I’m going to be telling a story about how I came to love a boy, who was not my biological child, as if he were my son—love him with the singular passion and devotion I carry for my daughter and as I had for the son I lost to cystic fibrosis. I’m writing a love story about me and a boy as unlike me as I could ever have imagined.
We are living at a moment when nearly half of us, men and women, are parenting children not our own. We need to hear love stories for inspiration— and, without a moment’s hesitation, I hope this book is inspirational – especially to guys because of the way our upbringing tears us from our capacity and impulse and spiritual need to love. Hard enough to love our own children unconditionally, harder yet to love a child not our own to whom we are father. And harder yet, when the boy is so very much unlike who you feel yourself to be.
We men rarely had a loving model in our fathers. For years, on Thursday nights in Portland, Maine, where I led what in the city was known as Men’s Night at the PWC (Proprioceptive Writing Center), I heard men write about their deepest hurts, and almost always their story was about either an emotionally absent father or an angry, tyrannical father who was emotionally crippled himself. And, of course, he is the person we are supposed to identify with as men!
But just who am I to be talking about love and loving, and just what do I mean by love, anyway? I’ll say only a few words about love here, at the beginning of my story. Then I’ll talk about me a little—enough to give you a feeling for how I got to be that person who fell so completely in love with one Linda Trichter Metcalf that, in a real sense, I probably had no option but to love her son as she did.
I think of love in three ways. There is the pure emotion of love, say the love we feel as parents for our child—for whatever reason: because s(h)e is such a helpless newborn, because it is ecstasy when s(h)e begins to crawl, because s(h)e has mastered some eye-hand coordination skill, because s(h)e is so utterly beautiful asleep in your arms. An emotion comes and goes, and registers in the body—you laugh, you cry, you sweat, your heart rhythm changes. Emotion and its expression are a unitary phenomenon, an arc in time.
I think of love also as a state of mind that endures longer than expressed emotion; you feel liberated from the tyranny of the clock; you feel expansive, spacious, connected to others or to nature or even to the universe; your feelings are more inclusive than it is in every-day consciousness; you take in more; you are simply not up-tight in this moment. You probably know this state of being through sexuality, meditation, ritual, focused work. Mind-altering drugs can take you there. In this sort of loving condition, you feel like you’re dwelling in the realm of truth and capital “I” imagination.
Then there is love and loving as a spiritual path, which needn’t be affiliated with any organized faith. I like thinking that I travel this path, which I characterize by a capacity to be open to any and all thoughts and feelings with a corresponding readiness to reflect on them, so that I am always, or as often as I can be, in a learning mode. Love and the quest for self-knowledge and understanding are one action for me. I do feel that what most distinguishes us as humans is that we are, by nature, learning creatures. To learn from experience, to make meaning of experience—this is to be human. To be human in this natural way is to be intimate with the power of love. It creates emotional “space” for others to be and become—to change and grow.
As you will soon be hearing, it was my wondering about how we learn that was near the heart of my coming to love Francis. Here was an intelligent, powerfully imaginative child who couldn’t learn to play the card game “War” or figure out a “Bingo” card. Nor was he strong on physical grace, though he was a physical dynamo—and beautiful to boot.
I was fortunate in my first five years (1941-46) to know a man intimate with the force of love; it wasn’t my father, but my Zadi (grandfather) Michael, my mother’s father. I think he may have been a saint. In his luminous gray presence, people were quiet and thoughtful or they laughed and talked joyfully, music in the background—and probably a schnapps in his hand. People loved him, and he loved me. I often stayed with him (in my aunt’s house) when my mother was putting herself back together after periods of great unhappiness. I was the first grandchild to bear the name of his dead wife, his beloved Tova. I also had a special relationship with him, one of the heart, since he spoke Yiddish and very little English. With him I was safe, I mattered, and I carry him in my psyche as a model for loving and for a subtle spirituality.
My father, sixteen years older than my mother, was a Polish immigrant who arrived in the United States in 1922. He had helped the Bolsheviks in Europe, but in America became an Eisenhower Republican. In him I had a model for responsibility. I’ve been told that when Mollie, my mother, was healing herself, Izzy (nee Itzak) would come up to our apartment above the clothing store he co-managed, to feed me. This family drama (my brother Bernie was eight years older) occurred in Fredericktown, Pennsylvania, a small coal-mining town on the Monongahela River southwest of Pittsburgh.
Iz was a traditional family man (always working) and a stereotypically repressed male, except when he was angry. But he clearly loved my mother. Sometimes the family would be watching a beauty contest on television and Izzy would announce that Mulka was still his Miss America beauty. He never could get over the fact that this good-looking, bright, athletic American woman married him, “the greenhorn,” even though her family immigrated on a few years before his.
I suspect my mother will always be part of my internal audience, occupying a seat of loving approval. Her times away from me when I was so young, I’m sure, helped shape who I am, but I loved her fully, and in a manner that might have made Freud smile. I can still remember a series of recurrent nightmares around five or six in which I was being chased by a club-wielding gorilla, along an underground riverbed; the gorilla was threatening to bash out my brains because I was escaping with a pair of women’s underwear.
Zadi Michael died when I was five, but by then Mollie had conquered her psychological dragons and was a fully nurturing presence in my life. She even went back to substitute teaching when I entered first grade. I was a typical teenager. To assert my masculinity, I behaved badly toward Mollie. Like most children, I was cut off from (fearful of?) the love I had for her, but it allowed me to love Fran’s mother in the way I did (and do).
This capacity to love, however, was not in place when I was married to Eileen, whom I married a year and a half after my mother died in February 1963. My father had died a year and a half earlier (and my brother died at 37 in May of 1970). In marriage I ended my unhappy orphan state and, in me, son of the middle class, Eileen saw a person on his way to becoming a college professor. I had also inherited $50,000 from my parents, which evaporated in about seven years in a doctoral degree and children—without going into debt. I was what might be called “a good catch” especially for a girl from a lower middle-class family. If marriage is a trade, then what I received was a close family—Eileen, her parents, and her three siblings.
We were so young (I twenty-three, she twenty) and naïve that the marriage was doomed, but we were together for eleven years with great respect and caring for one another. Our great passions, though, were directed to our children, Mia, born January 7, 1966, and Derek who was born November 19, 1968.
I never felt husband-identified, but Eileen (an R.N., now with a degree in Psychology and years of work in New York City as a psychiatric nurse) liked being a wife. Inevitably, our emotional connection flattened out. My most profound sense of self was as father. The birth of Mia, when I was twenty-five moved me as nothing ever had in my life. As a father, I felt I had fulfilled an ancient biological and communal demand. I loved my daughter in some inchoate, inarticulate, blood-identified way.
When I first saw her—black hair angling in all directions and already trying to raise her head (she walked at nine and a half months)—I was ecstatic. Eileen finally asked if I wanted to know what sex the baby was. That matter hadn’t even registered in my excitement. On June 23, 2001, the day before my sixtieth birthday, I danced at her wedding.
My story with Mia is for another time; it is my history with Derek that feels directly connected to the story of this book, an ironic story (if that is the word) about losing a son and being provided (by the Universe, it seemed) with another. But, one I had to learn to love and understand.
My son died on March 15, 1978. He was about nine and a half then, and I’d been preparing since he was six weeks old and diagnosed as having cystic fibrosis. For that first year of his life, I wanted him to die. I didn’t want to love him. I didn’t want the anguish that would accompany the bond. But he survived those first delicate months, and somewhere around age one, in pampers and holding onto the stereo cabinet, grinning ecstatically, he bounced in perfect rhythm to the soundtrack from the musical, Hair. The nuance of each song was in his body.
A dancer friend was visiting us in our Brooklyn Heights apartment and I caught her eye. Like me, she was amazed at Derek’s feel for rhythm. At age six he had, like the adult rock-and-roll world, become an Elton John fan and shortly before he died he taught me to hear what he heard in a cut from a Carlos Santana album that I had dismissed as conventional. “Listen,” he advised with conviction, “listen there; hear what he’s doing?” and, sure enough, much more was happening in the music than I had realized. Derek had a well-developed musical intelligence. He was also a charmer—his mother’s large round brown eyes, an impish smile and Harpo Marx blond corkscrew curls, these from my genetic pool. He may die young (we were told children like Derek rarely lived beyond twelve) but he was not dead, and I loved him unconditionally, helplessly.
More accurately, we loved each other; if I happened to be in his school, and we saw each other, we both lit up. We were inordinately close. Once, near the end of his life, he and I were returning from one of his checkups at Yale University Hospital (Eileen was in Redding, Connecticut, then and I was with Linda and Francis in Mt. Vernon, N.Y.) and he asked in all seriousness, “When I grow up, will we be twins?”
He was reclining in the back seat. I was Mr. Macho Man, a breakwater holding back a proverbial ocean of tears. They grabbed at my voice when I asked if he thought he knew as much as I did. He didn’t hesitate–yes, he knew as much, and so why shouldn’t he be my twin when he was grown? I sensed his logic—that we lived with the same mind-set– and didn’t ask anything further. He was content to daydream, and the silence that ensued spoke to deepest intimacy. My time with Derek was often lived in this emotional, some odd combination of ecstasy and grief.
Maybe this is why I came to think of myself not only as Derek’s father, but also as his spiritual guide. I recall our taking a bath together in Mt. Vernon, playing noisily with various floating objects—“blasting” little plastic creatures off some sort of floating surface we called a raft. Gently I steered the conversation into speculation about mind and what might happen to it when someone dies.
Like most children Derek was a natural philosopher, intuitively tuned to mystery, and we laughed at the fantastic places we considered as possible landing spots for this mysterious mind of ours. Maybe we’d join the man in the moon. We also speculated on reincarnation—he thought he’d be a musician if he returned for another life on earth. Death was not the great terminator for him, but of course he had to approach it more intimately before all fear dissolved.
This spiritual guide role was simultaneously a genuine undertaking and a kind of psychological cushion from the pain of being only father-identified. But one particular episode showed me that I couldn’t really escape into any guru postures. Emotions ripped through my psychic defenses to the love I felt simply as this child’s father. The event occurred in Sandy Point, Maine, when Derek, Linda, Francis and I were exploring a local beach on the ocean. Derek and Francis began running along the sand toward a fallen tree.
Until that moment I had never seen Derek—that odd, distended stomach of his– as simply a little boy; he had been a child who had to be prepared for death. But when he called from the branch he had so enthusiastically climbed, “Dad, Dad, look at me, look at me!” I was overtaken by unexpressed grief. Linda and I were sitting under a row of scraggly beach trees and she asked why I didn’t answer—then saw my condition.
I waved and somehow managed a few words and then cried my most cathartic cry as an adult, no doubt including in it my unexpressed grief for Izzy, Mollie and my brother, Bernie. I never knew so much about being human as I did just then. I had not known just how completely I loved Derek, either. I sensed, in some vaguely intuitively way, that love is the force we all brace ourselves against; like an essential element of nature, it cannot be humanly controlled, and so we fear it. After all, who would I be if I allowed myself to feel the love I have for all I love or have ever loved? Could I really bear to feel so much, so profoundly? Derek was teaching me to overcome this existential fear. His existence taught us all. As one of his teachers said, as if I should know, “Well, everyone loves Derek.”
Even with his disease, he was, because he was much loved himself, essentially an up-beat kid—and spunky. Mia tells me how when they were out together and kids would stare at him when he had a coughing spell, Derek would give them the finger and walk away like some sort of tough guy. (He was also erotically attuned. Even with his small, thin body, and chilled by the cool morning air, he would take swimming lessons so that he might sit with the young women life-guards at the lake in Redding.)
When death at last held out its hand, Derek was ready to take it. Shortly before he died and speaking clearly from the large Redding bed he shared with Eileen, he asked me if I had snow tires on the car since I had so far to drive in the snow back to Mt. Vernon. A child doesn’t ask such a question. He was ready for his final earthly moments, and he wanted me to know this. It was the clarity we had achieved that allowed me to say, after he told me he’d love me forever, “It won’t be long now.” And although I was consumed by passion, our eyes met evenly and we both smiled.
Through me, Derek and Linda developed an intimate relationship, and she often did his physical therapies, but not with the cupped-hand-clapping form taught us, which was a way to loosen the deadly mucous that clings to these children’s lungs. Instead she used her own free-form massage, which not only led to his expelling mucous, but which also deeply relaxed him. And it was Linda who put him at ease in his six-week dying process that took place in Connecticut. At times he would feel great pain and he would scream. He would feel confused, not know who he was. Linda told him to yell if he wanted but to remember he was the one listening, not the one yelling. He could understand the implications of the distinction and was comforted by it. Derek was a very conscious soul.
In my mind his dying process begins in January when he was staying with us in Mt. Vernon. Though his energy was beginning to ebb, he decided he wanted to go outside. He bundled himself and went out, and again I found myself surprised by my tears when I saw him in the cold January air.
He was smiling, and he seemed proud that he had gotten himself together. I was at the bottom of the long, steep driveway I had just shoveled out. He hadn’t been feeling well and so both of us were elated to be outside together, but when he reached me, he was exhausted. I said that cold is tricky and can take your strength, making some sort of gesture to suggest the cold was a kind of trickster spirit. He nodded and said he was surprised by how tired he felt. I carried him back into the house and got him onto a couch. Later I carried him down to Eileen who had been visiting with her city friends and was now returning to Connecticut.
I told her Derek and I had talked about where he’d like to stay since he wasn’t well enough for school and that he said he wanted to be at home in Connecticut. Of course, he had made the right decision, to be with his mother and with Sue and the girls. (When we moved from Brooklyn to Connecticut, we moved with Sue Evans and her daughter Leah.) But my secret wish was that he would stay with us in Mt. Vernon. Until he died on March 15, Linda and I would drive up to Redding on the days we weren’t teaching—about an hour and a half drive. Sometimes both of us would be there on weekends as well.
I was the one who told him he was dying, which intellectually he knew in early January when he wrote a story about a rabbit who was so tired of being sick that he wished to die. When he asked, “Why me?” I said nothing at first. A few breaths later I said that we all die and that some thinkers felt that we died when our earthly work was over and that meant he had accomplished what he had to do. He didn’t speak when I added that he probably came to help people learn how to love.
He did ask, “Does that mean I’m going back to God?” God had never been a topic for us, except for me to disparage the concept, and probably to deliver a short speech about the evils of patriarchy. Our talk about the mind was more the metaphysical environment I usually moved in with Derek, but now I said that going home to God was a perfect way to understand what was happening and my words clearly comforted him: he closed his eyes as if to contemplate the meaning of what had just transpired between us.
In Connecticut I often sat next to him, cross-legged like an American Indian; sometimes I would imagine myself to be a Zen master of sorts. Time was suspended and life looked and felt surreal. I was hyper-vigilant to Derek’s every sound and movement and to every need–except perhaps his greatest need, which was to feel a body next to his. Eileen, though, shared her bed with him.
But there would be times when a power, vaster than ideas I had of how to comport myself, would take me over; and, as if I were being guided, I would slip off my shoes and lie next to his thinning body. I loved his beautiful face and it pained me to have it turned away into an oxygen mask, but I was deeply satisfied that our bodies were touching.
It was Eileen who carried the body as corpse out into a cold March morning to the undertaker. She had asked me if I wanted to and I silently shook out a “no.” At the time I thought he is dead, he is no more, but in fact I couldn’t assimilate all that I was feeling. I was emotionally unable, just then, to do what she did: hers was a most powerful action. All these years later I’m still impressed by it—as if she were an American Indian mother of a fallen warrior.
One component of my emotional mayhem was relief. Once it was clear that Derek was dying, I didn’t want to hope for a miraculous recovering into continued illness. I had been holding my breath for over nine years and I was just beginning to breathe my own life. These six weeks had also been overwhelmingly intense and I needed relief. Simply allowing myself to have these feelings expanded me psychologically, brought me a step closer to freedom from guilt and toward some sort of spiritual liberation. I understood so much more about the mystery of simply being human—the range of feelings and emotions that composed the human soul.
On the other hand, this period was also the richest I had ever lived—in the sense of feeling fully in the moment of life as I was living it—the way New Yorkers were for some days after the September 11 horror. For instance, at one point near the end, Derek said to me, “I want to end it all. I wish someone could put me to sleep.” And he smiled at me. I was just happy to see him without the oxygen mask. I said I understood and, sensing some sort of need on his part, added that it was perfectly natural to have such a feeling. He responded, “I don’t want anyone’s feeling to be hurt.”
His maturity gave me heart and I said, “Well, folks are going to feel what they’re going to feel.” “I know,” he answered and we embraced. I felt simultaneously lost in emotions unknown and also fearful of crushing what little was left of him. He was a heart beating in a skeleton. Deep in, almost inaudibly, I said I would never be hurt again. But, of course, there was Mia and there was a developing relationship with a young child in Mt. Vernon that I couldn’t refuse. Francis was like a mythic calling I had to answer—otherwise, I’d be frozen, turned to salt like Lot’s wife.
I lived in Maine for over a year before I realized how tense my body was. Linda and I had just gotten out of our car in Rockland; we had been talking about Derek. As I closed my door, an image of Derek vividly in my mind, my body literally shuddered and in an intuitive flash I knew that essentially I was free of my past as Derek’s father. I could feel my breath going deeper. My body felt more expansive, more flexible.
Whatever fatherly energies Derek demanded were now totally free for Francis and our lives in Maine. The timing was perfect because we were about to take him out of the public school system; his education was again moving to center stage where he and I would be the co-stars of the show. What I didn’t know, however, was that one piece of psychological work remained. It arrived in a most dramatic way. Public grieving for Derek was upon me while teaching.
I was giving a series of classes on “Intimacy” to students of Proprioceptive Writing, the meditative writing practice Linda and I developed, and the reason for our leaving Pratt Institute and heading north to Maine. In what we call the “Write,” I was writing about Derek and felt the beginning of emotion but when, as we do in a Proprioceptive Writing group, I began reading the Write, I was unexpectedly in the grip of the as-yet unexpressed grief.
My students did just as they were taught and gave me space to feel what I had to feel; they sat with their thoughts and emotions. When I finished reading, Derek was part of my history; the story of our relationship was now a narrative for me. But I was hardly free of being a father, only now the other who lived in my imagination and in my heart was Francis Trichter Metcalf. The young creature, who was at first the traditional pain-in-the-ass stepchild, was going be my spiritual teacher. When that day was over, I experienced myself as a different person, and never closer to Francis.