1: THE FAMILY DISEASE
He was sleeping when I arrived, a half-shape through the sun-warmed porch screens, an impression, familiar and calm. It was late spring in Ohio, and the yard surrounding him was dappled with afternoon leaf shadows. A rubbery hum droned from the highway beyond the dense screen of pines and the high stockade fence. Birds chirped. One cloud dragged the sky like Linus’s blanket.
He was sleeping. I could see him from the driveway as I slowed to a stop and shifted into park. His old straw hat rose and dipped softly where it rested on his belly. I sat there for a long moment in the beige leather driver’s seat, watching through the windshield, engine still running, wondering if I should disturb him.
After a lifetime of driving crap cars, most of which had held the specific purpose of hauling building materials and guitar amplifiers, I had—in what I guess I’ll have to concede is middle age—cashed out a very small windfall to buy this seven-year-old Saab turbo convertible. Such a car would seem to imply, if not outright midlife crisis, at least the illusion of leisure. I could have left him alone, put the top down, and gone for a drive in the country.
But I don’t go for country drives. Relaxation is not a part of
my family’s DNA. We spend much of our time trying to outwork each other. My father may have been napping, but it was not a matter of leisure so much as the fact that he was eighty-one
years old and had spent the morning chainsawing a fallen tree. So I shut off the engine, pulled out the key, and reached over to the passenger seat for a shaggy folder of notes and sketches, including a couple of drawings from an old Mother Earth News article, freshly printed from the Internet: “Learn How to Build a Handmade Casket.”
The porch where he slept is a rustic little lodge, cedar post-and-beam, which he built next to the house. It’s his favorite place to be when the weather’s nice. He spent a year working on it, then another half year fiddling and refining, tweaking the lighting, hanging a porch swing. He still kept the building permit tacked to an inside post, a certificate of ingenuity, of progress, of his own craft. He builds everything—he built a bridge across the freaking Rhine River when he was in the Army Corps of Engineers—and the things he didn’t build, he changes. He tinkers like it’s his job, which, when you’re a retired civil engineer, it kind of is. He reads on the porch, Lincoln biographies and good detective novels and every page David McCullough has written. Sometimes when he finishes a book and decides I might like it, he brings it to me. Sometimes I do the same. And he watches the birds here, those yellow and blue flashes outside the screens, looking them up in a thumbed-over field guide he’s had for as long as I can remember, and he frets about how to keep the squirrels and raccoons from the suspended feeders, and he often takes his meals here, cooked on the adjacent barbecue under its own pitched roof, which he also built. And he naps here every afternoon, until the changing seasons force him inside.
I approached the porch by way of a ramshackle brick walk, which he’d cobbled from a lifetime collection of street pavers, each stamped with a different name: CLEVELAND BLOCK . . .
CANTON BRICK . . . BIG FOUR. Through the screen, I could see him lying on his back across the flowered vinyl cushions of the wicker couch, stockinged feet propped up and crossed at the ankles, hands folded across his chest. He is a man given strongly to quips and mischief; the corners of his lips and eyes have always suggested the hint of a smile. Even here, in sleep, he was grinning about something.
He was dressed in a pair of old jeans and a thread-worn blue T-shirt with a pocket to hold his pencil nubs. He’s just under six feet tall, and his hips and legs are narrow, mildly out of proportion with his barrel-chested torso. Arms I remember as muscular are now loose and scaly, yet even when I try to see things as they are, they look the way they used to look. His hair is white, but it doesn’t look white by the time it gets from my eyes to my mind. These are among my basic truths—the strength of his arms, the wavy chestnut of his bangs—and the betrayal of time still surprises me. Memory is stronger than fact.
His exposed face and arms bear the chalky scars from countless procedures to burn off skin cancers, a condition his doctors have monitored and treated for years, an ongoing ritual he regards as a necessary nuisance, even as he’s had one earlobe and the tip of his nose reconstructed after having them hacked apart to keep the cancer at bay.
He inhaled. He exhaled. The old straw hat with a hole in the crown rose, then sank.
There is an understood circumference around our fathers when they sleep. It’s not necessarily a distance of respect. It’s first a matter of the smells. Our sleeping fathers are farty, and there’s just no way around that. And then there’s the pollution of their breath, that stewy vapor of experience, randy and oblique. And
more broadly, the resting body’s general animal scent, which, like a change in gravity, must be entered carefully.
But ultimately, it’s the mystery. A sleeping father is at once mundane and transcendent. Until very recently, the times in my life when I watched my dad sleep were the only times he ever seemed vulnerable. There’s something provocative about that, maybe even scandalous. Him? Something other than invincible? But now I knew the wider range of his vulnerability. I knew, as he slept, that underneath the thin cloth of that T-shirt was a scar, as healed as it is ever going to be, from the surgery two years before to remove the tumor from his throat. The cancer, he liked to joke, that was not cancer enough to kill him.
That was a rough summer, the only time I’ve ever seen him scared, and one that prompted a lot of those kinds of jokes, one-liners that I often scribbled on the backs of bank slips and hospital parking receipts and jotted into the pages of the notebook I carried to try to keep track of all the doctor talk. I wrote them down in part because I wondered if these days should be recorded, if they would soon take on a higher and darker importance. Throughout, he was a factory of bons mots and non-answers, thin one-liners that no better hid his discomfort with fear than the hospital gown hid his pale backside.
Small-talk nurse: “So, Mr. Giffels—what did you used to do?”
Dad, slurry and half-loopy from anesthesia: “Chase girls.”
Some days, after returning from a session at the Cleveland Clinic, we sat together on that same porch, talking lazily, listening to the way August sounds in this part of the world. It hums a drone note, a delayed, humid countermelody to the heart-swelling rococo of May, the one month that is a true privilege of midwestern citizenship. May in Ohio is a minty, tuneful
intoxicant. August in Ohio is a greasy reminder that we have to pay for the good days, sometimes more than their worth. That’s just how it is here. August is the time when the sinking reality of being an Indians fan metastasizes into the virgin-soft tissue of the Browns’ preseason, that brief period before something is about to go terribly wrong.
So. Through the burn of radiation, he pushed back and pushed back, following doctors’ orders but also defying their limits, lifting watering cans and hauling hoses beyond the strict physical restrictions placed upon him. The watering can, he reasoned, got lighter the more he used it. Cancer in the summertime is inconvenient for a country gardener.
Some days, on the half-hour drives to and from the hospital and later, inside the porch, we talked about this project we’d been cooking up, this idea that we would build my coffin. It had come up that same spring, a more or less spontaneous and hypothetical whim that grew into one of those just-might-be-crazy-enough-to-work notions. Not that I was in any immediate need of a coffin, or so I hoped. But, you know, the man was in his eighties, and if I was going to accept his help, it would be best to do it soon.
This was before he got sick.
His long cycle of inhales and exhales continued. I remained near the door, watching him nap. Just beyond the porch, I could hear the chatter of birds at the backyard feeders and, above me, the swish of breeze in a tall, tulipy sort of tree that I wished I could name but, as always, could do so only by asking my dad. Who was asleep.
I returned to the car, set the papers on the seat, and wandered into the yard.
* * *
My parents moved to this house in a rural township after downsizing a decade before from the big old house in the city where they’d raised four children. My dad, whose gardens were so elaborate and evolved that, despite their beauty, they were a hindrance in the Realtor’s process because of the daunting upkeep, announced that his new life here would be one of low maintenance, inside and out. But we knew that with nearly four acres of land and a retiree’s schedule and a life history of extreme restlessness, not to mention the acquisition of a long-yearned-for barn at the rear of the property, he wouldn’t take long to renege on his promise. Sure enough, the first spring found him tilling out a kitchen garden and building ornate stone entrance posts, which supported a cedar fence with fat scalloped pickets that he made on his band saw. He fashioned a walkway from scavenged Civil War–era cobblestones. He dug a lily pond. He built a fountain that poured out of a homemade wooden bucket. His determination to slow down was doomed from the start.
On and on it went that way, year after year. He built a bridge across the ravine, laid barn stone for a raised vegetable garden, chainsawed forty-foot trees, hauled the trunks off to be milled into boards, built another bridge across a mostly dry stream (announced by a hand-carved sign reading TROLL BRIDGE, an entirely unnecessary structure that was strictly for the delight of his grandchildren, and himself), built a cuckoo clock from one of the aforementioned boards (cherry), drew up plans for the porch, built the porch, fiddled with the porch so as to prolong its construction, etc.
It’s like a battle inside him, maybe a benign one, but fierce and with no foreseeable end. I know this because I’ve inherited it, and my brothers have, too, and I’ve called it, not entirely jokingly, “the family disease.” A restlessness, a compulsion to keep doing things, doing new things and newer things yet, a discomfort with comfort.
But with a father like that, one whose restlessness and infinite capability carry over into his children’s home repair and improvement, there comes an abject and unavoidable fear: How will any of us ever get by without him?
Who will I ask about plumbing flux, about joist loads, about the names of the trees?
In this early June, the grounds were filled with the pinks and whites of newly planted petunias and impatiens and the heady promise of burgeoning cannas and the sort of steady perpetuation that has always been an inspiration for me. Everything everywhere pushing upward and outward, planned and tended and striving for the sun. Plastic buckets by the garage were filled with the bald obscenity of sprouting tubers—elephant ears and calla lilies and yet more cannas, which multiply and multiply, especially in this painstakingly worked earth of his, like teenage lust—the surplus of an acreage too fertile for itself.
And always he was ahead if it, scheming, engineering. In the center of his yard, where it flooded into a swamp every year, he’d planted a bog garden, having researched the trees and plants that would absorb the excess groundwater, and which now thrived in dry soil. Back behind the house, where raccoons had found a way to shimmy up the wide tube of PVC he’d fitted over his bird-feeder pole, he improved on it with an even wider pipe, which kept them at bay, another puzzle solved.
So, yeah, a barn. What better vessel to contain all this, to give it space and shape and scope and possibility?
All my life before this house, I’d known my father’s workshop as a staked-out corner of the basement. It was serviceable, although sometimes the table saw needed to be adjusted strategically in order to run a long board through, and the smells of lacquer and the acrid smoke of a dull blade whining through hardwood tended to drift up into the kitchen. The world’s mangiest cat slept on the warm insulated steam line overhead, and when it wasn’t sleeping, it was swatting glass jars of screws and bolts off the shelves. With the exception of the cat, this was my favorite place as a child, where I sat watching my dad refinish furniture and lay out plumbing repairs and build railings for the porch he added to the back of the house. Sometimes I helped, sometimes I just sat there. Eventually, I started using it myself.
What he really wanted through all those years was a barn. What he had instead was a dinky garden shed that he’d painted country-red and for which he’d fashioned a rustic-looking door with big antique strap hinges, and which he called “The Barn.” But it wasn’t a barn. It was a shed playing dress-up.
So there was an air of something like coronation and long-awaited arrival when he and my mom moved into this new place, a cozy fifties country house with a big sprawling red barn out back. Inside, he framed a 400-square-foot workshop and spent a season hanging and finishing Sheetrock. He invented and built a brace system so he could raise twelve-foot drywall sheets to the ceiling without a helper. He installed an elaborate dust-collection system and outfitted the shop with heat and water and air-conditioning. Some people retire to Florida, some to the golf course. Midwestern civil engineers dream of settling
into a place like this.
* * *
And this was why I was here. I’d been waiting for my turn in his workshop. That spring, he was in the finishing stages of building a full bar in my brother’s basement, a complex, impressive structure made of salvaged barn timbers, some from my private stash, some from my dad’s, and some from my brother’s. The men of my family are scavengers of the midwestern sort—we forage and hoard pieces of lumber the way quilters keep soccer jerseys and heirloom kerchiefs. With the bar nearly finished, we’d agreed that this casket thing—whatever it was going to be—would come next.
It had begun as loose talk, speculation over whether the funeral industry even allowed for a homemade casket leading to the reality that it could be done. And now here I was, armed with Google research that offered more questions than answers.
The casket still seemed to me, privately, more like a half-baked scheme than an actual project. It worried me some—I have a long history of getting myself into things my pride won’t let me back out of. But I didn’t reveal this because I didn’t want the opportunity to fizzle. I knew that if my dad and I were going to build something so ambitious, we would need to start soon. In truth, what I really wanted was to build anything with him, and all the obvious symbolism and cosmic weight of a coffin aside, it wouldn’t have mattered if it had been a birdhouse or a Pinewood Derby car or a set of bookshelves. The notion of a coffin had popped up, and I’d clung to it long enough to have arrived here.
What I really wanted was the connection back to that old workshop in the basement, the sweet vinegary smell of
sawdust and machine oil. I wanted the old phrenology of dry palm across wood grain. I wanted the yellow extrusion of glue as a steel clamp pulled tight. I wanted the smells of wood stain and urethane. I wanted to support the tail of a long plank as he eyeballed it lengthwise through the table saw. I wanted a reason to be in his dust, brushing it from my jeans and kicking it from my boots and making more.
I returned from an inspection of the front garden, pulled open the porch door, and stood for a moment at the threshold. He awakened the way he has always awakened: suddenly and completely.
“Hey,” I said.
“Hey,” he said, sitting up and grinning. “I guess I fell asleep.”
“Well, I’m here. Ready to do this?”
His bearings regained, he retrieved a woodworker’s supply catalog from the floor, then slipped his feet into a pair of rubber garden shoes. We each took a seat at the glass-topped table, and he set the catalog between us. Deep in its pages, at the bottom of a section titled “Project Hardware,” was half a page dedicated to casket parts: hinges, latches, handle rod brackets, and an optional “Memorial Tube” time capsule that could be built into the interior.
Along with the catalog, he had a tablet of grid paper, an artifact from his professional days, printed at the top with the name of his company—GBC Design—and blank lines for “Project Name and Number” and “Designer” and “Date.” Nearly two decades after retirement, he seemed to have an infinite supply of this paper, and all of us had random sheets of it, each filled with his various plans and drawings for projects. I had one at home
titled “Courtyard Entrance” and another titled “Gina’s Barn,” for a shed I’d never built, theoretically to be named in honor of my wife. (She seemed less flattered than I’d expected.) Each of these drawings corresponded to a pile of building materials I’d salvaged and harbored lovingly.
My father pulled a page from the pad and turned it over to the blank side, then began to sketch with a pencil. His ideas had been forming for weeks. Now he was ready for action.
“I think we should build it out of five-quarter pine, or poplar, number two,” he said.
“You mean, like, store-bought?” I said.
My heart sank a little.
“I thought there might be some good stuff in the barn,” I said.
I’d hoped to incorporate some of the exotic wood stacked along the back wall of his workshop. He had some pieces of wormy chestnut that I secretly coveted. And I knew there were some cherry planks left from his milled tree. This was partly a connoisseur’s instinct for unique lumber, and part selfish desire for recompense—I’d donated some of my very best barn planking to my brother’s bar, after all. An atonement was in order.
“There’s not enough of any one kind to make it,” he said. “We can make it interesting, though. I have some ideas.”
With his pencil, he roughed out a pattern showing how we could strap together plain boards with red oak insets, to give the sides some visual texture, kind of like racing stripes. Then he
sketched an interwoven L shape to demonstrate how we could join the corners.
“I’d like to do a finger dovetail,” he said, drawing a quick model, “but it would be tricky with pieces this big. If we do a butt joint, we can cheat.”
“Butt joint,” I repeated dryly, emphasizing the “butt.”
He smirked. A basic truth: All men, having once been thirteen-year-old boys, will forever after be thirteen-year-old boys. I knew a guy who, in his fifties, broke a hip trying a skateboard move. Instead of accepting this as a cautionary tale, I’d adopted it as a benchmark for my own behavior as my fiftieth year approached.
He continued to sketch his way through the idea, adding a decorative cap to the corner. Then he paused with his pencil against the paper, pulled it away, and looked at what had taken shape there, nodding as though he’d reached a revelation.
“You know what?” he said. “It’s just a box.”