Physics For My Father

by John Schimmel

Flashbacks stalk me into my parents’ bedroom where I’m propped against the door jam, my wife the only living person with me. Murmuring from the living room barely registers. It’s my wife who notices that my father is lying flat on his back in his bed, released finally from the pain that has kept him curled for so long. I’m touched she noticed and ashamed I’m too consumed by what isn’t present to notice what is. Then the men from the Neptune Society invade the room with their gurney, big guys, like movers in scrubs. They never knew my dad but they are intimate with death and her ability to hollow out the living. I am unspeakably touched by how gentle they are as they prepare him. They show no hurry even as they zip the body bag shut, they could not be more respectful, but I would have collapsed from the finality of that zipper had my wife not caught me. I am, all these years later, still destroyed at each replay. Time shuffles like cards in a poker game.

“Can I visit him?” I ask my mother. “The hospital won’t let children into the polio ward,” she says, her side of the call-and-response we’ve been doing for the months since my father vanished into Santa Monica’s Cabot Kaiser Hospital. One year from now, the Salk vaccine will eradicate the disease from the United States. It’s an astounding absence of luck my dad will spend years shrugging off. The closest I’m allowed to get to him is standing in the hospital lobby, looking down through a window into the basement pool. My mother points to a distant shape and insists that’s him, exercising his shriveled leg. That night, I dream of heaven as an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

The introduction to a college math text called Naïve Set Theory relates philosopher/mathematician Bertrand Russell’s proof that there is no such thing as the set of all sets. According to Russell, something always exists outside of any set. The chapter ends with the sentence, “Thus, there is no universe.” I feel silly now for having so naïvely marveled that such a witty line could be found in a math text. I finally understand it’s not a joke at all; it’s the profound opposite of a joke. Whatever we think of as the universe, that’s not the end of the story. There will always be something more to it. But if nothing contains everything, then the universe can never be empty. No matter what set of stuff we pack up to remove, there will always be something we forget. No matter what gets taken away, there will always be something left. Absolute emptiness cannot exist. This totally contradicts how I feel each time I see that zipper sweep shut. I find some solace from this. What I experience is mathematically impossible.

My father is eventually released from the hospital. My mother puts a medical bed in the downstairs den. Wheelchair ramps are installed so he can get in and out of the house. My dad’s barber comes to give him a haircut. Friends visit. My sister and I take turns riding the wheelchair down the ramps. The house is alive again.

My mother comes home one day and can’t find my father. She panics. He’s finally discovered, sound asleep in his own bed. He’s gone up the stairs on his butt. That’s what he does instead of complain.

My mother returns the hospital bed the next day. I start going up and down the stairs with my dad, both of us on our fannies. It’s not a game, it’s communion.

We send the wheelchair back to the rental company. My father saves the largest of the ramps and sets up my new Lionel train set on it. He’s well enough to be standing in the driveway, right where I need him, on the day I inhale a jawbreaker. I’m choking and it isn’t moving and I am clearly going to die. My father doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t panic. He just saves my life.

The only opportunity I ever get to return the favor is the day I let him die.

My interpretation of Bertrand Russell’s proof changes me. I am much less consumed with eventuality. I have even less use for the God of the Bible. If there never was nothing, then there was never an empty universe for Him to fill. The universe must be eternal, neither created nor vanishing. The notion defies our Western concepts of linear time, cause and effect, beginnings and endings, questions with answers. But I’m comfortable with it. I’m okay, even relieved, knowing I’ll never have all the rejoinders. I like the idea of journeying on an asymptote, in a quest for understanding that remains just out of reach. It’s a fine trade-off, knowing that my dad can’t be nothing. There’s no such thing as nothing.

I’m a senior in college and my draft deferment is about to end. I have a low number in the draft lottery and will certainly be called. My father and I have one blow-out fight about my determination not to serve. He invokes the glorious generosity of the Marshall Plan and I paint pictures of napalmed children. The argument ends when I throw a fork at him. I am certain he’ll never forgive that.

My father never mentions the fork. Instead, he meets me in the morning with a plan for me to join the Coast Guard. When that route proves blocked, he explores a series of plans. Maybe I can gain entry into the official Air Force dance band. Maybe a draft lawyer can help. None of them prove effective, but his collaboration means I pay attention to his pleas that I should avoid going to prison as a draft dodger. The fact that the outcome will remain a mixed blessing is beside the point. My dad has gone from perplexed outrage to a co-conspirator in my effort to avoid Vietnam. That change of heart means everything. If the lowest of the low are the “grotesques” of Sherwood Anderson’s Winseburg, Ohio, who become pitiable through their unwillingness to open their minds to any thoughts that aren’t their own, then my father has become the highest of the high.

I contemplate applying to the Bank Street College of Education for grad school. I’m surprised my father, the Harvard MBA, likes the idea.

“I might have become a teacher,” he writes me, “if I’d had more respect for the people who were advising me.” He never explains what he means, but still, this letter is a treasure trove, a huge addition to the little I know from his own lips about his past. I know his dad got a lot of relatives out of Germany, and that he used to traumatize my father by shaving with a straight razor on rocketing railroad stock. I know his mother suffered from Parkinson’s disease. I know my father was sickly as a kid, confined to bed with repeated infections of his mastoid bone until surgery was required. He had one doctor who liked to throw open his bedroom windows at 1175 Park Avenue and another who slammed them shut. I know this battle over the possibly ruinous properties of fresh air amused my dad. I know that as an undergraduate, he was president of the Harvard Glee Club and that at Harvard Business School he roomed with a wild man named Bobby.

Bobby is the subject of the three autobiographical stories my father most likes to tell, a triptych glorifying his journey to the most important moment of his life. In one, he describes laboring mightily to study a business and write it up for some assignment. Bobby, on the night before it was due, invented a business, analyzed it, and aced the assignment. That made Bobby a wizard in my father’s eyes.

The second tale concerns Bobby and his girlfriend Jackie. One night, the story goes, Bobby tossed my untalkative father the phone and said, “Jackie wants to kill herself. Keep her on the line until I can get there.” Apparently, my father kept the conversation going.

In the final piece of the legend, my father calls Jackie and Bobby’s post-wedding Westchester County house and gets their Jamaican housekeeper, Naomi, on the phone. “No one’s home,” Naomi tells him, “but Missus says her cousin’s coming to town from Los Angeles and you’re to take her out.”

My college friends meet my father. He barely utters a word but they somehow feel blessed. One friend starts calling him Walter Cronkite. It’s a good start for a newbie trying to capture his aura. To me, he’s a Buddha who doesn’t dispense wisdom; he is wisdom. He doesn’t express love; he embodies silent, deep, love-is-all-there-is love. It’s nothing he does consciously. He is certainly not demonstrative, unless you count undertaking literally impossible feats on behalf of my mother.

For example: My father marries his business school roommate’s new wife’s first cousin not too long after their blind date. They move from New York to Los Angeles. They give my sister and me life. My father dances and plays tennis. He builds a life around my mother’s enormous circle of friends and relatives.

Then polio strikes.

My father is put into an iron lung. I am in college before anyone is willing to reveal this. He is never expected to escape. But the illness miraculously migrates from his lungs to his leg and abdomen. He is released from the iron lung. He will require months of physical therapy but at least he is no longer entombed.

During the time when he is utterly debilitated, the nurses find him late at night sleepwalking toward the exit. He is trying to get home to my mother.

My mother tells me that story. Embellishment is not a stranger to her and so I think for a time that her words might be apocryphal.

But then, I am about to get married when my mother falls and shatters her knee. She recovers at home. She can’t walk at all. My father moves into a back bedroom so the nurse can do her night nurse thing without disturbing him. One night I am awakened by a sound. I go into the hall and nearly collide with my mother. The night nurse has fallen asleep and her immobilized patient is sleepwalking, trying to get to my father.

It’s the best blind date story I know, which renders it unbearable in the context of what follows.

The saga of my father’s polio has an afterward. The illness turns out to have a terrible pattern. Forty years after it first strikes it reoccurs in a new, insidious way. It has a benign-sounding name: post-polio syndrome. It slowly bends my father double. The pain never retreats, only escalates. Walking is increasingly difficult and scary because his balance is so off. But when my mother takes a fall in New York, my father decides he has to pack his bag and fly to be with her. I take him to the airport. He is in terrible shape but he climbs out of my car, straightens his back as much as he can, and marches off to do the right thing. It is an astonishing act of courage and will. I won’t understand its source until near the end when my father, finally, explains himself with an efficiency of words that puts Joan Didion to shame.

Scientists discover it’s impossible to create a completely empty space. If they isolate a space in a laboratory and try to vacuum it out to absolute nothingness, at a certain point this thing called a Higgs cloud spontaneously appears where nothing is supposed to be. Gossamer, virtual particles wink in and out of existence like nano-Northern Lights on Red Bull.

I do a thought experiment. What if I’d taken my dad to a lab and stuck him in one of those chambers the scientists try to empty out? At some point, when it looks like he’s all gone, wouldn’t that Higgs cloud show up? Wouldn’t I be left with a fog of misbehaving particles, the ghost of nothingness? One of those impossible specks could be what’s left of my father. It’s no more stupid than the theory that the entire universe was born when a singularity exploded in the Big Bang. He’s not gone; he’s just impossible to see, a quantum presence. That doesn’t feel so foreign. In some sense he was always hard to find.

My father is crippling my mother. He is desperate to avoid a return to the wheelchair but can only walk leaning on her. Finally, he injures himself trying to move a sofa and has to have back surgery. As he is going under he hears the nurses talking about which vertebrae is to be doctored and manages to correct them. That surgery goes fine but in the aftermath he develops an infection in the wound that requires a second surgery. My mother and I go to see him in post-op. “You’re going to be fine,” my mother says.

“Liar!” hisses my barely conscious father. I have never heard that word from him before. It is born of a rage that appears with increasing frequency for the rest of his life. “Dementia,” I’m told. I know the dementia is real. I have reluctantly taken over his bookkeeping. I didn’t want to insult him but there had been signs that he was no longer up to the task. And he seemed relieved when I brought it up. I discovered that my meticulous father’s records had morphed into a jumble. Still, I think his onrushing rage is a rational reaction to his circumstances.

His accusation proves accurate. His surgeon goes on vacation and the sub sends my dad home with instructions that he should be fine walking from the car to the elevator. Those are the last steps he ever takes. An hour after driving him home, I have to call an ambulance because I can’t get him off the bed without inflicting agonizing pain.

The medics take him back to the hospital. He is there for weeks. At some point, one doctor releases him and another tells him he has contracted a serious blood infection and has to stay for an indeterminate time. My dad is beside himself. I demand that all his many doctors meet me in his room. I tell them that his internist is in charge and that they all need to coordinate through him. They are afraid I’ll sue them and agree. But I’m too late. The confusion has made my father so mad he nearly dies from a bleeding ulcer. Time has finally stopped for my father. His has become the flip side of my theory of the universe. All possibility has been leeched out of the space he occupies, replaced by pure, kinetic fury.

My mother and I are in my father’s hospital room. He’s unconscious. My mother, a lady’s lady who never had to run her own bath until she was sixteen, turns from staring out the window. “You know what?” she says. “Fuck the golden years.”

My father is confined to his wheelchair. I live in a house with many stairs but he can still visit if I construct a ramp into the garden. I build it out of the board I used as a base for my son’s train set.

We mostly go to my parents’ apartment to see my dad. One night I find him alone in his den. It’s dark but the lights are off. He is just sitting there in his wheelchair, a startling sight. This is a man with an insatiable appetite to learn. He is never without a book or a magazine.

For the first and only time, my father talks to me about his stay on the polio ward. For years our family doctor described him as a miracle person who behaved as though he’d never been sick. I know what he means. On the trip my dad and I took to look at East Coast colleges, he nearly killed me walking around his alma mater. But on this night, he talks about fellow patients who committed suicide. This is the only glimpse he ever offers of the despair I never knew he’d fought. How could I not have known?

I tell my father that I cannot think of a human being I respect more, that I am beyond moved by how he’s lived a difficult life with such dignity and patience. He responds with seven words, all the autobiography he will ever need.

“I didn’t know what else to do,” he says.

I phone my father’s internist to ask why my dad seems to be deteriorating. The physician tells me it might be connected to his leukemia. This is the first time anyone has mentioned the disease. Shocked, I make an appointment with the oncologist. My mother meets my father and me there. The doctor is direct; my father is dying. He needs a blood transfusion immediately to buy him another few weeks. Regular transfusions might keep him alive for six months to a year.

The doctor leaves to make arrangements for the transfusion. My mother and I are shell-shocked but my father is calm in his wheelchair. “Can we go home?” he asks. I do not even think about it, I simply say, “Okay,” and wheel him out. A disbelieving and very sweet orderly chases us to the parking lot to ask if we know what we are doing. I say we do, clueless to the gulf that exists between what I’m doing and what I think I’m doing. All I know at that moment is that after all these years, my father is done fighting. I have no right to demand anything different. I have to honor his wishes. But that’s not why I don’t argue. I go along with him for the same reason I am not present when he dies. It does not occur to me, even for a moment, that he will ever really abandon me again. The vacuum he would leave is just not possible in nature.

I have a theory, my version of the never-empty-universe idea. I’ve been developing it since high school but it only recently coalesced. It started when my physics teacher explained the concept of conservation of energy. There are two kinds of energy—kinetic and potential—and there is always the same total amount in the universe. But, I think, in the time before time, kinetic energy would have been impossible. Kinetic energy is the energy of motion and there was nothing to move. So the universe must have been filled with potential energy.

This was my revelation, delivered after an encounter with something that felt like invisible butterfly wings startled me into noticing a mild flutter in the quality of the void. The one constant, the thing the universe reduces down to, is potential. If there is no such thing as nothing, what is that cloud that rushes in to fill a vacuum? Points of possibility. In my thought experiment, my father does not become nothing as the pumps hiss and everything in that chamber vanishes. He returns instead to a state of pure possibility. We all do, eventually joining the clouds of mystifying particles that fill the universe. I take reassurance from that. It means that heaven is all around us. It means I haven’t been sapped of all reason when I feel my father and I collide from time to time and, as he always has, he defies the odds and fills the vacuum he left with the radiance he lived.


PhysicsforMyFather_Schimmel_Photo_lgeJohn Schimmel has had a long career as a Hollywood producer and development/production executive with Warner Bros., with Michael Douglas and Steve Reuther’s company Douglas-Reuther, and as President of Production at indie Ascendant Pictures. He has worked on such films as The Fugitive, Batman, Interview with the Vampire, Outbreak, Face/Off, Rainmaker, Lucky Number Slevin and Lord of War.

Prior to that he worked as a bass player and musical director in New York theaters, clubs, and studios. Among other credits, he was a co-creator of and appeared in the Broadway musical “Pump Boys and Dinettes,” nominated for both Tony and Laurence Olivier awards and slated for a spring, 2013 Broadway revival.

John received his MFA in Creative Writing (novel) from Goddard College in 2009 and currently teaches screenwriting at the University of California at Riverside’s Low Residency MFA Program in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts. He has been published in The Pitkin Review, T(OUR) Literary Magazine, and in a collection of short fiction entitled Soul’s Road, edited by Cody T. Luff. His book Screenwriting From Behind Enemy Lines – Tips from Inside the Studio Gates has just been picked up for publication by Michael Wiese Productions.

9 thoughts on “Physics For My Father

  1. Bernice M. Hitchner says:

    What a wonderful tribute to your father and mother. Your love for them shines through your writings. I just lost my husband suddenly and I feel some of the same things. However, God is my help and he is supporting me and folding his arms around me, I will pray that God can give you some comfort. Ask and you shall receive. Seek and you shall find. Nothing is impossible with God. God’s peace be with you and your family.


  2. Ana Maria says:

    Stunning. Brave. Honest.
    All that you are, John Schimmel, in this gorgeous, heartbreaking work that somehow inspires hope.


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