My parents spend their summers in Maine, and I have joined them for most of them since I was a small boy: renting cabins on lakes or along quiet coves; skipping rocks along the shorelines barefoot and exploring the woods; fishing and boating with the locals and children of other vacationers; devouring lobster and clam chowder and salt water taffy; and all the rest of what makes Maine Maine. Maine is part of who I am, and one day maybe it will be part of who Hanlon is too.
We have to check out of the rental by 11. The new rental is on the other side of Deer Island, and we can’t check in there until noon. We still have to pack the car, but I’m taking the last load of garbage to the dump. Hanlon wants to go with me, any excuse to be with his daddy.
I have been reading a book about the physics of the future, about how the world will change from 2030 to the end of the century. I realize Hanlon will see things, will really see things. On the way back from the dump I think about my grandparents and the world they knew. And I think about Hanlon and my father and the chasm between their generations. And then I think about how the book I’m reading talks about exponential growth, so I also think about Hanlon’s grandchildren and the even bigger changes that could occur within the next hundred years as compared to the last hundred. And all at once it both amazes me and overwhelms me with sadness. I wonder if Hanlon will talk to his grandchildren about my father, if he’ll even have anything to say. I wonder the same about me with Hanlon’s children and their children and grandchildren. Family is a funny and wonderful thing.
Hanlon’s English is not so good, but he’s making progress. And since he’s only four and a half I’m not worried that he’ll eventually speak the language as well as Mandarin. So I speak to him in Chinese. I tell him that I have an idea, a great idea I want to tell him. He is in the back harnessed to his car seat, so I look back and forth between the rear view mirror and winding, wooded road while I talk.
One day, I say, you will grow up and have a son, just like I have you. One day, you will be a father and have a little boy to play with just like we play together. Do you know that, I ask.
He seems to acknowledge this.
And then your son will grow up and get married and have a son too. And you will be a grandfather just like grandpa is to you.
And he then asks me, what about you and mommy? Will you both be dead?
Even though I hear the question, I want him to say it again. What did you say, I say?
And he then says, after mommy dies will you still be here?
And I know that this is one of those moments I will remember my whole life, and it fills me with awe and confusion. I want to get it right, whatever that means. So I tell Hanlon what I know about life and death, how all things grow and die: the trees, the flowers, animals, fish and people, all living things. I think of something my father has quoted from Samuel Beckett, or at least I think it’s Beckett, who said something to the effect of the following: all things are born and die in a second, the same second.
And Hanlon asks me why we have to die, and I hear his voice crack and I feel my throat tighten. Life is just like that, I say. We come from somewhere, from nothing, very quickly, and I snap my fingers, just like that. And we grow and live, and I slowly open my hand as if a flower blooming. And then nothing, and then we’re gone.
He is almost in tears, but he is not certain whether he should cry. I don’t want to die, he says.
I don’t want to die either, I tell him. We are now back at the house and I stop the car and turn back to him.
I don’t want you to die, he tells me, and vacillates between giggles and tears. I, too, struggle to hold it together.
Mommy and I aren’t going to die for a long time, I say. And you’re not going to die for a long time either. That’s why it’s so important to have fun while you are alive, I tell him. It’s really important we have a good time while we are here. Do you understand?
He nods hesitantly, but he is not happy with my answer. That’s just the way it is, I tell him. I’m not happy about it. No one wants to die, but that’s just the way it is. So, let’s go play together, okay?
And this time he nods more affirmatively. He quickly asks if we can open the Spiderman fishing rod I got him the other day. And I say, sure we can, but we’ve got to move first. Can you help me pack the car? And he is happy to help. He is already thinking about other things.
As I now recall it I’m not even sure that that’s how it really went at all. But I remember how sad and lost we felt together, just the two of us, a beautiful closeness that can only come from deep sadness.
Picture a calm lake shaded with thick oaks and sticky berry bushes. Picture the shore, an amoeba-like bank with dark algae-covered stones. Picture a private beach, where someone lies on a beach chair reading “The Times.”
A motorboat across the lake from you speeds by pulling a water skier. The boat “tick-tacks” along the glassy surface in an effort to throw the skier, but the skier holds on. The boat speeds up and the skier’s grip tightens, but knuckles soon go white and bending a little too far forward the skier goes down. The boat slows and circles the skier. You can hear shouts and laughter. Moments later a bluish-purple “thumbs up” is waved and “Hit it!”: the skier is up again.
It has driven out of sight by now but you can still hear remnants of joyous shouting, and the fading chug of the engine blows through the leaves, and the plip-plopping of a dying wake pats the shore, where someone sits, quite unchanged, reading “The Times.”
One fall evening there was a soft knock on the door, which would have gone unnoticed or passed off as a bump in the woodwork had Feller not been trying very hard to take a nap. He opened his eyes and shouted over his shoulder, “Who is it?” But there was no reply, just another soft knock from the other side.
In a huff of indignation Feller gathered himself out of bed, and with a crouched gait he shuffled towards the caller. Upon opening the door, he was alarmed to find a young, fair-skinned woman across the threshold. She was covered in a burnt-orange trench coat and adorned with a coffee-colored hat. Feller’s disposition immediately pivoted, and he consciously addressed his strange guest with courteousness and interest.
“Hello, my dear. I am sorry I did not hear you. Getting old,” he mused. “How, then, many I help you?”
The young woman did not reply. She looked straight ahead with unflinching white eyes, as if staring right through him.
“Hello?” Feller repeated, “Hello?” He was bemused by her silence and hoped to break the awkwardness with mirth. He waved an open hand quickly in front of his face, as if teasing whether she could even see him at all. But the woman still did not respond. In fact she did not even blink. Feller now grew puzzled by his visitor’s most unprecedented departure from convention. And she just continued staring motionlessly at him.
Then an idea struck him. He surmised the woman must be both blind and deaf. The notion seemed reasonable, though at once it made him uneasy as what to do. And he could not decide. Such a normal thing, a wandering guest at his door, and yet at the same time it was entirely out of the ordinary. So, he was unsure, even paralyzed, as how to act.
They stood facing each other, she like a tree and gazing all around him; he, quizically looking her over in her brown hat. Feller found himself getting chilly in the twilight air, but in spite of the discomfort he persevered, facing her with resolve, if even out of spite, yet doing nothing.