On Ed Forhan

From: My Father Before Me

            Three days before Christmas, in the middle of the night, while his wife and children slept, Edward Forhan drove home from who knows where—we rarely knew where he went—parked his white Dodge Dart in the carport, ran a garden hose from the exhaust pipe to the driver’s-side window, slipped inside, breathed, then breathed, then breathed, then stopped breathing. He was forty-four. He left no note.

            I was fourteen. What did I know of him? He was a dad. He did what dads do: put on a suit and tie, say goodbye, walk out the front door carrying his briefcase, and drive downtown to the office. “Awr-fuss,” he’d say. “Where’re you going, Dad?” “Awr-fuss”—maybe mocking the way one of his kids pronounced it, maybe mocking the office itself. At the end of the day, he would come home for dinner. Or maybe he wouldn’t, in which case his unused plate, fork to the left of it, knife and spoon to the right, gleamed meaningfully on the table at his place across from our mother’s, while we children ate. We waited for the click and creak of the downstairs door opening, hoping not to hear it—hoping not to hear whatever argument or seething silence and slammed doors might follow—before we finished our meal and escaped to the refuge of our separate bedrooms. On weekends he made pancakes for the family—sometimes, in his better moods, pouring the batter onto the griddle in funny shapes: a rabbit, a dog. At ease, he would grin, eyes twinkling, and deliver a goofy wisecrack or slip into a punny riff, riding an agreeable wave of Irish humor. His laugh was a guffaw, bursting from him, loud, free, a crescendo that ended on a high, held note: Ah-HAAA! Every morning he sat on the toilet seat in his underwear and stabbed his thigh with a hypodermic needle filled with insulin. Occasionally, unexpectedly, while planing a piece of wood on the patio or painting a deck railing or, worse, driving, he would begin to speak oddly, as if to himself, then more loudly, rapidly, manically. His movements would become fast and agitated, and when we spoke calmly and with concern to him, he ignored us or reacted with a dismissive laugh. He was the other dad then, having a diabetic reaction; someone would have to inveigle him to down a glass of orange juice or eat a chocolate bar. Downstairs, he kept a workbench with a vise and drill and hammers and tidy rows of jars filled with screws and rivets. He procured some old railroad ties, heavy and splintery, and built a sandbox out of them in the backyard. When we outgrew our swing set, he transformed it into a playhouse, using the metal posts as a triangular frame, laying sheets of wood on them for walls and fashioning a small door out of plywood that he attached with hinges and painted blue. He drove his children to professional baseball games and basketball games and sat quietly in the stands, sipping a beer from a big waxed paper cup and methodically shelling peanuts he lifted one by one from a plastic sack. He smoked Tareytons. He broke briefly into song: “Oh, look-a there, ain’t she pretty. She looks like a beautiful wax doll. . . .” Feeling put upon, he muttered, “For cryin’ in the beer” or “For the love of Mike.” Feeling cheated, he complained, “That’s dirty pool.” “He’s got running off at the mouth,” he’d say of some indiscreet gossip. He taught us once, because we asked, about the solar system, all that distant, intricate orbiting. He looked a little like Gregory Peck: the strong brow, the rich dark hair, the lean frame—less the composed and bookish Peck of To Kill a Mockingbird than the distracted, disquieted one of Spellbound. When he died, he had been married twenty-four years. He had fathered eight children.

            And who had fathered him? He didn’t speak of his parents, whom we never met. I knew his grandmother—his mother’s mother. We called her Grandma; she was the only person from his side of the family whom I knew, and I never wondered much about the others. I was a child; what mattered was the present that I was part of, the world of people that I’d been plopped into. Anything that happened to my parents before I was born might as well have occurred when toga-clad men ambled among marble fountains, nibbling figs. We did hear of a brother my father once had who died young; there was another brother who lived far away, whose wife sometimes sent us Christmas cards. But what had become of my dad’s mother and father? Who were these absent grandparents of mine? When I was eight, I carried my Bear Scout handbook to the dining room table and showed it to my mother, opening it to the page that contained the diagram of a family tree, with blank spaces for names. I was working on a genealogy merit badge; I preferred any badge I could earn without doing squat thrusts or hiking through woods with a pocketknife and a length of rope. In the handbook, I had printed my name and those of my parents, but after that I was stuck. My mother told me that my father’s parents’ names were Nathaniel and Bernadine and that Nathaniel’s mother’s name was Marie and his father’s name—well, she didn’t know for sure. Forty years later, as I tried a second time to fill in those blanks, I discovered that my father’s grandmother’s name was not Marie but Ellen—my mother hadn’t even been close—and my great-grandfather’s name was Thomas. My father clearly didn’t talk much to his wife about his family, and it says something that, in trying to earn that badge, I didn’t ask him to talk to me, either.

            Around the time I turned the age my father was when he died, I began to wonder more seriously about him—or, more accurately, feelings associated with him began erupting, in dreams, in poems. I wrote a book of poems that centered on my childhood and the loss of my father, but he remained, in that book, the dad whom an eight-year-old or twelve-year-old might know: the briefcase-carrying breadwinner, the mute figure in the easy chair thumbing through the evening paper, a mannequin, a phantom, half absent already, and silent.

            But he was here once and was real, my father in the flesh, a man holding his son in his arms. I try to recall him exactly—the timbre of his voice, some precise gesture with his hands as he spoke, the smell of cigarette smoke on his sweater. But he’s a scattering of fragments, shreds of memory I have lived with so long that, no matter how I gather and shape them, they constitute less my father than some idea that, long after his death, he has come to represent—about absence, about solitude, about secrecy, about time, about memory itself.

            I begin to ask questions—of my mother, of my siblings, of any acquaintances of my father or relatives previously unknown to me whom I might track down. In my fifties, I, too, have become a father, of two small boys. I would not willingly abandon them ever, let alone abandon them without a word, and permanently. How did my father become a man who, halfway through his life, could decide he’d had enough of that life and leave it—and his wife and eight children, the youngest of them only five years old—without explanation?

            And who am I, so restless for those answers, so restless to write them down?