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Guest Writer

Beyond the point where knowing matters
A ritual of passing
by Steven C. Benjamin

re you sure, father?" The old man's eyes wandered past the wooden fence, staring through his son, avoiding looking directly at the tall man standing before him.

"Yes." His son had just celebrated his 40th year, enough to make any father feel like an ancient. "We've already discussed this, Matthew. I refuse to do so again where the children may hear us."

As if summoned by his voice, two young teen-agers, boy and girl, tore out the front door screeching epithets at each other. The old man smiled on seeing them, pleased at the distraction from his son's heavy mood.

"Grandfather," squealed the boy, his voice betraying courage with unexpected alterations in pitch, "Maggie says you're leaving us forever." Pearl stains of dirt on his cheeks hinted at tears recently shed.

The old man reached and the boy obediently stepped closer, let the wiry hand settle on his shoulder. Already the two stood at the same height, grandfather and 13-year-old boy.

"I'm leaving. Is that not enough?"

"But forever?"

The boy's sister stepped beside the old man and gripped his free arm with both hands. "It's true, isn't it grandfather?"

The old man drew his grandson closer, so that he held them both, one in each arm, and his expression remained content, almost amused, as he spoke. "There is no forever, children. I am going away. That's all."

Matthew stared imploringly at his father even as his words addressed the two children. "It's the way of our people, to leave the tribe once a certain age has been reached. For generations as far back as our family has made any effort to remember, we have always insisted on this way. Just as your grandfather insists even now."

His voice made clear who he thought held the blame for this ritual and that the decision was not his to make.

"The way has always been a wise one, Matthew. I am old, and I can no longer keep pace with the world that runs circles around me."

"But grandfather," the boy interrupted, "you're not that old."

The old man chuckled and Maggie responded, "He is too, Mattie, and it's rude to say he's not."

Before the boy could interrupt, the children's mother came out onto the porch, calling to them: "Mattie, Maggie, you two come in here for lunch and leave your grandfather in peace. Good grief, can't a man say goodbye to his family without being pestered by you two?"

"We're saying goodbye to grandfather," the boy yelled back, his voice again stumbling between octaves.

"Now children," said the old man, giving both a firm hug, "mind your mother and go eat your lunch. You both must be starving."

Each hugged him back in turn and fled back into the house. Their mother, after seeing them in, came out to make her own farewell.

"You know we love you, old man."

"Yes, dear. For you, of all people, I will never have doubts."

She embraced him then, perhaps more firmly than he found comfortable, but no complaint was voiced. "Good journey, old man." Then she turned away quickly, refusing to look at either man, and returned to the house.

"Well," said Matthew, "I guess that's that."

"Yes, son. Will you bear a grudge for this?"

"No, father. No grudge. But ..."

"No 'buts' either. This is the way of things. As you said yourself, it is a wisdom our fathers followed from time immemorial."

"I didn't say it was wisdom."

"Yes, well, it is. Matthew, this isn't easy." And quickly Matthew realized the old man meant this seriously. His happy expression had fled and a heavy sorrow began to take its place, to weigh down on the old man's loose, wrinkled skin.

Matthew looked long at his father, taking in just how old he had become. He considered his own tired body, no longer even half of what it once was, and thought what this might have meant for the old man. Then Matthew began to feel guilty. Why should he make this more difficult than it already was? If his father was decided, then why not try and make the departure as pleasant as possible? Thinking quickly, he took up the old man's hand with his own.

"Dad, you remember that Christmas you bought me all those books of poetry?"

The old man gave a sad smile and sighed. "Yes, son."

"There must have been a hundred different ones, although I never counted. You got Whitman and Sexton and Plath ..."

"... yes, and Crane and Eliot and Jeffers ... "

"... and Bukowski and ... and even Keats and Milton."

"And Rilke and Shakespeare. Yes, son, I remember."

"That was the year I decided I wanted to be a writer, but I was too embarrassed to say, too worried you might be disappointed."

"I could never have been disappointed with a son who knew what he wanted."

Matthew ducked his head for a moment but didn't let go of the old man's hand. "And then I explained to you, so coldly for a boy of 17, that I wanted to write real literature rather than poetry."

The old man surprised Matthew by laughing. "Yes, and I thought you were only embarrassed because it was poetry you had chosen to write."

"Well," Matthew grinned wryly, "that was all I had written so far. But how did you know I wanted to write in the first place?"

"I saw you doing it, read your papers from school, spoke with your teachers."

"I always thought mom must have found my journals and told you."

"If she did any such thing, I never knew about it."

Suddenly Matthew looked up at his father with wet eyes. "I hope I can give half as great a gift to my own children."

The old man nodded slowly. "Even if it earns you a lecture on what real literature is?"

"Even so. Those were words from a foolish boy who had as yet no idea what writing was or where it came from."

"Ah, but now you know."

Matthew shrugged. "I'm beyond the point where knowing matters much."

The old man laughed again. "I think I recognize my son at last."

"I'll miss you, dad."

"It's a good memory, that one. It serves your children well to remember it." Then the old man pulled his son closer and they embraced, said goodbye, and finally the old man made his way to the motor home.

As his father pulled away, Matthew looked closely at the choice of vehicle, a huge 40-foot behemoth painted in earth tones. On the side, in large letters, was the word "Winnebago." On the back he noticed a bumper sticker he hadn't seen before.

In flashy letters it read: "Palm Beach or Bust."

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