And then Ellen’s dad died.
It happened while we were in flight. Apparently he was sitting in his armchair around 8:00 on Tuesday night, when he decided he’d like a snack. He rose, fell, and never got up again. He was dead by 8:30.
We found out about it the next morning when our new neighbor, Colin, a Singaporean whose wife was the head of the General Education program and my new boss, came by with an Ethernet cable for my computer. Anita, his wife, was already at our flat with a couple of the housing folks, going over some last minute repairs. Ellen was talking to Anita and keeping an eye on the kids, who’d been up since 3, 5, and 6 a.m., respectively. Once I’d plugged in the computer, Colin stepped out into the hall to give me a little privacy. I clicked onto my e-mail, intending to drop a note to the grandparents, letting them know we were fine. Halfway down the page, a note from Ellen’s brother entitled “Fwd: Dad,” caught my eye. Uh-oh, I thought. Ellen’s dad had been ill for sometime, fighting Parkinson’s and a nasty staph infection that deteriorated his spinal column. Twice, he’d been pretty much declared a lost cause, Ellen’s mom in the room saying goodbye while Ellen and her brother were out in the lobby phoning funeral homes. Both times, though, he’d come back, and we pretty much assumed he’d outlive all of us.
Figuring it was another close call, I clicked on the e-mail. Immediately, the words, “Airline” and “died” caught my eye. As in, “I don’t know if the airline was able to get a hold of you, but Dad died last night.”
I turned my head and stared out into the hall. Colin looked at me. “What’s wrong?” he said. I just stared, my mouth open. “What’s wrong?” he said again, half-smiling, uncomfortable. I stood, walked to the hall, and called for Ellen. She was busy telling the kids not to stab each other with steak knives they’d found in a drawer, and didn’t hear me. I called again. This time she came and I hugged her.
I’d like to tell you it was a warm hug, and reassuring hug, a good hug, but it wasn’t. We’re not a couple prone to public displays of affection, and when I put my arms around her in front of people we’d just met and tried to get her to look at me, she squirmed and pushed away. I said something, vague and apologetic and mournful, and she looked at me, and then looked at me again. And then she got it.
She pulled away, went to the computer, clawed at the keyboard, trying to deactivate the screensaver. I turned to Colin, about to explain, and then I heard her laugh.
“Oh Jesus,” she said, her voice rising. “He was getting up to get ice cream.”
We’re not stupid. We know that travel is hard, that there will be fatigue and arguments and petty bickering over where to eat and what to eat and whose turn it is to stay with the napping toddler instead of wandering through some old village filled with antique shops and bakeries with custard-stuffed pastries. Nonetheless, when we think about travel, when we spend thousands of dollars getting ready for it, what we picture in our heads are the warm moments, the beautiful sights, the quirky little souvenirs, the surprising little interactions with locals that make us feel like we—and only we—are getting the real Hong Kong experience or French experience or Mogadishu experience or whatever.
Then something comes along that kicks us in the head and reminds us that what we’re doing is taking a fairy tale skip-a-thon is someone else’s cold, hard, reality.
Twenty years ago when I was in Africa, my first time out of the country, one of the women I was with got her passport and wallet stolen. We were in a remote village on the border of Tanzania and Malawi: no phones, no consulate, and a police force that, when we approached them, looked at us like “What did you expect? You’re white folk with bucket-loads of money. Of course you got robbed.”
In the end we wandered the village until we tracked down an Indian man we’d met on the train into town. He’d been to the US and liked us (or at least the women I was with) and when we knocked on his door and told him our problem, he said he’d do what he could.
Two hours later, a policeman flagged us down in the street and escorted us to the constabulary. Inside seated again the wall were 7 young men, all in the worn-out rags we’d come to associate with the Tanzanian working class. They did not look happy. In fact, truth be told, they looked scared as hell. Next to them stood a half-dozen police in light olive fatigues. Two of them were holding wooden nightsticks. At least one of them tapped an iron bar against his palm.
As we walked home, my friend’s passport in hand, we tried to act jubilant, buoyant, victorious. But we all felt a little sick to our stomachs. The truth of the matter was, we were a bunch of spoiled Yankee kids on a tour through one of the most impoverished countries in the world, for no other reason than that we had nothing better to do. And here was life, kicking us in the head.
There’s a scene in Six Degrees of Separation where Stockard Channing, the film’s narrator, turns to her dinner guests, having just told them an elaborate story that seems to have ended in tragedy, and insists pathetically, “I don’t want this to be just another anecdote.”
The problem with being a writer and traveling is that everything is just another story—everything is fodder for a novel or a poem or a radio essay. In one way, this is just dandy: one point of writing it to bring readers into worlds they might not otherwise encounter. But it can be problematic, too: when we look at the world as “material” instead of “life,” we distance ourselves from what’s going on around us. And consequently, it takes on less relevance.
This is particularly true, I think, of my current situation. One of the real charms of my position at my school in Hong Kong is that at the end of the year I can walk away from it. Curricular revision is touchy stuff. It involves telling faculty what they should or shouldn’t do in the classroom, what practices do or don’t work, what course goals matter and which ones don’t. I don’t know if there’s ever been a study done, but my guess is if you asked most professors why they joined the academy, independence from oversight will probably be in the top five for most. Professors like being their own bosses; we like being in the classroom and getting to decide what matters and what doesn’t, what’s right and what’s not.
Curricular revision, in contrast, involves the college as a whole making some pretty far-reaching decisions about who “we” are, about what “we” think matters, about how best to approach these subjects in the classroom.
Consequently, leading a curricular revision can be pretty intense experience. It’s not unusual, once a general education revision has passed (or failed so soundly that the process is over) for the acting gen ed director to virtually disappear from campus life. During my term as director, there were a number of periods (of weeks or months) where I would wake up at 5 A.M. with acid in my stomach and my mind churning. Almost instantly I’d start arguing in my head with this dean or that department chair about some finer point of the proposed curriculum—how the math requirement should be configured, for instance, or what brand of chalk we should purchase for the student union (that last one’s a joke, but only barely). As a result, once I retired from my post as general education director, I basically buried my head in my own work and became invisible. I stopped attending faculty meetings. I quit going to the dining hall. Whenever I could I worked out of my home. I’d just spent five years getting too personal with my institution. I was worn out, needed to find out again who I was and what I valued.
This opportunity in Hong Kong is different, though. Here, I’m the consultant. I come in, I give my two cents, I walk away. At the end of the year, I pack up my stuff and leave. Don’t like what I have to say? No biggie: take it or leave it, it doesn’t affect me any. Don’t like me? What do I care? I’m just here for the dim sum, the amazing history, and the overwhelming heat and humidity (well, okay, two out of three).
Such an approach is, of course, appealing. Almost everyone I talked to who was familiar with my work on my own campus pointed out that one benefit of the sort of Fulbright I had was being able to walk away at the end of the day. And it’s a tempting approach to take. Already, some of the advice I’ve offered via e-mail and in quick chats has been dismissed almost out of hand (“Here,” they say, “it’s different. What you’re suggesting won’t work.”). Yeah, okay. Take it or leave it. No skin of my pointy little bald head.
But geeze, I don’t know. Who wants that? In other contexts, isn’t that sort emotional and psychological distance a form of mental illness?
All of which has what to do with my father-in-law?
One: he and I were not particularly close. This is largely my fault. Particularly in recent years I kept my distance from him. It’s hard to say why this was, but in large part, I think, it was because I often saw in him parts of myself that made me uncomfortable. Both of us were deeply passionate about things we cared about, to the point of sometimes assuming we were always right. Both of us, though articulate, could sometimes be socially awkward. Both of us thought there’s only one way to load the dishwasher, and that we were the only person on the planet who knew the secret.
Since Merlyn’s death, though, I’m realizing I missed something. My wife tells the story of the time she and her father went in to London to sell a gold filling at a back-alley shop. Afterwards, they took the money and went to see “The Mousetrap.” Half-way through, her Lutheran-minister father leaned over and said, “Smell that? That’s marijuana.” Then he leaned back in his seat and went on with watching the play. My wife was struck by that: he didn’t preach, he didn’t demonize, he just pointed it out and went on.
Two: Right now I’m sitting in a 9/10ths empty flat in the New Territories of Hong Kong. The air conditioning is blasting, because even though it’s after ten, it’s over 30 degrees Celsius with humidity in the high 80s. I just spent the day exploring Kowloon with the kids. We saw the Star Ferries and Hong Kong Island and a bunch of surrounding islands. We ate at a food court where we were the only white folk, and the chickens on display at the stands all had their heads on. I know that I’m in absolutely one of the most amazing cities in the world, and that I’m just starting to discover what it has to offer.
Meanwhile, in less than an hour and half-way around the world, my wife will be standing in an old Lutheran church in St. Paul, next to a wooden casket holding the body of the only father she ever had. My guess is she’ll cry at some point during the service—probably more than once—and this is good, because a person should cry when someone they love and who loved them will never hold their hand again, or say hello, or pass them the salt.
But I’m not really worried about my wife. She’s stronger and smarter than I’ll ever be. She’ll survive this just as well without me there as she would were I there (now the kids are another matter, but let’s not go there). Even so, though, it makes me angry that I’m not standing beside her. She and I have never been the most lovey-dovey couple (my friend Gordon once referred to our marriage as a “dark horse”). But I like her and I want to be there for her, yes—but more, just with her. Because you should be with the person you’re married to when she’s burying her father, not half-way around the world strolling the streets of Kowloon and collecting stories to fill your blog.