elegy for a father

Posted by jdg | Friday, December 08, 2006 |

All week my mind was on unmarked hills of sweet cicely and twinberry bushes bunkered down for the winter, all shaded by Pacific silver furs where everything was wet and cold from dripping springs down canyon walls. I could not get my mind to stray from the man I knew was out there following water, knowing, perhaps, that it takes the quickest path out of the mountains, down to where people have carved their existence into the wilderness with concrete and poles strung with wire, a place where he could send someone to his girls.

On learning that the woman and the two little girls were alive after a week of burning tires and breastfeeding, I wondered how those days were spent before he left, all speculation, and worry, and waiting. This is America. How much longer before some unsuspecting farmer cuts across this godforsaken road in his beat-up truck? When will they start looking for us? How frustration must build out there in the silence, without enough juice in the car battery to capture a radio signal that would say, hang in there; we're looking for you. All of America wants you home. How long can a man wait before he takes matters into his own hands?

I only met you once, James Kim, we stood awkwardly in your store not long after it opened, with my infant in my arms and your 2-year-old Penelope running around behind you. The old Shins album was playing, back when it was new. You were sweet while we discussed how we came up with the names for our girls. We returned there many times; we appreciated your good taste. One of the last things I bought in San Francisco was a glass vase from your store to hang on our wall in Detroit. I still haven't hung it, but when I do I doubt I will ever be able to look at it without thinking about you. You were young. You were just like us. And bad things don't happen to people just like us. At least we thought they didn't.

We sat in warmth, refreshing our browsers over and over to see if anything was new while you struggled through the cold. The reporters made a game of hope, suggesting you were leaving clues, teasing us with scraps of clothes and bits of map, like we would find you at the end, cold and hungry and crying at the news of the daring helicopter rescue of your family. Your father paid men to drop sacks from helicopters throughout the forest. Each sack contained more hope: warm clothes, and food, and a letter to tell you that your girls were safe and well-fed, that you just had to stop searching to be found. Each sack of hope thudded against the ground where it was dropped, onto the silent floor of forest. It was all too late. Your death, at least, was cinematic: the back of your head against the creek bed, the shaggy arms of fur trees hugging the vista of sky, the sweet gurgling of the stream against your ears.

Perhaps, also, the sound of so many helicopters in the air, sending you the peace we all wanted you to have: they found your sweet girls.

It breaks my heart to think of that moment, 7:45 a.m. last Saturday, when you parted from your family. I am reminded of Hector, standing with Andromache at Priam's gate, his infant son there fearful of his horsehair plume, knowing his duty as a man, but also knowing he might never see them again. He spoke these words to ease her sorrow:

Fix'd is the term to all the race of earth;
And such the hard condition of our birth:
No force can then resist, no flight can save,
All sink alike, the fearful and the brave. [transl. Pope]

Your ultimate failing, James Kim, is that you were too brave of a man. More time, in this case, would have rewarded cowardice, but time was one of many resources of which you didn't have enough. Your perseverance led to your doom, that and your frailty as a creature of temperature. I will not, as others have, call you a hero. You were above all else a good father. You did what any parent would like to think he'd do for his own, what we often say we'd do but never have the chance to prove. You died so that they might live.

Part of your legacy, beyond two daughters who will grow up forever touched by the unending love you had for them, will be that for a few days in December, you brought millions of us closer. Millions of husbands were hugged by tearful wives, millions of children were adored a little more for what miracles they were. And you reminded us all of how much we have in common.