“To know and love one other human being is the root of all wisdom,” says Ryder in Brideshead Revisited. Throughout my lifelong apprenticeship in affection, I have felt this to be more and more true, in particular due to the McAndrews. Even after I try to expunge them from my life, they invariably return and strike some kind of bizarre, universal chord within me. Being acquainted with them has been extraordinarily formative: to be attuned to not merely another person but another group, to see how they work, how they grow — but most importantly how they change, and how I change with them. I have fumbled with my buttons since I could grasp them, and I still do. The McAndrews are a bit like that.
Perhaps it’s the whole family dynamic; I know these people so absurdly well. Mary and John, the forebears, Eliza, Chris and Rob, the progeny. Even after months I can anticipate what is going on with whom, who has lowered the bar and who has earned a place on the mantelpiece. When I love people it usually hurts a bit, and it hurts now to listen to Mary talk about her worries, her husband, her son. She still calls me on rare occasions, although it has been nearly a year since I broke up with Rob. She envisioned us being together forever; in fact, I think she may even have cried more than I did when we agreed it was over.
But I understand.
The part of me that wanted Rob and I to work out was not merely the part that loved him, but it was also the part of me that had a great admiration for fate, coincidence, history; I have always been drawn to the intersection between dreams and reality, things that have a shadow of the Extraordinary. My mother once said to me, after an awful fight with her father-in-law, that “when you love somebody, you don’t just marry them– you marry their family.” This is true. The formation of a person’s life lies in where and how it began. Why else would psychoanalysis rely so heavily on buried childhood memories? It is difficult, even now, to speak to Mary. I could never force myself to despise her, even though her anecdotes about Rob’s new girlfriend are far from comforting. She simply lacks tact, and at this point in time, I don’t think she will ever learn it. Blake’s eternal words, “Man liveth not by self alone but in his brother’s face” revolve in my head like a mantra, reminding me to accept it. Accept and forgive, accept and forgive. I am no Saint, but I have sinned and I would like to be accepted and forgiven myself. In our present age there is a widely held belief that, in order to save oneself, we must retreat into our own spheres in order to properly “love ourselves.” It is almost a kind of secular bastardization of the Religious Life, the way we are encouraged to revere and normalize even our abject sins.
When Mary McAndrews’ father Charles Harper, the MIT astrophysicist, died, the entire Harper/McAndrews family gathered for a family reunion in California. They then rented a large white van and drove all the way down to Texas with the body in the back, like a strange homage to The Grapes of Wrath. It took three days, with no respite even at night. On the way they stopped in National parks; hiking, swimming, building campfires, exulting on mountain tops. I had never seen or heard anything like it. When asked, Rob replied simply, “It’s what Grandpa would have wanted.”
A wealthy man, Charles Harper’s death precipitated an influx of funds the McAndrews were not prepared for. Thus, his generous inheritance was spent on a lengthy skiing trip in Italy. It seems to me that no matter how sophisticated some members of McAndrews family were, spontaneity is what most characterized their actions when natural human order seemed to falter. In the face of death, Mary McAndrews — an otherwise very organized champion of matching china — threw caution to the wind and agreed to travel across the country in a large van with twenty other people and her dead father’s body.
A few years after Rob, her third child, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. The first time she underwent radiation, all of her eggs were eliminated. She had been struggling to have another child for years, but this marked the ultimate end, the crossing of a line she could no longer retrace. One way her devastation manifested itself was in a trip to a foetus museum in Chicago with her family, her three small surviving children. Years later, her son recalled the incident vividly, speaking of the warped and blotchy foetuses as “beautiful.” Rob would rationalize this tumultuous period in his own life, his mother’s depression and periods of neglect, by saying he was glad to be the youngest, and that he wouldn’t have had it any other way. “Being the youngest means you don’t have to be serious all the time.” I suppose that’s how he saw the rest of his family — “serious all the time.”
His father, a Dean of Philosophy at a University downtown, disapproved of his son’s epicurean taste for life. Of course he loved him, but he could not bond with him on that profound emotional level at the crossroads between paternal love and philosophy; the one that in ancient times was stimulated by discussions of the works of Aristotle and Plato — What does it mean to be a father? What does it mean to be a son? What does it mean to love between them?
Yet, Rob loved his father in the way one loves some inscrutable yet influential figure, whose authority could be argued against, but not avoided. It was a childish love, tinged with rebellion, for John’s wizened face with drooping spectacles was one likely to incite rebellion in a child — in a way it symbolized the old and eternal, two things invariably at odds with the transient euphoria of youth.
John’s relationship with his wife was similar. She bustled around, intent on making Worry her second profession, while he “studied,” reading the Church Fathers in the adjoining room. I recall Mary’s anxious party planning fondly: the bizarre folk who would stumble into that small house with its lovely elevated yard, the garrulous Italians, the St. Bernardus beer, the baklava, the perennial pulled pork, the flower arrangements, the vegetable pickling, the swing-dancing… I always wondered how John felt about the basketball hoop his sons had insisted on placing at the very back of the yard, marring the beauty of his clipped lawn and clusters of hydrangea.
Perhaps Rob’s party-throwing, with the vomit, the beer and the gyrations, was simply a convoluted form of his own parent’s hospitality. “I wish you would come,” he’d tell me, “because without you here I’ll have no one to kiss.” And then to make up for my absence, he would call me at 2 am amidst the din and tell me how much he missed me, until a plate broke or a table leg gave way during beer pong. To live and thrive at the height of chaos seemed to be his way. In my secret heart I think I loved this, this side of him I had always tried to cultivate in myself, during my years of insecurity and tenuousness as a younger child. He was the embodiment of cool — down to the way he carried himself, the way he walked, broadening his shoulders so the outline of his pectorals could be seen through his linen shirts. When walking through the stained streets of foreclosed houses in my exhausted neighborhood, his checkered shirts and matching cardigans would cause the eyes of passerby to linger on this bizarre paradigm of American abundance.
For a young man so intent on living a spontaneous life, he held a handful of very firm convictions upon which he based the foundation of his identity. In terms of his Catholicism, the central theology of the body and the restrictions against fornication were a grey area for him — he lost his virginity on a Friday in Lent after Bible Study. The regular attendance of Mass, however, was imperative — he went every single Sunday and Feast Day without fail. The mere act itself of entering a Catholic church and obtaining the sacrament ticked the box; it didn’t matter as much whether or not the homily was moving or the music was up-lifting. Once, he sat at the back of a church where the entire service was in Afrikaans, received the sacrament, and left. Refusing to make promises was also a monumental principle of his. “I can promise nothing,” he would tell me when I begged him, “I am telling you ‘yes.’ Jesus said ‘Let my ‘yes’ mean ‘yes’ and my ‘no’ mean ‘no.””
We were so different in every way one could imagine. I loved the beautiful and the numinous, silent ecstasies of beauty; he loved the vibrancy and energy of effervescent life. This was clear on New Year’s Eve of 2015, when everyone was encouraged to recite a poem. I chose Gerard Manley Hopkins’ As Kingfishers Catch Fire: “For Christ plays in ten thousand places/Lovely in eyes and lovely in limbs not His/To the Father through the features of Men’s faces.” He chose Jim: Who Ran Away From His Nurse And Was Eaten By A Lion: “He hadn’t gone a yard when — Bang!/ With open jaws a lion sprang/ And hungrily began to eat/ The Boy: beginning at his feet.”
We are all similar up to a certain point, until we taper off to different ends like the dendrites of a neuron.
To see a person’s flaws, the chinks in their armor, the great, and often comical contradictions in their lives, has always been, for me, the most difficult thing. I have always wanted to love like God, for I believed that to love like God allows one to patch up the embarrassing chasm of childishness and incompetence inherent in youth. However, I have not understood until now, that to love like God is in part childishness, it is vulnerability, it is weakness. It is meant to cause pain. “…Let these be your desires/ To know the pain of too much tenderness,” wrote Gibran, “To be wounded by your own understanding of love/ And to bleed willingly and joyfully.”
To love someone and not understand them is hard. It presupposes a kind of unconditional love, what the Greeks would call agape, “selfless love.” It is the kind a parent has for their child, or family members have for one of their own who is incurably ill. That breed of unconditional love is something everyone must strive for, but when you are young, to jump into that, to experience it alongside the first pangs of adulation, is like doing quadratic equations before you can divide.
I have examined the minute layers in between and I still don’t know quite what it is about these quirky families that enables them to wedge themselves into our hearts long after they have ceased to be the way they were when we knew them. It is one of my silly fantastical theories that young people who were once in love will always be in love, on some infinitesimal square of the vast space-time continuum.
“I am no longer in love with her, that is certain,” writes Neruda, “But maybe I love her… Love is so short, forgetting is so long…”
“To love is good, too: love being difficult. For one human being to love another: that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks, the ultimate, the last test and proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation. For this reason young people, who are beginners in everything, cannot yet know love: they have to learn it. With their whole being, with all their forces, gathered close about their lonely, timid, upward-beating hearts, they must learn to love. But learning time is always a long, secluded time, and so loving, for a long while ahead and far on into life, is — solitude, intensified and deepened loneness for him who loves. Love is at first not anything that means merging, giving over, and uniting with another (for what would a union be of something unclarified and unfinished, still subordinate–?), it is a high inducement to the individual to ripen, to become something in himself for another’s sake, it is a great exacting claim upon, him something that chooses him out and calls him to vast things.”