Waiting for My Father in Infinity
Loving a father is perpetual heartache. You never know how close you are to losing him, or how far away.
I know where infinity begins, and it is in Kinross, Michigan. I’ve been here for nearly half a day, waiting for my father to arrive on a plane. I am running a marathon on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula in a few days, and my father and I are meeting here – at the Chippewa County International Airport – before the two of us make the drive together. We timed our flights wrong, and in the hours since mine has landed, the airport, which consists of a single vaulted room, has emptied. There is no one here. No one at the car rental desk. No one manning security. No one in the nook where one might call a taxi. I play Brian Eno’s Ambient 1/Music for Airports without headphones. I let the notes ring against tile, roofed wood, the single ad for Lake Superior State University, the counter lined with free coffee. The music gathers and recedes, and still not a soul arrives.
I wait for a few hours in the empty airport before I begin to walk. Half a mile to a small diner, Clyde’s, run by a husband and wife duo. The only customer there, I ordered a burger and fries and coffee and sat in one of the lacquered booths while the three of us attempted to make conversation. Who are you, they said. We don’t recognize you, they said. The county fair is about a mile away, they said. I can drive you, they said. The burger was good. The fries, too. The coffee, strong. A man came in and handed the husband a package wrapped in newspaper. In another room, dim and cramped, arcade machines whirred, and blooped, and flashed. In a further room, light slanted through the window of a door and seemed gently to pick up the dust of tables as if it was cleaning the place, slowly, so as not to disturb the customers.
I love waiting for my father. When I was younger, I used to sit idly in the car he’d parked illegally to run into the store and buy a quick something. A six-pack of Diet Cokes. A carton of milk. A bag of Doritos, Cool Ranch. All three. He left the radio singing, and the car humming, and the windows halfway descended, and me there, feet up on the dash, waiting. I don’t know why it meant so much to me, to be the paperweight for his vehicle, but I felt of some great importance. Trusted. Kind. In the years since, I have waited for my father to use the bathroom. I have waited the impossibly long seconds he extends into a sneeze. I have waited through the quiet, static-filled pause that falls between a number dialed and a number rung. I have waited for him to catch his breath. I have waited at train stations, bus terminals, have read books along the way. I have waited amidst his ever-growing kindness that I never thought he possessed because of the over-a-decade-ago when I waited, pants down, for the whip and pang of the belt, realizing now that I would wait and will continue to wait for a time immeasurable, because of what waiting means, how it fills me to the brim with love and makes me ache tenderly, since I know it means he’s alive.
Next to Clyde’s, in what I imagine at first to be a broad bulk of construction, a patch of solid rectangles surrounded with barbed wire, stands the Kinross Correctional Facility. I walk the long highway that runs alongside the prison until it disappears into the distance, shouldering a bag, feet crunching gravel beneath the glare of a sun I cannot find. Kevorkian, Dr. Death, once resided here. Seth Privacky also stayed at Kinross, where they teach their inmates gardening skills. At 18, Seth murdered his parents, his brother, and his brother’s girlfriend. Part of me longs to see him bent over a flower, mounding soil around its stem, twirling upright into the air like an unfinished letter. But he is dead now, shot after attempting to escape Kinross.
The walk along the prison is long, the horizon more blur than line, and I think about how often I used to run away from home as a child, holding less than I hold now. I ran from my father because he scared me. I ran from my mother and her ongoing struggle with alcoholism. I ran from the idea that home is a place that never changes. Back then, the future was not a world where the sick got better, or where fathers somehow grew less mean. I always came back, though. I never made it far. I used to think I only came back home because I hadn’t packed more than a banana. Now that I’m older, in this landscape of prisons and nothing, roads running up along fences, I think I know why I always turned around at the end of the block. Fatherless, lost, and alone under a sky I never really looked at, I had no idea how to imagine a future. When I returned to my father’s arms, though, at the very least, I could feel one.
In one of his letters from prison, addressed to a Tara, Seth Privacky drew a butterfly next to his signed name. He complained of a winter that was “never ending.” He claimed he started drawing tattoos because he liked “the challenge of the medium.” He wrote his sentences with hardly any transition, one subject crashing into the next, full-speed. Exhilarated.
It is still hard to pinpoint the sun here. It eludes me. I look up, see no clouds, only the broad allure of azure. This blue has no origin. It is not culled from sun. What if infinity is displacement? What if it doesn’t matter where you end and I begin? Origin versus outcome – what comes of this binary? What if the tree and the shadow of the tree are the same thing? After my mother left our family, my father used to crawl into my bed to help me sleep when I could not. Most stories veer in the opposite direction, the child running from a bad dream into the arms of their sleeping parents. But my father knew something about my potential for feeling that I did not, that, like light and trees and shadows and skies, our bodies are tied together, that, to cope with pain in the present, one must often reach back to pluck a feeling from the past. In this way, we are so close to infinite, a long string of fathers becoming boys again in order to be better fathers. Today, I am waiting for my father and I am falling in love with this idea of infinity, the figure-eighted-circle of it, the trace of a finger along a body, the forward turn that comes after moving backward, the curve that takes me back again, the dwelling, the knowing I will never leave, the awareness that when I do, I won’t know it at all.
Moments before Seth Privacky was shot and killed, he attempted to drive a stolen prison truck through the prison’s fence. The car revved full-speed. I can only imagine what big-throated exhilaration churned through Seth’s body in the seconds before the truck crashed into the fence, what kind of sadness weighed down his chest after he failed. What heaven looks like, if it’s the last image of a garden planted in your memory, the flowers ripe, in full bloom, color as a simple kindness, yellow light on skin, thumb greened with grass.
Sometimes I am embarrassed by how badly I long to be a father. It’s an urge I’ve harbored since I was young – first, out of a desire to create a better family than the one I grew up within, one that would actually stay together, and then, out of a desire to simply be more like my father. I think often that the worst fathers are the ones who force into their children the potential for infinity, this idea that they will live on through the lives of their children. I don’t know if my father ever felt this urge. Maybe he did when I was young and he used to whip me with his belt when I did wrong. But something changed in him, some small turn toward tenderness. Maybe it was when he realized that a family always carries the potential to be a fragile thing. At some point, though, he cared less about how I lived and more about the fact that I was alive at all. I grew my hair long and came home to him – his car stalled and humming at the bus terminal – and he saw this small fact about me and smiled. We drove home in the silence we were used to until, after a few minutes, my father without turning to me said, “You look like I did when I was your age.”
When I return to the airport, it is the magic hour. I move to a seat placed directly in front of a broad window, and look out at the tarmac, the vast, crisscrossing runways, the jagged line of trees in the distance, edging against the sky like what remains after a journal’s dark page is ripped out in haste. Shadows stretch into an unreachable horizon, sprawling across flatland before climbing up the walls of unused hangers, old buildings in the process of being torn down. This is not small-town America, not Stephen Shore’s motels, not William Eggleston’s lonely South, not Ansel Adams’ vast frontier, not Gordon Parks’ desolate city, not Walker Evans’ tired portraits. This is space without shape. It is land without canyon. A place where a shadow only bends if man has given it reason to. It is the expanse devoid of hope, earth beyond conquering. This is reminder land, where the whole day passes in one fell swoop of light before it disappears in a fit of beauty, using shadows to show us just how far darkness can travel before encasing us inside it. It is where the only thing I look forward to after a burger, and a cup of coffee, and another, is for my father to get off the plane and take me in the long arm of his wiry smile, and hold me.
A family of three walks into the airport, mulling around with hands in pockets, each bouncing off the other and winding up in a different corner of the airport’s only room, as if they don’t know what to do with emptiness, as if a unfilled space has to be hiding something, as if sitting isn’t possible until some kind of exploring is done. One pours himself a cup of coffee, black, and makes a face when it burns his tongue. Another stares out the wide, large-paneled window, looking out into the flat, sizzling space, waiting or not waiting. I can’t figure out anything anymore. I think about the way the world turns, and in my silent space of thought, the world stills, and I find myself pitched forward by inertia, so full of unknowing. The family does this dance for a while, either waiting for a plane that has yet to arrive or counting down the hours toward some invisible departure. Later, they leave.
Eno’s Music for Airports is permeated by a sense of forgetting the act of listening. When you remember what you are doing – listening to music – there is that other sense of not knowing where you are, whether at the beginning or the end. You might have started the album over without realizing. This is the kind of infinite love I long for, to not know how close we are to losing, or how far away.
Another man comes into the airport and turns to me. There are supposed to be a lot of planes coming in, he says. He pauses. He laughs. He walks away. I stay waiting for one.
When my father would climb into my bed, he’d always do it with a grunt and a smile, hogging up space on purpose, pushing my smaller body into the place between the bed and wall. I feigned annoyance rather than appreciation, not telling my father how warm it felt to have him beside me those nights when I thought I would never see my mother again. He often fell asleep quickly, his snoring foghorning the room. In the airport, holding my breath between each beat of my heart – a thing I do when I find myself anxious for no real reason – I think about this and grow sad that I didn’t say thank you, that I simply waited until either I fell asleep or he woke up and left. Maybe separation is the natural consequence of growing old. It all ends, I know. People die, move away, slip into different trajectories of love. I wait for my father knowing this, that he will die long before I have written perfectly the kindness of his hands, that out of this future grief I will create some ghost of him made up solely of the past, one that can inhabit this room I call my life alongside my body.
I listen to same eternal song through the ambient shuffle of others. The notes don’t come from the music issuing through the speakers, but from places inside me. This soft touch of key, my toe. This long sustained chord, my heart. This tease of melody, this disappearance, this holding back, my body, my body, my body.
At dark, I sit with a small choir of waiters, waiting for the one plane that arrives at this one airport at this one hour. The lights of the runway issue on, and for a moment I sit caught in a mess of beauty, not knowing where the land once met sky, only believing in that fraught interval, that the stars had descended and that, from up close, they each shone a different color. The lights glitter like ships skirting along a black ocean. They tremor ever so slightly. They tingle. They beckon and call. My father’s plane appears out of nothing. Either he conquered the dark or the darkness forgave him. I see him descend from sky with my small choir of lookers-on. A woman waits for her son she has not seen in three years. A man has missed his wife for a long time. My father is a star gliding down from heaven. For a moment, I believe in God again. You know what I mean. That something comes from darkness. That my father can come from it, out of nothing, time and time again, like a promise – oh, let me be a promise, please. That we are each born with hands delicate enough to try at tenderness. That there is a song called heaven and it has no beginning or end. That someone is up there planting flowers. That we will all be there, soon enough, no matter how far away.