Do you remember the first magic trick you ever saw? It was probably your weird Uncle Rob who your mom doesn’t let you sit alone with at Thanksgiving who showed you the one where you pull his finger.
Magic is a beautiful thing, even your uncle’s farts. Magic’s especially beautiful for children, because when you’re a child, everything is magic.
When Dad puts a plate into the microwave and 30 seconds later, it’s cooked, that’s magic.
When Grandpa presses a button and people appear on the TV, that’s magic.
When Mom becomes pregnant with your first younger sibling. That’s…well that’s Jesus magic, and you’ll learn about it when you’re a little older…
It’s all magic. It’s all amazing. And there’s a pinch of wonder in everything a child experiences in life.
Magic has always been a big part of my life from an early age. I didn’t have any Uncle Robs, but I had a grandfather who showed me something very special.
My first experience with prestidigitation was a card trick. I was instructed by the magician (my grandpa) to place the four Jacks into a deck in different places. The magician then made a promise. “I’ll cut this deck just once, and magically, they’ll all appear in the middle, together.” After one cut, he snapped his fingers and said, “That’s amazing!” Then he showed me what he had just conjured: four Jacks together in the middle of the deck. That was magic.
“What the hell?” is what I would’ve said, in my head, if I knew how to swear then. It was truly amazing stuff for a five-year-old who had just recently discovered that it hurts real bad to bite down on foil. That day, my grandpa became a shaman, a miracle maker, the man who, with a snap of his fingers, could make magic happen.
I wanted to be that kind of person. There were so many things I could think of wanting to make happen with a snap and a shout of, “That’s amazing!” There was a group of girls in my kindergarten class who would never shut up about how extensive their toy collections were. Five-year-old me would’ve loved to snap and say “That’s amazing” to see them disappear and group together elsewhere, like the four Jacks. I would also have loved to make vegetables appear somewhere other than my plate (still trying to figure that one out today). The possibilities were endless, and my little head was buzzing with brainstorm power.
So I asked my grandpa to teach me.
“I’ll teach you, but you have to promise to obey the first rule of magic,” my grandpa offered.
Wait, there’s rules? When you’re five, rules suck. Rules mean you can’t do certain things, like stay up past eight or hang out with Uncle Rob at holidays. But the curious and young part of me couldn’t say “No.”
“OK. What is it?”
“A magician never reveals his secret. Got it?”
Simple enough, sure. But even five year old me can see the hypocrisy in this omnipotent rule of magicians. I felt like my grandpa was breaking the rules for me, just so I could be a part of the brotherhood. Such a badass, this guy.
The first person I wanted to show was my mom. When I got back home, it was the first thing we did. I took out the deck of cards my grandpa gave me, already set up to perform the miracle, and made magic happen. She loved it, and I felt invincible, like I could do anything. Shortly after I finished what I felt was equivalent to Jesus making water into wine, my mom said something that stayed with me for a long time, in a way that special sayings often do.
“Your dad would like that trick, Michael.”
I chewed that over for a while that night. I agreed, he would like it. And instantly I wanted to show him.
My dad and my mom weren’t together at any time of my childhood. I really only got to see him for a week at a time sporadically throughout the year. He lived in San Francisco and my mom and I lived in Seattle. She took a job when I was two with Alaska Airlines so that I could fly for free to see him. When I visited my dad, we could do anything, like go to Chuck E. Cheese’s even if it wasn’t my birthday, or eat candy any time, and even stay up past 8, every night. I wasn’t allowed to tell my mom any of this though. That was amazing to me. No rules with dad. It was magical in the most honest interpretation of the word.
I was four when he died. Memories are often blurry and confusing to think of when we’re four, and my memory is no different, but I remember the day of his funeral as well as I do the Jack trick. Imagine just for a short time trying to comprehend a death as big as your father’s at the age of four. Death isn’t even a concept manageably understandable then. Mufasa dies in The Lion King, but is alive when you watch it next time. Your fish dies and goes down the toilet, but a new one appears in the bowl the next day. Where do fathers go? I remember asking questions like that. I remember wondering why he was cold, and why he wouldn’t warm up when I held his hand. I remember not knowing what it meant to never stay up late with him again, no matter how bad I wanted.
I wanted to show him this trick, though, because I agreed with my mom that he’d like it. A little part of me, the magical part, knew that magic was an answer to questions about my father’s death that I maybe didn’t even have yet.
The next time I went to San Francisco, I asked my grandparents to take me to see my dad. They obliged, and that day we drove up to nearby Colma, CA where my father’s grave is.
Situated at the top of a beautiful hill is the marker for his grave. Rose bushes were in full bloom in the spot we scattered his ashes the year before. I sat cross-legged in front of it, while my grandparents stood behind me and spoke to him in their own ways, too, I imagine.
I took out my deck of cards and proceeded to perform my routine for the rose bush.
“I have these four Jacks,” I began. “And if you would for me, sir, please put them each in different areas of the deck, so that none are next to each other.” Obviously, the rose bush offered no reply. Despite full-heartedly believing in magic, I didn’t expect it to, and knowing my father was watching, I was satisfied with doing the job of the spectator myself. Finally, as taught, I cut the deck once, snapped my fingers and said “That’s amazing!” Then I spread the cards across the ground face up to reveal the four Jacks in the middle, together. A perfect finish.
The moment was still, like a picture. There was no reaction except for a whistle from the wind that was blowing atop the hill. I waited for one, naïve to be sure, but I didn’t get one. I didn’t need one, though. I was happy to be sharing magic with my father. I knew he’d think it was amazing.
I left the cemetery that day with a need to learn more. My grandpa bought me a couple magic books full of effects and principles and sleights that could make seemingly anything happen. I could make salt shakers pass through a solid table, magically. I could pull quarters out of people’s ears, magically. But I wanted to do more.
I remember my grandpa’s face when I asked him the question. It was similar to when you ask a mom where babies come from, and that lady isn’t even your mom. His face was bewildered, and at a loss for exactly what to say, which reminded me of how some people reacted to my Jack trick.
“Is there a trick that will make him come back?” I asked. I’m not sure how serious this inquiry was, serious enough I suppose.
He didn’t need to ask a clarifying question. “Well, Michael, I don’t think there’s a trick for that, yet,” he told me.
This didn’t devastate me, but I must’ve I looked visibly upset, because I was immediately hoisted onto his lap for lesson time.
“Magic isn’t about what you can do, Michael,” he started. “It’s about what it does for others.”
Big idea for a five-year-old, foil-biting boy to comprehend. But he was right. No magic trick would bring my dad back, because he wasn’t supposed to come back, no matter how bad I may have wanted it to happen.
Magic isn’t about making the impossible happen. Surely that’s a big part of it, but more importantly, magic reminds us how it feels to be bewildered by something. Every magic trick is a lesson in faith, one that reminds those lucky enough to experience it that things happen that are beyond our comprehension every day. Magic is when four Jacks collect themselves impossibly in the middle of a deck of cards. Magic is when your mom gives you a bandage and a week later your boo-boo is gone. Magic is when roses bloom where you laid your dad’s ashes.