Andrew John Burke
Letters from my father
I’m happy to say that I am on my way to see you. Making the journey out west as you and mom did over 20 years ago. Fortunately, however, I am traveling by train, not stagecoach. Joining me on my journey is my beautiful wife, Elise, and the kids James and Ava, all of whom you’ve come to know from being my trusty pen-pal over the years.
I’ll see you soon,
It’s been 12 years and one month since my father left, and rarely a day goes by when I don’t think of my him. Now, on my way to see him, eyes transfixed in the countryside, and the metallic drone of the train filling my head, my mind is becoming flooded with memories of our relationship. He was an incredibly stern man and had high expectations for me, but he had even higher expectations for himself. It was his lofty ambitions for our family that drove him into the ground. In order to really understand our relationship, I must start at the beginning.
My parents met in Richmond, Virginia in the year 1855. My mother, Miriam, was the only child of a widowed mother. Her sheltered existence and complicated upbringing left her especially susceptible to be seduced by the misguided daydreams of a young man named James Harper, my father. Having explored the west as a guide and as part of the army he would regale her with colorful stories of adventure and the perils of the open trail. Eventually, he would convince her to embark on a journey out west. Gold had been found in the Montana territory, and the prospect of finding wealth with no more than a gold pan spoke to the romantic within them both.
My mother is challenging to describe. Part of me feels like she never really escaped her childhood. I get this from her coyness, her hesitant movements, her soft-spoken voice. She also just seems too nice. She is the most affectionate, caring and genuine person I have come to know. People like that must be grappling with some kind of internal struggle, right? Unless that’s just the way mothers are. Her long dark brown hair drapes half-way down her short, fragile frame.
When people are young, they exist in wishful reveries of what the world and their future life could entail. Naturally, as we grow older, we live less in the future, and instead make more frequent visits to the past. My father was a perfect demonstration of this kind of escapism. He perpetually occupied moments separate from his current reality. In the latter years of his life this was chiefly demonstrated by his storytelling. To my father, storytelling is about trying to capture and occupy a moment in time. Although already lost, and evermore fleeting, if you can paint it with your words perhaps you can suspend the memory in place, as though trapped in a resin.
To say my father made this journey out west as a gambling gold prospector is an insult to the many illustrious lives this man has led. He is a mountain man, adventurer, ex-army scout, and the most legendary of raconteurs. There was a lifetime of adventure dancing on his lips. There was world of potential living in his ideas and daydreams. His stories could instantly transport mom and me to another place and time. His stories were like impressionism mixed with poetry. Like telling it how it is, but through a strange medium of whimsical analogies and imaginary scenes. One foot in reality while the rest of him exudes a wanderlust for an imaginary world. While most men are constricted by reality my father transcends from using logic as a source of reasoning and instead taps into a kind of supernatural abstraction that allows one to convey the ineffable. This is poetry in a sense.
My father’s second favorite form of escapism after storytelling was work. He had promised my mother a distinguished and affluent life that would be gifted to them by the heaps of gold waiting to be discovered in Montana. When the gold turned out to be less abundant than in his dreams he turned to farming and fur trapping as secondary incomes. His love for our family and the fear of not being able to provide drove him to work long days. I scarcely remember a moment in my childhood when he wasn’t working. When I was around eleven or twelve, he started to slow down. His movements were laborious, and simply couldn’t move like he used to.
When I was thirteen my father instructed me that I was to go back east to seek education. I refused. I had never disobeyed my father, but his health is the only reason I hadn’t left and seemed to be worsening by the day.
When my father sent for me, I had a sinking feeling it would be our last time together. I was only fifteen when I knew my father was going to die. Rocky mountain fever was eating away at him from the inside out. He sat in his oak rocking chair in front of the fire cloaked with half a dozen blankets. I pulled up a chair and took his hand in mine. I could feel the heat radiating through layers of blankets. Pools of water from a feverish sweat glistened on his beard and pooled in his hollow, gaunt features. The light from the fire illuminated his wizened old face. The lines on his face looked like a trail map. I could see where lines of humor and joy intersected with the lines of worry and anguish.
“I’m sorry, but I am going to have to leave you very soon.”
I squeezed his limp hand. “No… no. You have some fight left in you dad.” “We have so many adventures left, you’ll see”
I was trying to sound resolute, but I could hear the shaky fear in my voice. I’m still not sure who I was trying to convince. A burdensome smile spread across his face.
“I know kid.” “Would you do me a favor, and read this to me?”
In his lap sat a brown envelope. I saw it was addressed to me.
February 15th, 1877
Hello my son,
In my recent reflection upon my life I have come to one overarching conclusion: it was a good one. Yet, I rarely stopped to realize that. You see, I was afflicted, not only with this crippling old age, but with the cancer of “what’s next.” I, like our ancestors, used to spend hours in meditative states. Staring up at the stars, out on the open trail, exploring novel lands. Yet, in the last chapter of my life I have only focused on “what’s next.” What task, problem or chore can I concern myself with next? Even though we are aware nobody has our mind, our perspective, and our ideas we never take the time to express and explore ourselves. I urge you to make time. Journal, and impart your ideas and what you want from this finite life. Read, and travel to another world where you may discover and create yourself. In order to escape from this deadly rhythm, you must look upon this world anew. Although you have acclimated to its beauty, I implore you, every so often, stop what you are doing to take in this land upon which we have lived as though you are seeing it for the first time. Let me take us both back for a moment to reminisce on the beautiful moment when we saw this land for our first time…
The trail was narrow, we were shrouded on both sides by slabs of slate grey metamorphic rock looming hundreds of feet above. The oxen strained to reach the top of this treacherous mountain pass. Upon reaching the crest I pulled the reigns halting the drained oxen and proceeded to hop off my seat at the helm of the wagon. My first preoccupation, as always, was your mother, Miriam. Coming around to the back of the wagon your mother was gingerly stepping down, one arm to balance herself, the other tightly cradling your body as she nursed you. The three of us held each other as we walked ahead of the wagon along the walls of slate rock. I peered up at the rock, pondering if god consciously created these ominous and treacherous landscapes simply so we could appreciate the beauty of others when they were so greatly contrasted. In that moment my thoughts were answered. We crossed the crest of the mountain pass and the rock embankment started to dissolve, to fall away and open up to a valley, and land with such immense beauty I reckon it’s only rivaled by heaven itself. The morning sun was eclipsed by a vail of clouds, but elsewhere across the wide expanse its rays could be seen bursting thorough openings in the clouds, perfect beams, like golden pillars reaching to the heavens. The wind was conducting a wonderful choreography, a duet, performed between the grass and wildflowers whose sweet delicate scent was wafting up to us overpowering the smell of the dewy morning grass. An ocean of green rolling hills like supple breasts rippled across the valley. At the troughs of these hills lay the streams that fed the rivers that cut up the land. Small cabins and farmhouses lay sparse across the land. The jagged snow-capped peaks at the end of the horizon made the valley into a basin. The glint of a mountain lake amongst the peaks could be seen with the observant eye. Akin to the tall castle walls and moats of medieval lore, the peaks, acted upon mans’ unconscious and innate need for security and shelter, giving the valley an air of homeliness.
Miriam began to narrate the scene. To her, the valley told of a kind of mythological drama, an epic that began eons ago. She began in a soft slow whisper as though she could somehow scare away the ethereal beauty of this country. “The snowcapped peaks they are truly the white fangs of a wolf… or” she paused, “or… perhaps the spine of some primordial beast laid to rest. That small grouping of ponderosa pines towering 150 feet above the new growth has been taken in by a maternal meadow. Surrounded by water, she has provided them with refuge from the countless fires that have torn through this land over the past 500 years.” “And there, in the middle of it all,” I motioned across the valley, mimicking her soft-spoken tone, “nestled in a sea of pines… our future home.”
As a father, I have been appointed captain of this ship.
I have toiled for many years constructing and perfecting this ship.
With the precious cargo of my family aboard, since the moment I set sail,
I have been solely focused on keeping her on course, not crashing.
If circumstances permitted, buying a bigger boat.
I just wish I would have stopped to enjoy the ride with you.
I stared blankly at the page for a couple moments. Fearing that if I lifted my eyes to meet with my fathers I would break down. It was in this moment that I realized I’ve been putting off telling my dad how I really feel about him and this life that he has given me until now. Why is it that we have to wait until someone is moments away from transcending this existence to tell them how we feel about them? Even in the last months of his life I pushed it off. I have another month, another week, another day, to tell this person I love them. It’s somehow vulnerable to admit to someone that you love and care for them. Especially if that person is another man. My father leaned forward, the flames of the fire illuminating his emaciated face. “Under the bed” he said, in a gravelly whisper, pointing a tremoring finger towards his cot. Looking under the bed I found a large wooden crate. I had seen this crate many times before. This was where I knew my father to keep his journals. I brought it towards the fire to examine. Along with my father’s journals, were dozens of sealed letters. I ran my hands over the letters, quickly flipping through them I could see they were all addressed to me. Confused, I pulled one out at random. “When you get married” I slowly started to flip through the rest “When you become a Father” “When your mother joins me” “When your time comes” This is what he spent his last days on. He wrote me letters for all the moments in my life he would miss.
My father passed in his sleep that night. I buried him at the crest of the mountain pass.
February 17th, 1877
Holding mom and staring at the mess of dirt that concealed you, I have never been so hungry for closeness. The delusional willpower that I once used to tell myself that everything was going to be okay, that you were going survive, was all used up. A helpless weak feeling crept over me. I wanted to dissolve in the warm embrace of mom. I wanted to let the pain consume me. Admit I am powerless to it and go numb. Escape into my shell, like a turtle, until the threat of sadness leaves. Yet, I know that luxury I can’t afford.
Missing you dearly,
The human body is just flesh and bones, right? What is the part of my father that goes on to heaven? The soul. What is the soul? How do we know that the soul exists? What is the likelihood that the soul is just a human invention to provide you solace when your loved ones have passed? Pretty good odds I reckon. No. There has to be something… something more. I know I will be with my father one day. I know this soul resides within him, somewhere. Under the layers of tissue. Under skin and muscle. Lurking unseen. There must be some immortal, incorporeal part of existence just waiting to be reincarnated. There has to be. Otherwise my father is just dead. Dead and gone. From all planes of existence. Forever. Just a lifeless mess of bones and flesh buried in the ground. No – I reassured myself. There must be a soul.
For a while after your death I was not okay. My heart was so heavy. The only thing that kept me going was caring for mom. Watching her mourn your death was insufferable. I’m sure you know that it was her abundant affection for you that kept you alive those last couple of months. She was your medicine. Just her presence seemed to breathe life back into you.
The sound of Mom’s heartbreak was deafening. I can’t fathom the internal struggle she went through after losing you. She was my sole source of affection growing up, but after your death those roles were eternally reversed.
After selling all we had, we moved back east, so mom could get a job and I could get that education you always wanted for me. You’d be proud of how I’ve been getting along.
You taught me to dream big. Some may say you came to Montana to take a delusional gamble at a better life, but I believe that you believed that a better life was out there. This is what you have instilled in me. A hopeful optimism for the future. That over the next hill, over the next hurdle, within the uncertainty of tomorrow, hope lies. Yet, this vison has been clouded by your death. I’ve found myself mulling around in memories of the past. I see you often. A vision of you comes to me when I least expect it. I see you in my dreams. I see you in the passing faces of strangers. I imagine your presence in both my greatest and most challenging moments. Some days I can’t seem to remember your face at all. I take a deep breath, close my eyes, silence the world around me, try to conjure up your toothy grin. Trying to hold on to some semblance of you. I want to soak up all of those moments with you. But those fleeting images aren’t you. You only exist in your words. I have held onto those words as if they are more scared then the bible.
I think your letters were just a roundabout way to tell me that, if given another chance, you would have been there for me. But I don’t give a damn anymore because I love you dad. Even though you could never say those words to my face, I know you loved me back. I tell James and Ava every chance I get that I love them. That I am proud of them, and grateful for their existence. I am so incredibly present and caring with them simply because you weren’t with me. I exist in their moments of elation, and you are right there over my shoulder. In this way you have been given another chance to be with me. You were there to calm me on the day of my wedding. There to welcome my kids into the world. There when mom passed. I can see now that you’ve always been there. And I see you here now, your toothy grin and all. With my new family and new house gazing out across the valley once called home. You are my shadow. Your words could transport mom and me to a different place and time. Now they transport you. Transcended from some other plane, to be here with me.
Your only son,