A Broken Tree
My first memory of my father—your grandfather—begins only with the sound of typing. He appears, young, writing his first book on what must be our old Commodore 64. He’s using his index fingers to strike each key, like he’s still on a typewriter. I’m standing behind him, in the doorway to his office, eyes level with his desk. Dusty light swirls in from the window like pond water jarred and held up to the sun. I’m thinking of the summer heat beyond the glass, bugs swimming through the humid air, woods whispering the names of would-be explorers. But here I am, inside.
From this angle, I can’t see his face—just his body, stooped over the keyboard like a pitcher pouring itself out.
Nearly three decades later, your grandmother calls. My father has had a brain aneurysm. With retirement mere weeks away, he was under more pressure than ever to finish well. Though always the constructivist, he insisted “pressure,” like “stress,” was simply a metaphor, toothless.
She says he was happy for the final few hours. He suddenly forgot where he was and just grinned and chatted as they drove to the hospital. Then, in the waiting room, in the middle of a story, he laid his head on her shoulder, tenderly, she says, and closed his eyes.
That great crackling city of his brain, which remained neon day and night for six decades, went finally dark.
Your grandmother says she can’t decide what to do with all his books.
Southern Indiana is bright and softly gridded. Fields of canola blooms swell like a sea of settled pollen around our bridge, the highway. The sky stretches above, blue and cloudless. Set back from the road, old billboards succumb to the stolid press of trees. Panels are missing and messages are partial: “Why settle—” or “Call 8—” or “—happy.”
Your mother is sick with you, so we pull onto the gravel roadside. She opens her door before we’ve stopped, swivels in the passenger seat, plants her feet on the ground, and heaves twice, spitting afterward.
I remember our second date, when I drank too much and your mother drove me home. This view of her bent over, back tense anticipating the next spasm—this is the view she must’ve had of me that night. I’d asked her to pull over, and I remember sitting like she is now, numbly disconnecting a beaded strand of saliva from my bottom lip, watching it arch from my fingertip in the night breeze like silk web till it came unstuck and flashed into nothing.
I met your mother just under a year ago, when I was finishing seminary. I’d spent three years in books there, standing ankle-deep where reason lapped at the shore of the unknowable, squinting against the dark.
Your grandfather opposed my religious studies. On the cheap pine table he bought the year my twin brother left college and I first considered graduate school, he opened a notepad and drew concentric circles over and over. God, he said, left all the pieces of a great existence scattered around the universe. It took meticulous observation—the kind of careful examination your mother is using on the gravel between her maroon Keds right now—to piece together this model. He asked me what theologians examined but themselves.
My father was an anthropologist, and a good one. He taught me that nothing is more beautiful than God’s created order and our created order. Ethnography, he would say, is a beautifully pure pursuit.
After seminary, longing for laymanship, I became a journalist and critic. In that work, I quickly learned that everyone stands on the same shore I did in seminary—only most of us turn from the dark, act as though the backs of our necks don’t prickle.
I met your mother at a house party just before graduation. We were both sipping whiskey with the caution of early evening, and she was wearing a maroon sweater that gave her brown skin warmth you could feel across the room. Orange shocks of hair in her Afro radiated out from her freckled face like sunrays. After refilling my glass, I sat beside her.
We talked about God, our parents. Your mother, who moved into her own apartment at fifteen, had come to seminary to find a father, yet every description of God sounded to her like a mother. She wanted children who could be children, a family strong enough to stay together, things she’d never known.
We shared the couch that night, our bodies fitted together, my arms wrapped around her from behind. In the dark of early morning, she turned and pressed herself against me, and I tasted the mild invitation of alcohol on her lips.
I don’t mean to make you uncomfortable, imagining your parents as young or passionate. I just mean to tell you we understood each other and loved with certainty that first night. It was only out of decorum that we dated three months before marrying.
We’re in an Indianapolis drive-thru when my mother texts. My older sisters are already driving up, she says. They’ll finish grading finals in Indiana. She asks if my brother might rather hear the news from me.
During my engagement to your mother, your grandmother the physicist described marriage to me. If you look up at night, she said, certain stars burn brighter than others. The reason, for some, is that they aren’t single stars, but binary systems. For each massive body you add, she said, a solar system becomes less stable. But two-star systems are common enough.
Stars together, she explained, aren’t like Earth and the Sun, one orbiting the other. Instead, they orbit one another simultaneously, in a drunken sort of dance around an invisible, shifting center. When one body gravitates left, the other glides down and away. Each star is always just late, catching only the fleeting scent of a partner already departed.
The trick, said my mother, is to treasure the near misses.
My parents met in school—like your mother and me—but my father never told a story of romance. Your grandmother was simply one of the girls with whom he exchanged letters after graduating. The other correspondences fizzled, and my parents were married.
Your grandparents loved each other truly, but it was a pragmatic love grown over time into dependence, reliance, and only then, in an odd inversion, that uncomfortable and liberal stomach-love—like when you ache for a stranger across a room.
I missed one brief