I was a year old when a man fell asleep at the wheel, blew a red light, and t-boned my father’s car as he was driving through an intersection. The man, who was almost 90 years old, died instantly. My father, meanwhile, broke two cheekbones, his right wrist, and lost about 75% of his right kneecap. He also cracked his forehead on the steering wheel–resulting in a gash that required more than 40 stitches to close–and the resulting head trauma left him in a coma.
Despite giving him about a 10% chance of living, doctors operated on his broken bones over the next few days. Steel pins were placed in his wrist, a false kneecap–held together with a copious amount of wiring–replaced what had been lost, and his jaws were wired shut. He would stay that way for the next six weeks. His face was so swollen, my mother tells me, that she couldn’t even see his ears.
By the end of the week he had come down with pneumonia and was placed on life support. Eventually, his right lung collapsed.
But then my mother felt him squeeze her hand.
A devout, devout Catholic, my mother had been praying to God, for 10 days, in hopes that he would give her husband back to her. Her prayers, it seemed, were answered. Albeit, with cruel irony.
My mother ran out of the room screaming to the nurses that her John was awake. A nurse came in and squeezed his hand three times. He squeezed it back three times. She leaned down, and said to him, “Your wife is here. Say something to her.”
He smiled and turned his head. He looked my mother in the eyes, and said, “Fuck off.”
They had been together for 12 years, and that was the first time he ever swore at her. To add salt to the wound, he said to her, again, “Fuck off, you pig.”
Despite assurances from the nurse that outbursts like this often happen when someone wakes from a coma, my mother wasn’t comforted. He remained like this for the next several weeks of his recovery. Mouthy, at best, violent, at worst, he was, at all times, terrifying.
The first time he saw me, about a month after the accident, he had no idea who I was. In a snippet from a journal my mother kept from that time, she wrote, “When Rick was brought in, there was no emotion at all, it was like he wasn’t a part of our family. I was glad Rick was too young to know the difference.”
Damage to his hippocampus, amygdala, and frontal lobe caused his personality to change in an instant. The calm, shy, and caring man my mother married was replaced with a hideous imposter. He was cold, volatile, physically aggressive, verbally abusive, and, for all intents and purposes, a child, newly born. He completely lost the last two years of his memory, so he had no idea who I was. To this day, whenever my father is distant or uncaring my mother will still tell me that there’s a part of her that still thinks he doesn’t believe I’m his son.
Needless to say, I have some lingering daddy issues.
What happened to us American men? There we were, joyfully plundering the world like openhanded pirates, and now that we have it all we sit in half-lotus on the edge of paradise, the most beautiful country in the most beautiful state in the luckiest country under the sun, to meditate on loss and resentment.
With A Working Theory of Love, Scott Hutchins wrote a beautiful, engrossing, weird novel with a huge heart. I first read it a year ago and it’s done a lot to fill some holes and bridge some gaps that I hadn’t been able to for the last 31 years.
In it, Neill Bassett is part of a team that is trying to build the world’s first sentient computer by using Neill’s dead father as a blueprint. When Neill’s father committed suicide ten years prior, he left behind thousands of pages of secret journals. Neill has spent the last two years inputting the diaries into what everyone hopes will become the world’s first AI. Essentially, Neill has been giving it language, using his father’s words. When Neill discovers a missing year in the diaries—a year that must hold some secret to his parents’ marriage and perhaps even his father’s suicide—everything Neill thought he knew about his past comes into question.
For much of the novel, Neill types to the disembodied digital reincarnation of his father, asking him questions, learning things he doesn’t know, meeting him, in a way, for the first time. Unburdened by shame, the digital Dr. Bassett speaks to Neill with an honesty Neill never received from his father.
He learns who he was. Both the good, and the bad.
What a gift!
What a gift to have been left over 5000 pages of diaries. With them, Neill is able to re-construct his father, in a sense. To participate with him. I honestly don’t have words for how warm and optimistic this story made me feel. Even when it was more than a little bittersweet.
My father’s done a lot of growing up in the 31 years since his accident. He literally re-started his brain, and had to learn to do most things again from square one. In a sense we’ve grown up together. So it’s hard not to forgive him for being a less than perfect father (despite the fact that my mother never will). He’s turned into a decent one, now that he’s aged, and matured.
There were troubled times, sure. Large stretches where I didn’t love him. But now I do. He’s become a great friend and someone I miss dearly, now that I live almost an entire country away.
Yet, I’ll never shake the fact that this man isn’t my father. He’s my Dad, yes. But my father, the man who created me, is gone.
Even this current, evolved version of him, it still isn’t him, from everything I’ve heard. He’s become a good man, but a different man from the person my mother fell in love with.
I constantly wonder who he was, what he was like, and how different my life would have been had that 90-year-old man not blown that light.
Given one opportunity to go back throught space and time to meet anyone who’s ever lived, I wouldn’t choose Aristotle or Shakespeare or Tesla. Instead, I’d choose plain old John MacDonnell circa 1984. My father, before The Accident.
In Meghan O’Rourke’s The Long Goodbye, she wrote that the hardest part of losing her mother wasn’t the fact that she died, it was the fact that for the rest of her life she would be dead. There was an eternal absence.
When it comes to my dad, that’s how I feel. I’ll never know him. And that’s why A Working Theory of Love struck such a nerve.
I’ll never be able to somehow reconnect with the man I lost in 1985. But Neill Bassett did, and in a way, I did too. Having gone through that journey with Neill–albeit, through a book, with a fictional character–I learned that I already do know my father, because most of him is me.
The architecture—the mind—is knitting together. It’s sentience. Vague sentience. All these years of formulating machines that know something, while the secret is to create machines that don’t know something.
So much of who we are comes from our parents. I’m a firm believer that we’re raised by our friends, but we’re made from our parents. Even if we feel entirely different, the building blocks are there. We’re made of the same stuff.
My father was quiet. He was smart. He was artistic. He was sweet. And kind. And had great taste in women. I like to think I got all these things from him. And when I was young, it wasn’t my mother who read to me at night. It was crazy, deranged Dad. As wild as he was during he day, he settled right down when he journeyed with me to Oz.
So every time I find a book I love–like A Working Theory of Love–I think there’s a good chance he would have loved it too. And that means there’s a little piece of him in there, as well.
Like Neill, I’ll recreate my father piece by piece until I’m satisfied I have all of him. I’m happy to do it.
One book at a time.