Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Happy Birthday, Uncle Rick


 Richard N. Fleming (æt. 70) with bloguiste brother in Las Cruces, N.M.; photo by Richard A. Fleming

We have just returned from Las Cruces, New Mexico, where we had gone for a family event, a birthday party for my brother Rick.  Participating in the celebration of the seventieth birthday of one’s “baby brother” would hardly be an emotionless experience under any circumstances; but in this instance the emotion was for me a kind of tidal wave. 
The famous opening line of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, endlessly quoted, is one of the few false notes that great writer ever struck.  “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”  No doubt life would be less confusing if it submitted graciously to aphorisms, but it rarely does.  Family life is simply the most often observed paradigm of social life altogether, and thus necessarily a mix and a spectrum, rather than an essence.  And my experience, at least, is that joy is far more various than misery, which tends to the monochrome.   
The long weekend of Rick’s birthday would merit an essay of its own, but for me the emotional complications arose from overwhelming feelings of mutability that almost always attend revisiting after long absence a half-forgotten geography.  I was revisiting events shared with my “baby brother” years ago.

 Las Cruces, New Mexico, with the Organ Mountains in the distance

Las Cruces is a small city in south-central New Mexico, perhaps an hour north of El Paso.  It is set in a beautiful desert at the base of a small but dramatic eruption of mountains, called the Organs, their jagged columns having suggested to some early poetic viewers a rank of pipes in a pipe organ.  It is the home of an old land-grant college, New Mexico A&M, now New Mexico State University.  The vast White Sands Missile Range is nearby.   Since I last saw the place nearly three decades ago, it has suffered hideously from highway construction and strip mall development.  The density of big box stores and franchise restaurants seems extreme even for the undisciplined sprawl of the Southwest.  There has also been a boom (and bust) in domestic construction, much of it faux-adobe and “Poor Man’s Santa Fe.”
Rick owns a modest house in a modest “older” (meaning in context 1950s) neighborhood.  It once belonged to our elder brother Peter, now deceased. My father and mother moved there with Rick about 1970, following the first of my Dad’s strokes.  The move was, I think, a mistake, though who am I to say?  My Dad had grown up in New Mexico in the 1920s, when it had only recently been admitted to the union, and there was still some real wildness in the West, as opposed to nostalgic make-believe.  What he now found was a “Sun Belt” slowly filling up, as it seemed to him, with obese retirees in split-level homes, gun nuts, and religious fanatics, with a certain amount of overlap in categories.
He never got better.  Instead he got worse, much worse, as three more strokes rendered him first speechless, then nearly motionless.  When my mother died in 1979 he began saying goodbye to the world.  I last saw him a few weeks before his death in 1980.  He was in a hospital room, taped, tied, and tubed up in grotesque medical indignity.  I have to believe he knew that I was there.  Behind all the apparatus of life support a window perfectly framed as for a calendar a sharp view of the sun-drenched Organ Mountains against a clear blue sky.  To walk out of that room required of me an act of “infinite resignation;” but that remark may need some explication.
On a visit a few years earlier I had taken my Dad, severely limited of speech but to a degree ambulatory, to a meeting of his “stroke club”—a gathering of survivors of cerebral hemorrhages, two or three dozen fellows (if there were women clubbers, I cannot remember them), awkwardly “interacting” beneath the fluorescent glare of the industrial lighting in some cavernous cinder-block church hall.  All of them were visibly damaged, many more damaged even than my father, some wholly aphasic, some in wheelchairs, two or three of them registering that lifeless animation—there is such a thing—that makes you recoil from some of Goya’s Caprichos.
Very few experiences are entirely lacking an educational dimension, but what I was expecting to be a lesson in pity soon enough turned to one in humility.  My Dad “introduced” me to one of his special friends, a high-school dropout, a former truck driver, now a ward of the social services.  This man could speak clearly, though agonizingly slowly. 
Where was I from? he asked.  “Princeton, New Jersey.”  This answer seemed to excite him unduly.  Did I know the Princeton University Press?  Well, I had actually published my first book there, but of what conceivable interest could this fact be to such a man?  So I told him I knew where it was.  “Well,” he said, “you gotta go there.  They’re starting a complete new edition of Kierkegaard…complete…”  He already had several volumes of the classic Walter Lowrie translation.  Indeed, his chief motive for survival in his difficult world seemed to be the hope of resolving to his mind’s satisfaction the conundrums of Fear and Trembling.  “But I know I never will.   That man is a deep thinker, I mean deep…”
“Deep” hardly touches it.  What Fear and Trembling is ostensibly “about” is the willingness of Abraham to kill his own son Isaac at God’s command.  On my campus, placed at a corner of the chapel on one of the main paths to the library, is George Segal’s sculptural rendition of the scene.

 George Segal (1924-2000), "Abraham and Isaac," on the Princeton University campus

Kent State University: 4 May 1970

This had actually been commissioned to commemorate the murder of several students at Kent State University by some panicky members of the Ohio National Guard in May, 1970.  The theme of the father killing the son was perhaps obvious, but Segal’s expression of it proved too painful and political for the taxpayers of Ohio.  What would it take for the father to plunge that knife into the son’s breast?   That is the question Kierkegaard asks, and his answer is infinite resignation.  “Infinite resignation,” says Kierkegaard, writing beneath the pseudonym of Johannes de Silentio, “is the last stage before faith, so that anyone who has not made this movement does not have faith, for only in infinite resignation do I become conscious of my eternal validity, and only then can one speak of grasping existence by virtue of faith.... Precisely because resignation is antecedent, faith is no esthetic emotion but something far higher; it is not the spontaneous inclination of the heart but the paradox of 'existence'.”