It happens once a day, maybe.
My son will be looking at me — he’s five-and-a-half-months now, you see — and then comes this moment. It’s not one thing: it’s the alchemy of muscle movements, facial tics, of whatever unseen elements constitute our faces. All of it adds up to a single sum, an equation answered by my father’s face. Staring back at me.
It’s pretty weird, seeing your father’s face. In infant form. It’s like seeing a ghost. A ghost that has taken over my baby — but then you realize, that’s not it, that’s not right at all. The ghost hasn’t taken over my baby.
This is my baby.
I mean, it makes sense, of course. Genetically, the baby is in part the product of me and I am the product of my father and By The Mighty Scepter Of Science I conclude that, yes, indeed, it totally tracks that certain physical traits will make themselves known over the course of our lives. It goes deeper than that, however. Our faces are more than just the features. It’s more than just a delicate twining of DNA spawning certain recurrent elements. This equation has imaginary numbers.
Here’s what I mean:
When my father passed away, I was present. And when he died, I knew he was gone — no longer present — before any of the signs and signals were made clear. It wasn’t merely the slackening of features — you could tell that something had gone. Poof. Vanished into the ether. I don’t mean to suggest you have to believe in a soul, but just the same, life is different from death (a-duh), and so when life vacates the body, the body changes. The body and the face become reflective of that inert state.
Life has left the building.
The body, given up the ghost.
But now sometimes I see the ghost — my father’s life — on my son’s face. The way he moves his nose. Or the way he smiles. My father used to get this puckish grin on his face — curiously, the same look I sometimes saw on my grandmother’s face, even after she had her stroke — and now there it lives, sometimes floating to the surface on this cute round little baby head. Again, I don’t know that you can even pinpoint it.
It’s just… there.
I have it in me, too. Maybe not the face. I don’t look at myself often enough to see it. But I hear it. In my voice, in my words. Something in the tone or tenor. Word choice, maybe. (My father, after all, is where my love of profanity was born. He celebrated profanity, and now I do, too, for better or for worse.)
I’m named after my father.
My first name is his.
My first name and his first name is also my son’s middle name.
It’s too early to see how else or how often that glimmer of my father will appear in my son — maybe it’ll come and go and then leave for a time, or maybe it’ll always be there. My son is strong. Independent and stubborn. Like my father and, perhaps to a lesser degree, like me. He’s already good with his hands — my father worked with his hands. Maybe I’m just making all this up. Perhaps I’m hungry to see connections that aren’t there. That’s what some will say. That’s what some will think. Maybe they’re right.
Maybe they’re just assholes.
What I know is, I’m sad my father never knew my son. While the last thing I want to think about is my son one day passing on, but perhaps some day long and far away from here and now the two of them will travel together in the great Happy Hunting Ground up in the sky. Some of the things my father taught me, I’ll teach my son. Some of the things he taught me, I won’t. But other things I can’t stop and don’t want to stop. The ghost lives on. The ghost persists. The soul — or whatever that passes for it, whatever uncertain and spectral vehicle is the thing that carries that ember of life, that living mask, that visage as unique as a fingerprint — is here in my son’s eyes and smile and in the shape of his nose.
And I’m happy for that. It’s the only way he’ll know his grandfather.
That, and the stories we’ll tell.
Putting the name and the life to the face.
Filling in the ghost.
Happy birthday, Dad. You would’ve been 68, today, I think.
Go bag a great big heavenly elk and use his antlers to fight the Devil and give him what-for.