What’s the T.S. Elliot line?
April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Three years ago today, my dad, after an epic and days-long struggle with chemo-related pneumonia, breathed his last breath. In true Joel Dobbin fashion, it was as much on his own terms as he could swing it. He didn’t want to die in a hospital bed. By dint of sheer will power, he kept himself alive long enough for us to get him home. It was a mad rush of logistics; arranging for medical supplies and oxygen generators. I spent the night previous at the ICU with him. All night. He was lucid and aware, even though medical science said he should have been far from it.
April 17th, 2009. It is really only now, with this much time and distance from that day, that I can honestly examine the memory of it.
I’ve got moment-memories and snapshots that crop up from time to time, but I generally don’t go back to that day. In the confines of my head, I mean. It has been too white-hot, all the actual reality of it. My daughter, 4 years old, crying in the bathroom. The hollow sound of the car-door closing as I walked to my parents door, now for the first time in a world where he no longer lived. Stepping outside in the night air with my brother, quaking from the mind-bending unreality of the then-current reality.
Time and distance. Here’s something. Think about it this way. Givens: that the Earth revolves around the sun at 90 miles a second or so and that the solar system travels at 136 miles a second in the revolving of the galaxy and that the galaxy itself moves at 185 miles a second.
So along the Universe’s timeline, the you that existed a second previous, reading that last sentence, was at least 411 miles away from the one in the current second. Physical distance traveled, just by sitting perfectly still.
Conclusion: The me that arrived at my parents house to sit next to my dead father’s body is (if my math is correct, which is always a questionable proposition) physically distant 38,883,888,000 miles from the me typing at a keyboard right now. 38 billion miles.
And there are times when it seems that far and then some. But not today. Today it is as close as the next breath. Tomorrow, it will go back, but today is different. Today I mourn my dad.
See, here’s the thing. I don’t mourn all the time. Even when I remember or summon up moments and events to turn them over in my head and try to see them from this or that angle, I don’t actively mourn. I also don’t have the time or luxury; there are two little girls and a beautiful woman in my life that need me present in the present moment and I am very glad to ride it with them, most of the time. And all of my littlest one’s care and her journey, this past 3 years have been their own epic. And one that does not allow for a split in attention. This is not to say I don’t feel sadness from time to time, or the piercing of the sudden bittersweet moment– there have been many instances of one of my daughter’s numerous triumphs where I’ve been acutely aware of just how much joy my father would have had from sharing the moment. Still. That is its own thing, and those are moments: it is not mourning. I feel a sadness then, in those moments, not expressly for me, but rather for him, that he did not get to see enough or know enough of them.
There are those who will not believe it, but to be honest, I very seldom mourn for me.
I cannot and will not mourn every day. It is neither seemly or healthy or beneficial to me or those that I love. N or a particularly good way to honor the legacy of a man I loved.
But today, I let myself really mourn. For me.
I’ve mentioned the notion of a timeline; a kind of model of the universe wherein individual keyframes are strung together- a collection of instances in motion. In musical graphing, it would be the space from the first note to the last, along the measured lines of notation.
So what I do today, on April 17th, is this: I play the song again, as best I can. I head out alone in a car and go to every house I remember living in. The first is easy; it is not too far from where I live now.
Stop one: 1974-1978. I sit in the parking lot and I breathe in and out. A barrage of different images and moment memories rise up. It is like a magic spell of sorts; the ritual act of location and the angles and geometries of perspective unlock sympathetic, dimly lit neurons and unfold and unpack the compressed years encoded somewhere in the folds of electric maps some few inches into my skull.
A Mattel big wheel, pulling the plastic lever to perform a 180 spin and stop. Sitting on a bed, watching my dad change the snakes newspaper lining in the cages. A brown truck delivering a large tin of Charles Chips. The Wizard of Oz on TV. Battle of the Planets. A blue toy robot on the stairs. Red berries on green shrubs that run with a clear and sticky sap; the neighborhood kids using them in impromptu games of tag– squeeze one and throw it, if it sticks, you are “it.” Word around the neighborhood is that they are poisonous. Driving with my father to a play rehearsal; ZOO STORY– I play with the thick rubber prop knife as they run lines. I mouth the lines as they speak them; I’ve memorized the play before my dad. I look again and suddenly I see a sort of overlay of the same area, now blanketed with a blizzard’s worth of snow. I don’t see-it-see it, but you know. I see it. His yellow car pulling up on a Saturday, early afternoon, delivering my brother and sister for the weekend. I must be two. I am pushing open the metal storm door (the narrow galley kitchen is to my left; faux brick) and yelling, “Do you want to hear me count to 100?” to my sister as she climbs out of the car. “No!” she answers cheerfully.
And then I’m off. Now across town. We didn’t live here too long. Just kindergarten, and not all of it. I was afraid of the house; it was old and smelled old. I was afraid of vampires. My dad poured “magic powder” across my windowsill to act as proof against them. Here we ordered SEA MONKEYS from a cut-out advertisement in a comic book. He warned me they would disappoint, I refused to believe him. He was right. I breathe in and out again. This isn’t exactly how I do it, but it serves as the best analogy I can think of: imagine a chest. Pirate’s chest; old wood and curved top– heavy and serious metal bands and one of those skeleton-key style keyholes on the lock mechanism. I look at the place, the house, the geography, and I let the box click open. I don’t know what will be in the box, I just let it open up.
A bus ride, the humming, bumpy nature of it, holding onto my Quasar, MAN OF ACTION action figure. A collie dog; the dog smell of him; long dog fur that has been wet with rain and dirty puddle water, then dried in the sun. Fritz, that’s his name. My grandfather’s dog. My first bicycle ride: my father is running behind me, holding on to the back of the seat. Then he is not and I’m doing it all by myself. Then I fall. I’m still happy, though, because now I know that I can. My father, digging a garden, forehead wet with sweat. I bring him iced tea; I mixed it myself. It is almost a 50/50 solution of sugar-powder to water, but he downs it in one long pull, his Adam’s apple bobbing up and down with each gulp. Boxing gloves in the kitchen. Show and tell! I bring an Eastern Hog’s Nose snake in a pillowcase and my teacher shrieks in terror as it moves after I spill it onto the floor in the middle of the circle of kids. A tent my dad sets up in the lawn because I want a fort. It is tan and has red panels.
The lid closes, or I close it, I don’t know. I’m done here. I drive off.
Now, we’re getting somewhere. Oxford: 646 Chestnut Tree Hill Road. 1979-1981. Not a long stretch of time objectively, but these two years occupy a decade’s worth of space.
Here, in this tiny little house, is where I started to actually grow up.
Oh, it is so small. It was green, then. It is white now. There was a weeping willow out front and a tarpaper shack to the side; both are gone. Gone too is the cow-fence behind the house. But it doesn’t matter. I can put it there. That’s how it works, it seems like. Who was it, Thomas Wolfe? The guy who said, “You can’t go home again.” He wasn’t right, exactly.
It is all different and I can’t even begin to imagine the number of miles distant I am from the Josh-Dobbin who played here, it would show up on a calculator as one of those weird series of numbers then an E. But still: driving up this rambling, twisty road with new green leaves and fronds of fresh spring growth– it isn’t that it feels like going home, but rather, I am transported in some respect to a space and time when it did. There’s a difference there, but I don’t exactly know how to describe it.
My oldest daughter is the age now that I was here, then. I’ve got a storehouse of memories already associated with this place: where my father brought me into the world of karate; he enrolled me with the adult class and told the teacher to “treat me like a Korean.” They were old friends; they had both been in Korea at the tail end of the war. My dad takes the class with me. But these are not what I came here for. I pull the car over to the side of the road and somewhere, I find the latch to the chest that this place holds. It is all over in a matter of seconds, this unfolding. But there are years in there.
A peeper frog in a plastic collection jar; the jar is fluted and has holes like a cassette-player speaker on top, to let air in. We put a leafy stick in there and bunch up wet paper towel. We keep him for a day, then let him go. An orange sweater with a palm tree; capital letters in an arch across it: MIAMI BEACH. Under it, straight across: FLORIDA. A 45 record, being played in my room: it is a Superman story, in the style of a radio play. A spear on the wall; a boar-hunting spear. A slot-car race-track. Kittens in the bottom drawer of my dresser; it is lined with blue paper. Walking through the woods, my dad fashions an aboriginal throwing stick; we spend time trying to figure out how to use it. A game with his Buck knife he teaches me; throwing it at the ground into an ever-decreasing set of scrape-drawn squares in the dirt. Milkweed. A rock collection. Running with a butterfly net, catching fireflies and collecting them in a glass jar before letting them go. Listening in the morning, from my bed, to his cough from outside as he walked the dog. It was comforting; the cough– I knew he was there. Throwing I-CHING coins after school. (That one surprises me and I question it: I was in 2nd grade? But yet, there it is: I’m home after school– I’m a latch-key kid, the key is on a leather strap around my neck, and my instructions are to go inside immediately, lock the door behind me, and call my mom’s 1-800 number to let her know I’m there. I lift up the I-Ching kit box’s cover and there’s an incense smell and the book is bound and tied by fancy strings. I spend my equally time transcribing hexagrams and then tracing Hank Ketcham DENNIS THE MENACE drawings from thin paperback books.
There are more. I guess I don’t need to put them all here. This place is packed with memories. It is all a matter of seconds. I drive away and process them. I cry a little bit. I went to other houses and places, too, but it is all essentially self-referential, so I’ll write only about the other places I go on this day.
The next place is weird.
See, my dad was cremated. There’s no gravesite to visit. But still, I feel like there should be some place to go to acknowledge the idea of death-in-life. So I borrow a grave, kind of. I drive down the road from our old house to Gunntown Cemetery. It’s a colonial-to-1800s old boneyard and my dad used to collect snakes there when he had lectures to do. See, a nocturnal hunting snake will often warm its body by a headstone, which has retained more heat from the day’s worth of sun than the surrounding grass. This cemetery in particular has some history. Here’s a fun story:
Sometime in the late 70s. My dad has a lecture at a school booked in a week or two. So his MO is that he spends that time collecting wildlife samples from the area to demonstrate the biodiversity of the places right in the “backyard” (so to speak) of the lecture. This means midnight graveyard runs for black racer snakes. Now, one of the best and most economical snake collection tools is the common cotton pillowcase. Breathable, easy to tie and untie. So he’s there, with a flashlight, a pillowcase and, because he’s Joel Dobbin, a pack of cigarettes. He’s collected a goodly number so far, and he’s resting, leaning up against the back of a large headstone, wondering if he should call it a night when he hears a car pull up.
“Oh shit,” he thinks. “Cops.” How to explain this set of odd circumstances in a way that won’t get him arrested or shot? He begins to mentally prepare the speech and figure out the best way to seem and sound “normal” for being in a century’s old graveyard in the dead of night with a bag full of snakes. No easy task. But then, there’s nothing. No blue and red lights, no wash of flashlight beam. He dares a peek from around the stone.
There is no police car. There are teenagers. A boy and a girl. Suddenly, it all becomes clear to him. This boy has brought some girl here with tales of haunted legends and roaming ghosts, and he’s going to scare and impress her with her bravery and use the adrenaline rush of fear to speed the process of getting to as many bases as possible afterwards. My dad is not unsympathetic to such a move, so he waits for them to leave. But they don’t. And he wants to go. And they don’t leave. This is a logistical problem.
Then he looks down at what he has and a plan forms. Pillowcase. Flashlight. Snakes. Cigarettes.
And he acts. It means losing the snakes he’s collected, but hey, when does THIS opportunity come along? He dumps them out, puts the pillowcase over his head, lights a cigarette for “mood smoke,” and clicks the flashlight under his chin in the pillowcase and rises slowly up from behind the stone. He intones in a gravelly and horrible voice, “WHO… DISTURBS NOW.. MY SLUMBER?!”
They, as you may imagine, left the graveyard. With a quickness.
So, now here I am, 2012 and it is sunny and brilliant and everything is just about as close to how it was in 1979 as you could think. Also, 1879.
Here’s the thing about old graveyards. They’re different than the modern ones, with impossible rows and fields of neat and even stones and crosses and monuments. Those kind of places, to me, tend to overwhelm with volume; you can’t begin to consider the actual people associated with each rock. At least, I can’t. It all becomes an abstraction.
But in an old, old graveyard, just the size of a large lawn, there’s an intimacy, if that word isn’t too macabre; which is to say: it is a number you can wrap your head around. The names and numbers become, for a moment, ideas of actual people. You become aware, by a series of different things, of the juxtaposition of death among life, life among death. Time and a series of frosts have thrown the earth this way and that; some stones are worn to nubs, others covered with cruel and obscuring moss and lichen. It gives lie to the notion of a “permanent” monument, the idea that carving in stone is an act that defies time. Time is a sonofabitch and he’ll win eventually.
I guess this, too, is an abstraction, but at some point, what isn’t? In any case, here is what I do:
I get out of the car and I walk the graveyard. I don’t have a place to go, so I borrow theirs, these once-ago people. I stand over at the stone where my dad once hid and I try to imagine the scene. Then I do something I’ve been doing on this day for the past two years, and I suspect I will do it again if I’m allowed the opportunity. It just seems like the proper and right thing to do.
In exchange for providing me this place, I look at the names, and, if they’re legible enough, I speak them plainly aloud. I push borrowed air across my living throat and speak their dead names, just for this one moment, this one time a year. When I leave, I say “thank you.” But I don’t say my dad’s name. I wait for that.
Then I go for a walk into the woods. Like my dad used to. I find a place we used to go, or a place he used to go, and because he can’t walk there now, I walk there. And I go far into them enough so that there’s nothing but woods. Today was especially nice. Warm and breezy. The only sounds anywhere are the crunch of my own footfalls, the occasional call and answer of a bird in the distance and the sometimes buzzing of insects near my ear. I try to pay attention to everything and not think at all; not with words, anyway. Here’s a moment from today:
I came across a split and fallen tree; looked like a lightning strike. The long pole was forming something of a triangle with the part of the tree still standing. There was an odd vine-growth attached to it, and it made an unusual bend outwards; something approaching a ninety degree angle, which is not a familiar one in the surroundings. And I noticed a rainbow-bend of light, there in the crook. I got myself under it and looked up. A spider’s web. So intricate and well constructed, this latticework of lines, all liquid and solid at the same time.
I stayed there for what may have been a long while, just looking up at it. I’m not sure. Maybe it was only a little while. It felt long.
It all seemed to make a certain amount of sense, in a way that began to slip away as I tried to attach words to it. The fleeting nature of imposed structure, the insistence of Life asserting itself where ever it has the opportunity to do so. Our various houses, all spiderwebs, of sorts, lasting only so long, changed or broken down by time, but continuing on, down the line. I don’t know, it is hard to sum up. So instead of trying, I chose that moment to say my dad’s name, out loud, to the open air; to have it be formed and sounded, if only for a moment.
Here’s the thing. If there’s a “the thing” to be had. It is, all of it, so very beautiful. Time, space, cycles, life, death, birth, spring, memory, all of it– everything. Time is beautiful. There’s not enough of it, but that’s beautiful, too. There’s a moment when you realize “Holy fuck, there’s nothing but beauty, everywhere!” You can’t live in that moment all the time, just like you can’t mourn all the time. But you can get there, I think, at some point, in mourning. Like a Moebius Strip or a Klein Bottle; you go far enough and somehow, you’re on the other side and back again.
Today I mourn my dad. His name was Joel Dobbin, and my god, did I love him so much.