My son emerges into the world gray and slick. I know he is dead. I have dreaded this day because I do not know if I can love a child. Not in the way he or she deserves.
My mother leaves when I am nine months old. My father is desperate. He cannot raise me by himself. I live with different friends. First in Canada, then with other friends in North Carolina. I am with them for several months. I am led into a darkened bedroom. Afternoon light is coming in through shutters. The mother is dying of cancer and I am to say goodbye. I think this is my first memory.
Back to Canada and my father’s parents. They are in their sixties, but they take me in with glad hearts. I am three years old. I am with them until I graduate from college. I have friends—an extended family of friends. The absence of my father leaves me with an inner coldness that I fear. I read a lot when I am alone.
I have one photo of my mother. She is smiling, blond hair falling to her shoulders, her skirt flaring around her. In the background is a house with a porch. I may have been there. I can’t be sure. There was a porch and a house and an old man and woman speaking kindly to me in French. So . . . her parents then. So she was French Canadian.
I am with my wife as she gives birth. My son is gray. I am sure he is dead. But then in seconds—hours, it seems—his robust cry transfixes me. He blossoms pink, then red. Then Love crashes in, a tsunami of feeling that narrows my vision to a single point. Reason, control, diffidence — all is dwarfed by this mighty rock of love, solid and sudden, in my soul’s desert.
Years later, my father has died three thousand miles away. My sister calls me. It was a brain tumor. I put the phone down and turn away. I have no tears.
Months later, maybe a year, I am riding at night with my love. She is driving. I slip a CD into the player and I hear Eric Clapton.
“Bit by bit, I’ve realized
That’s when I need them
That’s when I need my father’s eyes.”
And, with relief, I weep.