Associate Director and Head of Operations, Abdul Latif Jameel World Education Lab, MIT
When you are a small boy like I was, you wonder as you look in the mirror at your skinny arms and the jack-o-lantern head too big for your shoulders what kind of man you will grow up to be; and when you are a bit older, between being a boy and a man, you are given glimpses, moments to show you what you might become. Like when I was seventeen and my father took me fishing on Lake Erie, where his father took him when he was a kid, and I got sick from the waves and never caught a fish and spent the whole time bent over the railing puking while the white-haired guy that owned the boat joked that at least I could chum the water.
When I was a boy and I looked at myself in the bathroom mirror, I never could quite see all of me because the mirror was in three pieces, hinged vertical slabs for the medicine cabinet doors, and I could never get all of my body reflected in one of them, even as skinny as I was. But if I opened the two outside ones up so they reflected back at each other, I could put my head between them and see dozens of reflections, reflections inside of reflections, a honeycomb of different angles of me, angles I never saw myself from so that I looked like a stranger.
When I was seventeen and my father asked me to go to Lake Erie with him, I was in my second year of college and I’d just gotten a D in Calculus, the second time I took the class. The first time, I dropped it because I knew I was going to fail. When you are in an Electrical Engineering program and you get a D in Calculus, they won’t let you take Physics, even thought I knew I could pass that, and when they wouldn’t let me take Physics I walked out of the program and ended up in General Studies. I didn’t mind so much because there were a lot of classes I’d been wanting to take that engineering students weren’t allowed to, but after I’d switched it took me a long time to tell my parents, because they were paying for me to go to school and I knew they’d be let down. When I finally did tell them, they didn’t say much of anything at all, Mom just asked if I was all right with it and Dad barely even looked up from the book he was reading.
The next day, Dad called me downstairs and I thought he was going to say something about the General Studies thing, but all he asked was did I want to go fishing with him. It was May when he asked me, the first really hot humid night that year, and he was sitting in his underwear at the kitchen table reading–a big hardcover book, Clavell or Mitchner or somebody–with a gin-and-tonic and a slice of watermelon that he ate with a fork and knife like a sirloin. It was the first night that spring he had the kitchen door open, and he called me downstairs like it just occurred to him in the middle of reading, and I leaned up against the heavy butcher’s block that stood in the middle of our kitchen and felt the smooth wood under my palms and the breeze coming through the screen and waited for what he had to say.
He was always calling us like that, from wherever he was, and you’d hear his voice while you were watching TV or screwing around in the family room. He’d yell out “Dwarf!”, which is what he called all of us, and you’d look at whoever was in the room with you and hope they’d lose their nerve first and go do whatever he wanted. Or worse, you’d hear your name and you knew he wanted something to do with you and no-one else. That’s what happened that night. I was up in my room and I heard him yell “Steve,” and I got that feeling like I’d done something wrong, which I always had and it was just the matter of what he’d found out about. So I came downstairs and leaned against the chopping block and looked at him sitting there with his belly hanging over the elastic band of his underwear, the shock of purple scar slicing across one side from where they’d given him a new kidney seven years before.
Like always, he read for a minute–even thought he was the one who called me–and I stood there smelling the new summer air and the watermelon and wondering what trouble I was in because he’d called me out by name. Even when I was older, like I was then, it made me feel like a little kid to stand there and wait while he finished up what he was doing, like I was small and not so important that I couldn’t wait there for a few seconds while he finished the page. When he finished it, and I’d been standing there thinking about the D in Calculus and General Studies, he tucked his thumb into the book and closed it and said to me, “I’m going up to Lake Erie next weekend with one of the docs. You want to go?”
I said yes, because that’s what you say when you are seventeen and your Dad asks you if you want to do something like go fishing, which is not like him asking you to clean the garage or sweep the leaves off the back porch, something you never really say yes to but do anyway, thinking of the day not too far off when you will move out of that house and not ever do again. I said yes because I knew that fishing was something that fathers and sons did together, even if we moved to West Virginia when I was five, and the only fish there were catfish in the river or stocked trout in the streams, and my father wouldn’t fish because it was nothing like Lake Erie where he caught perch as fast as he could drop his line. I said yes because I didn’t know that I was going to get sick on the boat and hang over the edge with the rail pressing into my gut and the white-haired guy chuckling.
I don’t think I’d been fishing with him more than six or seven times before that, and never to Lake Erie. One time he took us to this place called Sigi’s Five Lakes, which was these farm ponds, little thing like you see in the corners of fields or the bottoms of gullies with little earthen dams, and they were each stocked with something different–trout, bass, catfish. All these old stooped-looking guys in folding lawn chairs sat with poles in their laps and lines sagging into the soupy water. Dad let the three of us each catch a fish and he threw them back, even though you were allowed to keep four, and then we left even though we hadn’t been there more than fifteen or twenty minutes. Dad didn’t fish at all.
There was one pond with carp in it, big fat things that floated just below the surface, near the edge, and an old man would drop his line out in front of one and it would flick its tail just once to get going and glide over and take the bait into its mouth slowly, like it knew what was coming next. When the old man had set the hook and brought it up and out of the water, you could see the ragged flapping skin around the mouth and you knew that the fish had been caught more than a few times before, and maybe even on that same day by that same old man.
* * *
I did move out of the house not too long after the trip to Lake Erie, maybe a year and a half later. I was nineteen and I moved into a two room place with an old Philco refrigerator that looked like a midget’s coffin stood on end, and a Prosperity brand stove that I always thought was ironic given my budget at the time. The place shared a bathroom with the next apartment, where two guys lived, and I never cleaned it and they never cleaned it and mildew grew in the shower and on the walls and spread over the ceiling. But I kept my two rooms clean and I did the dishes and I took out the garbage even though I swore I’d never do those things when I moved away. I repainted and put up blinds and cleaned the windows, and when my mother came across town she told me how worried she’d been and the apartment was small, sure, but I’d done a good job with it and she wasn’t going to worry so much for me anymore.
I was still skinny then and in the big mirror in that filthy bathroom, I could see my body just fine–halfway to being a man, tall and elbows and shoulders–and I found some old weights in the basement of that place, by the washing machine that didn’t work, plastic and cement weights that some student had left there the year before. I dragged them up to my two rooms and I started lifting them. I lifted them because I saw that if I didn’t, I would grow up reedy and weak, and that was not the kind of man I wanted to become. I lifted them all through that fall and into the next spring, until the muscles on my arms grew strong and round, and ’till you couldn’t see the ribs as they came together at my sternum. In the florescent light of the moldy bathroom I shared with the guys next door, I could see the difference, but even after that when I went home to visit and I stood in the bathroom and looked at myself in the thin slices of mirror, I still couldn’t see that much had changed.
My father was different then, though, after I had moved out. He put on more weight, and his knees got worse so that he walked with a cane. He’d had Lupus years before and it had gone into remission, but before it did it took his kidneys and started working at his knees, and even though the new kidney took well, the medicine made him puffy and made him put on weight, and the weight ground down on his knees until he almost couldn’t walk. I was ten when he first got sick and before that he was tall and thin like my older brother is now, and he was in the Air Force. He used to come home in his flight suit and helmet, with the oxygen mask strapped across his face and the hose dangling like the trunk of some monstrous elephant man, and he’d chase us around the house until we hid from him under the butcher’s block.
Dad had bought that butcher’s block for Mom on their first anniversary, when they were living in New Mexico, and he was still flying. My older brother was three months old then, and I wouldn’t be born for another year. Mom loves that butcher’s block, and it’s still in the middle of their kitchen, but she’s told me more than once that those early years of their marriage were the toughest. She tells me about a father I never knew, who went out a lot with the other flyers and left her at home, who wrote checks without even thinking about how much money they had in the accounts.
The father I knew handled all the bills, wrote out checks and tracked investments for hours each week at the huge oak roll-top that took up one wall of the living room. If you wanted cash to go out with on the week-ends, you went to Mom and she snuck you what she could, but if you needed something big like tuition or help with your car insurance, you had to go talk to Dad when he was at the desk. He would swivel around in his chair, with the wall of oak and papers behind him, and look at you over his reading glasses as you explained to him what you needed.
That week-end, we’d gone up to Lake Erie with a friend of his from the hospital where he worked whose name was LaGrange, and LaGrange had brought his son, too. We went up in my dad’s car, a big blue Delta 88, and LaGrange sat up front and LaGrange’s son and I sat in the back, and the two of us listened to the two of them talk about the Hospital and about people I didn’t know. Every once in a while LaGrange’s son would say something to show that he did know who they were talking about. He was taller than me with hair short like he cut it every other week, and he had a smile that you knew he had practiced. He was in Law School. After they’d finished up talking about the hospital, LaGrange asked me what I did, and I said that I was in school. He asked what I was studying, and LaGrange’s son looked at me for my answer, and I looked back at them, the father and the son, and I said, “Engineering. Electrical engineering.” I watched my father as I said it, but he didn’t flinch one bit as he steered the car north.
You could never tell what he was going to yell at you for and what he was going to ignore, and sometimes the yelling would be bad and sometimes the silence would be worse. One night when I was sixteen and had just begun to drive, I got drunk. It was my girlfriend’s birthday and we got someone to buy us some vodka, and we went out to the old abandoned farm her parents owned outside of town and built a bonfire. We drank and listened to top-forty tunes on a cheap radio and drank some more, and by midnight–when I was supposed to pick up my older brother at his girlfriend’s place–I could hardly walk. I did what I could to sober up, and at three in the morning, I climbed behind the wheel of the old VW van we had, and I still remember the drive back. I must have gone off the road at least a couple of times, but I made it to get my brother, and when I did, I parked the van in the dead center of the street and climbed out just in time to see the Delta 88 pull up right behind me. Dad didn’t say anything to me then, and he didn’t say anything to me the next morning, and I kept waiting for him to say something, and in the end he never did.
When we got to the hotel and LaGrange and his son had gone to their room and we had gone to ours, I kept thinking that he would say something about my lie and the D in Calculus, but he just stacked the luggage in the corner and told me to come back outside with him. He told me to get some beers out of the cooler in the car, and he and I and LaGrange and his son sat in scallop-backed metal chairs in the ragged lawn of the motel, drinking beers in the cool evening air. The motel had been built in the forties and it was painted pastel green. The old state route that ran by it had been replaced by a the Turnpike years ago, and the cars that passed as we sat and talked were moving slow, and you knew they were all locals and in no hurry to get where they were going.
And while we talked I decided that I liked LaGrange, even if he was a doc and his son was a bit of a prick, and that made him the first doctor I’d met from the Hospital that I did like. He had a salt-and-pepper beard that he pulled at as he told us about borrowing a friend’s truck to move two of his sows (because he worked his farm along with being a doc, two jobs I never thought one man could do at the same time). The truck wasn’t registered and a cop who was chasing a speeder saw the expired tag as he passed, and he motioned for LaGrange to pull over; and as LaGrange waited for the cop to come back, one of the sows broke loose and ran out onto the highway. And as he told us about chasing the sow and explaining things to the cop, the tugging at his beard set off a chain reaction in his face, drawing his mouth into a smile and pulling his eyes into half-moons above his round cheeks.
Later that night, after we’d finished up the beer and gone back to the motel room, Dad was lying on the bed with his book open beside him and I was watching TV–something with roman soldiers in it, maybe Masada–and he said to me that LaGrange had cancer. He would do that sometimes, just say things to you from out of the blue, nothing leading up to it–he just said it. My younger brother told me once that he and Dad had been driving somewhere, going to the store or something, and out of nowhere Dad said, “I wish your grandfather had lived longer, because I never saw what it was like to grow old.” And my brother asked me, now what do you say to that? It was like that when he told me about LaGrange and I didn’t know what to say either, but I turned the volume down and waited to see if he’d say more, and he did. It was colon cancer, he told me, and LaGrange had ten feet of his bowels gone and a colostomy bag, and it kept coming back and they kept taking more of his bowels and it had been going on for six years now.
* * *
When I was ten and my father first got sick, my brothers and I went to Ohio to live with Mom’s sister, and we slept on cots in her basement, which had been turned into a family room but still had a cement floor and cinderblock walls and no windows. We were there for three months and we went to school in Ohio, and saw Mom each night at ten right before we went to bed, when she got back from the hospital fifty miles away in Columbus. We didn’t see Dad for almost a month. That was in the seventies, when transplants weren’t so common as they are now, and after he went in the doctors told him and Mom that he would probably die. He might live a year, maybe two. If he’s lucky, they said, he could make it five. Mom told me later that they’d talked it over and they thought we should know too, so she sat my brothers and me down on one of the cots, and I remember I was sitting in the middle, because for some reason, whenever we had to do anything together, we did it by age. So there I was, a ten-year old boy sitting between his two brothers, and my mother said to me–said to us–your father’s very sick and he might die soon.
Seven years later, when my father took me fishing, he’d gone from a skinny guy with a big nose and a long-legged, ambling walk to an overweight man with bad knees and a scar across his belly. But by that time the docs were saying there was no reason why he couldn’t go another seven years. In that hotel room, after he told me about LaGrange, he told me to turn off the TV and the lights and I got into the other bed, but I had too much beer that night and I couldn’t get to sleep and I listened to his breathing and thought about what he said. I remember thinking on that night in the motel room when he slept in the bed next to mine that it was probably the first time since I was a baby that he and I slept in the same room, and I laid in the dark and listened to traffic going by on the state route outside and thought about what that might mean, but I can’t remember if I came up with anything before I fell asleep.
I was like that as a kid, always up nights thinking in my bed in the dark, sometimes for hours, and sometimes I would hear Dad get up and walk down the hall past my door, go downstairs in the middle of the night and turn the TV on. Some nights he would watch TV for two or three hours, just flipping channels, never really settling on anything. On those nights I would have to wait the whole time until he turned off the TV and came back upstairs and went down the hall into his room, and only then could I go to sleep. He started doing that after he’d gotten sick and after he’d gotten better, and we’d come back from Ohio.
After he got sick, other things were different too. There were more chores to be done, and they were listed for us on the wall on a sheet of yellow legal paper, our names and the days of the week and the chores we had to do. And when you had done the dishes or whatever you had to do, Dad would come downstairs–this was before his knees got so bad–and if there was something wrong, like you’d left noodles in the sink or a piece of dog food under the table after you swept, he would start yelling, Goddammit, we do this every time. Can’t you get it right?
One night, I guess I must have been fifteen or so, I had forgotten to take the trash out and I heard him yelling my name in the kitchen, and I could tell by the tone of his voice that I was in for it. When I came into the kitchen, he had turned the garbage can upside down and was spreading the garbage all over the kitchen, screaming for me to clean it up and after that to scrub the kitchen floor, and maybe that way I’d remember to take the trash out and I wouldn’t be such a fuck-up. I stood there and watched the stained bits of paper towel and the coffee grounds and the watermelon rinds spin across the floor. When I was younger, and things like this would happen, I used to get upset and cry, and the crying would just make Dad more angry, and he’d yell more, and I remember that time I just decided not to get upset. I remember I felt like a stone just standing there, nothing going on inside me while he yelled and kicked the trash around, and finally he stopped, and he looked at me and pointed at the floor and said, “Clean this mess up,” and then he went upstairs. And after that I knew he could yell at me all he wanted and it didn’t matter any more, because I knew I could take it.
But he never yelled at me once on that fishing trip, not about my D in Calculus or about my lie to LaGrange’s son (I decided later that I had lied to LaGrange’s son and not to LaGrange, because I didn’t really care if LaGrange knew I was in General Studies or not), and he didn’t yell at me that next morning when I was tired from staying up all night and my head hurt a little from the beer and when he told me to get up, I pulled the covers over my head and tried to go back to sleep. At home, if he was getting ready for work and he had to take you to school that morning, he would come into your room and flip on the light and if you weren’t up by the time he came back, he would pull the covers off of you so that you lay there shivering under the overhead light. But that morning in the motel room, he didn’t even turn on a light, he just pulled the curtains open so the early dawn came in and he got dressed and then shook me by the ankle and told me softly it was time to get up. He went to the motel office to get coffee and I dragged myself out of bed and into the bathroom and scrubbed the pasty film off of my teeth.
Dad’s bathroom kit was on the sink, and I dug through it looking for aspirin. I found a bottle of Tylenol buried in with the rest of the pill bottles, and I washed down two of the tablets. Dad always had tons of pills with him wherever he went, medications from the transplant–Imuran, Prednisone, and others that the doctors were constantly changing–and he took some every six hours. Mom told us all the time that the drugs made him gain weight, and made him irritable, that it wasn’t our fault he yelled so much.
When I came out of the motel room, Dad was standing there talking to LaGrange, and he’d brought a cup of coffee for me in case I wanted it. I didn’t drink coffee then, not much anyway, but the two of them were drinking it, and I just knew that LaGrange’s son would show up with a cup of coffee in his hands, so I picked up the drink and started on it. After LaGrange’s son showed up and they finished their coffee, and I’d finished maybe half of mine, we climbed into the car and drove a mile to a little diner that opened up at five so the fishermen could eat before they went out. After the beer the night before and the half-cup of coffee, I wanted something on my stomach, and so I ordered eggs and hash browns and sausage and pancakes, and I remember how the waitress smiled at me when she set my order down.
* * *
My grandfather died of MS when I was three, and I don’t know much about him, but most of what I do know comes from my father’s stories, and most of the stories are about fishing. He’d tell me about fishing on Lake Erie for perch, and he’d tell me about summer trips to Canada to fish for pike. Dad had Grandpa’s tackle box in the garage, a rusty red steel thing with old wooden lures, red and white and gone moldy, with the bite marks still showing in them; and Grandpa’s rods and reels were there too, old-fashioned closed-face reels and rods made of square metal stock. The story I heard most often as a boy was about how, when my grandfather was very sick and it was clear that he would die soon, he wanted to go fishing one last time, and so my mom and dad dressed him up and took him out on his boat, and even though he could hardly cast and reeling wore him out, my grandfather fished for the entire day.
And sometimes, after Dad had also gotten sick and when he’d had too much to drink, I would hear how my grandfather died three weeks later, struggling to breathe. He was forty-eight when he died and the MS had paralyzed him so that he couldn’t walk and he had pneumonia. He’d laid there in the hospital bed, breathing sudden, ratcheting breaths that made his whole body heave and lifted his head up off the pillow. In the end there was blood in his lungs, along with pus and phlegm, and he drowned in it. And after my father told us this, he would be silent for a while but I knew he was thinking about the pills he had to take and the purple scar across his stomach and the things the doctors had told him.
But that morning when we left the diner, my father wasn’t drunk and he wasn’t telling stories, not about fishing and not about his father’s death–he was driving and looking out over the steel-and-white water of Lake Erie and the gray sky, and maybe he was thinking would the weather hold, and maybe he was thinking how the boat’s engine would rumble as it pulled us through the waves, and I was sure he was thinking of the weight of the fish when it was on the line and he’d let it play just enough and then with a strong backward tug, he set the hook. And for the first time that trip I wasn’t thinking about the D in Calculus, and General Studies and whether Dad was going to say something about it. I was thinking that this is how fishing trips were supposed to be, real fishing trips, not like Sigi’s Five Lakes and not like the catfish my brothers and I would catch in the river. And when we got to the marina, and the white-haired guy was starting up the boat, and we were loading our gear aboard, I didn’t even mind LaGrange’s son so much.
But when the boat hit the open water, and the white-haired guy opened up the throttle, I saw in an instant what was going to happen. I always got sick in cars and I tried not to eat too much before I rode in them, and I should have thought of that when I was drinking coffee and eating breakfast, and I should have thought of it the night before when I was drinking too much beer. I could see myself leaning over the rail and getting sick, and when it all happened the way I knew it would, and the white-haired guy was laughing and Dad was patting me on the back, and LaGrange’s son was just about to hook the first fish of the day, I saw that this was the way I would be: a man who couldn’t catch a fish and got seasick and embarrassed his own father.
The thing about it, I’ve found out now that I’m older and I’ve moved away from that town and grown up a bit, is that you never really get to see what kind of man you are becoming, because every time you see what you might be, it changes who you are, and it’s like those mirrors in the bathroom at home, you keep seeing yourself from different angles ’till nothing looks familiar. It doesn’t stop me though, when I go home for holidays, from standing in the bathroom–which they’ve remodeled three times but still has that same mirror that’s impossible to see yourself in–and looking for the man that I’ve become.
I can see some of it. I can see a man who’s grown up not reedy and weak, and not thick with muscle either, a man who’s grown up to do things like take out the garbage and clean the house, and lift his old plastic weights. I can see a man who still worries about that Calculus grade, and whether he might have done better. And I can see a man who can’t tell the difference between anger and illness, or which is a symptom of which, and so is afraid of both.
But what I see mostly when I look into those three slabs of mirror, and catch what I can looking back, is that skinny kid with the too-big head turning himself into a stone while his father tossed garbage across the kitchen and yelled at him. I can see from that moment on it never really mattered if my father yelled at me or not, and one was not truly worse than the other, because after that moment, I was already yelling at myself, and I would do it about the D in Calculus, and I would do it about telling a lie to LaGrange’s son, and I would do it about getting sick and not catching fish. And when my father called me downstairs to tell me something, and I was standing there waiting for him to finish what he was reading, I think now he did it because that was who he was and he was methodical, and if he started a page, he would finish it. And I was standing there, not waiting to be yelled at, but already yelling at myself for whatever it was I had done, or whatever I might do, because that’s the kind of boy I was.