Books tell the story of a life

Posted: Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The books are stacked nearly to the ceiling. Unlike the rest of the house, the shelves are haphazard in both their construction and their contents. Many of the books here in my father-in-law's study appear to have not been opened in years, and are buried behind other rows of books and old photographs. His computer monitor is perched precariously on a stack of old Time/Life books, the kind with black and white photos of exotic places and bioluminescent deep sea fish.

I pored over these books as a kid, before we could Google bioluminescence instead. The juxtaposition of the two sources of information seems a fitting tribute to my father-in-law. He was a man of ideas and words, always.

There are other things in this tiny room at the top of the house as well: old tape recorders, a dated globe, a smattering of antiques, left, I'm sure, by my mother-in-law, to add some beauty that could be seen without cracking the spine of one of the tomes on the shelf.

I don't know when my father-in-law began to write the notes which paper his study, and really much of the house, like confetti. They were typed, then trimmed to tiny, tidy, precise pieces of paper. They remain taped all around his computer, though he died in May. "Press this to turn computer on." "Phone number for the bank." "Email account: access through Comcast." "If this does not work, try rebooting."

There is a picture in my father-in-law's study of his own father is sitting in front of something his iPhone toting grandchildren would be unable to identify as a computer. On his father's face is a look of sheer amazement directed at the screen. I learned this week that my father-in-law had programmed that beast, with a hard drive larger than its black and white screen, to say "Happy Anniversary" to his parents. Then, in the early 1970s, my father-in-law was a computer convert, insisting that people would have computers on their desks someday, imagining the computer as a way to manage the ideas he loved.

My mother-in-law says she knew something was wrong when he wasn't using the computer anymore. He would still retreat to his study for long hours, but he no longer came out with manila envelopes holding his plays addressed to small theater companies around the country. He no longer had anything new to take to the writing groups they belonged to.

She said he also stopped reading those books on the shelves: the ones he nearly new by heart, the ones written by friends, the ones given by children. The words, which he had loved, had become a puzzle to him, no longer a comfort. They were no longer a lens through which he questioned the world. The pursuit of truth through reasoning seemed to leaving him.

In hindsight, I have to wonder if the notes were really the first sign, his first defense against the disease that was stealing him slowly. Here after his death, they feel ominous to me, unrecognized boundaries in a war no one else understood.

My husband is in this room of his father's, staring at the books. Which ones matter now? Which ones do we ship home to add to our own bookshelves? Which ones can be hauled to the used bookstore? Which ones tell us the most about who his father was?

It is possible that none of the books, alone, tell us much at all. It is possible that the room itself is most telling. The books, the computer, the drafts of his plays, the photos. Maybe it is really the whole of this room that tells who he was, like a set of one of his plays.

So, for now, we leave the study mostly untouched, leaving the disassembling of a life for a later time.

• Marie Ryan McMillan is a teacher and parent in Juneau.

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