Father/Figure by Andrea Avery
Among the beautiful sensory details that open Andrea Avery’s creative nonfiction essay “Father/Figure” are “parallelograms of sun” from the sliding doors at the back of the house; the passing of time during the day is marked by the migration of her cats from one space of sun to another. During the pandemic, the writer finds herself “unattached, unanchored, […] nowhere in place, nowhere in time.” Her essay on her father and his death and her grief is anchored in figures and shapes and puzzles: the ambigrams that her father loved (“the kind where a word reads the same backwards and forwards, right side up and upside down”); the tangram puzzle that obsessed him (“if you could make fourteen different convex polygons, you could count yourself as a grand master”); the engrams or “memory traces” that fascinate her (“the physical structure—the neural substrate—responsible for storing and recalling memories”). Time stretches and folds over on itself in an unending Möbius strip of memory and experience and imagined experience. “Around and around the one-sided loop we go. Now old, now young, now here, now gone.” Where are her father’s memories stored? Where are her future memories of past experiences with her father stored? “This essay is as much about writing as it is about grief, my dad, the pandemic,” Avery writes in her author’s note: “I found my way back to writing, but with […] a new ability to refigure my experience, to fold it and visualize it differently than I would have before. The unique circumstances around the creation of this piece pushed me to do something formally I never would have done, beholden as I was to my sense of time.”
In isolation, I mark time by the movement of sunlight across my walls and floors. I awake each morning to the desert sun blazing through the east-facing back door. The sun conspires with the automatic pool cleaner jittering on the water to make a shabby imitation of the northern lights dance on my wall. All morning, the cats laze in parallelograms of sun from the sliding doors along the back of the house; around the time they migrate to the warm, westerly windows at the front of the house, I know I should eat something. In the evening, the sun sinks behind the block wall and the glare disappears from the television—lagoon-eyed Chris Cuomo or Anderson Cooper in full HD, the dust motes and fingerprints on the screen now invisible, forgiven, but the news so vividly bad—I count three more hours till bedtime. Another day done.
From inside, the sun is of less utility when it comes to marking larger units of time—weeks, months—because I live in Phoenix, where the sun is mostly static and unrelenting. Indoors, some remnant of sun moves across the floor each day, but my house may as well be spinning in a cyclone. Unattached, unanchored, I am nowhere in place, nowhere in time. Before the pandemic and this endless indoor season, I didn’t realize how much, in my desert city, I located myself in time-space according to quantum shifts in my environment: I know it is winter when the air goes thin and chill, perfumed with citrus; I find myself in spring when the atmosphere thickens, when the skies bruise and spill hot raindrops the size of pancakes; I am secure, if restless, in summer when the air is heavy and toxic as mercury, creosote crosswinds mixing with exhaust on the freeway, a dust storm coming, the premature night of the monsoon. But autumn. Who can even remember autumn? Fall.
My father died last November, before the pandemic, in a twin bed in a nursing home in Maryland, his thin legs bent and tented by blankets. He left life the same way he’d always preferred to commute: early in the morning, alone. The last time I saw him, his long body was a scalene triangle, painful to look at, even if he insisted he wasn’t in pain. By then his brain had gone—as he himself said, when lucid—all to shit. And it was true: he was paranoid and disturbed, certain that the staff were spying on him and that the other residents needed rent money. He frequently pointed out his window at a train station that wasn’t there and never had been. But it wouldn’t be right to say he made no sense, because for fifty years he’d been in the spy business, and he was always generous with money when relatives or friends needed a boost, and his fascination with trains and train stations had followed him his whole life.
Not a week after he died, I lay on my back in a tattoo parlor in Arizona. As the artist stenciled the design I’d brought onto the inside of my right arm and checked if I liked the placement, I teased him. “I guess you can’t really screw it up by doing it upside-down,” I said. I showed him the picture on my phone of my older brother’s tattoo. “Just like this, okay?”
The design was my dad’s work. He almost always had some mental math-physics-wordplay project running in the background of his brain, and he would often pull a notecard and mechanical pencil out of his breast pocket if inspiration or insight struck him. One of his long-running fascinations was with ambigrams, specifically with the kind where a word reads the same backwards and forwards, right side up and upside down. It takes some doing to get them right and to look good, but after a lot of perfectionist noodling, my dad came up with one that became our unofficial family logo. He fashioned a swooping swash for the capital A that became the descender of the lowercase y. The v, inverted, became a stylized lowercase r. At the center, a sinuous little yin-yangy e that worked in either direction. We all had Avery ambigram T-shirts. Before our dad died, my brother got the ambigram tattooed on his right arm; after he died, I followed suit.
June 28 was to be my father’s memorial service. We paid the deposit on the venue and the caterer. The spring before he died, he told me what kind of funeral he imagined. “Cremate me,” he said. “But make sure I’m dead first. And then if you all want to get together and make fun of me a bit, I suppose that would be okay.” He was specific about the music he wanted played: Vivaldi. Pink Floyd. Mumford and Sons. “(Ghost) Riders in the Sky.” “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” my atheist father said, and I recorded all of his instructions on a note in my iPhone, under the heading “funeral okay if you all want it.”
How easy, then, to conjure a scene: My brother Chris and me, sitting on folding chairs in the hallway at the National Capital Trolley Museum in suburban Maryland, me in the bottle-green dress with cap sleeves and black lace trim I bought with this occasion in mind, my brother in one of my dad’s vintage neckties, handsewn by our mother in the ’70s, and a pink dress shirt, rolled to his elbows. We are balancing small plates on our laps with the last crumbs of Danish—our dad loved sweet breakfast pastries—and cardboard coffee cups with red stirrers. Lining the hallway beside us are artist’s easels with pictures of my dad blown up on foam-core. Next to my chair, my father’s ashes in a custom ceramic urn made by my mother. Someone in a sport coat approaches and pulls up a chair to make a triangle with me and my brother; I am grateful for the name tags my sister suggested. The man in the sport coat compliments my eulogy, asks about the eclectic music selection. Then he catches sight of our forearms lying in our laps, mine and my brother’s, the matching tattoos that spell our name the way our father designed it. “Ooh wee,” he says. “Look at that.”
The scene is as vivid as memory, but it is fiction. We have decided to postpone the memorial service. We seem to agree as a family that we have up to one year from my father’s death to have the service. It’s not a rule that’s written anywhere, it just feels right to us. “Oh, for Pete’s sake, honeybunch” I picture my dad saying if I could consult him about his indefinitely paused funeral plans. “These things can’t drag on indefinitely. Get on with it.” So, when we postpone June’s service, we say, maybe by winter? but no one sounds very sure.
There are other types of ambigrams; Pinterest is full of examples, most of them gothic-ish and inscrutable, where, if you squint and read generously, beautiful becomes disaster, strength becomes struggle. There is something to be said for spinning a word on its axis and turning it into a different word with a meaning at odds with the original. And the internet is full of ambigram generators that can cough one of these up in seconds, though usually one of the words works and the other one is a stretch. But no computer program can do in an instant what my dad worked on with his little pencil, his glasses pushed up to his forehead, until it was precisely right. And no ambigram I’ve seen has the crisp clarity of ours. It says Avery, any way you look at it.
Toward the end of his life, my father’s delusions were both wildly nonsensical and perfectly sane, and to us, it came to feel by the end that he was living inside an ambigram. His life had been reduced to a narrow bed by the wall, and a wheelchair just beside. There the phone, there the window. Here the clock with big numbers and here the cup of Pedialyte with a straw. Breakfast at 8 and lunch at 12 and dinner at 5 and not much to do in between but wait to die. He knew it; we knew it. His frustrated refrains, though derived from facts, held little sense for us but made perfect sense to him; where the rest of us saw meaning—clock numbers, calendar squares—he saw a hopeless scramble. Death was the simple black word that underpinned it all: perfectly understood by all but read so differently by us on the side of the living and by him on the other side.
In the dead-space lull of late afternoon, I swim. I rub sunblock into the tattoo and do laps back and forth across the backyard pool. After, I wrap myself in an oversized towel and drip-dry in the still-blazing sun. I have never felt more afraid or anxious than I have these months, in isolation while a pandemic roars through the world, for much of that time the very state beyond my yard a ragged red rectangle, a hotspot, a cautionary tale. And yet I have never had such moments of peace, either. It’s been almost half a year since I’ve had to listen to some loudmouth on a cell phone in public. Every evening, water evaporates from my skin into the almost-night air as the sky deepens to honey, then molasses. I watch as a mourning dove cuts a path from the top of the light post toward my house, veering up and to the right at the last second. Over and over, the bird does this, while cicadas drone. Yellow bells and bougainvillea drift into the pool, which has glassed over as if I was never there.
My isolation is terror, but turned on its axis it’s serenity. Likewise, my grief.
Mornings now, I stand in my closet to dress for the day. The days of bikini tops and cutoff shorts are over. School starts up again on September 8 and, though my school will be throwing open its doors for full-on in-person learning, I have requested and been granted permission to teach from home under the Americans with Disabilities Act. My doctor has written a letter that stresses that my multiple autoimmune diseases put me at increased risk of contracting COVID-19 and of experiencing complications. He suggests that I work at home until community transmission is under control and a vaccine is available. That all sounds so unthinkably far off. Maybe winter?
I bought a uniform: several pairs of machine-washable dress pants and a selection of solid-colored, no-iron button-down shirts. In my closet, shoving my other clothes aside, I hear my dad’s voice teasing me, the way he did, about my taste in fashion, so much like his mother’s. “Look at that get-up,” he’d say. “You and your baubles and bangles and beads.” I make a little region of my closet for my new boring, easy-care clothes and think my dad would be of two minds about this. He would know that these no-fuss clothes telegraph something alarming about my mental state, I think, but he would also admire that I’d finally seen the practicality—the genius!—of a work uniform. Einstein had multiple copies of the same gray suit. My dad often told me about the physics professor he’d admired who always wore red high-top Chuck Taylors. My dad bought a pair in homage and, the day after my dad died, I bought a pair in homage to his homage.
Each morning, I grab the shirt hanging at the left end of my closet-within-a-closet, the pants hanging in the right-most position. As the week progresses, I work from each end to the center, a joyless exercise in sartorial aleatory. I don’t let my eyes drift into the rest of the closet, to the print silk blouses or the bottle-green dress with cap sleeves and black lace trim, which hangs there with tags still on. Without a commute to separate home life from work life, I need some way to locate myself in these big, blank days. Classes and meetings on Zoom have me feeling like a vapor or a ghost. Colleagues ask, “How are you?” and the truest answer is “I don’t know.” I don’t know how I am, or where or when I am. Lately I have started to wonder if I am. An exterior shell of crisp workwear seems the best way to affirm at least the outline of a person.
Before the ambigram—before brain tumors and prostate cancer, before 9/11 and Y2K, before his own mother died—my dad was obsessed with tangrams. Specifically, a seven-piece tangram puzzle he’d come across in Quantum Magazine. The puzzle was called “Swap” and attributed to Nob Yoshigahara of Japan. It was claimed that if you could make fourteen different convex polygons, you could count yourself as a grand master. I know all of that only because my father typed precisely those words onto a slip of paper and taped it to the front of the envelope, inside of which was my very own set of the fourteen pieces. He was so captivated by the puzzle that he made multiple similar sets to distribute; he even made a Plexiglas set for my mother’s mother, rebranding it the “Broken Window Puzzle.” Also on the front of the envelope, he typed “I believe I have found more than enough: 7 quadrilaterals, 14 pentagons, 27 hexagons, 21 heptagons, and 1 octagon.”
Sundays, my mother, my two brothers, my sister and I, the group I have labeled “Family Minus Dad” in my Gmail for easy emailing, meet on Zoom. We play games. Scattergories, Twenty Questions. Code Names, Taboo. We discuss the last odds and ends of my father’s estate—the sale of his house, his guns. We endure the occasional Zoom glitches that have become commonplace: someone gets booted and rejoins the meeting, their tile disappearing and popping up in a new position, the grid shifting. We form a triangle when five of us are present; when someone dips out, we are a square. A rectangle when attendance whittles down to my sister and me just before someone presses “End Meeting for All.” This is the only time I have spent with my family since the previous, stupefied Christmas, just weeks after my dad died. His absence, I feel, is muted now. We meet only in a medium my father never experienced and likely would have hated. We do not have the proverbial “empty chair at the table” to contend with.
I am surprised at how effective my work uniform is, especially in combination with the rituals I have created to structure my days. My pandemic life looks largely like my pre-pandemic life, just rearranged, folded. I have traded in my morning commute on I-10 for two hours of silent reading time. Before the pandemic, I often read after work, at Starbucks. Now, from 5 to 7 a.m. each day, I read. Then I dress in my uniform and arrive at my desk at 7:30. When I start my Zoom class, I offer mostly unreturned greetings to each of my students. When they log off, one by one, I am left staring at a face that fills the rectangular screen. She is me and not-me. Her hair has begun to touch the collar of her shirt. It is almost long enough to pull back now, and gray at the roots. At 11:10, lunch time (I have set my watch to the school bell schedule), I eat two poached eggs and an English muffin with marmalade before heading back in, before another round of greetings and silence, shifting grids of faces.
Afternoons are technically warm enough to swim still, but I do not. My swimsuits are stowed. The pool glints, undisturbed in the stagnant September sun. The end of this month is the official end of the monsoon season, but this year it never arrived. There were no dramatic dust storms, no hot rainstorms, no blackening skies. The absence of storm is not the benevolent reprieve it sounds like. Rather, I feel stuffed up and stifled, stymied. I want rent skies, dust and deluge, the same way I want to sit across from my father’s empty chair at the dinner table. We have decided to cancel the memorial entirely. Get on with it, for Pete’s sake, these things can’t drag on indefinitely.
Saturdays, I take my laptop out to the patio and try to write. I move stale paragraphs around but write nothing new. My drafts all turn to pretty mush, like origami paper when you have folded and refolded it too many times. The first two weeks of November will bring the election, my father’s birthday, the first anniversary of his death. I cannot anticipate what that anniversary will feel like; I cannot know that I will awake on November 15 into a waking stress dream.
A huge project I entirely neglected to complete by the deadline, one for which there are no extensions, a crucial final I failed to study for—my grief is a test I missed because I was sleeping.
I am attempting to follow the instructions in The New York Times for making Christmas gift bows out of newspaper. I have cut my one-inch strips in various lengths (“Measure twice, cut once,” I heard him say) but I cannot get my clumsy finger to simultaneously bend and rotate the ends to make the nice shapes in the picture.
When we cleaned out my dad’s things, we found more than one paper Mobius strip. A two-sided thing with just one side, it was just the kind of trick my dad loved—a big geometric-philosophical-physical idea that could be ginned up with paper and a stapler. I loved how I could make a Möbius strip myself, watch my own hands add the twist before securing it, and still be mystified by what I’d made.
Back when he was still up for sparring, my dad and I returned again and again to one of our favorite argument themes: fiction vs. nonfiction. “Why would you fill your head with things that didn’t happen?” he asked me, mock-exasperated. “But once something is done happening, it’s just an idea anyway,” I retorted, “on the same footing as other ideas.” To me, it seemed obvious that memories and fictions were bookends, partners. Things—people?—got to be nonfiction only for the brief moment of their happening, their existence. Then, it was back to the mists from which they came.
The chilly December mornings have forced me to start wearing sweaters over my work uniform, and then warmer pants. Soon, I have ditched the uniform entirely. I still dress so that I can be at my work desk by 7:30, but now I arrive in colorful layers: a long-sleeved T-shirt under a bold, fruit-striped wool sweater of my dad’s. My hair is long enough now that I throw it up in an old scrunchy. I joke that my look has morphed into “studying for finals” and, indeed, I sometimes catch a glimpse of myself with my messy bun and my oversized men’s sweater and I look, I feel in my body, like I am seventeen again, or still.
If on some part of this twisting, unending loop I am not forty-three but seventeen, then my dad is not dead but fifty-six , at his secret work with his formidable brain or noodling over a puzzle at a chair at the kitchen table and me there, beside him.
The scene of my brother and me, our matching tattoos, our plates of Danish, the stranger in the sport coat, feels as vivid as memory and, since there will be no memorial, as good as the real thing. If, on some plane of time without a pandemic, we’d held the memorial service, would the memory of it live in my brain, in my body, with a substance, a realness, this palliative fiction lacks? I treasure that scene, guard it as closely as memory. Then again, if I’d had the chance to eulogize my dad on that imagined day in that bottle-green dress, I think I might have retracted my belief that memories are nothing more than post-fact fictions. My dad was a character, but he was not a character. It matters that he was real and alive; he was not a fiction, even if in the absence of the real man, those mists of story are closing in around what I remember of him. There are things I want to fact-check with him, but I cannot. So, the mist of imagination fills in the holes and I call it memory.
I am exploring shapes that my dad, as far as I know, was not interested in. I am reading about scientists who, throughout the first half of the twentieth century, went looking for the physical structure—the neural substrate—responsible for storing and recalling memories. A memory trace, they called it or, later, an engram. This feels dangerously woo-woo even to me, the word has the stink of Scientology about it, but the concept and the word both existed before L. Ron Hubbard got his hands on it.
If memories reside in tissue, then all of my father’s memories—7 quadrilaterals, 14 pentagons, 27 hexagons, 21 heptagons, and 1 octagon; a fifty-five-degree, cloudy, cool June afternoon in 1954 when he took a geometry test; the legendary day his friend’s dad let them sit in the locomotive as it switched tracks; Ed Ney and his red high-tops; fifty years of work secrets he never spilled; the best day of his life and the worst day of his life—all of it must be in the seven pounds and fourteen ounces of his dust, his matter, that lives in a cabinet in my living room, in a generic box from the crematory, awaiting the custom urn from my mother that is ready but too precious to send through an addled mail system. A precious inheritance, these memories. They may be inaccessible to me—they were lost even to him while he was still very much alive—but they are real.
Grief doesn’t give a shit about a deadline. Loss doesn’t fit neatly inside the dodecagon of a year, even a normal year, much less this year, this stunted, syrupy year.
I try to know that now, to warn myself: sometime in the near future, you will be freed from this quarantine, you will be forty-four, you will be out in the world and the smell of ChapStick or the sound of “(Ghost) Riders on the Sky,” or, likely, some lovely feature of natural geometry, will shunt you back in time and you will be six and he will be forty-four, and you will be standing at his freckled elbow while he tells you about rainbows or moondogs and you will store it all away in whatever neural substrate within you holds such things, for later, for a present that is still in your future. Around and around the one-sided loop we go. Now old, now young, now here, now gone. For Pete’s sake, honeybunch. These things can, in fact, drag on indefinitely. Get on with it.
ANDREA AVERY is the author of Sonata: A Memoir of Pain and the Piano (Pegasus Books). Her short work has appeared in Ploughshares, Barrelhouse, Real Simple, The Oxford American, and The Washington Post, among other places. She holds a BA (music), MFA (creative writing), and EdD, all from Arizona State University. She lives in Phoenix with her husband and their four cats, where she works as a high school administrator and teacher. She is working on her first novel.
Featured image by Dawid Malecki courtesy of Unsplash