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Born to Run

What makes a man want to hide from his own life?


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A filmmaker named Eric told me a story about scattering the ashes of his older brother into a creek, one of their favorite boyhood haunts. Late one winter afternoon, Eric popped the lid, shook out the crumbs and pieces, and watched the current take them away. He said a prayer. That night, as if God wanted the story to be just right, the weather in the northeast sharply turned bitter and the season's first snow fell, delicately, like a benediction. Eric said it would have made a fine shot in a movie.

Weeks later, he went back. He walked along the ice-crusted bank and spoke to his brother, puffs of his breath floating away on the air. "I could almost feel his hand on my shoulder," he said, even through his heavy coat. The sun was low, a few stray flurries blowing around. Eric, sad as he was, couldn't help thinking again that the scene was, from a cinematic point of view, perfect.

"Then I came to a bend where a tree had fallen, a backwash," he said. "And there he was. My brother. He was congealed, a gray frozen clump, mashed and hardened against the bark of that tree."

Eric told the story to a table full of people. Someone tried to laugh at what might have been a punch line. A woman stared at her hands.

He said, "It looked like a huge barnacle, or some kind of obscene, petrified sponge." Nobody spoke. "I wanted to gather him up."

My father, from his hospital bed last year, said to me, "You know what I miss? Walking on a winter night, late, when it's so cold the snow crunches under my shoes and it's quiet except for some faraway traffic noise, and I'm walking under the streetlights. I can feel the air coming up my pant legs, and I'm just walking."

Dad shook his head. "I think crazy things now," he said. "I have dreams. Like, me and Al Nightingale went hunting and I couldn't make the goddamned wheelchair go through the mud. So I got out, folded it up, and walked with it! I had my gun in one hand and the wheelchair under my other arm."

The nurse brought a paper cup of water and three pills.

Al Nightingale was a buddy of dad's in Rockford, when my parents were still married and we lived on Thelma Street, before the divorce and dad's disappearance and his wandering.

Dad had been cleaning his gun in the kitchen. Mom was bitching about the housework and dad's general lack of initiative. This was during a period of heavy drinking in my father's life, and he was polishing the barrel of his gun while Mom complained, and he said to her in a slurred voice, "I could put you out of your misery." In about three minutes Mom had me and a bundle of clothes loaded in the car. We never went back.

Dad had lost touch with Al Nightingale more than 30 years before. I lost touch with dad for almost as long, but when I grew up I found him again, out on the flats of Colorado where he'd gone to live with his mother. She had died, and dad was alone in the big house. It was a period of heavy drinking in his life, but we began to put together some kind of long-distance relationship. Then, his accident.

He must have fallen as he stood up from his chair. He lay on the floor for two days, unmoving, twisted "like a garden hose," the specialist at the hospital in Greeley told me. Dad was paralyzed from about the middle of his spine down.

I came from Georgia to get him. So he could travel, dad was rigged up with a catheter that ran from his bladder to a plastic bag tied on his ankle. It was taped against his leg under his clothes. You would never know he had it, but the bag had to be emptied every few hours or the poison would back up in his system.

I was half asleep on the airplane when dad began rooting in his knapsack.

"Excuse me," I heard him say. I woke up. I thought he was talking to me. In his shaky hand he held out to the flight attendant a small, square bucket full nearly to the brim with bright yellow liquid.

"Would you empty this for me?" he asked.

"What is it?" she wanted to know.

In a calm flat voice he told her. She screamed.

I stayed in Georgia for a couple of years and got dad into a home. Then my own divorce and wandering took me all over the west, to places dad had been and many where he hadn't. I didn't plan to retrace his footsteps; I didn't know where his footsteps went. I just roamed, like he did, like men often do when they are heartbroken by failure and don't want to stay in one place long enough for it to show. I landed here in northern Illinois, less than a hundred miles from the town where it all started for us.

In March dad's doctor called from the Augusta VA hospital. "The time has not come, but your father has given us instructions," he said. "We need some documents from you before we can implement the advance directive. He doesn't want anyone jumping up and down on his chest." They'd already amputated his useless legs, bloated and marked with infected bedsores. He had been diagnosed with leukemia, his blood pressure had gone haywire, and his kidneys were failing.

The doctor called again in April.

"He was in and out of consciousness," the doctor said. "He had refused food and water. Early this morning he woke up, looked around, and said very clearly, 'I've had enough. Shut everything down. I'm ready to go.' We proceeded in accordance with his wishes. I'm sorry. I suppose you will be flying down."

Returning from Georgia with dad's ashes, I handed the metal box to the woman at the airport security gate in Atlanta with a certificate provided by the crematorium. She read the paper and looked at me, horrified, as if I'd handed her a bucket of pee. She shoved the box into the arms of another security person. I walked through the gate. The alarm went off.

"Over here," a man said, pointing to an X taped on the floor. I went to him but kept my eye on the ashes. They'd been relayed to a third security person, who was looking around for a handoff.

The man ran a wand up and down my spread arms and legs.

"We need you to remove your shoes," he said. I did. He rubbed one of my shoes with a piece of fabric held in some tweezers. He put the piece of fabric in a big machine. The alarm went off. Men with guns strapped to their shoulders came over.

"Can I have my dad back?" I said. He was sitting on a table with his certificate on top of him. The men with the guns edged closer to me.

Somebody in a suit came over with a spray can. He sighed and said, "Nobody panic." He opened the machine, sprayed, and did some wiping with a paper towel. Slow, careful wiping.

I said, "You can keep my shoes. I'm going to miss the plane. Please let me have my dad back."

The man in the suit, ignoring me, slammed the metal door shut, sighed again. He pressed a button on the machine. My shoes passed.

With dad on my lap in the airplane, I thought of the other jet ride we had taken together, and how things had gone for him before and after. "I'm sorry about the Popsicles," I said--quietly, it seemed to me, but a woman two seats away tilted her head and stared at me. My earliest memory of dad is in the house on Thelma Street, in winter. Our freezer was broken and my mother had put my Popsicles in a snowbank outside. I wanted one. Mom asked dad to get it. He yelled, turning the table over with a crash, and broke our plates.

I'm sorry about what happened in California, I said, this time in my head.

After we left dad had gone overseas and met a woman who wanted to live in America. She got pregnant and they married. Dad, settled again in an ordinary home outside Los Angeles with another child, was depressed. This was during a period of heavy drinking in his life, which made the depression worse. His wife signed papers for shock treatments. When they let him out of the hospital, he went back to Rockford to visit his father, and when he returned to California, all of his belongings were on the front lawn. He was getting divorced again.

"I'm sorry," I said once more, aloud.

Then, 35,000 feet above the ground, my father and I drifted into one of our many conversational lapses. A similar period of vacuumlike silence had taken place a few months after his accident.

Sunday afternoon. He had just finished begging me to get him a handgun. We argued. Assisted suicide, I said. The Bible Belt prosecutors here would put me away faster than you can say "Jack Kevorkian." Things will get better, I said, having no idea how they might.

Dad said, "I can get a gun without your help. I know how to get one."

I said, "You'll have to do it that way then."

He held his head in his hands and wept, taking a long time to stop. The courtyard was full of birds and I watched them.

I told dad I knew a woman who was considering an abortion. Something dramatic was called for at that moment, something not involving us, and I came through. Dad sniffed. He wiped his nose with the back of his hand and rubbed his face.

"Ah, you can't ever know," he said.

I suppose he meant you can't ever know how life might turn out, or what plans to make.

He said, "It's not the worst thing."

Then he said, "Your mother had an abortion." The birds were mostly sparrows, with a bright male cardinal hopping through the flock.

"You were two years old," Dad said. "She took care of it."

I pictured the baby who didn't get born as a brother. I couldn't ask mom, who might have been told by the doctor--the one who scooped out the embryo like a glob of snot, I imagined, and whacked it into a trash can--because mom was no longer with us. They found her collapsed in the old farmhouse outside Rockford where she'd been living with her Salem cigarettes and potato vodka and the curtains drawn.

"Your father called me yesterday," she told me one afternoon when I was up from Georgia. "He wanted to tell me how sorry he was about how everything turned out and how it was all his fault, and he said he didn't know how to treat a woman in those days but he does now and it's too late. I hung up on him."

I asked dad about the conversation. He said, "Yeah, I called her. I said all that. She hung up on me. I called her right back and said, 'Hey, don't you hang up on me!'" We both laughed.

I picture the baby as a brother, now an adult man. He would walk with me in a few weeks, before the weather turns cold, and together we'd scatter the ashes of dad into lakes and streams outside Rockford where he fished in the days when he had legs. I fished with him once or twice, or I sat on the grass and watched; my memories of those early times are not complete, and dad's were taken by the electroshock.

My brother would carry the box. He will carry the box. He will open the lid, plunge his hand into the ashes and fling them, making them free. I, the older one, will try to say a prayer, but I'll stammer and pause, godless, and my brother will speak the rest of it, clear and strong across the sun-rippled waters, like in a perfect movie. When he's finished he will sink to the grass. I'll kneel beside him and put my hand on his shoulder. I will gather him up.

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