I speak with a therapist each week from my small, but comfortable enough apartment in Sayulita, Mexico. There are two twin beds, a nightstand made of unsanded wood, a built-in tile bench unfit for lounging, and a large, seemingly bronze-casted water lily hanging between the beds. Despite the austerity, it gives the impression that every Florida beach condo gives, which is perhaps that the outside holds more promise than the inside needs to. (One should always be suspicious of beach condos decorated with too many reminders of the beach, which is to say one should always be suspicious of just how much one needs the reminder.) To preserve the spartan theme, I’ve made as my only additions one lime-green Mexican blanket and three small, but quickly growing, weed plants.
There would almost be two separate rooms if the wall separating the kitchen from the two springy mattresses stretched all the way to the ceiling. It’s only a half wall, but I still would say I take my therapy in the kitchen; there’s no way to take a video call on either of the beds without needing to shift, or exposing the fact that I am lying in a selfish slump while the person across the screen sits erect and attentive. Appropriately, it was from another uncomfortable position in one of the unit’s stiff, low-backed wooden stools that my therapy, for the first time, involved a lengthy discussion of my physical wellbeing.
I avoided lamenting my latest in a long series of surfing-related injuries, a fourth intercostal muscle tear and the second on the right side of my ribcage — which, if you have never experienced one, is one of the best things for inspiring feelings of personal decrepitude, inability, and prematurely advanced age. I remarked only that I had not “gotten down on myself” about this one, and instead of lying in bed for the majority of the days required to heal, I had turned my attention to other things and kept myself moving.
I’m not sure what provided the sinew between the softly triumphant reporting of my resistance to self-judgement and the rest of our conversation, but my shrink — ever alert to my tendency to widen the spectrum of discussion rather than deepen it — prodded me to go further. After exhaling heavily through my nose, I asserted that I’d never been the type that was afraid of dying generally but that I was mortified by the prospect of being sick.
I’m a bit of a hypochondriac, I told her, and I think a lot about if I have cancer. I added that if I was given ten thousand dollars, I would immediately spend much of it on a full body MRI.
Knowing that I am a smoker and a habitual, albeit small-time, drug user, she asked what that would accomplish, being that the medical advice — to quit smoking — would be the same with an MRI or not. I responded in my usual manner, giving both sides of the coin in a way that makes me feel honest, if still a bit cowardly. On the one hand, knowing that this latest injury was a tear and not a broken bone — as I had suspected its past three iterations to be — I felt less limited by fear and more confident in my recovery; a clean bill of health guaranteed by advanced imaging technology would, I said, give me a similar confidence, knowing that nothing was wrong with me.
But the fucked up thing is that if I was healthy, it would also be an excuse to go on smoking for another five years, I said, adding that I was so addicted that smoking didn’t even appear as something of much consequence. I admitted that I’ve given up on the idea of completely quitting, settling instead for a fantasy that I could somehow maintain the habit for the rest of my life, smoking only two cigarettes a day so long as they were hand-rolled, all-natural tobacco. But again, this was not enough for my therapist, who wanted to push past the nursing of this fantasy and towards the confession that addiction had completely colonized my rational mind.
When I was growing up, my father had three heart attacks, the first when I was six and the second two when I was sixteen. I remember the episodes, or at least the moments when I was told, quite clearly. They were certainly tumultuous in more ways than I could have appreciated then, but more than anything, I remember a 16-year-old me, riding next to my aunt in my father’s truck. She picked me up early from cross-country practice, and as she told me what had happened, again, she began to cry. I decided, then and there, that I would always be a runner. That was never going to happen to me.
My father was a man quick to anger and regularly impatient. I don’t think he was fond of using his leather belt as much as he felt it was his duty to utilize it in the raising of his children; despite feeling its sting more times than I can count, it was, as I thought at the time, preferable to the switches used by the adults that had disciplined him. But more than the leather belt, it was being on the receiving end of his ire that I remember most vividly. One of my earliest memories — I must have been no more than four or five — is of him becoming bitterly angry with me for not putting a screwdriver back in its toolbox. He had endless stores of energy, at times terrifying, when something condemnable presented itself. I think he told me I was lazy.
I’m not pretending that my memory is reliable. There are things I know about my father, and there are things I remember. I know that he never missed a little league game, but I also remember asking once to play catch with him and being twice put off so that he could nap. Maybe sons never remember their fathers as the men they tried to be. Still, I’ve always known that I wanted neither his disposition nor its consequences. I did not want, in being fearful myself, to become fearsome in turn.
And so, most of my decisions as an adult have been what I feel to be the opposite of my father’s, as if living a boring life in a small, quiet town had in itself produced the arterial blockage that caused his heart attacks. In that stiff wooden stool, I had to speak the realization that, boring or not, my choices might be on their way to reproducing the same effect — the other side of another coin. And in some ways, being far less predictable and stable, my life has been even more stressful than his, except of course that I have no children at an age when he already had two and was soon to discover there were another two on the way. Nonetheless, I’ve come quite a distance just to feel like my father.
Of course, it was not always my father from whom I tried to distinguish myself. As an identical twin, it was my brother who I first fought against in carving out my own uniqueness. Between the sweet obliviousness of early childhood, when we were as good of friends as any brothers might be, and our decidedly different adult lives, where we have again become more or less close, there was a bitter competitiveness that came — regularly and often in public — to a violent and vitriolic head. I’m afraid to admit now that as much as I may have felt oppressed by his sameness, he almost certainly felt an equal if not greater persecution.
Intent on putting some distance between myself and my twin, I started college at a small private school that, while only a half hour drive from my hometown, was far away from Auburn — where he, like our two older brothers and our father before them, had gone. I’d end up there anyway, transferring to Auburn after my first year at my grandfather’s alma mater; perhaps, whether through fear or intuition, I felt it necessary to follow someone’s lead even if that too limited just how much I could distinguish myself. I had made, at least with respect to my twin, a first attempt at testing the power of a particular set of genetic code.
In the Peace Corps I found a chance to challenge my loyalty to comfort, to see something far newer and stranger than I’d ever seen, and to do so with the veneer of altruism and self-sacrifice. In September of 2013, I left for Rwanda where I would teach English and eventually start a local library. Though I made some improvement, I was far from a successful teacher. The library project encouraged my scattered, yet ambitious, attention, and I excelled with that about as much as I did with smoking weed.
I ultimately achieved very little and yet I still came to discover that my accomplishments were far outweighed by the acceptance of a community that, surprisingly, counted me as one of their own. But almost overnight, it evaporated, like drops of water striking a hot pan. I left early, against my will — in large part due to my smoking habit — and far sooner than any long term plans would permit. In a span of 72 hours, I lost everything that had, until then, made me who I had become. So much else after that feels like water running downhill.
I reached the bottom of that hill in Seattle. It was after being fired from a second job — this one at a pot shop — that I became aware of how far I’d fallen. I hadn’t made it much more than a month. It was my 22nd job. Fortunately or unfortunately, and after nearly three years, I managed to escape a city I’d come to hate, learning only later of just how little consequence place can be.
Not long ago, I joked to my oldest brother that among we apples, it was I that had fallen furthest, fallen far and continued to roll. Now in Mexico, where I came to abscond yet again from the burden of place — a burden made all the more so by the pandemic — I feel I’ve finally stopped rolling. Still, all the vestiges of this latest dream have only been decoration, like a taut, shining skin covering mealy flesh. Yes, I’d run as far as I could, but it would take something more to stop my spinning in place.
Once, after taking some mushrooms, I felt quite literally as if I had become my father. Staring down at my hands as they rested on an itchy blue sweater much like one he used to wear, they were his hands — thicker, more freckled and with grey hair. Suddenly, I was lying in a hospital bed, and under my sweater was a long sewn-up wound, and I was afraid for my children to see me there, alive but having been visited by death.
Before, I’d only ever interpreted in that experience a sense of profound understanding of my father. I had been made to live a moment of his life, and from it I took a feeling of gratitude, even forgiveness. But now — after six months marked by the continuation of habits that have sapped from me any sense that I am still squarely within my physical prime — that experience has gained new meaning. Like him, I feel as if I too am aging faster than years can count.
It was actually my mother who made me reconsider so much of my wandering. She told me recently that she felt I was still running from something. I didn’t give it much thought at the time, but that doesn’t mean she was wrong. I have always been running from the promise witnessed in the life of my father, the promise that chaos and suffering find you wherever you hide — perhaps, especially when you hide from it. To confess that now, knowing that he reads my work, feels a bit shameful, if not particularly mean.
I’ve never told my father about my hands becoming his. I had a chance to share this with him when I was home for the holidays last year, sitting between him and my mother around the fire pit in their backyard. They were gently interrogating me about my spiritual beliefs, and I was expressing in as truncated a form as I could my notion of ‘god’ as a shorthand for ‘universal consciousness’ before turning the conversation to drugs so that I could gently interrogate my parents about why they still don’t do them. Then, having front-loaded them with premise, I was prepared to confess the mystical experience.
But before I could, I asked my father if he’d ever had one of his own. He had.
Several years prior, when he was lying in bed, thinking his chest was again giving him the pain that always preceded a heart attack, the image of his own father appeared above him, superimposed on the twirling of a ceiling fan. My grandfather’s face, as he described it, only read a singular expression: one of condemnation for his son foolishly and needlessly assuming the worst. I guess in that moment he felt a bit saved. I didn’t dare retrace the conversation to my own experience, though I have since then felt saved by the same face.
A few weeks later, after returning to Sayulita, I finally committed myself to an acid trip that I had long put off and was, frankly, scared to undertake. I walked to a beach called Carricitos and, still too nervous to take a full one, dropped a half dose. As with all psychedelic trips, the bag I brought — packed with everything I could possibly need or want for the occasion, including a speaker, incense, a comforting book, snacks, and water — eventually became an unorganized sack of mostly useless things. Among them, only two proved to be of any value. One was a fine example of white plumeria; the other, a photograph.
I had read earlier — in Spiritual Knowledge by Bill Richards, the comforting book I brought along — that roses had long been used in psychedelic-assisted therapy sessions as a positive emotional anchor for people removing their blindfolds for the first time. I didn’t want to bring a rose. I’ve never found the smell of roses pleasant. But, feeling I should still bring a flower, I chose instead a white plumeria blossom. It’s fragrance is strong and gentle, like baby powder, and ripe with the memories stitched to my first encounter with it in Zanzibar. Smelling plumeria is not much different than taking the last deep breath before falling asleep. But the comfort it offered lasted only as long as it was held to the space above my lips.
The come on was long, and I didn’t know I was tripping until well after an hour. I don’t remember when I pulled out the book, but I immediately dismissed reading and instead looked at the photo I had tucked inside its pages. It is the only one I have of my grandfather. There are many more, but this is the one I have.
It must have been taken on a trip to Wyoming or Montana in the 90s. I don’t know who was with him. He’s alone in the photo, dressed in a thick white shirt, maybe of denim, with metal buttons and a grey-brown Stetson hat with a black leather band. He looks tan and healthy, his white scruff is almost a beard, and the sun is streaming diagonally from his left so that only half of his face is visible. His arms are folded and his mouth is slightly open in his most handsome, laugh-ready smile. Whoever took it must have thought it wasn’t a good photo; another exists quite like it, but in their preference for better lighting the photographer sacrificed charm.
I cried as I held it.
Even though he had not appeared to me any more than I had conjured him, I suddenly felt my grandfather was really there, with me. I remembered what he told me about his own spiritual beliefs while doing a biographic video project for a high school class, and as I watched him through the camera’s viewfinder, he said that he wasn’t sure if it was god or a little man sitting on his shoulder, but that he’d always felt like someone was watching over him. I suppose that I’ve always carried around this photo of him because I believed that, wherever he was, he was somewhere he could do the same for me.
And so, that day, I made him the little man on my own shoulder. Together we sat quietly on a rock, sharing the last of the day’s light as it wove a matrix of fine golden strands into a distant mass of clouds that drove past the falling sun like a chariot made of light and stone. It was without question the most beautiful sunset I have ever seen, and I left the beach feeling incredibly whole.
That feeling didn’t last.
Every other week of the following month was punctuated either by injury or illness, each more surprising and more punishing than the last. In the third week of my first-ever attempt at sobriety, and apart from the one beer I had to calm my nerves after coming much too close to a large black python while walking through the jungle, I resisted the urge to drink with surprising ease. But sobriety requires other forms of distraction that my earlier injuries precluded entirely.
Just after midnight, on a Thursday, and as I was about to lay down to sleep, a heavy water glass fell from the table next to my bed onto my right foot, splitting open the skin and spraining the arch all at once. I made an effort to get stitches, but seeing the cost charged by the only open, private clinic — $1200 for the pair I barely needed — I went with the even more private, DIY care plan of peroxide and Steri-stips. I couldn’t walk, let alone surf, for almost a week. And by then, it was time to give up on both my willful abstinence and unintentional isolation.
I swung too hard in the other direction. From the standstill of sobriety and convalescence, I caved to poolside drinks with impeccable company. Afternoon drinks transformed steadily into late night cocaine and an even later, irresistibly full dose of molly. I caught the sunrise walking home that morning. And I had no regrets, until two days later when I came down with a case of strep throat that might have been both strep and COVID, which is the only way I can explain the conjunctivitis that followed.
Eventually I felt well enough to give surfing another go, and I rented a beautiful, sky blue board for a week. I made it four days before my ribs gave out again. I let myself loose on a Tuesday, drinking a small bottle of raicilla almost entirely to myself and enjoying a single spritz of ketamine nasal spray at a beach dinner party. The plan had been to leave by 9pm. But despite the music being just another rendition of the techno-style DJ sets I find too ubiquitous to be anything but monotonous and unfun, I stayed until midnight. I failed to make it to yoga in the morning, my ribcage remained incredibly taut, and on the next day’s choppy waves, that tautness ruptured.
I knew it would be at least two weeks before I could surf again, but I refused to get too down on myself, and in doing so, relinquish my hold on my own sources of meaning.
So, without waiting for my ribs to heal, I hiked to a distant beach called Malpaso. To get there I first climbed over boulders, then followed a narrow path along the rocky bluffs before passing briefly through the jungle. The trail opens onto a small cove inhabited by stone monoliths, and from there, to reach Malpaso, I crawled on all fours with my back arched through the cool sand of a short tunnel at the base of one of these stones, making sure not to scrape the rocks jutting downward but still managing to cause my ribs considerable pain.
I should have known, given its name — meaning ‘misstep’ — that the path to Malpaso would prove more eventful than being on the beach itself. And I didn’t relish putting myself through the intense pain of having to get on all fours to crawl through that tunnel on my way back, especially now that the rotting corpse of a partially buried sea turtle had fouled the air by the entrance. But still, having made the trip, I felt I had overcome something. My injuries were merely that, not some ancient, karmic result of having pissed on the wrong grave.
And then, just a few days later, I came down with the worst food poisoning I’ve ever had. The symptoms set in rapidly, and I almost lost consciousness for the better part of an afternoon. Once my mental faculties were restored, I still could not sleep, writhing in pain and shivering from fever. The next three nights dragged on at a psychedelic pace; not even Xanax could knock me out. Never have I been more afraid of the risk that was forgoing hospitalization. Even compared to my experience with malaria, which I’ve contracted four separate times, nothing had been so intense — the result of a bad batch of suadero tacos.
One of the last memories I have of my grandfather is actually a memory of my father. The context is, perhaps, irrelevant, but suffice it to say that it involved both men attempting, in their own way, to protect me from the consequences of a teenage mistake. They disagreed strongly with each other’s choice of tactic, and my grandfather, in his frustration, said to my father, “Chuck, stop being such a pussy.”
I remember those words now because I feel that he might say the same thing to me, and with the same look my father saw when he appeared just below that ceiling fan.
I placed my grandfather on my shoulder for social support. I’ve always been an anxious person. Until the age of 13, I was terrified of purchasing items in a store for fear of the person behind the counter and making a misstep in what was still an unfamiliar process. I was a slightly chubby kid with wire-rim glasses and a buzz cut, but as much as my early, fearsome memories were tied to that image of myself, they were not left behind with superior aesthetic choices. Not until I was well into my 20s did I learn that my anxiety as a young person was part of a condition I’d never be rid of. So, being only slightly less afraid as my 13-year-old self, I took then and continue to take great comfort in the idea of a more handsome, much more charming and exceedingly cool figure resting so close to the source of my own worry.
I have always felt the presence of a third person casting the worst judgement possible on my actions. This new presence of my grandfather, manufactured or otherwise, became a preferable replacement (or at least a balance) to that familiar, and far less benevolent, demon. But having invited my grandfather’s consciousness into my own, I had no right to expect that his role would begin and end with positive affirmations alone.
I’ve thought often about whether my grandfather, seeing me from wherever, would be proud of the things I’ve done and the person I’ve become. Somewhere in that wondering is a deep suspicion that I’ve utterly failed to impress him. And yet, at least until now, I’ve rarely if ever paid much mind to the opinion of my father — the man whose assessment he’s still around to give. The line between correct and incorrect action is exceedingly fine; I cannot claim to have consistently practiced living on the right side of it. From a very young age I saw my father suffering to live on that side, and I’ve been running from it ever since.
I once heard my father say that dentistry, his profession for thirty years, may have not been “the best fit” for him. I was astonished, even embarrassed, by the honesty of his confession. What had been the purpose of such a sacrifice if unassailable stability had not been the reward for the fulfillment forgone? How different had his experience been from that of his father who claimed with pride, and as a testament to his character, to have never once asked for a job in his entire life. Of course, I did not know then that the sacrifice had been for me, that it had all trickled down into another life ruled, thus far, by instability but bursting with the sort of privilege and opportunity that he had never afforded himself.
The day I started writing this, I called my dad. We talked for a while about what I’d been up to, and, as usual, I filled his ears with more of what I hoped for than of what I had accomplished, ending with the same, tiring theme of ‘we’ll see’. Making an offering that seems to me now more profound than his off-handed delivery suggested, he said, “Sometimes you have to go on an adventure to get better ideas.” He was, of course, referring to my work as a writer, but I couldn't help thinking he had really summarized the entirety of my feelings toward him and the reason I’ve never stayed put.
I used to believe that at the center of my father’s anxiety (and the heart condition it led to) was a deficit of meaning, the collateral damage of an all too simple life in a small town — oddly enough, exactly what I hoped to have here, in Sayulita. But now that I find myself drowning in meaning, so much of it vague and as yet indecipherable, I’m no longer convinced.
It was an easy thing to make a god of my grandfather. He had, like every grandparent, only to enjoy his grandchildren and none of the pressure to raise them. He was, in reality, a man I knew very little. The help I sought from him on the beach was always going to be limited by the ease with which his memory was summoned. It is another thing to reconcile with the man whose mistakes you feel led to your own suffering, even if it is merely that his choices were followed too closely by your own, unrelated misfortune.
There is another memory that my father shares with my grandfather. I was 19, and we were all in the hospital for what we knew would be the last time that we’d see him alive. He was unconscious and going quickly. When it was my turn, I whispered goodbye and kissed his forehead, and just as I was about to leave the room, I saw my father’s body start to convulse, erupting with grief as the realization swept over him that his own father was now dying.
Perhaps it is nothing profound or even complex that I have so often, and so recently, been reminded of my own frailty by that of my father’s, or that in trying to escape that frailty, I appealed to a man from whose memory my father was inseparable. I tried to swim out from my own weakness along the path of my lineage only to be forced down deeper into my own inner vortex.
I sought from my grandfather an end to the pain I thought my father had passed on to me, and in his way he made me reconsider, correcting my backward gaze. There was no escape by going that direction and no comfort for those, like me, who too often need it from others.
I was only looking to solve an emotional problem, a problem of confidence, hoping that, with its greater portion, I would likewise find both greater ease and higher reward for my chronically fearful efforts. And then, after having asked for that help, between those two beaches, and as my misfortunes reversed into a corporeal decay, that emotional problem faded into oblivion, like a lesser soreness yielding at the onset of a far greater pain.
And I was humbled. Humbled by the conjured memory of a man who, as my father has always said, valued humility above all. I became almost nothing and again learned the natural degree of my own smallness. I tried to escape a shadow by visiting that which cast it. I did not know that in running from my father, in trying to be free of him, that I was only proving just how free I could be because of him. There are worse things than being in the shadow of one’s father. Perhaps that shadow has only ever been shade.