Re-Commencement: Notes on an English Professor’s Retirement
My father knew he had a jealous daughter, and I knew he was impervious: the books—and the inner life he cultivated with tremendous discipline—would always win.
Toward the end of my precocious phase—age 25 or so—I took to asking friends and family members the roughly three dozen questions that make up Proust’s famous questionnaire. Face conveniently buried in a hard-bound spiral notebook, I fired off questions I would never have had the nerve to ask without pencil and pretense in hand. With badly feigned disinterest I took down their dearest hopes and laments, their insecurities and mottos, and somewhere in the middle of those was this: What or who is the greatest love of your life? This was the big one, the kill shot; I could never get it out without a quaver. “Erica,” said my ex-boyfriend. “Susan,” said my soon-to-be ex-boyfriend. “Jason”; “I don’t know”; “My father.” That last one was mine. And my father’s reply? “Literature,” he said simply, without even a courtesy pause.
My most enduring childhood image of my father, an English professor and the most devoted reader this side of an Yemeni madrasa, is of his body laid out in a kind of horizontal prayer position on his bed: two cushions under his neck, thin-socked, kayak-skinny feet crossed at the ankles, and a book propped open above his elbows, 60-watt halo from the bedside table gilding his silhouette. The tableau is framed from a distance because that’s how I usually observed it as a kid—from the hall and then the bedroom door, where I would stand with the patience of a ninja, bored cross-eyed and stubbornly awaiting acknowledgment.
My father was a worthy opponent. After a few minutes I would make incremental moves—slow and silent enough to avoid being ejected outright—toward the bed, where I would perch, then recline, then snoodge closer until my head was right on his shoulder. I’d press my face against his and read along, trying to catch his eyeline and get lost wherever it was he had gone. Eventually I would cede defeat but not surrender, kicking off to get a book of my own and read alongside him. I suspect that pleased him most but he was never one to gloat.
My father knew he had a jealous daughter, and I knew he was impervious: the books—and the inner life he cultivated with tremendous discipline—would always win. His most cunning move was heading off a lifelong grudge match by teaching me to read when I was three years old. The thing took: a blissful show-off, I loved to recite, and especially liked writing things for my father to read—a neat trick, a backdoor I discovered early. In grade five I won a poetry contest and the prize was a bookstore gift certificate: second to a Snoopy Sno-Cone machine, it was my heart’s desire. I bought a set of children’s classics—The Secret Garden, Black Beauty, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe—and crimped the pages between my fingers with my own ankles x’d at the foot of my bed, my own bedside lamp blazing.
At the end of every school year my father worried out loud that his students, increasingly observed to be approaching higher education as a sort of resume-building formality, had just read their last book. I got the same treatment when I graduated, although I never stopped reading and soon began writing; my neat trick became a knack. I began taking my father’s constant suggestions without the spoonful of sugar, and was introduced to some of my favorite books: The Quincunx, Earthly Powers, Oryx and Crake. Occasionally he’d take mine, though as I got older I stopped sulking when he didn’t add my latest rave to his list—the realization of just how thoroughly better read, in every possible way, my father is than I may ever hope to be humbles me continuously: he’ll catch up to David Foster Wallace when I finally double back to Dostoevsky.
This September is the first one in my lifetime, and the first in his past forty years, when my father hasn’t begun a new school year, along with several thousand co-eds, in London, Ontario. His office was cleared out with the dorms this spring, groaning cartons of books and knick-knacks are now displaced in my childhood home’s basement, awaiting a frankly highly unlikely shelf-building initiative. During the spring’s circuit of high profile speeches meant to inspire students just starting out in the world, I thought also of those, like my father, facing a kind of re-commencement, a similar uncertainty—a return to the sock-dropping prospect of freedom, if not free-fall.
“I know that I can retire safely, without feeling lost,” my father told me several years ago, “because all my life I have practiced enjoying my own company.” Friends whose fathers have recently retired tell stories of sudden and plunging depressions, marriages capsizing, foundations imploding when the retiree’s professional persona fell away. But literature, not teaching, is the love of my father’s life, and in a way, just like the kids he shared the staged with at this year’s convocation, he has spent most of his life preparing for this moment.
In recent months his emails have been seeded with uneasy joshes about the future, the loss of a certain status, and an even more certain salary—the word “dotage” has recurred. I know, as I know myself and my own introverted ways, that the line between interiority and withdrawal requires a pitiless referee, and I worried abstractly about my father losing step with his chosen companion—preferring to reminisce about the good old novels, perhaps, or succumbing to a 70-year itch. Then a note arrived: “I have ordered Infinite Jest,” he wrote. “I’ll finally have the time to read it, anyway.” That’s my 67-year-old newly retired father, I thought; the man is unstoppable.
So while my dad will undoubtedly enjoy a suitably itinerant, active retirement, when I think of the coming years I return instead to the image of his long frame in repose, a thousand-page whopper balanced on his chest, concentration radiating from some vigorous, supernal core. I keep him there—I think I always will—because that’s where he’s most content, and where I know he’s safe.