One in a series of essays inspired by the intersection of family photographs and memory. This stream-of-consciousness piece — which may or may not be any good — was inspired by the writing of the late Brian Doyle. His words are worth a look. First published in my Substack newsletter, Unsorted but Significant, October 2023.
I AM MOVING through reality, back and forth in multiple directions. I am in the restaurant of the universe and time is my waiter, serving me up the moments of my life as if each is a course in some avant-garde chef’s idea of a coherent banquet. They are out of order and all tasty but somehow they do not hang together as a meal, which is a metaphor for life as I have lived it in a fragmented era.
But perhaps all eras are fragmented, and maybe these are just my particular fragments, and maybe the notion of a narrative life that makes sense is only an invention of an age when The Story reigns supreme and tells us how our lives should feel.
And perhaps we end up conforming to The Story, rather than it conforming to us.
OUR FIRST SON is born. I stand there and watch him come into the world. The echo of small-arms fire is still in my head and the dust of the distant desert war that I left mere days ago is still on my sanitary-bootie-covered Merrell hiking shoes as they do his Apgar test and score him 8/10, and I bring my face to his and whisper what I have always planned to say to him and what this moment demands of me: “I am sorry for all the mistakes I’m going to make.”
Then forth we go into the world together, three of us awash in all of it, and, as if on cue, I commence making those mistakes over and over. I realize now that there is a pocket universe somewhere, an offshoot, in which I am still saying “I am sorry for all the mistakes I’m going to make” and the mistakes are still in the future, and if I could reclaim that pocket universe and reset it all like Marvel and DC do, I would do so in an instant.
Except I would not, because he is everything I ever hoped him to be and a reboot would risk draining his deep wells of compassion, or stealing his sense of humor and his commitment to music and his impossibly curly brown hair, or knocking him away from the tiny pieces that make up who he is, just like a billiard ball just barely nicks another billiard ball and sends it hurtling in a slightly different direction that you never considered. And the chef in the restaurant of the universe brings out another course, still wildly out of order, and the moment of my apology to my son is gone even as it somehow remains present forever, at once in my grasp and eternally out of reach.
OUR SECOND SON is born. He is dark blue and still and dead, and the cord is tangled around his neck as he emerges and I encourage my wife to push, knowing that the pushing is really for her and not for him, that he will never breathe air and hug me and let me sing him to sleep and get his driver’s license and tell me he hates me and slam the door of his bedroom in my face in urgent and all-consuming anger, as teenagers do.
And that is the momentary eternity of my second son’s death, which is not actually a death at all and which lasts approximately 7.23 seconds. Then he coughs, and an impassive nurse cuts the cord from around his neck and he is fine and, in the first of a lifetime of highly competitive acts, he immediately scores a 9/10 on the Apgar. He looks up at me silently with eyes that already know more than I do, and he doesn’t need to ask the question that I answer with my own eyes. I blurt out the same promise about the mistakes that I am already sorry for and that, by this time, I am already making.
And this summer he got his driver’s license and last month he told me he hates me and slammed the door of his bedroom in my face in urgent and all-consuming anger, as teenagers do, and I excoriated him in my own head until I remembered that I was still allowed by this omnipotent restaurant of the universe to have moments with him, and that watching my blue dead baby boy for approximately 7.23 seconds on a frigid December night in 2006, I would have happily thrown myself in front of one of the ambulances speeding into the ER bay at the other end of the Clara Maass Medical Center of Belleville, New Jersey, in order to be standing here, in the hallway of my home that is 1972 and 1980 and 1996 and 2009 and 2023 all at once, at an unspecified time in the future and have the door slammed in my face and be told that I was hated by an angry and urgent 16-year-old baby boy-slash-young man who is not dark blue and not still and very much alive and loves animals and still hugs me and can’t stand hypocrisy and wants justice for all and is shopping online for a 2005 BMW to restore and is smarter than I will ever hope to be.
THE RESTAURANT of the universe serves uneven fare. Sometimes it deserves a Michelin star; sometimes it deserves a vigorous Health Department inspection. Sixteen years ago it sent me tumbling back to the woods north of Pittsburgh, where I never intended to roost again, to live in a house where in one room it’s 1973 and in another it’s 1982 and in my childhood bedroom, now my oldest son’s bedroom, it is 1969 and 1987 and 1993, and in the kitchen my father is busy making colored pancakes on a snowy morning in 1971.
I look into my younger son’s room. It is not yet his room but still my mother’s study when I walk in. She is sitting in a chair made of wood and goat fur doing a New York Times crossword puzzle and drinking Taster’s Choice coffee with just a splash of whole milk at the top and eating a Goldenberg’s Peanut Chew. She is wearing flip-flops, and there is no sign of the things they called Kennedy ulcers that turned her feet a blackened purple and ate her toes away in the hours before her death, the hours after she took her final sip of cheap Barefoot Cabernet Sauvignon from a straw and then we switched to morphine to block her pain, or at least the pain that can ever really be blocked, which in the end is a very small amount indeed.
Downstairs in the study where I spend much of my working life, my father, dead eight years, is sequestered at his desk before dawn with a little space heater and classical music from WQED-FM’s “Sleepers Awake” on the radio and grading papers for a linguistics class whose twentysomething students are now ready to retire. And I look out the window of my bedroom, my parents’ bedroom, while my wife, who deserves far better than my mistake-making self, sleeps. I consider the unevenness of the bill of fare in this restaurant of the universe and wonder how I somehow ended up sleeping most nights of my 40s and 50s in the room in which I was conceived. Down in the driveway, in cold morning light, a 9-year-old boy named me is riding a Huffy Thunder Storm during the early Carter administration. His hair is unruly and his face is hungry for the things I have already experienced, but he doesn’t know the side dishes that come alongside everything — the corrosive ones that no restaurant with any kind of an eye toward attracting repeat customers would be serving.
He looks up and catches my eye somehow, across 46 years. There is little-boy admonishment on his narrow face. He knows. He knows all the mistakes I’m going to make, and I step forward toward the window and touch the glass that was there then and is there now — whatever the words “then” and “now” mean in this particular restaurant — and I want to apologize to him in advance, too, but I realize the folly of apologizing in advance to yourself, to a yourself that you’re not responsible for but that in some ways is responsible for you.
I make a list. It is a list I should have made a long time ago, but I was not self-aware enough yet, and even that statement is passive-aggressive self-praise and I ask that you strike it from the record. The list has two parts. The first part is called “stressors,” and it documents the things that came at me. There are more than I ever thought there would be when I compile them into a tally, and so many of them are results of the choices I made to embrace the world and its fragments from a front-row seat. Many of those choices were made before I realized that shrapnel is a kind of fragment, that the very definition of a fragment means that it is probably sharp and jagged and, hidden away in the fare served at the restaurant of the universe, it is likely to lodge in my gullet or my innards and do some damage. And I wonder sometimes if the front row was the best vantage point after all.
The second part of the list is called “behaviors” and represents more choices. I find with some surprise this morning, sitting in the dark in the study (which my father is also occupying, during a different decade but also right now, in repose with his space heater and his papers to grade, impudently not realizing that he is long dead), that the list I have made about behaviors contains only the negative behaviors and that the good things I have done are absent from my list. They are still lurking in the ether, waiting to be enumerated. They will have to wait a bit longer. I promise myself that I will do them yesterday, or three years ago, or maybe in 1981, or whenever the waitstaff in the confused and chronologically jumbled restaurant of the universe decides is most appropriate.
TIME IS A NARRATIVE, linear, ever moving forward. That is what we are taught. That is the promise we were made. It is of course a lie, supported by a reality-industrial complex of illusions and hidden gears and millions of machinators, human and otherwise, whose fortunes rise and fall on the myth of coherence. We talk of living in the moment, of being mindful, of anchoring ourselves in the here and now. But just out of view, the future and the past reach out at us and grab us imperceptibly with outstretched limbs, like Reed Richards’ elastic arms cloaked by Susan Richards’ invisibility. They pull us in directions that we never considered.
What we fail to realize, until it is too late (or perhaps too early), is that we are never really right here and right now. We are traveling through time as we sit still, encountering ourselves along the way, making deals with the waitstaff and neither truly embracing nor truly turning away. The fragments of time and experience are working their ways through us, sometimes cutting as they go, navigating a digestive system that will never be strong enough to process them all. So some stay where they are. Eventually others may kill us.
What is left for us is only to allow bits of ourselves to exist outside of this timestream, and to understand that the meal will never, ever arrive in the way we are conditioned to expect. The waitstaff in the restaurant of the universe will appear with your bang-bang shrimp appetizer right after you’ve finished the graham-cracker key lime cheesecake and think the meal is complete. Backwards and forwards will go the clock, and your lot will be to digest it in the order that it is put on your plate and hope that the coherence is somehow created within you, because what’s going on around you will never quite make sense and the universe itself will always seem just out of reach, sitting there just outside the restaurant window in the infinite darkness. I am 55, going on 12, and I am sorry for all the mistakes I’m going to make. Please tip your server.
Ted Anthony, a journalist based in Pittsburgh and New York, has reported from more than 25 countries. He is the author of Chasing the Rising Sun: The Journey of an American Song. He tweets here, Instagrams here and collects his writing here.
Further reading by Ted Anthony:
The tiny things we choose to remember can echo forward for decades.
From my grandparents' dinner table, a brief life lesson on Father's Day.
Where the Spirit Might Dwell
In undoing the architecture of my late parents' everyday lives and deciding what to discard, was I committing a small…