Monday, September 8, 2008

Optimism and Fatalistic Paralysis

One of the things I recall most clearly about my father Bill was his optimism. This is ironic, really, since one of the other things I recall most clearly about his was his fatalistic paralysis. Both of these statements will require some clarification, and two distinct memories will serve to illustrate the seemingly disjunctive connection that relates them in my mind.

First, the optimism. One of the very first conversations--if not the first--that I recall having with my father took place in the foyer of our house at 304 Grape Street in Abilene, Texas and the subject was impossibility.

I could not have been more than five years old then, since I'd have been at school at the time of day I recall the conversation otherwise. The heavy yellow-orange morning light was flooding the small square foyer in our two-story house.

The main door opened directly into it, and though it was closed to hold back the heat, on either side of the door were two tall windows that let in enough light to scald the eye if not buffered by a gauzy white curtain stretched floor to ceiling.

In this bright spot was kept one of our family's great treasures, the grandfather clock. This fabulously ornate timepiece stands nearly eleven feet tall with it's feet and finial both. Currently it sits without feet in my home, though this is hardly the place for it because it belongs to Stephen (Bill gave it to him before he died) and it hardly has the venue it did back in the house on Grape St.

This was an old house, built as a sort of colonial homestead. It had two stories, four bedrooms, three bathrooms, den, living and dining rooms, kitchen and big back yard complete with an old well. The place had the high ceilings needed to showcase the clock and we did. The clock was standing guard right there, the first thing you saw when you came in, all knurled brass and dark carved wood with a big brass pendulum and a rotating picture above the face that showed the phases of the moon.

The clock had to be wound, once a week. Watching Bill with his clock winding ritual was not unlike many other rituals of his (shaving, counting money) ie, mesmerizing. But the clock-winding held a particular fascination for me. Thus I was always in attendance on the morning of clock-winding day, and as usual, full of questions to ask and certainties to share that I'd come with on my own.

One of those certainties espoused, though I remember not the subject, had to do with something being 'impossible' and it was his reply that I recall so clearly.

"Nothing is impossible" he said.

Now, at this point in my life I do not suffer cliches lightly, though I do acknowledge the truth that they invariably contain. Hearing that statement now simply brings up the ever-present wry smile on my face up a notch, but then, back in 1961 or whatever year it was, to me, this was an incredible concept.

Incredible is the right word, too. I simply didn't believe him. I was thinking, naturally, about physics. Like rocks floating and water flowing up hill. But he was dead serious and kept his to his position. I don't recall the details of the conversation; it is the astonishment that I recall feeling;. I was overwhelmed with the idea that somehow, thought--my thought--itself was capable of transcending impossibility. For the first time, I had the realization that maybe, just maybe, nothing was impossible.

I was skeptical, as I am today, but I also remember thinking, 'What if he is right?'

That very thought cut my mind free from it's moorings, so to speak, and ever since I have pondered some very interesting and well-nigh 'impossible' thoughts without any credentials other than the carte blanche Bill gave me that bright clock-winding morning.

Was this optimism? I don't know. I certainly read it as such, for many years now. I stored away the memory, but honestly this had more to do with me than him. After all, how well did this notion match up with the real Bill?

The real Bill was an intelligent man, possessed of a catalog-type mind that collected trivia and jokes. He also displayed a wonderful loving spirit and had a warm heart. He loved cats. I remember him smiling more often than not. But I also recall the fatalistic paralysis that overtook him in the second half of his short life.

One day when I was a senior in high school, after he'd been ill with heart disease for at least four or five years, he called me into his bedroom when he was in bed and asked me to sit and talk with him.

I can't recall another time when he did this, even as he grew close to death. He was not one to initiate an intimate conversation. We never discussed his death but this once. He told me that he didn't expect to live long, but he also had no intention of dying soon. At this point Lynda was getting geared up to move to Europe and the choice Bill faced was not easy. If his health failed, he wouldn't be able to go with Lynda, and he speculated that she would leave him. He was candid about it, but not rancorous. He knew he was on thin ice with Lynda, and his health was only part of the problem.

But, he said, "I have no way out."

Holding his hand, looking at him in bed that day I realized, for the first time, despite having seen him near death in an hospital bead after his heart attack, that he was actually getting old. He was right, he wasn't going to live long. But his conviction to remain with Lynda was such that he resolved to go and indeed rallied to find the strength to accompany her on her upcoming dervish drive though Europe.

I thought about this conversation a lot as I got older; obviously I still do. I could see in his eyes that resignation earned of so many failed efforts that came before, like his careers in photography and 'healing'. Lynda openly referred to him as a 'failure'.

Although I felt differently at the time we talked, now I don't think he was a failure because I realize and felt so strongly his love for me. I think that he failed to have a successful career because, in a cruel twist of fate, he could always see the failure that his inaction would inevitably lead to. He thus became paralyzed into the inaction that would cause the failure. It was the perfect little recipe for failure; self-rising, to twist the metaphor.

So he did indeed remain with Lynda, and she with him, despite long odds. The fact that she didn't leave him or that he didn't die right away is remarkable, but those are other stories.

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