You Can’t Take It With You

“You Can’t Take It With You.”
By Ned Gannon
For My Dad.

You can’t take it with you. Or so the saying goes. Never had I thought of that saying with regards to my parents. That was a saying for the materialistic not my parents who had struggled their whole life to support and care for six children, making sacrifice after sacrifice. I was sitting in the dining room of my parents’ house after returning home because an abscess had been found on my dad’s brain, hospitalizing him in Wichita. After decades of trying to make ends meet, this was retirement for him. As I scanned the silent house that night, I was struck by the quantity of things with which I would have no idea what to do—collectible plates, ceramic vessels and small sculptures, each with a history of its own. But most of all there were books. Books on almost every subject, but especially literature.

A graduate of Harvard and the University of Minnesota, my dad has spent his life with words, teaching, speaking, reading and listening. So it seemed a cruel and unusual fate when the abscess produced swelling in the brain on the left side robbing him of his ability to find and form words. He often clearly understood what was happening around him, but could not express himself. After a surgical biopsy, the family discovered it was a rare, in fact freakishly rare, fungal invasion of the brain by a fungus called Cladophilophoria Bantiana. In the early stages, he could speak some and often did so with comic aplomb. As when the physical therapist came to take him for a walk and in a loud clear voice said, “You’re walking very good today.” To which he replied in a soft mutter, “Well.” She didn’t hear him, but I smiled as they left the room. On another occasion, my eminently reserved brother’s strangely upbeat, snazzy, pop ringtone went off. As he struggled to answer it to quiet the device, he stepped from the room and I glanced to see if my dad was still sleeping. He rolled his eyes at the silliness of it all. He rolled his eyes more than once at things I said too.

That night I thought of all the books in the house. I thought of them as objects, and I thought of them as adventures. I had been returning to the three-storied, old house for about twenty years for visits and holidays, and every visit I made I spent time perusing the book shelves. I always returned home with a suitcase carrying a few extra books. To me, McPherson Kansas (my parent’s hometown and the home of my youth) always possessed a kind of consistency, a sterility that I found difficult to take. Most people voted the same, concerned themselves with similar pursuits and wanted to fit in. But here, on the shelves, existed poetry, history, philosophy, art, travels to other lands, biology, novels and psychology. Upstairs sat worn copies of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, copies from the sixties. Downstairs rested the entire works of Charles Dickens and poetry—Wordsworth, Tennyson, Yeats, Berryman and Heaney.

Sometimes I pictured my parents a little like Hobbits. They had recently returned from Iceland and Norway and had shared hundreds of beautiful pictures of everything from whales and fjords to architecture and people. But they always seemed pleased to return to the comfort of their hearth and books. And the books certainly wove a spell on me.

I remember several instances of revelation after withdrawing an unfamiliar volume from the recesses of the numerous shelves. My parents required me to engage in “quiet time” on Sunday afternoons; a practice I resented at the time but now realize was formative. Quiet time prohibited any type of television or video games (most of which didn’t exist when the practice began) which left me to drawing, reading and silently exploring the books in the house. One such Sunday afternoon the rest of the family had wisely decided to take a nap or retreat from each other’s presence and I found myself alone in the family room looking for an art book to provide inspiration for a new drawing. I slid a volume entitled, Goya, from the shelf and flipped through the pictures. I was abruptly arrested by a picture of a large man, a giant man, devouring another. To make matters worse (or better depending on your sensibility), the picture had been painted with raw abandon and the figures felt freakishly distorted and fleshy. I closed the book and looked to see if anyone was watching. Surely this was not meant to be here, not meant for my eyes. Did my dad know what was inside of this particular book? Of course he did. “One of the greatest artists of all time,” he told me when I asked him later.

As a senior in High School, inspired by a fantastic literature teacher and the film Dead Poets’ Society, I returned to the well for poetry. A slim dark volume stood out on the shelf. I retrieved it and stuffed it in my backpack. My friends and I escaped from town to a hill north of McPherson where we ignited a bonfire on the side of the hill where an old, castle-like WPA work project silhouetted the sky to our east. There we read our poetry and exercised our sense of resistance to the conformity that surrounded us. T.S. Eliot’s slim volume of collected poems was at first beautiful, stark and austere language that sparked our emotions. Later the words held us together as friends.

Once at the dinner table where my family’s discussions frequently turned to philosophical, political or religious discussions, I indulged in one of my frequent tirades, this one about the number of people incarcerated in the United States. My father, always reserved and collected in such discussions, finally said I was being rhetorical. I took some offense to this. I thought he was saying I was delivering a speech or being grand-eloquent. But if that is what he meant, then that is what he would have said. What he meant was that he had nothing to say because he was in full agreement with my statements. In fact, he later added that he thought I got some of these political notions from him.

As I stood in his bedroom scanning the titles on the shelf across from his side of the bed that night, I realized this was perhaps more true than I had acknowledged. I always came to this shelf to see what was closest, in the most literal sense, to him, which books was he keeping close. Was I trying to get inside his mind? Was I looking for some new discovery? Did I have great respect for his views? Did I hope to see something new? Yes. My parents and I, over years of conversation and reading, have created a bridge of shared experience, which is one of the many beautiful things literature can do. Through Ishiguro and Endo, Heaney and Yeats, Kierkegaard and Camus, Barry Lopez and Wendell Berry, Dostoevsky and Dickens we shared inklings of knowledge, pages of experience and verses of emotion that made us happier, more concerned, wistful and more engaged.

But what good are books? Books are outdated, right? With the advent of e-books, the internet and social media, what is one to do with a personal library? What will become of all these books when my parents are one day gone? Will people even read books the same way in the decades to come? As my dad lay in the hospital in Wichita, fighting for his life, I stood, once again, perusing the poetry section. I pulled from the shelf Station Island, by Seamus Heaney. I would read it in the hospital after I finished God’s Hotel by Victoria Sweet. I needed a change of pace from the nonfiction, and Heaney’s poetry had always been a boon and a comfort to me in times of sadness. Not long ago, I had read Sweeney Astray, Heaney’s translation of the wandering, mad Irish King. In Station Island, he uses the metaphor of a pilgrimage to describe his journey to becoming a poet. In the third portion of the slim volume, Heaney assumes the voice of Sweeney, drawing on Irish poets writing a thousand years before him.

My dad had lost the ability to speak or swallow. He had a feeding tube, a nasal cannula line for oxygen and a PICC line to deliver several strong medications through an intravenous tube. It was my last day staying with him at the hospital before I had to go back to prepare for my semester of teaching. Most of my five siblings had faithfully gathered to be at his side for periods. But tonight my mom, my brother and I sat vigil. I didn’t know what was going to happen. I was scared and sad. I didn’t want to leave but had already put my life on hold for about three weeks and could no longer ignore responsibilities at home. I was ambivalent about my choices to say the least. And then this is what I read.

‘Your obligation
is not discharged by any common right.
What you must do must be done on your own

so get back in harness. The main thing is to write
for the joy of it. Cultivate a work-lust
that imagines its haven like your hands at night

Dreaming the sun in the sunspot of a breast.
You are fasted now, light-headed, dangerous.
Take off from here, and don’t be so earnest,

let others wear the sackcloth and the ashes.
Let go, let fly, forget.
You’ve listened long enough. Now strike your note.”

I wept.
Because Heaney’s words were beautiful. Because I know my dad had read them and knew they were beautiful. Because they were the words of an ancient Irish king speaking through the words of a modern poet. Because they were the words of my dad spoken through the words of a modern poet read in that moment by me. Because whatever people today think of books and what is in them, I can take it with me. I do take it with me. I will take it with me.