Letter to My Father

That, finally, is all it means to be alive: to be able to die.

— J. M. Coetzee

Let the wrestling match begin: my stories versus his stories.

This book is an autobiography of my body, a biography of my father’s body, an anatomy of our bodies together — especially my dad’s, his body, his relentless body.

This is my research; this is what I now know: the brute facts of existence, the fragility and ephemerality of life in its naked corporeality, human beings as bare, forked animals, the beauty and pathos in my body and his body and everybody else’s body as well.

Accept death, I always seem to be saying.

Accept life, is his entirely understandable reply.

Why am I half in love with easeful death? I just turned 51. As Martin Amis has said, “Who knows when it happens, but it happens. Suddenly you realize that you’re switching from saying ‘Hi’ to saying ‘Bye.’ And it’s a full-time job: death. You really have to wrench your head around to look in the other direction, because death’s so apparent now, and it wasn’t apparent before. You were intellectually persuaded that you were going to die, but it wasn’t a reality.” So, too, for myself, being the father of an annoyingly vital 14-year-old girl only deepens these feelings. I’m no longer athletic (really bad luck — more on this later). Natalie is. After a soccer game this season, a parent of one of the players on the other team came up to her and said, “Turn pro.”

Why, at 97, is my father so devoted to longevity per se, to sheer survival? He is — to me — cussedly, maddeningly alive and interesting, but I also don’t want to romanticize him. He’s life force as machine — exhausting and exhaustive. Rest in peace? Hard to imagine.

Mark Harris, trying to explain why he thought Saul Bellow was a better writer than any of his contemporaries, said Bellow was simply more alive than anyone else, and there’s something of that in my father. D. H. Lawrence was said to have lived as if he were a man without skin. That, too, is my father: I keep on urging him to don skin, and he keeps declining.

I seem to have an Oedipal urge to bury him in a shower of death data. Why do I want to cover my dad in an early shroud? He’s strong and he’s weak and I love him and I hate him and I want him to live forever and I want him to die tomorrow.

— David Shields, Prologue to The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead

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