A Father's Small Hope
Credit: Photograph by Susan Meiselas / Magnum
I grew up a kid whose father left and who experienced his leaving as a death. In a household whose climate was for the most part governed by my manic-depressive mother, my father was the mast that my brother and I clung to, an anchor of sanity and poise. It was he who awoke at two in the morning to nurse me through asthma attacks, chatting me up about Mickey Mantle while the steam in the bathroom did its work. It was he who hit grounders to us after dinner and explained, to the extent that anyone could then, the logic of my mother's moods. We were intensely bonded, he and I, and then suddenly the Christmas I was nine, he was gone, driven across town by her ultimatums and endless grievances. I saw him on Wednesdays and alternate weekends, but for years I was hollow, a walking cipher. Some holes you fill, and some you don't – not, at least, until you're a father yourself.

Like a lot of men lugging around painful pasts, I had big plans for my son. From birth, if not conception, his brain would be steeped in the amniotic fluid of sports and books. Dr. Seuss for my kid? Wrong, Dr. J, as well as the scary story of Dr. K, the self-destroyed-at-30 Dwight Gooden. Crayons to color with? No, a scorecard and pencil, with which he'd learn to draw within the lines tracing a 6-4 force-out at second. He'd grow up that rarity who could hit a curve and describe it afterward in compound clauses, the thoughtful, funny, verbose jock that baseball seems to produce about once a decade.

But the boy I sired proved unable to speak his own name. The despair was like a dead weight on my chest. To lift it, I tried the only thing I knew, which was to get him moving again. I brought him to public pools in Brooklyn, where he flapped and thrashed and clung on tight, refusing to learn to swim. I took him sledding, but our first spill freaked him out and he wouldn't get back on the sled. We drove to the country to hike through the woods and visit a working farm; the smell of cow dung made him sick and he tugged at my arm to go. Everywhere I turned, doors were slamming shut, locking us both in a dingy room, the blinds drawn and Elmo on the TV.

It is impossible to convey what this has meant to me psychically. I have the requisite words, but they will ring hollow if you haven't yourself met great sadness. On the worst days I look into Luke's eyes and find them empty as pools. I know there's life inside them, but don't know how I know; there are times when he's just gone and has left no note.