On Facebook, my stepmother recently posted a picture of my grandfather, father, and my oldest brother with his son propped on his knee. “4 Generations of Kellys,” she titled it. It’s a lovely picture and I looked at for some time. I stared into each of their eyes, wondering what they were thinking.
In the picture, my father and brother are crouching down to join my grandfather at wheelchair-level. Proud, they squint into the sun and smile, knowing the significance of the snapshot. What were they thinking about being fathers, about being sons? About being men?
Meanwhile, my grandfather, 98, and nephew, just over one, are positioned to face the camera. They gaze, expressionless, eyes cast slightly down. What were they thinking? Were they watching the dappled shadows of the trees rippling across the ground from a slight, early summer breeze? I suspect neither of them will ever remember this photograph being taken. Neither of them, it struck me, will ever remember each other. This is when I finally understood the terror of King Lear.
The terror of King Lear is not in the wrath of the god-like patriarch, blinded by his own white-hot pride and indignation: “Ingratitude, thou marble-hearted fiend, / More hideous when thou show’st thee in a child / Than the sea-monster!” (1.4.236-38).
It’s not in the delirious, naked, and rejected man, raging at the storm in the desolate heath at night: “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!…You sulphurous and thought-executing fires, / Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts, / Singe my white head!” (3.2.1-6).
Nor even in the old father, cradling his beloved Cordelia and trying to will some sign of life from her: “No, no, no life! / Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life, / And thou no breath at all? Thou’lt come no more, / Never, never, never, never, never!” (5.3.304-07)
No, it’s not Lear in the heights of his fury, the belly of his madness, or the depths of his despair. “Your old kind father, whose frank heart gave all– / O, that way madness lies; let me shun that,” King Lear tells himself (3.4.21-22). This is the terror of King Lear. Shakespeare drags us into Lear’s descent. We have to watch him fall apart. We have see him see himself lose his mind.
“Grandpa looked good,” I’m sure my brother cheered when they were leaving the nursing home after the photo.
“He’s plugging away,” my father must have remarked, the very summary my grandfather issued when he could still hold a conversation.
During the visit, I bet my brother joked about the attention our grandfather gets from the ladies. My father, with loving sarcasm, certainly reminded his father that he already ate ice cream today. “You don’t remember eating it? Have a look at your shirt, Dad!” Perhaps my grandfather slowly lifted up his heavy brows, wreathed in white, and mumbled from some interior place beyond humor: “Oh.” The perpetual loop of the present would’ve rope him back until the merciful timelessness of sleep took over.
Did my brother glance at our father when he said his goodbyes? Did he catch a wrinkle of sadness on his forehead, a warble in his voice? Did my father look away when my brother lifted his son up to his great-grandfather, two bodies knowing nothing of each other beyond some deep, primordial recognition of fellow flesh, nearly 100 years apart.
I’m sure neither said that this may be the last time they see him, though certainly they thought it before turning their minds back to the soothing preoccupations of the mundane: how the traffic would be on the drive home, what chores waited for them, when they’d eat dinner.
For me, I’m not sure I’ll ever see my grandfather again. I’m not sure I’ll even talk to him again. In fact, I don’t even really remember the last time I did. I mean, really talked to him.
For the mind eventually collapses on itself and into the dementia of the infinite present.
At first, my father and stepmother referred to it as “sundowning syndrome.” I’d ask questions. “Well,” they’d begin. They’d talk of onset and progression. They’d parse degrees of cognitive impairment. But at some point, distinctions don’t matter, as much as medical terminology disinfects with its clinical detachment and sanitizes with its lemon-scented denial. For the mind eventually collapses on itself and into the dementia of the infinite present. Like an imploding star, swallowing all the light and heat of our children’s names, our addresses, how to tie our shoelaces, when our wives will finally come back from the store into the cold void of the perpetual, selfness now.
We usually spoke with him on Thanksgiving or Christmas at my father’s house. On the couch, my father would surface from a nest of bills, newspapers, legal pads, screens, wires, and joint braces: “You guys want to wish Grandad a happy holiday?” From our own forts of beer bottles, phones, dogs, and unfulfilled filial expectations, we’d answer: “Absolutely!” We’d rush to crack fresh beers. A cordless phone made the rounds. I’d pace around other rooms to avoid my middle brother’s judging glare for talking too loudly. Into his 90s, my grandfather’s voice was quiet. Into my fourth beer, my voice was loud.
“Hi, Grandpa, this is John…I’m good…No, I’m still in Cincinnati…Yeah, getting my teaching license…Ha, yeah, I’ll be sure to keep those kids in line…Well, I don’t play the bass fiddle much anymore but I’m still plucking that guitar!…I remember you telling me about your clarinet days…Eat a lot of turkey today?…No, sounds like you should be watching out for those nurses!…Yeah, well, plugging away. That’s right…I appreciate that, Grandpa. Love you, too. OK, handing the phone back to my dad now. OK, bye, Grandpa!”
“Hi, Grandpa this is John…I’m good…You sound great! No, I’m in Minneapolis now…No, he’s in Columbus….Well, I’m getting married next summer…Ah, I appreciate that, Grandpa…It was great talking to you…Thanks, Grandpa…Love you, here’s my dad.”
“Hi, Grandpa, this is John…I’m good…No, he’s in Columbus…I’m actually moving to–no, he’s in Columbus…Well, love you, Grandpa. Here’s my dad.”
“Hi, Grandpa…I just wanted to wish you a Happy Turkey Day! Love you, OK. Here’s my dad.”
Before his Alzheimer’s – or whatever it is – was too far advanced, he’d catch himself. “I’m sorry. I’m not so good at remembering stuff anymore.” His loops shortened overtime. I think he knew I was a grandchild. I’m not sure how long he was able to hold on to it.
“I told Grandpa everyone says hello,” my father eventually took over.
Not too long ago, my father phoned me in the afternoon when I still lived in California. Since I’ve moved from home, first across the states and now overseas, I’ve been diligent about calling my friends and family. So diligent, in fact, I usually I am the one initiating contact. I was pleasantly surprised when I saw “Dad” show up on my caller ID. I was even more surprised when he just wanted to talk. Conversations with my father are usually pretty short. I often feel like I’m the one asking most of the questions. This time, he was chatty, inquisitive, engaged. A son wants nothing more from his father.
I felt sad because because I could see him seeing that he was losing his father.
“Well,” he said in the middle of our conversation, which usually indicated some sort of leave-taking, but he went on. “I called Grandad today.”
“How’s he doing?”
“It was the first time he didn’t recognize me.” I heard a slight tremble in his voice. I could hear the TV playing in his living room.
“I’m so sorry, Dad.”
I didn’t know what else to say. I felt sad. But not for my grandfather. I’ve not had much of a relationship with him, especially since he lived in Floria as long as I could remember, moving back to Cleveland only after his mind started going.
I felt sad because my father was sad. Sad because I could see him seeing that he was losing his father.
“He has his good days and his bad days. I’m sure he’ll come around tomorrow.”
I never personally connected with King Lear, this tragedy of tragedies, because I always tried seeing me in him, trying to locate myself somewhere in the sublime profundity of his broken psyche. Perhaps when I’m older, perhaps when I’m a father myself will these dimensions of King Lear ring more keenly.
For now, after staring at the photo of four generations of men in my family, I can’t help but see my own father and grandfather in Lear. Not in his flaws and follies, his despair and dejection, his rage and rejection, in his madness and mourning. But in his interiority, in those glimpses of luminous self-knowledge that dapple his disintegration – like those moments my grandfather reckoned, if briefly, with the decay of his own mind, those moments my own fathered acknowledged it, if briefly. As though for a moment they glimpsed their own selves, small and naked, fearing in that cold and unfeeling storm of nothingness.
“No more of that,” Lear tries to persuade his own, creeping madness (3.4.23). That is the terror of Lear. That is the play’s excruciating, exquisite genius.