My Son Zachary
FOR MONTHS NOW—years, really—I have thought about writing this story. Over and over, I played the words in my mind: what I would say, how I would say it and, perhaps most important, the need to say it, because as a writer this was the only way I knew of sorting it all out.
At a certain point, I thought the words would flow as easily as the emotions have over the past 16 years—inspiration and hope and disappointment and now, most complicated of aU, the reality of what will be and what will never be.
I was wrong in my anticipations. Nothing comes easily in this story, maybe because there is nothing I know for sure except love, what we have had and will always have, the bond between us. But despite what the great poets tell us, love doesn’t conquer. It doesn’t reverse, and it doesn’t heal. It caresses and accompanies and soothes the haunt of guilt. But the gulf between us grows wider, not smaller, the silences of our space more pronounced, the different worlds we live in straining for some single point of intersection. After 16 years, I know that now.
Each word I write unleashes a memory, and each sentence becomes a string of them. I am being pushed back to a time and a place that will always seem surreal and unimaginable, to sounds and smells that still scare me, to the sensation of lights that never go off and the bubbling hum of machines that make no differentiation between life and death except for a high-pitched beep. I see it now, and I feel numb and distant, the dead man walking in his own sad dream.
I see the tiny cap you wear on your head to hold in warmth. I see your body, barely bigger than a package of chicken parts, splayed facedown on a sheet of white the size of a washcloth. I see your eyes, sad and sweet and yearning, as if you know you have somehow made it to this place. I see your chest heaving up and down like a wave-tossed sea. I see that respirator tube taped to your mouth, and your fingers, no bigger than matchsticks in a matchbook, trying to pull it away. I see you lifted off that sheet of white cloth as if your whole body, as fragile as tissue, will just tear away. I see the heave of that chest again, in and out and in and out with frantic rhythm. I see you fighting, fighting with a strength I will never have. And as I stand over you in a blue hospital gown, I ask, because I cannot help but ask: What will you be? And what will I be to you?
My son Zachary.
However horrible the memories, I at least know where I started with you. In an odd way, it was the easiest part of all. I derived hope from your hope and spirit from your spirit, to the extent that any man pinned to ambition and perceptions of success and the corrosive rust of self-doubt can really be brave about anything. You showed a thirst for life, a need to live it, that I knew I would never have in the spiderweb of my own narcissism. You somehow became my little boy in the metallic hum of that awful place, and you will always be my little boy.
But you are 16 now. The milestones that brought such joy and hope—when you talked, when you walked, when you learned how to read and how to write—have largely ceased. When people ask me how you are, I give the requisite response—how wonderful you are, because you are wonderful; how well you are doing at school, because you are doing well, under the circumstances; how kind and giving and ebullient you are, because these are the qualities with which you have been forever blessed. But now I tell them you are mentally retarded. I hate those words. I hate them because of the stigma they create. I hate them because they don’t explain the rest of what you are—your remarkable memory, your ability to read maps, your love of finding new restaurants in Zagat’s, your devotion to those you have chosen to embrace. I hate them because of what they mean in your life. But I also hate them because of what they mean for me, the reckoning of my desire as a father and parent and provider, because there is no such thing as selflessness in this world, just the conceit of it. And when I look at you now, when I see the slightly sunken eyes and the ragged teeth and the forced smile, I realize I have done something that in the perfect pitch of your heart, I can only ask you to forgive me for:
I have begun to build a walkway of emotional distance, a wedge of self-protection.
It isn’t because I don’t love you, Zachary, and you must believe that. Through the years I have dreamed of magic, of somehow reaching inside you in the dark of night while you’re asleep and moving a wire of the brain here and a wire there, to make you whole. I would do it for your sake but also mine, to close that space between us, to be a father to you in all fullness, to mark the passage of adolescence the way I do with your twin brother Gerry, with talk of girls and driving lessons and SAT tests and the bitch of getting into college. But there is no magic, Zachary. There is no way to move those wires while you sleep your blessed sleep.
You are what you will be.
And so am I.