In the years before I finally went sailing alone I struggled with something nameless whose manifestation in my life I did not recognize for the longest time. Most of it was negative — a dull ache of some internal sort, sudden rage at conditions that would not submit to me, relationships that foundered in conflict or the effects of drinking, or drinking itself. This I had learned at home from a couple of experts and the traditions in which they came of age, where alcohol was just something one did at the end of the day. The drinking dulled but did not eliminate the background noise of the thing, which was perhaps the background noise of sadness, or echoes of irreconcilable conflicts, or the thing itself, whatever it might be. In matters of the heart, over time, I found I could only go so far and no farther, derailed or obstructed by something that must have been rooted in me early, if it was not my own by nature.
How much of this had to do with me alone and how much was a function of my family or the way I understood my place in it, or my father and mother, or the New England upbringing of my youth, I could not tell. It is easy enough to blame one’s troubles on others, particularly the people who brought us into the world and raised us. But surely I figured in it somewhere. Who expected to be fully happy, anyway? Perhaps it was all in the pursuit, as books on the topic seemed to say. For a long time I did not appreciate that most people were not raised as I was, and therefore had their own experiences of parental love and the frailties and failures that went with it. Some of those were devious and for me would be intractable to understanding without the help of others.
Not until my first experiments with psychotherapy (in which I was the lone family explorer) with a grey-haired woman in Cambridge did I suspect there was something to uncover in my family that might explain some of my conflicts. Early school reports documented me as very clever and engaging, but contentious and sometimes explosive. My years growing up on a former dairy farm in a small Massachusetts town, and later in private schools, were marked by more than my share of fistfights, confrontations on the soccer field and a record number of ice hockey penalties, though I never developed a taste for bar-brawls or street fighting. I could be very funny and entertaining — at least my family and friends generally said so — but when it came to being argumentative or provocative, few could match me in any grade from kindergarten on up. I despised authority in any form and if I felt the least bit trapped or pushed, in word or physical space, self-control was not my natural instinct. Call it spoiling for a fight, or a chip on his shoulder, or just a confused kid in pain, this tendency did little to endear me to my contemporaries, among whom I had a few but fortunately enduring friends.
If a turning point was signaled along the way it came without much notice during lunch in a Fifth Street bar in San Francisco in the mid ‘80s. I was in my mid-thirties, stunted in some ways I could not name, drinking regularly if not relentlessly and slipping inexorably into the collapse of my first marriage. I remarked to another journalist and unrequited novelist — bound together as we were by the San Francisco Examiner, our unrealized ambitions as writers and a common tendency to fly into rages over trivial matters — that I didn’t think I could ever write my first book while my father was still alive. Why I said this at the time I was not sure, but I knew it was true and felt I was disclosing something powerful by saying it out loud to anyone. I was telling a truth without knowing why.
It would be about a decade before my father died in his waterfront bedroom in Cape Rosier, Maine, in the house my mother’s father had built 80 years earlier, overlooking the rocky shores of Eggemoggin Reach, where I did my first sailing and my father did his last. In the meantime I had sailed alone to Hawaii and back and struggled to write the story of that trip and the life that brought me to it. Expecting his death by congestive heart failure to arrive at any time, I invited him to read the first draft, about which he only said, with a grim, narrow look I knew too well, ‘So, you hate me, then?’ It defined the gulf between us more eloquently than anything I could have ever come up with on my own. A few months later, with that still between us, I drove him home from the Bangor hospital, knowing it to be the last time, so he could have a view of the water and his sailboat, ‘Enfin,’ idling at her mooring nearby. He died three days later in his sleep, just after I left on a business trip. A dozen years would pass — including my mother’s decline and death, and another failed marriage — before something moved me to finish the story once and for all — to try to accept and forgive and bury him with a decent tribute, and perhaps set myself free in ways I had never been.
It is a truism that we never know when we set out on a long journey just where we may arrive, or when. Life is made up of the unexpected, coming at us point-blank. Things are seldom what they seem, so our charted course is never the course we make in the end. While the father whom life dealt me left his indelible marks — for better and worse — there were others I found along the way. One was a tennis buddy of his, a former RAF pilot who flew night-fighters in Korea and then ran a mysterious business involving military hardware. During one of my explosive tantrums over a failed shot in a casual weekend doubles game, John Striebel looked at me with mild contempt and said simply, “That’s it, I’m done.” He sat down beside the court with an air of finality, rejecting summarily his younger partner, which broke up our precious Saturday game and made everyone a victim of my behavior. John was the first partner (or player) ever to walk off the tennis court when I was throwing a fit — the only one, actually. And I felt oddly grateful, even as I had to walk the half-mile home alone as he and my father drove past without showing any sign of my being there. Years later John would counsel me through my first divorce — don’t let your anger take over, he said. He also warned me not to wait too long before trying to sail solo in the ocean. Getting older has a way of making you afraid to do things, he said, and the fear will come on you unexpectedly.
Other fathers I found, or who found me, helped me discover certain truths that I could not see clearly on my own. Don Michael, an educator and consultant who became a mentor to me in my consulting practice, looked at me with compassion when I recalled some of my earliest memories, some of them clouded or blocked, which had something to do with violence. “No child can reconcile love and brutality, it just doesn’t make any sense,” he said, putting me on a path to understanding my history over time. Joe Miller, a Sufi philosopher and spiritual guide in San Francisco, showed me the power of powerful listening and evoked words that would become my compass for the rest of my life. And Professor Bill White, who continued to teach through his last tortuous months at Harvard Business School as he died of leukemia, showed me with deathbed selflessness what it meant to help others find their way.
It was my own act of faith that in finishing this story something crucial about my father and my relationship to him might finally come clear, although its manifestation would be a surprise. The manuscript that had gone on the shelf after he died suddenly demanded attention when my son turned five. That was about the same age that I had become consciously aware that my father was in my life. He had spent my earliest years commuting from Connecticut to a New York City bank and was seldom at home when I was awake, a condition I had recreated in my own son’s life. There was something about this age — five. My first daughter was five when my marriage to her mother broke up, and I felt compelled to get into the ocean alone, to get out there — maybe just to get out of here — to be truly alone to figure something out. This journey would not be finished, if I could call it so, for another 20 years. In truth perhaps it would never be.