Finnegan Alexander
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Here Captain! Dear Father!

An Essay

For some reason I always picture my father in the week where autumn turns to winter. It’s his favorite time of year because it’s where he feels most comfortable, which makes sense because my father is a man who likes to feel comfortable. Comfortability is the first step to having the upper hand, I think, and the upper-hand is a mandatory thing for men like my father, no matter how few there might be. And there in my head, with him in those last few days of November, sitting in a rocking chair on my porch, puffing on a pipe, frameless glasses and all, pursuing a Robert Frost collection, I am okay with him having the upper-hand.

Some subconscious morale in my soul will not let my head visualize my father without classic literature, even though besides him reading to me, I have no memory of him reading of his own conviction. That is something I’ve always been confused about, a mystery that has stayed with me since my earliest youth. Either way, I can’t see him in any other situation except this made up scene produced in the recesses of my mind. Perhaps it’s due to the fact that I know he would not let me grow up without it, or the fact that it is who I’ve always wanted him to be: a man he became when he roped me into the addiction of literature. “Captain o’ Captain” was verses in a lullaby of secret wisdom, my father’s favorite one to profess while tucking me in, which made it impossible not to float effortlessly into a dreamscape of sailors and big tall ships. Pa was the captain of all of them and I, his loyal first mate. Before the age of eight, he had “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening” memorized in my head. Before six, the first four lines of “The Tyger” was in constant circulation around me. My dad called them “The Classics.” I didn't know why that meant anything, but I knew I liked the way the words sounded out of my father’s mouth. He has a way of speaking the words of his favorite poems with unforgettable meaning, meaning that sticks. As I grew older and moved through the library shelves, I distinctly remember my father almost chanting to me “reading is the ticket out.” As a kid growing up in a little prospect small town, it sounded appealing. I wanted to be smart and sophisticated, and I wanted to know everything like Pa did. My father knew more than anyone, and he held that knowledge delicately, showing the kindness and vulnerability few ever saw. I considered myself his apprentice, the chosen recipient of that gift. He always called it that, knowledge was not a learned thing, true wisdom was a gift. In that I have learned he was right, he ended up being right about a lot of things, most things, including the ticket. Being living proof, I am sitting in the middle of one of the greatest cities in the world. Though my father loves being right more than anything, his feelings grew complex as his advice was fuel to a growing distance between him and his family. The day we left I remember watching him as the car sped off, hiding tears under his long brown coat. I remember thinking—God I hope he lets me leave. I remember thinking—God I hope he doesn’t hate me for it.

I’d like to think Pa has a sort of complicated form of pride, his only son moved across the country—far, far away. From the window watching him achieve all the things he never could, but taking the memories with him as he went. His thoughtful glances to the living room, now empty, knowing that deep inside it was his constant lessons that drove his only son away. I feel as though there is always a scale in my Dad’s head, weighing the cost of his pride and his heart. I doubt it ever gives him the answer he desires. Look where we are because of it, miles away, trying to tie ourselves back together.

Pa is a man of art and music, but if you ask him he won’t agree. And, my bet is at first glance you won’t either. A six-foot-five man with a thick silver mustache to match his more-salt-than-pepper hair: an intimidating figure just by the way he carries himself. My father is not secretly a teddy bear, if that is where you believe I am leading up to. In fact, the only person his heart has really grown soft for is my sister and I. You see my father is a poet trapped inside a businessman. He’s what happens when an artist is forced to provide. I don’t know if my dad ever wanted to be a poet. I know my mom says that when he was really young he was emotional and sensitive, which is the starkest opposite of the Michaelangelos many are familiar with. So I doubted it, but after a thorough reflection it lines up with my view of him. But what is my view of him exactly? Who I want him to be? Or who he is? When I ask myself this all I see is the same picture: the rain and the pipe and the pile of novels I’ve never even seen him read. Not once. But somehow I know he’s read them, I know he used to or had to—I know he was like me. What changed? Was it when he moved from his old neighborhood? As he met my mom? Was it when he didn’t need a ticket anymore?

When I first started writing I wrote a lot about my dad. Living in the southern sheltered farmland I called home for so long, he was the only one who told me I needed an escape, the only one who offered me a solution. Though through all the talks of escape, I wondered why we were there. If reading was the ticket out, and if we needed one, why were we still there? Why hadn’t he escaped? But I had little time to think about it because that was when he put the first poetry collection in my hands. Those words, the fondness my father had for them… how could I not write about that? So I did, and he kept all of them, some in the files of his computer, some framed on his desk. I look back at that now. They are awful. He disagrees. I wonder if he still reads them, a picture of who I used to be. So close, full of love, and wanting to be just like him. I remember following at his footsteps as he taught me how to whittle, how to tell how deep lake water is, how to cast a line. I always wanted to know more and he was the closest I had to genius.

The last book my father read was The Way of the Peaceful Warrior, published in 1980. The last time my father read and loved a book was some thirty years ago. A twenty eight year old boy loved a book and then he became my father. Was the change to adulthood so turbulent that he lost his greatest love? There is boy and there is man but we seldom worry about the grey area, could this be a product of that ambiguous in between? Who was my father in 1980? How does that compare to the man I know now? I don’t know if I’ll ever find out any answers, I only know of who he is now.. He says that he reads documents upon documents for work and that he watches documentaries and on off chances reads history. I feel as if I’m standing in front of a wall with pictures and articles with red string connecting them all. After asking him this he tells me one more thing: that reading to me and my sister was “the greatest fun he ever experienced.” I realize that was his new ticket. And now we are gone. What’s your ticket now, O’ Captain? Where are you going? Don’t you remember, Pa? Our fearful trip is done.

My father now lives alone in a nine-room house with no furniture. He comes home to an empty shell of what used to be called home, to a bedroom where he used to read tales of birch trees and grass—leaves of it. I wonder when he goes to sleep at night, if he looks at the books on the shelf near his room. I wonder if he ever reads them, if he ever thinks of me when he sees them, knowing that I have read them all, not knowing that I did it all for him.

He keeps a copy of Wisdom of Gibran next to his bed, a book given to him by his father. I didn’t know that until I asked. As he told me I started crying. I don’t know why.

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