Saturday, October 18, 2014

Mr. Fix-It: The Handyman’s Way of Living (and Dying) — Chapter 20

He taught me to use a drawknife, and a brace and bit. He taught me how to include a spring suspension in a soapbox racer, and how to take it out again. He taught me how to cut and splice celluloid film. He had a headful of handy skills and was happy to share them. He was, in fact, a born teacher, and found the time in the margins of his full-time employment as a quality control engineer to teach night courses at the local technical schools on everything from welding to blueprint reading, from metallurgy to foremanship. It was probably inevitable that when he retired from the American Lava Corporation at age sixty he would look for a teaching position. And he found it, at his old high school, Notre Dame Academy in Chattanooga, now moved to a bright new campus in a rather smarter part of town. He taught mathematics and physics, and served as plant manager and assistant principal. His favorite course was geometry, and he had in mind writing a high school geometry text. Even in the final weeks of his life, confined to his hospital bed, he wrote in his journal: “I should also use this time at a table of some sort and begin my long overdue geometry book.” He got no further than the first sentence: “Begin with a point.” His cancer had a point to make, and it was final.

As John Updike points out in a poem, death exists nowhere in nature except in our forebodings. As far as we know, no other creature, animal or plant, has an awareness of its own mortality. Only in human consciousness is death anticipated, as a dark foreboding or promise of release. And so much else is carried along in that baggage of anticipation. Courage. Fear. Virtue. Guilt. All of this comes out in my father’s journals—the ambivalent foreboding rising now and then to the surface through that carefully contrived overlay of data and analysis. “Begin with a point.” The imagined geometry book was another instrument for holding death at bay, not so much a practical project as a palliative, a placebo.

In the Roman Catholic theology of my youth only humans had immortal souls. In the heaven of our imaginations there were no animals or plants, no victory gardens or picket fences or starry nights. No dawns or dusks. No seasons. I suppose I pictured heaven as rather like the hospital my father died in, all stainless steel and white paint and pale green gowns and angels with pushcarts and mops going around swabbing up the invisible microbes that had managed to slip in on our resurrected feet, and some little device down the hall going ping-ping-ping counting off the seconds of eternity. Not a terribly attractive prospect, but I have never come up with anything more plausible. I search my father’s journals for his anticipation of the afterlife. His attention is on the present. In the noontime of his handyman days he had used to say, “With a little ingenuity, anything can be fixed.” Until the moment when he is no longer able to scrawl his notes he is searching for an escape clause, the triumph of conscious will over the out-of-whack cells that were rampaging his body. He records a dream of “waking up in a formless container—a cocoon!”

Occasionally in the journals I find a puzzled “Why me?” He has so much left to do, courses to teach, a geometry book to write. Where is the justice? But nature is arbitrary and violent, and cares not a whit for human conceptions of what is fair and not fair. Massive black holes at the centers of galaxies gobble up gas and stars. In the arms of galaxies suns explode with a force that shatters surrounding worlds. Comets and asteroids smash into the Earth causing mass extinctions. In the midst of such arbitrary violence, what is the importance of an individual human life? As Loren Eiseley wrote: “Instability lies at the heart of he world.” Order and disorder, life and death, cooperation and competition are the paired principles of nature’s creative force.

There is a line by the Irish poet Pat Boran: “The spirit loves the flesh, as the hand the glove.” That fit, of spirit to flesh, comes across in the journals, in all those drawings of his body splayed on the bed, the angles, the dimensions. The material world of nuts and bolts, ceramic widgets, flesh and bones was his bailiwick, his heaven on earth. The spirit is flesh, yes, but more than flesh. This I learned from my father, as long ago as those starry nights on the badminton court when he taught me the names of the constellations, or those hours in the garage with drawknife and plane: The spirit is flesh in interaction with a universe of infinite complexity. The windows of the flesh are thrown open to the world. The spirit is a wind of awareness, a pool stirred by angels. And, yes, some part of the spirit will linger when the flesh is gone, as memories in other flesh, as words and stories—a fleshless hand that retains the shape of the glove. He was not a philosopher or a saint. His very ordinariness was his crown. He was a handyman, a teacher. And this is what he taught: Let us love the world, this world, the world outside the windows of the flesh, for in truth there is no other world, no other world for us except the world we inhale like a deep, deep breath and seal into the soul.