My shadow was elongated across the quiet, residential street perpendicular to Route 70. I was walking back to the room my sister, Heidi, was subletting for the summer. She was a few hundred yards behind me; I have trouble walking at another person’s pace. Because I arrived at the apartment first, I sat on the wooden stairwell painted an iron-rich red.
Heidi walked through the short driveway of ornamental stones and hesitated before going up the stairs.
“You looked a lot like Dad when you were walking,” she said.
I was 20, and the fact that my sister said this spurred a sequence of thoughts all related to one thing which I wanted for a long time: I was, or was starting to be considered, an adult―more than that, my father.
The moment after she shared her observation, I fired-out questions asking her what she meant. How did I look like him? I have blond hair. He doesn’t have blond hair. I’m taller. He’s broader, more muscular. What do you mean?
There are photos showing my father in boarding school at St. George’s in Middletown, Rhode Island. There’s one where he’s dressed in a cream-white turtleneck sweater and dark brown slacks. He sits on his dormitory bed, the hypothenar muscles of his hand resting on the inside of his thigh. My father is staring right into the camera with a smile which is still his own: suspiciously happy. In this picture, my father is 16 or 17; his hair is bright blond, now brown and graying in the front, and cut halfway between his shoulders and the bottom of his occipital lobe. I wore my hair longer when I was this age.
This picture, and the active images of my father as he now lives, is how I think of my him and the range of his life—boyish and blond, mature and darkly colored. This is the one photo, though, where the resemblance between me and my father is overlapping.
Now, I look towards my father, watch him, communicate with him more, model myself. My father is an icon.
To me, he is well-contained, empathetic, and thoughtful: a character set after which many men should model themselves.
Except for the last three years of my life, I was either scared of or disturbed by my father. Sometimes I thought he was pathetic, continuing to inflict guilt on himself from an incident around which my family’s story whirled. He issued apologies for the most banal accidents.
My mother was in the drivers seat of our box-shaped, dark green Plymouth Voyager. Heidi was in the front passenger’s seat, I in the middle bench.
We were stationary, outside of our house on the campus of Westminster School, in Simsbury, Connecticut, where my father teaches and where we still live.
My father walked hastily out of the door. By this time, I was familiar with the look on his face: a mix of shame, exhaustion, and frustration. He was wearing tan chinos, a deep blue button-down, and a dark red tie with an asterisk-like pattern.
He swept around one of the shrubs lining our small yard, approached the car, and grabbed onto the part of the window where the glass comes out. Both his hands were curled, knuckles white, and he looked at my mother who was startled and reluctant.
“Paula,” he said to my mother, “I’m sorry.”
“Okay Bill,” she replied, upset in a protective way because my sister looked away from them. I tried to plunge into the crack in the seat where pens and Cheerios are lost.
This was at the beginning of a period in my family’s life which was endlessly turbulent. Weeks, months, or maybe a year before, I’m not sure of the chronology, my father admitted to my mother, the day after Christmas, that he had an affair.
When my father told us, I was fourteen and sympathetic, or at least didn’t hate him. My sister was furious—my mother confused and hurt in a way with which no one could disagree.
Memories of my moments as an adolescent, and through the emotionally vacant years of High School, pivot around this incident. There are whole years which I cannot remember from my earlier childhood, even blank years of my first days at college. I do remember my father’s confession with vivid clarity.
“I’m sorry Gabriel,” my father says. “I fucked up.”
I’m sitting next to him on a zenhaven mattress resting on a wooden frame which shifts between a bed and a couch. He has his arm on my shoulder. I do not flinch or dismiss him. I am aware of everything in the room: every person, every face, every texture. I see the floor of parquet tiles fitted together by my father. For some reason I see the dark green adhesive beneath them. I see that one is askew—neglected by the glue which bound it.
And, I do not see anything.
“I knew it,” Heidi says. She is sobbing, thrusting her extremities at my father but not assaulting him.
You cannot deprive my mother of the anger which she feels.
My father sits with a posture of surrender. I sit with a sad condition. We look similar in this moment.
Although my father had the affair, and it was upsetting (we almost capsized), on reflection I don’t think it was something which motivated a lot of the family dissonance which followed. It was a symptom of something larger, more dormant within the four of us, which no member could identify. We were all mad at each other and probably bored—decades with the same orientation of people becomes tedious. Maybe my father’s infidelity was an admission which the rest of us were too uncomfortable to concede. “Something needs to be reorganized,” the action testified. “This family is complacent.”
We adapted. We noticed disturbances in how we used to communicate. We noticed what lacked, and we imagined and built what we needed. We couldn’t improve when we weren’t aware of what needed to be cultivated.
Maybe my father’s disruption was instructive.
We are molded by our parents, shaped from experience and heritage. While sons resemble our fathers, we expand on the imperfect foundation they provided, elaborating on their strengths and muting their deficiencies—improving that foundation, which will, in turn, be renewed by our own namesakes.
I noticed a shift in how I viewed my dad after Gampy (my grandfather) died in 2009.
During Winter Break of my Sophomore year in college, I flew into Bradley International Airport and my father picked me up in our cardinal-red Dodge Caravan, more streamlined than the Plymouth. From Windsor Locks, Connecticut, my father and I drove to Brunswick, Maine, where Gampy was in the hospital after the cancer which afflicted him for years tackled him.
My father and I walked through the glass doors of the medical center and towards the wing, and room, where my grandfather was—a hulk of skin hollowed out expect for a few incoherent words every couple of hours.
Gampy, was lying on his back. He was jaundice. His muscle was without tone, his skin without elasticity.
I sought to preoccupy my grandmother, Bapa, while I was in the hospital room. I read an issue of Time with her. We attempted a crossword puzzle.
Eventually, my father asked me to hold Gampy’s hand. My grandfather was shifting and groaning while we were in the room.
I held his palm like a weak handshake. My father started to speak to his father.
“Dad,” he said. “Gabriel’s here. Dad, Gabriel’s here.”
Gampy moved as I assume a large whale would on land: slow; heavy; desperate; aware.
“What,” he asked, a slur after the last consonant in the word like his lips and tongue were the weight of his whole self.
“Gabriel’s here,” each breath sucking in and reluctantly letting out. “This is wonderful.”
My father stayed in the hospital room that night. I drove my grandmother home. The next night, my father stayed with Gampy, again. They were together; the two of them. Gampy died looking up that night. My father was asleep in a chair lower than the hospital bed looking up, too.
My father and I are sitting on the rear bumper of our flat-white Subaru in the parking lot of the academic building at Westminster. The Subaru was my grandparents’. It is May and I am home from my Junior year of college. We’re here tonight because there is a dance in the building and my father is patrolling the parking lot to make sure no couples sneak away from the crowd to make-out in their cars or the woods. My father is responsible for these students while their parents enjoy the distance they have between their children.
It’s dark, clear. We see stars.
I ask my father about the universe, and I listen to what he says.
Taller, I hunch to look up at him.
Gabriel Sistare is a writer and thinker most comfortable steaming vegetables or sitting in the public library. He prefers to sit next to the oversized Phaidon Atlas of World Architecture and write about his philosophical opposition to the automobile.