Watching them appear and travel their routes reminds me of being fascinated, in ninth grade, by a phrase I read in my physics text book–a fascination with a fascination, actually, with James Clerk Maxwell's boyhood attention to a machine, how he said he wanted to understand "the particular go of it."


Last winter and spring, while still trying to finish my novel, I'd consistently pop awake at five in the morning and then for an hour or more, in my mind, I'd glide over the top of the pages, like a tiny silent helicopter over beloved topography.  In the dim light from the window, I'd fill up a page or two with notes for revision, thinking each note must certainly be the last, plagued, wishing I could get back to sleep, and ecstatic that I could not, because here I was myself purely.  Whether or not they translated into a worthy novel, those notes were dear occurrences on their own–swift-stroke shorthand, so promising, mind showing mind to itself like the needless, necessary reflection of a gazelle by the cave painters at Dordogne.

I ponder on exactly this–needless, necessary–because while it's easy to thrill at the capacity to imagine, to make an image present before the mind's eye and to render it, what's elusive is, Why render it?  "What if someone from another dimension suddenly popped into this one," said my friend Eric when we were in college, "and saw us watching television or  movies, gazing at, of all things, little replicas of ourselves on the screen, speaking and interacting, doing what we already do anyway?  We fashion these replicas, then we look at them, and we find this moving?" 

I breathe invisible flowers.  This has been the perfect Christmas, just sitting here like this for five and a half hours, wondering "what it is that I am like."  The lizards are still performing their very important push-ups on palm fronds and prongs.  I'd rather be nowhere else on earth. 

 

1975.  Dad and I sat on the couch reading B. Kliban's book of cartoons, Never Eat Anything Bigger Than Your Head.  We paged through those plain, outlandish drawings, and each one made us laugh harder, until our stomach muscles suffered, tears ran down.  One page showed only the top half of a nun's face–glasses, habit–above the surface of water; the caption read, "Sunken Nun."  A two-paneled cartoon called "Keeping Bugs Away" offered first: a desk top infested (labeled, "Bugs"), and second: the same desk top, blank of pests (labeled, "Bugs Kept Away").

 

1966.  Martins Creek, Pennsylvania.  One day, my father took a break from writing his dissertation on Melville to go with me into the woods in search of my favorite character, Casper (the Ghost).   I was five years old.  We tromped around, looking inside bushes, behind trees, between big rocks, calling, "Casper, Casper, you there?" Probably, this lasted no more than twenty minutes, a silly lark for Dad, though to me it seemed an hours-long, deadly serious mission–two timeless hunters out in the forest, under a wild spell. 

 

Evening, we walk the pathway to Christmas dinner, again here at the Erebus Inn's dining deck, and again taking seats beside the anemic tinseled tree.  We listen to indefinite rock and roll through the kitchen window, and I start to feel deflated.  It's supposed to be a fancy dinner–a splurge, Dad's paying–and so I've borrowed one of his short-sleeved dress shirts, plum-colored.  

To any onlooker, how exquisitely bland would seem our Island Adventure!  We haven't even found a beach, swum in the sea, much less struck out cross-country like Cromagnon men, scouting, stalking, encountering the people of this land.  We haven't come across beasts.  We don't even tend to pounce upon risky menu items.  But our terrain is our terrain, and it, too, is fierce.  We’re a pair of Egghead Vivendis, mutually reliable within a surrounding environment of careless language and bland thought, getting each other’s backs–“Watch out!”

We order a bottle of red wine.  Dad seems slack tonight, detached.  Our waiter brings out plates containing apples, walnuts, raisins, greens--a salad reminiscent of Vermont in autumn.  Our wine arrives, and we drink.  And then, finally, what I've been hoping to hear; he asks me to tell him about the essay I've been writing all day.  I hit the highlights, and startlingly, he's got almost nothing to say, except to ask how long I think the essay will become, and I'm abruptly aware of an old sheepishness returning, a wooly sensation of mental inferiority, though I'm sure its cause, chewing apple across the table, wouldn't suppose.  I can become subtly hangdog--a sheepdog?–in the face, sometimes, of his seeming unimpressed with me, or then of his sheer prowess, how much he knows, the glare of his intellectual recall, the hungry constancy of his professional curiosity, a heat like fever, a flashing elastic brain-creature, which makes my own brain wear the wool.  Between times, I forget, but yes, it's always been an oppressive counterpart to the tuning-fork phenomenon.      

Nevertheless, better than this silence, and still believing I can strike a chord in him, I decide–as we cut into tender shingles of turkey, make headway on a curious tower of mashed potatoes that stands on each of our plates–to launch into a synopsis of a story I’ve been working on.  “The Pack” is about a man and his two kids who flee from a borderline crazy and definitely uncaring wife/mother, and who wind up working at a compound where dogs are being raised and put through some obscure training regimen.  The kids bestow affection on the pack, while the man cleans out their enclosures.  Well, the fact emerges, I tell my father–who looks suddenly tired, gray, as "Jingle Bell Rock" wafts out of the window–that these dogs are all descended from a common patriarch who, in his youth, evidenced a capacity to sniff out cancer, and not only skin cancer but also tumors deep inside the human body.  He's passed on this gift to some of his offspring, and new generations of dogs are being readied to pair up with people at cancer risk.  It further emerges, though, that this power of discernment may extend, among the young, beyond tumors to mortality per se:  two days before the patriarch dies, the puppies are seen harrying him, darting toward him to sniff his breath, "as though ravenous for these few rough bellows from a surviving ancestor."

Here’s where the plot really gets interesting, but first, I fall quiet.  Our dessert is some sort of dark, dense pudding, which we spoon up sadly.      

After all our talk about his own book manuscript, specific facets to be played up or cut down, better titles than The End of Belief, why won't he excite?  Can it be that what's fascinated me these past thirty years–the surprising shapes of language as it shows up in storytelling–seems to him simply an eccentric offshoot, a slim pursuit, such that the man himself, the genesis, can't spare a spark?          

The waitstaff is impatient for us to leave, lurking at the corners; it's their Christmas night, too.  Dad hasn't asked questions that would tease forth further nuances.  Pressed low, I haven't bothered to go into the more daring turns of “The Pack”–during which the entire issue of the wife/mother’s blameworthiness is thrown into question, as the dangerously perceptive puppies turn to sniffing at our diminished family itself, suggesting some oversight in their charitable judgment of themselves, some form of deserved doom–but I would have, at the slightest chance.       

It's humiliating to be so susceptible, still, at my age, to want almost to grovel: Didn’t I learn well how to wield meaning, how to avoid the literal and to deal with symbols and slanted implication?  Haven’t I picked up the dance you’ve been telling me about?

The breeze has turned stiffer, and we head back to our room, where I remove his plum shirt.  We execute our subdued bedtime preparations.  He takes his medications, including his sleeping pill, so it won't be long now. 

In bed, I give myself the sorry hangdog lecture: See, the tuning-fork trick with him can't last, and probably it should have died out years ago.  This wooly undertone that invades your brain is a natural gift, some sort of self-protective enzyme, courtesy of evolution.  Setbacks like tonight's are fortunate, since they open a necessary breathing space, force you back upon yourself, where you belong.  Can't you love the man for himself, without searching for your own impressive image in his eyes? 

Oh, how sweet and constructive.  No.  Tonight, I feel like a new approach:   Take him down.  His loyalty faltered out there in the field, which is costly.  He left you naked and exposed.  Next time, you might not make it.  He's a liability.  Find a stone, grab a thigh bone, swing it--kill him.  Crack that thin eggshell head of his.

We switch off our individual lamps.  He'll be asleep in three or four minutes.  Outside, commotion far and high, the wind storm kicking up; the palm lashes our window glass.  

In April, he will be sixty-five.  Sixty-five.  Someday soon, I remind myself, this Daniel Calhoun Noel will be an old man; the health problems will mount.  His face, in certain lights, has for a while now looked remarkably bloodless, haggard, splotched, and he's already on his way to having the chicken-legs of the elderly.  He's told me he believes his romantic career is simply finished.  It's been seven years since he's had love in his life, or even someone to kiss--since his partner Marie kicked him out of the house they owned together in New Mexico, answering his pleas for an explanation by saying only that over time, her feelings for him had vanished, that this lack was now fundamental, "skeletal."  When he refused to give up on the relationship, Marie had  barricaded him out of their house and tripped into a manic phase, becoming like a fierce warrior, maxing out her credit cards on exotic pieces with which to transform "her" space, like frightening African figures and masks that I and my sister Becky saw when we flew to Albuquerque to help him, entering the house thanks to court-mandated access, to retrieve his belongings. 

Marie assaulted a man at work, got fired from her job, was discovered, on one occasion, naked in a public elevator.  And while on a camping trip in the mountains with two female companions–one of whom had recently lost her husband–Marie suddenly began accelerating, alone in the lead car, eventually going eighty around tight ascending curves.  The second car could not keep up, and they decided to turn back for home, even though Marie's car contained not only all the women's clothing but the urn containing the husband's ashes.

Gone missing for two days, Marie appeared again and shrugged:  "Oh, I just felt I needed to get away by myself for a while."  When asked why she'd sped up so treacherously, she answered, "That wasn't me, at that point.  The angel was driving the car."

Years later, as we sat inside my car one night in winter, Dad told me that he'd never blinded himself to her penchant for rash behavior, had noticed the unsettling germs of a future solipsism, but that "I loved Marie anyway," and not just because she possessed compensating qualities, which she did; "somehow I loved all parts of her, bad things included, like complications; she was dappled."

Whenever he’d start lamenting the death of his love life, these past few years, I’d always tell him to stop being so melodramatic.

Now I speak across the dark gap between our beds. "It's bad to turn forty, very bad."  So those are to be the last words I’ll say in my thirties?

"Oh, yeah," Dad says, rousing himself, "happy birthday."

In less than thirty seconds, he's snoring.  "There he goes," I whisper.

 

The next afternoon, in a rare motivational coup, my father and I actually leave our hotel room for a reason besides food.  We go out in search of petroglyphs, ancient stone markings said to exist at the top of the tallest hill on the Island.  I've mostly forgiven him for last night and have also recalled, since, that it’s been after all none other than he who has lent me and my linguistic efforts, on so many occasions, the most hearty and particularized endorsements, singling out lines for praise, a partner in the dangerous field.  Not only this, but if he knew of it, he would likely applaud last night’s small and vicious parable of the thigh bone; if he’s taught me anything, it’s to imagine, and if to imagine, to imagine well and hotly.  

Driving along poorly marked, pitted roads, then stepping up scraggly pathways thick with brambles that prick our exposed legs, we make progress until suddenly, at the top, we're slapped in the face by the shimmering sheet of the Atlantic, boundless and blank, and in along the chalky beaches, your standard turquoise shallows.  On the minimal rock ledges up here we cannot locate a single discernable mark of prehistory, not a score or a scratch, much less anything like the faint images–elk, reindeer, woolly mammoth, bird, horse, gazelle–at Dordogne, where also represented on the cavern wall (Dad's added) is a human hand; this image, however, is not merely representational.  “The person’s actual hand seems to have been pressed flat on the stone,” he told me, “then colored plant extract was blown at it through a reed straw, outlining the fingers with a bright spray of pigment.”          

Up here, I find I can breathe, reminding myself I have a trick up my sleeve–The Forty-Nine-Year Plan.  See, I started my first novel the summer I was twenty-four.  I'm saying keep on writing, if I survive, till age seventy-three; notice, I don't ask for fifty years, which would be presumptuous.  See, on the Plan, I'm only seventeen--a mere apprentice, coming of age.  Just wait till my twenties and thirties...I like to make up stuff. 

Charles Schulz, another inspiration of my youth, drew his last panels forty-nine years after drawing his first, and then he died.  I heard him give thanks, in an interview, to the rich, compact world at his drafting table, where he reported each day.  Speaking about Snoopy:  "...And he plays hockey against the birds on the birdbath.  He's undoubtedly the best idea I ever thought of."

Then it hits me–here’s my best shot to swerve past my father, to set up a separate camp–his current book lacks concrete examples!  It quotes from other thinkers, bolstering its argument, proliferating sources and references.  No clear, arresting image, from its pages, sticks with me.  He's an intellect, not an artist.  Last night on the dining deck, he didn't turn from my excitement; he failed of it, called himself out.  He makes thoughts, not things of thought. Rumi said, "Let the beauty we love be what we do.  There are a hundred ways to kneel and kiss the ground."  For all that he knows and synthesizes and figures out, the man can't simply kneel like I do, can't kiss in my way.  He ponders the nature of the imagination, but some genie escapes him.  Oh yes, he masterfully interprets, but could he tease into view animal characters skating on a birdbath, or if so, would this be more than some throw-away dash of fun?  He'd never, then, tend to the creation dotingly, or, say, to a pack of dogs in fiction who possess an extra sense, caring endlessly what they might do next, terribly interested in what this might mean for the people I have invented who live within the story.  He's missing that extra, the chance at devotion.  Or so I, wielding the thigh bone again, let myself imagine, here on the hill–Hey, watch out now, poor little Egghead Vivendi. 

Bright sun makes us squint.  Atop a distant phone pole sits a raptor that my father identifies as an osprey.  Closer, bird calls make shapes in lieu of rock-art, offerings even more durable, escaping decay.  Dad adjusts his glasses and I decide to stare hard, for a moment, at his index finger–countless tiny nicks, a flaking cuticle, speckled nail, but there's something else, too.  Absurdly, and though the impression is quick, I consider how impossible it would be for me to bite that finger.  And then I flash onto myself as a small child, when I used to enjoy biting my mother's finger.  She was a good sport as again and again I'd try biting down hard, and always, before I caused pain, there'd come a strange, dangerous swoon near the base of my spine, and my jaw would spring open.  I'd laugh, because I liked to feel this swoon, and then to examine the finger and see where I'd left shallow dents, perforated rows, top and bottom. 

My own fingers made Dad laugh recently, in Santa Barbara, at his apartment’s front door, whose knocker happens to be an iron whale’s tail, a pleasant synchronicity spiraling him back to the mid-60s and his early Melville studies.  We were leaving to see a movie when he realized he’d forgotten something inside, so I reached to catch the door.  My fingertips just missed the edge, but I kept my hand in place for no reason other than to let the nails graze forlornly along the metal surface as the door slowly swung itself shut.  Dad burst out laughing, and this has made me inordinately happy ever since.  

Now we pick our way back down the hill and then start along the dusty road to where we've parked our rental car.  Anyone, from a hundred yards away, could peg us as father and son, could maybe guess our approximate ages–forties, sixties–by our lanky gaits, together.

What will I do without him?  His thoughts, water-tight so far and still surprising as the clicks and proposals in a songbird’s throat, will eventually dampen and break apart.  What if, after that, the tuning fork won’t sound?  But what if–because it will sound–I find I miss instead the occasional labored breath of humiliation, the hangdog low, this wool, even the wool?


 

                                                              II

A girl is waiting too, among the rest of us, late at night.  Burlington International Airport, August 23, 12:05 am.  

Twenty months have passed now since the Island. 

Maybe she’s nine.  The girl stands with her mother at the gate, and when her father comes into view behind the glass wall, and after he joins them, the look on her face is a mixture of almost painful admiration and almost painful chagrin for this admiration.  This makes me think again that contrary to my relativistic self-reassurances about the advantages of childlessness, I do in fact need to be looked at like that.  I cannot stop watching her watching him, even as I keep an eye on the issuing end of the passage leading from the jet.  See how the girl pretends it doesn’t bother her that he waits to hug her until he’s hugged her mother.  

How many times I’ve waited here for Dad and finally seen that loose-limbed emergence, then the long drive home, to include his easy stream of updates about the conference he’s just attended or, more recently, his latest efforts to feel at home in California–with little pressure for me to speak beyond the occasional sympathetic prompt.  Once, we were beset on the way back to Montpelier by white-out conditions and windshield wipers that kept getting clogged with chunks of  ice; we promised each other that if we made it through alive–going thirty miles per hour and often fishtailing–we’d reward ourselves with a carton of mint chocolate chip ice cream, the classic green variety, Breyers.  And so we did. 

Now this late-summer night, when Dad isn’t among the last off the plane, I figure I’ve missed him somehow and so take the escalator downstairs to check the baggage claim area and walk the short concourse.  Then, I travel back upstairs, but the crowd has thinned down to nearly nothing.  He’s left no message, I find, on my home machine.

It is a bleak drive home, the fifty-five miles.  I play the new James Taylor album and rack my brain to come up with benign scenarios.  This must be bad, I think.  But of course I don’t believe it; Dad has taught me, after all, not to limit the imagination by falling into literal belief, the reductive traps of “factual claims.”  Here is the ultimate brute fact, the literal coming down like a monolith that blocks out all the light, giving zero room for argument, adjustment, or play.

            I get home at 1:40 and feel it’s too late to call and alarm anyone, so I drink wine and

watch tv, then I play for myself the video I made for him to document the 1999 solar eclipse symposium in Cornwall.  “The Greek roots of eclipse,” he wrote in a post-conference essay, “refer to abandonment.”   In the dark living room, I watch again and again that rainy morning, the ruined culmination, see Dad sitting glumly against a rock, trying to stay warm and await the end of the world.  “Will we be abandoned while the monster seen in so many myth systems devours the sun?  Abandoned by God?  Or must we abandon much that we have cherished, perhaps starting with our narrow rationality, the sunlight of our dominating ego, willful and curious to a fault, eclipsed at the end by a lunar knowing, the moon’s shadow covering all the lands that have given us our consciousness?” 

Even while lying here on the couch refusing to learn my father’s fate, I can tell I am practice-grieving, already adjusting, and I feel melodramatic, but not quite silly.  It’s so unlike him not to call.  On the screen, the dark day darkens.  He wrote: 

Now I am on this ancient hilltop at the end of the earth with my fellow symposium-goers and there is a problem.  ‘Totality’ is less than an hour away and dark clouds and showers threaten to block out all the longed-for splendor.  And yet no one complains.  Indeed, when the rain comes harder, the crowd cheers, the eclipse-awaiting faithful.  Everyone is miserable.  Yet everyone is happy!  A beefy Cornishman perched two rocks over from me exclaims, “How can you have a proper Cornish mystical experience without mists and rain!”  This will be a better, or more strange, eclipse than one we could have seen in the sunny skies.  We are feeling privileged to be getting this doubly dark meta-eclipse, as though the weather itself were integrating the moon-made shadow.

And now the lights go out.  Immediately around the far horizon, a salmon sky

appears below the blackest clouds imaginable.  Things are thrown into silhouette in irrational ways: hillsides, houses, the distant mass of St. Michael’s Mount.  And, in this hour before noon, daystars do appear.  Not literally, mind you, but we have human lights down here, twinkling under the black cover: flash bulbs and wet candles and cigarette lighters on this prehistoric prominence; far and wide the automatic street lights come on and the farmhouses light up.  St. Michael’s Mount again tries to steal the show with floodlights and its own flare of flash bulbs way down on the bay, while fireworks shower above the curving harbor of Penzance.

 I blink out shortly before dawn. 

Wake at 7:45 to a bright Friday morning.  I should start calling, get the ball rolling, but I’d simply rather not, so I go back to sleep–waiting for something to happen--until after 9:30, when I force myself up, and everything begins to move quickly.  My sister Becky is sure we’re just not thinking of something obvious.  Mom instructs me to call the Santa Barbara police, who forward me localer still, to the Summerland Sheriff’s Department, who say they can do a “welfare check” on his apartment; I authorize them to break in if need be.    

This is at 11:10.  They don’t call back until 12:20.   In the interim, my mother’s white Subaru wagon arrives, and we sit and wait together, try to help each other feel normal.  She makes herself some tea.   We keep wondering aloud what could be taking the welfare-checkers so long: Summerland is a tiny suburb.  We think that the duration is probably good news, because it implies there is some ongoing, fluid situation underway, at worst a medical emergency demanding attention.  We strategize about when to call the Sheriff’s Department back.  At noon, I switch on “The Twilight Zone.”   With successful focus, we stare at the episode about a solitary woman who thinks she’s seen a UFO at her rural home.  She calls the police, and an officer responds, a decent sort of fellow who handles the woman’s fear with respect but with more than a hint of toleration, until they hear a noise and he runs outside to find that his cruiser has been lifted and then smashed back to the ground, and that it now bears a gigantic fingerprint.  He spends the night on the sofa, and in the morning sunlight they both feel much better.  She makes coffee and they decide to venture outdoors.  In a nearby field they come upon a hideous one-eyed giant that towers above them and seems to be approaching.   The officer shoots, and the giant deflates, punctured and  sagging to the earth like a Macy’s Day Parade balloon.  The two are nonplused, trying to make out what’s left over, now that the bluster has collapsed.  Mom and I are wondering too.

This is when the phone rings. 

“Mr. Noel, my name is Thomas Gillespie from the Summerland Sheriff’s Office.  I’m afraid I have some bad news.  We found him lying on the living room floor.  I’m sorry but he is deceased.  He was nowhere near the phone.”  He further tells me that Dad was dressed in blue sweat pants and white t-shirt (his usual evening uniform), and finally, “This is kind of graphic, Mr. Noel, but he had some vomitus on his face, and there was a rather large bowel movement in the toilet, which is fairly typical of people in extreme cardiac distress.”         

 “So he didn’t flush?” I ask. 

“No,” says Gillespie, “apparently not.”  

Like a movie-mom, Mom breaks down crying in the black chair next to the couch, and I sling my arm around her, like a movie son.  We get up and pace around outside on my front deck, spitting discordant thoughts; it’s a beautiful day.  She and I alternate the calls to my sisters and to a couple of Dad’s best friends.  I can’t quite catch my breath.

 

Nine days later, Becky and I stand staring at the iron whale’s tail.  During three plane flights to Santa Barbara, our sickness has only built.  We unlock the door, hold hands, and rush inside.  The place looks so strange, all full of exactly what we’ve expected–same old posters on the walls; piles of books and papers on the living room table; dirty dishes in the sink; crumbs on the counter; and sure enough, down there on the carpet next to the futon couch, a beige-brown patch area of dried vomit, which the coroner or the landlord has sprinkled white powder over.  

In the middle of the room, near the vomit, my sister and I hold each other up, saying, “We know him and love him, and he loves us.  This is not spooky, because he loves us.  We know him.”  And then quickly, we explore more thoroughly, and manage a swift exorcism.  His study, where he was still in the middle of writing his book on the nature of belief; his bedroom, where the bed does not look slept in, his jeans laid out neatly on top of the blanket, ready for the morning’s flight; no bags packed yet, leading us to conclude that he became sick early in the evening and never interpreted the symptoms as anything requiring an ambulance.  “Guy just fell over,” says Becky, which oddly improves our mood.   Lastly, we edge into the bathroom, to find that someone has flushed the toilet.  

For the next three days–after signing the order of cremation–we work, organizing, boxing, sweeping, vacuuming, scrubbing, getting help from kind souls.  I try to keep in mind what Brian, my FedEx delivery man, said to me when I told him about this upcoming mission with all its dizzying logistics; having recently lost his own father, he told me, “Now I know this is going to sound strange, but on this whole process, my only advice would be to savor it.”         

Becky shares a line from a book on midwifery; when a woman died in childbirth, the midwife would clean her carefully and consider this “the last office of friendship.”

Wednesday evening, at the end of our allotted time, we leave the apartment essentially spotless, exceedingly proud of ourselves, and we decide to take last turns inside.  After Becky emerges red-eyed from hers, I go in and shut the door.   I lean down over the toilet and kiss the seat lightly.  Then I report directly to the living room, take off all my clothes, and lie face down where Dad threw up and stopped breathing, though we’ve since rolled up the carpet bearing the stain.   I stretch out my arms and legs and feel an infant’s absolute dependence.   I whisper, “No more wool, no more wool, no more wool...”

Five days ago, I purchased a copy of Moby Dick, a Barnes & Noble Classic Edition costing a mere $5.95, so that a friend could read aloud, at the funeral, that epistemologically crucial chapter “The Whiteness of the Whale.”  The only trouble was that the volume’s printing abruptly ran out in the middle of a sentence, the last three words, before blank space, being “as if over.”  During my own eulogy, I told Dad about this serendipity, clued him in that I planned to use it against the witless fundamentalism of death:  “I’ll show you how many ways I can find to not take even this literally.”  Savor it.

Growing up in Pennsylvania, I used to enjoy riding at night in the back-back of our station wagon.  I would lie supine and gaze up at the sloping rear window, watch the colored lights slide silently over the glass, warped and spinning.  I lost myself to them, to their fluidity and ease; they seemed to lift the front of my head right off into their idea of a world free of friction or care, into the casual zeal of their combinations, their bursts and fades.  I’ve never felt safer since, or more promising, my father way up front, at the wheel. 

Website Builder