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Letter to My Father
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 back--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 life 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.
Our Birth Is Nothing But Our Death Begun
A fetus doesn't sit passively in its mother's womb and wait to be fed. Its placenta aggressively sprouts blood vessels that invade its mother's tissues to extract nutrients. A mother and her unborn child engage in an unconscious struggle over the nutrients she will provide it. Pregnancy is, as the evolutionary biologist David Haig says, a tug of war: each side pulls hard; the flag tied to the middle of the rope barely moves. Existence is warfare.
Human beings have existed for 250,000 years; during that time, 90 billion individuals have lived and died. You're one of 6.5 billion people now on the planet, and 99.9 percent of your genes are the same as everyone else's. The difference is in the remaining 0.1 percent--one nucleotide base in every 1,000.
You're born with 350 bones (long, short, flat, and irregular); as you grow, the bones fuse together: an adult's body has 206 bones. Approximately 70 percent of your body weight is water--which is about the same percentage of the earth's surface that is water.
A newborn baby, whose average heart rate is 120 beats per minute, makes the transition from a comfortable, fluid-filled environment to a cold, air-filled one by creating a suction 50 times stronger than the average adult breath. I was a breech birth, the danger of which is that the head (in this case, my head) comes out last,...