The whisper in our blood

It made sense to go to Center Ridge on Sunday, in the few acres halfway between Morrilton and Clinton. It made sense to me and to the two generations next to me, a few guys.

Some children are afraid of cemeteries. Me, I was a little anxious among the dead when I was younger, much younger – the fact that they were underfoot and didn’t stumble in the dark and through the turf and around the marble and the granite towards me was only a little comfort. Cemeteries, after all, were a reminder, spontaneous and unwelcome, of what my elders said was the only certainty other than taxes.

Ever since he was a toddler, my grandson has never hesitated to visit the final resting place of so many of his ancestors, men and women whom he will only meet in the next life, if he comes to believe in a. His ease among the dead may indeed result from the fact that he was brought here while quite ambulatory but still shrouded in absorbency. With no thought or certainly no intention of disrespecting him, he scampered among the stones with joyful abandon and his father’s indulgence, enjoying the sweet scent of the freshly mown grass and the sprawling canopies of the towering oaks and elms that rule the ground, an escarpment surrounded by meadows where cattle and horses ignore each other, most of the time, and two-legged mammals, always. Just above the rise, just yards from where tomatoes, cantaloupes and okra grow from the summer silt, are the silver-colored pipes and valves that bring natural gas from the shale into depth.

“He’s your father,” the youngest reminded me as the three of us visitors stood in front of his great-grandfather’s marker. “How long has he been dead? The naive curiosity of youth, less offensive than endearing, more deserving of a chuckle than a scolding.

“Almost 20 years.” Come August.

“Was he old?

“Yes. Almost 92.”

“Was he sick?

“Oh, not really. Just… old.

He was really sick once. His fierce work ethic had compelled him in middle age to ignore, or try to ignore, terrible abdominal pain. Eventually he threw in the towel and just in time. This was in my first year of (legal) driving, so long ago.

“At sixteen you still think you can escape your father,” wrote Salman Rushdie. “You don’t listen to his voice speaking through your mouth, you don’t see how your gestures already reflect his; you don’t see it in the way you hold your body, in the way you sign your name. You don’t hear his whisper in your blood.

The great-grandson, satisfied, walked away, looking for what he could find. His father’s hand touched my shoulder and he withdrew without a word, granting me the solitude he supposed I wanted – the freedom to speak aloud to the old man, and though I could not think to anything that hasn’t already been said, I repeated it, sotto voce.

And then came to mind the elegiac for his father written by the novelist Mark Slouka, him on a level as candid as my grandson: “I lost my father last year, and the word seems to me just because I keep looking for it. As if he was misplaced. As if it could just appear, like a sock or a bunch of keys.

There are worse analogies, for those still searching.

All around us were the graves of men and women, some dying in their forties or during the winter years; and too many children – infants, teenagers and teenagers. But on a certain Christian Sabbath, the site becomes a field of fathers, each of them somehow unique, sui generis. Adored or abhorred, respected or vilified – the inscriptions do not say so, are without judgement. Day and scene merge, and the alloy they produce is not a lament for the fathers of old but an appreciation of the task of parenthood today, of the duty of fatherhood today, its challenges and its rewards.

The late Christopher Hitchens: “Nothing can make someone so happy or so scared. It’s a solid lesson in self-limitation to realize that your heart is spinning in someone else’s body. It also makes me surprisingly calm about death. I know who I would die to protect and I also understand that no one but a gloomy serf can wish for a father who never goes away.

It’s a hard swallow, that last line. But it’s easier for some of us, maybe most of us, because we never “lose” our fathers. We hear their whispers in our blood.

Steve Barnes is the host of “Arkansas Week” on Arkansas PBS.

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