moved back to the Iron Range from Philadelphia after my mother died. Things with Marie had gone to hell and I couldn’t live in a city haunted with loss anymore. Back home, my father was forced to retire and my sister, the Miami lawyer, was afraid he wouldn’t know how to take care of himself with Mom gone. Not wanting to deal with him herself, she offered to pay me $500 a month to look after him. “Plus expenses,” I told her. Drinking money.
I left behind everything that wouldn’t fit into a rental car and drove through the night wondering what else I would do for money. When I arrived, my father shook my hand like I was trying to sell him insurance.
“So you couldn’t swing it in Philly, huh?”
I went to my room without saying anything and didn’t emerge until the handle of whiskey in my suitcase was gone.
On good days, I managed to avoid awkward interactions with my father, which meant avoiding him altogether. At night, I drank enough to not dream of Philadelphia.
Early every morning, I’d hear the screen door slam as my father left through the back. I suspected he was taking inventory of the yard work that needed to be done now that there was an able body living in the house. There was no question that he let the door slam on purpose. One morning, he stuck his head into my room without knocking.
“Do you want to help me with something?” he asked.
I couldn’t tell if it was a question or a command. In the backyard, he took me to a spot where he had dug up all of the grass. A spade and a hoe lay on the ground and a large stone was peeking through the dirt like a gray turd.
“It’s too big for me to get out of there,” my father said.
“What the hell is all this?”
“I’m making a garden,” he said.
“Your sister said you were going help out around here,” he said, as I began digging. “But you haven’t done anything yet.” We stared at each other.
“If you could just get this sucker out and put it over by the garage,” he said, pointing to the rock.
The damn thing must have weighed 150 pounds and was the size of a sofa cushion shaped like Wisconsin. I waddled across the yard to the garage, cursing, and dropped the rock into an old comatose flower bed. I started back for the house when my father called after me and said there might be more rocks that needed to be dug up. After that, when the back door slammed in the morning, I’d get up to see what my father needed me to do. This was how he asked for help.
I fumed for days working with him in the garden. I was mad at the idle conversation about what shrubs and perennials would go where and what a deal he got on the stepping-stones and, if only he had the energy, how he would love to put in a duck pond complete with koi. I was upset because he never even asked about Philadelphia. Though I would have been upset if he had.
I was angry because it was a lose-lose situation and my father couldn’t figure out a way to win. I was indignant about receiving money from my sister that could not pay for a meaningful conversation with my father. I was annoyed that he kept referring to koi as “those big goldfish.”
The garden eventually became a way to distract myself from what I lost in Philadelphia. We began eating lunch together, my father and I, and with familiarity, the tight-rope walk of our conversations eased. Sometimes, we would watch television after dinner and he would always fall asleep before the movie was over. At first, I would clear my throat or shake his foot so he’d wake up, but he’d start snoring again in five minutes so I just let him sleep. I’d leave the television on, sneak back to my room, and drink whiskey until I was blissfully certain I wouldn’t dream of Philadelphia or anything else.
One night my father fell asleep while watching a show about a Zen garden in Japan. I didn’t think that our garden would be very good, but it couldn’t be any worse than this one. The Zen garden was just a flat pitch the size of a large room covered with meticulously raked gravel. Five small islands of exposed earth, each crowned with a small boulder, dotted the gravel. People traveled the world to look at this garden, and I was watching them look at it.
I shook my father.
He stirred but began snoring again immediately. As I got up to leave, a small man spoke in Japanese about the garden. The subtitles read, If you reduce nature to abstract forms, its presence reveals understanding about unseen things. I didn’t understand the words, but his tone made me sit down and reconsider those rocks and that place. Then I began to see it too.
“Look at this,” I said, shaking him.
“Wake up, Dad. I think this is important.”
All rights reserved to Noah Gorz.