*see disclaimer from previous post
The phrase never failed to annoy William. “The Greatest Generation.” What made them the greatest? They were a wave of ignorant boys like any other. They fought Hitler’s armies and came home and bought Studebakers and moved to the suburbs. Whenever his father got gassy with the greatness nonsense, it was a sign he was about to launch into a denunciation of William’s no-good hippie peers, and by implication, William himself who would never be the son his father deserved. Once, to retaliate, William told him to his face he’d been a lousy father. His father lifted his hand to slap him. Go ahead, I dare you, William’s look said. His father dropped his hand.
William was now a father himself. He made it his mission not to make the mistakes his father had made. He did his best to discern what were valid expectations of his son Jeremy and what were his projections. As Jeremy developed his identity, William showed respect for his opinions and his choices.
Jeremy being ungrateful didn’t bug him. Of course the boy couldn’t know how it felt to be on the other side of the equation. What bothered William was how secretive, how closed off Jeremy was, practically a stranger with impulses alien to his father. Jeremy’s mother insisted Jeremy had a mild form of autism. But if that was a diagnosis, it was so vague as to be worthless. It didn’t even meet the eyeball test: Jeremy didn’t lack feelings nor was he incapable of emotional connection. He had a good relationship with his mother.
As Jeremy reached puberty, his choices seemed meant to be provocative. In high school he joined the Cadets, a junior military marching band, knowing his father was a lifelong pacifist. It was an issue William couldn’t let go unchallenged. What were you thinking? he asked the boy. Jeremy’s response was casual, offhand. His friend Blake had joined. It looked like fun.
For the first time William allowed himself the thought that he might have failed as a father, despite how hard he had tried. It appalled him, the idea that patterns of alienation get repeated over and over, generation after generation. He resolved to keep trying to break the pattern and change the dynamics, though he was at a loss as to how to go about it.
The school year ended. Another school year started and Jeremy enrolled again in the Cadets. His mother didn’t think it was that big of an issue, but it enraged William.
One fall day the police came to the front door. A group of boys had been shooting guns in the woods near the subdivision. The boys were in custody. Jeremy was one.
William bailed him out right away. Jeremy’s excuse was they were only shooting at trees. It was Kyle’s Daddy’s rifle; it was Kyle’s idea. William almost wished he had left the boy in jail a little while to give him a dose of reality.
After a lot of lawyerly prose and expense, Jeremy got a year of probation and three hundred hours community service which, if completed satisfactorily, would clear his record. The sentence could have been much worse. Boys shooting off guns in public places was not something the community looked kindly upon. William had the feeling during the hearing that people were judging him as a lousy father, that it was somehow his fault.
The only aspect of the sentence that had much impact on Jeremy was his loss of his driver’s license.
The incident, traumatic as it was, had created an opening. One potential venue for the three hundred hours of service was the convalescent hospital on the south edge of town, and William lobbied for it. He would have to drive Jeremy there and back seventy-some times, according to his quick calculations. It would give them time to create a new relationship, perhaps a true bond.
The first week there was very little bonding. A question got asked now and then, a question got answered almost as often. It was like dropping pebbles into a well and waiting for a faint splash. Jeremy didn’t tell him what his duties were at the hospital and William put off asking. A door opened, a door slammed. See you later.
One day after dropping Jeremy off, William was halfway home when he noticed Jeremy’s backpack with his lunch, his books, and his meds on the back seat. William turned the car around.
With the backpack slung over his shoulder William entered the hospital for the first time. No one was at the desk so he went down a corridor, then another, nodding to the patients he passed in wheelchairs. It was a maze. On either side were rooms, some with doors open, bodies in beds or sitting up staring at muted TVs. In a slight panic William tried to find his way back to the front desk. Turning a corner he came upon a large window partially steamed over, similar to an aquarium display. Warm, moist, chemically infused air saturated the hallway.
Through the window he could see a small pool. Next to it was a mechanized chair lift. An emaciated man was being lowered into the chair. The process looked simultaneously like a form of torture and the tenderest thing William had ever seen. The man’s skeletal arm was draped over the strong shoulder of an attendant in hospital blues as the chair descended toward the steaming water. The expression on the attendant’s face was of profound calm and boundless kindness. William realized the attendant was Jeremy.
William stepped quickly from window. He didn’t want Jeremy to see his expression, not horror but heartbreak. Someday when he was that feeble, that far gone on the path toward oblivion, his son would look at him with that compassion and kindness. But not until then.