top of page


When my wife was pregnant with our first son, I signed up for to look for name ideas. I typed my name and paused in the comforting quiet of the gray home screen. But once I’d input just a few pieces of information about my mother, the great digital cloud called forth baptismal records, ship manifests and gravestones galore, all cross-referenced with the online directories of the Census Bureau and the Bureau of Vital Statistics, telling me a tale of German Lutherans begetting Appalachian farmers, Anglican clergy begetting Maryland colonizers, Hoseas and Ebeneezers and Martin Luthers back to kingdom come.

I left my estranged father’s side alone. No name, no date of birth — nothing that might send the ocean of technological memory crashing up onto my screen. I knew enough already.

I remember a photograph from the last time I saw him. It was just after the divorce and my sister and I were sent to visit him over the Christmas holiday. We’d flown to Baltimore where he was living in a small apartment. From there we drove to Virginia to his parents’ house. I remember driving up to an old white plantation-style house on top of a perfect hill of snow. I remember sitting in the couch-like backseat of my grandparents’ car, both of them smoking cigarettes out cracked windows, my grandfather in a fishing cap. I have a mental image of the backs of their heads, but nothing of their faces. Likewise my father’s face, I only remember the photograph. It hung on a wall among many others, in a light-filled sunroom of the great white house — a candid shot of him and us, him with dark eyes and a dark beard.

His smooth face bothered me and I told him so. I had a thing about hair. I remember my mother coming to pick me up from my grandmother’s house one evening with a platinum dye job and I burst out crying. When we got home, I ran to my room, shut the door and prayed for an hour to calm myself down.

Regardless of traumatic hairdos, I took Matthew 6:6 seriously: “But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.” So in a small house in Powdersville, South Carolina where my mother and sister and I lived with our adopted dog and our two adopted cats and my adopted stepfather — the man whose last name I have now — I would close the door to my room each night and pray before bed, standing in front of an old mirror I’d propped on top of my dresser. Prayer didn’t mean closing my eyes or folding my hands a particular way. I would just stand there and talk, maybe half-aloud like I do when I’m writing.

Sometimes I’d lie in bed and pray until I fell asleep and have to sign off in the morning. I wasn’t always asking for forgiveness or protection or fortitude. It was just a way to have all my eleven-year-old thoughts, for my I to have a thou.

My eleven-year-old thoughts sprung primarily from the other verse I took seriously, John 1:1: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

Did people come from clay or was Eve made from Adam’s rib? Or does Adam just mean “man” and man just mean “person” — and when you say “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness…”, who is “us” and what is “our image?” And if you saw it was good after you made it after you said it, who were you speaking to in the first place?

I had all these thoughts before I’d even bought my copy of A Brief History of Time from the library book fair and spun out a theory that perhaps all those numbers in Genesis, the days of creation, the thousand year-old Methusela, maybe those numbers were relative. Maybe time begins at an infinite zero and asymptotes its way, faster and faster up to the present. Maybe one solitary day for the creation of “great sea-monsters, and every living creature that creepeth, wherewith the waters swarmed, after its kind, and every winged fowl after its kind” corresponds to our present sense of a few hundred million years of dinosaur evolution. And maybe if, say, Stephen Hawking and whoever the pope is were to sit down with a calculator in the back of the Vatican and hash it out for a few hours — maybe everyone could stop arguing over what I should be learning in my sixth grade biology class.

I had all these thoughts before I’d even gotten to the intractable moral dilemmas of whether the choir was exempt from taking Sundays off, should the children of child abusers honor their parents, can there be a just war, and how do I make myself not want things?

Before the problems of science, of evil, of suffering, I’d felt the problem of words. Who is us. What is our image. It’s the Word I believed in and all the words were questions. I didn’t need to hate God. He did not forsake me. He was still there on the other side of the mirror, listening attentively for about six months as I talked him out of existence, until there was just a mirror left, doing just what mirrors do.

A few years later, I must have been sixteen, I was in the car with my mother when I worked up the courage to ask her about the divorce. “Sometimes people fall out of love” had always been the party line, but I pushed for more this time.

She told me he had lost his job, that he had a drinking problem, a drug problem, that he hurt someone, had put them in the hospital. She wouldn’t tell me who, a testament to her perverted sense of morality, leaving me to assume every worst possibility at once: maybe it was her, maybe it was my sister, maybe it was me.

Hurting someone, hurting himself, hurting his family — I don’t remember now the order of cause and effect. Maybe it doesn’t make a difference. The thing she told me that surprised me, that stayed with me, was the job he had lost: he was a minister in the United Methodist Church.

Now I remembered a swivel chair in a church office and a little shelf of wooden pipes and the smell of pipe tobacco. My mother’s father had been a minister too, up until the Alzheimer’s. He died when I was two-years-old, so it wasn’t his office I was remembering. My mother kept a photograph of him holding me as an infant, a hard-copy memory of two people incapable of forming memories.

By 2004, the summer after college, memory was no longer the domain of photographs and the smell of pipe tobacco. I’m at my apartment on the internet pretending to search for a job when — maybe all the platitudes of the graduation ceremony had gotten to me — I searched for my father and there he was. And he was Good.

I found a human interest story about a minister training to run the New York Marathon. He’d been a high school track star, commissioned to the Naval Academy at Annapolis before going on to complete his Doctorate in Divinity at Johns Hopkins. He was running to raise money to benefit inner city children. What made it news, the human interest part of the story, was that in 1989, a year after the divorce, this minister was diagnosed with Stargardt’s Disease, a recessive inherited genetic abnormality causing rapid degeneration of the macula of the retina. Five years later, around the time I’m staring at myself in the mirror, the minister’s vision rapidly deteriorated in the space of six months.

My father is legally blind. He walks with a cane. He prints his sermons in 46 point type to deliver to his parishioners at The Presbyterian Church of Astoria. He is a train ride away from me and next Sunday is Father’s Day.

It was a touch too surreal for my liking, all the pieces falling into place like that — good for a party anecdote, but not to write down. Nonetheless my roommate was the curious type, so on Father’s Day we took the subway out to the church, walked in and sat in the back. There were maybe fifteen other people scattered among the pews. My father was in all-white robes, pot-bellied, clean shaven and his eyes were light blue. I didn’t expect to recognize his face, but I wondered if his voice would mean anything to me.

I remembered being in a car with him — a small Datsun. It is night and we’ve stopped for some reason. There is a yellow light from under the glovebox illuminating the floorboard and “Man in the Mirror” is playing on the radio. He’s telling me the song is important to him for some reason and this moment is important to me for some reason, but what does his voice sound like?

I should change the song. It’s too “on the nose.” But that was really how I prayed and that was really the song, I’m sure of it. But why don’t I remember his Southern accent? And why isn’t he telling his story now? It’s Father’s Day; he failed at fatherhood and yet he still believes. He’s hurt others, he’s hurt himself, and yet he still believes. He was kicked out of his church and went fucking blind and this should be his moment — he doesn’t need to be a gifted public speaker — he doesn’t need to be a poet — the facts do all the work. He’s got fifteen Presbyterians, my roommate and one estranged atheist son that are here now and want to hear him speak his frailty, his fear, his staggering doubt in the face of the sublime mystery so that when he speaks “I was blind, but now I see,” we see. We see.

I nudged my roommate I’d seen enough and we left. There was a guestbook in the vestibule and I signed my name. My father couldn’t have read it, and even if he could have, it wasn’t the name he gave me.

bottom of page