The Sacred and Profane

Absolute stillness in Athens on Christmas morning. After waking at dawn from garbled dreams of headlines and pundits, I walked past shuttered storefronts covered with graffiti in search of my Christmas present: a pack of cigarettes. The Greeks know how to smoke. In America we stand on cold sidewalks with shamed faces; here smokers luxuriate in a grey haze like it’s 1962. Rolling cigarettes is a family activity. Starbucks has a smoking section. I savored the familiar box in my palm, the sacrament of unwinding the cellophane and removing the gold foil, the warm raisin smell of tobacco and the cupping of a flame. How could this dramatic act of fire, smoke, and breath ever have become a mindless routine? Beneath a heat lamp at a café, I admired the pigeons while reading about the last days of Socrates. An ashtray and a complementary pastry appeared on the table.

‘Psyche’ is the Greek word for breath, such a graceful relationship between spirit and flesh until Socrates split the soul from the body, creating the ghost in the machine and leaving the mind to wonder: if god is so great and perfect and complete, why did he bother making this world? (The divine must be expressed, said Plotinus.) I closed the book, lit a cigarette, and thought about my soul—but mostly I struggled to resist my telephone’s siren song of breaking news.

An old man whispered to his dog, a waitress touched up her lipstick in the mirror. The Parthenon floated upstairs. “Upstairs”. That’s how the chatty cab driver described the hills, and the slope towards the sea was “downstairs”. This seems like a wonderful way to look at the world: the city as a house. Pigeons pecked at the checkered tiles for flakes of pastry while across the Atlantic the next American president brayed about his television ratings and a nuclear arms race for the holidays.

The Acropolis

Highway

I expected to spend my days in Greece researching ritual and the erosion of myth. I imagined tranquil afternoons in libraries, my footsteps echoing through the marble corridors of museums. But there is no escaping the world and I spent far too much time staring into screens instead of contemplating the history around me, unable to believe that a psychotic toddler would be allowed to command the most powerful office in the world. Although I should have known better, a tiny part of me half-expected the adults to enter the room at the eleventh hour and save us from ourselves.

I stood before the ruins of the Agora and Parthenon. Here were the foundations of democracy and once again they were coming undone. The promise of liberalism was redshifting into tribalism, a grim cycle described by Plato when he walked among these shards of marble over two thousand years ago: the endless swing between democracy and tyranny as determined by the distribution of wealth. Although there is the temptation to retreat into philosophical detachment, to cultivate a world-weary nihilism, I need to believe that history moves upwards rather than in mindless circles.

Fifty years ago the historian Will Durant contemplated the slow march of change. “The mills of the gods grind exceedingly slow,” he wrote, “lest the mind of man should break under strain of endless transformations.” Yet I could feel my mind breaking.

Are the mills speeding up? Is history accelerating? I thought of my students who often complained that life was passing too quickly, that too much seemed to happen each day. “I wish we could go back to natural time,” one said. “No news or notifications, just waking up and falling asleep with the sun.” She was only sixteen years old.

Open Borders

Immigration is Not a Crime

Smash Nazism

Hope was written across the walls of Athens and Heraklion, an unexpected jumble of spraypainted shrieks for anarchy and power to the people, for love and open borders: Destroy Fortress Europe. No borders. Immigration is not a crime. So much graffiti in Greece, covering its shutters, doors, and bricks—a reverberation of Vladimir Mayakovsky’s starry-eyed call to arms a century ago: “Artists and writers have the immediate duty to get hold of their pots of paint and, with their masterly brushes, to illuminate, to paint all the sides, foreheads, and chests of cities.” Also from Decree No. 1 on the Democratization of the Arts: “Let the streets be a feast of art for all. And if all this comes to pass…everyone who goes out into the street will grow to be a giant and in wisdom, contemplating beauty instead of the present-day streets with their iron books (billboards), where every page has been written on their signs by greed, the lust for mammon, calculated meanness and low obtuseness, all of which soil the soul and offend the eye.” But Plato’s pendulum swung the Bolshevik revolution hard and fast towards tyranny. Mayakovsky shot himself at the age of 36 and twenty million died under Stalin. How will the next uprising survive this age of surveillance, agitprop wars, and calcified wealth?

Whatever You Vote

Finger

Graffiti Street

Politics at the Kafeneíon. The table started with three voices and grew to fourteen, a loose confederation of Greek, French, Australian, German, and American. We discussed the world’s backslide into panicky jingoism rather than tackling the lunatic mythology of late-stage capitalism. As an American, I felt an acute strain of the familiar sensation of being mortified by my country, the urge to apologize to everybody in advance. Some said this rise in nationalism was a blip, a minor rip in the fabric of democracy which could be easily mended. I stayed quiet and envied their optimism.

A voice in the haze ruminated about “the financial terrorism” that led to Greece’s economic crisis. An elegant old woman sipped her glass of ouzo, rolled a cigarette, and swiped away the political doomsaying. She had the watchful look of experience. “We will be okay,” she said. “Perhaps I am still naive, but I will always choose to be this way.”

After midnight a few slurry voices downshifted into the familiar language of conspiracy, the hushed and intimate tones that signal talk of the new world order, inside jobs, brainwashing, and coordinated attacks. Perhaps installing a raging jackass in the White House would be a shock to the system, someone suggested. Maybe this will finally wake up a nation that had fallen asleep at the wheel, lulled by its cheap comforts and entertainments. (An echo of Juvenal’s lament from two thousand years ago: “Luxury, deadlier than any armed invader, lies like an incubus upon us still, avenging the world we brought to heel.”) But this argument is as cruel as it is juvenile. Certainly there is a better way to inspire civic engagement than giving voice to fanatics, flirting with fascism, lurching from one humiliation to the next, and allowing very real lives to be destroyed along the way. (Although history provides few examples.) The party ended when somebody dropped a dog on the table, scattering empty glasses and full ashtrays across the floor.

The 4000-year-old ruins of the palace at Knossos were a vivid reminder that civilizations disintegrate. I dutifully photographed the crumbling walls, mosaic fragments, and towering jars that held olive oil, wine, or perhaps the remains of the dead. “Too many jars,” she said. “I am becoming numb to jars.”

So many cups, plates, and blades on display. Although I knew these Minoan fragments of pottery and spears were the only surviving relics, that the clothes and scrolls had long since turned to dust, I could not shake the impression that ancient cultures cared only for dishware and war. I contemplated placards with phrases that fired the imagination: Dismembered Horse Skeleton. A Liberation Vessel. Somersaulting Over Upturned Swords. The Minor Pleasures of Daily Life. A 4000-year-old fresco shows men and women leaping over a bull, a ritual that held this culture together with notions of glory and duty, a reminder that we are unnatural beasts, capable of such cruelty—omnivorous predators who would devour the world were it not for our faith in rituals and codes.

The deceased were placed in a fetal position at the bottom of sarcophagi, symbolizing the return to the primeval womb. Postures of prayer and preparations for judgment decorated the jars, images of men on their knees before a beast on a throne. What is this hard-wired expectation (or fear) that we shall be judged for this life? This belief is as old as time, although perhaps it is slipping away.

What will take its place?

Church

How do I worship? What do I believe? Sitting in the back of grand Orthodox churches, I thought about my departed parents and searched for religion. Sometimes I worry that if I pray, god will appear and judge me. (There is an obvious conflict between my atheism and fear of god. But stranger things have lived together. There is no logic to the soul.) I want to move beyond grief, a word which feels like a wall or tunnel without end—what of devotion or grace? These words suggest a way forward and even if I’m not part of a spiritual tradition, the descriptions and paintings of the saints who sought salvation reassure me. Gazing at the images of sacrifice, I imagined a new reformation of the church, one that keeps its majestic cathedrals, gilded icons, and liturgical tones—but dispenses with the priesthood, replaces the Bible with the otherworldliness of Plato and Origen, and opens its doors to anyone seeking communion, ritual, and the sublime.

Athens Overhead

Walking the labyrinthine streets of Athens and Heraklion, I sensed another chord of grief: a deep-boned mourning for the loss of a semi-rational world, one which, while profoundly flawed, nonetheless maintained the illusion of guardians at the gate, a faith in messy yet steady progress towards dignity for all, and a promise that we would not be ruled by the whims of a megalomaniac determined to burrow into our psyche. Although the comparison is by no means direct, the recent triumph of fear and lunacy at the expense of data and reason feels not unlike the shock following the loss of a loved one: an event whose reverberations will not be understood for a long time. And I have been slow to react—wary of joining the online chorus of outrage and headline regurgitation; feeling grateful yet derelict for being on the other side of the world while Americans are in the street; anxious to return to my country and find the best way to be of service. When every statement from the White House brings to mind that chilling phrase from Camus—“the denial of other human beings”—and ecclesiastical cruelty becomes intertwined with a president’s vanity, nothing is certain except the old world will not return and a better one must be built quickly.

Returning to the ruins of the Agora, I thought about the concept of elegant decay. Greece reminded me of New Orleans in a way, a place where tourists flock for history despite the local desire to remain present-tense and future-bound. And more than its ancient columns and statuary, I will remember Athens and Heraklion for the writing on the walls. The graffiti splashed across the cradle of democracy felt appropriate now that our sacred institutions appear obscene and profane cries of resistance sound absolutely spiritual.

The Shock of Nevermore

My father would have turned sixty-eight yesterday. I do not know how to celebrate him now that he is gone, although I know he would smack me if he saw me brooding. But I cannot help replaying his birthday last year when we sat in a Wisconsin steakhouse one month after his lung transplant. After ten months spent waiting for the phone to ring and remaining within a thirty-minute radius of a hospital in an unfamiliar city, we had completed our mission: he had a new lung. I remember how proud he was to be in public without his hoses, cables, and oxygen tank. How the doctors said he would live for a very long time. Three months later he died of septic shock. I’ve been replaying many things this year. His last hours. The touch of his hand as the machine flatlined. The things I should have said and done (although I’m told it’s more constructive to say wish instead of should). The dark questions of mortality and meaning in an irrational universe. And I still have not accepted the death of my mother, who died seven years ago.

But what does it mean to accept death? Is such a thing possible? Perhaps there is a problem with our language, particularly for the agnostic and the atheist. The rupture of tradition and the break from ritual has been patched with bloodless words like acceptance and mindfulness, with clinical approaches like Kübler-Ross’s stages of grief, and prescriptive notions of “moving forward” and “pushing through” — as if there is someplace to go. Instead I retreat into philosophy, seeking consolation in widescreen meditations on the nature of souls and the mind, such as Will Durant’s channeling of Spinoza: “Our minds are the fitful flashes of an eternal light.”

Writing about grief does not feel fashionable in the digital age, in this schizophrenic landscape of relentless cheerleading and cynical handwringing. Discussing death seems like a clunky and messy thing to do. But I can think of no other subject these days. Each time I pick up a pen, I am reminded of Ingmar Bergman’s admonition that “the only worthwhile subject is man’s relationship with god.” And what is grief but the process of squaring loss with faith? Of looking god in the eye, per Voltaire: Either god can prevent suffering and he will not, or he wishes to prevent it but he cannot. I doubt I am up to this task. But I hope the notes, meditations, and references in these essays might offer somebody some small measure of reassurance.

But why should I write about my grief? It is not special. In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein—a Gothic tale that crystallized our desire to deny death before it was transformed into schlocky films and sugary cereal—the young scientist mourns the death of his mother. He describes his inability to comprehend her disappearance: “It is so long before the mind can persuade itself that she, whom we saw every day, and whose very existence appeared a part of our own, can have departed forever — that the brightness of beloved eye can have been extinguished, and the sound of a voice so familiar, and dear to the ear, can be hushed, never more to be heard.”

The shock of nevermore. The pacing of hallways as if grief were an interlude, as if we might enter a room and see the departed returned, sitting in a favorite chair. I remember the mad urge to dial my mother’s number in the weeks and months after her funeral, to tell her all about this terrible thing that happened. Walking to the car this morning, a shift in the light left me convinced I needed to pick up my father from physical therapy.

“These are the reflections of the first days,” Shelley writes, “but when the lapse of time proves the reality of the evil, then the actual bitterness of grief commences.” Bitterness is the right word. As if gnawing at this wound might somehow bring back the ones I love. But Shelley offers a jolt of perspective: “Yet from whom has not that rude hand rent away some dear connection? and why should I describe a sorrow which all have felt, and must feel? The time at length arrives when grief is rather an indulgence than a necessity; and the smile that plays upon the lips, although it may be deemed a sacrilege, is not banished. My mother was dead, but we had still duties which we ought to perform; we must continue our course with the rest, and learn to think ourselves fortunate, whilst one remains whom the spoiler has not seized.”

This is the maddening characteristic of grief: although it is experienced by everyone, it remains fiercely personal and isolating. Only we are aware of the spaces missing from our lives: the sound of a loved one’s feet padding down the hall; the pursed lip or arched brow; the heat and storms and history pulsing beneath the way they said good morning. Yet it is also an emotion shared by anyone who has lived and loved long enough. We do not discuss this as much as we should.

The Road to Somewhere: An American Memoir

Contains 55,000 miles and 416 colorful pages with a map and an index. Published by W. W. Norton. Available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Powell’s Books, Indiebound, or an independent bookstore near you.

Road to Somewhere

Publisher’s Description

The Road to Somewhere is an unusual and seductive book, one that speaks honestly and without pretension about contemporary ambivalence and anxiety, and the countless miles we travel looking for answers. By the time he was twenty-eight, James A. Reeves had bounced through numerous jobs — everything from a carpet salesman and barista to an elementary school teacher and record label owner — eventually finding himself settled in New York in the early aughts, with the country itself on the verge of a breakdown. While working at a design studio and teaching, whenever he could find a few days he would buy a ticket to anywhere cheap, rent a car, and drive in the direction of whatever towns struck his fancy — Truth & Consequences, Delta, Dinosaur — racing blindly through the back roads of the country. He was troubled by his aimless career path and his inability to know what should come next on the way to manhood, to a meaningful life, and he found himself unable to resist comparing his choices to the more straightforward and honorable path followed by his grandfather and, to a lesser degree, his father.

The Road to Somewhere is a bold visual testament to taking it all in, the heartbreaking grit of lonely motels, the inescapable allure of Vegas neon glaze, and the tremendous power of storytelling. In a time when so many invest in virtual relationships, this book is a celebration of personal interactions with strangers and a love song to the physical exhaustion that comes after hours of driving, when the road gets blurry and the voices on the radio sound like raw static.

Much like the national climate of 2004 when Reeves first started this exploration, there’s an increasing polarization happening across the nation today, with an alarming uptick in debate about what the “real America” might be. In the midst of the emotional tirades and fear-mongering, Reeves’s humility is reinvigorating. He drifts along the Mexican border and the Louisiana gulf, rattled by civic decay and reassured by small moments of grace. Now in New Orleans, his is a voice of integrity and civic responsibility that doesn’t pretend to have it all figured out just yet. Reeves’s drives quickly transformed from something observational and political into something much more personal. What resulted from 55,000 miles and five years is a photo-memoir that captures an American moment that is both unsettled and transcendent.

 

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“Within his expansive, several-thousand-mile journey, Reeves reveals the profile of a young travelling man fighting to understand ideas passed down through his culture and familial rituals, and how they intersperse with the mentation of his own experiences, in his own time, as a man in America. I love this book because of its balanced helping of melancholy and brutal truth of what The Road means and how it has defined this country—both in the past and present. I love this book because it presents The Road as it is: a laborious, 15-round bout with Ali or Frazier; a ferocious ballet.”
—The Lit Pub

“Comparisons to Kerouac are natural, but Reeves is a solitary wanderer who traverses the country mostly in the isolation of a rental car. In our contemporary world of entitlement, when adolescence extends indefinitely, through what threshold does one cross into adulthood? The Road to Somewhere offers no solutions but the model of a spirited approach”

—Rain Taxi Review

“I didn’t want to get out when the Dollar Rent A Car finally ground to a halt five years later in New Orleans, for Reeves had opened his heart on the pages of The Road to Somewhere and I wanted to keep reading. I truly felt as though I had been in the car with him, so vivid and personal was his writing.”

—100 Memoirs

The Last Year of My Father

When I lost my mother, I met grief for the first time and I ran. I thought grief would be dignified and monumental like a black tower shrouded in mist or quiet days spent weeping in a dim room. Instead I discovered that grief is a relentless feedback loop, a wash of static riddled with fractured images, creepshow dreams, and broken questions that can never be answered. How could this. Why didn’t she. If only I. This wasn’t supposed. Science tells us that grief is a biological necessity, a Darwinian driver that teaches us to protect the ones we love—or at least, the ones who still remain.

My father’s breathing became labored in the years after my mother’s death, as if staying alive had become too demanding. He was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis, which meant his lungs were stiffening due to a patchwork of scars that covered the precious tissue which translates oxygen into life. The doctors could not point to a specific cause beyond a crossed wire somewhere deep within the machinery of his cells, a faulty line of genetic code which sent his immune system on a terrible mission that rejected the logic of life: his body was attacking itself.

Dad 220 L1030383
We tend to die when we are not working. A stroke at the dinner table, a car wreck on a Saturday night. We like to die on weekends or during the holidays. This is something I learned while waiting in Wisconsin with my father for a lung, a factoid gleaned from hours spent sitting among gnarled old men waiting for their telephones to ring with news of fresh hearts, livers, and lungs—men who cheered when they learned that Wisconsin does not require motorcyclists to wear helmets. Each night they gathered with their oxygen tanks, heart attack vests, and grisly math, eager for the weekend or the next holiday to come. “Might get some lungs now,” they said before Easter. “Thousands of drunk drivers can only be a good thing,” they said as Memorial Day approached. “Alcohol and explosives are better than Christmas,” they said on the Fourth of July.

One of these men approached my father when we first arrived in Wisconsin, our nerves still buzzing with the speed and heat of the interstate after a sixteen hour drive from New Orleans. He was the kind of man most people ignore, the lonely soul puttering at the margins of a discount superstore with uncombed hair like a cloud, or the blurry retiree doing the crossword on a bench at the mall—but here in the rooms where we would wait for a lung, he was an authority, and he leaned towards my father and asked, “What’s your blood type?”

My father took a drag from the oxygen tube that circumnavigated his head. A puff of compressed air accompanied his answer. “O positive.”

“Me too.”

They nodded at each other, enjoying this primitive bond. The same brand of blood flowed through their bodies yet they would not hinder each other. My father needed a lung and the white-haired man was waiting for a heart. The wheels of my father’s oxygen tank squeaked down the hall as he shuffled towards our room. The white-haired man picked up a butter knife and grinned as he hopped to his feet and followed my father, making swift stabbing motions towards his backside, mugging and jiving for the others in the lounge. “He’s the right blood type and I need a heart.” Everybody laughed. He would play this gag dozens of times in the months to come. At first I did not think this was funny, but in a few months I began to understand.

The tribalism of our bodies is profound. If one of our cells encounters another cell that does not share the same DNA, the body launches an attack. It’s the scene in the science fiction film when an interloper’s retina or barcode fails to scan and red lights flash through corridors to the beat of a klaxon alarm while men with guns hunt down the intruder. Organ rejection is the enemy of transplantation, a defense mechanism that has only been brought to heel in recent years.

The first recorded attempt at installing an organ in someone else’s body dates back to the third century BCE, when Bian Que, a Chinese physician and author of The Yellow Emperor’s Canon of 81 Difficult Issues, claimed to have used anesthesia to swap the hearts of two men, one with too much willpower and another who was too passive. Hoping to achieve balance, he “cut open their breasts, removed their hearts, exchanged and replaced them, and applied a numinous medicine,” according to a Daoist text. “And when they awoke, they were as good as new.” Some Catholic histories describe the replacement of Emperor Justinian’s gangrenous leg with the limb of an Ethiopian man, a surgery performed by the twin physicians Damian and Cosmas, for which they earned sainthood. Such accounts are improbable yet the idea of saving someone’s life with the parts of another is rooted in our most ancient notions of healing, In the early twentieth-century, a series of successful transplants were performed on dogs, chimpanzees, and convicted murderers, and the increasingly refined use of immunosuppressants extended the likelihood of survival—yet the procedure remains haunted by rejection. (A sixteenth-century doctor in Italy attributed this phenomena to the “force and power of individuality.”) Transplantation is particularly risky for lungs because this is the organ that connects our bodies with the outside world, its dust and heat and microbes.

Whenever my father’s telephone rang, we jumped, knowing that if a voice on the other end offered him a lung, we would have one hour to get to the hospital where they would cut a slit along his ribcage, pull out one of his bad lungs, slide in the new one, and attach it to the trachea—sort of like changing a vacuum bag. The other bad lung would remain in his body. Something needs to fill the space.

One lung is fine. People can run marathons with one lung. The pope has only his left lung, due to tuberculosis when he was a boy. In terms of daily activity and life expectancy, one lung is just as good as two.

Two years ago my father underwent a battery of tests and procedures while they determined his suitability as a candidate for a lung transplant. The word ‘candidate’ lingers in my mind as I recall him shaking the hands of dozens of doctors and administrators, a man running for the strangest kind of office as they peppered him with questions about his drinking habits and propensity for depression, about his lifestyle and future plans. Would he go back to work if he received a lung? Would he exercise and eat sensibly? These queries were polite variations on a single question: Do you deserve to live?

They inspected my father’s heart with a camera and biopsied his lung tissue. They removed all of his teeth to reduce the possibility of infection. He spent hours chewing on an elaborate mouth guard attached to a screen, a dystopian video game that refined his swallowing reflex to minimize the possibility of food or liquid entering his trachea. A series of social workers interviewed me, evaluating my fitness as a caregiver.

We sat in the cafeteria of the Veteran’s Hospital in Madison, one thousand miles from home. We watched snow cover the windows while we killed time until his next appointment, a test to confirm that he could still walk at least nine hundred feet in six minutes. If not, they would remove him from the list, classifying him as a lost cause, a body unworthy of someone else’s organ. Yet I never saw my father express even the faintest glimmer of anxiety. Even as his breathing grew worse and he maxed out all of his oxygen machines, he would alway smile, dutifully taking his daily trips to the Dollar Store, and we would spend long afternoons by the Wisconsin River, where he would pretend to fish. “If I’m going to die,” he said, “I might as well die outside doing something.”

Watching him calmly munch a cheeseburger in the hospital cafeteria, I realized that this distant figure throughout my life had become a grand old man and a reassuring friend while I was not looking. Only now do I see how hard he worked at this. He had traded his scotch and high blood pressure for a grey beard and a fishing hat, and he would wake before dawn to meditate and highlight passages from a book by Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk whom he referred to as ‘Nathan’. Going through his files after he died, I would find folders labelled Sears pension, Telephone bill, and Buddha. He went to all kinds of churches with anyone who wanted company, and he began talking about the godhead, how everything is connected. He loved the water. He loved boats. “When I die, toss my ashes in the nearest body of water,” he would say. “Even if it’s a puddle.” Rather than watch game shows and gossip with the other patients, he bought an old canoe and began refinishing it in the parking garage beneath the hotel. The fumes from the paint thinner and varnish were ferocious, but he figured a new lung was on its way.

And then the doctors called. They told us there was an organ drought—a grisly phrase that conjured apocalyptic scenes along dried riverbeds.

At first we believed in math. We spent the month of March researching blood types and averaging wait times, hoping to calculate the odds of receiving a lung. Did the odds improve with each passing day or was it like getting struck by lightning? In April we passed through a superstitious phase of gut feelings and prophetic dreams. We sensed vibrations in the air. “I’ve got a feeling the call will come today,” we said. But the phone never rang and we ended the month believing in bad juju and jinxes. We began playing long quiet games of chess in May, keeping an ear cocked for the phone. Summer came and we watched our neighbor down the hall return from surgery with two new lungs, his face nearly unrecognizable without his oxygen mask. Another man gave up after nine months of waiting and flew home to Arizona. Time became elastic and calendars stopped making sense. In June we switched from chess to backgammon, thinking we might as well include an element of chance.

At a pizza party for the transplant patients, a man took me aside. “People don’t know how to pray for this,” he said. “You only get an organ if somebody else dies.” I learned a lot about prayer during the ten months we spent in Wisconsin. In the laundry room I listened to a woman describe the night that Jesus Christ said her husband would get his heart next Tuesday. When I awkwardly tried to comfort the family of a man who passed away during surgery, they smiled and said everything was okay, this was part of God’s plan. I met a Marine who was visiting the parents of the boy whose heart he received, and they would put their ears to his chest, listening to the sound of their son—I imagine them posed in pyramid formation, a distant echo of the Pietà. I envied this faith that comforts so many people in the face of uncertainty and tragedy, yet I did not know how to find my own.

Instead, I drove. After midnight I would hit the interstate and speed west, fantasizing about space and light yet never daring to go further than thirty miles from the hospital. When the lights of the city faded away, I would pull to the side of a county road and look at the stars while making my usual ambient promises to be a better son, a more patient man. Then I drove back to our room, where I would fall asleep to the sound of my father’s oxygen compressor, a burst of air hissing every six seconds through the night.

“With falling gas prices and a beautiful holiday forecast on the horizon, a record number of Americans are expected to hit the road this weekend. Experts are predicting an increase in auto accidents, so be careful out there.” I smiled at the radio, no longer caring that I was rooting for death.

My father’s telephone rang at six o’clock on the Friday before Labor Day, a weekend filled with car wrecks just like the radio had advertised. “Will you accept the lung of a recently deceased individual?” asked the voice on the phone. Oh god yes, he said. “Be at the hospital in one hour.”

After the surgery, I watched his lungs on a monitor, a camera rooting among glistening pinks and reds, tracing the dark purple slashes of a suture. For days he teetered between life and death, and I watched the numbers and quizzed the doctors, absorbing a brutal lesson in the language of blood, gases, and tubes. At night I dreamt in the beautiful slang of nurses. “You only have a true mixed Venus when you insert a swan,” they said. I learned that a patient who insists on standing up despite repeatedly falling down is called a ‘jack-in-the-box’. But my father did not stand up, not at first. Each time I looked at him I wept, thinking about the life he had in front of him. When my father opened his eyes, I took his hand and told him that he was safe, that he made it. “It’s coming,” he whispered.

After nine days of bloods clots and collapses, of atrial fibrillation and intubation, the doctors removed the tubes and wires from my father. With one hand on his IV pole and the other wrapped around my arm, he took his first walk towards the nurses’ station. “King for a day,” he whispered. “I’m ready for the world.” We took dozens of careful walks through hospital hallways in the weeks that followed, and each time he went a little further than everyone expected. When I told him I was proud of him, he would give a small smile and say, “It’s coming.” Each night when I left the hospital, he would turn off the lights in his room and wave a flashlight in his window while I stood in the parking lot, watching his little show.

Every Saturday we would explore Wisconsin, looking at its hills and Main Streets and lakes. Six weeks after his transplant, my father and I drove towards a spot on the map that advertised a scenic waterfall. When we arrived, there was a two-mile footpath through the woods. I didn’t want to walk it and I didn’t expect my father to manage it. “Let’s do it,” he said. Watching my father walk among the autumn trees, kicking leaves without any tubes or machines, I felt a sensation that I can only describe as grace. No matter what happens, I thought, this moment was worth everything we’d gone through. I told him I was proud of him. “It’s coming,” he said.

After 301 days in Wisconsin, we packed up the phenomenal number of spatulas, paintbrushes, floor lamps, and other things my father acquired from the Dollar Store, and at seven o’clock on a Sunday night we pointed the car at the Mississippi River so we could follow it home. We were hungry but we would wait to eat until we were in a different state. And there’s my father and me, sitting in a parking lot on a hill overlooking the river, munching cheeseburgers and watching the lights of Dubuque.

In one month a doctor would tell me that he was the sickest man in the hospital, and I remember thinking my father would take a strange pride in this fact later on, when we took another drive.

Septic shock is as fast and brutal as it sounds. On New Year’s Day my father said he had a sniffle. The next morning he could hardly stand. I poured him into the backseat and rushed to the nearest emergency room. They said his body was too weak to build a fever, that his blood had turned toxic. Following the protocol for all septic patients, they flooded his body with antibiotics and fluid, which crippled his breathing. Soon he was on dialysis and intubated with a swan in his neck—his vital functions once again outsourced to machines. At dawn a nurse brought me a telephone, a rerun of the day I lost my mother, as a doctor’s voice told me that my father was going to die, that he was the sickest man in the hospital and all they had left to offer was prayer. “If I had brought him here twelve or twenty-four hours sooner, would it have made a difference?” I wanted absolution. “Theoretically yes,” he said. “But he was also very sick and weak, so theoretically no. I’m afraid this is a question you will carry for the rest of your life.”

I held my father’s hand as I watched the numbers on the monitor like an altar, whispering please don’t go while his blood pressure quietly dropped into single digits. The red and blue numbers for his pulse and oxygen saturation flicked to white. A nurse shut off the screen.

Here is an endless bayou with lots of birds and interesting clouds in the sky, and there’s my father in a little tin boat with my mom sitting next to him and his dog in the front, a breeze blowing through its fur. This is what I hope heaven looks like for him.

I kissed my father on the forehead and told him that I was proud of him, and for the first time he was quiet. I told him that he was the kindest and gentlest person I had ever known and he was leaving this world very well loved—which in the end, might be the best any of us can hope for.

After my mother died, I drove her ashes from Michigan to the California coast because she always wanted to see the ocean. And I kept driving for six weeks, thinking I could outrun my grief at seventy miles per hour, hoping I could escape it by hiding in unfamiliar towns and anonymous motels, by becoming a stranger who sometimes marveled at the terrible thing that happened to an old friend named James.

Now that my father is gone, I want to run again. My first instinct was to point my car into the Yukon or the Mojave desert. But this impulse faded as quickly as it came, for my old man taught me a valuable lesson in his final years. In the days after his death, I received calls and visits from so many lives that he had touched, even when he simply took his dog for a walk or futzed with his boat. I discovered that he had a ladyfriend and they were making plans to live together. (“Don’t hang up any pictures in the new house,” he wrote her. “That’s my job.”) Despite losing the ability to breathe without gasping, my father remained present in the lives of others, and I can hear him telling me to do the same.

I see him standing in the woods on that October afternoon with his quiet little smile, a simple gesture that reflects an entire life—a constellation of love and regret and loss and dogged faith in taking one more step no matter how shallow our breath might be. His smile radiates through me as I write this, and I know there is a lesson here yet it evaporates as soon as I draw close. Much like the impossibility of looking into the sun, perhaps it is better to simply enjoy the light.