On a near ninety degree day last June on Ocracoke Island in North Carolina, I sat in our car reading the opening pages of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle while Julien slept in the back seat. We were parked in the lot by one of the beaches halfway up the island with the car running and the air conditioner on, and at that very moment Heather’s youngest sister, Sarah, was over on the beach getting married to her boyfriend Ryan. That’s where Heather and Maggie were, with Heather in the wedding and Maggie watching the proceedings.
Julien and I were in the car because we all knew that as soon as Julien saw Heather walking up the ramp to the beach in her bridesmaid’s dress, Julien would run right over to her and never let go and not care one bit that he was disrupting the ceremony. Young children are like that sometimes and, when you think of it, it’s a beautiful thing—to not care about propriety, ritual, and whatever specific reason led to this ceremony and the gathering that surrounds it. (Certainly, I’d welcome this sort of interruption more than the horrible noise of the fighter jets that sometimes appear in the sky over Ocracoke, performing some sort of exercise and disturbing the natural beauty of the place.)
On the other hand, ceremony has its own beauty as well, and this was an occasion where the beauty of the wedding had priority over the beauty of Julien’s impulsiveness. This was why as Sarah and Ryan were exchanging their vows, I was reading the reflection on death with which Knausgaard begins his epic, autobiographical novel. For some people—indeed, for a lot of people—if given the choice, this would be the last thing they’d choose.
Me, I can’t say that if we were sure Julien could be well behaved at the wedding that I wouldn’t still choose to stay in the car reading Knausgaard obsessing on death. Not that I didn’t want to see Sarah and Ryan’s wedding on the beach, which by all accounts was a tremendously beautiful ceremony, because I did. And it’s not that Knausgaard’s epic is an unequivocally great work—many friends whose opinion I respect find his books incredibly tedious and pretentious. But so much of the time the thing I most want to do is think about things, and to read about death and then reflect on the many subjects that it brings to mind is, for me, an effective way of dealing with the problem of time.
And, as soon as Julien fell asleep, that’s what I did. I read about death—about the heart, and how it stops, and how the blood stops flowing. How consciousness—at least as we know and understand it, ends. As sometimes happens when I think about these things, my mood becomes apologetic. I think about loose ends, all those stories and novels I never kept working on, all those people I never got back in touch with, as well as all those people I should have left behind much sooner. And when Maggie came back to the car because it was getting too hot for her standing outside in the sun during the wedding ceremony, I began to apologize to her.
“Maggie,” I said, “I’m sorry for all those times I’ve gotten mad.”
Because I do get mad regularly, and although I always apologize immediately afterwards, it never seems like I’ve apologized enough to make up for getting angry in the first place. Then I went on to apologize for anything else I thought I needed to apologize for.
“Maggie,” I said. “I’m sorry I fart so much.” Because I do fart a lot.
As always, Maggie said, “It’s fine, it’s fine!” and shook her head.
She is, I’m pretty sure, old enough to appreciate having a weird, older dad like me. Then she looked at the book I was reading and asked, “What’s it about?”
“Well,” I said, “it’s an autobiographical novel. And it goes on for several more books.”
“What’s interesting about it?” As is often the case whenever someone asks whether or not something is interesting, my answer was Proust. I told Maggie about that other autobiographical epic, Proust’s A Remembrance of Things Past, even though I’ve never finished reading it. I’d told her about Proust before, and she’d even read little excerpts from his work in response to my giving Proust as the answer to all sorts of questions.
“This,” I explained, “is something like Proust. Except that Knausgaard is still alive. In fact, you can go meet him at a book signing. He always begins the little talk he gives by saying, ‘This book. Which is mine.’”
At this point Maggie knew I was just making things up again, and I also think that she’s at the age where she’s starting to appreciate the odd stories I tell off the top of my head sometimes, or the strange details and “facts” I present to her. Julien is far from this point, but I have reason to believe he’ll be there soon.
Just earlier that day, when I took him to the rest room while we were having lunch with Heather’s brother Jeff and his wife Laura, Julien looked to the wall and said “Dogfish.” He doesn’t read yet, but he saw the logo for Dogfish Head brewery in Delaware adorning the wall of the rest room, and he knew what it was. This, I thought, was a good thing—that he knows Dogfish Head but doesn’t know Budweiser or Dos Equis from a black hole in outer space. That, and that he recognizes the face of Sun Ra and advises me each night before going to sleep “to write some poems” are all signs that he’s finding his way to the truth.
This photograph of Julien with Heather was taken later that day during the reception of Sarah and Ryan’s wedding. That’s where we went after the ceremony on the beach, when Heather met us back at the car and we drove to the other end of the island. Julien danced to a lot of the songs they played, but he danced the most to P-Funk’s “Flashlight,” which was one of the songs Heather got to pick as a part of the wedding party.
Me, if I’d had a pick, I would have chosen, in addition to “Flashlight,” Sun Ra’s “Magic City.” There probably wouldn’t be anyone but me dancing to it (and maybe Julien), but toward the end of the song, when the last notes of Sun Ra’s clavioline start to fade, we’d all start to glow. And rise, over the sands of this little island, taking flight without the aid of the horrible machines and dead-end dreams of those men and women who don’t write about death but, rather, seek to create it.
As their faces and figures grow smaller and smaller as we rise higher and higher in the sky, our parting words to them will be something like, “Sorry, but this is how it’s going to be from now on.” And as we take off for other worlds, we won’t feel the least bit sad that we neglected to apologize to them for farting so much. Well, maybe a little.
Photograph by Jose Padua