Read an Excerpt
December 3, 2006
All last night a nor’easter battered the coast here in Maine with high winds and heavy snow. This morning I was outside shoveling our driveway two hours ahead of dawn, putting my back into the work, feeling strong and fit. In the harbor behind me a shabby parade of lobster boats motored through the cove for the open water while I worked in the half-light of this new day, breathing the salted air beneath a bright sickle of moon. I was trying to clear my head of yesterday. Jack’s eighteenth birthday. Two daughters had come home from college to join the third daughter to celebrate the occasion. I went into town for candles and ice cream in advance of the storm and when I returned, I found two of the girls plugged into their iPods, another at the computer, and Jack on the couch in the family room, staring at a poker tournament on TV. It was one of those unremarkable moments in the life of an American family that in itself has no meaning or consequence until you imagine it replicated in ten thousand other moments that somehow add up to hours, days, and even years of your life together as a family that you will never get back, and you’re left wondering how it could be possible that after having four babies in six years and falling blissfully in love with each of them at the moment you first beheld them, and spending every waking and sleeping hour building your new world around them and holding that world together with a love so profound that the joy or sorrow of one of them was registered deeply in all the others—you wonder if all of that is gone forever, and if there’s nothing you can do to get it back.
I found Colleen in the kitchen, where Jack’s birthday cake sat on the counter. She asked me if I had remembered the candles. What I wanted to do was climb up on the dining room table and shout: Okay, everyone pack your bags. In one hour we’re moving to Africa!
Soon the storm was upon us. We gathered for cake and ice cream, and the day passed away.
Shoveling snow this morning made me feel real again. And I wasn’t worried about the girls; they had a strong sense of themselves. It was Jack who concerned me. He had been one of the most talented golfers in Maine from the time he began his freshman high school season, and he believed that by his senior year golf coaches at the Division I colleges and universities would be interested in him. When no one was, he began losing faith in himself. And I couldn’t look at him without thinking that my life as a father had really been a long run of fixing things. First it was the little things that break—gluing wheels back on, and dolls’ heads. Then bigger things, bicycles, skateboards, cars. Now I wondered if it would be stuff inside them, stuff that I couldn’t fix. I knew that I wanted to do something to reassure Jack that a light still shone on him. I had no idea what I might do, but this morning at sunrise while he slept in his room just above me, I got the idea of clearing the snow off a patch of grass in the front yard and setting up the big net I had bought him one Christmas.
The whole time I shoveled snow I was thinking of all the miles we had walked together, side by side, on golf courses from Canada to North Carolina. Then I went up to his bedroom and woke him.
“What time is it?” he asked, squinting at me.
“Almost six,” I said.
“What are you waking me now for?”
“Golf,” I said.
I had everything set up by the time he came outside. I hit a few balls into the net while he tried to figure out what planet he was on. “I still don’t feel like I’m getting my shoulders turned through the ball,” I said.
“You’re not,” he said miserably. “You’re swinging like Nanny. What the hell are you using for a tee?”
I told him proudly of my invention. The ground was frozen too hard to get a wooden tee in it, so I’d cut off the tip of a rubber nipple from one of his cousin’s baby bottles, and it worked perfectly. “Pretty good, huh?” I asked.
“Jesus, Daddy,” he said, shaking his head. “You’re crazy and I’m going back to bed.”
He began walking toward the front door.
“Wait,” I called to him. “Just try a few, Jack.”
He thought for a moment, then came slouching down the steps across the driveway. I watched him hit a couple of drives—crushing, fluid blows that far exceeded my ability—before he handed the club back to me. “This is stupid, man, I’m freezing,” he said. When he got to the door, he called back to me, “Go to bed, Daddy.”
He was gone before I could say anything. I stayed out for a while longer hitting balls into the net while the sky over the cove filled with pink light, but my heart wasn’t in it after that.
December 27, 2006
Somehow in my sleep last night I was given nine years back. It was 1997 again, and I was flying across the Atlantic with Colleen and our children to take them to Ireland so they could walk through the village their great-grandmother left at the turn of the twentieth century to make her way to America.
Jack sat beside me on that flight. He was still wetting his bed then, and sometime during the night he’d awakened to discover that he had soaked his seat on the 747. He woke me, crying softly. I told him it was nothing to worry about. I opened the half-empty bottle of Chardonnay from dinner and poured a healthy splash onto the seat while his eyes widened. “The pilots will think somebody spilled their wine, that’s all,” I told him. He smiled at me, crawled into my lap, and fell peacefully back to sleep in my arms.
We are going to be crossing the ocean again together in a few weeks to play golf in Scotland at a place called Carnoustie, on the Championship Course, because to play that track in the dead of winter is the toughest challenge in all of golf. It is the Mount Everest of the game, and I want us to do something hard together—to try to give Jack something to believe in again now that he no longer believes in himself. Something that will mark the long arc of our lives in such a way that as I grow into an old man, whenever he comes to see me from wherever he has ventured in this world, I will ask him as he steps through the door, “Well, Jack, have you met anyone yet who ever played the Championship Course at Carnoustie in the dead of winter?” And he will always say, “Nobody but us, Daddy.”
As I write this, it is seven below zero here in Maine. A balmy twenty-nine in Carnoustie, according to the Internet. Ever since I bought the plane tickets, I’ve been afraid Jack was going to tell me that he was too busy to make the trip.
January 14, 2007
KLM flight 1279 out of Boston’s Logan Airport. Five hours ago we took off from a sleeted runway for Amsterdam, where we will catch a flight to Edinburgh tomorrow morning. Everyone is asleep around me, including Jack, and I am thinking about history. I consider reading, but I’d rather think. When was the last time I’d read to Jack? It must have been Curious George. How many years ago? Twelve, fourteen? In a small room with a painted red floor, under the eaves in a beach house we were renting, I read to him in the room where I put him to bed with his Batman figures. I always stopped in the threshold each morning to watch him sleep, on my way back from the kitchen with my first cup of coffee at 4:00. On one of those mornings while he was sleeping, I strung fishing line across the ceiling from the corners of the room, then glued a paper clip to Batman’s arm so he was hanging in the air above Jack when he awoke.
His eyes are closed now as the plane sails toward the morning light of a new day. He has the hood of his sweatshirt pulled up and his iPod plugged into his ears. I can’t see even a trace of the little boy I recall, and in his absence I wonder why I stopped reading to him at night, sending him off into his sleep with a story. I had once known his bedtime patterns so well. The way he rubbed his eyes to try to stay awake. Then the last deep breath he took just before he conked out, as if he were going underwater until morning. I had delighted in learning his routines. There was a stretch of time when he would awaken in the night and come looking for me, wobbling like a little drunk as he weaved his way down the hallway to my room, dragging his blue blanket behind him. There were nights when I let him climb into bed and sleep between Colleen and me. I guess those nights ended after his younger sister, Cara, arrived. He must have known then that his time had passed and that he was on his own. I never thought of this before, but now as I close my eyes, I can picture him at the side of my bed, his eyes pleading for the chance to climb in beside me. How could I have ever disappointed him when all he wanted was to be closer? How do we do this as parents, how do we pull away? I’d probably been standing on some principle that seemed important then: How can my son go on to conquer the world if he can’t learn to sleep through a night in his own bed? Now that seems ridiculous. It is all just guesswork anyway, isn’t it, being a parent? And why wasn’t I prescient enough to realize then that a time was coming when I would have given away all my earthly possessions to open my eyes in the night and find my son standing there beside me, wanting to be close?
And let me write this here so I can read it again someday to remind myself: if you get to live in this world and have the privilege of a little boy wanting nothing more than to be close to you, you have no right to ask for anything more ever again. Or, to put it a different way: if you have been loved by a girl who pours her desire upon you and then places one stunning baby after another in your arms, then you have shared the sacred time and been granted immortality.
January 15, 2007
The Edinburgh Airport . . . By the time I discovered that I was in the wrong line for the car I’d rented on the Internet, I had forgotten what I was waiting in line for.
The man behind the counter seemed to sympathize with Jack when he said he couldn’t believe I’d neglected to write down the name of the rental company.
“Well, it says Auto Europe right here,” I said, showing the man the printout.
“That’s not the name of the rental agency,” he remarked.
“Yeah,” Jack chimed in, “that’s just the company that booked it.”
How does he know these things? I wondered miserably as we went from desk to desk inquiring if anyone had a car reserved under our last name, Snyder. Sometime during that aimless walk, I sent Jack to buy us something to drink so I could take the morning stomach pill I’d been taking for seven years that never failed to dilute the heartburn that was presently spreading through my chest. By the time he returned, I had found our place, and the woman working on my forms was asking me for the second time if I was sure I didn’t want the additional insurance at £20 a day. I’d booked the car from America in U.S. dollars, $220 for the week. Twenty pounds insurance a day, with the pound equaling $2.22, would mean that the insurance would end up costing more than the car. It seemed like a racket to me.
“No insurance,” I said again. Then, with what I intended to be humor, “The insurance companies in this world are making fools of all of us.”
She raised her eyebrows at Jack with an expression that said, Not the wisest father for a lad to be stuck with, as she said, “Okay, then. If you have an accident, you’ll be required to pay the full value of the automobile.”
“I understand,” I said. “We’re just going to Carnoustie. It’s not too far from here, is it?”
“Where’s that?” she asked. And her colleague beside her had never heard of the place either.
Jack gave me an exasperated look.
“There’s a famous golf course there,” I said, “and you must have someone here who can tell us how to get there. And where’s the rental car from here?”
“You’ll have to take a bus,” she said.
“A bus to the car?”
Just before a young man from the back room began giving us directions to Carnoustie, I realized that I had mistakenly swallowed not my morning stomach pill but the pill I had to take every night to put me to sleep. I’d consolidated them for the trip into one container.
“You take a bus from outside to lot number [number what?]. Then you’ll go out the [what?] exit. Take the [oh God . . . ] northbound to the [are you kidding me?!] motorway, which will take you to the [Jesus, Mary, and Joseph] across the [we’re screwed] Bridge.”
I was watching his lips move as he talked, but his words weren’t reaching me. I turned to Jack. “Did you get all that?” I asked.
You know that feeling when someone gives you a photograph he’s taken of you recently, maybe at a party, and you look at it and think, this is how I really appear to the world? It’s the cold proof that each of us lacks the ability to see ourselves the way others see us. At the wheel of the little Fiat that Jack began calling “the Death Machine,” I wanted to look cool, debonair, even a little defiant as I drove on the left side of the road for the first time in my life and used a stick shift for the first time in twenty years. But my last decade of life spent cruising suburbia in the living room of a minivan had emasculated me to the point where I could sing castrato in a musical about Mario Andretti.
And I had wanted this to be my big moment, my chance to lift the value of my stock in my son’s eyes. Golf cap on backwards, cigarette clenched between my teeth, hands pounding the steering wheel to the drumbeat of a blaring radio, cup of black coffee steaming beside me, power shifting through the corners. Instead I was hunched over the wheel like Nanny before the state took her license away.