"A bunch of goddamn trees and rocks," he said. If there was intention behind the gift, my father hid it. But I was hooked: trees and rocks became an irresistible affliction of the later years of my life.
My father was an obstetrician in southern Ohio, in the foothills of the Appalachians. Born in Iran, he had come to America to escape the ignorance and deprivation of living in the Third World, the abuse of women and the selling of children. He was partially raised by a woman whom the family had bought when she was very young. Maybe he even wished to escape the notion of charity behind the selling of children; my father often told me that his nanny would have been sold into prostitution had his parents not bought her.
He came to this country, which ostensibly had law and order, truth, justice and the American Way. He ended up in Appalachia, delivering his share of 12-year-olds having babies. He told me that he originally went into the field of obstetrics because he thought that it would be the happiest of all the medical fields. I don't know that he has ever recovered from being a constant bystander in cases of under-age pregnancy and incest.
I can remember his talking with one of his poorer patients on the phone once. She was tired of being pregnant and wanted my father to induce labor. But she was a smoker, and my father was trying to reason with her, telling her that smokers had smaller babies, and that she needed to let the pregnancy run as long as possible, for the baby.
Finally, in a fit of anger and desperation, my father yelled into the phone: "Don't you care if this baby dies?" " And she responded, "It's all right - I can always have another."
My father and I had difficulties. He had a drinking problem during much of the time I was growing up, and I had all the usual adolescent problems, which, upon reflection, I think probably helped to exacerbate my father's drinking problem.
In retrospect, I believe my father was (and is) too much like me, or rather the reverse, I am too much like him, and the combination of high-strung, sensitive personalities in a small space, in a world that I think neither of us understood - he was an immigrant from Iran, and I was, well, an adolescent - combined to make an explosive situation on more than one occasion.
But that is all past us now. We get along in our separate realms. I am happy to go home to southern Ohio, and he is happy to see me when I arrive. I know that I am lucky. Many children never resolve conflicts with their fathers, and that unfortunate circumstance haunts them all of their lives. I go home because I want to. And I think, now that the years have passed, that I understand him a little better, too. And maybe that matters in the long run, because he is too old to change.
Both my father and my mother have taught me much that I know, as far as matters of consequence, and I have not forgotten that debt. My father is small now, only 5'5" and shrinking - skinny legs, gray hair, little pot-belly and black-rimmed glasses. Old Bermuda shorts and a white tank top. He is interested in the leftovers in the refrigerator as well as in recycling, because, in reality, my father is the ultimate environmentalist.
I never knew my father young, although I can remember his stories of riding with the Kurds in the Alburz Mountains, wild people, feeling the power of the Himalayas beneath small, thundering horse hooves.
He was a political organizer, and he waged his battles with the forces of darkness of his time - the Shah and his father. He only tells funny stories now, but protesting the dominant order in Iran meant torture or death, even for a young doctor, and to see my father is to see a history of hardness.
He raised one family, his brothers and sisters, in the worst of times before he came to the United States on the SS France. And I think he is still fearless, though changed. Maybe softer now, slower to react, calmer. He can still get mad. But he pauses more before he speaks, and conflict is no longer foremost in his mind. His hand shakes from Parkinson's disease, and I think that my father thinks now only of reconciliation with his children.
My father is the ultimate environmentalist, though he doesn't belong to any national groups. He does not campaign for wetlands. He does not save the whales.
What he does do is dumpster dive. He finds things in the trash throughout Cleveland, where he lives most of the time, rescues them, puts some of his treasures in his small apartment (he has 20 clocks), and gives lots of stuff to the thrift store. One day he greeted me at the door of his place with a hat and shirt from a fast-food restaurant. He told me he had to do something to occupy his off-hours. He was lying, of course. He had found them in the dumpster.
One time, when I visited, he had a queen-sized mattress leaned up against one wall. He already had a mattress to sleep on, so I asked him what this one was for. He replied, "I just like it there." He told me that he had found the mattress four blocks away, in the dumpster. When I offered to help take the mattress to Goodwill, he refused. He wanted it to stay.
I stopped, looked at the mattress, then at him: small man, recovering from a coronary bypass operation. Then I understood.
Many men, feeling the ebb of life, suffer a masculinity crisis. I am sure that I will not be exempt. What they then do is fly to some place like Cabo San Lucas, charter a boat, and go marlin fishing. Marlin are huge fish, and the effort of catching a champion can take all day.
After the old man has fought with the fish and landed it, it is hauled up on a boom, a small flag is flown to commemorate the "victory," and the marlin is hauled back to port to be stuffed and hung on the conqueror's wall.
But my father had his old man's crisis at the dumpster. He fought with that mattress all day long, finally managing to heave it over the edge and onto the ground. After that, he hauled it back to his apartment.
There he hung it on the wall. There was no need to have it stuffed, since the mattress already was, so he dispensed with that formality.
My father gave me a present that day, though I do not think that he knew it. He gave me the present of a beautiful fish - blue, 500 pounds, with a long, straight bill, swimming out in the ocean on a tropical, sunny day, chasing amberjack against an oceanic horizon.
I will never see my father's gift, never interact with it, touch it, call it by name. But it will live forever in my dreams, and I can feel it, cool water and hot sun. And I will race with my fish, swimming fast, feeling the freedom of the water. And maybe for a moment, the fish will share with me its wild heart.