A machine, and later a surgeon, had looked inside my body. “All the machines can tell the surgeon or cardiologist,” McMurtry writes, “after all, is about the defects and flaws of a given body; the machines can’t read strengths, particularly not psychic strengths.”
“I’m sorry I’m defective,” I said one day at home after the surgery, joking with my wife. “Are you going to trade me in for a better model?”
My wife laughed; she loves me for my quirky sense of humor. Of course she wasn’t going to trade me in.
But, two weeks after the surgery, I still felt defective, dead, my old self excised along with my appendix. I still lacked purpose, though after two weeks the desire to read had returned — I picked up Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice about midway through, the point where I had stopped reading a week earlier — and a fresh bag of coffee made mornings lively again. Daily routines were recaptured. Except one. The desire to write seemed fragmented. Lost was the sudden inspiration I had in the hospital bed. Not even a book on building a freelance business inspired me. In that two weeks after my surgery, the longest blog post I’d written was a 92-word paragraph on Mark Bowden’s Blackhawk Down, an uninspired fragment. The breath writing had given me for more than two and a half decades seemed knocked out.
Larry McMurtry seems a guru of sorts, his essay leading me to more possibilities as to why I felt unable to write. Grief. A sense of grief for a lost self, or a grief not fully realized. I was aware of grief, however. My Aug. 1, 2006 blog post contemplates what my father might have felt as he lay dying in the hospital. Almost two years after my father died, I was still haunted by that death. I was not there in the hospital at the moment of his death. I was there several hours before, watching his kidneys fail, his blood rinsing his catheter, and at the same time me and my family — sister, aunt, uncle — gathered in a circle with my father’s pastor, forced into a prayer to a god long dead in my heart and mind. I knew then death was coming.
I didn’t know my mom would be the next to go. A year and a month to the day after my father’s death, around 7:30 in the morning, my sister calls me. “Mom passed,” she says. Mom dead in the ER, my aunt — her sister — holding her hand at her last breath, me half an hour away, my sister more than an hour. I felt bewildered then. I was still bewildered almost two years later when I wrote a simple declarative sentence in my journal: “I want my mom back.”
No one in my family died in 2006. It seemed a brief respite, a break from grief. That March after a drawn out legal battle with my dad’s new family over a trailer house, a beat up van and an old pickup, my sister and I received a small inheritance from my father’s estate. I changed jobs, able to quit the paper that August — I felt secure enough for the first time in my financial life to take a chance and accept a position as an adjunct writing instructor at McClennan Community College in Waco. A full class load — and I had wanted to teach writing since graduate school, when I never was able to pick up a graduate teaching assistantship. And then I’m blindsided.
The cop knocks on my front door the first weekend of November. That knock would surgically excise a part of my identity permanently.
When the cop knocks the boy is asleep on my bed. I let the cop in when he asks if the boy is there. My son is there, asleep since his mother brought him over that morning before she went to work. The cop checks the boy over for bruises.
At some point over the course of the next week and the next and over the next month and into the new year I get the story pieced together. My son’s mother left him home alone for hours, claiming she couldn’t find a sitter — I was at my apartment a mile or so away, had left only once that day to do laundry. I had been available — had she called. The boy is 9, but autistic and unable to take care of himself.
Nine years earlier I had not taken a DNA test. I had wanted a child, even if that child was with a woman I no longer loved, and had not questioned his parentage. The only way I could possibly claim the boy I believed to be my son was to take a DNA test. The envelope from DNA Diagnostic Center in Ohio is stamped Jan. 5, the DNA test report inside. My eyes scan the report, a single sheet — not making much sense of the list of allele sizes in the middle of the page — to the paragraph below the numerical data. “The probability of paternity is 0 percent,” the last sentence of that paragraph reads. A sentence has stripped me of an identity, of a part of myself, as much as death had stripped me of my parents.
One weekend earlier only one class had made for the spring semester. I lost my identity as a teacher, and eventually as an employed, viable person with a savings account. Chunks of me, of many selves — son, father, teacher, professional writer and editor — were floating around like chum in the shark-infested waters of a bad soap opera script. I waited to be rent into nothing.
(To be continued)