A Moment of Grace
Those early songs were almost magically written.”
–Bob Dylan, “60 Minutes” interview
My son, Eric, was approaching his fourth birthday in the summer of 1995 when his mom and I separated. Suzi and I structured the separation so the disruption to our son would be as minimal as possible. I was there to get him up in the mornings and take him to preschool, I got back from work to put him to bed the same evenings I had before, and I was with him all day on Sundays. We did all this so that at he could have one home and two primary parents, just as he always had. It was hell for Suzi and me—we had to be in each other’s presence way more than was good for us, but we both understood how important this continuity was for Eric.
That year I wrote a winter solstice story for Eric, and Suzi illustrated it. We were a family of mixed heritage and solstice was our holiday celebration of choice. Eric loved picture books; Suzi liked the story I had written and agreed to work with me on it; so this became an opportunity to create a territory in Eric’s life where his parents could still visibly get along. I had a thought that we might make this a tradition, that Suzi and I could collaborate on illustrated stories for Eric well into his childhood, for solstice and also for his birthday.
The next summer, with Eric’s birthday approaching, I asked Suzi if she would be willing to illustrate another story, and she said yes. It was a summer with more disruptions for Eric, and he was having a hard time. He had been going to preschool for two years. It was a place of huge comfort and stability for him during the period when he had to deal with the immediacy of his parents separating, and now it was coming to an end. Eric was a bright, reflective, sensitive kid who was fully capable of projecting into the future. He understood the change that starting Kindergarten would bring to his life; he knew exactly what he would be losing, without having anything concrete to let him know what he would be getting in return. He was actively grieving, with lots of upsets and tears. If that wasn’t enough, we would all be moving at the beginning of September. We would be a five-minute walk from each other, but the fact remained that everything in Eric’s daily life was topsy turvy.
I had a theme for Eric’s birthday story: it would be about starting Kindergarten, and would capture the idea that at each new stage of growing up you are the sum of all you have ever been. The concept felt right and important, but as the weeks passed I didn’t have a clue about how to make the story come alive.
My father died a scant few weeks after Suzi and I had separated the previous summer. It was an abrupt, unexpected death, and it followed a series of events that had unhinged my relationship with him.
I was forty-two when Eric was born. Becoming a father reopened the wounds from my own childhood. I was repeatedly abused by my older brother, Jimmy, up until I was ten. I had a mother who looked to me to meet her emotional needs and demanded that I conform to her expectations in order to keep her love. My parents were in a constant state of open warfare. I lived in a house where I was small and quiet and “good,” where I stayed out of the way while everyone else was going after each other’s emotional throats.
The one counterbalance in my life as I was growing up was my father. He was funny, kind, and smart; I felt safe with him and fully accepted; I loved him and wanted to be like him. I believed, and still believe, that it was only because of my father that I could emerge from my family as a sane, functional person.
After high school I really thought that by placing distance—physical and psychic—between me and the dysfunctional parts of my family, I could put the issues of my childhood behind me. I had virtually nothing to do with my brother. I maintained a cold, protected relationship with my mother. Meanwhile, as I reached adulthood my attachment to my father morphed into an easy friendship.
Then, in middle age, as I embarked on raising a child, I found myself full of hurt and rage: at both my brother for the incredible damage he did to me when I was not capable of protecting myself and my mother for failing to give me the most basic emotional care that a young child needs. I didn’t know what to do with these terrible feelings, and the story I had been telling myself for twenty-five years of how I had survived my family was falling apart.
When Eric was two (and two years too late) I went into therapy. At some point that year I was talking to my therapist about being abused when I was little, when it hit me that my parents had not protected me from Jimmy. I had never allowed myself to look at that obvious reality. Now it abruptly came into focus, and the word I used was parents—plural. My father as well as my mother. The fact that my mother had not protected me was only one more in a long list of grievances. But my father, who I loved–my father, who was my bedrock—in that devastating moment I had to face the truth that my father didn’t protect me from my brother.
Two weeks before the first anniversary of my father’s death, I drive out of Boston on a warm, sunny morning. My eventual destination will be Southeast Michigan, where I will gather with family and friends to scatter my father’s ashes. But first I am making a stop to see Eric, then heading to a remote spot on the Ontario shore of Lake Superior to camp for a few days.
Eric and Suzi are staying in a rented house on a small lake in southern New Hampshire. Suzi and I have agreed that my visit in New Hampshire should be brief. I have the long drive ahead of me to Lake Superior, and Suzi understandably wants a break from the constant contact we needed to maintain in Boston as we organized our parenting around Eric’s needs. But it feels important to me to give my son one last dose of connection with me before I am away for two weeks. My absence will tug at the impact of parental separation on Eric’s life, which he surely feels no matter how hard we have worked to minimize it. During the days to follow, I want him to feel I am still part of his life, that he is important to me, and that I will be back.
I pull up to the house, and as soon as Suzi lets me in I feel tension on all sides—from the tightness in Suzi’s voice, from Eric’s quizzical expression, from the tremors in the pit of my stomach. We are all out of context. We have patched the last year together around maintaining our routines, literally knowing our place. Now we are in a strange place in a season of so many dislocations. We sit for a little while, Suzi tells me what they have been doing, I ask Eric questions which he answers halfheartedly.
Then we go out so they can show me the lake. We walk down to the shore, and sit there for a few minutes. It’s a pretty, quiet spot, with little waves lapping against the sand, sunlight reflecting off the water. I try to explain to Eric where I am going, how long I will be away, when I am coming back. I tell him that I will call. He doesn’t want me to go. I look at his baffled face and don’t know what to do, except to tell him that I love him.
I had hoped that a thousand miles on the road to Lake Superior would give me lots of time at the wheel to make headway with Eric’s birthday story. But nothing came to me. I listened to the radio until a station faded into static, sometimes things ran through my mind randomly, or I thought about my father.
We would be scattering his ashes at Fresh Air Camp, sixty miles from Detroit, a camp for delinquent boys where my father had been director. My family spent summers there when I was growing up, and it was a place I loved: the only truly happy part of my childhood. As I drove through upstate New York, through southern Ontario, and eventually the long expanse of I-75 in Michigan, I tried to hold on to pleasant memories of being a kid at camp, swimming, playing baseball, and eating in a dining hall buzzing with 200 people. But more often I found myself thinking about the difficult period before my father’s death.
Once I had recognized that my parents did not protect me from my brother for so many years when I was little, I gathered myself to confront them. First there was a phone call, which ended with my mother and I arguing. Later my father came, by himself, to visit me in Boston.
Sitting at my kitchen table, my father and I talked about times during childhood when I would call for help from the living room, and he would come in and find Jimmy on top of me on the couch. I asked what he would do. He said he would take Jimmy up to his room. I asked what would happen then. My father raised his eyebrows, gave a little shrug and said he would leave Jimmy in his room.
“Dad,” I said, “did you ever come back and talk to me about what had happened?”
My father was 78 at that time. He was an elegant older man, with a full head of thick white hair, a neatly trimmed mustache, and impeccably dressed. He was a kind man, caring in many ways, and I don’t think he ever said a mean or thoughtless thing to me. When I was little and got sick, my father would stand behind me and put his hand on my forehead; when I couldn’t sleep he would rub my back, and his gentle touch would soothe the deepest parts of my being. He loved me as well as he was capable of loving. But in that moment, all I could see, all I could feel was the love he was not capable of giving. He studied me for a minute, visibly at a loss, trying to parse out what I was getting at, what accounted for the impossible intensity in my voice, my face full of pain. Then he shook his head and said, simply, “No, Steven, I didn’t.”
“Why not, Dad?”
“I thought I had done what you asked me to do.”
I needed to hear this from my father, the truth of his failure to attend to my emotional needs; and it was the worst thing he could possibly have said. I felt myself crumbling. I started to cry. I looked at my father as he was watching me, saw him startle and flinch and physically recoil. I saw the bewilderment and fear in his eyes. I could see, four decades after the events of my childhood, the exact same thing that had been going on all those years ago: he could not tolerate my pain, or his own.
I-75, as it slices through the northern half of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, is an unremarkable road—mostly flat, the traffic increasingly sparse, with the usual periodic rest stops and exits that feature tall gas station signs and nondescript little restaurants and convenience stores. The first time I drove this route was the day of my high school graduation, which I did not attend despite being my class’ valedictorian. I’d been hired as a counselor at a camp in the Upper Peninsula; it was my first job, and I was thrilled to be starting a new phase of my life and desperate to get away from home.
At the northern tip of the Lower Peninsula, the Mackinac Bridge spans the straight that separates Michigan’s Lower and Upper Peninsulas. On the east the strait empties out into the expanse of Lake Huron; to the west stretches Lake Michigan. From the middle of the bridge, just off to the right, there’s a view of green, wooded islands. Beyond the islands is nothing but blue, glistening and brilliant on a sunny day, all the way to the horizon. To the left the lighter green-blue of Lake Michigan, lined with squiggles of whitecaps, is bordered by the sandy beaches of the UP shoreline, and behind the shoreline—endless trees.
After the droning monotony of the interstate, suddenly the world explodes into this vastness. In 1966, instead of attending a high school graduation I considered an empty ceremony, I got to see this. Now, as I drive into that explosion of beauty one more time, I can feel the seventeen year old boy inside me, can see this opening of a new world with the eyes of my younger self at that moment when I was so eager to leave my childhood behind, when the enormity and splendor of these great lakes represented a first taste of the possibilities of an adult life. I can still feel that amazement in my body, and I’m aware that this is the exact theme of the story I want to write for Eric: I am the sum total of all I have ever been.
I’m aware of other things as well: the failure of my relationship with Suzi; and the loss of my father—which was really a succession of losses, first the shattering of my belief in the kind of parent he had been for me as a child, then the loss of my easy connection with him as an adult, and finally his unexpected death. Now, as I approach the anniversary of his death and the scattering of his ashes, I’m hoping this long trip will mark some kind of completion to a year of mourning—not the end of my grief, but its turning to a different phase, an easing.
A few months before Suzi and I separated, we took Eric to Michigan to visit my parents for a few days. While we were there my father asked me to talk, and we found an hour to sit together in the cafeteria of a science museum while Suzi and Eric made their rounds of the exhibits. As we sipped tea, my father asked me what I was looking for from him. He managed to express how hard it was to have me so angry at him, and he said it seemed as though what I really wanted was for him to have done things differently during my childhood, which of course was impossible.
I told him I understood that we couldn’t change the past, and what I wanted was for him to be truly open to my feelings in the present, my pain, my anger. Not only to tolerate my feelings but to fully accept them, and to take care of me in my distress – in the present, as the seventy-eight year old father of a forty-six year old child who was going through a prolonged emotional crisis. I told him that for most of my adult life I had seen him as my friend. But I had come to understand that a parent never stops being a parent, and a child never stops needing their parent to be a kind of emotional home base, someone who is not an equal but a caretaker. And I told him frankly that I didn’t think he could do this; that his emotional blocks made him unable to face my pain and care for me now in the ways I needed.
I spoke with deep feeling, with full honesty, but not with anger. I had reached a place where I needed to see my father as he was, not as the person I wished he could be. My father made steady eye contact with me as I spoke, he nodded in the right places, and when I finished he thanked me for explaining myself so clearly. He told me he would think about what I had said. We agreed that it was a good conversation. It did not in the space of an hour undo so much that I had lost in my relationship with my father; but it was the closest we had come—or would ever come—to reconnecting. There was at least a new understanding between us, a place from which we could speak honestly to each other, without bitterness.
A month later my mother died. Several weeks after that Suzi and I separated, the culmination of a long, harrowing series of conflicts that started shortly after Eric was born and overwhelmed our capacities to be giving and loving with each other. And then my father. He had turned seventy-nine in May. He was in good health, an active vibrant man who volunteered full time for the Detroit ACLU. In early July he told me he was having a back problem. Then it got worse. Then the pain was so bad he couldn’t sleep. Then a specialist told him it might not be his back and recommended several tests. He went into the hospital, where a mass the size of a soccer ball was discovered; inoperable. A week later he was dead.
From the Mackinac Bridge to Sault Ste. Marie is another hour’s drive. Then I cross a shorter bridge over the St. Mary’s River into Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. I wend my way through the small city and onto Highway 17, the Ontario branch of the Trans-Canada Highway, with speed limits posted in kilometers. I can sense the proximity of Lake Superior in my nerve endings, my muscles and bones.
Through the northern outskirts of the city, the highway passes one mall after another. Then it becomes a high-speed two lane highway, twists and turns, climbs and drops. I start catching glimpses of Superior on the left, little fingers of water that only give a hint of what is to come, until finally at the crest of a hill the full panorama of the lake comes into view, enormous, pocked with green islands, churning with whitecaps.
I find a small motel with a vacancy sign and get a room for the night. Outside it starts to rain, and I worry about what kind of weather I’ll have over the next four days. The range of conditions at Lake Superior is extraordinary, from flat calm to waves big enough to body surf; from warm sunny days to massive thunderstorms and sudden squalls that can blow over a casually secured tent. But the next morning breaks sunny and cool.
Outside the motel there is a phone booth, where I go to call Eric. Outside the booth two hummingbirds appear and hover, looking like oversized flies, flapping their wings with impossible speed. I describe the hummingbirds to Eric, and for a moment I am speaking his language. Then I say that I am about to hike to the beach where I will be camping, try to explain to him why I will not be calling for the next three days, without apparent success.
For the first mile of the Orphan Lake Trail the path is wide and relatively flat. The day is splendid, with sunlight blinking through the forest, a gentle breeze rustling the leaves. When I reach Orphan Lake, a little pond nestled into the dense woods, the trail bends to the left, descends, and follows the shoreline for a pretty stretch. Then it turns left again and begins a slow ascent, until I reach a lookout where Lake Superior comes into full view. From there a short, steep descent takes me to the final leg that slopes gently down to Superior. Within a few minutes I start to hear the rhythmic pounding of the lake, faintly at first and then more distinct with each step. By this point I’m like a horse smelling the barn.
Finally the trail deposits me onto the beach that I love. It extends about a half mile between the mouth of a river at the northern end and a small stream to the south. An island sits directly in front of me, its dense green bordered by a thin pale brush stroke of sand. Otherwise there is only the enormity of the churning lake, sparkling in the sun, the water white and blue, extending to the wide horizon. On this day the sky is nothing but blue, the visibility limited only by the curve of the Earth. A steady wind blows off the lake and sweeps my hair and face like a caress. The air, to borrow Henry James’ wonderful phrase, is a clap of hands. The sand beneath my feet at the edge of the woods gives way to pebbles and then to rocks, in identical patterns of white, pink, orange, gray, black. I am the only person on the beach.
I turn left and trudge toward the stream. On the far side of it I make my way to a primitive campsite, a clearing at the edge of the forest with a fireplace defined by a circle of rocks. I set up my tent, roll out my pad and sleeping bag, fill my water bottle. I cross the stream again, back to the beach, and sit on a driftwood log. As I breathe the impossibly fresh air, my entire body feels soothed and nurtured. Here I am. On this magnificent day, I’ve made it to my favorite place in the world.
For the rest of the day, that same feeling holds—of connection to the lake, of wonder and rightness, of being held by this beauty. I sit on the beach; I swim in the frigid bracing water. I gather firewood, and cook my dinner. I watch the red ball of the sun dip into the far line of the lake; watch the sky deepen and fill with its multitudes of stars.
All afternoon and evening I have tried to leave space for Eric’s story to start taking shape. And still nothing has come. It is the one false note in this otherwise perfect day. But as I crawl into my tent, settle into my sleeping bag for the night, I tell myself that I have three more days here. Plenty of time. Then I drift off to sleep.
When I wake up in the chilly morning, the story is there. It fills my head. I have my protagonist: Danny. I know his sidekick: a grasshopper with a squeaky voice. I know the plot, detail by detail. I know the words. I have the title. The whole thing, start to finish. I have no idea how this has happened. There is no meaningful sense in which I have created this story. It has simply come to me.
I get up, fish a small yellow notepad out of my pack, eat a quick breakfast, and go down to the beach. I plant myself in the sand, leaning back against the driftwood log. I start to write, but what I am really doing is transcribing something that is already fully formed.
The night before Danny starts Kindergarten, he dreams that he has turned into a giant. A tiny green grasshopper, sitting on Danny’s pillow, squeaks that this is only a dream.
“I know that,” Danny answers in the big, deep voice of a giant.
Grasshopper whispers, “You have to be a giant to go to Kindergarten.”
Danny hurries to get ready for school. He gets dressed, eats breakfast, washes his face and brushes his teeth. Then he tells Grasshopper that it’s time to go to Kindergarten.
“Aren’t you forgetting someone?” Grasshopper asks. She tells Danny to go look at his bed, and there he finds a little boy lying with his head on the pillow. Suddenly Danny realizes, “You’re me, back when I was only four.”
“Yes,” says four-year-old Danny, “you got so big.” He asks Big Danny if he can come along to Kindergarten. Danny looks at Grasshopper.
“Why not?” she peeps. “After all, this is only a dream.” So Big Danny picks up four-year-old Danny and carefully puts him in his giant pocket.
Danny thinks that now he’s ready to go to Kindergarten. But Grasshopper tells him there are more little kids who want to come along.
“Look in the living room,” she squeaks. There he finds a littler boy playing with blocks in the middle of the floor—three-year-old Danny. He spots a toddler sitting in the corner, using markers to draw squiggly lines on construction paper—two-year-old Danny. A very little boy, just learning to walk, stumbles and lands with a thud at Danny’s feet—one-year-old Danny. He scoops them all up and puts them in his big pocket.
“There!” Big Danny says excitedly. “Now I’m ready to go to Kindergarten!” But Grasshopper tells him to look in his bedroom again. There he finds a tiny baby, sleeping peacefully in a little bassinet.
“I know who that is,” Big Danny says softly. “That’s me when I was just born.” He cradles the infant in his arms. Then he gently nestles Baby Danny in his pocket with all the little Dannys.
“Now,” Big Danny says, “I’m ready to go to Kindergarten.”
“Yes,” Grasshopper nods. “Now you are ready to go to Kindergarten. Even though this is only a dream.” And Grasshopper hops down into Danny’s pocket, too.
In the morning when Danny wakes up, he tells his parents all about his strange and wonderful dream. He laughs to think of himself growing as big as a giant. But he is also glad to find himself his normal five-year-old size. He gets up and gets dressed, eats breakfast, washes his face and brushes his teeth. And off he goes for his first day of Kindergarten.
I sit here in the sand and write without hesitation until the emotion of this moment overtakes me and I start to cry. There is something inexpressibly moving to me about the gift that I have somehow received. I can feel Eric’s presence. So much has happened in the last year, in the last five years, that my tears are expressing and also releasing. The lake glistens in the morning sun; waves rumble into the shore; the wind touches my face. I fall into my own steady rhythm, writing and crying until the story is done.
I get up and walk a little on the beach. I sit down again, read through the story, smile and cry one more time and allow myself the pleasure of anticipating how Eric will receive it. Then, without premeditation, I start writing a letter to my father.
I tell him it has been a year since he died, and I am on my way to scatter his ashes at Fresh Air Camp, his favorite place in the world. I tell him that Eric will be starting Kindergarten in September, and I have just written him a story. I tell him about my struggles of the last year, with parenting, with Suzi, with mourning his death. I tell him how hard it was to have him die when so much was unresolved between us, when we had just taken a first tentative step toward making things better. I tell him how good it is for me to be here at Lake Superior, my favorite place in the world. I tell him I’m glad to be writing him. I tell him I miss him. I tell him I love him.
I do not believe that my father’s spirit is lingering somewhere in the vastness of the universe and will receive this communication from me. It doesn’t matter. I have learned enough about grieving to understand that it’s not a rational thing. I feel my father’s presence inside me, just as I feel Eric’s.
My father told me, at one point during our bad period, that after I was born he had not felt ready to be a father. Inwardly I responded with scorn—Got that right, Dad, I thought—unable at the time to acknowledge how much I too was unprepared for parenthood. But it also turned out that I was unprepared to be a son, not knowing how to hold love and anger on the same page in my relationship with my father. I have struggled so much with how to be a father, and how to be a son. In this moment, through some kind of grace, a way has come to me to get them both right.
Steve Wineman retired in 2014 after working in community mental health for thirty-five years. He is the author of “Power-Under: Trauma and Nonviolent Social Change,” and his work has appeared in Written River, 34th Parallel, and Conium Review, among others.