Fathers

by Jim Cavan

As I rocked with Rett the morning he was born, hoping to spark his first earthly dreams with whispered oaths to give him all I have and know, his fatal cancer still an unseen demon in his cells, I thought now and again on what I’d say to my own dad and damn near cried every time. It stemmed partly from the pride of new fatherhood, of the blue eyes and late-April birthdays our trio would share and the laughs and campfires and straight-up Manhattans to come. And then this inflective twinge that I’d never feel further from life’s nascency, from unremembered youth, as I did just then, not even at my deathbed goodbye. In the same way an actor might recoil when the curtain opens Act Two and the end seems far nearer than that first line murmured nervously in the spotlight. In life’s dawn, days feel like years; in its twilight, years dwindle to days. Holding Rett, skin-to-skin in a room lit deftly by the rain beyond the curtain, I’d flagged a summit my father staked thirty-two years before and, scanning the sheer descent to come, saw him for what felt like the first time. What I wanted were words he could hear in a likewise novel way, echoing from a place that would tell him I’d found the trail he blazed.

When I phoned to tell him Rett had finally deigned to meet us, I told Dad we wanted to wait until afternoon before having visitors, that two days of labor had taken their toll—a penny on me and ninety-nine on Deana and the ornery boy with the comically misshapen head—and we needed time to rest. There was a brief pause, followed by the irked sniffle of countless condemnations past.

“I’m gonna come meet my grandson, if that’s alright,” he said, not so much hurt as appropriately resolute.

“You’re right,” I conceded. “Come by whenever you want.”

When he arrived a few hours later, askew Cavan smile stretched a wrinkle wider, I told him through a long embrace the salutation I’d settled on: that I hoped to be a tenth the father he was. After quaking at the moment’s mere image, adrenaline and nerves kept me even-keeled. He wore his emotion more on-sleeve, though even then he seemed a hair reserved. I’d seen him cry exactly once, at his father’s funeral fourteen years earlier. It was after his eulogy, when he returned to our pew and let loose a head-lowered heave into my stepmother’s arms that lasted all of three seconds. It wouldn’t be fair to call him hard, or even insensitive. He’d freely admit to breaking down as he drove away from my freshman dorm, and there were certainly instances since, many no doubt relating to Rett. And still I recognized in that maternity hall something akin between us, never explicitly taught or learned but nonetheless ingrained: an inclination to cry exclusively in solitude, save when life itself becomes a room too heavy to escape.

And yet I could count in a case of Guinness the times we’ve ended a call without saying I love you. There were instances years ago, long before Rett’s diagnosis, when I wondered if the ceremony had turned lazy habit, animated by a mutual fear of what it might mean if one of us suddenly skipped it altogether. Not that our affection was lessened, but that the other had grown up and past a formality we both understood as such. I no longer worry about the reflexive rote-ness of it all, nor hang up and fret that it’s become this thing we’re supposed to say. Mostly because I knew he’d likely held analogous thoughts, had contrasted our signoff with those of others he knew, friends with sons of a similar age, before coming to the same unspoken conclusion: that the point of our saying we love the other isn’t that we always remember, but that we never forget.

Everett’s sickness only served to cement the ritual, both because we wouldn’t dare end a visit or call on any other note, and because the whole awful ordeal made us love the other more. He was a steady presence at the hospital, where he’d toggle between bonding with his ailing grandson and, if it was naptime, father-son excursions to the courtyard basketball hoop or a nearby bar for pints and an open ear. He was the first one I called when the doctors found Rett’s tumor, the first to hear he’d survived his surgery or laughed or looked like he might beat this thing after all, the one I defeatedly told the St. Jude trial couldn’t proceed, that our boy was far too sick, and we were taking him home to die.

* * * *

Despite the equitable post-divorce custody, Dad kept the house, and it was there my brother Dave and I felt most at home, neighbored by dozens of peers and with acres of brambly wood behind our backyard. A local cop who enjoyed the occasional detail leading door-crushing drug stings, Paul Cavan struck that rare balance of being the coolest dad in the eyes of our neighborhood peers, and a hard-ass my brother and I learned early never to cross. At family reunions or department parties on the lake, when most parents couldn’t be bothered to ground their Michelobs, Dad would just as soon helm all-time quarterback or roughhouse on a floating dock. On canoe trips he’d portage our rig a mile or more from the put-in point, just to give us a few more bends in the river. When on the first day of fifth grade Mrs. Fuertes instructed us to recount our foremost summer highlight, I wrote of the two-week road trip to Alberta the three Cavan men shared with Dad’s old college friend and his two boys, about the four preteen Marco Polos wandering off on a Teton lake to touch snow miles further than our eyes had reckoned. Later that same year we went damn near three months without a stove, just a stained and wiry hole where a Maytag once stood, not because he couldn’t afford a new one, but because his lack of even the most collegiate of culinary acumen convinced him there were better uses of his time and plenty of meals to be either microwaved or drowned with milk in bowls. He knew during weightlifting sessions at the station that granting us permission to roam meant wandering into the men’s locker room to look for Penthouse pinups, and allowed us the fleeting glory nonetheless.

Though he never hit us, his fuse could be shorter than a thumbtack, and my brother and I both inherited every hot bit of it, or anyway learned it absent much resistance. He hoisted me by my collar an easy foot up the kitchen wall for getting a D on a pre-algebra midterm. After one particularly nail-biting loss in his winter beer league, as Dave and I waited at the gate to greet him, he samurai’d his stick clean in half on the ice rink door, unaware that we were standing feet away. He once reacted to a failed carpentry project, a feat he attempted maybe twice, by exclaiming—no joke—“Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints! The Mormons!” A quick temper is one of those traits that defy easy nature-nurture parsing, tempting as it is to imagine a Cavan eleven centuries bygone, punching a hole through the side of his sodden hut because the brew of goat’s blood and hay had curdled in the sun. Patience is a luxury, and it’s one I know our family could never afford.

This isn’t to posit some Jekyll-Hyde portrayal. Of the twin images above, that of the happy warrior and world-weary cop doubly jaded by a marriage derailed, the first is foremost in mind, of a father who relished the role so fervently that we simply laugh the latter away. He didn’t simply entertain our impossible dreams, of becoming Indiana Jones or an NBA star; he championed them, never letting practical caveats depose encouraging words. And he loved nothing more than watching life write its bliss upon our face. One of our favorite games, when Dave and I were maybe eight and six years old, was to have Dad pin us down in his bed, one arm over each of us, just loose enough to let us jostle free and bolt out his room and down the stairs on our stomachs to the safe spot on the living room couch, with him in a monster’s lumbering pursuit. I’m not sure who was laughing harder. Serious though he couldn’t help but be, Paul Cavan was forever the kid-at-heart, which is why I deemed him, and deem him still today, as much a father as a brother, and no less a friend than any we’ve ever had.

I’ve long guessed his parenting might’ve been an unconscious retort to the flagrant skirvishness of his great grandfather, Peter Cavan, a rumored Molly Maguire who purportedly fled Liverpool with a price on his head. He abandoned his family some years later, after they’d settled in Ontario, not long after the birth of his youngest son, Frank Cavan, my great grandfather. According to cursory records, Peter eventually returned from his seed-sowing travels, only to die alone miles from where he’d first set stakes. I suspect Dad would say the thought hadn’t crossed. Likelier yet, he’d say it was the emotional distance of his own father, Frank Jr., who like many of his war-weary generation, would rather spend his evenings with highballs and a book than building model airplanes, that compelled ours to a purist vow of fatherly involvement.

After Papa suffered a massive stroke at seventy-two, dooming him to a nursing home bed for eight silent years, Dad must’ve raged at that bond being suddenly and permanently sheared, forced behind the stranded eyes of a man he knew had words enough deep down, and whose hell was knowing he couldn’t ever summon another again. That Dad alchemized that regret into something positive, poured it into his own two sons that they might skirt the karmic pain, is the tale I tell myself. Because all of us want to believe in our fathers the way we do our favorite lore: looking past the human flaws for the myth-making heroes below.

I’m blessed to know that faith. We’ve quarreled and argued through steaming blood, fought for inches on terrain a generation wide, harbored secret resentments I know we’re loath to speak. But I’ve never once doubted his abiding decency, held more than a grounded kid’s grudge, or worried his regrets extended beyond the inherent perils of marriage. If tomorrow I blackout my way into a ten-fisted bar fight and wind up singing Springsteen in a jail cell, he’d be the one I’d call, both for the brutal chides and the core-shaking chaser of life advice. Whenever there’s a ball sitting idle at a barbecue, we gravitate in tandem as if by the same life-giving pulse, and yet I always walk away wishing the catch could last an hour more. Give me one last cheers in a pub—pick a pint, in any four-walled hostelry from the corner to kingdom come— his is the glass I’ll clink through an eye-locking gaze.

Confronted with his boys’ teenage sins, following whatever bucked curfew or busted party, Paul would insist to us, in a tone that oozed an ironclad conviction, “I’m not here to be your friend.” As far as I care to know, it’s the only lie he’s ever told.

* * * *

Part of the weight of becoming a dad lies in knowing that the old gilt-leathered family album, the one compiled in the year after my birth, showed a father younger than the one I’d just become. For years the mustache made him seem older, like a Dodge City barkeep one short pour from a sandy grave. It wasn’t until much later, well into my twenties and holding my own adulthood at bay, that I noticed and acknowledged the youth of his façade, the boyish visage I’d seen in but a handful of photos culled in loose stacks from Gramma’s attic drawers. There’s a certainty in the faces of fathers that only their children can read, a fecund power that’s utterly untraceable until decades pass and you happen across these Kodachrome relics to see your own qualms and fears glaring right at you. Though your difference in age and the picture’s vintage hold true, in this singular way, of images encountered at adulthood’s gates, you’re now forever older than him, the father you first knew and loved.

I conjured these images, perhaps, because I was the one who lost them. During the summer before my senior year of high school, Mom asked me to bring our family’s old photo albums to scan. It’d been eight years since their divorce, less than two since the sudden passing of my stepfather, an event from which we were all in our own ways still reeling, and for Mom the act was as much about capturing happier times as it was asserting custody of memory. It was a reasonable appeal, but in my quest to please both parties, I avoided disclosing the transfer in lieu of a more clandestine tack, gathering the albums on a day when both Dad and Maureen were out. In my guilt-clouded rush I’d forgotten to move the stack from the Honda’s roof, only realizing so when I made it to Mom’s twenty minutes later absent the precious cargo. Panicked, I sped back to Dad’s to find three of the five albums splayed near the top of the driveway. The other two were gone—the oldest, covering my and my brother’s birth and the few ensuing years. When I noticed the trash had been taken, my heart moored into the asphalt, terrified at what would soon be known. It was a punishment fit for cowardice, levied by Yahweh, and I knew the penance would be one no amount of weed could salve.

Dad and Maureen were rightfully ripshit. They saw it as a kind of betrayal, animated by the paranoid and frankly ridiculous belief that Mom had no actual intention of returning the albums. I bristled at this, trying my best to balance my genuine regret over means and methods and what I felt was Mom’s rightful claim. There was no punishment to be issued, save for days of boiling silence, but the episode remained a sensitive one, a pall that choked the air when surviving albums were flipped through or moved, or questions about 1980 to 1986 invariably arose—what the beach looked like at Papa and Grandma’s Florida condo, the first birthday cake I buried my face in, how flammable Mom’s loudly 80s hair was. Despite the divorce’s requisite tension, there was a governing part of both of them that still endeavored for those moments, and losing the granular cues—being forced to draw from memory’s dwindling wells—perhaps yielded a sense of finality no court-ordered paperwork ever could.

For Dad, the loss of those pictures sliced a layer deeper. The Cavan lineage was a murky mystery, even before Peter’s well-documented transgression, with little known beyond our emigration sometime in the early 1850s. After her husband cut ties, Agnes Cavan moved the remaining brood to Michigan, where Frank would become a successful stockbroker. For both him and my grandfather, keeping photographs was a way to nourish that tree anew, to imbue their weary bough with the memories of which they’d been so carelessly deprived. For us Cavans, Thanksgiving dinner was merely the meal between photos, Papa imploring just one more until the command became a running joke. Even today, Paul can’t leave an afternoon visit without a wallet inset’s worth of photos. He inherited his progenitor’s fear of having his fatherhood forgotten. When I lost those albums, he must’ve felt that I would lose a vital, foundational image of him: holding his baby boys, glowing and proud, that they both might one day see it and know the same.

* * * *

I never thought of what I’d say to Dad as I cradled Everett the night he died, as the morphine forced his breath’s retreat from the lesions on the lungs. I knew Dad would be there, at the awful nadir of both our lives, and even if all we could muster were more I love you’s, shoulder-locked and trembling, it’d be iron enough to moor us through the coming ethereal squall. It was the first time in decades he and Mom had shared the same space for anything but a high-school basketball game, and in a cautious way I feel they each exorcised their own festering grievance in the few-worded séance of those hours. Frankly, I don’t recall what any of us said, the place or length of our embrace, if they held Rett’s bluing body or simply kissed him over the railing of his crib. Little of that evening recalls with any clarity, save for the moments immediately before and after Everett’s death and the handing of his blanketed body to the undertakers and watching their car melt into the night of our street. The rest is a veiling fog. Everett’s birth loosed in my brain a flood of adrenal pride and kaleidoscopic dances with the past and future, imploring I rehearse some pride-swelling speech. His expiry rendered me a momentary ghost, trapped inside our two-story tomb, devoid of agency, of memory, nothing more than movement without substance. Perhaps it’s the mind’s trick to keep us from killing ourselves, to flood the body with enough corticotrophin to cloud our eyes and drown our tongues, and so spare us the pain of reaching for unreachable words.

What I know now about that night and its aftermath, or anyway reckon to the breadth of a hair, is the twin sorrow a grandparent incurs at the death of a child. There’s the loss of the bond itself, of the joy in watching life, a love, a lineage bequeathed through moments and years, via mischief-sewing goads they never dared try with you and the sage advice they hardly held the lid on. Endured alongside the parallel pain of seeing your own child suffer, trying to imagine their hell and vast despair and wishing against all physical law you could take it away, or at least bear the pain yourself, pang by unpredictable pang. It’s impossible, weathering what our family has, not to horror at the threadbare heels and leaden weight of the other’s shoes. That Everett was the first grandchild on both sides sharpened the sense of loss—and the longing that followed—for all of us. When Deana became pregnant later that summer, there was no question that whomever we welcomed would bear our boy’s name, or at least an obvious modifier thereof. Friends earnestly asked if Evie might one day resent us for it, this transparent attempt at replacement. Her grandparents emblazoned the name on their hearts.

The instant Dad catches her gaze, his “Hi, Evie!” enthuses the air. It’s a wholly mutual thrill, for whenever we ask her who’s coming over, Evie’s first answer, instantaneous and face scrunched in a grin, is “Papa!” I see his erstwhile playfulness renewed, in rollicks around the jungle gym and cocooned cuddling sways in our backyard hammock. Two divorces and the trauma of losing Rett undoubtedly jaded his heart, but I watch him with Evie and see it filled as if by a magician’s sleight. Her adoration, albeit coaxed by the novelty of Papa being the one forbear with whom she doesn’t share a roof, is no less electric. Some mediums say a departed child will use their sibling as a vessel when they need a corporeal dose of love. Of all the similarly rosy lore we’ve wrested, this is the one to which I’m most zealously attached, precisely because that proximate affection is anyone’s to claim, and Rett’s to offer like water from an infinite well. I want that to be the reward for grandfatherly industry: knowing those kisses and laughs come from parallel planes, each as present and sincere as the other.

I know, and surmise our boy would agree, that the bond between Evie and me will be similarly special. She’s two-and-a-half going on too old already, and I’ve never known a purer or more resplendent soul, one so sure of life’s fundamental joy or inclined to creating her own. Her verve is wild, hair the leaves thereof, eyes her own but invariably harkening. We’re equipped far too differently to reason with each other—she authentic and void of shame, I brimming with it and prone to changing masks—and still my conversations with Evie are what keep the brink at bay. She’s the last child Deana and I will have, as much due to the world’s weariness as ours, yet her light flickers even that forgone tomb into life. I adore her to the very far-flung moon and back, and dread the day she says, “I know—you don’t have to tell me all the time.”

But there’s another, baser part of me, regret-ridden and irrational, that laments losing what Dad and I share. Those father-son touchstones forever a fond thought away. I see boys Rett’s age and wonder at a life we missed by a single mutated gene, resisting coveting it long enough to look at our daughter and think no father ever knew a sweeter second chance. I know none of this is fair for her, this tilting at wormholes, this worshipping someone she’ll only know in stories and two-minute YouTube clips. So I strive for fairness where I can, give her room to be more than an angel’s avatar, temper my unfounded fears of her trying anything bolder than climbing our carpeted stairs, be there whether she tumbles down or scales the globe, and love her twice as wide.

And yet we ardently believe Everett will always need us, to nurture his spirit through memory and heed his hard-wrought signs with nods and homages in kind. We have to believe this, because the alternatives posit him in realms beyond where we could ever reach: either an essence hermetically sealed from all others, left to languish in the void; or one among all that came before, a feverish conurbation of souls, wherein why would you ever need words or wishes from earth. That’s why we started Rett’s Roost as soon as we did, why Deana wakes with the sun each day to guard and grow it, why I hunch over an old wooden desk to bleed forty or a thousand words through a sweating highball of gin: to feel we’re still raising him, to beam at his air while our minds fill in the coiled mane and sapphire eyes ourselves, forever marking his growth one doorframe pencil notch at a time. We touch him finding frail feathers on the street, send him smiles scrolling albums in our phones, hold and kiss him through his sister’s love. All so that no matter the bliss his Elysian plane might bloom, we’ll someday be the newborn buds he gathers gently by the roots, to nurture into flowers for his grand bouquet.

About the Author

Jim Cavan

Jim Cavan is a freelance writer whose work has appeared at Catapult, The Nasiona, Sports Illustrated (SI.com), ESPN.com, the New York Times, Bleacher Report, Grantland, The Cauldron, and SB Nation, among other outlets.