Letters in the Early Light of Morning
Right now, you sleep, curled into a C in the middle of the bed, your mother’s arm draped over you. You are approaching the middle of your second year of life. Sometimes, I wake and watch. Even in the dark. Even without glasses. Your small chest rises and falls and fills me with a breath of hope. I need this. Need to be able to see in the dark. Today, the sun is slow to ascend. Light wanes as it hedges into winter. The doves are lethargic with their morning alarm. You have caught me, son, in a pensive state of mind. You have caught me with little faith. But then I witness your breath and think maybe. Maybe you have come to save us. From what? From ourselves.
Dear Bo Bo,
You—the greatest moment of my life—came with my greatest losses: the deaths of my father, your grandfather; and of Aunty, your grandmother. They passed on during your first year, and I am finding myself in their absence. This is what happens when you lose the people you love. A part of you goes with them, and you are left pondering who you are now. My compass out of the dark is you. My respite from this swallowing sadness is you. Right now, you marvel. You gain: a new word, a new movement, a new sound. Every day your voice changes and the cadences of your sentences grow more sophisticated. Every day your curiosity rises, your small finger pointing to various things on this planet, asking me, “What’s that, Daddy? What’s that?” Witnessing this firms the ground I stand on, a ground I sometimes think will crumble from underneath me. Your father, you will learn, can be melodramatic. He has been known to dance on tables to wake up his students. He anticipates the worst, finds catastrophe anywhere. He also retreats into himself, to sit in a dark corner of his brain and spin. During those moments, he is far away, in a place you cannot reach. You will learn this, too. For this, I apologize.
And I want to apologize for the world which will let you down. Like it did yesterday. The news: a baby died in a hot car; a woman was shot and killed by a jealous boyfriend; a man was sworn into the highest court of our land having committed assault and perjury. I wish I could tell you everything will be okay, that the world will heal itself. I wish I could say that you were born in a tolerant and safe world. This morning, my hope is on empty. Scott Russell Sanders wrote in his book Hunting for Hope: A Father’s Journeys:
Since I could not forget the wounds to people and planet, could not unlearn the dismal numbers—of pollution and population and poverty—that foretold catastrophe, I would have to look harder for antidotes, for medicines, for sources of hope.
I understand this. Some fathers do. But right now, hope is a dim light in an all-consuming darkness. At this moment, I find fault. I see a horizon on fire. The red-shouldered hawk cries this morning, as she does every morning on top of some roof of some neighboring house, and I fear, one day, she will cry no more. I fear she will vanish.
When you wake, another one hundred fifty to two hundred species of life on this planet will have disappeared. That is the estimated extinction rate per twenty-four-hour cycle. This is why I take a lot of photos of you. Why I video everything you do. When you are older you will ask, “Dad, why did you film me sleeping?” Or “Dad, what’s with the video of me running back and forth doing nothing?” Or the one I took yesterday afternoon, the one of you watching TV, motionless, leaning against my leg. A memory serves a vague kind of purpose. We sit and dig. We find a reason for its existence. We seek an answer for why the memory happened upon us now. Videos and photos are different. They still time. They unfurl a literal past. I find myself watching these recordings—watching you—again and again and again. I never tire of them, the way I never tired of certain songs in my youth. Every day a version of you disappears. A version of everyone disappears. And then we all disappear. Grandmother Aunty would say this is what life does. We are here and then we are not. She was here and then she was not. I am here and someday I will not be. This morning, when I left you in bed, when I came downstairs, when I walked the dog around the block, the sky was a ripple of colors. I could not help myself. I took a photo.
Do not worry about me. My sleeplessness is a phase. It happens in the waning months of fall. Something about the change in barometric pressure. Something about endings. At least that is what I have read. Fall puts me in a state of melancholy, and this melancholy yanks my eyes open when the sun is still deciding to rise. Before I left the bed, you whined in your sleep and said, “Okay,” and I wondered what was happening in your dream and whether you were all right. In that sphere I cannot protect you. I do not know for how long I can protect you here, in the walking and talking world. But sometimes, when I am awake and stay awake, I do not leave the bed. Sometimes, I find you nestled against me. Holding onto my arm. My torso becomes a cave you hide in, my chest a fire that chases away any chill. In those moments, I stay. And wait the hours until you rise.
Dear Baby Bo,
Let me tell you about the first time I saw a killer whale. One year, we drove the long hours from Chicago to Orlando so my mother, your Ya-Ya, could meet up with old classmates from Thailand. To entertain the rambunctious boy I was, my father took me to Sea World, a place I cannot bring myself to go anymore. A place I now see as an abuse to the natural existence of things. But I cannot lie. That first time, when I was six or seven, was magic. To say something is magic or magical seems banal nowadays. But every time we delve into memory, any memory, it is a bit like magic, the reaching into a hat to pull forth the rabbit of a moment. My father and I sat in the large outdoor amphitheater, surrounded by excited families. I was excited. Why wouldn’t I be? I had touched a stingray. Had watched dolphins jump through hoops and observed colorful fish swim in neon tanks. Had eaten a lot of candy and soda so my body was in sugar overdrive. Waiting for the show to start, however, I grew tired. The Florida heat wore me down. I was thankful to be sitting and leaning against my father in the same way you do when fatigue comes to you. Then the show started. Loud music. Loud voice over loud speakers. And at first, nothing. The sunlight danced on the surface of the water. There was a hush of anticipation, the silent build up of something special. And then magic. A black fin cleaved the water. The black bump of a nose. The expulsion of water from a blowhole. “This,” said the voice, “is Shamu, the killer whale.” Instead of joining the excited chorus of awe, I cried. I was so close to Shamu. In the front row, on wet bleacher seats. I stood witness to this otherworldly creature, sleek and shimmering, skin reflecting the late day sun. Shamu leapt into the air, twirling and twisting, water gliding off its body. Magic. I had not realized I held my breath. But I did. I held my breath and cried. Impossible. But impossible was possible because a killer whale danced in and out of water, because it moved in rhythm to its trainer in a tight bodysuit. My father sat beside me, hands on his knees, laughing that hyena laugh that drew the attention of the other kids. He was so caught up in the moment, so moved by Shamu, that he did not see his boy crying. When Shamu flopped down, water splashed four rows up, like a baptism, although I had not a clue what a baptism was. I only knew we were soaked with water a killer whale had propelled out of its pool. And the water was cold. And the cold felt like magic. Finally, my father looked down and noticed my tears. “It’s okay,” he said. “It can’t hurt you.” I cried so hard I could not tell him I was not afraid of the killer whale. “Don’t believe the name,” he said. “The killer whale will not kill you.” I cried so hard I could not tell him I was not afraid of being killed by a killer whale. I could not tell him because my throat tightened the way it does when a cry comes over you. A couple of the kids around me asked if I was okay, but my father told them I was fine, just scared. When the show was over, some of the workers at Sea World handed us towels to dry off. “My son,” my father said to them, “thought the killer whale was going to jump out of the water and eat him.” I did not tell them the truth, either, which was this: what made me weep was the animal itself. How beautiful it was, how enormous, swimming in a pool and not an ocean. It was beauty contained. It was beauty that choked the breath. Beauty that made me cry. I think I knew beauty like this was fleeting. Beauty like this would someday be gone. And then it would become a story. There are so many stories of things lost. Stories are where they live again. I tell you this story because I dreamed a killer whale tonight. Because there are not many killer whales left. Because when you get older there may be no more killer whales. But that dream—it felt like that first time. Magic. Just watching Shamu swim and be. I woke up crying. May you find, son, something that holds your breath and makes you weep. May you one day be so moved.
I have not slept today. I stared at the dark ceiling. I tossed and turned. Then I left the room and sat in the downstairs dark, doing math. Simple math. Not calculus. Like: When you are ten, I will be fifty. When you are twenty, I will be sixty. When you are forty, I will be eighty. And then I will be no more. I mull over the numbers. There are other equations, too. When I was forty, my father died. When I was forty, Aunty died. Or correlative equations: When you were one, your grandfather died. When you were one, Aunty died. I have not slept today. Sometimes what wakes me up are numbers, bouncing around like lottery balls in my brain. Now, you are two, and there are about one thousand killer whales in Alaskan waters. What happens when you are twenty-two? Forty-two? Sixty-two? By then what losses will you have incurred? What will have vanished from this planet? I have not slept today. Today I plucked more gray nose hairs. Today my body reminds me I am forty-two. Today you said an unsolicited “I love you” to me, and immediately my brain jumped to numbers. You are about eight months away from three. I am eight months away from forty-three. My fasting blood sugar was one hundred seventy-three. My resting pulse rate is seventy-three. Conclusion: There is little time left. I wished we could have met when I was thirty-three or twenty-three. That would give me extra years with you. That would give more time. I am busy with numbers—both real and hypothetical. Both real and metaphorical. All these numbers, in the end, represent nothing. Zero = nonentity = nobody = unknown. I have not slept today. I am staying up to see the sun happen.
I am afraid I am not bestowing any wisdom onto you. Only fear. Only hopelessness. Aren’t letters to a child supposed to contain a lesson, a teaching of some sort? Aren’t I supposed to guide you to some sort of higher understanding of the world? Like James Baldwin’s letter to his nephew. Or Ta-Nehisi Coates’s letter to his son. I am not James Baldwin. I am not Ta-Nehisi Coates. Not many are. I am just your father. And I am afraid of being a father. And because of that, I cannot sleep.
I do not know at what point you will read this. Or if you will ever read any of this. Or where I will be when you read this. I do not know why I write this. Or what I hope to accomplish. Or what you will think of me for having written this. But these letters are my way of stilling time. No matter how hard I wish for time to stop, the sun always comes up. What begins in the dark ends in the light of another day.
Dear B. Sukrungruang,
I remember writing letters to an imaginary friend a long time ago. This may sound weird—by now, you should know your father is a strange one—but I think I have always been writing to you. You have always been there. A fragment. A thought. A speck that floated into being, to flesh and bone and body. You are alive. I marvel at your existence. You run into my arms. You sing my name. You call out for me when I am on the toilet. “Daddy? Daddy? Where are you?” “I’m right here, my love,” I sing back. I am. I am right here. I am as constant as the air you breathe. As dependable as the wind in trees and the sky and the sun and the blue jay and their mad trill that always makes you say, “What’s that sound?” Right now, I have you. I am holding on. You will not lose me yet.
Rumpus original art by Clare Nauman.