A little background: I was forty-four years old when my first and only child was born, and when she was about a month old I brought her to my dying father. It merely seemed like something I should do; I thought that seeing his new granddaughter would register for him on some level. That’s the kind of relationship we had: it didn’t feel like I was bringing a tribute to a patriarch, but more like I was doing it just to give him a slight palliative, like wetting his parched lips when he was thirsty. And I certainly didn’t have any illusion that it would ever mean anything to my daughter who, at that age, hadn’t even acquired the consciousness that she was in the world.
He was lying on his back in a hospital bed that my mother had imported into their spare bedroom, opiated permanently into semi-dreamland. I stood by his bedside and held her over him, and with his eyes half-closed, his face expressionless, he slowly reached up his arms to take her. I placed her in his hands, keeping my own hands underneath his as a safety net, not wanting to touch him and interfere with whatever connection he might have felt for my baby. With my hands hovering underneath his, he slowly brought her near his face and gave her an air kiss. Then he raised her up and, relieved he hadn’t dropped her, I took her back. Twice more, he slowly brought his empty hands down to his face and kissed the air.
My daughter Alex is now living halfway across the country, worried about her seventy-three-year-old father living on the quickly rising slope of the coronavirus bell curve and still seeing his psychotherapy clients in person. “Relax,” I said, when she called me. “I’m doing fine. You just need to worry about me getting arrested for shooting one of these fucking turkeys who are buying up all the toilet paper.”
“You’re joking to hide your anxiety,” she bitched at me. “Stop always joking about things.”
“And you’re always bitching at me to hide your own anxiety,” I said. “I’m fine. I wash my hands so often I’m beginning to think I’m a fucking raccoon. I’ve got wipes in my office, I wipe down doorknobs and light switches, and I don’t touch my face.”
“Have you told your clients you’ll see them on Skype instead of face-to-face?”
“That’s not a good reason,” she said.
“You’re turning into an old lady nag. You really need to chill. Remember what I’ve always told you, that I—”
“Don’t tell me again that you always laugh at danger.”
“But it’s true.”
“There you go again, joking to hide your feelings.”
“I know you’re worried,” I said, “and I appreciate it. There’s at least six feet between my clients and me, and I don’t shake their hands any more, let alone hug them.”
“Tell your clients you’re going to Skype.”
“You’re not going to do it, are you?”
“I’ll consider it,” I said, and on that unsatisfying note we hung up.
When does anxiety melt into paranoia? A month after 9/11, someone started mailing letters dusted with anthrax to newsman Dan Rather and other public figures. Newly feeling vulnerable to attack, Americans got even more nervous. Delores, an elderly woman, proudly told my mother that she was throwing every piece of junk mail she received right down the garbage chute without even opening any of it just in case it had some of that anthrax stuff on it. Did her pride come from outsmarting terrorists or from equating her importance with Dan Rather’s? I also found myself considering whether her garbage chute led directly into an incinerator, which would be a good thing, or into a large bin, which would just be passing the anthrax on to someone else.
Meanwhile, the hoarders have loaded up on toilet paper and antiseptic wipes, leaving the grocery shelves bare. Where do we draw our circle of protection: around ourselves, our immediate family, people we know? Do we stretch it wider to include people we don’t know? When you can’t save everyone, you start to triage with medical care, compassion, and then, when things get bad enough, an insincere “Sorry,” or no longer noticing them at all, or even eventually seeing them as an enemy who threatens your own survival. In ordinary times few people would endorse drawing circles of protection that exclude strangers, but in tough times who practices everything they’ve endorsed? Just like I think about standing outside Chicago’s Trump Hotel and trying to shame everyone who walks in or out of there, I want to ask the turkeys lugging their bales of toilet paper out of stores how they can justify buying so much of it that there’s nothing left for anyone else.
At our core we’re still primitives huddling close to the campfire, listening to the rustlings and the howling in the darkness just beyond. We know the howling of the lonely predator so well because it’s also us. So we pray or go to church or play the lottery or hope for recompense, whether from karma or some god, for our benevolent thoughts or good deeds, until fear takes over and we toss that kind of thinking out the door. Once our ancestors sought refuge from their loneliness and fear by professing that they were a pinnacle of creation. (Except the Greeks and Romans, who knew we were at the mercy of mercurial and selfish gods). Even when Copernicus took away the comforting notion that we and our planet were snugly nestled in the center of the universe, Elizabethans still clung to the notion of a clockwork universe vibrating with the music of heavenly spheres. Later, Mendel and Darwin inculcated more doubt into our idea of just who we thought we were and what our rightful place in the universe was. (What kind of monk was that Mendel anyway, announcing the inexorableness of genetics?) After we’d managed to digest the message of Darwin and Mendel, along came physicists and astronomers who showed us that not only is the Earth just a random mote in the universe, but the entire universe is expanding faster, accelerating its race away from us. It was as if Little Red Riding Hood had been told that the primeval woods were deeper and darker than she’d even dared to imagine and that there was no warm grandma’s cottage anywhere in there. So there’s really little else to do but throw another log on the fire, tote home another multipack of toilet paper.
In the final scene of Ulzana’s Raid, a 1972 Western which has undeservedly been pretty much forgotten, Burt Lancaster, a mortally wounded, grizzled old scout for the U.S. Calvary, is left alone to die on the prairie. Sitting against a rock in the final scene, he slowly rolls a cigarette, knowing his life will end with this one last smoke. He takes a weary breath, sighs out the word “shit,” and dies. I was 26 when I saw it and thought what a perfect ending, going out with a sigh that blended together weary resignation, bemused regret, and irony. What’s it all been about, and does any of it matter right now—this speck of tobacco on my lip, those clouds drifting across the distant mountain peak, memories, everything distilling down into this final moment. (Unfortunately, in what seems to be the only extant version of the film, the word “shit” has been deleted).
My daughter phoned me back five minutes after we hung up. “I’m not going to apologize for anything I said,” she said, “but I’m sorry about my tone.”
This is the meat of relationships, the capacity of humans to make mistakes and repair, to commit regrettable actions and to atone for them, to keep trying to clear away all the detritus and dust that inevitably settles over our connections with each other.
“You’re scared for me, I understand that,” I said. Just to alleviate my own discomfort, I wanted to keep talking to head off a deeper connection, but my better instincts took over and I chose to stay quiet, keeping the line open instead of filling it with static.
“I’ve never told you this,” she said, “but when I think about whether to have a baby, I can’t imagine having a child who didn’t know you. And I never had the chance to know Grandpa Herb.”
I managed to say I was really touched and that I loved her, and then I shut up again before my voice cracked.
–March 20, 2020
A writer/psychotherapist, Garry Cooper is interested in examining the too-easy “truths” to which psychotherapists, writers, parents, and lovers are occasionally prone. He writes, “Thanks to our President Hindenberg we’re uber-proficient at spotting lies, but we’re still not so good at spotting the lies we tell ourselves.” This piece is part of The Little Guidebook of Love and Mortality, a collection-in-progress of his essays on love and mortality. His essays have been published in Triquarterly, Perigee, Bloodroot, Psychotherapy Networker and Rockhurst Review, and “Hope Against the Edge” was shortlisted in the international Notting Hill Editions 2016 Essay Contest and was published in their book, Eulogy for Nigger and Other Essays (2016). His essay “The Home Field” appeared in ACM last year.