IT HAS HAUNTED ME for years and I scarcely know how to explain it, this sense that I am an echo of my father's life. On the surface the reasons are plain enough. Our professions are similar. We both seem to be the ones who blink when family pictures are snapped. The two of us share the same way of sprawling in a chair. But there is a deeper connection, a kind of sympathy, which rises from the sense that my fate is rehearsed in his.
I was first conscious of it in high school. When my father's mother died, the family gathered at a cemetery in southern Vermont. The shaggy pines were filled with crows. My grandfather had handled the arrangements. He chose the headstone. The top was book-shaped, lying open like an unabridged dictionary on a stand. He had always liked to say, "That's one for the book!" Perhaps this was the book he'd been talking about. Engraved on the right was the name of his wife with the years of her birth and death. Facing it, his name and the year of his birth. And then a dash, which trailed into blank rock and the unfinished business of his life.
What that gesture did! For him in his mid-70s all roads led back to the Dellwood Cemetery, these green trees and graveyard crows. In spelling it out, he had compelled us to brood on the day we would be back to bury him. When the long transit of his life was a punctuation mark between two years, his son would assume the responsibilities of family elder, and I would stand where my father had been, roused out of my reverie, a generation closer to the edge.
As long as my father lives, I enjoy a kind of shelter. The tangible fact of him -- the breath he draws, the aces he serves, the seven-letter words he lays down on the Scrabble board -- these postpone the hour I will be forced to come to some mortal reckoning of my own. In a sense he protects me from time.
Surely this is true of all fathers and sons. How else is it that even old men look young in the company of their fathers? A son never ages in relation to his father, and a father, even if young himself, is still "the old man." It's a phenomenon that has as much to do with the mind as the body. The son who looks across this fixed span of time, this immutable interval that separates him from his father, enjoys the illusion of unending youth.
Of course the son's lot is a state of perennial subordination. He senses that in some way his life is checked on the threshold of an absolute maturity he will not possess until his father no longer looms over him. But surely the possibilities of sympathy and tenderness are compensation. I have watched my father grow old as he watched his father grow ancient. Even at 60, a boyish aspect stole across his face when he stood beside his 90-year-old "Pop." What a thing it seemed to be closing in on Social Security, with your hair gone gray, and still, the countenance of the son shining there, through the mask of age!
This year the chisels came out to cut 1985 and close the book on my grandfather's life. He was 92. Cancer struck swiftly. My father had time to see him shortly before the end. The two men did what they had done for half a century -- disputed the political issues. As he made his goodbyes, my father spoke what proved to be his last words to his father.
"So long Pop, see you Sunday."
That was it. Pop died two days later. In New York it was raining for the first time in weeks. I rode with my father to Connecticut, en route north. "I'm an orphan now," he said. "When somebody who's such a big part of your life is gone, it affects your definition of yourself." He looked exhausted -- the creases were as deep in his face as they had been in my grandfather's.
He had spent the day writing a eulogy on a sheaf of file cards. As he sat there sorthing through the cards, he seemed to age before my eyes. Time tugged at him, like a current of water running from a ruptured dam. "So long Pop . . . ." I could feel those words on my lips. What would our last words be?
When I looked again, the train had rocked him to sleep.
All through the funeral I had the sense of being shown some intricate maneuver. After the minister's shopworn prayers, my father rose to his feet and walked to the altar with his sheaf of cards in hand. The little light in the pulpit cast a ghastly hue. His voice was unsteady -- he was trying to read from the cards and talk from the heart at the same time. He struggled under the double burden of shyness and grief. I knew then that he could have married my mother solely on the basis of her faculty for theatrical effects, for he had none.
But it was not a public-speaking class. He acquitted himself with dignity. He carried out the heart's orders. Having risen as a man's son, he returned to his seat as a family's patriarch. It had not undone him to take his place out on time's leading edge. I'm guessing he even drew a bit of strength in looking after those who needed his protection. There were conferences with lawyers and bank trustees, family matters calling for a judicious elder. I suppose what the son learns is that there is a shelter in the act of giving shelter.
We're not a morbid bunch. When my father told me recently I had been appointed executor of his will -- a family office at last! -- I learned he wanted a burial at sea. Easier for me as executor, perhaps, than satisfying my mother's oft-repeated request to be buried under the Opera House at Lincoln Center.
Still these black hours bear down on me. Each day we live we tempt fate -- the chisels hover near the stone. It's more than I can manage to imagine the day I must gather my thoughts to prepare my father's eulogy. But our ceremonies are dense with meaning. In a way it's been done already.