My father in his late fifties, juggling a few low-paying gigs, selling fishing gear in a sporting goods store, working at a daycare facility for the intellectually disabled and turning a profit on eBay selling the occasional antique, but still harboring hopes for a new career, a lucrative project to put him back on top on the menswear business, back in the land of snazzy suits and Maseratis and lunches at Peter Lugers, told me once he was thinking of becoming a life coach since he had so much experience giving his children advice. Without thinking, I laughed in his face. I asked him what kind of advice he could give, how to piss away money and drink yourself to death? I found out from my sister that he was furious with me for months. I think of who he is now, who he was, and realize our Genes—mine, my father, and his version, the man who would make a good life coach—don’t align. I’m not sure which is more accurate, but I think the world is wide enough, weird enough, for both to exist.
He gave me advice after I passed the written portion of the foreign service exam. I wanted to work for the State Department, to be a diplomat, to learn about new cultures and get away from my own, get away from myself. A day or two before I was to take the train to D.C. for the oral exam, a day-long interview that I prepped for by reading the Economist weekly for a year, he told me to think hard about this. I said I had and that, given my shiny, new and semi-useless degree in political science and my year teaching abroad, I thought it seemed like a decent-enough career path. He said, yes, maybe. Or maybe you’ll find yourself in a cheap suit in some shithole on the other side of the world, buried under mounds of bullshit bureaucratic work and going to the john in the afternoon and looking in the mirror and saying who the fuck are you?
I can’t say if the advice was good or bad. But it stuck with me. I never caught the train to D.C. My father, the life coach. I think back on it now and see he was talking as much to himself as to me, that he must have had many such moments, bathroom breaks full of demoralizing confrontations with the various versions of himself: the success he wished he was, the capable father he thought he was and, for a brief, unbearable moment, the dissembling drunk he’d become.
The advice, regardless of its result, was at least well-intentioned. He was trying to spare me, to protect me from something, though I’ve since had plenty of those who-the-fuck-are-you moments, in mirrors both at home and abroad. But maybe these reflections were less brutal, more bearable, because I knew my father had looked into his fair share of mirrors too?
I see my father now in the hallway when I visit, listening for me, shuffling. My father the aged eccentric losing a battle against Alzheimer’s, wearing stinky sweatpants, a stained fleece pullover and, underneath it, a vestige of his former dandyism, a velvet shirt. A purple beret is perched, rakishly askew, on his head. From a distance, he looks dignified, jaunty even. Up close, destroyed.
I wonder if, hearing my heavy-footfalls on the stairs, he feels a similar disappointment, longing for the quick steps of his young son, the happy child with a wild imagination, who hurries, who will always hurry towards his hero, eager to absorb any advice? Or is this recognition, the slow collision of our mutual disappointments, his last and greatest lesson?
Kent Kosack is a writer living in Pittsburgh, PA. He has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Pittsburgh where he teaches composition and creative writing. His work has been published, or is forthcoming, in Sonora Review, Tin House (Flash Fidelity), the Normal School, Hobart and elsewhere. See more at: www.kentkosack.com