I recently finished The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead, by David Schields. As the title suggests, it’s a kind of essay/meditation/memoir about getting old. What the title doesn’t tell you is that in it, Schields addresses at length his relationship with his father.
His father, the story goes, is a 96 year old ubermench, more active and able-bodied in his 9th decade on this planet than the author is in his 5th. There is hubris and exaggeration in this claim, but it’s a psychological portrait as much as anything else: we can forgive his conjuring of childish pride.
Schields packs the book full of his own observations about the changing human body—his own, and that of his father—and with memories of being youthful and active and flawed, and he combines all this with scientific trivia about the aging process. Did you know that for women ages 50 to 78, it takes 1 to 5 minutes for vaginal lubrication to follow sexual arousal? Now you do.
It was an interesting read, but one thing kept standing out, nagging me, not letting me completely buy into the athletic drive of Schields’s prose: he mentions his mother all of three or four times, and she died when he was in adolescence. That is to say, here’s this book about death and family, and Schields almost actively seems to avoid one half of his parentage.
Obviously, all authors create frameworks to work within. In the broadest sense, if you don’t put limits on the scope of your book, you will never stop writing. But even without the absurd extreme, I can fully sympathize with the need to single out one parent and ponder the specific relationship you have with that person, especially if that person is exceptional, as Schields’s father surely is.
So what was the problem? Why couldn’t I get past it? Strangely, once I’d finished the book, this issue stayed with me longer—or at least more potently—than the book’s ostensible topic. And the answer didn’t come to me until I was going back over a manuscript that’s taking up permanent residence on my hard drive.
Here it is: most of my characters have only one parent. I’ve made this “choice” again and again in fiction, from short stories to novels. There is a relationship between the protagonist and his or her mother, or father, but rarely both. It can play a role central or peripheral to the narrative. It can be a healthy, supportive relationship, or it can be sick, broken or in some way stultifying. But either way, it’s just the one.
On face, this smacks of a failure of the imagination. Am I simply unable to create two interactive parental figures? Not that that isn’t difficult—making fictional characters interact in a way that seems natural requires super-human feats of imagination and stamina—but I think this difficulty is only part of the problem. The other part has to do with my own parents, and maybe (dare I generalize?) with parenting in general (yes I dare).
One of the defining moments in my relationship with my father happened when I was 16, and masqueraded as quite familiar familial interaction. He’d asked me to straighten up an area of the living room I’d left strewn with photographs, and I’d done so with the snide indifference I’d been actively cultivating. The result wasn’t so much a “tidy” area as it was a mess someone less messy might have made
When he returned (he seemed, those days, to be always returning), he reproached me for not having done what I’d been told, and I countered with something like a phoned-in Socratic method: “Exactly how neat,” I asked in so many words, “would this area have to be for you to think otherwise?” I moved a few pictures closer to the center of the stack. “Is this neat yet?” I moved a few more closer. “How about now?”
He looked me straight in the face, held my gaze for a moment, and said, “Oh, you’re really good, aren’t you.”
The fact was, yes. Or rather, I was getting there. I was challenging him to define his terms: something he’d done with me since I could speak. Something I practically associated with the word “father.”
Something my mother never did.
A small thing to appear so large in hindsight, no doubt, but who’s to say which events are formative?
Anyway, it was—as 16 is for most of us—a time full of epiphanies. It was around this time, to the point, that I became a witness to a strange truth of long-term, dysfunctional partnerships: couples become polarized. Surely you have some experience with this, whether from watching your parents, or from watching your own marriage/partnership. Each person slowly looses dimension, slides into more or less rigid roles within the relationship.
Who knows why this is? Is it easier? Is it comforting to slouch into expectation? Whence the inclination toward binary? This is a much bigger question than can be tackled here, but the urge is, well, urgent enough for me to feel comfortable including it here as a “given.” A rule patiently waiting for exceptions to prove it.
In the end (though, truly, relationships long dead by any reasonable standard persist nonetheless, a shadow of themselves, a parody), a dichotomy takes over, leaving each person to endlessly enact only a fraction of what might be their normal, fleshy attitudes and behaviors. The disciplinarian and the permissive. The emotionally available and the remote. For every role there is a counter-role, and my parents had so many that though they walked and talked like otherwise dimensional adults, their every action became flat.
Thankfully, they divorced when I was in my early 20s, and a number of amazing things happened. My father lost his disciplinary edge. My mother began expressing personal needs. On both sides, they began to take shape as if inflated by the air in the space between them. Which makes me wonder about this trend I now see in my work: is it because my parents were not, when together, real fleshy people, that now I have no model for real parental interaction? Is it because I’ve only had two real people for parents since they’ve separated that this division is projected into my own fictional worlds?
Perhaps this is the kind of question that is more useful as a point of departure than it is a device meant to fuel the answer machine, but I’ve been keeping an eye out since first having these thoughts, and a surprisingly high percentage of novels and stories I read feature one or another central parent without the other. They do so, furthermore, without any real textual justification for that absence. Is the real fiction that most parents are ever really together in the first place?
My girlfriend Erin is reading the The Thing About Life now, and in speaking about it recently with someone else who’d read it, we were asked what we liked more, the autobiographical parts or the science trivia? “The autobiographical stuff,” I said, “without a doubt.” Erin thought about it for a moment, then said, with certainty, “The trivia.”