Who is stronger than hope? Death.
Who is stronger than the will? Death.
Stronger than love? Death.
Stronger than life? Death.
—from “Examination at the Womb-Door,” Crow by Ted Hughes.
My Rottweiler pulls me through suburban streets the same color as the sky. Black. It’s cold. We head for the southern part of town where the farms and trees and the smell of baked burnt grass brings me to my youth, before the deaths, before the crows, before the dark plumage of carnivorous birds blinded me.
You conducted the movement of airplanes through the sky from a tower that overlooked the San Francisco Bay until you were consumed by the curse, the ghosts, the unbendable memories. “I understand the principles of flight, the physics. But when watching those hulking metal machines take off so gracefully, it doesn’t make sense,” you told me once. “The weight and the steel and the million moving parts and not even one hundred years since the Wright brothers. Hubris. We will pay for it.”
Mila stops suddenly and points her nose to the air. A low growl. The hair along her spine rises gently and she looks to me quickly and back to the sky, the area above the tall wheat. She moves slowly back so her haunches are against my legs, not a sign of fear but of protection. Suddenly, her aggressiveness slips away and we continue our walk. Her orange markings around her eyes, jaw, and chest the only parts of her visible.
Air Traffic Controllers have the highest divorce rate of any occupation. It is a high stress job that demands perfection. Communicating with multiple pilots requires immediate and concise answers and you expected, over time, from everyone else. A stutter, an umm, a moment of silence to think and gather thoughts and you started to grow impatient and angry.
“When is practice?”
“I’m not sure”
“Why the fuck not?”
You’d be upon me quickly, threatening physical violence but never delivering it. At least not to me, mom, or Lindsay. Always the emotional abuse, the manipulation, that was your game, where you really shined. You broke your jaw twice and went to jail for a short time. Prison for three years when I was eight. Again when I was eleven. I wonder what your soul looked like.
Standing, pacing in the tower and surrounded by cigarette smoke and gut-rot coffee you once saw a large object blink past the windows that encased you and your co-workers. All the movement stopped. It wasn’t the first time. It was a man, the falling object, who had made a small mistake and two planes landed within seconds of one another and collided on the runway. A few people died, no more than ten. You said you would jump off the tower for even less. You ended up taking your own life but in a different way. Strung yourself up in the garage with an extension cord. Hung, Hanged. Dead. I know what you looked like from Jim: bloated stomach, tongue hanging out, eyes closed and red, foam at the mouth.
Hanging seems to be a type of flight, a distant cousin maybe, a frozen piece of it. That is what you did, you hanged yourself. You did not pass away; you did not die peacefully in a hospital with loved ones. You died alone and on your own accord. Your boots dangling above the ground as if you were about to take off or land. Who can say which?
You guided so many strangers safely home and yet failed to do the same for your family. You abandoned us with no direction, no change of course, no warning of wind pattern or storms ahead. Radio silence. Only static. A pilot’s worst nightmare. Silence. Static.
Mila is content to stand around, to smell, to walk, and so I sit and she watches for a bit but finally sits and then lies down, her head between her paws, she sighs and her eyebrows move around. I look up at the sky, nothing but stars and blackness. and I ask Mila “What’s that?” and point up but she doesn’t fall for it. The look she gives me breaks my heart and heals it simultaneously. The ground is warm from the hot day, the pebbles leaving imprints on my hands.
I buried you and tossed in your controller head-set. I used to wear it as a child. Pretending to land and direct planes, just like you, Dad. Years later, I would self-destruct a couple of times, land in rehab twice, hospitals twice, similar to you. I think I finally caught the rhythm of life, unlike you, and while you were a great dancer you didn’t have the stamina.
Days after your funeral a crow stood in the walkway to the house squawking at me, beady eye focused on my movements. He didn’t move until I was nearly upon him and even then he simply hopped a few inches away and watched me leave. The lamppost in my garden that bathed the asphalt in a small circle of light became his soapbox. I often stood under the lamp and listened to him rattle and squawk and clean himself and twitch and shake and abruptly fly away, his dark wings flapping against the sky, hardly discernable from one another.
I told my mother: “I think the crow out-front is Dad.”
Years later, more deaths later, we sat outside looking at a pastoral landscape which she now owned. After talking for twenty minutes my mother was silent and said: “somedays I hate life. Today I hate life.”
“Me too” I said.
The crow was patient. He wanted no answers from me no matter how silent I stood and how loud he cawed. Some nights, he was silent, his neck jerking back and forth and those eyes searching the street, for prey, for predators, for dead souls.
Your name, my name, is the French translation of Benedict and then further anglicized. It means Blessed. I made a pilgrimage to Oréleans, France, where a shrine of Saint Benedict stands. I visited the church and placed my hands on the marble, on the statues, on the crosses. I felt nothing particularly special or significant. I bought a cheap pendant of Saint Benedict in a small store near the church. I wore it around my neck until it became rusted and mangled from water. It now rests in a drawer somewhere in my room. I get no peace from it.
Mila’s muzzle has been slowly turning white. The same color as when we went to Tahoe and she buried her face in the snow, ecstatic and interested in this thing she had never seen before. She has accepted we are not moving for a while and she lies down with her head between her paws. I am already mourning her, preparing myself for her death. I will have the memories but what does one do with those? Nostalgia, I could do without. Burn my memories like the bridges I have done so perfectly.
I ask Father O’Malley about Benedict. “Saint B. was in a forest when a raven appeared, landed near enough to him that he could make out the individual feathers and the shades of darkness. Benedict offered him a piece of bread and the raven ate it, thankful for his charity to an animal that has been seen as evil, a trickster, an ill omen, something to avoid. Benedict embraced it. There was another priest in the city not far from the forest that Benedict dwelled in. He was jealous of Benedict’s grace.
“He stops speaking to take a sip of water and he looks me in the eyes and he says you look a lot like your great-uncle bill.”
“Oh yeah?” I say. “I ain’t heard no good stories about Bill.”
“Yeah. None of them boys was good besides Jimmy and Jack. You got your grandfathers eyes.”
Father O’Malley is fucking ancient. A slight brogue from his home. He was my grandfather’s priest up in Visitacion Valley. He fed and clothed them often.
“A wicked man, an evil man, he attempted to kill Benedict with a poisoned piece of bread that he left by the roadside he knew Benedict often came to meet travelers. Benedict bent to pick up the bread, he would eat it later when the sun began to dwell beneath the mountains to the west. Back at the tree he slept and meditated under, the raven waited for him. The raven cawed and flew away. Benedict inspected the bread and suspected it was poisoned by the jealous priest because they had recently had a scuffle. The raven returned at night and Benedict told the raven to dispose of the bread, to take it where no one could get to it. The raven listened and cocked his head and moved his beak to take the bread. He gently held it and flew away. This was not the only time that Benedict had a significant interaction with a raven. The devil instructed one of his ravens to tempt the Saint with song but Benedict resisted and sent him back to the devil with the sign of the cross.”
My father spent three years in Carson City Prison and then was moved to a work farm up in San Rafael, or somewhere in Marin County. When he got out he took a bus to Vacaville and met my mom at the library and she left and it was just me and him. I was eleven. I didn’t know why we were at the library. He didn’t say much but he did give me a long, strong hug and told me he missed me.
“Sit down and hangout bubba, I’ll be back in ten minutes” he said.
I watched him walk down an isle and thought about how different he looked. His beard had grown in quite thick, a red that clashed with his black hair, and he was more lean, more menacing. My anxiety was peaking. He returned with a stack of books.
“These books helped me inside. I assume they will do the same outside, for you. I am not a very good man nor a very good father so the only advice I can give to you is read these books.”
I read some of the books. I read more books. Time passed as it does. He became a corpse. I sat at his grave and thought that I do indeed envy the way in which the dead pass time: silently, patiently.
Between life and death, the crow flies. Between life and death my father stands.