The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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Wycke, I knew, had thought of his eyes as prisms, capable of seeing many points of view at once. They sat in deep dark sockets, alert, cautious, and ever vulnerable, like two small animals uneasy in their burrows. When the phone awakened us in the middle of the night, and I heard my mother whisk across the hall past my bedroom, pick up the receiver, pause, then scream to my father, “Oh, honey, Wycke’s been in an automobile accident and he’s been killed!”, it was those eyes I thought of first.
I listened to my mother’s crying, too frightened to get out of bed; the sky lightened and the terrible truth was again confirmed by an uncle. Wycke was dead. I stood in the living room with my arms around my mother, while my father talked on the phone. “Harry says the police suspect it was suicide,” he said in a hollow voice, as he hung up the receiver. He didn’t look at us as he spoke.
I had my arms tight around my mother, hoping to control her convulsive sobs that had started again. With all my heart, I knew this had not been a suicide, yet, I knew since the first news what everyone would have been thinking. Wycke was alone in the car, and on weekend leave from the State Hospital in Mandeville. The police would have learned that in the investigation. The curve where the accident occurred, a big, sweeping turn at the railroad tracks, was not regarded as dangerous. The police believed the car had been traveling at high speed into the curve; that Wycke had intended to crash would be a predictable police conclusion, and one my family would accept as well. Except for me. I had come to know Wycke as no one else had, and I knew he couldn’t have taken his own life.
Wycke had once said to me, “Billy boy, I can see life better than most people, I can understand it better than most, and I have a feeling and reverence for it that runs deeper than most. But I’ll be damned if I can live it like most. Too many questions, too many ambiguities (that was one of Wycke’s favorite expressions). I just sit back sometimes amazed how anybody can grasp enough to actually get on with the living of life.”
When I was ten, I used to go fishing with my father and Wycke. Wycke hated fishing then; he didn’t like seeing those fish lying in the boat bleeding and desperate for oxygen. This infuriated my father, who had been fishing since he was four, and that was why he had always insisted that Wycke come with us, “to try and knock some sense into that brother of mine’s head.” To my father, fishing was as natural, as much a part of life, as eating and sleeping. He could not understand, nor tolerate, Wycke’s feelings. And it was my father’s love for fishing, not fishing itself, that had persuaded Wycke to join us. Wycke wanted to understand my father’s passion as badly as my father wanted Wycke to experience it himself. So often did I sit between them, listening as my father exulted over a big strike, while Wycke calmly talked on about his “ambiguities.”
Chadwycke Scubert was born in 1929 in Des Allemands, Louisiana. He was known as Tadpole then, given his dark complexion and eyes that bulged out of his head. Wycke was shy and insecure as a boy, and kept to himself and his books. He was the best student in the family, valedictorian in 1947, and if my grandparents could have afforded it, he would have gone to college and “studied history,” he had once told me.
My grandparents moved to New Orleans in 1950, and Wycke found work at the big Kaiser Aluminum plant in Chalmette. He married and was raising a family of five daughters when, as he put it, “cracks formed in that big wall of security I had built.” He was laid off for six months, and lost his house. One daughter became ill and nearly died. Wycke insisted, however, these events merely speeded up changes that were inevitable.
It wasn’t so much that Wycke suddenly doubted everything; it was the kinds of things he began to doubt. He would consider, for instance, what kept people driving on the proper side of a two-way street. If it was to avoid an accident and injury, then what was anyone doing in a car in the first place? If we were being protected from serious injury by the mere width of a painted yellow line, where did the confidence and fearlessness to drive come from? Wycke said questions like this could occupy him for hours, days, and he thought it merely represented a healthy regard and awareness of “ambiguities.” His family, though, and my father especially, were deeply worried. “He’s starting to unravel, it’s all those damned books of his,” I remember my father saying.
To me, though, Wycke was simply the best uncle a kid of ten could have had. And I think from the first, Wycke had taken a strong liking to me. Maybe it was because he hadn’t a son of his own, or because I was the oldest of his nephews. Mostly, though, I think it was because he saw how much I, too, loved books.
I was eleven when we first began going to the library together, and I remember always having the feeling of going with a great big kid. He would come for me dressed in a gray sweat shirt, jeans, high top sneakers, and a beat up baseball cap. He didn’t look anything like I thought an uncle should look, and the side of Wycke I first knew intimately was of him sitting in that little parish library reading intently, while his fingers played with his cap. He read anything, but mostly it was history. I sat across from him with my Hardy Boys’ stories, and would glance up every now and then to see Wycke’s huge, warm face contorted in deep thought. He invariably brought me home later than he would promise, and would catch hell from my father.
Some of Wycke’s deeper interiors, though, emerged during those fishing trips. In the boat, my father was the captain. Wycke and I followed his lead. His biggest rule was no reading. The first time Wycke had tried to bring a book into the boat, my father yelled at him: “We’re going fishing for bejesus sake. Either put that book back in the car, or it’s gonna wind up in Lake Borgne!” All my father’s yelling was out of a love and a fear that Wycke might have been sliding off into some deep dark cave. Wycke understood my father’s fear, so he was never offended by any of the yelling.
There was one time, though, I thought Wycke had surely pushed my father too far. We had been up before dawn, and had driven to the old pontoon bridge we had to cross in order to reach the launch site. A raising of that bridge can considerably delay any fishing trip. Lying directly on the water, one full section of the bridge would have to be raised, and another conveyed downstream, before a boat of any size could pass. At four in the morning, however, we could usually drive right on and through, except on this particular morning. We had reached the bridge just as the alarm sounded and the wooden arm lowered across the road.
“I don’t believe it,” my father grumbled. “This time of the morning?” He hit the steering wheel with his fist, leaned back in his seat, and lit a cigarette. Together we watched the mechanics of raising and moving the bridge. It was a tediously slow operation, and even for a small boat you could be stopped for what seemed like an hour. First, one of the mid-sections of the bridge was raised like an alligator’s jaw, while the other mid-section was floated away and down from the rest of the bridge. The whole operation was controlled by a man inside a small, white-with-green-trimmed house located on the section of the bridge being floated away.
“Now, you see that man inside there?” Wycke asked as we watched the little house move downstream. “He’s got a very difficult job to try and explain to anyone.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Well, think about it for a minute. He’s sitting inside that control house of his, opening the bridge for boat traffic, while he’s closing it to automobiles. How does he describe accurately what he’s doing? Is he opening or closing the bridge?”
“I don’t know,” I said, watching my father’s expression carefully. He hadn’t paid any attention at first, but now his eyes were focused directly on Wycke.
“It’s important, don’t you think?” Wycke asked. “Consider for a moment, just supposing he’s got a phone in there and his wife calls him, wanting to know about the bridge. Let’s say she’s got a boat and a car and wants to know the bridge status. What does he say? The bridge is closed? The bridge is open? You see his dilemma? How would he explain his day to his kids when he gets home? Does he say he opened the bridge six times, or that he closed it six times?”
I looked at my father. He was staring hard at Wycke, his eyes widening, rubbing the side of his head slowly. I didn’t know what to do. It looked as if my father were ready to push Wycke out of the car. I groped for something to say quickly, but if there was something in what Wycke was talking about, it was lost to me.
Finally my father said in a barely restrained voice, “Wycke, I swear that is the craziest, weirdest, stupidest thing I think I’ve ever heard you say, and if you don’t knock that stuff off, I’m gonna have you committed.”
When my father said committed, Wycke laughed wildly. Six months later, though, nobody in the family would be willing to join in that laughter. These oddball insights that seemed to start so innocently soon became much more disruptive. He became chronically late for work, because, as Aunt Mary had told my mother, Wycke would sit in the car for an hour or more wondering about “time in motion” versus “time at rest.” “It was like we weren’t there anymore,” Aunt Mary had said when she first contacted the State Hospital.
Wycke resisted, but my father convinced him he had the whole family scared, that he just wasn’t acting normal. Finally, to put everyone’s mind at ease, he agreed to go to Mandeville for an evaluation. After only a few tests, the doctors recommended Wycke be admitted.
Over the next six years he was constantly in and out of that hospital. The doctors never gave a definite diagnosis; they kept talking about “tendencies.” “Tendencies!” my father would scream, after Aunt Mary would call with the latest report. “My brother’s losing his mind and all they can talk about is tendencies.” He was scared. Everyone believed Wycke was getting worse, more distant, more obscure. I didn’t, because while the rest of the family would just stand around and stare at him, as he sat under the pines in his white gown, I would talk with him. For my money, there wasn’t anything crazier about him than there was with anyone else.
By the time I was sixteen I was the only one left, including the doctors, to whom Wycke would talk.
He had grown bitter — over a family which he felt had abandoned him, over doctors who refused to try and understand what was going on in his mind. “I’m not crazy,” Wycke had said to me. Yet I could see that the confinement and isolation were having a terrible effect on him.
Soon, I realized I was the last link Wycke cared to have with the outside world. And that he had become a link for me, too. Just as a blind child had to learn to see with different eyes, Wycke had taught me to perceive a world that lay beyond what our biological eyes could see.
He once explained to me what he believed about eternity, and how it had helped him understand one of his more famous ambiguities. He told me his soul was, overall, quite happily ensconced in his body, alive in this world. “The soul without life,” he said, “simply has existence. It travels in time and space like a impersonal particle of matter. Through life, the soul finds communion with other souls, can love, feel compassion, know its own immortality, and discern its creator in the beauty of nature and the community of man.”
“I can see it so much clearer now,” he said to me, again, just a short time before his death. “Everything we see and do is really a clue to that eternal life of ours. And that is where the ambiguity begins: we can choose to ignore the clues, the deeper significance of life, and merely accept it on its own terms. It’s how most people live.”
It wasn’t because of ideas like these that the doctors permitted Wycke to come home on weekends. It was because he kept ideas like these to himself and me, and talked to the doctors about family, home, and work, that they gave him those weekend passes. “I played the game,” he said that first weekend home.
He appeared to have the rules of the game down pat, too. Soon, everyone was talking about how well Wycke looked, how back to “normal” he was getting. All Wycke really did was smile a lot, watch t.v., mow the lawn, and take the kids to McDonald’s. My father took Wycke fishing — just the two of them — and returned with the pronouncement that “we have Wycke back, even better than before. He fished, even baited his own hook, and caught two trout! Those damn doctors were geniuses after all.”
That last remark of my father’s was Wycke’s favorite. Often, when he was home, we’d get together and howl over the reactions we were both hearing about his return to the “real world.” We both knew, of course, where he truly belonged, and soon, unfortunately, he could no longer resist those forces compelling him to resume his search. In the last days, Wycke grew remote, even from me. “I’m on to something,” he said in a detached way, “and it won’t let go.”
Wycke understood there was great risk in his life now. He said he felt his thoughts were forcing him to cut loose, as an astronaut in space might wish to sever the umbilical, “for one sweet, unfettered moment.”
When it happened I was certain Wycke’s death could not have been a suicide. I could imagine Wycke driving that car, his eyes not reflecting the road ahead, but presenting a prismatic image to his mind. He would be concentrating on the ordering of those elements. And he approached the curve in the road as no one else would or could. His eyes saw the curve, but his mind was contemplating the idea of curve, the idea of turn, the idea of steering, the idea of motion, the question of parallax. In that simple turn, Wycke could perceive the mysteries of the universe manifesting themselves. He could have made that turn safely, had the physical laws of time and motion accommodated the way Wycke perceived and acted. Wycke died because he could no longer confine himself within a world that had not yet evolved sufficiently to provide the freedom necessary for someone like him. A world that for all its touted diversity and wondrous breadth, nevertheless demands a totalitarian conformity to those precisely defined physical laws. These laws cost Wycke his life, though not, as he would say, his existence.
I remember now what Wycke had said about that man in the control house of that pontoon bridge. I think I understand what Wycke had been trying to get at. It wasn’t the ambiguity itself, but the tension the ambiguity created, a tension necessary to perceive the relationship between life and eternity. Recognizing the importance of that tension is what had propelled Wycke through this world and beyond.
Or was it? In the confusion of emotion that enveloped the days and weeks following Wycke’s death, with everyone believing Wycke had finally found the rest he couldn’t find while alive, one thought of my own wouldn’t go away. That Wycke’s death had really been a betrayal of his life and beliefs, and not an affirmation, was something I had dismissed as soon as it had first occurred to me. But it tormented me, especially when I thought about Wycke in those last days, the way he talked, the look in his eyes. What was it about that “something big” he had said he was onto?
Wycke had spent a lifetime recognizing and accepting ambiguity as the essence of life. But when he entered that curve that night, did he decide that he had had enough, and, suddenly, in one moment, that one “sweet unfettered moment,” choose to resolve the ambiguities into one irrevocable certainty?
Maybe it’s just my way of trying to deal with the pain of having lost Wycke to find some reason to resent what he did to himself and me. Or maybe I have discovered the truth. Unlike the rest of the family, I don’t think I’ll ever be sure why Wycke did what he did that night.
And it would be just like him to have left it that way.