Throughout my childhood, he worked long hours. Out the door by 7 and not back until 7 or later at night. He worked Saturdays and parts of Sundays and was often away at medical conferences. My father was comfortable being a doctor, sure of what to do and of how to progress. He read medical journals at home and responded quickly to residents calling for advice about a patient on the surgical floor. He was respected and admired by his peers. But he never had the same ease—or success—as the father of the five of us (three boys and two girls). He wouldn’t make time to attend parent-teacher conferences or swimming meets (all five of us swam), much less family dinners or birthday celebrations during the week. He might marshal all of our sibling forces to clean up the spacious yard of our suburban Milwaukee home on a Saturday morning, but he didn’t know how to have fun with us. The effort would inevitably prove a certifiable job, with him as grim task master. I think he loved us, but there was an awkward, fearful distance between that affection and its expression in words and gestures. Often enough, the expression would go unstated until it would erupt as a blunt, uncompromising command. Occasionally, on a weekend afternoon, he’d take one of the boys to play golf. When it was my turn, as we walked from green to tee and couldn’t avoid conversation, I learned out of fear not to say anything much. On what budding aspiration of mine would his inscrutable force come crashing down? Even now, the smell of a cigar—my father would smoke one as we went around the course—evokes the memory of anxious, beautiful fall afternoons when I was happier to hunt alone for my ball in some grove of trees than to expose myself to too much talk with my father.
For my father, only the results counted. He’d want to know our times in competitive swimming and our grades in school. On his desk, he kept a small, framed picture of a hand extending upward and the Robert Browning quotation: “A man’s reach must exceed his grasp.” This phrase captured a crucial part of his philosophy of life. He admired hard work and excellence and left all of us siblings with a powerful inner drive and an intolerance for shoddy work. I came to appreciate my father’s love of the Browning phrase, but I also came to find the phrase, as it existed in his mind, tyrannical. The way that he understood the phrase was all reach and no grasp—all some objective, impersonal goal called excellence and little sense of the subjective challenges along the way. During our weekly Sunday dinner, the one meal of the week we shared with him, conversation nervously walked the fault line of saying what you had or had not accomplished during the preceding week. A dutiful if half-hearted effort by the competitive swimming siblings at an off-season competition failed his Robert Browning test. His incredulous, angry criticism—how could we swim in a meet, any meet, and not do our best?—hung over the dining room table and ruined the meal. I wanted such dinners to end as soon as possible.
All of these currents in my father came together in a bitter, months-long argument with him over my decision to stop competitive swimming at the end of high school. I had been competing for 10 years, but it had become a grinding chore. I didn’t have a sense of what, if anything, was to take swimming’s place in my life, but I knew I wanted to stop. My father thought this was the wrong decision, and from April into August he demanded to speak with me almost every day to get me to change my mind. He thought I was talented as a swimmer and was giving up an opportunity to improve. He thought that I had gotten into Harvard on the basis of my swimming and that, therefore, I had an obligation to continue swimming there. I dreaded hearing him come home from work and then hearing the heavy step of his slippered feet as he came to the base of the stairway and called up, “David, come down. We need to talk.” I hated myself for submitting for months to this demand and remember now the shame I felt as I walked, again and again, down the stairs to his home office. There I sank low in the couch while he sat high in a leather chair, trying to persuade me to change my mind. His list of complaints grew: I was too emotional; the Jesuits at my high school had duped me; I was stuck in a cycle of self-indulgence; and so forth.
My father was right about one thing. The Jesuits had taught me something new. They never counseled me to stop swimming, but they took seriously the fact that I no longer wanted to do it. And, in itself, taking such a desire seriously opened up in me the possibility of a sense of self that stood rightfully on its own. In his Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius of Loyola counsels spiritual directors to refrain from being too directive with a person on a retreat. Suggest this or that. Let the retreatant determine the best course of action, and then let him or her try it out. The test of experience will tell all. The logic here is practical but spiritual, underscoring the immediacy and primacy of a relationship between the retreatant and the divine. As Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuits, puts it: “He who is giving the Exercises should not turn or incline to one side or the other, but standing in the center like a balance, leave the Creator to act immediately with the creature, and the creature with its Creator and Lord.” My father was not a close-minded Catholic for whom obedience to papal directives exhausted a person’s sense of responsibility. As a young man, he had read Cardinal Newman’s careful parsing of Catholic authority and personal conscience. In the early ’60s, he admired Xavier Rynne’s New Yorker dispatches from Rome as bishops at the Second Vatican Council created a new, more open church. But that intellectual openness did not translate into emotional attentiveness—especially toward the confounding obstacle of a son with a growing mind of his own. In any case, I did not think in elaborate Ignatian terms as I sat humiliated in my father’s office. But such ideas were taking root in me nonetheless. In college, I stopped swimming.
Telemachus set off on the wine-dark seas in search of his absent father. My father was missing but at home, sitting imperious on the leather chair in his study. It would take time to realize that I was, nevertheless, on a journey to find him. The first landfall came 20 years after high school with my divorce. I came down from graduate school in Boston to spend weekends at my parents’ vacation home in East Hampton on Long Island. I was shocked by the divorce; paralyzed by dread of a loveless future; humiliated by shame (divorce, I had thought, was an affliction that only other people suffered); and oppressed by guilt for how I had contributed to the failure of the marriage. For the next year and a half, I feared lying down at night because I knew that at some point in the empty early-morning hours I would be jolted awake by a current of anxiety that ran through my body. Days dragged on in hazy attention to work and people, while my heart seemed to be traveling some wild, frightening river. I was also deeply fearful at how my father would take the news of the divorce. The only times I had cried in front of him before were when he took his belt to me as a child or when I imploded in blustering rage during one of his don’t-stop-swimming inquisitions. Now, though, I could not help it. “Don’t cry,” my father said, as we talked one evening in the living room. “Get a hold of yourself. Let’s look at this situation and see what you can do.” He made no move to leave his chair and embrace me. His voice wasn’t soothing so much as matter-of-fact. I thought: I am the patient and he is the surgeon. We both know the terminal state of this marriage. I am not bearing the news well. He is speaking to me clinically and precisely and with complete conviction. I realized then one of the things that made him an excellent cancer surgeon: His authority in the face of mortality, when sickness strips away every false hope, invited a like-minded, assertive response. My father wasn’t very interested in his own emotional life, much less mine. In that, he was the antithesis to the wisdom and excess of our therapeutic age. But he was very interested in action: in what, here and now, you can do. Faith without works, to him, was really dead. As we spoke in the living room, I straightened my back and began to imagine steps toward the future: finish the dissertation, marry again, move to California.
In the next months, my father started to falter. One afternoon we were playing golf when he turned to me—away from the group we were with—and confided with frightened bewilderment: “Dave, have you ever had one of those days when it seems like nothing at all matters?” He had never before shared such a thought with me. He had certainly never intimated that I help him understand his own troubled spirit. I still see him on that eighth tee box in the late afternoon light of a desultory round of golf at the country club on Long Island, his tall, strong frame enfeebled by the confused, faraway look in his eyes.
Then he began to falter in other ways, too. He fell several times while on vacation with my mother in Florida. A formerly agile man, he developed a pronounced limp, one leg lifting high at the knee as he walked. Other involuntary muscle movements and twitches began to appear. One night at dinner, he was close to anguish. “I’ve seen the best neurologists in the world,” he said, citing his office visits with colleagues in Manhattan, “and no one can give me a goddamned diagnosis.” By then I had moved to California, where I was working at a tiny Internet company and making steady progress on my dissertation. The geographical distance made me less fearful of him. And we had each awkwardly started to cross the line of speaking about things falling apart beyond our control. I started to call back East weekly. My father and I would laugh when he’d cut me off in midconversation to say that he’d be happy to hear about anything but the damn weather in California. He was characteristically to the point in his dating advice: “Just ask her out and don’t think too much about it. Whatever she says, keep moving.”