I’m just about finished reading one of the most profound and moving books I’ve come across in (at least) the last 10 years: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. In fact, the only works of fiction that have affected me as much as this book are Mark Helprin’s A Winter’s Tale and Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams. Listing these three books in one paragraph makes me realize that, though they are very different, they all revolve around the nature of time and place, the nature of man and the nature —as Lightman/Einstein would put it — of “The Old One.”
Gilead is set in the mid-1950s in Gilead, Iowa and is written as a letter from an elderly pastor to the young son who came to him very late in life and who he knows he will never get to see grow up and become a man. The pastor, Rev. John Ames, has lived his entire life in Gilead, pastoring the church his father pastored before him. Ames is, in fact, the third generation of preachers in his line. His grandfather was a firebrand abolitionist in Kansas, known to preach with a pistol stuck in his belt and thought to have ridden with John Brown and, perhaps, to have killed a federal soldier who was pursuing the Reverend’s band of insurgents. He railed against the spiritual complacency of the “doughface” Christians who could tolerate slavery and warned of God’s judgment on the nation as a result. He fought in the Civil War and lost an eye in the conflict.
Ames’ father was the complete opposite, a dedicated pacifist who saw the 1918 Spanish Flu plague, in the midst of World War I, as God’s judgment on a mad world. Nevertheless, the father took in the aged grandfather when he had no place to go, giving the young Ames a chance to observe their respective theologies and the dynamics between the men, even though the surest sign of a disagreement between them was their use of the title “Reverend” when addressing one another. Also factoring into this narrative are Ames’ older, apostate, brother; Ames’ lifelong best friend, Old Boughton, who is the pastor of the Presbyterian church in Gilead; and Old Boughton’s prodigal son, John Ames Boughton (Jack), who was named after the narrator and who consumes a great deal of the old man’s thoughts and fears as he lays out what little legacy he has to offer his seven-year-old son.
The plot, such as it is, progresses much as an afternoon float trip does, meandering slowly around bends and through shady places as Ames unwinds the story in such a way that you don’t readily realize how much ground has been covered, while leaving you with a vague unease about what rapids or waterfalls might be ahead. I am continuously charmed by each page and awed at the grasp that the author, a woman, has on the inner-workings of a man’s mind. I could have read the book in an afternoon, but I have purposely drawn out the pleasure by allocating myself only a few pages a day to read and ruminate upon.
Now, if my purpose in this post was to offer a book review, I’d hope that my words so far would inspire you to seek out the book yourself (indeed, I do). But that is not the purpose of this post, despite the paragraphs that have come before. Instead, the book has stirred something in my own inner voice, and in my mind, to record some of the thoughts I’ve had of late, some of which have come along of their own accord and some that have been brought forth by the book, and many that are a bit of both.
“The right thing to do” can often be a hard thing to explain, and even harder thing to live up to. I’ve tried to develop an internal sense for when I’m cutting myself some slack in an area, or giving myself a pass on doing a difficult or merely inconvenient thing. Would that there wasn’t so much weasel in me. In the four months that it took for my own father to fail and die, I struggled to find my proper place amidst the obligations that surrounded me; trying to be the son, father, husband and employee that I should be and feeling that the time I put into each was always insufficient for the need at hand.
In my father’s case, I called regularly and visited when I could. It became a running joke that whenever I came to visit he always seemed to end up in the Emergency Room. It started a couple of years ago when he was scheduled to have his aortic valve replacement and I drove down a couple of days early to be with him before the operation — and arrived in time to be there as he developed congestive heart failure and had to be rushed to the hospital ahead of schedule. Similarly, trips down there in June and September this year also ended up in Exam Room 5 at the hospital in Sullivan, Missouri. In early October when I called him he was at home and feeling pretty good, even sounding a lot like his old self. I suggested that maybe I could come down for a couple of days. “Oh God, no!” he said, “I don’t want to go back to that place!”
Time, of course, was already slipping away from us and he died before the month was out. One morning, a couple of weeks ago (and before I started reading Gilead), I dreamed about my father right before I woke up. It was the first time I’d dreamed about him since he died, and I’d been wondering when he might turn up. I still see my grandfather in dreams occasionally, and he turns up usually to say something to me, unencumbered by paralysis or aphasia.
As with most dreams, there was a surreal element to this one. My father and another man came to my door as veterans, doing fund-raising for something. Instead of the door of my present home, however, it was the door of the mobile home my father provided for me when I was in college, and instead of being in my college town it was in our hometown. Finally, though he had been in the Air Force, I never knew him to be involved with any veteran’s programs. In the dream he looked like he did when he was 50 (about the age I am now); I didn’t recognize the man with him.
My father and I recognized each other, however, and we also both knew that he was dead, yet here he was. There was a pause and then I took him in my arms, almost fiercely, and I held him as we both cried. The second guy just stood there, not bothered in the least. My wife is the one who gets the prophetic dreams, and I’m pretty good, I think, in piecing together workable interpretations. I didn’t know what this dream meant, though it has stayed with me. Several days after the dream my family and I attended a Christmas concert at one of the local mega-churches. Sitting in the dark, amidst the loud music and thumping bass, I remembered the dream and wept as bitterly as at any time since he died, and still didn’t know what the dream meant.
There is a balm in Gilead, however, and as I read of an old man’s hopes and fears for his son, of how another father and son had struggled to come to terms even while on the common and holy grounds they shared, and of how acts of omission, commission and contrition weave themselves perpetually in and around us, I realized that I had not been able to hold my father in all the time he was sick.
Even in the visit in June before he was diagnosed, he was in so much pain that it hurt to stand up, let alone be hugged. As he diminished it was even more impossible to do so. I almost envied my brother, who had had to carry him to the car for the final trip to the hospital. As I wrote in November, there was little left unsaid between my father and I, but there was so much I wished I could have communicated through my arms and chest, and perhaps have received in return. And now, in my dream, he had been returned to me, perhaps with an angelic escort, for that all-but-silent time and last, soothing embrace.
These thoughts, and others that have been brought to the fore from reading Gilead, have helped me see and appreciate the other balms I have in my life. They have also put me in a mood to record these for my own benefit and, perhaps, the benefit of others. Over the next few days I will try to draw these out of the book and my life. Right now, though, I am very, very tired.